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R.N.Morris is an old writer-friend of mine, and ever since his debut, A Gentle Axe, starring Dostoevsky's Porfiry Petrovitch, the examining magistrate from Crime and Punishment, I've known his work for pulling no punches but also being subtle, complex and thought-provoking. Has a superb sense of setting and period and (which isn't the case with every good writer) he's also good at articulating what he does. I'm not a crime-writer, though I love the detective/mystery end of the genre particularly, and am awed by anyone who can fit all the bits together and simultaneously make one care, shiver, and stay up late to find out whodunnit. So when I heard Roger had a new book out, I thought it would be a good moment to ask him to unpick a little of his personal how/what/why in writing fiction, for the Itch. 

***

Let’s face it, writing novels is a strange occupation for a grown-up. (It’s just making up stories, after all.) But if that’s the case, then writing crime novels is even stranger. After all, as crime writers, we spend a lot of our time trying to work out how one person might kill another and get away with it. I mean to say, is that normal? Is it healthy?

Friends and family do tend to look at you in a different way once they’ve read one of your books. As if you’re not quite the person they thought you were, and you might actually be capable of the things you’ve written about. The former will almost certainly be true – the latter? Well, isn’t that the point of crime fiction, to suggest that we might all be capable of more than we care to admit?

Where does all that darkness come from? you can almost hear them thinking. It’s a question that’s worth pondering.

The wellsprings for dark stories are the same as those for any story, I believe. Fundamentally, it’s to do with characters. Characters who want things and need things. In crime novels, some of these characters are prepared to do all sorts of unspeakable acts to get what they desire. It’s about motivation, in other words.

It’s about conflict too. Crimes often come about because one character is frustrated in achieving what they desire. And the obstacle that is blocking them is another character’s contrary wishes. In a non-crime novel, this conflict might be resolved in any number of ways. A third character might act as a catalyst to bring the two antagonists together. Or neither character might end up getting what they want, but somehow, inadvertently, they might help each other get what they need – and through that come to a greater understanding of themselves.

But we’re talking about crime novels here. In a crime novel – the kind of crime novel I write – conflict is usually resolved through violence. Violence that often results in death.

The mental funnel. The process of how you get to the specific idea – the crime – that is at the core of your book probably varies from writer to writer. For me, it starts with a mental funnel into which I pour all sorts of things. I write a particular kind of crime fiction, historical mysteries, so a lot of what I put into that funnel is to do with the period and place that my stories are set.

I then watch to see what drips out of the funnel, one detail at a time. Inevitably, something will catch my attention. The germ of an idea that will grow into a story.

Sometimes it can be quite abstract. My Silas Quinn series of novels is set in London on the eve of the First World War. My idea was to pack into a relatively short period of time a set of horrific crimes that would serve somehow as a harbinger of the wholesale carnage to come. In the first of those novels, Summon Up The Blood, I also wanted to explore the theme of sacrifice and also acknowledge the shadow cast by the Jack the Ripper murders. So I came up with a serial killer who preyed on male prostitutes. Attitudes to homosexuality at the time, as well as the history of male prostitution, were some of the things that I fed into my mental funnel. It’s probably fair to say that in this case I already had the idea – in the form of a theme – I just needed to find a way to make it concrete.

Sometimes it can start with a single image. For example, in my novel A Gentle Axe, it was a body found hanging from a tree in a snowy St Petersburg park, with a second body in a suitcase on the ground nearby.

Whodunit, howdidtheydunit, whydidtheydunit? That image set me a puzzle which I then spent the rest of the novel unpacking. Who was the body hanging from the rope? Had he committed suicide? If so, why? What was the connection between the first dead body and the second? The first part of the plotting process was to ask myself as many questions as possible and work out the answers to them. Some of the questions required quite ingenious – and even devious – answers. But I think I got to them by the simple, if not brutal, exercise of logic.

Logic can be a heartless method, as we know from Sherlock. When I was dealing with the lives – and deaths – of my characters I had to lay my pity to one side. That would come later. That was for the reader to bring to the story. But of course, for that to happen, there had to be enough in the story for the reader to respond to. So paradoxically – and clandestinely - I had to maintain my empathy at all times. Deep down, I had to know that I was treating my characters appallingly, all the while that I was doing it. It’s another aspect of the splinter of ice in the heart that Graham Greene considered an essential part of the writer’s armoury.

The first task of a storyteller is to keep readers reading. And one of the great ways of doing that is through suspense. You reveal as little as possible and keep the reader guessing. The question and answer formula comes in handy here too. I actually use it as a system for constructing my stories – to think of the story as a series of questions. Except every question is answered by… another question. Until you get to the denouement. And even then, perhaps, some questions have to go unanswered. Though it helps if you have the big one, whodunit, already worked out!

***

R.N.Morris is the author of eight historical crime novels which have been nominated for both Historical and Gold Daggers at the Crime Writers Association. After the Porfiry Petrovich series he moved from 1860s Moscow to London on the eve of the First World War, and began the Silas Quinn series: the latest, The Red Hand of Fury is just out. He is also the author of a standalone contemporary novel, Taking Comfort, and an opera libretto, When the Flame Dies (that's a great trailer, by the way!). Roger studied Classics at Cambridge, and on the days he isn't writing novels, he works as a copywriter. 

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... and a few I forgot in the excitement. If there's one I mentioned there and haven't remembered here, or you can't find via the Tool-Kit link up there in the right-hand corner, do say in the comments and I'll try to dig it up. 

With many thanks to Philip Gwyn Jones for being so fascinating and informative about publishing from the publisher's point of view, and the lovely team at the Clapham Book Festival, and the Omnibus Theatre for all the organising, and for the delectable chocolates (from MacFarlane's Deli, since you ask...)

