I’m really proud of the progress Sarah and I have been making at the Writing Smithy over the past few months. Recently Sarah and I have been guest blogging about our work at the Smithy for Andrew Oldham. We do have plans to extend the Writing Smithy website by adding a blog – where we’ll expand on some of the topics we brought up in our residency. But in the meantime, you might be interested in these posts.
Archive for the ‘tips’ Category
Generating Mystery and Suspense
Part Two (you can read Part One here)
When I’m thinking about suspense, I picture a tightrope walker. The tightrope walker keeps walking forwards, doesn’t look down, and doesn’t look back. Imagine, however, that you’re a tightrope walker crossing a high wire suspended between two walls. You can’t see what’s behind the wall ahead of you (or the one behind you for that matter). You’ve got to keep moving and you’re in trouble if you fall off. But you have no idea what it is you’re moving towards.
The tightrope walker is the reader, of course, not the writer. The writer constructed the walls, and knows very well what’s behind them.
One of the simplest and most effective ways of creating narrative tension is to obey the often cited directive “Show don’t tell”. What I mean is if you write what is happening but you don’t explain why it’s happening, you immediately create tension and suspense in your writing that will keep the reader reading.
The very nature of linear narrative storytelling works in your favour. Think about the way you construct a sentence. The meaning of that sentence isn’t fully grasped until the reader gets to the end. And a skilful writer will arrange the words so that the punch is delivered towards the end. Writing is by its nature a series of revelations, a gradual unfolding. You can’t blurt it out all at one. You have to weave a thread.
It’s up to you as a writer to decide how much you tell the reader, and when. Of course, readers don’t like it if they feel that they have been cheated, that something crucial was withheld from them that could and should have been shared. But there’s no reason at all to do that. I’ve just finished Lee Child’s 2010 novel, Worth Dying For, in which a mysterious consignment is being smuggled across the Canadian-American border. We’re not told what’s in the container, only that it is something very valuable to certain criminals. We can guess, in fact that’s what we’re invited to do, and there are certainly plenty of quite legitimate clues dropped. It would be cheating if Child misled us, or if he hadn’t mentioned the consignment at all and it turned out to be crucial.
The way to do it is through point of view. There are characters who don’t know, fully, what’s going on. If the reader is linked to them through viewpoint, they don’t feel cheated, because they are as much in the dark as the protagonist, and may even get there first. When you are writing scenes in which characters who do know the secret are involved, either stay away from their viewpoint, or restrict their focus, so they are thinking about something else at that moment more urgent, such as staying alive! Showing and not telling comes to your rescue again.
Suspense is also created out of a sense of inevitability – the best plots combine inevitability and surprise. The reader knows that something bad is going to happen, but is not precisely sure what form it will take. As a writer, you can play with this, setting up expectations, and subverting them to create surprise.
In my first novel, Taking Comfort, the central character Rob is drawn into collecting mementoes from scenes of tragedy and disaster. I aimed to create a sense of inevitability in the downward spiral of his obsessive behaviour, the progression from accidentally finding things, to seeking disasters out, to – possibly – initiating them. But I also hoped that how this spiral played out would be totally unpredictable.
Of course, when you surprise yourself, you know that you’ve really succeeded. To do that, you have to dig deep into whatever part of your subconscious it is that contains the story waiting to be told.
R.N. Morris is the author of four historical mysteries published by Faber and Faber: A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, A Razor Wrapped in Silk and the forthcoming The Cleansing Flames (due out May 2011). A Vengeful Longing was shortlisted in 2008 for the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel, and runner up in New York Magazine’s Culture Awards for best thriller. He has twice been highly commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical crime. His first novel, written as Roger Morris, was the contemporary thriller Taking Comfort, published in 2006 by Macmillan New Writing. He has run workshops on mystery and suspense for City University MA in Creative Writing. He has also written the libretto to an opera.
This post is part of the Guest Tips Series, a collection of pieces of advice and personal experiences from writers who are not me. Bits of advice or ranting from writers who are me can be found here, in the Tips for Writers bit of the blog. If you fancy writing for me, you can find out a bit more about the hows and whys and wherefores here.
This is the last one of these I’ll be doing about money for a while. For two reasons – one, my monkey-mind is getting a bit bored of it now, and two, I feel a bit uncomfy setting myself up as some kind of expert in this, or any other area.
