How to get started on a first novel. Five things I wish I’d known earlier.

There’s bags of advice out there, of course. Hopefully whatever you’ve found so far has been fabulously helpful and you’re ready to get going. As someone who’s started more novels than they’ve finished and finished more novels than they’ve published and is still rewriting those nearly-but-not-quites almost to death, there are a few things that I wish someone had given me all those years ago when I first started.

The first big goal is getting started at all, and a number of narrative theorists go very, very deep on the impossibility of the beginning. The second big goal is giving yourself a better than decent chance of keeping going until the end of the first draft. Getting a draft out, even a crappy one, is a major effort – it’s 80,000 words or more where there used to be 300 blank sheets for Goodness’ sake – that really is a major effort and, make no mistake, anyone who’s written a vaguely readable draft of a real novel deserves to feel proud of their efforts.

The goals after that probably shouldn’t concern those at the stage of a first go, but they might eventually include improvements, increasing readability, harmonising style, squeezing that 5% extra out of all the conflicts and turning points. If you want to get published then there’s a whole array of imponderables and unknowns and lucky breaks that aren’t really about planning or motivation. Like a hole in one for a golfer, you need to be good enough to get close on a regular basis, but the actual drop into the hole isn’t something that can happen just because you want it to. That’s what luck is. When you’re starting your second novel you can get luckier by being more up on the Zeitgeist, being more canny about characterisations and markets and of course being more craftspersonly about those time-honoured conventions of narrative and prose. Some of those  you’ll find out before you start, but, like a new recruit to the army who sort of knows there’ll be assault courses and mess drills but who will find out a whole lot more as they begin the first steps of the journey, there’s a lot to learn just by getting started, by doing, and by accepting that your first go (maybe even your second or third go) will be more about learning than producing.

So, to add to the many other bits of good advice you’ll be getting online or in the many great how-to-do-it booklets, here’s four things I wish someone had told me when I first tried to put a novel together.

Your first novel #1: Give a name to your desired approach to writing

This is something you’ll know but may not have articulated – what kind of a writer are you trying to be? The chances are you’ll love a whole range of writers and styles and periods. Which one (or ones) are you trying to be? Or, if being unique is your aim, which ones are you trying NOT to be?

To illustrate, I studied music in my youth. When it came to composition the kind of music I wanted to make up was the music that was most recently in my head. I’d have a bash at a Mozart horn concerto pastiche and then an hour later I was trying to slap a ground bass and cluster chords into something outrageously modernistic (and, it has to be said, outrageously bad!)

As a music listener you can listen to any music you can get your ears on. You could have plainchant before breakfast and Mahler after the first cappuccino. Grunge before croissants and an accordion cafe for brunch. But you can’t compose like that.

For the book writers you can read all sorts, love all sorts and have your favourites in a dozen different camps, styles or centuries. But what a reader will want is consistency. Even if you want to make a clever shimmy of pastiches part of your thing, there’s a consistent narrative voice that has to hold the thing together and has to have chosen to BE one thing or the other.

This is a really important point here when it comes to keeping your project up. If you start a Rom Com but then read a really good thriller and wish you were writing one of those, what do you do? A Hugh Grant floppy haired hero suddenly gets badass with guns in Act II – then for a real finale, goes all Star Wars for a bit before pulling off his mask to reveal he’s the elf king. Doesn’t have to be anywhere near that extreme to be lethal. The killer blow is if you now hate your initial Rom Com idea and give up on it (but fail to retain enthusiasm for your thriller or sci-if or whatever).

“I can’t help you because I don’t know what it is you want,’ says the character Tre Cooper in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, ‘…one moment it’s the tortured genius creating great art and the next you just want your face on the telly.’ It’s a big thing – you have to choose what you most want to be as an author and reluctantly let go of the other choices of identity.

You’ll have your own names – play with a few more, but get a real handle on what kind of writer you’re going to be. When Rankin came up with the term Tartan Noir – at a publishers party I gather – he’d already known for years that that’s what he was, at least when publishing under that name.

As a writer you might be: the Intellectual, the Stylist, the Dour wit; the Epic Poet; the Classicist; the Dissillusioned, the Funkster, the Observer… just make sure that you’re the same thing every morning when you pick up the pen or sit down at the keyboard or speak into the dictaphone.

What’s your type, your style, the label you’d like to be known by when critics choose one word or phrase for your work?  The quicker you can nail it, the better you’ll focus.

Your first novel #2: Don’t (necessarily) make yourself begin at the beginning

It’s a real divider of opinion – do you write your novel as though you’re a reader? A very slow reader of course, but, basically, do you start at the beginning and work your way through, wanting the outcomes that a reader will want and then either satisfying or delaying them in the following pages or chapters?

Or, do you plot out your work first and then, when the structure is established, come in with the scenes, the voices, the dialogues that pad it out?

Or something in between? Do you write the exciting bits and then go back and tie them together? If there’s a crazy denouement and a slow-burn mystery then maybe it starts and the end and goes backwards. One of the best prose stylists and best plotters, Arthur Miller, describes his process for Death of a Salesman as one where he began with the scenes that he knew would be most troublesome, leaving the ones he could visualise most easily till the end. I suspect for most of us it’s often the other way round

Screenwriters are so plot-driven and ruthlessly darling-killing about what is, after all, a ruthless time-is-money industry, that they would not dare do anything but plot out, usually with Post-it notes or similar, swapping bits in and out and testing them first against the paradigms of McKee and then against a live studio audience.

