Rachel, writing

All things novelling-related as I embark on my self-publishing adventure

Archive for the tag “writing groups”

The rise of the introvert

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There seems to have been a lot of talk of introverts recently, with books extolling our virtues making best-seller lists. Like many writers, I generally prefer my own company to that of others. I like to meet up with people, but after an hour or so, begin to feel drained.

We’re still often seen as needing help, or viewed negatively. One friend said she considered introverts by definition to be selfish – but isn’t needing other people to be around you more selfish? We seem to be seen as problematic because we don’t fit the majority view of what’s desirable.  I’ve realised that I tick a lot of boxes for schizoid personality disorder simply by being an introvert, which is something that therapists think should be ‘fixed’ (no, I don’t need fixing. I’m not broken). I’m not sure whether this is lack of understanding or an urge to pathologise for profit’s sake.

I’m quite capable of social interaction when required. I’m not shy. I’m not desperate to belong or be accepted. My instant reaction when receiving social invitations is ‘How can I wriggle out of this without seeming rude?’ A couple of hours with a friend? No problem. An evening with a crowd? No thanks. But if I need to mingle, I can do so perfectly competently – with some effort, I have to admit.

As Anneli Rufus observes in Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto, introversion is regularly associated with crime. Serial killers are often described as ‘loners,’ but this may be misguided: they are more likely to be outcasts, who want to join in but are rejected. Introverts are quite happy on their own, thank you very much. To add some balance, here’s a youtube thingy of Sister Wendy Beckett, a nun who’s had several TV series in the UK on art appreciation. I heard her interviewed on the radio over Christmas for Desert Island Discs,  and she figured the only thing she’d miss on a desert island was attending Mass – other than that, the isolation would be a huge positive for her. Someone once said to her that she was the only person he knew who was perfectly happy without other people – “And it wasn’t a compliment,” she said.

Reading Rufus’ book has made me question my preferences. Why do I love my evenings at my writers’ group? (Because you can sit and listen, in your own little world, and there’s no pressure to make polite conversation). Why do I enjoy running in a group? (Because you can trot along, in your own little world, and nobody’s capable of non-stop talking because they need the breath) Why am I unfazed by public speaking, or leading an exercise class, but freeze when asked to play piano to an audience? (I really have no idea. Any suggestions?)

As far as writing goes, introversion is probably an advantage: it’s quite an isolated activity. It’s also possibly the reason that so many of my characters are relative introverts too. I can relate to them. I found writing India’s dialogue and diary entries in The Syndrome Diaries the most challenging part of the novel, as her extroversion was quite alien to the way I am.

Do you identify more as an introvert or extrovert? Do you think it affects the way you write – in terms of your writing activity, or the content?

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Rachel, not writing

Wicker Chair Sitting at Desk

Sometimes, life gets in the way of writing. I just moved: it wasn’t intentional, but as I’m currently renting and the owner of the property passed away, the tenancy ended. So, I embarked on househunting and moving madness and all the accompanying admin, made rather more challenging by my husband being abroad for the duration.

In some ways, it wasn’t such a bad thing. It was a well-timed fresh start, as it’s been quite difficult to let go of  ‘The Syndrome Diaries’ and get stuck into a new project. However, I really ought to have been marketing on full throttle as Christmas is a peak time for book purchases and for people to receive empty Kindles. And I didn’t. I also did almost no work on my PhD, at a time when I ought to have been promoting a study (if you’re planning on starting an exercise programme in the first quarter of 2013, you can take part: info is here and the link to sign up is here – that’s my shameless plug done for this blog).

So how many copies of Syndrome have I sold recently? Erm, not very many. But I received my first royalty payment! It wasn’t huge, but to have earned money from the novel is such a fantastic feeling. It was a bit like crossing the finishing line the first time I ran a marathon. And in many ways, the same principles are involved: consistent effort, keeping going when you have a setback and never giving up.

So I haven’t given up. I’ve taken a couple of old bits of writing along to the writing group, and had my first stab in many years at writing a short story, inspired by this rather wonderful book. And four seven-hour flights in a month (two visits to hubby) have given me lots of reading time, which is great for inspiration. So I may have slacked off, but I’m re-energised and raring to go in 2013.

How to write a novel: 1 The Idea

Perhaps that should be ‘How I write a novel.’ The Syndrome Diaries has been two years in the making, from the first germ of the idea to the edited, polished, proofed and re-proofed manuscript that will soon be going onto Amazon. I thought I’d blog about the process I’ve been through to get it from the ‘aha!’ moment to the finished novel.