For more about my forthcoming memoir This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin click the link.

The WordsAway Writers' salons are held at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall Gardens, once a month. 

BEING PUBLISHED PART 1: CONTRACTS : First in a series about both practicality and psychology, in the publishing process, from the writer's' point of view.

BEING PUBLISHED PART 2: EDITING : Second in the series about both practicality and psychology in the publishing process, from the writer's point of view.

WHAT IS LITERARY FICTION? : for writers, for readers, for the industry.

CROSSING GENRES: The Perils and Pleasures : being rejected because your book is "neither one thing nor the other"? A exploration of the issues.

HOW TO PRESENT A MANUSCRIPT : these are the industry standards. They're not difficult, they exist for very good reasons, and you'd be mad not to follow them.

SURVIVING THE SUBMISSION BLUES : A post about an inevitable, but not much discussed, part of any serious writer's life.

COMMITTING TO WRITING: Should you, could you, "go for it"? All the questions to ask yourself

HOPING TO MAKE A LIVING WRITING BOOKS? : A realistic picture of the models that (sometimes) work, and the ones that really don't.

BUT CAN YOU TEACH CREATIVE WRITING? : What does a CW teacher do, and is that better than a trainee writer going it alone?

WRITING COURSES: the pros and cons : Should you do one? Which one? When?

SHOULD I DO A CREATIVE WRITING MA : What might it do for my writing? How do I choose?

There are lots more posts about everything from Showing and Telling to how to present a manuscript in The Itch of Writing Tool-Kit, which you can also reach from the link in the top right-hand corner of every page.

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So the writing's going well. You've realised you're happier writing than doing anything else; you've re-found the confidence you had in your childhood and teenage years; you're a nicer and better person in the rest of your life for having those hours on your own with your words. Perhaps you've had successes in getting short things published or placed in competitions, or a self-publishing venture is doing much better than the average sold-it-to-my-family numbers. Maybe, even, an agent or three have said they can't sell this book, but they'd love to see the next one.

Writing is no longer just an amusing hobby, then: this seems to matter to you, and there's a place you want to go with it - not necessarily a book contract, but certainly a greater focus, a larger purpose, a body of work of some sort. But to do that would take more time and energy than your present arrangements allow: could you - should you - commit more of yourself and your life to your writing? Dare you go for it? 

There can be no blanket answer, of course. So, just as with my questions to ask your novel, your description, or your voice(s), this post is about pointers to thinking, not about answers. 

For a start, what does "go for it" mean to you? Doing a course that costs significant time and money? Cutting down on your working hours? Withdrawing the parent-taxi service? Taking over the box room and installing your desk and a "Gone Writing" sign? Insisting that your elderly parents get Meals on Wheels? Getting up at 5am and writing till your partner gets back from her night shift and you can go to work? Choosing not to get a new puppy when aged Fido finally breathes his last? Or just putting the iron and ironing board on eBay? 

How much do you already go for it? There's a strong argument that the thing you should be doing is the thing you already keep finding yourself doing. Do you already look at your diary for the week and pencil in writing time, or do you just hope it will show up somewhere and then mostly it doesn't? You may only have ten minutes a day or an hour a month to write in - but do you defend that hour like a tiger? If there's nothing planned this weekend, do you start clearing the garage or WhatsApping friends, or do you switch off your phone and get on with the writing? When life has made writing impossible for a time, is writing the first thing you go back to when the rest eases off? 

What have you already given up in order to write more? Money, time in the gym, time with the children or partner, socialising, sleep, serious cooking or house-enhancing, other creative arts? It's not that you must already be ruthless in these things, but it's one pointer that your first reaction to wonderful invitations, exciting domestic improvements, or the Bake-off urge to make more and better cakes is, "No, I need to revise that story." If you can't resist setting the novel aside for those other things, then how likely are you to resist setting it aside in favour of fun, when it's claimed even more of your time?

Do you keep going back to writing? Even if your life is full of genuine, unavoidable responsibilities and emergencies, does the current project go on nagging at you, so that you do grab time to write when you can? Do you act in some way - a course, a book, a forum - that will help to develop your writing, and then see that through, rather than just being a course junkie? Is your work focused on actually completing (however slowly) a project worth completing, that teaches you something worth learning. Do you grit your teeth and workshop it a second time, make notes about what didn't work ready for the next project, submit it somewhere - and then somewhere else?

What is supporting your belief that it would be worth going for? Everyone has the absolute right, of course, to choose to take their writing seriously. And we all hope for someone in life whose validation is unconditional: the friend who says "Just send it. I love everything you write"; the partner who supports your passion for writing Fantasy though the only book she ever reads is a Haynes Manual. But if you're seeking any kind of audience for your writing, either from sheer desire or to justify the costs of committing to it, then the fact that writing matters to you, that you're happier writing than doing anything else, that you feel grumpy and scratchy when you can't write, is not enough data to make that decision. In other words, what kind of conditional validation have you had? Who, beyond your mother and your lovely supportive friends, has told you, reasonably clearly, that your writing speaks to them, that they like reading it, that it has power? Has anyone with whom you don't have a direct relationship suggested that although getting things published will still be hard, your writing is of a publishable standard? What competitions have long-listed you, what have you had published in something which exercises some editorial sifting and control? 

Are you making progress already? Wobbles of confidence aside, is this year's writing quite often a bit better than last year's? Is one thing that makes you choose a new writing project the fact that you don't know how to tackle it, or whether it'll be any good, but you'll have a bloody good try? Did you come out of a course a better writer (after perhaps an ugly duckling phase) than you were before? To gain anything from a bigger commitment you'll need the capacity to learn.