Novels don’t necessarily work in such extreme ways, but it is worth grasping a few of the much talked about elements of the debate:

For example, once you’ve told your story, will you get bored and never finish it? Remember screenwriters are well paid and have an objective. For novelists there’s something about working through the story that’s in their mind, only understanding its twists and potential as part of the process of writing. If you’re prepared to do this with one draft and then throw it away and start with the better plotted version, fine. Good books tend to need more careful plotting than a meandering explorative approach will allow, but if the process is the main thing – and it well might be – no problem and get that peregrinatory head on.  If you’ve got the plot sorted on Post-its, though, will you be fully motivated to go back and fill in the gaps?

Whichever way round it goes for you, be prepared to test out some scenes that are outside the chronological order – whether that’s your writing chronology or that of the narrative. You may find there are useful time twists – a chance to get the more interesting things in a better order and not one that follows standard time. Write test dialogues, odd sentences, phrases or metaphors you want to repeat to make themes. You may find you learn more about characters, you may find that some scenes are just impossible – too tortuous, too complicated, too boring – and need to be written out.

It’s not a hole by hole game of golf you’re playing. You’ve got a chance to do the driving range, the pitching targets and the putting green and then put together your ideal round at the end.

Or, like Mahler’s notes for a symphony, there’ll be a little passage that comes to you that you know needs to be in the middle and to which you’ll now build towards.

Or, as the advice goes that we were once given as undergraduate students. Don’t worry about the beginning of your essay. You’ll all be waffling till the brain engages. Accept this, write it as necessary. Then, when you’re writing the ending, go back and remove what you thought was the beginning. Your new beginning will be where your brain has joined you, fully engaged.

Just don’t forget to go back and fill in the gaps.

Your first novel #3: Characters that know they are characters

There’s a good line in McKee that goes something along the lines that Hamlet is no more a real person than the Venus de Milo is a real person.

One of the biggest hurdles for every writer but especially for the newbie is understanding where reality and fiction separate. The most common complaint from anyone asked to look through an early draft of a first novel is that it has that recognisable and very thin veil of an autobiography about it. Basically, the characters don’t suffer from not being rounded or for being too wooden. The bigger problem is that the characters are too damn real.

Very few people lead the lives of an engaging character in a novel. Human lives are messy, humans are balanced, humans avoid conflict by habit, humans are subtle and take a lot of working out. How often do you sit and wonder about the lightly nuanced quirks in yourself or your best friends or those people who really, really irritate you? Months, maybe years, a lifetime. Real people take a lot of working out.

Book characters are not real, the best ones just seem it.

Think through all the most celebrated fictional characters. Not just Lancelot or Heathcliff, Mrs Malaprop or Robert Buzzard, but those who seem more rounded, Hamlet, Margaret Wilcox née Schlegel etc. They are striking because they can be identified by a few highly visible personality traits.

They seem it because they’re larger than life, however subtly so. They have a narrow range of specific character traits that are designed to put them in conflict with other characters who have specific, challenging traits. While Walt Whitman can accept the contradictory fact of his own being – “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” [Song of Myself] – characters only contain so many multitudes.  Characters who contain multitudes tend to look at best wishy-washy, at worst confusing and unlikeable.

Characters need to change and your protagonist needs to change the most visibly – your novel is after all their journey towards some sort of transformation. They may start vain and selfish and go through something astonishing that makes them very different. You can’t make a character though out of someone with nicely balanced characteristics with occasional self-interest and occasional altruism. There’s no place in literature for the man who sees both sides of both sides. Characters are engaging and memorable because they illustrate a type or represent a characteristic. That’s not to say that everyone can be named after a deadly sin or cardinal virtue like Knowledge in a medieval mystery play (“Euery man I wyll go with the and be thy gyde In thy moost nede to go by thy syde. ” etc…) but even the most rounded and subtle successful literary characters are nowhere near as rounded and subtle as a real person.

That’s one reason why I don’t personally like the idea of developing characters from a kit of life experiences – favourite colour, childhood pet and so on, what Blake Snyder (I think) calls the Frankenstein method. It fills a fun creative writing class while everyone makes up the person they wish they were, but how much of it is really relevant. If you’re devising histories for your characters then the events need to be major and relevant to the bold archetype they will become. Beaten up by grandparents, failed to find love as a teenager, read too much Congreve, played too much Fortnite, whatever… I will admit this much, that it adds a pleasant veneer of realism if each character has an identifiable taste in dress or harps on some former trouble – but remember if too many details are irrelevant to the internal drama then the reader will pick them up as pointless or decorative and it will weaken your overall effect.

Your characters in a novel need to be characters – that way they’ll seem more believably human.

Your first novel #4: Plot or voice – what kind of book will this be?

For me, the most audibly upheld binary devision in the creative writing world is this: plot or voice.

Even if you ideally want a bit of both, you’ll probably have a sense of what kind of books you already like and what the primary excellence of those books might be.

There may not be an absolute black’n’white for any of these (It’s not PG Wodehouse vs Jeffery Archer but maybe Dickens vs James or Shakespeare v Moliere…?) but when you’re starting out, there’ll be one or the other that will be making you want to write.

I’ve known people walk out of creative writing classes because the presenter was teaching plotting techniques when the student was adamant that voice would lead the best works. I’ve known storytellers boast that they’re not much good at the style or the language end of things but they’re gonna be world-beaters when it comes to constructin’ narrative.