The central plot for the novel came to me very quickly while I was out for a run in summer 2010. It started with a question: were there circumstances in which adulterous behaviour might be OK?

You probably have an answer to that in your head right now, and I found myself in a very heated discussion on morals and motivations after reading out an extract at my writers’ group. But the question on its own isn’t  much of a plot. I had to create the circumstances around the temptation to stray, and that led me to introduce a third main character. As my ideas grew shoots and leaves, this third character decided she wanted a starring role, and she pretty much got it – or rather, her diaries did.

So where did all this come from? I have never committed adultery and neither, to my knowledge, has my husband or anyone else I’ve been in a long-term relationship with. It might have been from the many newspaper articles giving statistics on staying faithful. Perhaps it’s simply an age-old human dilemma that most of us hope we’ll never have to deal with.

If you asked me how I got my ideas, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. What I do know is that they come suddenly and they grow rapidly, branching out in sub-plots and detail that I have to start taming into a plan before I can start to write – and that’s the subject of my next blog.

Do you have a method for generating ideas? Or do you have to wait for the muse to strike?

Positioning, Polarising and Publishing

Positioning is all about creating an identity for what you’re offering people. It ties in with branding, and also combines lots of other aspects of the marketing mix that I’ve been covering over the last few blogs. Covers and pricing, for example, are central to positioning.

Since I wrote my last blog entry, there have been some major challenges for me regarding the positioning of The Syndrome Diaries.

I read out an extract at my writing group, expecting the usual suggestions of developing some dialogue, making a character’s motives a little clearer, and so on. But half an hour after I’d finished reading, the room was still engaged in a heated debate regarding the behaviour of one of my main characters. This is perfectly justified: what he’s doing is very polarising and different people are bound to respond to it in different ways. But I wasn’t expecting such a strong reaction, and I was worried that I’d upset people by what I’d written (which is something I have to learn to deal with, as a lot of my writing involves controversial subjects).

Although going to writing groups has improved my writing, the difficulty is that I’m only reading out relatively short extracts, so the way that the whole plot hangs together can’t be immediately clear. Some of the feedback was quite tough to deal with because if I were to implement it, the whole novel would fall apart. I was left wondering whether I’d written something that, ultimately, wasn’t worth putting out there without a complete rewrite.

But after a chat with a couple of the group’s members, the issue is more to do with positioning. While another group had labelled the novel as women’s fiction, it isn’t. It’s too edgy. Much as I love Maeve Binchy’s wonderful story-telling, I’m not writing Maeve Binchy feel-good, happy-ending fiction. The character causing the problem is entitled to do just that (and I don’t think there’s any stopping him), but the book cannot be put in a pink, fluffy category. And I don’t think it ever really was; I was quite surprised that the first group thought that was where it fitted, and so much feedback since then has suggested that it doesn’t.

My parents have now read the completed beta version of the novel: this is the version which is as polished as I can make it without other people reading the entire manuscript. They came up with some ideas for improvements which I agree with, but I was quite surprised at how much they thought should stay as it is – including the ending, which I was considering changing. Although they’re my parents and one might expect a bit of daughter-directed bias, my Dad in particular can be very critical although he’s constructive with it. The beta version is going to another two readers who are acquaintances rather than close friends/family; I trust them to come back with quality feedback, and it’ll be interesting to see whether they think the ending is convincing.

The blogs I’ll be writing over the next couple of months will be about the beta feedback and revisions, and then it’s time to self-publish. I’ll also be documenting the steps to get the book on Amazon, as it’ll be the first time I’ve gone through the process. And then I’ll be covering what happens next (i.e. real sales figures, not those headline-generating, exception-to-the-rule numbers).

If you’d like to follow the novel’s progress you can:

  • sign up to receive alerts when I publish a blog here (there’s a button in the column to the right)
  • join my emailing list
  • see more information on my website

It’s a bit early for speeches, but…

While slaving away over Scrivener may seem an isolated affair, getting my novel to publication stage certainly isn’t something I’m doing on my own. The research grant may not stretch to employing editors and cover designers, but I’m hoping the proceeds from novel sales will stretch to a few beers/curries for the people who’ve had some input. The sixth ‘P’ of the marketing mix is people. These are mine:

Dad: proof-reader extraordinaire. Now and again, I get a phone call which begins in a tone of voice that makes me anticipate news of a tragic death. “Rae,” it says. “That blog you’ve just posted? There’s a typo on the fifth line.”