Experiences for poets and playwrights will be different for novelists, short story writers, feature writers, YA authors etc. I can only talk about my own experience and my own little bit of the world. So much about asking for a fee is also about evaluating where you are in the food chain and that’s not something I can address in a series of slightly glib and typo-ridden blog posts.
But having said that: behold…
How to extract money, or let it be known you don’t work for free (the phrase book edition)
I’ve noticed when people want you to do things for free (or are simply naive about the fact that writers do get paid) they tend to use language that minimises the time, effort and expertise involved in the task. They say ‘pop over and run through a few tips‘ instead of ‘plan and deliver a workshop for fifteen’. They say, ‘tell me what you think?‘ instead of ‘spend a day reading to and responding to my manuscript,’ and they say ‘come and meet the group’ instead of ‘do a twenty minute reading and a half hour Q and A’.
I am not a conspiracy theorist. Of course not. The reason why people ask you to work for them is because they like your writing, performance or the cut of your jib, they respect what you do, they think it’s a cheap way to get people into the pub on a quiet night and because they want to hear what you have to say. It’s a compliment (or you can, despite everything, choose to take it as one), so it’s okay to be pleased and polite while also making sure you use words that professionalise the task and encourage others to value you properly. This (as if by magic) forces to you properly value yourself.
The writers I have talked to get nervous about asking for money. I get nervous about asking for money. Often, we’re not very good at it. We shy, retiring types. But a big part of asking is in noticing how we and the people we work with are using words. And we’re good at that bit. So think of it as a problem solved by a perfectly pitched sentence and you’ll be fine.
If you’re interested in novel (har har) ways to make money, this might float your boat.
The post on the practicalities of extracting money from the people you work for is a-brewing, but while you’re waiting for it, here are a few more thoughts on the work of being a writer.
If you do (expect to) get paid, at least do your client / employer the courtesy of treating it like a job. If you don’t want to be a hobbyist, don’t act like one. If you turn up pissed, late or are otherwise flaky you’re stealing from the person who has paid you and you’re making the rest of us look bad.
While it is true that an array of shocking behaviour is often tolerated and maybe even expected from ‘creative’ people, event organisers do chat to each other. I know, because I used to be one. And the idea that making things up gives you the right to be late, sullen, lecherous or otherwise rude really gnarls my chizzle.
I refer you back to Nicola Morgan’s post about Author Events. It’s true that once you start getting out there talking and reading and signing, many events will leave a lot to be desired. I travelled (unpaid) to do an event at a library which will remain nameless (not one belonging to the service I used to work for) to find there were no books for sale, my name had been spelled wrong on all the publicity, I wasn’t offered so much as a glass of water during the two hours I was there and at the end of the event was sneered at (we all earn as much as Dan Brown…) when I insisted on being reimbursed for my travel expenses. And during the break the organisers badmouthed the last writer who’d done an event for them…*
Nicola’s advice to organisers is spot on, but my advice to the writer on the receiving end of shoddy treatment is to be gracious about it. You can be polite and professional while insisting on a fee and a decent lunch break. You can be respectful without being a doormat. You don’t need to go back if it was that awful (in fact, it would be better if you didn’t and there are polite and direct ways of letting the organiser know why you won’t accept any future invitations), but a bit of courtesy on the part of the writer goes a long way.
Many festival organisers and event administrators seem consistently surprised by the fact that I am punctual, send thank you notes, reply to my emails or put my out of office on, let them know in advance that I am nearly phone-phobic but pick up my email regularly and do my very best to remember their names. I am fanatical about deadlines and submission guidelines. And I am absolutely not meaning to sound smug. I have only come to this conclusion by making mistakes and noticing what happens when I do. I have a plethora of failings – and the I’m terrified so I’ll have a little drink…oops! trap is one I’ve fallen into more times than I should have.
But still. To be praised by people who are paying me for what seems to me to be a basic level of professionalism and politeness makes me wonder how bad some of the other writers are. Tip in miniature: don’t be one of those writers.
* see the title of this blog. Details have been pushed into fiction to protect the guilty and prevent them from recognising themselves. Because being polite is important to me.
Lots of discussion flying about via facebook, email and in the comments form of the latest Tips for Writers post I did about money and getting paid.