If you’re not sure, try and think through some favourite books and what draws you into them and through them. It’s not to say that there’s no plot in voice books or no voice in plotted books, but what’s the main driving feature?

This is a factor made harder by traditional English Literature studies. Literacists would, on the whole, have you believe that the more intellectual reads are essentially plot free and that the ivory tower reader is more interested in quirks of literary device than the mere plots that soap opera viewers crave.

For me, I feel that comedy is largely voice led although the best voices need a plot that does them justice. Ben Elton is read for his voice, surely, despite the fact that his plots are usually engaging. Ditto Stephen Fry, both of whom I’ve loved on TV and page, both of whom are clever and entertaining writers. Frustrating as it may be to those with literary exclusiveness as an aim, that’s why they’re world famous for it. I like the narrative voices and the voices of their individual characters. The plots help give shape but they’re not the end point. P.G.Wodehouse is probably in a similar bracket,  if rather easier to confess a liking to at literary dinner parties. Hang on though, it’s not necessarily a quirky, humorous, instantly recognisable style I’m talking about here. It’s just an approach. What motivates you to write. Why do you think someone would enjoy reading it. I mean, you probably wouldn’t read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage for the plot, nor James Joyce’s Ulysses.

For me Jane Austen is about plot even though not an awful lot happens, as is Hardy, as is George Eliot. However much you enjoy their style and the overall voice, it’s something else that’s in there that motivates the reading.  The motivation, I believe, is in who does what, when, why and the repercussions. That to me is plot. Sure, Enid Blyton was about plots, although her tone was spot on for the Zeitgeist when she was writing. Harry Potter is its plot with the same caveat.

Plot doesn’t mean page-turner, doesn’t mean anti-literary, the plot doesn’t even have to be marvellously intriguing or twisty as the rides at Alton Towers. The choice doesn’t mean anything except this: do you want your new book to be recognised as one with a concrete and carefully structured plot.

A regular response to this seemingly binary approach tends to be for someone to introduce what they see as the third way and the most intellectual approach of all – character.  That, they say is the Austen, Eliot, James, Shakespeare thing – and it’s what makes them literary.

I see character as something separate though, rather than a third way. Books that are about the analysis of motive and about the incremental shifts of mood and affection as one person slowly moves their index fingers across the table towards the other – they could be driven by plot or voice.

Some people say screenplays are plot and novels are voice, but I think this isn’t necessarily so. It’s certainly not useful to starting some major writing.

What you need is something that will colour your chosen approach and help you focus on being the best you can be at that aspect first and foremost.

So decide:

PLOT: if you’re going down the plot route then there are lots of great books about the science of plotting. How to make readers expect and how to entice them deeper: how to give the antagonist their necessary structural arc; making your heroine want something that the reader sees but she doesn’t; satisfactory conclusions and mid-point lows. While we all have the three act standard structure embedded in our entertainment DNA, it’s worth seeking out and learning all you can. This is an approach I only leaned about later in life, after I’d done literary degrees and read myself stupid and written pages and pages. I liked it and I wanted to pass the message on, as you’ll see elsewhere on the blog: Taking the Scenic RoutePlanning to Keep it UP.

VOICE: this isn’t necessarily the voice of a character but it may well dictate how your book takes shape. It readily suits people who are working with autobiography – either true to memory or semi-fictional. Also those who want immediate effect from the written word – comedic or erotic writing for example, both of which might suit a dip-in just as well as a cover-to-cover read. First person character narratives are often a great place to find great literary voice. The same is true of other atmospheric writing like horror or travel writing. Is style the same thing – perhaps. Okay, not everyone can be Bill Bryson or Jeanette Winterson, but working hard on achieving a likeable or powerful voice may well be your primary aim. There are books and genres where the voice leads and the plot supports rather than the other way round, but neither can quite do without the other.

Whereas there are dozens of excellent and hundred of quite good books and websites on plotting – it is essentially a science, or at least a craft, in that it has learnable rules and a no-nonsense set of reasons as to how it works – voice is something a bit more gifted to you in mysterious ways. If that’s what you want to do then its about practising up those innate habits around word selection, phrasal balance, rhythm, tone, borrowings, pastiches and corruptions. It may be impossible to articulate the particularities of voice and style that appeal to you or that you use best, but if you can it will be a step towards understanding what drives your pages forward.

Me, I went from voice-focused to plot-focused and then back towards voice to something with a bit more balance – I wish I’d considered this divided path when I first started instead. Plot or Voice. Like a ballroom dancing couple they may both prove essential to the final display, but one will clearly lead.

Will you be sculpting the sound and the wonder of the individual page, or will you be focused on the wide canvas of the plot?

Remember, what you’re deciding is not, shall I have no plot or no voice, but which of them will lead and which one will get the focus of your attention in the early days.

Your first novel #5: The three chapter and synopsis test

There’s an interesting example in the book Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed, which sets out to demonstrate the need to be freely productive. A class in the States was divided in half for a design project. One was told they only had one chance to build an object for appraisal and that it would be judged on its closeness to an ideal. The other half were told to build as many objects as they could and they would be appraised by the number of objects they turned out.

The interesting fact was that the half that produced the most objects also produced the best objects. Their multiple makings had solved problems and developed efficiencies which led to an improved raw excellence in what they were producing.

Could this help you with your novel?

