How to write a book synopsis, blurb or log-line

What percentage of time do you (should you) spend on your blurb, summary, synopsis, pitch? When should you do it? Some people agonise over this more than over their novel itself. I know people who’ve spent three years constantly refining their synopsis, (me, me) tweaking a word or two with each rejection that explodes on the doormat.

Everyone has some idea as to what extras might make their work look good, some idea of what a sales pitch might be, but how do these work and what might grab attention, or help or… how can my book live in the mind of someone else! Give me the secret formula!

I’ve had some good advice from here and there, and I’ll stick it at the end.

First the bloggering…

One thing I love (and hate…and envy) about the film scripting world is their total dedication to the saleability of their work. I’m not talking sales in terms of lucre or Hollywood deals particularly here either. I’m just talking the selling of an idea to an audience – a small audience at first, maybe a chosen person that you trust to test an idea on, or maybe someone with influence, someone who can help shape a plot, make encouraging noises or even fund some development –  ultimately,  that first audience, the initial few people you can hope will tell their friends, fellow-professionals, millionaire arts benefactors or global publishing gurus. Foot in the door. Thin end of wedge. First step on the journey &c. &c.

Loglines

Film script people are the kings of this. They know it, study it, perfect it and wouldn’t dream of working in any other way. Take a couple of examples from script writing gurus.

Blake Snyder rams it home in Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screen Writing You’ll Ever Need (Michael Wiese, 2005). He gives us the familiar scenario of friends saying “what movie are we going to see?” and someone pitching from their own choices. What words get your mates on boards with the film you want to go to? Snyder pushes this as his “what is it?” question on page 1 and without a satisfactory answer he will not let you proceed. “if you can learn how to tell me ‘What is it?’ better, faster and with more creativity, you’ll keep me interested…” (p.4.) and if you are a script writer in the making you will then learn about loglines, getting them right, packing them with the right stuff, whether that’s irony or a hanging “what if..”

“Like Proust’s madeleine, a good log line, once said, blossoms in your brain.” (Snyder, p.7.)

Rob McKee, as ever, gives the intellectually heavy-weight view of story design and divides his premise, “the idea that inspires the writer’s desire to create a story” from his controlling idea, looking to “the story’s ultimate meaning expressed through the action and aesthetic emotion of the last act’s climax.” (p.112.). He eschews the term ‘theme’ given that this is regularly confused with single word ideas that are more about setting or genre – ‘poverty’, ‘love’ and so on.

His controlling idea is then something that is functional and it is, “a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.” (p.115.). He subdivides further, his Controlling Idea [now given capitals] has “Value plus Cause”, giving fascinating examples of how a story can be expressed as the ultimate Value (expressed in the climax to the story and identifiably positive or negative) + the Cause, the reasons that the value will have turned positive of negative.

Story is weighty, brilliant and a must-have for any writer, of course, and after fascinating discussion Rob McKee will prove that a story you thought you knew is actually pinned to the Value Cause Controlling Idea and a student can play with this, ending up with something such as “Death ensues (Value) when a lover is unfaithful (Cause)” and you never knew Scooby Doo had so much in it.

McKee and Snyder are talking about what you need to start with, as is Lagos Egri with his ideas on “premise” in The Art of Dramatic Writing (Touchstone, 2004 (first published as How to Write a Play, Simon and Schuster 1942)). Here the premise for King Lear is offered as “Blind trust leads to destruction” and Egri seems very unwilling to have this as anything other than the incontrovertible single possibility for Lear. For Egri value, character and direction are, as for McKee, all well compacted into a line like “Frugality leads to waste” (Cf discussion p.8.) with a suggestion of what kind of character we’re dealing with (a frugal one here or a trusting one above) what the and what a value leads to.

WIth a bit of background reading and your own fiddling there’s a chance to get something like a formula for successful log lines, usually something that suggests high stakes, primal values, a clear sense of  direction and end, a notion of conflict and an idea of which side the assumed narrator will be on.

Phew – all that in one line and if you take Snyder’s view then you need to get it in place early.

Yet tales are legendary of those who’ve sold an idea, a one-liner. I’ve heard everything from the woman who sold a pitch on Alice going back to Wonderland as a grandmother to that back of a fag packet seven words that has publishers at each others’ throats – probably something about wizards or celebrity break-ups.

Tips for Writers – Log Lines, Premises

  • 1 Sales Line. You need a line. One line, call it log-line, elevator pitch etc. Someone will ask you what your book’s about and they’ll give you at least one line to tell them what it is. Make sure you can.
  • 2 Help-to-get-it-done line. This is perhaps different from the sales pitch. This is your writerly premise. This is a line for you. It will help you begin and continue and hopefully to finish. When you’re working your writerly premise can be what you tell people you’re doing and what your book’s about. The most important thing is that it will remind you of where you’re going. Even if you don’t work to a plan (see below) there’s a chance that this will save you when you’re wondering whether or not you should keep going with the project.
  • For either line the basic is.
    • Prove it has movement, that there’s a push towards something. “Jack sits” has no movement, “Jack escapes” does.
    • Prove it has character, someone (or someone with a trait or mission) who’s worth following. “Jack” doesn’t, “Unjustly imprisoned Jack” does.
    • Prove it has basic human interest (what Snyder calls primal) something that your audience will see as a deeply rooted human motive or flaw. They must believe is worth reading about. “Jack the workaday businessman” probably doesn’t cut the mustard, “Jack the workaholic businessman” perhaps does –  “Jack the greedy, fraudulent businessman”… now we’re getting there.

 

Beginning to write a novel 

So, sounds quite a good way to begin a project. Decide what your pitching line would be. Test it on people. Only spend your development time on a story that you can engage people with in one line. Makes total sense, especially if you’re a real writer who’s looking for sales and meeting deadlines.

