Dominion theatre auditorium from stage

Talk to your audience: don’t read at them

Events should almost always involves 2-way communication.

I had the great pleasure of doing my first ever author event with the AS English Literature and Language students at Uxbridge College. The thing that made this the perfect way to get started was that the College provided a brilliant, detailed brief.

I ended up not following the ‘script’ of my pointpower presentation, but I knew it was there: I had a plan in reserve that would please the College if I stumbled while trying to let the session run more organically.

Having a good backup plan meant that I could approach the session with confidence: I knew what the College wanted to get from the session, and that I had done solid preparation to ensure I could deliver. Which is not to say that there were no nerves on the day – of course there were – but they were manageable nerves: nerves I could channel into being energetic and excited about writing.

There’s a delicate balance to be struck between having a plan and turning up to deliver a scripted session verbatim and beat-for-beat.

Prepare – of course you need to prepare – but don’t let this lock you into thinking ‘This Is What I Am Going To Do, No Deviations Allowed’.

That way lies  one of the greatest sin in teaching, lecturing and public speaking: preparing something in writing and then reading it aloud exactly as written. Read poetry or prose if you’re going to make the act of reading meaningful – i.e. performative – but don’t just read.

Not only will you spend most of the session sounding stilted (and usually pompous), but you’ll have little time to look – to physically look – at the people who’ve come to see you. Eye contact – or at least the illusion of it if you’re speaking in a huge hall or arena – is important to an audience. That’s the whole point of doing things live and face-to-face rather than just posting an essay on the web or publishing it in a magazine or pre-taping a speech and putting it on youTube.

Events should be about giving people something they can only experience when you’re face-to-face and in real time. If you don’t do this, then you have failed your audience.

In events you should always respond to the audience. And by respond I don’t mean that if you’re scheduled to give a speech you have to take questions instead… But if you’re reading something you’ve prepared in advance word for word, it’s hard to respond to enthusiasm, to boredom, to curiosity. It’s hard to tailor and cut and chop and change.

So prepare. Make notes, script bits of your talk that are about complicated things, but don’t script whole passage to be read aloud. Instead, if you have a plan of what you’ll speak about, but you then just talk several magical things will happen.

Even if the audience doesn’t answer back verbally because it’s not that type of event, you will still be communicating rather than just presenting: it’ll stop being one way communication. Communication is not just what you say… it’s so much more.

If you talk, instead of reading aloud, the audience will take away the experience of watching and listening as you construct your understanding of the things you’re talking about: it becomes a form of conversation in that it becomes an act of creating a shared understanding of a topic. Which is not to say that you and the entire audience will be in agreement, just that the audience will see how you’ve reached your perspective. And this is far more convincing that a polished written speech that only delivers the conclusion of this process.

Conversation is a process: a script is a static, written object. Which would you rather go to see live?

So plan. Prepare to within an inch of your life. But don’t prepare to stand up and simply read at your audience. Prepare to the point where you can be flexible. Where you can respond to what the audience, as a specific group of individuals, want from you. Talk to them.

Autumn leaves

From idea to plan: creating an effective climax

The Bone Dragon is my debut novel, but it’s far from being the first novel I wrote. First, I wrote a whole series of ‘practice’ novels. Then I wrote several novels I hoped to publish. Then I wrote the novel that no one seemed interested in but me (and my wonderful Aunty Pat, whose encouragement helped to save the day)… and now it’s getting published.

At the moment, I’m working on MANY books, but two particularly. The first (HoW) is one of the books I hoped to publish: I’m completely re-writing it now that I finally understand what is wrong with it. The other (MoB) is a new book. A very, very new book. Usually I live with book ideas for years before I do more than write the first chapter or so. But back in April, when I’d just signed with RCW and Faber, my amazing agent, Claire Wilson, got me thinking about what might be a good second book in terms of building a brand for myself as a writer. I write across a wide range of genres and that’s fine – when you’ve got a readership that is willing to travel across genres with you. But, to begin with, it’s good to show what you can do in a genre those first readers know they like.

So I sat down and rifled through the cluttered drawer of ideas that’s off somewhere in the far reaches of the leftside of my brain. And MoB clawed it way out of the mess and sat itself down on top and said ‘Me!’ I wasn’t sure about the whole thing, but, at the same time, I felt that this was the book that Claire would want to represent after The Bone Dragon and that readers would be most tempted to move on to. I waffle about it all in my Next Big Thing meme post.