I’ve sometimes wondered if we (if one, if they) should start a ‘three chapter and synopsis club’, and put it in place of a creative writing class. The aim would be not to work hard at a pre-organised pet project, but to produce as many packages of three chapters and synopses as possible throughout the year. Then you’d go back over the ones you’d done and see if a new level of excellence had emerged. If nothing else – like Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One series where Porridge and Open All Hours first appeared, neither of which were at first glance favourites – you’d have a set of works to examine and see what direction you wanted to take.

Also bear in mind that publishers generally ask for three chapters and a synopsis, so it’s not a bad thing to get absolutely nailed before you go for the long-haul.

Good luck with that first go – or second go or whatever you’re doing. It’s a brave thing, a difficult and time-consuming thing. Some people make it look easy and I suspect that’s because they learnt early what some of us have taken a long time to recognise. Keep learning. Keep writing. Keep editing.



How (not) to write a novel #7 – language for emotional range

A couple of sobering thoughts this week along with home truths and lessons from the mouths of pre-teen upstarts. So, why wasn’t my son able to finish that manuscript I was testing on him… Story not quite exciting enough? Characters not believable enough? I thought I had put serious craft into this one.. Well, says my eleven year old, who’s just been through some pretty in-depth literary analysis of A Christmas Carol at school, the thing about really brilliant authors is that the emotional value is underpinned linguistically at every stage.

Well, he didn’t use exactly those words, but that was the gist I took away from the conversation. Could this be shaped into a valuable lesson or should I just bury myself along with my badly clobbered pride?

Staring into space over the heads of those engrossed in the Xmas X-box (will any writing get done in a home with such an addictive narrative engagement toy?), I did nurse a thought or two about the things that perhaps I was beginning to neglect, things that are first base-camp technique, ‘the basics’, yes, but those many essentials which, if we’re not careful, we begin to leave out.

What is it about the Basics? It seems to be the first thing to disappear for those of us who drift and dream and remain mediocre. It’s easy to become sloppy drivers who no longer check the mirrors and take corners in third gear. Really though, these basics should be so engrained that they can never be forgotten, like Ronnie O’Sullivan’s cue action or Nijinsky’s plié.

Those who are at the very top end of their game also seem to keep revisiting those basics again and again to see if they can claw an extra 0.002% advantage over similarly matched top-end opponents.  Concert pianists don’t stop practising scales as they get among the big audiences. They don’t decide they can get away with a couple of bum notes in the andante as long as they’ve got a stack of big guns for the tortuous bit. No, the best musicians do more scales as they get better. They make sure every note has every possible chance of being perfect, just as Heston Blumental takes burgers to new heights by getting every element from bun to cheese to work its hardest, just as Brendan Rogers coaches perfection into each element of… well some analogies are better than others but you get the point. The last slow steep climb towards perfection may well require some more of what the beginners have to do – but better.

So, perhaps, for those who’ve improved a lot but are wondering where their next development is coming from, there’s some chance to improve a few elements by looking back at the writing basics. My chance this winter was to look at what kids are expected to deal with when faced with a page of prose in class, kids whose teachers are reading Dickens or Poe with them and asking ” so what words does the author use to make the mood more sad/scary/jublillant etc?”

Young literature students, those who are just beginning to recognise how textual features operate, are asking why the writer has used particular words in particular combinations; they will be looking at whether the word choices are commonplace or unusal, whether the sentence length makes us ponder or skip, what the combined run of images builds up to en masse; they will be looking at how all these things contribute to the emotional impact of the character, setting and point of narrative development.

For anyone who writes regularly these things tend to be as natural as adding decent punctuation. Yet if we stop every so often and try to become newly conscious of these things, our writing must surely improve. What effect does that comma have? What added value does that adverb bring? What stray connotations does that noun have?

Imagery into emotion

It’s a fact of basic literary intuition that, when given a choice between “shout”, “bellow” or “roar”, the last of these has intimations of power and ferocity that the two others do not. Lions roar. This could develop into a ham-fisted paragraph grunting with bestial allusions, of course, but it could also be a quick hint that is developed later, something that triggers a momentary recognition of leonine capacity in a character who will be rounded and filled later in the work.

Ask any school student. A whole literacy lesson can be spent spotting such things and grasping the subconscious impact on a reader whose concentration is elsewhere. Wordsworth doesn’t just have yellow daffodils, they are “golden”. This gives a sense of value as well as colour, so the effect can then be reinforced at the point of the “wealth to me” in a later line. A few literary classes later and the poem can be broken up into its ideas of relative value systems and the individual building blocks of the work can be brought under the microscope.

As a experienced writer keen to improve you may find you’re not always fully conscious of these techniques as you employ them, some will come  automatically or fortuitously. If however they are coming randomly, then perhaps this is an area to improve your craft. We could all get better just by homing in occasionally on an odd piece of text to check whether all our words are worth writing and that we are wringing maximum value out of each. [Or rather not “wringing” as we don’t want connotations of damp laundry – one to go back to… maybe “mining” or “extracting” or “sucking” or maybe this is one for just plain “getting”].

Dickens has examples on pretty much every page. Here’s a favourite of mine at the meeting between Mr  Toodle and Mr Dombey over the fate of the infant Paul.

