What makes authors smile?

As Julia Andrews once sang…. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and so forth.

Brown paper packages too – if they have books in them.

I’ve been smiling a lot this week. Authors are like everyone else when it comes to things that make us smile. Lunch with good friends, finding exactly the right birthday card for a family member, progress on my knitting project. In my case, watching Say Yes to the Dress on TV. (If you haven’t watched this – you really must. It’s my secret guilty pleasure.) All these things, and more, make me smile.

But this week has been full of ‘authorial’ smiles. Those are very special. As a rule, we authors can be a tad insecure. Especially about our work. There is often more tearing out of hair than smiling involved in writing a book. But… we do have our moments.

So – what are these mysterious things that make an author smile? Here are my top five.

Seeing a very small number next to your new book on Amazon is a smile worthy event.

1. Publication days.

Letting go of a book you have spent months working on can be hard. I always wonder if it’s any good. Will my readers like it? Are there any things I could have improved? Are there any (heaven forbid) typos or spelling errors or grammatical errors? The answer to the last question is… possibly. Sometimes one slips through the reading and re-reading that goes into a book before it’s published. But…. despite all those fears. Publication days are wonderful. This week my 9th book was officially published. I smiled. A Lot.

 

 

2. Reviews.

Hard on the heels of publication day is the breathless wait for the first reviews, and more obsessive checking on Amazon. When that first review comes – and it’s good. The sigh of relief is quickly followed by a broad smile. Someone likes my book! My characters have found new friends. Definitely smile worthy. Think about that and if the urge strikes you – please do reviews for your favourite authors. They are important to us.

These had me reaching for my handkerchief.

3. Messages from readers.

Up there with a five star review are messages from readers. Authors are pretty easy to find. Websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter make it easy to send a favourite author a message. I send messages to some of my favourite authors when I’ve enjoyed their book. When I get messages from my readers, it is quite possible that I get a bit misty.

This came from one of my Aussie readers. He sent me a screen shot of him ordering my book How cool is that!

4. Planning a new book.

Thinking about a new book is always fun. There are so many possibilities. I sit at a desk with computer, notebook, sketchpad, coloured pencils and a cup of tea. I doodle while my brain goes into overdrive. Then I Google the things I am thinking about – just to make sure they really are feasible. Research is important and can be so much fun. I love it when I stumble across something when researching and realise there’s a whole plot strand there.

My desk in book planning mode…. and yes that IS a Dr Who pen with a TARDIS on the end of it. How could anyone write a book without one?

5. And something very exciting and super secret that I am not allowed to even hint at yet.

I promise I will tell all as soon as I can.  There is one other thing that always always always puts a smile on an author’s face. It usually involves an email. I had one of those emails this week – but I can’t tell you anything at all about it. Not yet. I can almost hear you gnashing your teeth and wanting to know more. Guess what – that’s another thing that makes an author happy – putting a reader on the edge of their seat, desperate to know or read more.

Stay tuned – there will be more news coming soon.

‘My next book’ – all three of them

Question: which of these statements is true?

Answer: they all are.

How can that be? Because what constitutes ‘my next book’ depends upon the context of the conversation.

  • Just for the Holidays – ‘is my next book to be published’. (18 May 2017 in ebook, paperback and audio, if you’re interested. And you can order it here.) This is also the next book to be promoted, which will involve me in writing blog posts, social media, radio interviews etc.
  • Give Me Till Christmas – ‘I’ve just sent my next book to my editor’. (9 October 2017 in ebook, 2 November paperback, audio tba. I was a little shocked to be told last week that you can order this, too.) This will be the next book to be edited. Structural edits first (ironing out all the plot lines that aren’t quite working etc.); next come line edits (minutiae and punctuation etc.); finally the proofreading.
  • The Summer of Finding Out – ‘I’m just about to begin researching and planning my next book.’ (Scheduled for Summer 2018) This will be the next book to be written, in between the promo of Just for the Holidays and the editing of Give Me Till Christmas.