How resilient is your writerly confidence? The more of your life you commit to the goal of writing seriously, the more you have at stake. There isn't a writer on the planet who isn't sometimes convinced that they're hopeless (Neil Gaiman's is my favourite version of this), and of course it's unsurprising that rejections may make any of us doubt what we do - but so can having your work out on submission, and even a success can trigger a bout of imposter syndrome. All psychologists and physiotherapists know health isn't about never getting ill, it's about how you recover from illness. So how well do you climb back out of the slough of despond? How do you recover from the cringing conviction that you were (and looked!) a fool to even try that magazine or that agent. How quickly and successfully do you manage to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get going again?

Will you have support for your new determination? That might be financial - your partner picking up the shortfall in the drop in household income - or practical: the children accepting that the box room is not their playroom any more. But it's also psychological. Friends and family who resent your absence, or feel their own failures more acutely when they see you actually doing something about your ambitions, might not dream of overtly sabotaging you. But when they try to talk you down to the pub, or consistently have crises shortly after you've closed your writing door, that's what they're doing, just as the friend is who pushes you to have a glass of wine when you're doing Dry January. Even the generous friend who offers their spare-room or shed for your study may also be longing for a chat; are you willing and able to keep your boundaries solid, and shut the door? 

Are you plagued by procrastination? Many, many writers find that when they finally manage to clear the acres of time for writing that they'd always longed to have, they write no more than they did when it was squeezed into non-existent gaps of time. Giving things up to write raises the stakes placed on your writing, and many writers find that pressure messes with their writerly compass or wakes their inner rebellious teenager. But procrastination has many causes, and correspondingly many, at least partial, solutions.

Are you realistic about what you might (eventually) earn, in return for this investment in your time and your self? Dreams are lovely - necessary, even, to keep us going - but hopes need to take account of the real world to have a chance of being fulfilled.

Do you have a fallback position or a Plan B? You might find you can't make the money you need, or write well what you want to write, or get what you can write well actually published. You might get feedback that makes you realise you need to learn far, far more about writing than you'd thought. Or you might find simply that the writing life really doesn't suit you. If so - what would you do instead, both practically and psychologically, to find a new path?

What do you value about the act and nature of the writing process? As will become clear in my series on Being Published, any kind of serious work to find an audience, and validation for what you write, changes your relationship to your writing. Thousands of writers have had two books published (or the equivalent in other forms) and no more; for each who spends the rest of their life bitter and frustrated than they've never been offered another contract, there is a writer who (perhaps after a certain wailing and gnashing of teeth) realises they are profoundly glad, because now they're free to recapture the unconditional joy that was why they loved writing in the first place.

I hope all of those questions are helping you to think these things out. But please, please do remember something which it's very difficult to hang on to in our Western, success-worshipping age, where we are supposed to give "one hundred and ten percent", and the sort of obssessive-compulsive behaviour that it takes to be a great sports or film star is an ideal, not a regrettable necessity.

That last question is a clue: there's no shame - there should be honour - in deciding that you love doing something, and you will do it as part of your existing life, setting it aside sometimes, and taking it up again at others. Remember that "amateur" means "lover", and "dilettante" means "one who delights in something". I take photographs and writing poems on that basis; I know what it would take to develop them to a professional level - I did do the equivalent with writing, after all - and I choose, instead, to stay with love and delight. Taking anything worth doing more seriously - committing to it - means giving up other things that you might be doing or having, and those are good things too.

Finally - the more carefully you have thought about it all, the easier it is to commit wholeheartedly to whichever road you take. And not only are you then more likely to travel further and take more pleasure in the journey, you're less likely to regret whichever choice you made, back there, in the yellow wood.

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This is the second in a series of posts which I'm planning in the run-up to next February. (Did I mention that my memoir This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin will be published on 12th February next year by Holland House Books? No, surely not!). In each post, I'll try to shed a bit of light not only on the practicalities of what happens when your book is being published, but also the sometimes surprising ways that this whole part of the writing life can affect you and your writing. Part 1: Contracts, is here.

BEING EDITED

If you've ever had good, experienced feedback on your work, in some ways being edited by a publisher isn't that different. It can even be better, because a professional editor's basic duty is to help you write the book that you thought you'd already written - and why wouldn't you want someone to do that? But a publisher's editor must also embody your potential readers: the thousands who they hope will hand over the cash that will pay back what your publisher has just paid you. This is closer and sharper than you've probably ever been to the detail of how publishers stay solvent: and your book is part of that how.

And it's not only about that: your editor is your main interface with the whole publishing house. They will be your book's chief champion, gingering up publicity, sales, marketing and everyone to be excited about it and do their best for it -  and they'll champion it outwards, too, to booksellers and journalists. An editor is up there with the person marking your MA portfolio in terms of the power they have over the fate of your work.

So it's important to maintain a good relationship with your editor, so that each of you can exercise your respective expertises - theirs as a reader and seller of your book, yours as the writer - and integrate them on the page. Since you do need to stay something like friends, while also being prepared to kick up a stink with your editor if the publisher is really falling down on the job, it helps enormously to have an agent, who can have those fights on your behalf.

But you are entitled to your expertise, and so it's not a matter of just "doing what you're told"; it's your book, and your job to find the right solutions to the problems that your editor raises. What you can't do is ignore those problems, since they are problems that will make readers not like your book; but how you solve them may very well not be the solution your editor first proposes. You may find my posts on how to handle feedback useful, and the Fiction Editors Pharmacopoeia might help you decode what the more baffling kinds of feedback say into something you can act on.

