Friday, 18 October 2019

Predicting viral content - how likely is it you're writing a bestseller? by Lu Hersey

What's the first question most people ask when you tell them you're a children's writer? 
'Oh, like JK Rowling?' 
Smile. Be nice. Definitely don't growl. 

As it happens, my entire family (including me) loved JK’s books and were caught up in the zeitgeist, buying them and reading them as soon as they were published. Likewise Suzanne Collins. Her books might be brutal, but they’re also really good.

You're probably thinking, so what? My books are brilliant too – what made theirs so blooming successful? It’s not always about quality of writing. I find some of the 100 top selling writers (not mentioning names... *coughs* Dan Brown) almost unreadable, but millions of people obviously disagree.

But what actually makes a bestseller? There are lots of books on how to write one, but do they tell you anything useful? A quick look at what really hooks in the public can be very interesting. 

My eldest daughter worked for a (now defunct) train travel company, where part of the remit of her job was to make their social media communications go viral and save the company money on advertising.

A thankless task. Middle aged men, earning far more than she was, telling her to make the business an overnight sensation by creating viral tweets and videos. Of course none of the management had a clue how she was supposed to achieve this, and she tried to explain, time and time again – it's just not possible.

You can’t predict what’s going to get carried on a social media wave and what isn’t, because it seems to be totally random. I’ve had two tweets go viral (getting thousands of retweets) in all the time I’ve been on twitter, and it was a complete surprise both times. The first one was a really stupid dinosaur joke. The second was a tweet about the Oxford Comma. And basically if I was intent on marketing my brand, neither of those tweets was likely to encourage people to buy my book.

Of course there’s a whole world of social media stars out there who have millions of followers on Instagram and YouTube and are marketing their chosen brand really effectively. Simple things like how to put on makeup, diet, exercise or wear clothes (probably specific clothes, and none of them to be found in my wardrobe) can get you way more followers and much more money than most of us ever earn from writing books. But they represent a tiny minority of all the people trying to become social media stars - who knows what singles them out?

And I'd never even heard of him until now... 

There are similar success stories in the book world, where out of the blue, books have gone stratospheric. A look at the top 100 bestselling books OF ALL TIME in the UK makes for a very interesting read.  Just sometimes, a writer catches the public imagination and something strange happens – EVERYONE buys their book.

Interestingly, this isn't just about publisher spend. Celebrity authors get far more of the publicity and marketing budget than other writers, and you see their books stacking tables and shelves in every supermarket and bookshop. But (perhaps strangely on this basis), David Walliams isn’t on the best selling authors of all time list, unlike Stephanie Meyer, a Mormon from Utah who self-published those vampire stories before she got a publisher. Not sure it’s appropriate to mention EL James in a post about children’s books, but again, a self published author who hit a zeitgeist. 

Mean...but who cares about writing style if you're in the top 100 all time best sellers?

And there’s always the possibility your book will go viral in another territory. Take the interesting case of Claire McFall, a Scottish children’s writer who isn't that well known in the UK, yet she’s a superstar in China. Her (translated) book Ferryman hit a zeitgeist there, and her books have since made her a top selling author throughout China for the last three years running. She has film deals in place and everything – the stuff a writer's dreams are made of.

Claire McFall at a book signing in China

So what’s my point? I don’t have one really. There are thousands of writers and a few make it big. A massive publicity budget from your publisher might help, but sometimes the public just like something. Like the Gruffalo, His Dark Materials, or the Very Hungry Caterpillar. Or Ferryman. The good news is a very high percentage of top selling authors write children’s books.

