I published something about Ian McEwan’s new book, what science fiction is and isn’t, Frankenstein, where the word robot comes from, and how this fits with Our Child of the Stars.
I published something about Ian McEwan’s new book, what science fiction is and isn’t, Frankenstein, where the word robot comes from, and how this fits with Our Child of the Stars.
Many great books have great sequels, some even surpassing the first book. Yet the debut author faced with a sequel faces some special issues.
The first book may have taken five years to write and a year to edit. The publisher will want to see the sequel within a year. Building on the audience is key – the book must build on what made fans of The First One like it, but not be a mere reheating. Certainly, it needs to be bigger, bolder… Widening it to reach new fans may annoy the existing ones. Fewer people will review the second, and they may have less compunction about being critical.
Sequels can be close or distant. Close sequels flow easily one to another. The Lord of the Rings was written as one book, divided into three by the publisher. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun follows the same protagonist through his quest with little gaps between books. Or, sequels can be more distant. Ursula Le Guin’s second Earthsea book, the Tombs of Atuan, starts in a different country with a different protagonist. Ged, hero of the first book, turns up half-way through as a foreign prisoner. In an extreme case, Adrian Selby asked to write another book in his Snakewood world chose to write one set two hundred years before, explaining the origins of a legendary figure in the first one.
Admiring Selby’s gall, there was never much choice for me. People who wanted to read a sequel universally want to know what happens to Gene, Molly and Cory, in the very different situation facing them after the first book. And I knew what that was, so I’m happily writing that.
So you want to write a novel? I’ve been asked how several times in recent weeks, often from people who haven’t written more than a report since school. I’d written fiction but only stared defeated at the idea of writing a novel until 2012. Here’s some thoughts.
Write to see if you can do it, and like doing it.
The curse of writing advice is how dogmatic and simplistic some of it is. Read around, and be cautious of This Is The Only Way.
Start writing. Write a dialogue between two people you know. Try short stories. Write description. Look at what things you write work and what don’t. Compare them to good authors you know well. Lots of authors keep a journal. Get a routine, whether every day, whenever you have a free hour, all Saturday. Don’t worry on day one what this writing is ‘for’.
Novels, short stories, plays, film scripts are different art-forms. They have some similarities and some differences. Writing twenty 5000 word short stories is not inherently ‘easier’ than writing one 100,000 word book. Writing well for children is no ‘easier’ than writing for adults. Write to find out what is the form for your story.
Read a lot. Read the sort of thing you like, the sort of thing you want to write, sometimes other things people praise which are not your thing, and non-fiction too. Occasionally you find a good writer who doesn’t read lots. But very rarely.
Some people try fan-fiction, which is taking a story you like and setting stories in that world. It is said to be a good exercise. Maybe try it but two firm DON’Ts. Don’t sell fanfic, and don’t submit it to agents (because copyright: most likely you do not have the right to use the characters). Use it for practice.
A NOVEL? Not surprisingly, if you want to write a novel, it’s a big job and takes a lot of time. I worked on Our Child of the Stars on and off for five years.
GENRE. Genre is a loose description, a set of promises to the reader. It helps people to market the book and to shelve it in the bookstore properly, so it has the best chance to reach its audience. Genre has conventions, and it is important to understand what they are now. For example, if you read a lot of science fiction published fifty years ago, the field has moved on. If you haven’t read Young Adult novels, you’re unlikely to write a good one.
The industry is very wary of cross-genre books because they can alienate both audiences and satisfy neither. But the conventions have plenty of stretch in them.
IDEAS. A good book is not ‘an idea’. ‘An idea’ can be a starting place, but for example, ‘orphan goes to wizard school’ is the idea for both A Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter – radically different books in character, world, story-line, philosophy, writing style and ending.
PLOT. Plot is the events you arrange in order to tell your story well. Lots of other story happens, you just don’t have to write it.
Even good ideas or worlds or research are most entertaining when used as a background to people. Interesting people that we care about, part of their world, driven by things they want, and who face obstacles and the limits of their abilities.
Hamlet is four hours long, yet it asks a few snappy questions. Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and usurped the throne. Will Hamlet do the right thing, and what is the cost? Hamlet would be a totally different play if Hamlet was a different person.
Writing gurus can be enormously dogmatic about how to structure a plot; also a Hollywood blockbuster, a literary novel and an art house film have different needs. But they are right that usually plot is about choices made by characters, a series of events following logically one from the other. They need to provoke emotional responses. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end – a setup, the struggles to resolve the issues, the climax. (That was the original writing guru, Aristotle by the way. He liked admirable people being brought down by their flaws. You don’t have to write that.)
Writing advice. Good advice explains the arguments. For example, ‘all adverbs are bad’ is terrible advice. ‘Adverbs are often a sign of weak or lazy writing, often they can and should be replaced with better dialogue, or stronger verbs in action. Just sometimes they are an option worth considering.’ is better advice.
