Friday, 31 July 2015

Two sides to every story - except when there isn't... by Valerie-Anne Baglietto

Earlier this year, I left the cosy confines of North Wales and headed down to London to take my daughter to see Wicked. We both love the Wizard of Oz, so we’d been dying to see this musical for ages. I expected to enjoy it, but what I didn’t expect was that it would ignite something in my Writer’s Brain that I’m now finding endlessly fascinating. I mean, I already knew about POV, of course I did. After nearly two decades in this business, I’m hardly a novice. But now I’m thinking much more deeply, not just about POV but about perception.

We’ve had a couple of great posts on Novelistas Ink already about this subject, and I don’t want to repeat what Juliet and Annie put so eloquently. They’re well worth a read or re-read.

This particular post is the one about my own point of view about point of view (yes, I was trying to be too clever there).

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By the time I saw Wicked, I’d already finished the first draft of my latest book Four Sides to Every Story.

POV was something that had been constantly on my mind for several months, since the title for the book first popped into my head while I was staring out of a window on a train one day. (Seriously, what is it about trains? Didn’t JK Rowling come up with the idea for Harry Potter on a train?) Anyway – my story, which has a grown-up fairy tale romance at its core, didn’t just have the hero’s and heroine’s sides to take into account, there was also the fairy godmother to consider, and the hero’s stepdaughter. Their roles in the story were crucial, and it was imperative they narrated their parts, too.

But just like Wicked, it wasn’t enough simply to get into each character’s head for a scene or two. How the characters perceived the same unfolding story, and how they were perceived as people within that tale, were paramount. I don’t want to give too much away of the plot of Wicked. After all, if you haven’t already had the pleasure, you might want to read the book or see the musical for yourself. But basically, it’s the Wizard of Oz from a different angle, so it helps if you’re familiar with the landscape of Oz. And it shows us, in such a fiendishly inspired way, how a different narrator can turn an entire story on its head. An exciting concept for a writer. I came away with my head BUZZING. (Maybe my life is very quiet and I’m easily pleased.)

Propaganda is a powerful tool, not just in wars...

It can scramble our brains, make us forget to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. The same with gossip. How quickly we can think ill of someone, without knowing their side. And villains, after all, are the heroes of the stories we tell - in their own eyes. Recently, movies like Maleficent also help us to see a well-known tale from a different POV. I wanted to do something like that within Four Sides to Every Story. My fairy godmother is young, and not at all theatrical like the kind we’re used to. But we see the tale from her perspective too for once, as well as from the others involved. Although the plot of the book isn’t a modern retelling of an actual fairy tale, we all know the markers, the familiar thread, the way the story ought to unfold. But it doesn’t. It starts going very wrong. The path to true love becomes perilously rocky. And not everyone is telling the truth or letting us completely under their skin.

And that’s another thing. The trendy-but-not-new device of the "unreliable narrator". The omissions. The secrets they don’t share with the reader.

Ah, I learned to love that, too; although it wasn’t easy to begin with. It was too new to me - or so I thought. If you have more time to spare, make a large mug of tea or coffee and look the term up on Wikipedia. In essence, all fictional narrative is unreliable to an extent, because if we're using POV correctly then the story is filtered through the narrator's eyes, with his or her own life experience, prejudices, moral code, etc. But while I was working on Four Sides I hadn't researched the device, so failed to appreciate the history behind it, or the fact that I'd absorbed the subtleties of using it from many books I'd read in the past, including Agatha Christie.

Out of the four points of view in my story, there are various degrees of 'unreliability'. Ooh, the fun I had once I got into my stride. This was my Happy Book, as I nicknamed it. The one that was a joy to write after the torturous bit at the start when I couldn’t see beyond the first few chapters. I’m grateful to it for giving me those months of unadulterated pleasure. I’m indebted to the lessons it taught me.