Incidentally, it's not all about fiction. Eats, Shoots and Leaves is up in the 100 best sellers of all time too. So maybe, like the Oxford comma, punctuation is the way to go…

Lu Hersey

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Arrgh! Early Halloween Special - it's the Edit Letter!!!! by Tracy Darnton

One of the tough things about writing novels, as opposed to having a ‘proper job’, is that there are hardly any times when the manuscript is truly ‘off’ your desk. But the period between delivery of first draft and the editorial letter some weeks (or months) later is one such marvellous time when there is a true long-forgotten sense of having handed in your homework. You can spend this time either worried that a D Minus is on its way or (and I prefer this approach) living in blissful ignorant expectation that your editor is LOVING every last word of it. So absorbed are they, that it’s taking weeks to formulate their thoughts. 

This time round, the gap gave me a new lease of life and I spent this time usefully on inventive school workshops, admin (not so fun), fact-checking my research, writing three new picture book scripts, being a beta reader for a writer buddy, getting a bad cold (also not so fun), starting a new story, completing ten reviews, pitching a couple of articles and catching up with all my sadly- neglected friends. Happy days!

But then IT came. The edit letter. Plopped into the inbox on a Friday when I was feeling sorry for myself, dosed up on Lemsip and running a fever after too much wild tea drinking with friends. Uh oh.

When I received my edit letter on my debut novel, my agent sent me a reassuring email with ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic. This is perfectly normal!’ in the subject line. She must think I am sufficiently grown-up this time round to not need one. I hope she’s right.

So I could have been that mature, grown-up author and read the letter there and then – OR – and, reader don’t judge me, I could have looked at the covering email, taken comfort at the sentence including “we absolutely loved it” and stopped right there without reading the six pages of ‘but’s and suggestions until I felt better.

Worse, I could delegate the reading of said edit letter to my offspring packing to go back to uni and childishly get him to read it for me. And then try to read his body language when he tells me not to worry – it’s all achievable. 

What does that mean exactly… “achievable”? Hmm. And what does he know? More Lemsip, more strepsils.

Two days later, fever gone, I start the first-stage process of reading it by washing the shower curtain and clearing out a bookcase. I tidy my desk. I make a cup of tea. I brace myself. I read the letter.

Before I was an author, I thought that the editor would send a list headed How to fix your book. A useful list numbered 1-5, 10 at a push. All I’d have to do is tick my way through said list – changing a word here and there, striking out that troublesome scene in the cable car etc etc. But I have news for any non-published writers: editors don’t do that.

Editors ask questions. They zero in on the slightly woolly aspects of your plot or characterisation that you hoped you’d slipped past them (Curses!). Editors ask inconvenient questions. Editors make you think about your book and how to make it the best it can be.

I have a two-hour chat on the phone with my editor. She is kind, she is calm. She gives credit where credit’s due. She makes suggestions to make my book better, pushes me to explain what I was trying to do here or there … and patiently waits when I flounder.

We talk through my draft book club discussion questions which helps me to focus on the main threads of my book, the themes, the structure, characterisation.

I draw up an action plan of things to do, some for definite, some to try out and see what I think. My brain cogs slowly turn with possible solutions. Of course, I worry, as all writers do, that the pulling out of one thread will cause the fragile web of plot to fall away. But I’m fired up to try. The game is afoot.

I’m exhausted. I send an emergency text to my teenager walking home from school to bring me a packet of Twirl Bites. He doesn’t get the message but, on his return, kindly offers me a slightly sticky, solitary fruit pastille from his blazer pocket.

I take it. The edit letter trauma has made me eat a fluffy, second-hand fruit pastille. And that, in a nutshell, is what the edit letter is like.

Tracy Darnton is the author of The Truth About Lies which was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019.

She is currently editing The Rules out next year with Stripes. (It’s going better than expected).

You can follow Tracy on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

When 'I Need to Write Something' becomes 'I Need to Write This' by Claire Fayers

In my conversations with other writers recently, one topic keeps coming up: remembering why we started to write. This seems to be equally true for published and yet-to-be-published writers.

"I've realised I've started to focus so much on getting a book finished recently that I forgot why I started," one friend said. "Because I enjoy writing!"