So why do novelists so HATE this approach?

I’ll do another post on planning as it’s a massive elephant in the room of any creative writing class, but synopsis writing falls into the same area. Whenever the idea of starting with a tight ‘writerly premise’ comes up (number 2 type above), everyone rebels. There’s that betrayed groan from classes and usually someone says that novel writing is about the voice and not the plot, and someone else will have gone through a university literature course and point out that all the best novels have no plot and are about the modernist sprawl of life, and someone else will know that their far-reaching masterwork that deals with the complexities of man’s inhumanity to man across the panoply of universal existence couldn’t possibly be squeezed into a single line.

The problem, the aching horrible truth of the problem, is often that we’ve written (or imagined) a baggy old sag-sack of a novel that isn’t about anything much except the journey that some version of ourselves ended up on when we couldn’t stop typing.

Ever heard this conversation:

  • You’ve written a book, what’s it about?
  • Oh, it’s just, well, time of course is the main theme, time and being, but it shifts between frames and realities constantly – really of course it’s about literature, about how we write and how we exist through writing

Or

  • You’ve written a book, what’s it about?
  • Destiny. [pause and give sombre frown as though only credible in black & white and posing for jacket blurb]

Or

  • You’ve written a book, what’s it about?
  • It’s about this girl who wants to write a novel but everyone’s just really horrible to her and puts her down all the time and publishers just don’t want to know and then her boyfriend leaves her and she goes on this holiday and everyone ignores her so she writes and writes and…

Add your own examples, these are slight paraphrases of things I’ve heard.

The fact is that we do want to write novels for all sorts of reasons. Chief among these is to do with exploring, working out, testing, discovery. It’s rare even for successfully publishing professionals not to have some of that need to just set characters and events in motion and see where they end up.

McKee does have a great point though:

The more beautifully you shape your work around one clear idea, the more meanings audiences will discover in your film as they take your idea and follow its implications into every aspect of their lives (McKee, p.115.)

If you can pare away the meanings that you’ve invested in or discovered in your work, then there’s a chance that you’ll find the idea at the heart of it and this will help with that next stage, the one that lets you write the synopsis or blurb or killer pitch.

Tips for writers – working towards a synopsis

Some works are easier than others to bring to a successful synopsis-form.

Here’s a thought or two on the type of synopsis that goes to publishers:

Character – do your characters have names that suggest something unusual or interesting about them? If not then a straightforward sense of who they are might be appreciated by the synopsis reader. However frowned upon a straight forward description would be in a narrative, this is just the bones of your story and there’s no time to hide things or be vague.

What do they do? – I’ve come across (and written) synopses that never actually want to tell me what characters are doing. All very well if the novel’s main strength is its brooding moodiness or the mind-rocking descriptions of its settings. This isn’t what a synopsis does. If you’re good at descriptions stick them in the early pages of your novel so readers can see that’s what you do (or can fling it down, this not being their thing).  Synopsis says who does what (possibly but not necessarily where they do it. What’s the direction and what are the various engagements.

Sense of an ending – Whatever your ideas on the story arc and the many possible cadence points that resolve a narrative, making your story seem wooly, nondescript, rambling or petering out is not usual considered a good sign of a controlled, confident and mature writing skill. That’s how-long-is-a-piece-of-string type writing is more for bloggers (ahem!).  Your synopsis should show that you can control and deliver a satisfying arc towards the kind of conclusion that seems surprising but at the same time inevitable. Does the ending seem to have been inevitable given the character you have been following, do they struggle, do they deserve what they get – if your story doesn’t have this kind of satisfaction then BEWARE it may not be a story at all.

Sub-plot – let’s assume you do have a story. Maybe you have more than one in your novel. So, should you include the subplot(s). On balance, probably not. On top of the sense of engaging writing style, writerly voice, the next thing is can you develop a satisfying storyline. This is what your synopsis should prove. If you have eight largely unconnected plots this is going to be very hard to summarise – think what you could leave out just in order to demonstrate your plotting skills.

Story or narrative? – A synopsis shows the story not the narrative of your work. The suzjet not the fabula. Many publishers say they don’t bother with it until they’ve read the first few pages of the novel and then they’ll just check it’s satisfying in story terms (very different from film producers).

In other words, the way your narrative is delivered  shouldn’t be the focus of your synopsis. Those secret revelations and mysteries held to the end in the novel don’t need to be held to the end of the synopsis.

It takes a bold change and may not always work for every project, but if you can give your plot in swift, neat sequence of chronological events, do it. This will help someone else understand what the book is, in its entirety rather than trying to take them on the same journey of discovery that the novel’s readers will go on.

This was an important discovery for me. I had a book that mucked about with time frames, gave a story not quite in reverse, but one that came into view very gradually as other things, almost unconnected things, seemed to happen. I really struggled to get a synopsis together. It genuinely was one of those narratives that couldn’t seemingly be compressed. The advice I got was to just tell what the actually story is, what a reader would walk away from the book with. Consequently, in the synopsis, I delivered the early bit of the story first (even though it’s not fully known until the end of the novel) and with that advice it suddenly started to come together.

However, be careful, because anyone who reads your first three chapters AND your synopsis may be confused as to what part they’re reading. In another version of my recent efforts I’ve started the synopsis to tie in with the first scene of the novel, then gone back to mop up an important backstory, then gone through the rest. It’s starting to get there, but it’s been a tough process.