Thus arrested on the threshold as he was following his wife out of the room, Toodle returned and confronted Mr Dombey alone. He was a strong, loose, round-shouldered, shuffling, shaggy fellow, on whom his clothes sat negligently: with a good deal of hair and whisker, deepened in its natural tint, perhaps by smoke and coal-dust: hard knotty hands: and a square forehead, as coarse in grain as the bark of an oak. A thorough contrast in all respects to Mr Dombey, who was one of those close-shaved close-cut moneyed gentlemen who are glossy and crisp like new bank-notes, and who seem to be artificially braced and tightened as by the stimulating action of golden showerbaths. Dombey and Son, Chapter 2

Our emotions towards these characters are set in this scene and take us onward through the book. Our contempt for Dombey’s arrogance and his ignorance of human feeling through the pursuit of power and money are given in an elegant paragraph here towards the end of that scene. Dombey is money. His clean crispness is artifice and even his cleanliness is associated with non-functional, decorative gold furnishings. Dickens plays this against the natural state of Toodle, whose oaken strength comes through above his grubbiness and for all his shortcomings owns an earthy honesty.

It’s stretching it to say a page of Dickens is a tight construct where no word could be changed without the structure collapsing, but there’s plenty of master craftsmanship going on and with a bit of observant reading even pretty reluctant school kids can see him building towards great moments and interesting characters through subtle stylistic choices. The emotional connectivity in the passage above is done entirely through the choice of imagery. Like all masters of the craft Dickens exploits the complementary function of word, tone and the actual goings on of character and environment. The emotion we feel towards his characters in their situations is underpinned throughout by meaningful linguistic choices.

Alexander Pope was eloquent on sound and sense working in tandem and the necessity of craftspersonly awareness. Each element of the page should be a rhetorical gift:

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse should like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow; (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism)

So, with a page of your own prose, what rhetorical gifts are you giving? What would a school class be able to point to if asked how the author has created the mood or the character or the setting? Would each word become delightful when brought under the microscope of close scrutiny? Would there be a delicacy of development, finely wrought through clever stylistic choices? Would there be emotional range and weight and elegant nuancing throughout?

It is in these details that the emotional range can be properly crafted, either bringing some extra force to a single high emotive factor or tempering the primary emotion with some delicate balance. A keen reader might be able to track an image of animal ferocity through from early sneak references such as a growl into something that is more key to an interaction or narrative turn. Or they might take an emotionally rough-riding page apart to discover the disconcerting swing of one image to its opposite.

While looking at the minutiae of your word choices, what about focussing on the way a well chosen word or two can act like seasoning in a stew, adding the lemon zing to cut into overly rich sauce.  Well used, a phrase might be repeated but gain new weight and new meaning from what surrounds it.

On any powerful page  the elements that bring the emotion out have been built carefully in through many earlier words, lines and scenes. Again and again, we see how a writer has the chance, through consciously excellent choices of word in one direction or another, to create something that is far more fulfilling than, say,  a straightforward stab at woe. If you are fully in control of your linguistic choices you get the best chance to profit from complex elements in the emotional palette shifting one degree here and there to suggest what will come or develop what lingers in the memory. Every word can contribute.

Tips for writing: check your emotional range

Heighten your awareness

Written fiction allows that particular blend of explanatory depth and emotional connectivity that makes it still attractive and valuable despite the distractions for the Xbox generation.   Whether as a writer you like a meticulous planning session or something a bit more suck-and-see, it’s worth training yourself to judge the emotional weight of what you’re building. Test slabs of prose occasionally and investigate whether each word is giving its best effort.

While you’re reading try making notes on the emotions that are being pulled from you as you read. Can you give them all names: love, delight, hate, fear, gratitude? Or is there something more tacit, something that is in-between single adjectives or even something better understood with a diacricital nuance such as Bartok used to show quarter tones when jotting down rural songs.  Whatever your own system [“love/regret +7§”] give the emotional value a tally of intensity and then look at what language effects have heightened that emotion. Look beyond the plot structure – this is important but part of other aspects of development. Look at what a prose work gives that would not be used by, for example, a screenwriter (and of course read Karl Iglesias’ Writing for Emotional Impact for those elements that are).

For a bit of an awareness-heightening drill on a Sunday morning, try checking through what you’ve written on two different pages from separate sections. How similar is the prose, how great the emotional range? Are these sections connecting, if so what language signals this? What have you done to establish the tone in each? How does this complement and enhance the action, activity, character and dialogue.

Plan towards emotional range and impact

Make yourself a column in your scene planner that can take a few notes on the emotion you wish to create and the intensity you want to build it to. Another column for some word groups. Intensities will probably mirror the action, activity, conflict and character development stages you are using for your story arc. The emotional intensity can complement or counterbalance these plot and scenic points.

Be conscious of what emotion you are trying to draw from the reader, whether or not you think of your prose as a fundamentally emotional experience.  Know what emotion you need to bring out.  Start effects early. Imagery of warmth or coolness can, for example, give hints as to where readers’ sympathies might be drawn and can be subtly increased over large sections.

Challenge yourself and test as often as you dare

Keep testing on your own sensibilities – it’s likely to be too late by the time you get an audience.  Again, are all the possible elements being used to advantage? Would a Year 7 class have something to spot and work with? Has anything being overused? There’s only so much fog and rain to be used in reflecting low moods. Yes it works, but we need to be careful to adjust for everything that has gone beyond cliche into some awful postmodernist parody of itself. It’s one thing if readers don’t quite get the emotional force, but if they want to laugh when they should be crying then you’ve done your job badly.