Of course, in my earlier rom-coms, I tried to use POV as effectively as I could, too, but on the whole, the narrators were the ‘goodies’, even if they sometimes behaved badly. They always laid themselves bare to the reader. I received a tweet a couple of weeks ago which brightened up a rainy Sunday. It was from a fan of Fresh as a Daisy, which is over a decade old now, who said she still read it at least once a year. She liked the fact I had managed to make all the participants in a love triangle sympathetic. It got me thinking, and re-reading it myself. There were three ‘nice’ people involved, who made mistakes throughout the story, but none of them was out to hurt anyone. They were real and ordinary and exactly who they claimed to be, even if they didn't spill all their secrets out in one lump on the page; the idea being, the reader would perceive them as such and be sympathetic to their problems.

But that isn’t quite the case in Four Sides to Every Story. This is a modern fairy tale, with a twist.

I felt I had to go one step further than the way I normally approach the craft of writing POV. It reminded me of a still-life art class, with all the artists in a circle around a bowl of fruit. Each completed painting will look different, depending on the individual artist's perspective. And not just the image in their line of sight, but how they translate it in their heads, too, and how they choose to capture it pictorially. At the end of the day, though, it’s the same bowl of fruit.

So this is how I visualised the book in my head as I wrote it, with my storyline in the centre and my characters as the artists gathered around it. A floundering, surly hero. A heroine who isn’t just prickly with the other characters but with the reader as well. A fairy godmother who desperately needs things to play out the way the reader expects. And finally, a child, who perceives things as they truly are, without the complications, as only an innocent can.

One story. Four very different perspectives.

Wicked fun to write ;-)

Why not have a go playing around with POV, too, and take it a step further than you normally would? You never know, there might be a whole new chapter ahead of you. Just let me know how you get on! 

Valerie-Anne x

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The RNA Conference 2015 & Industry Day by Sophie Claire

Sophie Claire
You’d have thought that having attended 6 RNA conferences they would all blend into one, but this year’s was truly memorable, partly because of the journey getting there!

The venue was Queen Mary University of London, and I booked early because an Industry Day was planned for the Friday at which publishers and agents would be taking part in panel discussions and one-to-one appointments (which I blogged about last year). Unfortunately, a tube strike put paid to my plans and turned the journey from Euston into an unwelcome adventure! The taxi I’d booked didn’t turn up, the 205 buses were all full, and the walking route I’d got from the internet wasn’t much use without my Google maps app which wouldn’t cooperate!

Fortunately, a very lovely man at King’s Cross station spotted me looking lost and gave me an alternative bus route which got me to QMU 3 hours late but just in time for dinner (thank you so much, Mr Anonymous!).

The Industry Day was well worth the journey, though, and I got a mine of information from it. First up on the agenda was an Agents’ Panel, How Can Agents Help You? chaired by Carole Blake, and with Tim Bates, Lisa Eveleigh, Hannah Ferguson and Caroline Sheldon.

They were asked how much they edit their clients’ work and the answers were fascinating. Caroline, who previously worked as an editor, initially works with her authors to improve pace and characters but then hands over to the editor. Hannah also gets the book into the best possible shape before sending it to the editor, then takes a back seat. Tim warned that whatever work an author is required to do initially, this will be easy compared to future edits because, as an author’s career progresses, their editor will push to develop them.

And once an author has signed, what can they expect an agent to do for them? Lisa sees her role as to negotiate the best possible terms for her client – not necessarily the biggest advance, but also foreign and film rights, large print etc… Hannah finds that she often has to stand firm because authors can be keen to accept any contract, whereas she takes a long-term view of their best interests. Agents spend around 30% of their time doing editorial work, and 70% taking care of the business side.

After lunch was an Editors’ Panel, The Changing Role of Editors, with Gillian Green (Ebury), Anna Baggaley (Harlequin), Catherine Burke (Sphere) and chaired by Jane Johnson (Harper Collins). Editors' roles have changed dramatically over the last decade or so, along with the publishing industry as a whole.