Still working on sending out, so come back another time to find how Last Least Voice got on, or not…

If you’re looking for publishers and trying to get your synopsis sorted, good luck. Isabel Ashdown (Glasshopper, Hurry Up and Wait) kindly gave the following advice from her own experience:

Over the years I’ve met lots of agents and publishers – I have heard many say, ‘I never read the synopsis until I’ve read several pages of the work and decide I like it’.  I’ve heard several say, ‘I don’t want you to give away too much in the synopsis,’ whilst others say, ‘I want to know how the story ends’.  I’ve heard a good few say, ‘I never want to see a synopsis longer than one page.’

 

Tips for writers: book blurbs/ synopsis.

  • Go back to your log line. Does it show character, movement, values? Think how you’ll also get some of this across, but it’s not a pitch now, it’s a synopsis.
  • First move, think who’s going to read this – a potential agent or publisher, potential book-buyer, potential reader, think yourself into their shoes and what will convince them that this book is worth the time to explore further.
  • Relax and give evidence of what your story is about, don’t fluff it up with assertions as to its qualities (this innovative and genre-defying debut work…&c.)
  • Don’t force your your secrets, subplots, back-stories, mysteries, shadow-sleves and disturbing time-shifts into the synopsis if they don’t seem to fit. Tell it straight.
  • Keep it short – no, shorter – shorter, really short. Max 2 pages is a decent guideline given to me by someone in the business-end of the business. Isabel Ashdown (above) says some publishers want just one  page.
  • Try to begin a novel or story knowing exactly what it’s “about”. If you prefer to work in a more exploratory suck-it-and-see way, fine, just try and find that sentence as to what it’s “about” while you’re working, preferably in the earlier stages. You will need it eventually – the sooner the better.

 

 

 

 

 

e-book marks

Six-thousand years ago, the Sumer-Akkadians enjoyed a rich civilisation in what is now Kuwait and Iraq. This was the land of the Gilgamesh epic, of complex laws and coherent social systems, of communication that would cross the millennia through painstakingly-created cuneiform texts. The Sumer-Akkadians had a belief system that allowed multiple and flexible deities. With no common gods, each area had its own local selection. The power of any god was identified in the number of its followers.

We  look to the well-followed as much as ever.  Although our heroes and gods are as likely to be worshipped through the media as through sacred ground, the means to become well-followed, and our common respect for this power, is at the heart of what many are hoping for when they look towards publishing their writing.

Have we changed our attitudes as to how these followers can or should be gained? Does the digital world offer something that was never so democratic, or something of the same basic structure as was ever so?

The market for information delivery has changed, as marketing executive Neil Perkin has noted around the notion of dis-intermediation: “Digital is good at enabling people to go direct to others, changing the ‘middle-man’ and moving away from a linear communication model characterised by interruption and frequency towards a new place.” (Arts Marketing Conference on Digital Marketing 2011)

Perhaps even more pertinent to this trend, Ben Cameron, arts programmer at Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, says, “Just as the religious reformation challenged the necessity of the intermediary priest in a spiritual relationship…many in today’s arts reformation question the necessity of a professional artist in a creative artistic experience.”  Is engagement with the arts – writing among them – turning away from one very traditional model towards another? Or is it business as usual but with pixels replacing  pulped trees?

Does the written story change now ?

Is it still writing?

E-books

What’s a book these days? Have we yet reached the time yet when a book is no longer thought of as a paper thing? Does everyone have an e-reader?

At the time of writing there is another typically odious advert on British television trying to show the joys of the e-reader for the reader. E-books (“ebooks”?) being read under trees and even in bright sunshine would you believe it? Also ebooks read by increasingly young actors all of whom will now embrace reading like never before thanks to the compulsion of the pixelated screen over the printed page.

So far, though, we still can’t read them safely in the bath. Or, at least, they take far longer to dry out on the radiator.

There seem to be a number of  issues for amateur writers to muse over as far as the new digital opportunities are concerned.

  • Is an e-book still a ‘book’? Is it just a book?
  • Do we write differently in digital? Should we?
  • Do we still long to be ‘published’ in the traditional sense?
  • Will individual, copy-writable stars give way to something more diverse, more openly-sourced? Is this more democratic?
  • Will classics still emerge? Will single books still emerge and be treasured, or will there be a perpetual wash of short-lived interests around our taste tribes?
  • Do we feel more alone or more in company in this world of e-books and digital dissemination?

I don’t have any answers, partly because these are unanswerable questions. They did however give me some thoughts and these days thinking has to lead to blogging, and blogging feeds the global digi-brain, followers or no.

Gifting books

I’ve recently had bemused scoffing when handing paper books over as presents, because of course these aren’t quite the thing now, not for anyone in possession of a Kindle. Perhaps my  technologically-savvy friends no longer touch paper? Or perhaps the platform is now the driving pleasure in the interaction and experience?

Or perhaps  it shouldn’t matter at all. Isn’t the gift actually one of these words in this order? Isn’t the gift that, having read them myself and connected said words in said order with said friend, I now offer to share an experience and create an additional connection.

Giving books of course does this for us. If you give books as presents you’ll know there’s a particular sense of what the gift is and although the look and feel and bilblio-pyshicality of the whole thing can be important, especially if you’ve scribbled on the flyleaf and added a special bookmark and discovered it’s a first edition Fleurs du Mal, there’s something more.

The thoughts that we had when reading can be magically transferred to a friend or colleague simply through the gifting of a version or copy. We choose to do this, believing perhaps that the gift will return to us its fruit in the form of some classic pub conversation or a sudden realisation in that friend that his/her own problems and proclivities are curiously recognisable in the fictional beings they are introduced to. Maybe we have a faint hope that the giftee will recognise their own disastrous failings in one of the book’s plots and be magically transformed.

What are we gifting then when we give a digital text and what is the commitment of the giver?