In case you’re wondering, I am no special case. Many novelists work in this way. Personally, I love it. I choose to see it not as a pressure but as an affirmation that I’m a commercially published author. I don’t groan when I’m asked to do promo because whoever has asked me is helping me to sell my books. I don’t go into a huff when I receive my editorial notes, line edits or proofreading because we’re all working to produce the best book I can. (That sentence is grammatically incorrect on purpose – a team works to produce my book. How cool is that?)

Lest you think I’m polishing my halo, there are things I don’t react well to – spurious interruptions, people wasting my time unnecessarily, unreasonable people etc. etc. Here’s a recent example:

Phone rings. I answer. It’s the bank, asking to speak to another member of my household, one who is out of the house during the working day. This is the fifth time in two days that they’ve called with the same request. The first four times, I pointed out politely that the person is not here because he doesn’t work here but I do. Please, could the bank stop these calls? They’re interrupting me. On the fifth occasion, I’m half way through a difficult scene and my temper snaps along with the thread of what I’m trying to write. I find myself rising vertically from my chair. ‘Look! I keep telling you that he doesn’t work here! I DO! Look in your records for his daytime number and RING HIM THERE! It’s DAYTIME! I’ve told you and told you and told you this and you persist in interrupting me! I’m self-employed and I’m TRYING TO DO MY JOB! Why don’t you GO AWAY AND DO YOURS? And if you’re stupid enough to ring here again with the same request I’m going to take all my money out of your bank and put it somewhere else. Plus, I’m going to speak to your supervisor and tell him or her that you’re stupid! Right?’

And, you know what, she didn’t ring back and I was able to get on with my next book.

Plotting with dialogue

The closest I usually get to plotting is a few scribbled notes on odd bits of paper. And usually this starts when the book is half done.

The closest I usually get to plotting is a few scribbled notes on odd bits of paper. And usually this starts when the book is half done.

Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser?

This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in detail in advance or do you just sit down and fly by the seat of your pants. I tend towards the latter, but in either case, the hope is that the result will be a novel. A good one with realistic characters and a gripping plot.

Last week I was confronted by a sort of third option – plotting with a few lines of dialogue. This a really intriguing idea came from Sophie Weston, who has sold about 12 million books world-wide. That’s a very nice number. Lots of zeros involved. She was speaking at a workshop in London. This is what I took home from that workshop.

Let’s start with the traditional idea of plotting. This involves mapping out the action of the story. I know people who do it on a spreadsheet. Others do it in a document. Post it notes all over a door is another popular method, or a roll of wallpaper and a handful of coloured pens.

In this way, events are mapped out, scenes are described, characters actions and of course the all-important conflicts and resolutions. All good stuff.

At that point, if it were me, I would stop. If I know all that, there’s no reason to write the book. For me the joy of writing is the exploration: the unexpected idea that seems to just flow out of my fingertips without me really thinking about it; the way the characters slowly reveal themselves to me as I write and the times when even I start to wonder if this conflict will ever be resolved. I could never be a plotter.

But Sophie Weston suggested another idea. Dialogue. Not too much of it. Just a few lines where the characters reveal something of themselves, or react to an event. These are the key turning points of the story defined – without the detail.

Think about this moment in Star Wars….

Darth Vader holds a hand out to Luke Skywalker and says.. I am your Father.

Darth Vader holds a hand out to Luke Skywalker and says.. I am your Father.

What a moment. It’s a turning point for the film. It changes everything for Luke. And for Vader. It adds new levels to both characters and to their conflict.  Four words. That’s all it took.

In Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise says to Rene Zellweger – ‘You complete me.’ It’s the moment when he admits he loves her. When planning the story, you could write …. he goes to her house where she is with a group of female friends and then he tells her he loves her. Or, in the outline you could just write three words and let the rest flow naturally as you write.

‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat. ’ In Jaws, this is the sign of worse trouble ahead. You don’t have to decide in advance when and where and to whom that is said. It’s just a line that tells us here is a place where the stakes must be raised.

