Sunday, October 26, 2008

New Favourite Thing: Blank Canvas

I am a great fan of gadgets. Kitchen gadgets (lemon tap, anyone?), techie gadgets, laptops…I am far more often seized by the desire for a widget than for a pair of shoes or a handbag.

But my latest is more low-tech. It’s a magnetic whiteboard…

I must point out this is NOT me. But she looks very excited by her whiteboard, and I know how she feels.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long. In my last ‘proper job’ (if you can call making up ideas for TV shows that will probably never be made a ‘proper job’), I used a whiteboard on a daily basis. The one at the BBC was swankier – the size of a single bed, with a conveyor belt type arrangement that gave you two full surfaces and a print-out of your work at the touch of a button. That used to induce ‘wows’ from hardened TV producers every time (I know the average school has interactive whiteboards but the BBC had a reassuringly old-fashioned approach to these things).

Mine is simpler. I bought it from Ryman’s (despite the fact that the Ryman’s I go to is so badly organised I always end up missing my bus because of the queue) and it’s 39 x 56 cm and it came with a ‘free accessories pack’ consisting of a pen and a teeny whiteboard cleaner and some rawlplugs.

Funny thing…a blank screen on a computer is panic-inducing. Yet my lovely pristine £14.99 blank canvas, untouched by previous dry-wipe markers, represents potential.

I’m at the plotting stage of my eighth novel and I always find with plotting that it works best when I write rather than type, so I can draw arrows and squiggles and so on. Not sure why: perhaps it feels more playful and malleable and creative. But A4 is too small a canvas, while A3 is too unwieldy. And I hate crossings out, I like my plans to look pretty. So a whiteboard is perfect…I can clean bits off and draw arrows and section the page and it doesn’t tear or crumple. I know this is probably Too Much Information about how sad I am, but hey, it's good to unburden myself now and then.

I was feeling a bit blocked Before Whiteboard. Not sure why. Partly because I am going straight from editing Book 7, and partly because I have a fairly tight, immoveable deadline for this book and so I was feeling scared about making a mistake I think, in case it delayed me. Which is silly – writing a first draft is always a process of experimentation and I will make ‘mistakes’ that take me into new, unexpected places. But the whiteboard seems to give me the freedom to play around…

I’ve been following the ‘9 minute movie’ technique explored by Viki King in her screen-writing book. I don’t see this book as a film as such but her idea is sound – you picture the ‘movie/story’ at Page 1 (revealing setting and tone), Page 3 (central question), Page 10 (what will the story be?), 30, 45, 60, 75, 90 and the nominal last page/resolution, 120 (that’s the average screenplay length – I guess if I was getting fussy about it, I’d scale up for a novel to 360 pages). As a way of beginning to fill in the gaps, it’s great and I'd recommend taking a look at the book for an intuitive way to work out your story.

So now I have a skeleton structure. It will change, of course, probably very dramatically. But thanks to my new gizmo and my pen and my imagination, I have a starting point.

I don’t have a whizzy internal photocopier thing, but I do have a digital camera, so I am photographing the whiteboard and then uploading it and printing it off to add to my Book 8 file. Slightly fiddly but again, much better than wrestling with huge sheets of paper.

Now I just have to write the thing…I'm actually heading off for a little while away from the computer to get started, so probably won't post again till after Bonfire Night. Have a good Halloween, everyone! And if you want to get ahead, get a whiteboard...

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Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Return of the Rumtopf and other Credit Crunch Predictions

So, we’re heading for recession like a runaway train, and the publishing industry is jumping aboard. Books on the global money market meltdown are the only growth area in the financial sector at the moment, as newly time-rich, cash-poor (well, it’s all relative: they might be cutting down to four holidays a year, selling the Porsche etc.) bankers decide to try their hands at a writing career.

Some of the books sound more interesting than others, and a few will go on to have a shelf life longer than yoghurt due to the quality of the writing and insight, but I can’t help wondering whether the appetite for most of these books may have waned by the time they’re published. Even when publishing moves really, really fast, how can they compete with Credit ‘Hunk’ Robert Peston and his hourly updates? The schedules of publishing mean that most of these books that are outdated before the cover design’s even been finalised.

