Monday, 28 January 2013

In Which I Can't Work Out What to Write

One of the minor advantages of ghostwriting is that I don't often have to come up with the big idea for the book. The client has that, occasionally tucked away at the back of their mind where it has to be prised out with a suitably large crowbar, but there nontheless. I just supply the technical ability to write it well.

With my own stuff I am currently suffering from a 'what do I want to write' problem. I have started and abandoned a number of ideas in the last few months, some because they have proved unfeasible, but more because I have simply lost interest. I think, in part, my ghostwriting is to blame for this, because my own writing time is precious now.

That means I am looking for something incredible from my own writing. While I love Court of Dreams, it started as a bit of fun. So did Searching and Witch Hunt. They were never intended to be the greatest novels ever written (though CofD was intended to have a crack at being as funny as humanly possible). Now though, there's a part of my brain insisting that only perfect inspiration will do.

Perfection is a dangerous concept for a writer. A novel is, as Neil Gaiman famously noted in an introduction, a long piece of writing with something wrong with it. Yet so far, I haven't been able to find the imperfect thing that is perfect enough to want to do.

Monday, 21 January 2013

What Makes Me Buy Books

A comment on Facebook had me thinking about promotion and what works. Now, there are all sorts of theories about this, ranging from dumb luck to relentless self promotion and all points in between. Yet I think the most important question to ask yourself is a simple one: what makes you buy a book?

The answer will be different for different people. I will impulse buy a physical book in general only if it is on the shelves of a book shop, where I can be caught by the cover, enjoy the blurb, and read a page or two to make sure I enjoy the writing. It's no surprise that this kind of presence seems to make a big difference for many authors' sales, yet achieving it without the backing of a large publisher is obviously tricky.

So what about online? Here's the thing. I will generally only buy someone's book, no matter how hard they are promoting it, if I have read their writing and enjoy it. Reviews occasionally influence me a little, but I don't read a huge number of reviews. Recommendations from friends will also make me buy books, but my friends don't make a habit of coming up to me and saying 'you must read this' even when they are voracious readers.

So mostly, it's about whether I have the opportunity to read your writing. Oh, and occasionally whether you have a really pretty cover. Which means that I now need to come up with opportunities for people to read mine. I sense short stories ahead.

Saturday, 12 January 2013


I'm reading the Song of Ice and Fire series at the moment, largely because a boxed set of it was going cheap in the sales. It has me thinking a bit about written series and where they fit into the world these days. What do they do for the author, for the publisher, and for the reader? How do we go about writing them sensibly? I've worked on a number of series for other people, and my novel Witch Hunt is at least a sequel to Searching, so in theory, I should understand this stuff by now, right?

The basic idea floating around seems to be that publishers don't like committing to series. Presumably, they don't want to commit themselves to tying up resources in books they don't know the quality of in advance. Yet there are plenty of series out there, so it can't apply everywhere.

For the author and the reader, a series gives almost the same thing: a chance to play in the same world again. Everyone knows what the rules are and how things work. Everyone knows the biggest characters (and the author knows which characters the readers like best by now). Yet not all series are the same. There are a few different types. These include:

(For best comic effect, read all of these as 'Harry Potter and...'. Or don't).

The single epic story. Take the Lord of the Rings. No really, take it away. It has too many songs. Before that though, notice that it's all one story, and that the second one in particular doesn't come to that satisfying an ending in itself. It really does feel like one story that is too big for one book. The same is true for the Song of Ice and Fire series mentioned above. If you have a story that is going on and on, and occasionally you think 'I've got five hundred pages here, I'd better stop and call it a book' then this is the one you're doing.

The consecutive sequels. A lot of urban fantasy series seem to have started off like this, and possibly the same could be said of Pratchett's early work. They submitted a single book, the publishers went 'oh, all right then' and it turned out to be popular enough for them to write a sequel, and another, and... Here the thing is that they're separate, distinct books, probably with a shared world and so forth because otherwise they wouldn't be a series, but each one imagined separately. They don't set one another up as such even if one inevitably builds on the last.

The overarching plot. This is an idea common in TV series, where there's a series plot arc, but there has to be a solid arc for each episode. It's common in a lot of modern book series, and is a lot better as a tactic than just assuming that your readers will read the next one for the rest of the plot. Its main advantage is that it manages to combine definite story endings for each book, giving a sense of satisfaction, with unresolved elements, giving a sense of interest for the next one. Its big disadvantage is that it has to keep getting bigger and bigger, moving away from where you started.