Asked what they were currently looking for, the editors agreed that they want realistic characters, dialogue and description. Anna looks for something that hooks her. Gillian needs a strong elevator pitch to sell the book to her sales & marketing teams (eg, the book Martian’s pitch was “Robinson Crusoe on Mars”). Jane sometimes feels passionately about a book though it isn’t always clear how to sell it – and these novels, she said, are usually the bestsellers.

Anna wants women’s fiction that you can’t put down, Richard & Judy list-style books, Young Adult for a 12+ audience. Gillian also looks for Richard & Judy books, crossover sci-fi/mainstream, and Catherine wants books which can sell through supermarkets, strong stories with an instant hook because you have a 3-second window of decision when customers are choosing a book. It was agreed that nowadays genre fiction needs a unique selling point (USP), and authors have to be doing something fresh with a tried format.
Gilli Allen, Michaela Weaver, Katie Fforde and me!
This was my first conference as a published writer (a very special feeling and one I won’t forget!), and at the end of the first day my publisher generously hosted a Pimms party by the canal where I met fellow Accent Press authors and the RNA chairman, Katie Fforde (I was a bit starstruck!).
Hazel Cushion, MD of Accent Press

The canal
As always with RNA conferences, I made lots of new friends, including those just starting out in their writing careers. Some seemed a little awed by the set-backs that the journey necessarily involves: the rejections, the failure to place in competitions, critical feedback which has to be taken on the chin (all this still happens when you’re published!). My advice?
Think of it as making a journey during a tube strike! No matter how prepared you are there will be obstacles, but there will also be kind and generous people around to help you (for me, there have been so many it's impossible to list them all but many belong to the RNA - and, of course, the Novelistas!). And if you’re determined to reach your destination, I truly believe you will get there in the end.


Sophie Claire's first novel, Her Forget-Me-Not Ex, is currently reduced to 99p on Kindle!

Friday, 10 July 2015

Why Every Writer Should Keep a Diary by Haydn Lee

I started my diary at the age of eight. Twelve years later, it is a multi-volume colossus that takes up two desk drawers.

Many famous writers and artists kept diaries detailing their daily life and their struggles. Anaïs Nin’s diary began as a series of letters to her father, begging him to return to their family after deserting his wife and children for another woman. He did not return for 20 years, but Anaïs’s diary grew to be 35,000 pages, kept for decades. Andy Warhol’s diary was actually spoken rather than written. It was dictated to his secretary, Pat Hackett, because he hated writing at length and had such a busy schedule. Sylvia Plath’s diary was initially a place for her to write creatively about everyday events, but became more straightforward and directly honest as she grew up.

To inspire you, here are the techniques and motivations of these very different diarists, as well as some tips of my own for writing a diary beneficial to your own work as a writer, whilst remaining unique to you.

Anaïs Nin

Anaïs’s diary documented her colourful personal life: although married, she was having affairs with up to three other men. Her diaries were a place to figure out her feelings towards them all, as well as to create vivid character portraits of her artistic friends and acquaintances, famous names in their own right: Henry and June Miller, Rebecca West, Antonin Artaud, Maya Deren.

Anais wrote regularly, sometimes multiple times a day. She carried her latest diary volume everywhere with her (no mean feat: in photographs these diary volumes appear to be at least A4 in size) in case anything happened while she was out of the house. She had no fear of writing the most intimate details about herself and others, even when it did not necessarily make her seem like a ‘good person'.

Andy Warhol

The effect of Andy’s transcribed spoken diary is it reads like he himself is chatting to you. His wit and shrewd insights into the entertainment industry makes the diaries an addictive read, especially as the ‘entries’ themselves are kept short.

There’s not much insight into Andy’s personal life. There’s enough to make him seem more relatable: his choice to wear a polo neck because he’s self-conscious about his "turkey neck". He alludes to his troubled romantic life and his health problems with a specific phrase which grows more ominous the more he uses it: “I’ll let the diary write itself”. This meant he didn’t want to talk about it, and trusted that Pat would make a footnote and move on with funny celebrity anecdotes.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia kept her diaries from the age of 18 to her death at 32. What’s so interesting about these is the change of writing style between her adolescence and her adult years.