All the authors I know are profoundly grateful for being well-edited - and most would say that although the Gordon Lish degree of intervention is pretty much unheard of nowadays (which may not be a bad thing) it's simply not true that "no one edits any more". But that's not to say it's always comfortable. Being edited can feel a bit like having teacher mark your work, and thereby stir up some dormant teenaged wiring you thought you'd long outgrown - and not every editor "gets" every book they work on as the writer would wish. So it's important to remember that this is collaboration: the aim is to have an editorial conversation which results in a better and more saleable book than either you, or your editor, could have created on your own.

THE PRACTICALITIES OF BEING EDITED

Who will edit you? It's probably an acquisitions editor or senior editor who acquired - as in, bought - your book, and they may well go on to work with you on it, and to champion it throughout its life. However, it may be that your book was bought by an editorial director, say, or the acquiring editor leaves, and your editor will be someone else. There may also be an in-house desk editor, experienced but more junior, or an editorial assistant, (which is where all editors started) who's in charge of tracking all the stages and processes, the communication with different departments, the freelances who are used, and so on. In a small publisher one person may do all those jobs, and any of them may be done by freelancers: it's especially common for your copy-editor to be freelance.

Editorial Processes. Traditionally, there are several separate editing stages, and there is overlap between them, so that it's quite possible to combine the structural and line edit, for example. Exactly what your publisher does will depend on both them, and your book, but it's still useful to understand the nature of the different kinds of editing you should get. 

The Structural Edit. This is all about the storytelling: the shape and pace; the order of events, and the order that the events are told in; the development of characters and themes and the resolving of plotlines; the overall voice; the choice of viewpoint characters and the moves between them, and so on. If the book was finished when the publisher bought it there may not be much of this, since it was the rightness of these things which made them want it in the first place. With a book written under contract, (or one where the voice and the premise are so amazing the publisher's taken a gamble on sorting out the plot and bought it anyway) it's likely there will be a good deal more. 

The structural edit is most likely to come back to you in the form of notes, or even an editorial conversation with a follow-up email, and then you will get to work. Specific references will be given as line numbers: "p.6 l.14: sounds a bit grown-up for a 6yr old"; "p.264 l.8 up [i.e. from the bottom]: but what about the trip to Skye?" so make sure you're working on a matching manuscript (I think you can even set Word to show line-numbers?).

The Line Edit. This is all about how the big storytelling issues play out line by line: picking up where the voice wobbles, or any surplus explaining and "filtering".  Are there point-of-view slips or places where things aren't clear? Are characters' voices consistent? Are settings earning their keep in enhancing the mood and theme? Are there any little gaps or contradictions in what people say or do? This is immensely slow and focused work; in the best book I know on this stuff, The Forest for the Trees: an editor's advice to writers, editor Betsey Lerner says that the fastest she can do this is about five or six pages an hour. Fortunately, with a traditional publishing deal you won't be paying for it. And it can only be done by someone who already knows the book, picking up these things in the light of what the book's trying to be.

The line edit is very likely to come back to you as a Word file full of comments, and track changes, for you to click "accept" or "reject", or quite often do something else with - but all in a form they can then review. Do check you know what they want you to do; it's unlikely to be just sending them a new, "clean" version where they can't see the history of what's changed. I have also had editorial feedback via notes handwritten onto a pdf copy of the file on a tablet, and emailed to me as a .pdf. And yes, pdfs are a pain, and yes, publishing does work with them; they may send you a .docx version if you ask. 

The Copy-Edit. A copy-editor's primary job is to mark up the manuscript for the typesetter, in accordance with what the book's designer has decided about typefaces, point-sizes, italicising, how letters and quotations will be set out, whether there are any traps of unsual spellings (such as Elysabeth/Elizabeth in the two strands of A Secret Alchemy) and so on. The copy-editor is the reason that how you present your manuscript needs to be clear, but shouldn't be trying to look like a book. The copy-editor will also correct any mis-spellings and inconsistencies in, for example, how you have spelt names; they will also correct punctuation, which in my case leads to some lively fights over commas. They will apply house-style to things like hyphenation and capitalisation, and -ise or -ize endings; check foreign words and obvious historical references; check that timelines actually add up; check that chapters are numbered sequentially. 

Good copy-editors have the most extraordinary capacity to think their way into your book's voice and intent, and then read it simultaneously at micro- and macro levels, and thereby to save you from your own idiocies. It's a very different skill from even the best writers'-circle feedback, and I'd say it's the one thing that a seriously self-publishing author should unquestionably pay for, however much else they do themselves. It's also slow and detailed work, and not cheap, though again, with a traditional publishing deal you won't of course be paying for it. 

But it should be said that your copy-editor may not "get" the book's voice in grammar, syntax or punctuation. The thing is, a surprising number of authors are distinctly wobbly on all those, and genuinely need sorting out, and more authors still are just not good proof-readers of their own work. Copy-editors - and line editors, come to that - will therefore tend to default towards more standard, correct-but-not-necessarily-right rule-keeping. That's not because they're prissy, tone-deaf grammar nazis, it's because they haven't, in this instance, realised that this non-standard "slip" is part of a larger, and consistent voice in the book that will work effectively on the reader. Are you being consistent and effective in how these things work in the narrative?

You do have ultimate authority over your text, but you must give readers what they will need to read the book as you want them to, and the editor is trying to help you to do that. For the sake of your blood-pressure, remember that everything, always, is only a suggestion, but always consider why an editor has suggested a certain change, before you reject it. 