Nivette: encouraging friend. I told my friend Nivette about my work-in-progress about a year ago. “That sounds amazing,” she said. “You are amazing.” I heart Nivette.

Writers Connect Manchester: writers’ group. I was pretty apprehensive about joining a group, but this lot are great, providing constructive criticism not only on what I’ve written but sharing their ideas about its potential market. I haven’t managed to get there for a while (it’s a bit of a trek, and tends to clash with running activities), but they are lovely.

Renegade Writers, Stoke-on-Trent/Newcastle-under-Lyme: writers’ group. Fortunately, this is only a couple of miles down the road, so most Wednesday evenings you’ll find me in The Red Lion with my fellow Renegades. The writers here are generally more experienced and have more publications under their collective belts than the people I’ve met at Manchester, but they’ve never been anything other than encouraging, and have given some fantastic feedback on my writing which I think has improved it considerably.

My Beta Readers: I have several people lined up to read through the almost-ready Beta version of the novel. I know they’re busy people, and I also know they’ll give me some excellent advice for the final polishing before the book gets uploaded. This is going to be the most scary bit of the process. I’ve been working on the novel for nearly two years, but I’m the only one at the moment who knows the whole plot and the way it fits together. I’m just hoping it makes sense.

Someone who will remain anonymous: I’m not going to spill the beans on who this was. I was in a bookshop with this person, flicking through books on the art of novelling, wondering out loud whether to make a purchase. “I don’t know why you’d want that,” said Anon. “You’re never going to finish that novel anyway.” The determination to prove Anon wrong has helped drive the novelling since then!

Who inspires your writing? And does Anon deserve beer and curry in return for providing motivation?

This is the seventh Blog from a series on marketing. The eighth, and final instalment – on positioning – will follow soon!

Judging a Book by its Cover

We’re onto the fifth P of marketing: packaging. For a book, this of course means the cover. In a previous blog on pricing, my sales forecast made it clear that the costs of a professional cover designer would not be recouped. So, it’s up to me.

The important points to remember with my cover design are:

  • What works in a bookshop doesn’t necessarily work online, and I have to design with Amazon in mind
  • The cover that comes up on someone’s screen when browsing Amazon might be tiny
  • If the potential reader is on their Kindle, the photo will be black and white
  • My name is not important because few people have heard of me, and this is my first novel
  • The style I choose will give some indication of genre

When I worked in music publishing, we distributed a self-published book of songs for children by a very popular composer of music for junior schools. The songs were suitable for older junior school children, but the cover art was the composer’s pre-schooler daughter’s work, giving the impression that the content was aimed at very young children. Teachers of older children would ignore it, while teachers of younger children would open it up only to find it was unsuitable for their needs. This shows how important the cover of a book is to convey its content.

Here are some examples of other authors’ covers:

It’s clearly going to be a romcom. This cover also stands out from the other books in a similar genre. It would probably have more appeal to women than men (it’s rather pink), but avoids the teeny-skinny-people-cartoon-and-curly-writing cliché that is the badge of chicklit. I’ve just started reading this: it’s very, very funny, though explicit. The cover has a hint of saucy British postcard about it, and that’s perhaps a clue to what’s inside.

This screams chicklit: pink, girly silhouette. It’s a fabulous book, tackling serious issues in the context of a love story, and it’s both funny and very sad. The cover, to me, makes it look more frivolous than it is. Online, it doesn’t work well: there’s not enough contrast between some of the text and the background, so when I went on Amazon, all I could read was ‘Before’ and the author’s name. My Dad loved it too and thought it was extremely well-written, but he read it because I mentioned it in an earlier blog. I doubt the cover would have caught his attention.

Almost perfect for the web, although some of the text is too small (‘Twenty years, two people’ in particular). This has strong images and has been mentioned by quite a few commentators for its step away from traditional design. I bought this in bookshop quite soon after it was published, having not heard of it. The cover attracted me to the book, and inside the concept and opening scene (University in the 80s, which I caught the back end of) hooked me in. Online, the cover would have grabbed my attention and the sample would have led to me buying the book.

Well, it’s chicklit, I presume. It has a cartoon girl on the front and lots of pink. But I can’t read the title. This is a HarperCollins book – a publisher who can surely afford a decent graphic designer.