Initially her entries are numbered rather than dated. Each individual entry alone is a work of art, experimental in style. She turns the dramas of her teen life into what reads as fictional narratives. She, like Anaïs, is not afraid to deal with explicit female sexuality, revolutionary for a young girl in the 1950s.

As she enters college, and begins writing articles, poetry and fiction elsewhere, the diary becomes more ‘traditional’ in its descriptions of events, people and places. Her creative output is focused outside of the diary, yet she still makes time to write of her own personal problems: teaching at university, her tumultuous marriage to Ted Hughes and their mutual jealousy, the relatable pain of rejection letter after rejection letter whilst her husband enjoyed extensive literary praise.

As the diary is currently published, some aspects of her personal life are protected from the public eye. The final volume written in the months before her death remains sealed and unpublished at Ted Hughes’ request.

The Benefits of Keeping a Diary

Your writing will improve if you write regularly keep a diary. The discipline of writing little and often will improve your sentence structure, and your descriptive skills will increase significantly by repeatedly describing the different events you experience and the people you deal with.

Four Tips for Writing a Great Diary
  • Write about what interests you. Perhaps you had a dull day, but saw something intriguing from the window? 
  • Write in a style that you can keep up and won’t become a chore to write. 
  • Be honest about your feelings and observations, even if you think you sound like a horrible person. Writing what you genuinely think about a situation will make you more relatable to outside readers, who may secretly feel the same way, but might be reluctant to admit it.
  • Write about other people. If you want to improve as a writer, observe the people around you as well as yourself: their quirks and mannerisms, their behaviour in particular situations. This is excellent for building characters of your own and making them seem more like real people.
Which Format?
  • The Novelistas are notoriously obsessed with quirky notebooks! Unless you’re typing or voice-recording your diary a la Warhol, do consider which format best suits your needs before going out and spending money. 
  • Big volumes are great to spread out in, and will last longer if you plan to write extensively, like Anaïs Nin. However, they are not very portable, but that might not stop you from trying to travel with it! 
  • Smaller volumes are better if you plan to write on the go, or if you’re staying away from home travelling. If you lose a smaller journal with perhaps a week’s worth of writing in it, it’s less problematic than losing a larger volume containing months or years’ worth of experiences.
  • Lined or unlined? Lines will help you regulate your scrawling when you get carried away, and are useful if you have difficulty writing in a straight line. My personal preference is for unlined notebooks, as you can sketch people and places if you’re so inclined.
  • Another personal preference: journals with inside back cover pockets, for mementoes like tickets and photos. Paperblanks do excellent notebooks like this. 
Good luck!

Haydn x

Thursday, 2 July 2015

P is for...Point of View by Annie Burrows

On the first Friday of every month, Novelista Annie Burrows has been sharing a very personal view of what it is like to be a writer.  And is dealing with themes in alphabetical order.  This month, she's reached P...

While I was trying to get my first book published, I read a very helpful "how to" book called "The 1st 5 pages", by Noah Lukeman, which contained a piece of writing advice that stunned me.  It suggested that before I even started my story, I ought to decide from whose viewpoint I was going to tell it, and whether to do so in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person.


What is a viewpoint character, I wondered, and what is the difference between first, second or third person narration?

In a nutshell, in case you didn't know either, the viewpoint character is the person through whose eyes a reader will experience the story.  The person whose story it is.  If it is written in 1st person, it will be "I" did this that or the other.  I'm currently reading a fabulous thriller by Dick Francis, who always seems to tell his story in the first person, and comes up with some amazing opening lines because of it.  Because he uses the first person, you always feel as if you are experiencing the story alongside someone who has only just gone through it themselves, and is telling you all about it.