Again, the copy-edit will probably come back to you as a .pdf or a .doc for "accept" and "reject" or reworking - and yes, it may be combined with the line-edit. In either case, it's very tempting to use the margin or comment balloons to justify your choices (a.k.a argue with Teacher), but it really isn't necessary

One more, and crucial, thing about the copy-edit: all this editing can highlight things which you've never spotted before, and this is your last chance to make any substantial changes or re-writes. Not - unless you want to seriously piss your publisher off - by rewriting the entire book, but certainly in wrangling bits of text, changing your mind about things, or cutting or amplifying stuff.

The Typeset. Now the text will start to look like that of a book. Proper typesetting is quite different - a real craft skill - from just letting a programme like Word do its thing. You won't have anything direct to do with the typesetting, but it's the reason that from now on, even quite small changes will have implications for the book as a whole. It'll be in your contract that the publisher is only obliged to pay for changes to the first 10% of the text (which I confess to being a bit vague about, as a measure, but it's certainly not 10,000 words in a 100,000 word book); the typesetter's fee for any bigger changes than that will be charged to you, the author. 

Proof-read 1. The first proof-read happens when the book has been typeset: this is your truly last chance to pick up any absolute howlers, and at least one other person should be proof-reading too; it's notoriously difficult to see errors in things you've written yourself. These days the true typo - "typographical error" where the wrong letters have been set - is rare, because of spell-check. But "literals", correctly-set words which are nonetheless wrong, including homophones, are horribly hard to spot: should it be there, their, they're, th'air or th'heir? Proof-reading is surprisingly tiring, because it requires you to stay aloof from engaging in the story so as to read what's actually there, not what the story leads you to imagine is there - while also being involved enough in the story to pick up on those pesky literals. Reading aloud helps, as does coffee or anything else which helps your concentration.

This version may well be the one that goes out to the big buyers, journalists, big-name authors, reviewers and bloggers as electronic or physical Advance Reading Copies (ARCs), "bound proofs" or just "proofs". The idea is to create a buzz round the book, and garner quotes (= AmEng "blurbs") to help in the publicity push, and go on the cover and inside the published book. You will notice that ARCs say somewhere "Uncorrected Proof" and something about not quoting from the book without checking the published version, which is important: for The Mathematics of Love, my editor asked me to change the first page, after this stage, and a reviewer who'd quoted the proof without checking would have looked very silly.

Proof-read 2. This should be after everyone's corrections have been incorporated, since it's almost inevitable that an error or two will have been introduced. Again, two people should do it, but I wouldn't bet on it. The only changes that can really be made now are those which would otherwise cause deep, deep embarrassment to your publisher. To which end, one final thought: it's well known in the trade that the bigger the point-size, and the more standalone the text is, the easier it is for the eye and brain to slide straight over without really reading it. Headings and chapter-titles, blurbs and epigraphs - book titles, even - are famously at risk. Do triple-check that your debut novel isn't going out as Captcha in the Roy, or Woof Ball. 

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I've blogged before about the pleasures and opportunities to be found in long sentences, and how to think about the order you put their elements in. I've talked about my own wrangling of a shortish sentence; I've even sat down and worked out just how many versions of a single sentence I can actually find.

And still, the other day, I found myself asking this of a group of writer-friends:

Minor rhythm question. Which works best?

  1. I pulled my cap down and turned my collar up.
  2. I pulled my cap down and turned up my collar. 
  3. I pulled down my cap and turned up my collar. 
  4. I pulled down my cap and turned my collar up.

More people liked the fourth than any other, but there was strong support for the first one too. 

Then novelist Louse Cole said, "Second for me. The musicality is better and it's not a self-conscious parallel."

Prose-writer and writing-blogger April Doyle, who teaches creative writing at Canterbury Christ Church University said, "On its own I like the way the sentence starts with up and ends with down, feels tidier, but if you end with up it sort of launches into the next sentence, which might work much better."

Poet Irene Cunningham said, "I like up on the end. It has a final feel to it, almost onomatopoeic because you can feel the shrug of the shoulders." Which is exactly one of the reasons I love poets' input into prose, and why I'm always telling prose-writers to take poetry courses.

Crime novelist Margaret Kirk pointed out that some might worry about the "rule" about not ending a sentence with a preposition, and that made me remember the "rule" about not separating the two parts of a phrasal verb. But I'm pretty sure that "up" and "down" here are in the grey area where a preposition (modifiying a noun) may be acting as an adverb (modifying a verb), so let's just say that both of those "rules" are a load of nonsense up with which we will not put, and move on. 

Then April suggested switching the whole thing round. So I had four more possibilities: 

  1. I turned my collar up and pulled my cap down. 
  2. I turned my collar up and pulled down my cap.
  3. I turned up my collar and pulled my cap down. 
  4. I turned up my collar up and pulled down my cap.

And I realised, among other things:

  • It's all about rhythm. I'll spare you the fully marked-up stress-pattern thing, but briefly: when do you want a clear repeating beat - "my cap down / my collar up" - and when do you want syncopate over the top of the beat: "my collar up / down my cap"?
  • It's also about sound, and where the half-rhymes stand relative to each other: I/my, coll-/pull-, up/cap, pulled/turned. 
  • That the obvious choice of ending is between a noun and a preposition/adverb. But although "collar" and "cap" are both nouns, one gives a stressed, and one an un-stressed ending. One reason that poets spend so much time on lineation is that in English the ending of a phrase, or a line, is where it stores its power. (n.b. my first version of this point ended with "so often where the power of it is stored". Which do you think is better?) 
  • As April says, the choice of ending also affects how we launch into the next phrase.
  • More generally, no sentence exists in isolation. So much depends on what has just been in our ears, and what will come next - and I do mean ears. This kind of work is not at all about story or logic or rules, but only the silent sounds of prose on the page. 
  • It might also be about voice; here, it's relatively neutral, but which would your narrator say?

So, what did I do? This is how it ended up. 