The hastily acquired plot. A variation on the above, coming in largely when a lot of the urban fantasy writers I referred to in the first one realised they had multi-book deals and really should acquire some kind of overarching plot. It's about sitting down, looking at all the things that have happened previously, and trying to work out how you can possibly tie them together so it looks like you meant it all along. I should point out that there's nothing actually wrong with this. It's just hard to do convincingly.

The recurring theme. In this sort of series, you have a series of essentially separate stories, all of which have a recurring setting or theme to bind them together. It's quite common in romance series, for example, where you can't really have one person falling absolutely in love five or six times without it seeming a bit odd, but you can have five or six people in the same job (or the same pantheon of supernatural beings, if paranormal is what you do) who have that happen to them.

The shifting baton. This is just a variation on the recurring theme, where an author emphasises a secondary character in one book, to create enough interest in them that people buy the book where they're a main character. Or to put it less cynically, they try out the character in the background to see if they will work in the foreground.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Right Notes and Wrong Notes

One for the musicians out there, and all about the idea of playing 'wrong' notes. It's a concept that a lot of people seem to have trouble with, and I think that's sometimes because they're looking for someone to tell them what to play next, which never really works. Ultimately, the best way to play is to get a feel for what works for you, so that you're using notes in a way that is musical and natural. With that said, there are strategies for understanding wrong notes that can help.

One core truism here is that the better you understand the right notes, the easier the wrong notes become. So, what are the right notes? Actually, it's sometimes better to think of it less as a binary division between wrong and right than a continuum. If I'm playing some minor pentatonic stuff for example (R b3 4 5 b7) and I add in the sixth, then is that a wrong note? Or am I just adding a slightly Dorian (R 2 b3 4 5 6 b7) flavour?

In general, the idea is that larger forms (seven note scales, chromatic scales) will contain more 'weak' notes than smaller ones like triads. So one of the first things to do when working on wrong notes is to work on being able to hit the notes of the chord whenever you want, so that it becomes easier to go the other way. In terms of their strength (how well they fit with the chord they're going over) here are some ideas ordered from most 'in' sounding to most 'out'.

  1. The root note of the chord
  2. The other notes of the chord
  3. Imaginary extensions to the chord built from the relevant major or minor scale, and particularly the seventh
  4. A suitable pentatonic scale
  5. A suitable seven note scale such as the major or minor
  6. An eight note scale, or a seven note scale with one carefully chosen extension, depending on how you want to look at it.
  7. The full twelve note chromatic scale
Now, it's worth playing with all these ideas, but how do you use outside notes and make them work. One point is that it's harder to hit a wrong note than you think. If the chromatic scale has twelve notes and a normal scale has eight (the root counts as the octave as well) then you have only four notes that are really out.

A classic tactic is to fill in the gaps of a pentatonic scale, particularly on the guitar where it provides conveniently 'box' shaped two note per string fingerings. The trick is to play those two notes, but to play all the ones in between too. The idea is that if you start and end on a good note, the stuff in between sounds deliberate.

Another option is to take whatever chord or scale you're playing off and move it a half step, because a minor second is quite a dissonant interval. You can be more sophisticated with this by using the idea of approach notes, approaching a series of strong notes (particularly chord tones) from a fixed interval above or below.

Those are just ideas to get started with, but they're worth playing around with.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013


Look, a whole new year to play with. I suppose that brings with it certain inevitabilities, such as making lists of goals/things to do in the new year. I'm told that it can help lend a bit of shape to the writing year and give you a sense of progress, but I'd like to offer a cheery wave to those who don't really do it, because I like to think sometimes people get too caught up in the things you 'have' to do. I also think that sometimes, long lists can create an unnatural pressure on your writing. I've seen people saying that they're going to finish half a dozen novellas, three novels and a dozen short stories this year. Well I hope you do, but I also hope that you take as long as you need on the one in front of you to make it really wonderful to read.

One final thought, about beginnings and endings. It can be tricky, sometimes, picking where to start and end a piece. I sometimes suffer from long-ish starts, but it's another place where the writing advice seems to have morphed into rules about how you have to meet the MC in the first sentence, and you have to get to the inciting event straight off. Can this not be the year where we all decide to ignore the writing rules for a bit in favour of just writing well?