Again, a cover marred by illegible text, and it doesn’t appear to be available other than as a download, so the cover needs to be particularly web-friendly. All that catches my eye is the huge bunch of roses. To me, that indicates Englishness, a female protagonist and there’s something melancholic abut the photo, suggesting tragedy. It actually states on the cover that it’s a love story, set in the US, but I couldn’t read that until I went into the product details on Amazon. The tiny writing at the bottom is in an illegible curly font – it’s actually quoting a review, and covers will normally use a very clear font for quotes.

So there are some examples of what works for me and what doesn’t. Translating that into my own cover is a little more challenging; I can see what’s good and not so good in other peoples’ designs, but pulling something together that attracts the kind of readers who would enjoy my book has proved difficult.

I wanted to produce something early on to go on my website and started off with this:

The main problem is the title font. It’s not clear. I wanted it to have a hand-written feel and tried to make it clearer by highlighting it, but it just looks messy. I’m not entirely sure about the photo. I suspect the story has more appeal to women than men; that’s what one of the writers’ groups I took it to thought too. In the other writers’ group, the men seem to be getting into it perhaps more than the women. I’m not sure how much appeal the cover has to women. My husband says he’d pick the book up because as a hot-blooded male he’d be drawn towards an image of the female form, but inside it’s not really his kind of thing (which would be Tom Clancy).

The story hinges around a successful female rock musician (Syndrome is the name of her band) who’s written some diaries, and the cover depicts her. There are some quite dark themes in the book, although there’s also a romance central to the story. It’s written in the style of mainstream fiction – not frivolous, but not heavy-going either. I wanted a female image with a guitar; it’s actually a bass. I found the original image on clipart, and cropped it quite a lot (partly to get rid of the four tuning pegs as a regular guitar would have six). So with a cover budget of zero, there is some compromise!

I’ve subsequently redone the cover, with clearer text.

I’m not entirely convinced by the red, as it looks a bit ‘thriller,’ but having tried different colours, this is what stands out without going monochrome (although I think my name might work better in black and white, as in the previous version). The ‘Kindle image’ is below, and small: the text isn’t as clear as I’d like.

There’s still some time to play with the cover. The best-I-can-make-it version will shortly be going to my beta readers, freeing me up to work on other aspects of the book.

  • What covers have you seen that you thought were particularly good (or bad!)?
  • How would you improve my cover?

This is the 6th blog in a series on marketing.

Products, Marketing and the Bad Sex Awards

There is something disconcerting about referring to your novel – 100,000 words of soul-baring – as ‘product,’ as if it were one of a million identikit widgets rolling off a conveyor belt. But, if you want to engage with readers, then they are your market and your book is your product. The challenge is to know and understand something of your potential readers and to deliver what they want.

A novel, like any product, has benefits and features. Its benefits are the core reasons that people might want to buy and read it, and central to this is entertainment. Features deliver the entertainment and include length, format, genre, language, style of writing and plot. The difficulty lies in trying to match these features to the benefit sought by a particular group of readers.

I’ll give you some examples from my own work-in-progress novel (more details here). I love music and know quite a lot about it, and my characters are working in music-related fields. Reading extracts out at the writers’ group I’ve joined generates enthusiasm from the other music obsessives there, but the group members I need to pay most attention to are the ones who don’t fall into this category. Have they heard of the bands that I mention? Do they understand the technical jargon? If not, then I may have gone too ‘niche’ and will need to do some rewriting.

Another dilemma for me is how explicit my novel should be. If you look up the erotic Shades of Grey trilogy on Amazon, you can see that its readers also bought The Hunger Games, a young adult novel where there is no intimacy beyond kissing, and Me Before You, an intense love story without any actual sexual activity. We can conclude that raunch isn’t obligatory for these readers, but they aren’t averse to it in an appropriate context.

In my almost-finished novel, lust and love are central themes of my plot; the characters’ emotional fulfilment relates to what’s happening in the bedroom. Do readers want the detail? And if they do, is it because they enjoy the escapism and some titillation, or because it makes the characters more vivid and helps the plot make sense? There is, of course, the added risk of writing something akin to a Bad Sex Award winner.

There isn’t a right answer, but there are ways of exploring options:
– Take your work to a writers’ group: Other members can give constructive feedback based on their own experiences. You’ll also learn from others’ work and the feedback they receive.
– Recruit beta readers: When your novel is as good as you can make it (your ‘beta’ version), your beta readers will be able to tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Then you edit some more.
– Read bestsellers: What do people like about them? And where are criticisms aimed? How do they work for you?
– Talk to your friends, family and colleagues: What do they love and hate in a book?