So, decision made, I started to chip away at the idea: started to ask it questions about what happens in teh story. About who the people are and what they are like. About why real people would want to read the book. About how the story worked and what tugged on my heartstrings about it.

MoB isn’t a sequel to The Bone Dragon, but there’s a natural progression between the two so I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the books should be similar while ensuring that they weren’t too similar.

Usually my books develop from one or more mini-ideas about scenes that represent emotional highpoints. The first set of vague idea starts to turn into a book when I know what the key three emotional moments are going to be – from my perspective, though not always the readers. I found I already had the emotional drama needed for the climax and the emotional charge for the hook. But it took months and months and months to progress beyond that. The sticking point, as it so often is, was the climax. I thought I knew what it was. But I wasn’t quite right. I knew what propelled the story into the climax, but I hadn’t yet come up with a good enough Part II: The True Climax. That’s been the case for a lot of my books.

Quite often I have an idea for the climax but when I write it out (sometimes just in my head) it falls a bit flat. There’s plenty of action but not enough emotion, or vice versa. It’s just not quite satisfying. Most of all, these climaxes turn out to be a little too obvious: they’re inevitable to the point where there’s no real surprise. And I’m not talking about twists that come out of nowhere: those are generally a bad thing anyway. What I’m talking about is that little extra thing – that one final step – that takes the climax beyond the thing that is obvious and inevitable to the deeper truth. For me, a really great climax always has an element of revelation, as if the author is saying ‘Here! Here’s the real heart of the story.’ And the moment you read it you go, ‘Of course! Of course that’s it really. Why didn’t I think that little step further?’ So it’s not a twist, it’s just pushing the idea to the end of the line: past the bit where the reader has already thought up to.

The tricky thing about these types of climax is that it’s all about having the right idea. And there’s no formula or technique that’ll deliver it to you. After all, if the idea doesn’t surprise you when you first hit upon it, you’ll probably find it won’t surprise the reader either. Or not quite enough to be truly satisfying. For that reason, these ideas often require some major lateral thinking – not necessarily thinking outside the box, because you don’t want to end up with a twist that’s just a ‘twist for the sake of it’.

Take The Bone Dragon. I think the climax does all of these things, but it also does a whole bunch of things that pretty much every writing book tells you to absolutely never, ever do. There’s one incredibly important rule about writing a good climax that it ignores entirely. A rule most writers – even those that aren’t particularly bound by rules – would think it’s a no-brainer to follow. But breaking that rule is exactly what The Bone Dragon needed because it cuts to the heart of the story: the way the climax is delivered *is* the story.

MoB takes a different tack: a much more straightforward one in structural terms – and in terms of the big rules about creating effective climaxes. But because I wasn’t using structure to push the book to a unique climax, it was much harder to figure out what the climax should be. 

Although technique won’t give you the answers to the thorny questions about what ideas should lie behind your climax, there are things you can do to help coax the right idea out into the light and these things are all about good technique. First and foremost, ask yourself what the book is about… and keep asking. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking too much about themes. Think about your Controlling Idea (to use Robert McKee’s terminology). Think about the ‘Character does Action to achieve Goal with Result’ equation. What are your characters after? What do their attempts to achieve this goal actually result in? Then think beyond that: what does your version of the equation say?

I don’t believe in ‘message’ books but that’s not to say that I don’t think books can’t have a message. It just shouldn’t be didactic. Generally my message is ‘Look at this complex human problem and how it’s turned out in this case. Is the conclusion right and fair or wrong? How do you feel about it and is that feeling comfortable?’

So ask yourself ‘What does my book say about people and the world?’ That is what should drive your climax. Chipping away at my bag of ideas for MoB with that question firmly at the front of my mind finally showed me where I was going wrong. In my attempts to put in lots of action, I was thinking down obvious paths. ‘Let’s have a bit of this. Oooo and a pinch of that. And then they can do this and it’ll be REALLY dramatic.’ Only generally it isn’t, because that sort of thinking generally results in plodding action, even if it’s plodding involving gun battles and car chases. Above all, when you start focusong on what actions should go in and not what the truth behind the story is, you stop thinking about what the relevation is: what are you going to show readers at the climax that they haven’t realised is the truth behind the story all along? And I don’t mean truth as in a fact. I mean truth as in ‘this is how people work sometimes, and this is how the world works’.