Another friend, sharing the familiar frustration of friends and family seeing her writing as a hobby commented, "But in the end it should be like a hobby. We do it because we love it."

I need to remind myself of this often. Because writing can often feel like this:

And in those time when writing feels like pushing a boulder up a never-ending hill, we wonder why we ever started this. We find ourselves writing just for the sake of reaching the top of the hill and everything until that point becomes drudgery.

I admit, I've been struggling to write this year. Still, I sat down dutifully at the computer every day with the aim of just writing something, anything. Because that's what writers, do isn't it - they write. Then last week two minor villains wandered into my draft and made me fall off my chair laughing. I raced through an entire chapter, eager to see what they'd get up to. In a matter of seconds, 'I need to write something' became 'I need to write this story.'

So I have my plan for the winter months, and I even have a few productivity tools to keep myself going. I don't use many because I find that productivity tools can become distractions in themselves, but these are the ones I've stuck with. I'm sure these are all familiar already, but I thought I'd share them in case they're helpful.

Word processor shortcuts

I've tried every writing method from notebooks and pens (too slow) to Scrivener (too organised.) I like to claw my raw material into one messy heap and then chip away at it until it looks like a story. I keep one document for the draft and one for background notes - useful for quickly checking everything from the colour of someone's hair to the customs of an alien planet.

I used to use bookmarks and comments to find my way around my draft, but now I add in scene headers and use the navigation bar, which is much more efficient. Write a brief description of your scene, go to the home tab and change the style to Heading 1. Then go to the view tab and tick the Navigation Pane box. You'll get a handy side-bar with a list of all your headings, and clicking on any of them will take you straight to it.

I've recently discovered Word's 'focus' button on the bottom right of the screen and I wish I'd known about this before. Click this and everything surrounding your words disappears. It is amazingly useful for cutting out on-screen distractions. 

Go away Internet

There are many apps which will block your access to the Internet. I use Leechblock which is very easy to use - simply list the sites you want to block and when you want to block them. You can allow yourself limited access to sites, too. I am allowed 5 minutes per hour on Twitter after which I'm thrown out.

Spreadsheeting your progress

These can either be extremely useful for setting deadlines and motivating yourself to write, or ghastly things that only serve to highlight how far behind you are. I like them because they let you see how much progress you've made already.

You can find loads of templates online but I've written my own and kept them simple.

The wordcount spreadsheet lets me set a target wordcount for each day, add in my actual wordcount, then it tells me how I'm doing, many days I have left to go and my projected end date, allowing for weekends off. 

Then I have an editing spreadsheet, which serves a practical purpose as it will help me with the structure of my novel once I've finished the first draft. I always include POV as I use multiple third person. The structural analysis column is to mark major points in the story. Once I've finished the draft, I'll spend a couple of days with this spreadsheet, seeing where material needs to be cut or moved about - which will be easy to do as all my scenes in Word are already labelled.

If you'd like the spreadsheet templates, let me know! And happy writing.

Claire Fayers is the author of the Accidental Pirates series, Mirror Magic and Storm Hound. Website Twitter @clairefayers

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Notes on editing dialogue for dramatic purpose - by Rowena House