But what about fiction? It’s a question raised by the Novel Racers and it’s something I was asked while I was on a panel at the Romantic Novelists' Association conference back in June, pre-Icelandic meltdown and the advent of trillion-dollar rescue plans. At the time, I mentioned the rise of the Bonkbuster: we have Lesley Lokko, Tilly Bagshawe, Olivia Darling and numerous others vying to become the new Jackie Collins (though the old Jackie Collins is, of course, still queen of the genre, her stilettos and shoulder pads primed for a fight).

During the eighties/early nineties recession, the blockbuster (not sure the word bonking was even invented at that point) was as popular as Dynasty and Dallas, the TV equivalents. Sex, rivalry, glamour: they had it all. Crucially they were escapist – and boy, did we need an escape. I was at school in the eighties: I’ve written about those grey days in The Self-Preservation Society. Not only did we face more-or-less assured Mutually Assured Destruction by neutron bomb, we couldn’t get proper jobs: I was living in the north-west of England when school-leavers’ only hope of a job was a Youth Training Scheme placement for twelve months. Then they’d immediately be replaced by another sixteen-year-old, government funded trainee. Then there were the miners’ strikes, the Chernobyl disaster and 'pop band' Dollar.

See what I mean about needing escapism?

So the argument goes: what appealed in the last recession will appeal again now. I do think the glamour and the larger-than-life appeal of the boardroom battles – the busting part of these books – has a real appeal in times of hardship. I’m not quite so sure about the bonking – the trouble with trying to write explicit and mesmerising sex these days is that we can all see whatever takes our fancy with a couple of clicks on a search engine, and so smutty scenes struggle to shock or stimulate these days. If this were my genre, I think I’d be focusing more on the story than the shagging.

But it’s a bit reductionist to say that because blockbusters were big sellers in the eighties, they will automatically be the big sellers now. I am sure some will do very well, but new sub-genres will also emerge. As Danuta Kean says on her website, publishers can be very good at tuning into the national psyche. Though actually in the case of fiction, I’d say that’s often because the foot soldiers – the authors and would-be authors – are the ones innovating and tapping into the elusive zeitgeist.

When I worked in TV ideas development, there was a much more regimented approach to trying to interpret what the viewer wanted: focus groups, trend-spotter presentations, audience research. Sometimes this worked well and sometimes it was a bit mechanical – and, as in publishing, the best breakthrough ideas usually came from Eureka moments by an individual rather than a group brainstorm.

So the breakthrough genres of this recession could come from an unknown author who spots something on the bus ride home tonight…or from a publisher deciding to target a market and finding the right author to deliver the book (remember, Bridget Jones came from a newspaper column commissioned by the Independent).

Predictions are a mugs’ game, but I’m going to make one anyway. And my inspiration for this prediction comes from the best-selling Christmas gift in the hardware/cookware store where I worked on Saturdays as an A level student in the last days of the recession.

Oi, Peston, get investing in rumtopfs.

It’s a rumtopf – an earthenware pot, made in Germany, where it’s apparently a tradition (well, so British consumers were told by the importers circa 1987) to add fruits and layers of rum or any other booze in the run up to the festive season, the result (also called rumtopf) to be consumed neat or with ice-cream when the time was right. If Nigella had been popular in the late eighties, she’d have had one, I reckon.

The rumtopf had the aura of a homespun, ‘crafty’ activity – yet filling one required no expertise whatsoever, unlike jam-making or macramé or making Clothkits pinafores to humiliate your kids. It’s only a guess but I’m not at all convinced anyone in the UK ever drank the soupy, boozy fruit that emerged but in a way that wasn’t the point. By slinging in some blackberries, sloshing in some rum and adding sugar, you were doing something authentic. If you’re an enterprising company looking for a niche product, a reinvention could be just the thing (and if you can’t wait for Alessi to design a noughties version, there are loads on eBay).