By now it was almost dark, but in any village there is still the vigilant widow, the assiduous sexton, the old man bored enough to relish making trouble, and they all knew me. I pulled down my cap and turned up my collar.

The walk had been nothing to me in the old days, but now I was tired and footsore as I reached Christopher's door and put my hand to the knocker. And what if the Capuchins heard I was back? 

And, yes, it does make a difference that there's a paragraph break after the sentence in question. Mind you, if you asked me how it ended up like that, I can't tell you. True, I love thinking about technique, and dredging our intutive decisions up to make them ... is "tuitive" a word? But my choice in this case wasn't a conscious, reasoned one - "thinking slow", in Daniel Kahneman's formulation. It was "thinking fast": all I was conscious of was that it just felt right.

Sure, if I analyse why it ended up like that, I could say that I liked the plod of the regular beat echoing in the second phrase - and I like even more the unstressed ending on "collar", which is suddenly a little irregular and uncertain, and seems right for someone who is tired and nervous. But those would be analyses after the event. As I said of writing formal commentaries, writing about an act of writing is often a matter of extrapolating backwards, and attempting "a coherent account of what is an often incoherent and mysterious process of creation."

But, a final thought: I probably spent a good (in both senses) hour on these ten words, had an excellent discussion with some of my best writer friends, and have jumped what I hope is a useful and thought-provoking blogpost off them. However, you won't find them in any book that I have or will publish: that whole scene got cut, in the interests of the novel as a whole. Spending all that time, you might say, was a mistake. But as I've said before, creative work is inherently wasteful. Indeed, as Grayson Perry would say, creativity is mistakes. 

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Many aspiring writers find the book industry baffling, and the prospect of being published very daunting, however much they long for it. It needn't be, but the industry is very odd, in many ways, compared to other industries. And where you don't know what the norms are, it's very easy not to realise when someone you're dealing with is either going out of their way to be extra-helpful or generous, or not doing what they really should for you and your book. 

Since my memoir This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin will be published on 12th February next year by Holland House Books, I thought this would be a good moment to start a series of posts to demystify things. Up to now, I've mostly been published by imprints of big corporate publishers, but Holland House is an independent - by which I mean a publisher that is not owned by a bigger one*. But the fundamental task for a publisher is the same: to get people who might like your book to stop what else they're doing, notice it, buy it, and then tell others about it.

Not all the details will be like this in all contracts - industry norms do change, usually to the disadvantage of the author - but I hope to give you an idea of the usual shape of things. And since this is the Itch, and we all know that all aspects of writing are entangled together, I also want to be honest about the complicated feelings that being published stirs up. Whatever the future holds for your writing, in some fundamental ways your relationship with it will never be the same again. So there will be two parts to posts in this series: the practical stuff, and how it feels.

***

SIGNING A CONTRACT

You may find contracts fascinating, or horrifying. But they're made of words, and words are your medium, so it is possible to understand how they work, and you need to. The thing is, although your agent is an expert in this stuff and hopefully can explain it, and lots of things are standard without much room for negotiation, her/his job is by definition to represent what you want. In the end, you must understand and shoulder the responsibility for your decisions about the fate of your creative work.

Becoming a grown-up in the writerly sense isn't always comfortable - creativity is inherently childlike, after all - but do remember that many of the world's greatest artists were extremely shrewd, not to say ruthless, about business; there's no shame in you being the same. True, it's not always about making more money, but it is always about doing your work justice. Besides, the world is full of creative people who didn't realise what they were signing away - and are now very bitter, and a good deal poorer, than they might otherwise be. 

But, chiefly, signing the contract is time to open the celebratory bottle of Appletise, prosecco, or vintage champagne. The Happy Author Dance round the kitchen is also definitely in order. Enjoy it - make the most of it - thank your agent for wrangling it - remember the moment forever. Many writers would agree that it never gets better, in some ways, than their first book contract.

However, this moment is also, I should say, profoundly weird. For the first time in your life someone else has rights over your work. You will have ultimate veto over the text of the book, but publishing is a collaborative process; your editor's job is to help you to write the book you thought you'd already written, which his or her boss has now paid you good money for. So you must, within reason, listen to their editorial feedback and work with it as best you can.

And remember that though you are the expert at writing books, it's your publisher who is the expert at selling books. Your experience as a reader and bookbuyer is not typical because you are a writer while the vast majority of readers are not - but your publisher lives and dies by understanding that majority. And it's your publisher's money at stake; even without your advance, that'll be anything upwards of £50,000 and maybe into hundreds of thousands. So your contract won't give you a right of veto over the crucial selling-tool which is the cover, only the right to be consulted over it - and the same pretty much goes for those equally crucial selling tools, the title and the blurb. More generally, you will not have final say in how the book is sold and promoted. If your book is your baby, in other words, having it published is very like waving it off to university. It's an adult, now, and other people may have more direct control and influence over its fate than you have.

One last effect of signing a contract is that this is real. Your book is going out there, and it's almost impossible not to start feeling twitchy about how it's read and judged by your editor, the sales team, publicity and marketing. If you thought it was hard to cope, having writing out on submission, this is both better - a contract is a huge vote of confidence - and worse, because it's heading out towards not a few dozen professionals you've researched, but thousands of total strangers with social media at their fingertips. Don't be surprised when that new self-consciousness wakes your own Inner Critic, and knocks your writerly compass off true, all over again.