2nd person is "you" did it.  Apparently this is the hardest of all to write and is rarely used.  I can't think of a single example to give you - sorry!  3rd person is "she/he" did this that or the other, and is the most commonly used.

I knew that writing a story is a kind of world-building exercise.  I'd always thought of it as painting a picture with words.  But this chapter likened it to playing a piece of music, in which any inconsistency with the viewpoint would sound like a clashing, crashing discord, shattering the harmony.

So I read the single chapter dealing with viewpoint very carefully, and then looked at my own current manuscript, as recommended.  Firstly, I discovered that I had been writing from my heroine's viewpoint (mostly) in 3rd person all along.  Which, coincidentally, turned out to be what Mills & Boon recommended in their guidelinesat the time.  And since Mills & Boon was the publisher I was targeting, it was a jolly good job too.

I also learnt about the various ways I could make mistakes with handling viewpoint.  I could change from the viewpoint of one character to another with bewildering rapidity, I could tell sections of the story from the viewpoint of characters who really didn't matter, and shouldn't have come to the fore, or I could fumble it altogether by having a character say or think something she couldn't possibly have known.

I'd thought my writing was pretty good, before then, but after reading the chapter on viewpoint, that story suddenly seemed full of discordant notes.  I had indeed switched viewpoint so quickly any reader would have had trouble keeping up with who was the main player in a scene.  I had also written substantial chunks from the point of view of characters who shouldn't have been speaking directly to my reader.

Those errors wouldn't have been errors at all if I was writing the kind of story where it is fine to have several people giving their account of the story.  In crime novels, for example, one incident can be related by several witnesses.  I've also read family sagas
where the thread gets taken up by someone from the next generation.  So long as the change from one character's viewpoint to another is made clear and doesn't confuse the reader, that method can suit certain types of story.

However, since I'm writing romance, and I want to create an intense emotional experience for my reader, it is far better to get right inside my heroine's head, and stay there (unless I need to let people know what the hero is thinking).  When the reader knows what my heroine knows, understand what motivates her to act the way she does, it creates empathy.  Even if the heroine acts badly, the readers should know why she did what she did, and will therefore still keep rooting for her.  Same goes for the hero.

But if I introduce scenes from anyone else's point of view, and take the focus off the main characters, it dilutes the intense emotion I want my reader to feel.  There was no need for the woman my heroine (Amity) met in the dressmaker to suddenly start talking to the reader.  It was Amity's story, not Mrs Kirkham's.  Similarly, I shouldn't have written anything from Amity's brother's point of view, particularly since he was going to die in chapter 4.

Nor should I have had Amity knowing exactly what her brother was thinking, no matter how close they'd been as children, except by reading his body language and taking her best guess.

In fact the only viewpoint mistake I hadn't made was switching from first (which I'd never used) to second or third.

So, once I'd learned about the various types of viewpoint, I then began to think a bit harder about whose viewpoint to use in any scene.  To create the most impact for the reader, it's best to think about which character will have the most invested at the time.  Who has the most to lose or gain?  Since I write romance, I really only have the choice between the hero or the heroine, but it is a point that still needs careful consideration.  Do I focus on the heroine's determination to resist the hero, whose rakish reputation has already made her turn down his proposal of marriage more than once, in spite of the almost overwhelming attraction she feels for him?  Or do I get inside the hero's head, and let the reader know that this time, he has really fallen in love, and his devil-may-care smile hides his fear of rejection?

Once I'd got the hang of considering point of view, it made a huge difference to my writing.  Once I stopped digressing into the mind of the heroine's brother, his commanding officer, a woman Amity met in the dressmaker, or anyone else, the story focussed more closely on my heroine, and her journey of discovery, and therefore became more interesting.

Amity still hasn't found a publisher - but I'm working on it!

 Annie's latest book is "A Mistress for Major Bartlett", 2nd in the "Brides of Waterloo" series from Harlequin.  Currently available from Amazon