I guessed it would be an emotive issue – especially as most of us don’t get that much of it – and it is something I wish MAs in Creative Writing would cover more realistically and thoroughly. While many MA tutors do a brilliant job of managing the expectations of their students, to my knowledge, not many courses include seminars or modules specifically geared towards what exactly you’re supposed to do for money when you graduate. Employability in the arts is the official name for it, isn’t it?
Creative writing students need information about applying for ‘time to write’ and project funding, setting up live literature nights, small press magazines, making money from blogging, teaching and editing, because this is where so many writers are currently working without knowing their worth. They need information about self employment, about tax, about how to plan their continuing development as writers and as literature professionals. A post graduate qualification in writing should include education about what to ask for in return for unpaid volunteer posts and internships and training in creating a strategy for managing your own career. Rather than just telling us to get an agent, they should be examining the options around self publication in electronic and print formats – which are real options for many writers. Or at the very least they should signpost their students via the careers service to the very good literature development organisations that provide these services and information for writers (see links in the sidebar for the organisations I rate).
It is so important and, in my experience, skimmed over in terms that are not applicable to every writer (get an agent, don’t pay someone to publish your novel) because the great dirty secret of creative writing courses is that unlike professional qualifications in, say, nursing, teaching, law, information management and IT, most of the graduates won’t end up making a living in the field. In a class full of accountants, most of them end up getting paid to be accountants after they graduate. Is that true of creative writing MAs? A university can’t guarantee publication, or promise that publication will create an income stream decent enough to live on, but they can train their students in making themselves as entrepreneurial as possible.
Most of the stuff I know about making a living, I picked up from making mistakes, flailing around, and picking the brains of people who were where I wanted to be.
Maybe I am wrong. It’s been a while since I did my MA (which I certainly don’t regret but which – and this is important – I got a full and generous fees and maintenance grant for from the AHRC so I wasn’t starting my writing career in debt) and I haven’t researched the offerings of every single creative writing course in the world. I know there are a few of you recent and current students reading this, so chip in any time. I am interested to know what others’ experiences are.
It’s been a while since I posted one of these tips. The half-serious, half-tongue in cheek series is something that I wanted to continue over the summer, but what with one thing and another, I let it fall by the wayside.
I want to start it again by referring you to this post from Jane Smith on How Publishing Really Works (along with the accompanying comments) and Nicola Morgan’s response (plus more comments) on Help! I Need a Publisher. I’m a bit late to the party to weigh in, but these posts are well worth reading and my two penn’oth is below:
It’s not okay to work for free. If you can afford to work for nothing, that’s great – but unless you’re getting something else that is valuable you should charge a fee anyway (especially for teaching and editing/appraisal/consultancy) otherwise you’re unfairly taking work from a writer who can’t afford to work for nothing – which is the vast, vast majority of writers. (Insert depressing Soc of Authors figures here) Donate it to a charity if you’d prefer to, but make sure you get paid.
Work includes: writing a story, article, review, or report. Reading and commenting on someone else’s unpublished writing*. Delivering a workshop. Helping someone design a workshop which they will deliver. Researching. Reading from your writing to an audience who has paid to come and see you. Doing a Q and A. Fundraising. Giving a talk or a lecture to a book group, writing circle etc. Hosting, organising and promoting events.
Even if you have a day job and you do these things in your ‘spare’ time, it is still work. Even if your day job is really well paid. Even if you’re a millionaire. Even if you really, really like doing it. Even if you worry that you’re not as famous as they think you are. Whatever. It is still work and a renumeration is appropriate.
BUT this renumeration might not only come in cold hard cash (although never decline this – even if you’re getting an advance every couple of years, publishers don’t offer pensions). In the past I’ve worked for a very reduced fee or even for no cash at all because the ‘fee’ or the benefit to me has included one or more of the following:
Chance to gain experience in a sector or with a client group that I haven’t worked in or with before.
Chance to work with another writer that I’d really like to meet / work with / pick the brains of.
Publicity / promotion / networking opportunities. Prestige, reputation and other forms of stroking (though be careful of this – if the work was that prestigious, they’d be able to pay you).
Raising funds for a cause I believe in (in this case, I’d expect to be offered a fee, and the choice to waive or reduce it would be mine to make as I see fit).