PRACTICAL STUFF ABOUT CONTRACTS

As with any contract there are the central terms which you want as much in your favour as possible - which is where an agent, or the magnificent contract-checking service of the Society of Authors, comes in; the Society also have excellent leaflets about contracts which non-members can buy. Publishing is collaborative, and thrives on everyone working together to get a result that no one party would have got on their own. But your interests and your publisher's interests are not always the same, and even after a million rejections you shouldn't be so crawlingly grateful to have an offer that you accept the terms you're offered unquestioningly, or sign a terrible contract. I should say that these are norm-ish things for a trade book sold to a trade publisher - i.e. for general readers buying in bookshops. Academic books and textbooks are different games, with different rates and norms: again the Society of Authors has experience in depth of this.

But whatever the book, a publishing contract is built on a basic deal: you, the author, grant the publisher a licence that gives them the right to create the physical or electronic book that you have written, and sell it, in certain forms, in certain places, for a certain length of time.  In return, the publisher promises to pay the author a certain amount of money per book sold: a royalty. The author does not - this is absolutely crucial - sell the publisher the copyright outright.

I should point out that I am not a lawyer, but as I see it, these are the major questions that any contract should answer (there are dozens more smaller issues) for each book that the contract covers:

When you will deliver each book. The chances are you've already written the first one, but if you haven't yet, there will be dates fixed for delivering it, and then any other titles. The publisher contracts to publish within, say, two years of the book being delivered and accepted, (i.e. when they agree that it's in a publishable state.) The rest of the contract terms are probably the same for each book.

How long the publisher keeps the right to publish your book. They will want the life of the copyright, your agent would prefer five years, renewable. If the book goes out of print, or sales drop below an agreed number per year, or if the publisher goes bust, you will get the rights back in any case, and, indeed, you also get the rights back if they don't publish within that two years.

What forms the publisher will produce the book in. The main ones are: hardback; "trade paperback" which is a big, handsome paperback instead of a hardback; mass-market paperback; e-book. Each has its royalty rates.

What other rights you sell the publisher. Your agent will try to keep some or all of these: firstly, because she/he has experience at selling them and may do a better job, and also because you won't be then sharing some of the money with the publisher: 20% would be a normal cut for the publisher to take, with 80% going into the pot to pay off your advance. If you don't have an agent, it would be a rare author who could tackle, say, selling translation rights; most would have to rely on the publisher.

a) Subsidiary rights, as these are called, include: audio book; large print; serial rights; and adaptations including radio, TV, stage, film and perhaps graphic novel or even computer game. Audio and large print will not be produced in-house, but sold to a specialist company; serial rights would be for a magazine or newspaper to serialise the book; film and TV companies would buy the rights for perhaps three years, perhaps renewable, to develop a script, and then try to get it commissioned, and then actually shot; there will be clauses for more payments at each stage if it actually happens - which is very, very rare.

b) Foreign and translation rights. Again, your agent may want to keep these and sell them directly, or include them in the deal for the publisher to sell on. Publishers usually want World English Rights - agents would often want to sell only UK & Commonwealth rights, and keep US rights to sell directly. Whether Canada counts in with Commonwealth or with the US as North American Rights, usually depends on which deal is done first; other parts of the world may be "open market": i.e. your US and UK publishers can both sell into those territories. Translation rights can be extremely valuable if your book is one which will appeal to readers in many countries: a foreign publisher will buy the rights to publish in that territory/language, and commission the translation. With translation rights, some deals will be advance-and-royalties, some smaller ones may be a flat fee for a fixed print-run.

How the author will be paid. The basic payment is always per book sold. For physical books that's a percentage of "cover price" i.e. the price on the cover regardless of any discount stickers: 10% for hardback and 7½% for paperback is traditional. For ebooks the price they're sold at varies wildly so the royalty will be a percentage of "net receipts", i.e. what the publisher is paid by the companies selling the ebooks onwards. 25% of net receipts has become an industry norm even though, sadly, it usually works out as a bit stingier than 7½% of cover price.

 There might be "escalator clauses" for an increased royalty rate, or a single payment, if sales reach certain super-thrilling numbers.There will certainly be some slightly brain-spraining arrangements about what happens if the publisher sells the books at "high discount" to a seller: say over 52%. That's usually to the big online retailers and wholesalers who demand that kind of discount so they can discount the cover price to the customer drastically, or put the book into a buy-one-get-one-free or other promotion. With your high-discount royalty will probably be something like four-fifths of your normal royalty.

Having said that, a mainstream publisher will normally be offering "an advance". This is a sum of money which represents their best guess at what the author's royalties are likely to be for this book, paid before those sales happen. If the projected sales don't happen, you don't have to give the advance back, though you do if you fail to deliver a publishable book in the first place. The advance is also a commitment from the publisher to fulfil their hopes and ambitions, not least because if they gamble money on an advance, as well as the costs of publication, they must work harder to earn it back. If there's competition for the book, the advance offered will also be trying to lure the author to that publisher. 

The advance will be paid in stages: there are variations on this, but the most protracted (but very common) setup would be a quarter on signing the contract, a quarter on delivering the manuscript, a quarter on hardback-and-ebook publication, and a quarter on paperback publication. The thing to understand is that all the money a publisher actually receives when the book sells, whether it's in book sales, or in selling rights onwards, goes into the pot to help pay back your advance: you won't get any more money until the advance has "earned out" in this way.

Many authors would say they never actually get royalties, unless the book stays in print for decades - and that's fine; it shows their agent did a good job of getting the biggest advance they could. But, note that it's better for the book - which is to say, your career - to earn out a smaller advance and thereby fulfil a publisher's modest hopes, than to get a monster advance only for sales to fall disastrously short of the advance and the outsize hopes it embodied.

That's another reason for your agent to hold on to as many rights as possible: not only will your publisher not be taking their 20% off, but the money will come directly to you, instead of going into the pot at your publishers.  In practice, subsidiary and foreign rights are the bargaining chips, like curtains and dishwashers when you're selling a house: a way for both parties to get more of what they want and still reach a deal.