Gladly wolde we learn and gladly teach*

So what did I learn from my conversation with disappointed young manuscript reader:

Firstly, something in the exchange reinforced for me the commitment to what it is to be a craftsperson. Consciousness of each element and patient dedication to perfecting it is vital, but at expert levels the consciousness transforms into something else, a flow of sorts, something that perpetuates through skilled decision making. It is to reach this master-state that we dedicate our apprenticeship in early career.

Secondly, there is never a craftsperson that can forget the basics. It may become largely subconscious but its still worth checking that everything is running smoothly. Never allow one element of the craft to escape while others are being developed. If cunning plot points are the current main aim don’t allow that to be at the expense of characterisation or style.

Thirdly, always test your material, be prepared to take criticism and realise that there’s always more to be learned and the learning can come in all sort of shapes and sizes.

What my son actually said was that school taught him that the best writers used not just a good trick or two here and there but every good method when it came to establishing and building the emotions on the page.

As he’d been doing in class, and as every reader knows, each word each element of style, each choice of word, each rebalance of sentence length, everything works towards an emotional connectivity and the real expert will use these to establish an emotional range that builds a journey and underpins a powerful premise. This is rhetoric.

It’s good to be reminded of how much goes into a marvellous novel or written story, all of which should be there in perfect proportion: meaningful ideas, believable characters, tight plot structures, pacy dialogue, primal values, subtle psychologies, delicate developments, recondite references, elegant phrasing, cunning vocab…

There is a lot to remember, so it’s not surprising that we occasionally let a few things slip. Don’t beat yourself up for errors or shortcomings. This is a craft that takes a lifetime of inching towards mastery, and it doesn’t hurt to go back sometimes to the basics.



* Motto of the Victorian Old Mortality club at Oxford 

How to write a novel (#2) – the scenic route

It’s not easy to improve a craft. Let’s be honest, for many of us it’s not easy even to accept improvement is necessary. As Confucius would apparently have said if he’d spoken modern English, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.” It’s a bitter moment when you realise you’ve wandered as far down the less-travelled road as you could, only to discover it blocked. The only way forward is to go back to the place the paths diverged and choose again.

Getting back to the basics and getting them right is a smart move, whatever stage of the journey you’re on: whether your project has hit a stop and you’re wondering how to go forward, whether you’re wondering what to change following the last lot of feedback, or whether you’re at the planning stage for a new venture. Like journeys, more projects than not can be helped with a bit of standing back and scoping, a rekkie of the landscape and a half decent map.

Let’s say that you’re not averse to planning before you write (see the post on planning mentality in how to write a novel #1). Let’s say that you want to get the basics right before looking to the details. What’s the best next step? For me, (and I always wished I’d discovered this long before I finally did) it’s understanding scenes, understanding what a scene should contain and how your plotting work can emerge over a set of scenes.

Scenes and how (not) to write them.

If you’re the type of writer who’s tried and given up or who’s daunted and not sure where to start, then scenes aren’t a bad next thing to get to grips with. Scenes – rather than chapters – are a good means to work out what you want to say and how you need to say it. Dividing into scenes gives clarity. It gives you a unit of writing that you can assess on its own merits. It also gives you an easy set of steps through which to judge the readability of your story.

So, what is a scene?

Scenes are a built-in part of our storytelling behaviour. As long as you have an entity in an environment this could potentially be a scene. So, Person + place = scene. Easy.

What I have found more helpful is to understand where the scene stops and another begins. Person + new place does not necessarily equal a new scene as far as useful novel planning tools. Having Bill thinking about Adele on a mountaintop might be a scene; but then having Bill thinking about Adele in his car is not a new scene. So, there must be something else necessary to make a scene. This is the activity. More precisely, it is the relevant activity, activity that is meaningful to the story development.

For me, Scene = person + place + meaningful activity.

Activity is often a tricky word for would-be novelists. Partly there is a fear that “activity” is “action” and that novels which promise these things threaten to be the poor cousin of films, where action is dealt with viscerally and with an immediacy that novels are not expected to match. I’ve had students who look disgusted at the mention of the word ‘action’. But, action and activity for the novelist take many quiet forms. As Henry James says, “It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way.” (The Art of Fiction)

The definition for me here might not quite be what a playwright or screenwriter might consider a scene. For a prose fiction writer there’s no shift of scenery, no division of acts or cuts to place. The shaping of action to fit scene changes gives rise to different thoughts about the nature of the scene and for a novelist there are different opportunities and restrictions.

If we need a neat definition, let’s think of scenes as segments of high-impact writing. Maybe they take place in one place. Or take place across a phone line in two places. Or happen across three timeframes as extra-dimensional characters move through each other and about their business. What matters is that these scenes have impact. Impact given by character. Impact given by setting. Impact given by meaningful activity.

Scenes can fail by having any one of these elements missing. I recognise it in my own learning process when getting to grips with scenes and also in the difficulties students have had in recognising what was unappealing about a segment of their writing.

Divide your work up into what you think are scenes and then check if any of these flaws rings true about them:

-Dialogue rather than scene: this happens a lot. Have your characters all come back together round the same old table? Have a couple started a deep conversation that could be just anywhere but which happens to have an art gallery or the Alps or a ghetto slapped in the background. Has your navel-gazer restarted that multi-page interior monologue but this time while doing keepy-uppies on top of a log. Novelists love to have their characters jabbering back and forth, letting off their writerly steam, allowing those philosophical points have air, giving vent to that sociological thesis. But does your dialogue just turn into a cycle of banter? Try the dialogue out with a different setting and see if it has lost or gained anything. Or try removing it altogether. If it makes no difference where they are or what they’re doing then your scene is probably lacking something.