To support a fledgling organisation / event with the understanding that they were aiming to pay writers for their work in the future – in effect, I’d be helping other writers get paid somewhere along the line, and if I had faith in the organisation and was able to pay my rent otherwise, I might agree to that.
In exchange for services (I am very happy to work in exchange for services – never be afraid of asking me this as it’s something I’d like to do more of).
I have also, very often, done things that I usually get paid for, for free, because a friend has asked me, because no-one’s getting paid, because I think it will be fun, because it will give me an excuse to go and have a night out in a new place, because I want to, because I feel like it. In this case, I put the event under ‘social life’ rather than ‘work’.
I’m flagging up Jane’s post even though in blog-time it’s almost old news because I know a lot of the people I teach writing to eventually find their way to my blog and I’d like to give them a nudge towards these posts and urge them to think all about these issues – which are not old news and not likely to become so. Even if you’re just starting out with informal readings at live lit nights, ocassional volunteer placements, internships etc it’s still important to think about how much your labour is worth, and to whom.
(Yes, writing is labour. Reading to an audience is labour. I’m as working class as they come but even if you don’t sweat or get dirty it is still work.)
I made loads of mistakes when I was starting out – saying yes to everything and feeling grateful that someone would want to offer me work at all. It took two sets of mentoring, a couple of stern talking tos from a good friend of mine and a lot of soul searching before I was able to put a number on what I do. It is still something I find difficult sometimes – perhaps because I come from the public sector and am used to being badly paid for my skills, perhaps because I’m still working out the worth of my various labours myself, perhaps because when your work is so close to your heart putting a number on it feels very much like putting a number on youself.
How much would I charge for looking after my children? My childminder manages to work out a business model that works, we had to put a figure on it when buying life insurance recently** and I have learned that it’s okay to be cold hearted about your writing when it comes to talking invoices and contracts.
Don’t be surprised when people are shocked or even offended that you want a fee. Tough it out, pretend you aren’t blushing and say, ‘this is what it costs.’ While it is true a lot of events run on goodwill and volunteers (who are, I would argue, getting work experience, contacts etc) the writer, without whom none of it would be possible, is expected to work for nothing too. I often wonder where, in that case, all the ticket fees go to.
People will say things like this:
‘You do it for the love of it, though, don’t you,’
Yes. I love my job. I bet my web-designer and my accountant and my agent and my editor love their jobs too. They certainly approach their respective tasks, like I do, with enthusiasm, creativity and dilligence. Why is it okay they get paid fairly and promptly but I don’t? I bet my landlord loves getting his monthly check from me***. I bet the supermarket loves how much money I throw into their tills each month. (Cheesy peeps!) It isn’t only people who hate their jobs who deserve to get paid.
‘Well, so and so will do it for free…’
Okay. Go and ask so and so then. I’m sure if so and so were that good, they wouldn’t need to do it for free. You get what you pay for. This is my job. There’s a difference between a hobbyist and a writer and I am a writer. (I know it is hard to say this.)
‘It’ll be a brilliant promotional opportunity for you,’
Question this. How brilliant is brilliant? Exactly. Be an arse about it if you have to. If they are expecting loads of people through the doors, and those people are paying a ticket price, then they can afford to pay you. If ticket sales aren’t that great, you’re not getting that much exposure. Do they mean book sales? First, book sales at events are over rated and can be unpredictable. I’ve sold and signed over seventy books at a well attended local event at a near-anonymous venue (that I was also paid to attend) and three books (which I suspect were pity buys) at one of the most well known book festivals in the world (yes, that one – although I was also paid to attend, and very fairly at that.)
And second, so what if it’s a brilliant promotional opportunity for me – you’re charging people to come and see me, not come and see my book. If I’m not preparing for this event, travelling to this event or doing this event, I could be earning money doing something else. If the musician who plays during the break and the graphic designer who did the posters and the man who sells the tickets and the woman who dishes out the half-time wine get paid, I should be getting paid too.
‘It’s all for a good cause..’
That’s for me to decide, thank you very much. I have not got a heart of stone. If I want to donate to your charity or support your organisation, I will do it without being guilted into it.
So this is my writing tip: do not undersell yourself. If you insist on a fee, you generally get treated better than if you’re willing to turn up for free. If you decide to waive your fee because you’re getting some other benefit, make it clear you are waiving a fee that you would usually charge AND make sure you get your train fare.