‘I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.’ In On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando gives us his whole character in just two lines of dialogue.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy.

And let’s not forget Casablanca – with Bogie and Bergman. ‘All the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.’ I don’t have to write a backstory.  That line gives me all the backstory I need to know when I start writing. I can discover the details as I write.

All my books start with the opening scene in my head, and the closing scene. My job is to get my characters from scene one to the last page in a believable and interesting and moving way. I’m going to have a go at writing a key line of two of dialogue before I really get into writing the book. I need lines that say a lot about my story and characters. If I can come up with a great line, I can build the story to that point, without having to map it out scene by scene. I will know where I am  going without writing so much detail that the story looses its freshness and spark.

It’s plotting, without plotting. And without giving away too much of the story to myself.

Thinking about the work in progress, I can see and hear my central character saying ‘I need your help.’ I know who she is saying it to, and just how hard it is for her to say it. That’s already telling me things about her back story and her character. I’m off now to write the next chapter.

Thank you Sophie Weston for the idea. I’ll let you know how I go.

 

Learning from the master

One of my favourite writers - and a master at character and dialogue. And plot. And humour... and ...

One of my favourite writers – and a master at character and dialogue. And plot. And humour… and …

I’m having a bit of a fan girl thing at the moment – and in between blinking in awe at the light bulb moments, I’m learning a fair bit about how to write. I’ve written ten books (eight published and two more on their way), and won a few awards, but that’s not enough to make me think I know it all – or even that I know a lot. A bit… I think I know a bit about writing, but I’m always looking to learn more.

When signing up for a writing course, or looking for a mentor, I think it’s important that person be someone whose work you admire. If that person’s work is so good it takes your breath away – literally – then that’s even better. So when I found out that Aaron Sorkin was doing an online Masterclass in screenwriting, I couldn’t get my credit card out fast enough.

I am not a screenwriter, although as a movie buff, the idea does appeal. But good story telling is good story telling, whatever medium. Books and films and television all need captivating characters, sparkling dialogue and engrossing plot twists.

And nobody does these things better than Aaron Sorkin. For those who don’t know him – he wrote, among other things – A Few Good Men, The American President, The Social Network, Steve Jobs (the one starring Michael Fassbender), The West Wing, The Newsroom… and a few other bits and pieces. His shelves must be groaning under the weight of all the awards he’s won.

I first discovered Sorkin in The West Wing - which legend says he pitched off the cuff with some leftover ideas from the film The American President. That's what I call a pitch!

I first discovered Sorkin in The West Wing – which legend says he pitched off the cuff with some leftover ideas from the film The American President. That’s what I call a pitch!

The course is a series of lectures and workshops… I’m not finished yet, but I already know that when I have finished, I’ll go back and watch it again. A lot of what he’s saying I have heard before. Or knew already. Or thought I knew. But sometimes, just presenting something in a different way can make all the difference. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m a fan.

Sorkin has written two great film about men who are icons of our time.

Sorkin has written two great film about men who are icons of our time.

Here are a few of the things Sorkin has said that resonated with me, not that I haven’t heard other people say similar things, but because the way he said these things just flicked the switch on some light bulbs.

  • When writing anti-heroes or villains, it is important to identify with them rather than judge them. If you can put yourself in their thoughts, in their point of view, you are less likely to end up with a cliché bad guy.
  • Avoid meaningless research, and look for nuggets that can lead to an engaging plot point. Look for the things you didn’t expect … and don’t worry if you don’t know what questions to ask. Find an expert on that topic and start with “Tell me something I don’t know about…”
  • You will lose your audience if you confuse them. Even the tiniest bit of confusion can ruin the experience. However, be careful of going too far in the other direction – telling them something they already know. And never talk down to your audience.
  • Rewriting is a lot easier than writing, because you have a problem to solve. There’s something wrong with the scene or paragraph or sentence and you have to fix it. Rewriting is NOT the sign of a bad script. It’s the sign of a good writer.