Description rather than scene: this is often a preface to the problem above or is interspersed with examples of it. It could be that the landscape or the character is over-described. Description of a character with no suggestion of meaningful incident is not a scene in itself. A truly scenic description would still be full of “incident” as with James or “character” as with Hardy (Check out first chapter of The Return of the Native). Description will be part of a scene containing the other elements, ideally not stuck onto it, ideally not easily extricated, certainly not as one wedge. If you sense a place or a character description going on and on, there’s a chance that your scene has disappeared. If you find your so called scene is like describing a picture then it’s probably lacking something. (Less common but also a potential scene-breaker is under-description, so watch that there is at least some sense of who and where as the dialogue commences.)

– Activity rather than scene: A scene can be action-packed of course but for it to work as a scene this should still be activity that is showing character and ideally be an engagement with setting. Where activity fails to become a scene is often in its direction. Is this just any old activity or is it meaningful activity. A car chase isn’t really a scene in a novel, although it might be in a film. Same goes for a slapstick routine or casual bonk-fest. Where is the action going, what are the dramatic results, what is the essential meaning of this activity.

– Philosophy rather than scene: It’s the trap for novelists with a tyrannical inner poet, the trap for novelists who hate plots and storylines and other things that make life easy for readers. It’s easy to pretend it’s not a problem because this is what marks you out as a genius. Why should you go through the trials of entertainment when you can just hide behind something that no-one understands? Your novel may get its true importance from its philosophical brilliance. Warning, though: whatever gems of careful analysis of the human condition you want to drop in, you’ll be a better-loved author if you can them within a genuine scene rather than let them be an excuse for one.

So, first check that your scenes really are scenes. A chapter might be just one scene. A chapter might have several scenes. Unusually a scene could span a chapter break but it would take a pretty nifty craftsperson for this not to be just two scenes with a pause in the middle.

Scenes need a set of components. If your scene is going to have any impact at all then check that it’s doing as many of them as possible – all the high up ones in this list and as many of the rest as possible.

Does your scene:

  • have a central conflict that grows during the action (meaningful activity)
  • end on a point that requires continuation (meaningful activity)
  • turn the reader’s emotions from a positive into a negative or vice-versa. (meaningful activity)
  • have a sense of place.
  • have a developmental element of character.
  • have no reason to be cut shorter than it is.
  • contain a readerly plot reward in the form of something revealed or a nugget of possibility
  • have an opportunity for ‘reading-into’. A ‘two-percenter’, a reward for close attention or esoteric knowledge.
  • have a concentrated moment for reflection and remembering – a quote, an exchange, a one-liner, a philosophical insight?

So, with a list like this one, be prepared to test out all your individual scenes. Don’t be lazy about locations and thinking that place is scene or atmosphere is scene. It’s not a scene if characters just wander in and out of the fog or stumble over chairs in the dark. It’s not a scene if they’re gazing at a memory of your last holiday with its unforgettable sunsets.

What does a scene do?

When you’ve found what a scene is – and you may have your own answers and ideas – it’s worth having a thought as to what a scene does, or what it can do. Importantly it makes people want to read the next scene. Your reader’s not captive. Each scene you get them to read is a chance to pitch for the next scene. See if they’ll read another. Make sure each scene works in and of itself and then make sure they join together, not just as a chain either but as an increasingly formidable structure. This is the way you’ll get the optimum plot structure in order to tell that great story that’s burning to be communicated.

The best thing you can do is get a real grip on the source and nature of the conflict in your scene. I know that would-be novelists who’ve already screwed their faces up at words like ‘action’ do so even more with words like ‘conflict’, believing it refers to super-geezers bent on destruction and survival. Yet, as everyone eventually realises – unless they give up writing altogether – conflict comes in many shades, many tones and many disguises. Conflict can be an internal struggle, a struggle with conscience, a struggle with an environment. Conflict in a story is anything that shows a valid desire being prevented.

So, question one for your planning map: Where’s the conflict? None there? No scene. Try again. Make a scene.

Conflict is the first building block for your meaningful activity. It’s the first sign that this block of text is in itself a scene. There must be a clear conflict or tension, one that either fails to resolve or which kicks off further conflict. The conflict will normally grow, subside slightly and set up further expectations for the development of that tension. This is the pulse of the writing. A pulse which needs to quicken.

Pick up your Rob McKee, turn to page 233 and read about scenes in detail: “A scene is a story in miniature – an action through conflict in a unity or continuity of time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life.” (Story) He’s talking screen scenes of course, but there’s plenty here for every kind of storyteller to learn. To create the perfect scene takes study and thinking and a real craft, but any work of fiction – probably any story – can be improved by an attention to the function and detail of the scene.

You have your scenes, each a single element where an important move in the intensity and direction of the plot is accompanied by character revelation through decision-making, all against a well-framed scenario and suitable intensifying environment. You then need to check that each scene builds to the next and that your story arc uses them in a satisfying way (let’s save this for another post)

A normal length, normally structured novel might have between thirty and a ninety scenes. You’ll be looking to write about 90,000 words so that makes a set of 90 scenes at 1,000 words or 45 at 2,000. Much less than 40 and you’ll be lucky to have enough contour in the plot. If there’s more than one central conflict in your scene, check that you haven’t got more than one scene (at least for the planning stage, they can be blended later).