Yes, there are books on writing, and some of them are useful. I recommend a few below. Some courses are useful and some writing groups. There is absolutely no way around writing, a lot; receiving criticism, some of which you won’t like; and rewriting. Turning your critical skills on other peoples’ work is also valuable. There are services which you can pay to evaluate your work. (This is a service I am developing.)
No, your first draft is not as good as you can get it. Sorry. Yes, some feedback you get is wrong. Sorry.
PLAN OR NOT? Do you plan every stage of your book before you start writing (a plotter) or do you just start with a situation and free-write (a pantser as in writes by the seat of your pants). Many people shift between the two. For example, I start with strong ideas about the characters, setting, themes, their dilemmas, and where they might end up. I develop the characters and theme as I write, then do some hard re-plotting in the first redraft. A hard-line plotter probably ends up deviating from their plan. I like the discipline created by a firm narrative question (will Hamlet do the right thing?)
Don’t try writing a novel for the hope of fame and fortune. The statistics are blunt, whether you self-publish or traditionally publish. Do it to see if you enjoy it. Do it to see if you can.
On Writing, Stephen King
How to become a writer, Dorothea Brande (very old, very interesting)
How not to write a novel, Howard Mittlemark, Sandra Newman
Get Started in Writing Young Adult Fiction: Juliet Mushens. She is a well known agent. Ignore the title, 85% of this book applies to any novel and it explains modern publishing well too.
I have been officially launched for three and a half weeks, or three and a half months if you count the e-book.
The most important things about your debut book being launched are
Some other thoughts
It has social cachet. People vaguely know it’s a good thing to have published a book.
People do say the weird things you are told they do. Some are just awkwardness. ‘You must have done a lot of research’ for example.
It’s worth remembering how individual responses to a book are. Some people won’t like it, some will buy it but not read it for three months, some won’t finish it, and some who promised to review it won’t. Everyone else’s life does not rotate around your book.
Nice surprise, publishing is full of people who like books and like talking about them. It’s very concerned about the bottom line, but they do like books.
Covers really matter. You see booksellers decide to stock on a two sentence description and the cover.
Self-publishing still has a poor reputation out there. Some people know some self-published books are good, but traditional publishing still has cachet.
I wouldn’t say ‘Nobody in publishing knows anything’ but they cannot predict clearly which books will soar and which won’t. In fact, the current traditional publishing model is to do lots of books that do OK or badly; lots of debuts which may not lead to solid book a year careers; and the cluster of high performers and surprising new hits which keep the show on the road.
There is a great glowing galaxy of book bloggers, and your publicist lines them up to write about the book, a great flood of reviews for about two weeks. In my case, I got tons of splendid blog reviews and a couple that were a bit off, but people are entitled to their opinions.
I got positive reviews in the Guardian, Daily Mail, Weekend Sport, Grazia, Mature Times, Candis,My Weekly, and the Irish Independent. In the SFF world, Interzone and SciFiNow were great. Pleased to see the coverage in Financial Times and SFX. So this is magnificent work by the term.
The good thing about my reviews is that the negatives largely cancel out. A few people don’t like Cory. Many fall passionately in love with him. All those people who found it gripping need to talk to the people who found it slow. Etc.
Then you run into distribution. Truth is, bookshops can’t stock every new novel. Many, if you are lucky, have a single copy, placed spine out on a low shelf. Being surname Co… puts you on the floor level in Waterstones New Fiction. You endlessly tell your friends, “order it – usually comes next day or so… Don’t wander around town looking for a bookshop with thousands in a pile.”
The author thanks you for your support. Honest. They’re just trying to remember why they agreed to write that article for publicity to that deadline. And figuring out the next book.
I was delighted to be invited to speak to Woodhouse College’s Creative Writing Class. This is an optional activity, and this particular meeting had 3-4 students who’d come specially. Woodhouse combines a college-y feel and strong academic ambitions with a lot of societies and activities. It’s diverse, smart, and I would have loved that option when I was 16.
I read, then talked through how I came to write it, genre, how publishing works, etc. The students asked plenty of sensible questions, although the questions tended to need quite long answers. Then we did a creative writing exercise around plot.
What did they think? Well, here’s one report.
…Stephen Cox visited the Woodhouse Plus Creative Writing class to give a talk. He read an excerpt from his book Our Child Of The Stars and spoke about writing and publishing the book, giving the aspiring writers in the room valuable insight and advice into the process. He answered our questions on a range of subjects, from finding your voice to how much do authors need to plan and world build in advance? He led a creative writing activity that he uses, that aims to help writers figure out a starting point for a story. It involves creating 2 characters who can be summarised interestingly in 1 sentence each, who have some sort of dynamic between them, in a setting, where one (or both) want something, and something that’s standing in their way. This exercise led to interesting starts of stories that we shared with one another. Stephen’s talk was interesting and insightful, it helped us understand the writing world to a greater extent and his advice and writing tips were useful. I for one will be using them in the future.
Will any of them get a book published? They have plenty of time, and I hope I both encouraged them to work hard at the craft of writing, and gave a not too discouraging discussion about how long the path might be.
It was interesting that all of the plots generated that were shared, were genre or might well have been.