Some considerable effort has been expended by publishers to manage the “perceived value” of the e-book. Ideally for publishers and perhaps authors, these dig-tomes are self-evidently the equal of a paper book. This runs counter to the attitudes of many a grumpy Yorkshireman, my father included, who feels that value is best appreciated by weightiness. Gifts, according to many a sage pragmatist east of the Pennines, are best appreciated when they take up some suitably large storage space rather than on any superficial qualities such as meaning. Calling a spade a spade and a book a book leads quickly to the kind of notion that anything electronic – any e-book or e-spade – should be a fair bit cheaper. After all, no paper no ink no transport costs. What else goes into a book? Assuming that writing is, after all, a hobby for the Bronte-minded and should, in any sane world, be handed straight down the digi-path for free.

What is the “perceived value” as marketeers would have it and is this quite so self-evidently the same as a paper book? We might accept that the text is being purchased rather than the book as such. Fine editions aside, there is now an alternative to culling trees and building bookshelves. But the e-publishing phenomena has more questions. If nothing else there are new opportunities around the authors’ delivery of a near complete version of the traditional experience. All the old work around making writerly thoughts look bright and pristine on a page are done direct into machine. For my generation this still has the power to amaze. Writing used to be typewriter and carbon sheets, then it was green type on black screens. To enjoy watching something that looks so like a beloved page appear black on white in a neatly shaped rectangle, how joyous!

There we go, the end product can be whipped out from the desktop and can now sit beside billions of other texts on digital shelves.

Billions. Is that a newly scary thing for us. How many words can now be published direct. No editors. Perhaps no edits. Or perhaps a draft in public now to be tweaked over and over.

If libraries and book shops ever seemed oppressive to an amateur, to the unpublished, what now?

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

We can let Robin Williams and the i-pad ad deliver an answer this question – but how much bigger is that digital library, the electronic version of the warehouse of forgotten books that kicks off Shadow of the Wind? How much more space to get lost in?

With our ability now as authors to publish direct, there are numerous potential shifts in the power nexus. If traditional fame and the desire to be known, to spread ideas and images that are identifiable and individual, is as strong as ever then it is marketing gurus we now want. This is the apparent shift in the business of the publisher. But perhaps, like the digital coding world, other things are shifting too. The need to recognise individual sources may become less important to us. Sharing, mashing, borrowing, using – are these a stronger direction for the digital than a simple repackaging of something that looks and feels very like its papery forebear?

Paratext, hors-texte and other useful trucs from France.

Critics are hot in pursuit of questions around what a digi-text is. For a start whether format can be separated from the “text”. Can the paratext as Genette has it can be regulated to interesting effect?

Paratext, for those who aren’t working on their narratology dissertation at the moment, is basically what exists as a housing or context for the words – typeface, number of words on page, cover, shop its bought in, friend who recommends, colleague who dogears the naughty bits etc. Some of this has a parallel in the e-reader, some doesn’t. E-readers have their own and will no doubt improve upon the current offer which in 2013 is a fairly bland casing and a do-it-yourself kit of sizing and percentage shifts.

Derrida famously said “Il n’ya pas de hors-texts” – which in our devious English way we have toyed with and mauled, largely considering it to either imply that “everything is language” or that there is nothing outside a/the text.* Is this as true for the digital text that feels curiously both more fixed and yet more mutable than its paper-based equivalent. Housed behind glass and in many ways untouchable, un-dog-earable, unattainable etc. Highly permanent and at the same time strangely fragile – where does it exist? Is its being simply a tide of binary possibilities?

If there’s nothing outside a text or no “hors-texts” our digital version is surely different in many ways. It’s not the same thing as giving/reading/owning a traditional book. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be.

Will we reach a stage where paper versions are only produced in swanky bindings at extraordinary prices, leaving run-of-the-mill reading experiences to the screen edition?

Already, first time authors are lucky to be offered a paper version of their first novel. Yet, this is what writers seem largely to want. The digital edition is somehow not quite as authorised, not quite as respected. It’s not quite the same thing to be published for e-book as to have a version in Waterstones that you can go in and fondle, point your friends to and sign.

However atavistic, the pull of the reading tradition as we consider a new digital version highlights the newness of a digital reading experience:

  • One reader mentions the memory we hold of whether a piece of reading was on the left or right hand side of a book, a sort of geo-location for favourite quotes and a bond with the book.
  • Many discussions have been held on page counts and what the reading experience requires in a novel in terms of that sense of when to anticipate the major turns, including the conclusion.
  • Others wonder at book marks and dog-ears – nicely illustrated by Alan Yentob’s programme on the subject – and at the need to shout to book group members, “but what about when he gets his kit off on page 69..?”
  • The very coverlessness of e-books allows for new reading habits, public consumption of texts that are not an advert for what we’re reading
  • And our bookshelves, the display of our pasts and our proclivities. Do we choose differently now they’re all in a download cloud from Amazon?

Websites and front covers

While we’re talking about those paratexts or hors-texts that condition our thinking around books, there’s a heavy expectation that we go in through a title page, first page or cover. This is a particular way of looking at the world in general and it has an interesting effect on how people react to websites.

Early websites had ‘splash pages’ replicating a cover, or gateway experience, a moving graphic that was in essence a book cover, one which said, “now we’re starting”, “get ready”, “begin to expect”. These even felt half-way to a film experience, as though the new web-reading was going to borrow from a range of exciting sensory possibilities.