That one in particular has worked for me because I’m been in edits on the latest book as I’ve been watching this.

Brilliant writing - with an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson to make it unforgettable.

Brilliant writing – with an amazing performance by Jack Nicholson to make it unforgettable.

And finally – we’ve all heard of the three act play. That we should structure our books in three acts parts.  I’ve heard many different people try to explain this structure… and some of those explanations have made sense. But this is surely the best and clearest explanation ever….

  • Act 1: You chase your hero up a tree.
  • Act 2: You throw rocks at them.
  • Act 3: You get them down (or not).

Thank you Aaron Sorkin.

I do recommend this course. The next part for me is to watch A Few Good Men. I have the DVD of course. As part of the Masterclass, I’ve been given a copy of Sorkin’s script. So now I’m going to watch and read and try to figure out what makes it so great.

Then I’ll go back to throwing rocks at a character up a tree.

Great ideas going cheap in the charity shop

Sometime ago I heard a writer say she often felt like answering the ‘where do you get your ideas’ question by saying she picked them up in a charity shop. I laughed, thinking I might use the line the next time someone asked me that question.

Later, though, I found myself thinking about a charity shop as a source of inspiration for characters as well as possible storylines. I worked for Oxfam for many years as an organiser for a cluster of shops, which raised money for the projects the charity supports. I loved my work and have fond memories of those years and of the people I met. I thought I’d share a few snapshots of some those characters – feel free to choose any and develop them as you see fit! Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

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© Copyright Roger A Smith and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Patricia was a terribly posh volunteer who entertained us with scurrilous stories about the landed gentry and other members of the upper classes she would meet at the various royal garden parties to which she seemed to be always being invited. Patricia had an alcohol problem and smoked like a chimney. On one occasion she was working in the back of the shop putting clothes for recycling into black bin liners which, when full were piled up to be collected. Patricia climbed up the mountain of sacks to add one more to the top of the pile, slipped and slithered down, passing out, dead drunk at the bottom. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning.

I remember her telling me of the time she had pneumonia and was confined to bed, forbidden to smoke. She would wait until her husband had gone out then bump on her bottom down the stairs to smoke an illicit cigarette (kept no doubt in a silver cigarette box) then crawl, gasping for breath, back upstairs.

Another volunteer, Helen was such a softie she couldn’t bear to go near the big open market in the run up to Christmas because the sight of all the plucked turkeys hanging up made her cry. She admitted she volunteered to work in the charity shop because she wanted to raise money for the poor people in Africa and India – so they would stay there.

Volunteer Molly struggled to balance her till roll and cash receipts after the introduction of electronic tills. Every time she was on duty the till roll showed quite ridiculous amounts of money. She swore she was entering the correct amount for each sale. I watched her one day and she was indeed very accurate in pressing in the right amount. Then, I spotted what was happening. Molly was extremely well endowed and any time she leant over the counter towards a customer her boobs would ring up yet another sale of a few thousand quid!

A cross dresser frequented one shop because he said the volunteers made him feel comfortable, unlike the attitude towards him in another, not-to-be-named-here charity shop. Our volunteers used to lay aside dresses, skirts and blouses they would fit – and suit – Pearl. He did always moan there were never any high heels to fit his size ten feet.

During a spring clean in one shop we moved the large mirror which leant against the wall in the fitting room. An avalanche of price tickets fell out. Thieves had been taking clothes into the fitting room, putting them, removing the price tickets and presumably putting their own clothes on top.

An extremely scruffy man asked to try on a pair of shoes. The volunteer noticed his toes poked through holes in his socks. The shoes were too small and he handed them back. Just before he reached the door her returned, asked to borrow a pair of scissors, which the bemused shop assistant, with some reluctance, handed over. He sat down, removed his shoes again and proceeded to cut his toenails – though the holes in his socks. Finished, he tried on the shoes again and declared they fit just fine.

I’m stopping here, not because I have run out of characters but there is a danger this blog post might go on forever.