There are five easy things you can do to help an author that require no specific training or equipment.
Please buy and read the book! The main thing the author wants is for you to enjoy it.
Feel free to buy it as a print book, an e-book, or an audio-book. A smart author wants all readers.
If you like it, please, please talk about it – online and face to face. Personal recommendations count. If you’re a social media person, you know what to do. You can help authors you like.
Please think about rating and reviewing on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s easy – giving a star rating takes less than a minute. Reviews do help readers decide; also, more reviews make the book more visible online. A review never has to be an English Literature essay. A few quick lines would be great.
Libraries and charity shops serve the broader purpose of promoting literacy. Most authors use them and encourage them.
Here are five things NOT to do when an author has a book out
Please don’t worry if you haven’t time or energy.
Don’t send bad reviews. They’ve seen it. You’re rubbing their face in it.
Don’t tell them their book is not being stocked in any particular shop. No shop can stock more than a minority of titles, and 99% of the time there is nothing the author can do.
Don’t be rude to booksellers or anyone else; don’t move their books in the shop.
Forget to buy it.
I noticed this exchange on Twitter (26 Feb 2018)
Writing a novel without some kind of a plan is like building a house on quicksand. It is so much harder to fix structural problems at the end of a draft than it is in the development stage.
Well known literary agent Jonny Geller
I don’t agree at all. Structure is a superficial feature of narrative. You can change it whenever you like. What’s truly fundamental is tone. You do need a plan, but the best sequence is–write first, then plan. Then edit with confidence, knowing what you’ve got.
Fantasy superstar Philip Pullman
Here’s the point about writing advice. I’ve learned to be cautious about dogma, because people are fond of saying what that works for them – their brain, their way of thinking – should be universal advice.
Lots of people extol ‘Write every day!’ That’s a great discipline if you can manage it, and for some people the only way to get the time. To be honest, a day of writing and doing nothing else (or two half days) works better for me than seven individual hours on seven different days. (Think about it every day if you can.)
Dogma merchants love the mechanics of writing. Some people handwrite their books in elegant notebooks with a fountain pen they bought at Harrods. Others hammer their old computer like a demented Muppet. Which is right?
I think it depends how you put words together. Some people painfully assemble their sentences like an old watchmaker. They write slowly – add a comma here? Oooh, tricky! What comes out is serviceable. Bit by bit they build the work. So handwriting is fine.
I’m more Kermit thumping out the words on my laptop, to see how the scene works, or whether this approach is too obtuse. I write quick and messy, knowing I will have to go over it again and again. I honestly think I need to write 10,000 words of a major character before I’m clear if they are working. To be forced to handwrite would be unbelievably frustrating. It would be like telling a ‘watchmaking’ writer to write with their feet. I accept the price of this method: writing stuff you change later, deciding an approach is not working, writing stuff you decide to cut.
When it comes to a significant review and edit, I change the font and print it out, and mark it up on paper. This is a deliberate attempt to make the work feel like someone else’s.
Plot or pants? Plan the work or write by the seat of your pants? See the two esteemed figures above. Brian Aldiss claimed to plan books down to paragraph level before he started writing. Stephen King starts with a situation and sees what happens.
I’m more King than Aldiss. However, starting a book without a clear understanding of the final place the characters must end is very dangerous. People don’t forgive poor endings. Where your characters start and end, the challenge they face and the change that happens, is the arc of the book. Starting without this is setting sail in the dark and hoping to find an island which might not be there. I must start knowing an ending, so in one sense I plot.
What is the narrative question, asked early in the book, guiding the book throughout, and answered at the end? Should Hamlet kill his wicked uncle? Can Iago destroy Othello by his lies? Will Romeo and Juliet live happy ever after?
Stravinsky said, ‘The magic happens at the keyboard.’ Writing deepens understanding of the characters, brings out themes, helps you understand this new idea is a better challenge than the old one. I’m also terrified that a detailed plan will remove the impetus to write the damn thing, just as telling someone a short story idea often stops me writing the story.
I start with a rough idea of what will happen, a one side plan. I write a lot, and it makes me reconsider the plan. Sometimes I pause a good way in and redo the plan. But the plan is the servant not the master.
Is any of this useful or got any thoughts? Let me know! This article was a suggestion from a newsletter follower, so subscribe and ask!
Nothing says Christmas like moaning about old TV. I am watching Star Trek The Original Series – I used to love this when I was ten or so. It lit up my world with wonder. Now, rewatching, please send help, because it’s terrible.
I’m not particularly fussed about the terrible clunky sets, the lack of common sense like seat belts, and the fact that it was thirty years behind written SF in addressing either bold speculative ideas, or social issues. In the Christmas Spirit of putting the boot in, I call in evidence:
STTOS is optimistic. It espouses diversity and peaceful cooperation, even if it doesn’t deliver. It aspires to progress. Its penal system is based on rehabilitation, the culture aspires to be meritocratic. Not every episode is terrible. But sometimes when you go back to something, the river has flowed on. Nothing ages like the future.
(Apologies to Pigs In Space)