It’s still very common for the uninitiated to be overly concerned with the notion of what’s on the homepage of a website. In fact homepage access to many large websites is low, typically below 35%. We no longer have to have a homepage or title page or book cover. We can go straight into whatever gobbet is delivered at random or by choice and deal with it according to need or whim. Nice. It’s a new feature, isn’t it? Except that many – most? – books allow a ‘dip in’ option… so is this new to digital? Or better in digital? Who’s choosing how we read? Do we even need a digital author to enable our selectivity?

is it still writing?

Ahead of a conference paper on digital writing I tried out a sort of artwork. The words “is it still writing?” were put up on a computer-fed screen, appearing at intervals and in a font to suggest a trace of neon signage.

For me, if not for those who walked past it, this had a number of possibilities that vied for attention as the principle statement, among them: Is the machine continuing its writing? Are the words an example of non-moving writing? Does this process continue to be defined as writing?

In the same vein, but more usefully for this post, in what way do we approach the ebook or the word-processed writing exercise and in what way has this affected how we choose to write?

Some tutors are legendary in forcing classes to work with pen and paper. It requiring a different pace of thinking. This ties in nicely with the photographer who uses glass plates in order better to engage with the process and the need for patience, selectivity and dedication to a single creative event.

If you like putting text cross-wise like a Georgian crossed-letter, or like to make a line bend from horizontal to vertical, or if you like an illustration, diagram or set of linking arrows, then the e-writing method seems horribly limiting. It’s almost as though the published page has choked creativity and still forces us to mimic it. All those years of English teachers trying to get language students to arrange their vocabulary into mind-maps and mushrooms and snails and webs rather than making lists that start in the top left – always a method that fails to work with the brain’s best practice and yet so familiar to the reading experience.

Text that defies linearity has brought some famous cases. Remember when Lewis Carroll was trying to get the mouse’s tail poem correctly to the type-setter he had to clip out each word from the proof and paste it into place, this having been expunged in the process. It’s hard to imagine a new Appolinaire coming up with graphic poetry as a writer in a world dominated by digital writing – this kind of practice seems much more likely to be fostered in illustration or graphic design or something else that has paper and pen at its core and hasn’t quite leapt aboard the one-way digi-train.

Links and loops

There are two things that digital writing has claimed as its own domain for creative practice: links and loops.

Much work exists on how loops now replace directional narratives. Many a critical theorist has spent many an hour noting the incremental changes in the notion of story. New thinking encourages us away from the traditions of a linear effect with start and finish clearly indicated and instead offers notions of restarting at recognisable points  in order to retrace or redo what is already known. It seems to be one of society’s inherent gameification modes, we treat everything in the way we treat computer games ,with multiple lives and multiple opportunities to repeat and reassemble and revisit.

The phenomena of rewatching, reviewing, re-reading what is familiar is also up for discussion, do we value something more that we have read twice. Do the dead come back to life? Does the digital encourage this any more than having a favourite book? If so does it encourage this to an extent that can challenge our notion of what reading quintessentially is?

The loop allows us, though digital means, to introduce gobbets that can then be put together in an order that pleases the end user. We don’t have to indicate a beginning or an end. We can offer a random beginning. We can make this beginning change. Rather than random generation of an entry point, one can be generated dependent on the user, governed by gps locators or time zones. Wow. Stacks of potential.

But hang on, has story itself been transformed?  Does anyone actually want to read this way (anyone who’s not doing academic work on the digital story)?

Does any story experience allow for there to be no beginning and end, or is this part of a set of definitions that separate it usefully from the more messier set of “stories” that is life itself? Does the reader wish to approach a story with a sense that this is the beginning of an experience or to be treated as an interloper in process? 

Some theorists argue that story will have a necessary intimation of prior completion. Where is the story before it is told? Although the answer is of course ‘no-where’ and this is a the root of the illusion of prior conception, neither is it easy to conceive of as being without a beginning. The bounds of what a story is are stretched if there is only infinite possibility and nothing seems to have been structured, whether that is in linear or looping form. If it just goes on and on like Eastenders or virtual life games, is this a story or something different, something too much like life itself.

The lack of beginning, the opportunity not to start from a page that is turned over, the notion that we are not dealing, when we take on a website or other digitally transmitted text, with a gateway to the experience as we looked at above with the replica of book cover, this is not an easy shift in terms of readerly thinking. It is one however that begins to suggest that the digital reading world might offer challenges to the traditional experience.

The other “extra” we get in a digital engagement is, apparently, choice. Choices in the traditional book market are fairly straightforward and fairly drastic. Do I keep reading or not? If NO please dispose of paper in suitable recycling bin. Do I recommend, do I share, do I buy multiple copies, do I re-read, do I re-visit favourite portions? If so, in what order? These seem to be the types of choice around the old fashioned paper variety of book. If YES, please purchase signed first edition for self to possess.

Hypertext fiction seems to be offering something else, something that allows even at its most basic, a choice of reading directions. Something not so different from the footnote/endnote potential most common in reference and academic text but also present in a few much-enjoyed novels. Do I click here to find out more about the background of character x – do I ‘carry on’ with ‘the story’ without knowing this additional detail that was promised? Alternatives can take us neatly along the lines of those 1980s children’s magazines that allowed you to choose with the character, or the comfortingly primitive algorithms of the early adventure games – do we enter the beast’s cave Yes or No? If yes go to page 5 if not go to page 10.

If we have choice – if these are choices that provide loops and revisits and new ideas of where a beginning might be or what an ending (closure) might be – does it feel like a narrative, does it feel like a story, or is this something else?

The truth of linked text is perhaps that there is limited potential here that is not dealt with better by more formalised genres that cover this kind of choice. Adventure gaming on boards or online gives, for my money, a better version of that sense that we are “inside the character’s response to choice”. If these are the new reading, then what has become of the old reading?