Get your scenes sorted

Cause a scene. Make a scene. And let us not forget obscene – a word which endures for those acts which were always best left as gaps, reported events that occurred off-stage…

The individual scene and your attention to both its details and its place in the overall work are a great chance for you to assess and improve your work. Or, if you’re planning, they’re a good way to get the confidence and the direction and those hard-won supplies of energy to keep going till your project has been properly conquered.

If you’re in the planning frame of mind, try and get each scene nailed before you start. What will the scene do? What will the conflict be and how will it build? What will the dynamic of emotions be? Ideally some move from positive to negative, with the next scene going from negative to positive. [Screenwriting gurus even recommend index cards with these things on them coded with +/- (emotional shift) and >< (source of conflict).] What character point will come across? What will the imagery be and what elements of your main theme will be delivered through this package. If you can’t do every single one of your scenes with this kind of close plan then at least try the most important parts, the places of maximum plot shift, the turns if you like. If these major turning points are in place you can have a much more sketchy sense of how those in-betweener scenes might fit and how many you’ll need.

Look back at many successful books and the scenes often stand out as almost effortlessly shaped, delivered and conjoined. Collect your favourites and keep going back over them, check out what makes them work. Troy’s sword scene in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), the Circe episode in Ulysses (1922), Sister Vertue’s class in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1984), the maze scene in One Day (2009). It’s interesting to compare screen scene treatments of literary scenes and with David Nicholls, for example, there’s a chance to see someone with a training in tv and screen who’s now writing novel scenes – worth a study regardless of your personal taste in rom-com.

Successful planning of the scenes needs more than just a sketch of major events. It’s not very helpful to have a bald plot sketch such as: Alice meets Bob, Alice gets a new job, Bob dumps Alice. A good plan will have a scenic development that increases tension and emotional charge around each of these major events. Through each scene there will be clear conflict and a shift of emotion… Alice having to wrestle her conscience in order to do steps x,y and z into the meeting with Bob, Alice moving from depressed to joyful. Bob moving from joyful to depressed as he finds himself saddled with career obsessed Alice… probe the scene, check out which elements need to be tightened, expanded, enlivened. Decide on the shape – set of short sharp scenes? Short then long? Linger and wait then punch? This sense of rhythm in the run of scenes can best be done away from the detail of close writing. This scene scoping work before you get too bogged down with dialogue and description will help you save your best writing for the right moment… and it’ll give you something to work on if another bit seems to be flagging.

So, back to the storyboard….

It is a hard thing to go back to the basics of something you thought you’d mastered, but a picking apart of a work, a defining of scenes and a plan of how to assess, perfect and rebuild, this could save your project.

There is a classic scenario which most obviously hits language learners and the learners of musical instruments, but which wreaks equal damage on amateur writers. It’s what teachers come across as false beginners. More precisely it’s the person who’s self-taught, or who has learnt in the field or just picked it up as they went along. It’s not just the grandiose and the egotistic. It’s also the nervous and the fearful. Keep going blindly on, keep writing, keep stretching filling the pages, keep your head pointed in this direction rather than look down and check if the path is right.

The problem with practitioners of this kind is not that they’re necessarily bad, the problem is that they cannot get any further without unlearning everything they depend on. Typing is another one. How may people get to a decent pace with their hunt-and-peck or unusal keyboard fingering. What if they now wanted to add an extra 40 words per minute? The problem for them is the same as for the strum-it-quick guitarist or the grammer-less language learner. To get any better they would have to join a beginners’ class in at least one of the key areas of the disipline. And by now they are too adept at getting by, too skilled at making do. Getting any better is impossible because un-learning is impossible. Getting better is impossible because going back-to-basics is just too demoralising.

Writing projects are not so different. Eventually you can get to a point where you’d rather keep tinkering with a shapeless mass of words than pull it apart and check what’s wrong with the fundamentals. Try it though.

The mastery of any craft is the gradual reassembly of root elements, each one known, understood and perfected. The exploration of the furthest reaches of the discipline can only come with this craftsmanly depth of understanding, a flow of expertise that depends on the engrained skills and their usage unencumbered by awareness. Eventually all those basics will be second-nature. To get to that stage take everything apart if you have to, keep checking, keep making sure. Be prepared to ask, how good am I? Am I perhaps just good enough at this to impress those few people who aren’t? Or could I be really good? Good enough to be proud of myself? What do I have to do to get there.

Like a great chef checking whether potato fries best at 169 or 170ºC, checking that each basic element is absolutely spot on, this is the key to a successful dish.

I wish I’d learnt this sooner for myself. Eventually I’d had enough slaps around the face to get the message. Learning to write better – learning to do anything better – would probably need a back to square one approach. It would need a forceful rejection of what seemed engrained and obvious. It would need a separation of elements into their constituent parts. It would need the perfecting of each element and then the gradual pacing back out from the most solidly erected base camp…. it was too late, maybe. There’s only some much rebuilding of base camps you’re prepared to do, just as there’s only so much beginners’ grammar or beginners’ scales passages you’re prepared to do if you can already chat to señoritas and strum them a swift song.

Never mind.

With a brave sense that it’s better to be journeying than just to sit by the side of the road, take a good look at what you’ve written. Check where the scenes are and check what can make them better.

Booklist for writers of scenes

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact

Henry James, The Art of Fiction

Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing


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?


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.