So the key to the rumtopf was authenticity. And that is my tenuous mental connection to my fiction prediction (see, I got here in the end).

I’m backing ‘echt escapism’ as a new sub-genre. Echt – meaning authentic, or real, and escapism…well, you know that one. I believe people might find that the books they like will be ones which begin in the familiar world, with familiar problems and dilemmas – the difficulties problems of keeping afloat in this strange new world of depreciating house prices and rising inflation that was unimaginable even two years ago – and then transport the characters somewhere else either physically or mentally. It may be a kind of heightened reality (our world, but more dramatic and extreme) or another country or universe. Think the passion and power struggles of the bonkbuster – or of the great myths – but featuring characters like you and me, people and issues we know to be true.

Or the authenticity and escapism may come from the past, showing us mirrored versions of our own struggles but in a completely different historical period: the Great Depression, perhaps?

I am as likely to be wrong as right. But whatever happens, people will keep reading fiction. As commentators at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair have suggested, the book industry as a whole tends to have weathered previous recessions fairly well because a book is a relatively cheap, long-lasting form of entertainment. And one potential positive for those of us who are not fans of the misery memoir, is that when people's everyday lives are pretty miserable, we will no longer want to read the more exploitative tales of abuse that have flooded the market..

Above all, remember recessions are creative times, as well as painful ones. May you live in interesting times may be a curse, but for a writer it can also a blessing.

Where do you think the crunch will take us, books-wise?

(P.S. the edits are going well, thank you very much)

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The agony of waiting

The wait is over. The verdict on my latest chick lit work in progress is in.

It's good. Hoorah! Honestly, waiting to hear whether the project you have laboured over for months, weeks, hours (oh, those hours...) is the worst part of being a writer. I think I've only felt confident about a book once: the rest of the time I've sunk deeper into despair and doubt by the day. True, I am a worrier by nature: today, for example, I am wondering what possessed me to put my life savings in a country where they eat roasted puffins and blackbirds, and whether with the increase in Brazilian waxing, smear test nurses now expect a close 'trim' from their patients. But editorial fear is a very specific one. It grows, day by day. Even when you know your editor/agent hasn't had time to read the pages yet, there's this constant nagging fear that they have and they're trying to work out how to tell you that what you've written is unpublishable.

But it's not. Yippeee! My editor even said a word beginning with 'b' and ending in 't' (and no, not that one).

Not over, though. Not by a long shot. Now I have notes on what my editor and agent and reader think needs to change. So I go back to my four hundred pages and begin to see how I can make my character even more feisty (yes, must re-read that last post), how to up the appeal of the unlikely hero without making everything too obvious, how to make the villain slightly less crazy, how to keep the fun and lose the faffing...

It means I may be quiet for a little while again. In the meantime, do discover new blogs with the Black Boxes widget from Caroline Smailes' blog - her novel is near the top of my to be read pile, once the edits are over! (Oh, but if you want a recommendation, I finished The Household Guide to Dying over the weekend - it's a library book so got promoted above the others - a pleasure to read with gorgeous writing, plenty to think about, and a truly feisty heroine).

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The F-Factor: Kate’s Rules of Commercial Fiction Part Two

So, if we’re willing to accept for a moment the idea that as readers we like to live vicariously through fictional characters, which is likely to be more appealing:
a) a heroine who is exactly like us: who shares our feelings of panic
and paralysis when faced with life choices, and who spends a long time agonising over and discussing her future before reaching the right decision,


b) a heroine who leaps before she looks, makes impetuous decisions
without thinking, and often makes spectacularly wrong choices before finding a solution to her problems.