Choice and loops. This seems to characterise the departures that e-books can and have made. In some extreme versions the experiments depart far enough from the accepted definitions to require new terms and not to be seen as the simple advance of the book, the text or the story. In some ways it re-establishes the best definitions of story.

There may well be nothing outside the text, no hors-texte – do we care?

The whatness of bookness

There are some good examples of e-storytelling that aren’t books or games. Here’s a plug, Ingen elge på vejen den dag – No Elk on the Road that Day (also No Moose on the Road that Day – but let’s save it for another post that this translation misses the the careful distinction in English between elk and moose). Anyway, check out a nice little essay on loops and those narrative-types that allow you in and out with no beginning or end other than the one you bring to it as an engager – Cf when life becomes a loop Noah Niehaus

Engaging with this story means entering on a real day, finding oneself with a lexis that offers something of a traditionally written portion and then exiting in order to re-enter and find another portion on another day, there being a correspondence between real and story days of the week.

Is this a book? What is a book? In a set of handy notes on the whatness of bookness, Philip Smith recognises that the defining point is not so easy. “A teddy bear with writing on it is not a book.” No, well, probably not, though I’m not sure who might ever be in a position to wonder if it was or not.

The book is not the text, although it is traditionally associated with it, and these two elements appear often to be mistaken for the same thing. The book is the hinged multi-plane vehicle or substrate on which texts, verbal, or tactile (the latter would include braille and other relief or embossed effects, found objects, pop-ups) maybe written, drawn, reproduced, printed or assembled.

What is a book, and is an e-reader in any way a part of that book or is the book going on “within” or “without “ it. Without the human (e)reader? –perhaps some sure-footed academic could get a handsome grant to run a project of that title at some university or other.

E-publish and be damned

Technophile Douglas Adams was passionate in many interviews on the subject of the need to get rid of the papery thing that the book was and for it to be replaced by a technological advance of some sort. Yet for the current crop of writers, especially those who grew up reading books of the heavier, more papery, page-turnery variety, there remains something holy about print and about the book.

Ask anyone who is aching for publication and it is unlikely that the ebook carries the principal thrust of their dreams. A publisher offering e versions only, even with a modicum of promotion as part of the deal, is considered a pretty charmless alternative.

Can you blame them? Writing a book is hard work and for most has no rewards beyond completing the tale itself. Here’s a scenario: if you are remarkably best-selling for a first timer let’s say you do a classic print run of 2000 copies for which there’s a one pound royalty and the book is 80,000 words, You write 500 decent words per day – allowing for deletions, self-editing and so on – which means 160 working days if you remain inspired, do no planning and have no breaks. As an earner that means 32 working weeks and the kingly sum of 4K in the bank. You might get a real break and sell 5 times that but even then it’s only just sounding a plausible alternative to real work and it’s only for that one with no guarantee of a follow-up success. So – given the work load it seems pretty empty result if you’re just being thrown up on an e-publishers website.

It also flags up the passion with which many writers commit to their work regardless of publishers, agents, readers or other elements of the industry.

Then there’s self e-publishing. Is that another step down some scale of what being published is? For most it’s not actually being published, is it? You’d be disappointed if a published author came to visit your writing group and you found they’d just lobbed their own stuff through Kindle Direct, wouldn’t you? You want someone who’s followed, who’s known, who has been dubbed worthy by the multitude. Nothing wrong with the self publishing route of course, there’s that legendary group who kickstarted immortality in this way – Bronte sisters, Kenneth Graeme, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and so on – but it’s not quite what you’re aiming for when you sit down at the word-processor with an ambition to write. As an author you want something else.

What is that something else? Recognition perhaps, not in the sense of global fame, but more that someone has appreciated your efforts and given it the stamp of that approval. Someone who matters, someone who knows what a good book is.

Something more like the stuff that bookshops trade in, something with weight and solidity.

If your main aim is to commit your emotional and intellectual self to some hard version that can live through the ages in the manner of the Lindesfarne Gospels, somehow a float of pixels seems a bit lightweight. A bit easy to do, perhaps. Not the right sense of privilege that a book would give. The next stage in the degrading of the written word and the biggest change since Gutenberg. And of course what is really wanted is that sense of being special. If not hand written, they should at least be works that have been pointed out and labelled as fit for human consumption.

Is this kind of statement still valid in the digital ocean?

Publishers often seem like the enemy, the gatekeepers, the threshold guardians. They have risen to a position of power over a process and in our world where power is at its most palatable when shared or democratised or decentralised. Publishers are  in possession of a sort of imperial blessing. They can touch works and make of that typescript something other, something better, something that has been approved.

In the look-at-me-daddy of the grown up writerly world, the publisher is the ultimate parent figure, one given largely to scorn.

No, there is something about the printed work that is not in the digital work. Of course the digital extras are fine, pretty handy for the extra clients we have no doubt. Sell a few hundred thousand of those to the e-reader clients, yes please, but what we really want is something else. It’s perhaps best represented by the library or the shelf or the bedside cabinet and the contents of a piece of furniture that houses, or is built to house the literary work. A print version has something, and it does not even have to be the nicest print version.

Yes we want followers, but in some way we want our followers, like our gods, to be real.

 

Tips for writers: should I e-publish?

Yes – it’s out there rather than in a drawer. Especially if you’ve got an old MS you’re not going to do anything more with.

You may not get the editing that publishers offer, and you may not get the bragging rights you crave, but for most people it’s better than nothing and it may keep you going for that next big project that you do want to hawk around agents.

Worth bearing in mind that some genres do well for amateur e-publishing – romance for example.

Companies offer opportunities and tools for promotions.

Use the e-book to test the marketplace. If it sells it could impress someone who’s prepared to help with publicity. Is our book and our need for the printed version any different?