In their excellent writing advice guide, On Editing, Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price note that: “great dialogue is about striking a balance between naturalism and purpose - knowing how you want your dialogue to sound, but also what you want it to achieve.”
Personally, I’d tweak that to read: “dialogue is about balancing dramatic purpose and simulated naturalism. Know what you want the dialogue to achieve, then decide how you want your characters to sound.”
A pedantic difference, perhaps, but increasingly it seems to me to be more than a chicken-and-egg situation. It’s about demarcating in one’s mind the difference between the product of writing and the process of getting there. The product, in this case, being the speech on the page, and the process being the craft of storytelling through dialogue.
In case this is of interest to others, here are some edited notes on the subject which I prepared for a mentee recently. Sorry they’re rather didactic; time ran away from me this month and I haven’t had time to make them more “bloggy”.
How does writing dialogue differ from storytelling through dialogue?
Writing dialogue relates to dialects and manners of speech, attributions, the rhythms and sounds of speech.
Storytelling through dialogue is about its dramatic purpose.
Editing for dramatic purpose therefore begins with the questions one asks about each conversation on the page. For me, the first question is this: what is this exchange achieving in terms of the overall story?
Really, there’s only one correct answer: it’s moving the plot along by…
One can fill in these dots in any number of ways. The dialogue might illustrate to the reader some aspect of a character’s personality, or develop a relationship, or lead to a moment of internal revelation, an epiphany of some sort.
Plot-wise, the protagonist might be prising information out of an ally or an antagonist, or maybe they’re building up to confess something important. The options are legion.
But in any event, the next question should be: are both the speaker’s intentions and the listener’s reactions clear to the reader?
I’m entirely persuaded by the many editors and writing gurus who say reaction beats are essential to signpost the direction of a conversation at pretty much every step.
            “I can’t bear that shade of red on a woman,” Deirdre said.
            Her husband rolled his eyes.
Without the reaction beat, Deirdre’s opinion floats, untethered, in the ether.
[Reactions that are actions also break up dialogue, which helps vary pace. Three to five exchanges is the maximum I’ve been recommended before something has to happen.]
Next I look for conflict in the dialogue: not shouty arguments but rising tension. As a rule of thumb, the more diametrically opposed the intentions of the participants in the conversation are, the more dramatic the dialogue is likely to be. If Character A really, really wants to get information out of Character B, give Character B a cracking good reason for wanting to keep that information secret.
Subtext comes next. That’s because, according to psychologists I’ve read, a large part of the pleasure and motivation for reading is the satisfaction we get from fathoming out the clues that the writer teases us with. If characters say exactly what they mean from the start, there’s nothing for the reader to work out, and the chances are the dialogue will come across as flat and boring, and the scene as a whole will lack nuance and subtlety.
[This assumes, of course, that the intended reader isn’t too young to understand the need to read between the lines. I don’t know how young is too young for subtext - it seems like an age since I talked to a child under 11 - but I’m pretty sure younger readers than that understand that people don’t always say what they mean.]
As with all dialogue, less is more when it comes to subtext:
            “Jasmine, you’re being stupid,” Dave said. “I didn’t even see Zoe yesterday.”
            Jasmine smiled. The Flame Pink lipstick she’d seen on his t-shirt told her everything she needed to know; only Zoe had been wearing that shade at the party.
            “Yeah. Right. Sorry.” She went into the kitchen and texted her mum. “Pick me up, would you? I want to come home.”
Despite the words spoken, the reader knows that Jasmine knows that Dave is lying. Her text to her mum is immediately comprehensible because the reader understands the subtext of her words, her smile and her action. We, the reader, might even infer from her smile that she’s been lied to before; this time it’s the final straw. The relationship is over.
Which leads onto….
What changes in the story due to this dialogue?
Without change, there is stasis, which is dull, so I subscribe to the theory that every scene needs a turning point, and without one, it’s not a proper scene.
As mentioned above, revelations and epiphanies are classic turning points for dialogue. Unexpected action - an interruption to the dialogue of some sort - also turns scenes effectively. Mixing and matching these options varies pace and keeps things fresh. [There are lots of other structural issues around turning points such as how they relate to the story’s Main Dramatic Question, but that’s for another time. Perhaps.]
Meanwhile, and I hesitate to add this given the sophistication of ABBA reader-writers, but since I’ve just been listening to Hilary Mantel’s amazing Reith Lectures again, and even she felt the need to remind her university audience of this original sin, I don’t feel too bad repeating it here: never give information to the reader that is already known by your characters in the guise of dialogue. Sure you see it in published books, but exposition disguised as dialogue really is a killer of authenticity.
Thank you for reading! Back again next month.
@HouseRowena on Twitter