It was only when I figured out what I was trying to say with MoB that I realised how the climax had to work. I have a good feeling about it, even though I’m a little nervous about whether or not it’ll work on paper. Sometimes things that seem great in my head don’t, but this feels like it’s one that will. It just feels right: for me, it’s a truly satisfying end that couldn’t push the truth behind the story any further.

Once I had the climax worked out, the rest of the book fell into place, as is so often the case. But more about that in my next post.

For now, the floor is open. So… How do you go about figuring out how your climax will work? When do you do it: at the idea-stage or the panning-stage or the writing-stage?

Foxglove stem against the sky

Planning and plotting

Before launching into a discussion of my favourite ways to plot and plan, a little word of caution… different things work for different people. The trick is to find what works for you, but it’s also good to know some other methods in case your usual ‘tried and tested’ approach snubs you on a particular project. So experiment. Try different things. After all, what works for you might change over time: it’s always worth learning a few new tricks, whatever stage you’re at, just in case.

Traditional approaches don’t work for me at all. Neither do most of the canonical texts about writing novels. What does work for me is script-writing theory. Almost all of it applies equally to writing a novel. I find that script-writing theory is much less vague than novel-writing theory. I’m often not at all sure how to put advice about novel writing into practice: most books by novelists and teachers are less than clear about how to apply the high-concept abstract theories they offer. Which is not to say that the theories don’t make sense or that they don’t have value, but few writers move on from explaining how they arrived at the theory to explore the nitty-gritty ‘now here’s how you break the theory down into basic building-block rules that you can adapt to whatever specific project you’re working on’.

Script-writing tomes tell you what to do – often in painstaking, endlessly repetitive detail (and that’s just the good books!). But it’s better to be crystal clear about the basics than not address them at all. And of course these sorts of books represent a hugely generalised set of bog standard rules… But that’s a great place to start. With any decent script-writing book you know exactly what the most basic format looks like in practice and how it works.

Robert McKee’s Story was a relevation for me. It’s a fantastic toolkit of technique and ways of thinking about structuring plot at the micro and macro levels. The material about ‘opening the gap’ is a far clearer explanation of how to respect the unspoken author-reader ‘contract’ while still delivering surprises, twists and turns – in dialogue as well as in the action – than any other I’ve seen. But this, like every other book of its type, is not a starting point for writing… It’s a starting point for thinking about how to apply technique to an individual writing project. It’s a set of options for figuring out how to make your plot work on a structural level.

So, how does it help me in practice?

Well, when I start a new book, the first thing I do is fill one side of A4 with notes, usually about each character’s role in the story. I then start writing scene summaries: these cover the key things that happen, the main info revealed and the key aspects of how the characters involved interact. Once I’ve written up the original set of A4 notes into a full series of rough scene summaries that outline the entirety of the plot, I spread out a clean sheet of paper and write a summary of the timeline as if the book were a script.

First, I summarise the hook in 8 words or less. Then I glare at what I’ve written. Is the hook interesting enough to make the reader want to read on? Does it happen early enough?

Next, I summarise the Act 1 turning point in 8 words or less. Again, I glare at the page. Does the turning point happen too early/late? Is it actually a turning point or just an action high-point?

Next, it’s time for the Act 2 turning point… but at this point I also summarise the Act 3 turning point (if separate from the climax), the climax and the resolution. Again with the glaring. Is the amount of time that elapses between the Act 2 turning point and the climax right? Is the resolution too long?

If I can’t pinpoint (in 8 words of less) each of these key plot-points and why they’re effective, then I don’t understand my plot. And if I don’t understand my plot, there’s no point in getting on with the actual writing because I’ll have to spend forever editing and rewriting when I could have thought longer and harder to start off with and then written a better first draft.

Now, some people just can’t work like that. They need to discover a book as they go along. I flounder when I try to do that. If I start writing before I know exactly what will happen – and why – in each scene, then I’m going to find the whole process ten times harder than it needs to be. I don’t like radically reshaping books after I’ve written the first draft, so it’s important for me to get the basic structure right from the beginning. With every book, I have a bit of retracing to do, but if it’s just a bit – one or two scenes, or one or two plot-lines – then I am fine. If it’s the whole structure of the book, I struggle to see other ways of telling the story: writing full draft tends to set things in stone for me. Well, not quite, but close enough.