Don’t think that just sticking it online is publicising. If you want to actually get the book to go anywhere it takes constant marketing – through social media etc. Some sources reckon on 80% of your time being on sales, hence the attraction of a publisher.

How easy is it? Very – lots of handy hints on publishers websites. Just create an html file ( Systems don’t even require clean html and it can be generated through word) upload a cover and you’re up and published. Anyone who fancies the hobby of a smarter cover etc, it’s catered for too.

*(A digression here which also serves as a test for footnotes in the digi-lit:
On Derrida and his horse text, I’m reminded of a good little thread in an alumni magazine not so long go in which academics were asked to note amusing mistakes in literary history. This is of course a fantasy for academics who get to chuckle into their chests about that simply hilarious jape that Virginia Woolf pulled on Lytton Strachey over a misplaced colon. It’s not the most comedic of professions after all and the chance to air that much loved and fiendishly arcane witticism can reward the kind of ribald prof who’s been wondering for years why he never got his chance in stand-up.

So, the joke I’m thinking of goes something along the lines of this: There’s this earlyish translator of Jaques Derrida goes into a pub… his efforts manage to become acknowledged as a standard translation soon after publication and, well, this nobly bilingual phraseologist manages to work havoc in the academic world by translating “[I]l n’ya pas de hors-texte” as “there is nothing outside the text.” Chaos spews forth as of course countless anglophiles now believe that Derrida is making a claim that bewilders in its boldness. Cue four decades of academic debate and much beard scratching, black polo-neck tweaking and a pipe or two of rough shag.

Perhaps you’ve not yet managed to quite “get” this gag. No worries. It’s never made Channel 4s ultimate comedy routines, although I think there was a video-log version of it among the prize winners on You’ve Been Framed.

The joke is, apparently, that the “hors-texte” holds a meaning that some less philosophical minds would see as critical. The “hors-texte” was mis-delivered as “hors de texte” something along the lines of the “out-text” rather than the “out of text.” The “out-text” however includes various interesting bits of a printed page for the Francophile bibliophile. It includes the margins and gutters and page corners and illustrations and captions – possibly a whole range of such things and leads nicely to that whole preoccupation that inspired Genette and his paratext.

So Derrida, apparently was not so much saying that everything is language as that everything on and around a block of writing is actually part of the text.

Joke’s over.

Mignon!

under construction

Well, if you’ve clicked through to this page its probably because you’re the web police and want to know why a page has been called “under construction.”   Or perhaps, like me, you have some nostalgia for those websites in the mid nineties that announced “site under construction,” presumably because publishing workflows hadn’t been invented. I remember one friend had a page that happily said, “no this page isn’t under construction, it’s just crap.”  Fair dos.

In fact this isn’t under construction in that sense, not as a page anyway. More of a construct if anything. That is, I don’t imagine either coming back to it regularly for changes or leaving it in this state with a nice excuse hanging, like those 90s single page hand-coded websites with their two blocks of rough-hewn html and an airbrushed jpg.

Bear with me, as well as the rambling prose, i’m hoping to pull together tips for writers and something vaguely philosophical about writing. Have I used “writing” enough to get a google trace, maybe, writing writing writing.

Now where was I…

The point

I guess one slightly obnoxious point, if we need one, is along the lines of how does our work exist before completion?

Do we dare to start, or are we too precious about the onward pace and the need to finish?

Are we scared to commit, to commit ideas to the page or to commit our work to critical eyes?

Do we dare to finish? To say this is done, it is no longer part of me. My story must make its way alone.

What is it to finish? What is it to travel hopefully? And are amateur writers more likely to ditch their projects because the journey is no longer enough fun to bother with.

 

Committing to the start, preparing and then ceasing to prepare – changing into the doing mode. That isn’t always easy.

Starting to write…again

There was an interesting case with an individual I know who requested a website for himself and a project. He asked for 100 pages to be “created” to begin with, ready for the content to be put into them when the time was ripe. Some explanation was needed. Pages don’t need creating ahead of time. There’s no wood pulp needed, no bleaching no drying. It’s digital. Just launch yourself into it.

But maybe, for those who have lived through the printed paper phase and watched the world gradually become digital, there is something about the preparation of the platform on which to write. There is a need for the deep breath before beginning. There’s a need for that blank page, to know its there and that there is space to write.

I’m reminded of that terrific image from Virginia Woolf:

“she stood hesitating one moment on the threshold of her drawing-room, an exquisite suspense, such as might stay a diver before plunging while the sea darkens and brightens beneath him, and the waves which threaten to break, but only gently split their surface, roll and conceal and encrust as they just turn over the weeds with pearl.” [Mrs Dalloway]

The beginning. That moment before it is all under construction. The moment when waiting stops and excuses start. That moment when the end begins stretching horribly away from grasp.

Real feel – does it help you begin?

Stepping back more than a few years, I recall what seemed to me a sudden opportunity to type onto a white screen in black type. Of course I found out later – actually by reading Sephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles (super book, buy it and read it regularly) – that the marvellous apple™ company were doing this way ahead of anyone. Nonetheless, the power of the phantom page, the ache to be creating a book with Times New Roman on a white page-shaped rectangle on the screen, that was what motivated me. In fact,not having access to the proper equipment was enough to put me off, being lazy to the core, and unable any longer to stoop start writing in a green typeface on black screen. Better not to start and instead to concentrate on making endless cafetieres of coffee and being grumpy.

It is a seductive thing, knowing that your preparation must be done carefully, so carefully in fact that the real work needn’t begin for a while.  If you’re really, really lucky someone else can be given the major preparatory work, the paper making, the quill sharpening, the website building, the sacred creation of that tabula rasa before which to stand in awe of the creativity to come. Cue Virginia Woolf again.