Ultimately, you need to make a decision as to where your novel fits then write for those readers. You can’t please everyone. If you can accept that some people will hate what you’ve written, then you have a much better chance of finding readers who will love it.

This blog is the second in a series on marketing for writers: for the first, see 18 May. In the next blog, I’ll be tackling pricing, costs and all things wonga-related.

“It’s not very girly, is it?”

About 18 months ago, I went to an Interpol gig. The audience was predominantly male, and a couple of guys there commented to me that Interpol wasn’t particularly ‘girly’ music. ‘Girly’ music, apparently, means James Blunt.

Now, music is an integral part of The Syndrome Diaries, my current work-in-progress. The main characters’ lives are heavily coloured by music in various ways, and references to songs appear through the novel as an important element of scene-setting and to provide shared culture to reinforce relationships.

The novel is probably best described as mainstream women’s fiction, yet when I’ve read passages out to writers’ groups, there’s been an instant, strong response from the men to the music references (which are more Interpol than James Blunt).

Some informal research in a music psychology class I was co-teaching demonstrated how difficult it can be to ascribe lists of favourite pieces of music to one sex or the other. Another of my research projects suggested that middle-aged women are often partial to heavy metal music when they work out at the gym, yet they probably wouldn’t be considered the target market for that style.

So, is there really such a thing as ‘girls’ music’ and ‘boys’ music’? And, if so, should I compel my heroine to listen to James Blunt? She’s really more an Interpol kind of person. Do I risk alienating readers with the wrong music?

Writers’ Groups: Stepping outside the comfort zone

In her 1934 classic, ‘Becoming a Writer’, Dorothea Brande suggests that writers should cultivate ‘two persons’ within themselves: one should be practical and objective, the other sensitive and creative. We are often so caught up with the latter as we write that the pragmatist side – which is far more use for getting our work improved and noticed – is neglected.

One way of addressing that is to join a writers’ group. It’s tempting to hone, edit and generally tweak writing around for years, but constructive feedback from a critical audience is vital to help make the finished work as good as it can be. More fundamentally, if you are serious about getting your writing read by others, you need to be used to negative as well as positive feedback. You can’t be to everyone’s taste, however good a writer you are.

I admit that my instinct has always been to go it alone (I still have the school report from when I was 9, which said I preferred my own ideas to those of others, and never was a truer word spoken…). I’d lasted a couple of weeks on a 10-week creative writing course some years back, largely because it felt like being back at school; disciplined, rigorous and, as a newbie writer, I struggled to engage with the highly critical environment (or, to be more accurate, the highly critical tutor). Ever since then, I’ve avoided anything combining writing and groups, but my New Year’s Resolution was to start going outside my comfort zone, and the writing group had to be done. I went online to the Meetup website, found this group http://www.meetup.com/Writers-Connect-Manchester/ and went along to a meeting.

It wasn’t like school. We sat in easy chairs in Costa, and I wasn’t the only first-timer, and nor was I the only one worrying about what might be coming next. We started off with a writing exercise, then went round the group, reading out our efforts. Mine was OK – some of the writing was better than mine, but I still felt I could hold my own. We critiqued another member’s poem (rather good, and written in her second language). I came away wondering how a prepared extract of my writing would fare. The next meeting, I took a few pages of my novel along.

Altogether, I had four pages of writing. I thought it might be a little long, but at the end of the first page, they were happy for me to keep going, so I did. As I finished the last sentence, there was a long silence. That was the worst moment: I wondered if I was about to be taken down a few pegs and put firmly in my place as a beginner. But that wasn’t the case. I think it may just have been that general reluctance we often have to be the first one to speak, and once we started discussing the passage, I got some really helpful feedback on adding some detail and taking a little away. We talked about the kind of market it would appeal to – perhaps a little narrower than I’d first hoped, but realistic, and, as I said earlier, you aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. There were some positive comments too, regarding the way I’d used the characters to create a sense of awkwardness. It’s one thing to feel a particular mood as you write a scene, but quite another thing to be sure that others can also sense the same atmosphere, so feedback was important here.

I came home feeling pleased I’d had the guts to have my work dissected, and still more pleased that it had generated such useful critiques. I revised the passage, and you can read it here http://www.rachelhallettwriter.co.uk/page_2629079.html. Stepping outside your comfort zone is easily avoided, but once you’ve done it, you see the rewards. I’m trying to more of it in everyday life – to say yes when my instinct is to say “Aaargh!”, and I’m having a lot of fun.

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