*if you email me your great unpublished novel, I will email you my consultancy fees list, no probs.
** aha! So that’s why banana skins have been appearing at the top of the stairs at Ashworth Towers these days…
***despite refusing to fix my rickety windows for nigh on two years now.
If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy my other Tips for Writers. Although they are worth more or less exactly what you pay for them. Comments and questions welcome.
EDITED TO ADD: this link to Daisy Baldwin’s post on voluntary work and internships – required reading for the arts grads amongst us.
This isn’t mine, but one stolen from Nik Perring’s blog interview with Andy Devine.
The rest of the tips are worth reading too (although I take issue with #2 – which isn’t, can’t be and shouldn’t be true for every single writer in the world) but the one I quote from below is my favourite, has made me feel better today and made me wonder about ways I can find to ‘manage my incompetence’*
Every work of fiction can be improved. The fiction writer must find a way to manage their incompetence if they are to continue writing fiction. The conception of the fiction is always greater than the execution of the fiction.
*not now though. I’m still resting.
Here’s a post about one writer’s drafting-method from Debi Alper’s blog. Debbie’s responding to a post about editing and what exactly we mean by it over at Emma Darwin’s Itch of Writing blog. I think reading about other writers’ experience and methods is possibly more useful than getting a list of rules (see some of my earlier Writing Tips posts) as it’s easier to disagree and easier to see how subjective, personal and trial and error the whole idea of finding a method is.
So Debbie writes about her three drafts. Three! That would be nice. For me, it’s been around five to seven drafts each time, rewriting half the material from scratch for each go. I try to plan better and avoid this, but I think the rewriting and the repetition is just my process and I need to accept it.
I can empathise with Debbie about the mood-swings though. I’d add one bit of extra advice to her excellent list, which is to shut up while you’re having the mood swings, because blogging or talking about them too much, especially when your mind is so un-made-up, is bound to make you look like a tit.
Now, I’m off to take my own advice.
Here’s an interesting post from Charlotte’s Web about the Seven Stages of Receiving Criticism.
Seeking out feedback on your work is important. It’s a myth, I reckon, that most writers do successful writing on their own, in a garret. But it’s not a community effort or a writing-by-committee job either. You send your story to a few friends, or go to a creative writing group, or join a workshop-based course, and other people read it, and they say stuff.
And what do you do?
You shut up, is what you do. Zip it. Lips together. Cake-hole closed.
It’s okay to ask questions. ‘How do you think I handled setting? Is it clear that Millie didn’t mean to steal the cakes? I worry about my sentences being too long, what do you think?’ either before, or during the time when you’re getting feedback. It certainly helps me if you let me know what you want me to look out for, although I reserve the right to comment on other things too. But here’s the secret – once more for the road: once you’ve asked your questions and once you’ve handed over your writing – keep your mouth shut and listen.
Getting someone to thoughtfully read your work and then take the time to tell you what they think is a gift. It’s rare to get excellent feedback – rare to get any feedback above ‘very nice’ at all, unless you’re willing to pay for it. If someone’s good enough to take the time, listen to them. It’s for your own good, and even if it isn’t for your own good, it’s MANNERS for Pete’s sake. If you don’t want to listen, thoughtfully, then don’t ask. If you think they’re not going to understand, then don’t ask them.
It really, really really, really really really really gnarls my chizzle when writers interrupt to explain or justify what they’ve written in the face of critical feedback. (It actually does say here he’s got a peg-leg, which explains why he wasn’t able to drive the gettaway car…) You’re not going to be there to give a reader a running commentary if the book ends up in a shop, are you? If the piece doesn’t work without you orating on its behalf, (well, if you haven’t read *whatever* then you’re probably not going to understand what I’m actually doing here) then it doesn’t work and the best think you can do is listen and see if you can find out why it doesn’t work. Don’t correct the misunderstanding (actually, if you’d read the rest of the chapter you’d find out that…) find out what it is about your writing (if anything) that made the misunderstanding happen.
Shut up. Shut up shut up shut up. If it turns out you’ve not found your ideal reader, or you decide the feedback wasn’t useful to you, you say thank you nicely anyway (it’s a gift, remember, and one that you asked for) and then you button your mouth and sleep on it, or ask someone else, or decide you’re one of the garret writers. But you do that on your own time, not while someone’s trying to tell you what they thought of your writing.