Beginning badly

There’s a popular type of scene in novels or films which has a would-be (I’m avoiding the odious “wannabe” expression and hope to repopularise “would-be” as a phrase) a would-be creative, in the first throes of their work and, of course, finding – to wonderful comic effect – that they are so busy preparing the background to the publication that they can’t get on with the  task in hand.

This seemed to be a problem even before the green type on black was there to provide excuses.

Keith Waterhouses, Billy Liar (Michael Joseph, 1959) has a great example reworked in the film of 1963 and if I can sidestep copyright law for illustrative academic purposes, it would be good if you could home in on the scene in question. Not least because it is a bazzing good scene and worth trying to get hold of:

Billy Fisher, full of grandiose promise and self-delusion, is beginning his novel while at work. He writes the title, writes it again, writes a large “by” and then begins inventing names for himself. After a while preparing this header to the work he types a sentence and then scraps the sheet, ripping it from the roller of his cast iron Imperial with a sound you just can’t get from the delete button on a Mac.

Good scene. A classic for writers who fail to start. There’s the grandiosity with which the title and the opening paragraph are felt to herald the entranceway to a masterwork. Then the need to go over it again and make sure that entrance way is properly formed, with bells, and buzzers, and cherubim. At this point the beginning takes over. I’ve seen it plenty of times, someone with a film or a novel or even a story, and what they’ve really got is an opening chapter, or opening scene or line.

(Another nice example from David Nichol who in One Day has a not dissimilar chuckle at seedling creativity. High-minded and expecting to change the world, Emma Morley has her first go at novel writing and offers a marvelously naff half page, again with the title and the word “by” together with much agnoising over the potential pseudonyms.

[Writing exercise 1: construct a scene where a would-be creative gets overpowered when trying to begin a new work.]

Writing, possibly more than many other hobbies, passions, callings or whatever you wish to call them, seems to encourage this.  We want to begin, we want to tease out a thread that will seem like a starting point. Writing a story, whether based on something that has befallen us or that we wish or dread to befall some invented other, is a powerful motivation to sit down with whatever implement is to hand and to promise ourselves that we will begin at the beginning and, with some meandering through sagging middles, will arrive at an end.

Can we end, are we like Eyore who points out wisely in TH@PC “I would like to begin again but it is easier to stop.”  Stopping is not easy. Nor is it easy to erase what we have begun with: “the moving finger writes” as Fitzgerald has it in the Rubaijat, and not that the past is done and we move on, but that it is there for us to live with. Unable to stop we must press towards the end. If our story has proved too much for us, so way too much that we are not able to finish it but cannot bear to destroy the work, then it does seem easier to leave it until later, wait for the muse, or maybe do a bit more preparatory work, a bit of preparing of the Booker Prize acceptance speech, a bit of work on the font we should have for the cover, a bit of work on the dedication…

A philosopher equal in many ways to Eeyore, Gerard Genette points with adroit wisdom at the impossibility of beginning a narrative, looking to complex restarting as “mimicking as it were, the unavoidable difficulty of beginning the better to exorcise it.” Narrative Discourse trans. Lewin, Cornell UP, p.46.) We organise our every thought into narratives of being and the compulsion to write is the need to find meaning through organisation, through example, through the hope to find a beginning and to head towards what can be satisfactorily thought of as an end. “Closure” seems to be a word that has gained ground through American politics as much as through narratology,  and while we look for this in some instances, there is the pull of the need to end against the need to be alive to the ongoing pursuit of that end, something worth pursuing, via Walter Benjamin, through Peter Brooks’ ideas that “narrative has something to do with time boundedness, and that plot is the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” Reading for the Plot, (Harvard, 1992, p.22.)

Ultimate excuse #1 –  “It’s not finished yet” aka work in progress 

There’s another scene of would-be writers that springs to mind. Isn’t there a Comic Strip Presents episode when  Dawn French is a lonely writer, typing away at her book and getting shirty with anyone looking over her shoulder – “it’s all changing, I’m changing it all, it’s not finished” or something of that nature – and over her should you see her writing “run spot run” or some other 6 word todder book – great scene and one that You Tube has failed to pitch up for me. Never mind.  The impulse is there to hide the work, deny the creative process and to believe that it’ss possible to begin again.   The classic riposte from the challenged creative. My work is in progress, don’t judge me yet, let it be known that this is under construction and is mine, still mine. You can’t have it yet. It’s not ready to go off on its own.

How long have you been meaning to write, or meaning to finish or meaning to start again?

Of course I’m aiming towards amateurs and hobbyists here. Professionals don’t do this as they are given deadlines by others who depend on their work, or at least they don’t do it much.

I often wonder, did Isaac Walton ever complete the Compleat Angler, or was it a work in progress?

So, why is this post “under construction”? The clue is probably in the opening to this post. Fear to commit, fear to share and be scrutinised. Fear to finish.  In such circumstances, give your post a title no-one would ever want to read.

 

Tips for writers

  • Accept the possibility of what Anne Lamott hails as  those “shitty first drafts” (Bird by Bird) whether you end up flushing it down the pan or keeping it for a bit of further modelling, there’s a lot to be said for actually having the shitty draft there to deal with.
  • It’s not yours. It only completes itself in the mind of a reader. Know how to let go.
  • Invite others in to see your work in progress. Prevent yourself from being precious around what is finished and what isn’t.
  • Write towards getting an idea into the open rather than filling space or filling time. Don’t worry how many words, megabytes, hours have gone in, but what you’ve managed to bring into the open.

Who knows, maybe someone will read it.