OK, these examples are exaggerated for effect, but for years I really did think it was a). Like many writers, I am a thoughtful kinda person (my friends would argue that I am the world’s biggest procrastinator and ruminator and they might well be right) and I specialise in internal monologues that, if transcribed would read something like this

I should go to the gym. Now. Except it’s raining. Does rain burn more
calories? But perhaps I should have six roasted pecan nuts first.
Or swim, swimming is good exercise and I have shin splints, but then again, I
have recorded some good telly from last night. And then there’s that blog to
write. And I should plan my novel. Oh and reply to my emails. And check what
time train I need to get. But then again there’s the gym…

That’s about twenty seconds’ worth – so imagine if I have a big decision, like moving house. Don’t get me started on that one – my friends really went through the mill that time about downstairs bathrooms versus roof gardens, before I ended up moving in with my boyfriend instead.

Dwelling, mulling and other kisses of death

So, you get the picture. I dwell and mull. And so my characters tend to do the same. What better way to build empathy and identification between reader and character, than to share her innermost thoughts and dilemmas? Right?

WRONG! Of all the editorial comments I’ve had over the years, the most common concern my tendency to bung in long internal monologues. The notes will say something like: ‘Your character needs to think less, do more,’ or, more bluntly, ‘Get her moving!’ I’ve read elsewhere that many novels start with the central character making a cup of tea while mulling over his/her life. Can you think of a more tedious start to a book (Someone is now going to find me an example of a truly riveting novel that begins this way – I really am exaggerating to make my points, as usual)?

I call it the F-Factor. The more feisty or proactive your central character, the more interesting and attractive she will be. I don’t much like the word ‘feisty’ as it conjures up a wise-cracking New Yorker who performs an entire stand-up routine over lunch of sushi or bagels with her chums, so I just looked it up :

This is an Americanism which is gaining ground in British and Australian English. It is defined in many dictionaries as 'aggressive, excitable, nervous, touchy' but is now more often used to mean 'spirited', 'assertive', 'able to speak up for oneself' (usually applied to women). It has also appeared in an advertisement for a high-performance car, presumably suggesting that the car is fast, tough, and exciting to drive.
Words tend to change their meanings with time, sometimes through an error which gradually becomes accepted (as with decimate), often by being applied to different things, as in this case. Feisty is changing too quickly for dictionaries to keep up with – and it remains to be seen what the accepted meaning will eventually be.

Interesting. So it can mean what you want it to mean: and in my case I will say, spirited, active, assertive, interesting, willing to take action. Spirited is probably the best of the bunch because it suggests someone with vitality and drive, even if they are driving in the wrong direction (and disasters are the mainstay of comedy as well as tragedy).

Super Powers

I’m not saying your character should race across your pages like Lara Croft or Superwoman, never pausing to reveal anything about her inner life – that would be as alienating as page after page of emotional incontinence. But it’s about balance and if you’re struggling with a character and feeling frustrated, it’s worth considering whether she’s taking enough action.

Two further observations. The internal monologue is a particular pitfall of first person narratives because it’s so easy to do – and it can be funny, poignant, entertaining. But not if you overdo it. Less is more. I’ve learned the hard way and sometimes I look back on my earlier books and wish I could use the red pen right now.

Finally, I’ve realised that this became an issue for me with my second book, when I realised that I should pay more attention to making my central character more empathetic. I heard Zoe Heller on Five Live talking about her novel and saying that people have raised the question of empathetic characters in her novels and her response is ‘if you want to meet nice people, go to a cocktail party’, i.e. she believes fiction is a place to meet difficult, interesting rather than appealing characters. It’s a whole other blog post, but I think there is less room for obviously unsympathetic characters in commercial fiction, the eccentricities need to be tempered, particularly in central characters/narrators (again, there are many exceptions, I’d be interested in hearing about them). Anyway, I gave little attention to this in my first novel so that Tracey, my ‘heroine’, is unmaternal, bitchy, lacking self-awareness etc. I rather liked her, but reader reaction was very split.

Once the Empathy word reared its head, I began to add in lots of monologuing, explaining why my characters acted as they did, including lots of agonising and flash backing. Wrong decision. The key to empathy is to make your character struggle – most of the time it’s what they do, not what they think, that holds the key to reader identification.

It’s a tricky balance – but if you have the choice of a) or b) I’d go for b) every time. But what do YOU think? Which authors get it just right?

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