Writing a book is hard enough if everything goes well. Knowing what is likely to be a problem – and doing what you can to avoid those things – is one of the keys to actually enjoy the process. And if writing is going to be your career, that’s pretty important.

For me, the key is planning and plotting using those key script-writing elements to test out whether the plot will hold up. The other thing I have to be able to do before I can write a decent draft is figure out how to summarise the book in one sentence (or two at the most). If I can’t do that, then I don’t understand what the heart of the story is and the book won’t work as a whole, however good individual bits are.

Books are big, complex things with lots of themes and important elements. But there should generally be one key thread running through the whole tapestry. The plot directs the path of this thread but the thread itself is not ‘what happens’. The thread is the thing at the heart of the book where the magic is most intense. If you think you have lots of threads, then you probably haven’t figured out what ties all of them together. Underneath all the little bits of magic there is one key thing. Wait until you find that and the book will come to life in a completely different way.

Or at least that’s how it works for me.

Does anyone else work in a similar way?

BTW, if anyone has any writing theory/technique book recommendations, I’d love to know!

acer leaves in a pond

Procrastination or process?

So I’m working on a new book. Quite a lot of this work looks like staring at the screen. Or searching for theme music. Or reading articles about writing/books. Or fiddling with my headers on various social media sites. Or making tea. And more tea. And even more tea.

I’m not entirely convinced that (all) of this is procrastination.

I think a lot of it might actually be my brain putting up one of those awful hour-glass ‘processing, please wait’ symbols that just make you want to scream until it’s time to Walk Away From The Computer before you end up hitting it (my keyboard periodically takes some serious punishment).

Anyway, the point is that at least some of this is just part of my writing process: it’s my way of letting my brain work out problems and things I just don’t know yet about the book… But some of it is just mucking about and not knuckling down.

The trouble is that it’s very hard to tell the difference. Right now, this minute, do I need to be hard on myself because I’m not writing… or should I be nicer to myself when my brain is just processing a little slowly?

One of my professional goals is to figure out how to make my brain beep when the hour-glass disappears and I’ve solved whatever problem has made me stuck.

One of the reasons I spent so much time yesterday searching for the right theme music is that having the perfect song/piece for a book helps me not to procrastinate. After a few days of playing the song constantly as I work, I start to associate it with the book to the point where putting it on helps me slide into the right mindset, putting me in the world of the book, placing me in the right emotional frame to connect with the characters and the narrative style. It’s a useful shortcut. The key is to find something that is so perfect that you don’t think about the music – it needs to become part of the ‘feel’ of the book.

So, for my brand new YA psychological thriller I need something haunting but menacing at the same time. Ideally, something quite stripped back. I’m currently discussing the playlist options over on Facebook, but comments here with suggestions are very, very welcome too!

I’m slowly coming round to the conclusion that, leaving aside the issue of often not settling down to work quickly enough in the morning, I mostly stop writing and start pootling about aimlessly letting my brain process when I don’t know quite what I want to say next… Which is probably fair enough, but often I don’t return to the book quickly enough once I’ve figured out my next step. So that’s something I need to work on.

Something that helps a lot with that is making plans. I’m much less likely to be stuck when I know all the steps in the plot from the first to last page. I still get stuck on exactly how to angle scenes, but at least I know roughly what has to happen in each… and that gives a lot of structure to my thought process and makes it easier to come up with the right option – or at least a good option to try out on the page – so I’m not stuck for as long. True, sometimes I have to try and try again to get the angle right even when I think I’m unstuck, but if I also have to figure out what the reader needs to learn from the scene, where the conflict/tension is, and what changes in the scene it’s a pretty tall order.

So my plan for the evening is to write up the plan for MoB (the title abbreviation for the new book). It’s in fairly developed form in my head… So developed I can’t quite keep the pieces in order any more. I need to get it down on paper in note-form so I can spot the gaps and start filling those in. Then I need to put myself in front of the computer and write until I get stuck… and then I need to keep going back to the book just in case I’m not stuck but procrastinating. And I need to keep doing that until the book is finished.

I’m aiming for the end of the year for a first draft.

How about you? Are you processing or procrastinating when you’re not writing? How do you tell the difference? How do you try to shift the balance away from procrastination?