How the author will be kept informed. Traditionally, publishers send royalty statements to their authors every six months: the statement shows what books have been sold in the preceding six months, and how much is due in royalties. If you are due some, they then have three months to send the money to your agent, who takes her/his 15% commission, and passes it on to you - but many contracts will agree that if the payment due is less than, say, £50, it can be held over till the next accounting period. If you had an advance, the statement show how much of the advance is still unpaid. The statement will also summarise the lifetime sales and other cumulative figures.

There is really no excuse, in the 21st century, for it being so not-real-time, and some US publishers have actually given their authors direct access to real(ish)-time sales figures - but the book trade is notoriously slow to notice that quill pens have been phased out. Around publication, more publishers will keep authors updated much more frequently, say every two weeks or month. Mind you, some authors hate this, since there's really very little you can do to make any difference to sales this close-up, and they don't want their head and confidence messed with as they wrangle a recalcitrant chapter of That Difficult Second Book.

There's one more thing about sales in the contract. New titles are sold by publishers on "sale or return": the bookshops can buy what they like, then send back any they don't sell and get all their money back. This encourages booksellers to order lots, and put them under the noses of possible readers. So the publisher is, by contract with you, allowed to hold back, say, 10% of the royalties they apparently owe you, to cover the possibility that those sales become returns. It does all straighten out in the fullness of time, but it can be a shock on your second statement to see what had been actual sold books and their royalties evaporating, as the returns come in. (The Online Retailer who Must Not Be Named, it should be said, buys firm, and some big publishers will only sell titles older than say 18 months as firm sales too, as returns are hugely wasteful.)

I hope that helps make things a bit clearer. The best book I know about all this stuff is still Harry Bingham's Writer's & Artist's Yearbook Guide to Getting Published. It is now rather long in the tooth, and what was a perfectly adequate short section on self-publishing when it first came out is no longer adequate at all. But the fundamentals of the economics and systems of how books are sold, and how we fit (or fail to fit) into that system, haven't changed at all, and Harry Bingham explains them extremely well, and with humour.

 ***

*On This Itch of Writing, an independent publisher is one which is not owned by another, larger company - large examples would be Faber or Profile, smaller might be Seren, Comma, Swan River Press or The Linen Press. I don't mean  a self-publishing service company, which is a completely different thing, nor a group of self-publishing authors banding together, nor anything else where the author contributes to the costs involved. And I definitely don't mean a "subsidy" or "co-operative" publisher, which are basically vanity publishers by another name. 

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I know that many aspiring writers who happily read blogs or belong to writing forums are nonetheless very wary of the more dynamic forms of social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest and all the others. Which wouldn't matter, except that it is genuinely harder and harder to make any kind of way as a writer without doing some of this stuff - not least because publishers will be wary of a writer who is invisible in social media terms.

But the good news is that it's perfectly possible to have a useful presence out there. So to that end I've asked Anita Chapman, who as Neets Marketing runs courses in social media management for authors and publishers, to talk about how you can get involved without selling either your soul or your entire working life.

And the other good news is that it can be fun. I've taken part in some really good discussions of writing topics with some well-known writers, all in 240-character tweets, I've made contacts that have resulted people buying my book and offering me work, and it's the main way I keep in touch with my writer friends and potential colleagues and collaborators all round the world.

So, in the Itch spirit of overcoming the fear by understanding more clearly what's involved, over to Anita!

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Over the past few years, I’ve trained and worked with unpublished writers; and authors who write for traditional publishers, and who are self-published. Emma invited me to write about social media for aspiring and new writers, and for anyone who feels a bit daunted by it all, so hopefully the following post will take away some of that fear that can stop you from getting started.

Why do writers need to use social media?

These days, authors are expected to have social media accounts set up, and to know how to use them, whether they’re published traditionally, by a corporate or independent publisher. And of course, if you decide to self-publish, you will do all of the marketing yourself. If you’re unpublished, but submitting to agents and publishers, it’s a good idea to set up social media accounts and a blog now.

Many authors set up social media accounts and start a blog before they’re published. When a book is released, there is so much to do already. In the run up to publication date, there are deadlines to meet and often the next book to write or edit, guest posts to draft and interview questions to answer for a blog tour*. And then there’s the hunting down of the right outfit and cake for that launch (ha) as well as other stuff. The last thing you need is to be learning how to use social media then, and unfortunately it’s not possible to build an online presence in the two week period before your book comes out.

I know authors who have been in that situation, who wished they’d started sooner, but then built their presence steadily before the next book, and are now doing really well. If you’re in that situation, don’t worry - just think about moving forwards and plan for the next book. Blog tours can be arranged between books as well as around the time of launches too.

And if, when you get that book deal, your publisher asks you to write under a different name, you’ve already learnt how to use social media and built your network; and you can change the name on your social media accounts - so I wouldn’t let that stop you from setting up accounts now.

Where does the fear come from?

The fear mainly relates to unpublished writers not feeling worthy, not knowing how to deal with potential unpleasantness (which is talked about in the press a lot), and not knowing what to do. There’s also the worry that strangers can see what you post online.

How can you protect yourself online?

You can block and report accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; and you can set up posts on Facebook to be seen by certain friends only. On Facebook, if anyone is being unpleasant, you can unfriend them. You can also choose who sends you friend requests and who to accept as a friend. Check Privacy, Timeline and Tagging, and Apps under Settings on Facebook especially carefully (also see my postscript below, in relation to the recent Cambridge Analytica data breach).

If revealing too much of your personal life to strangers is a concern, think before posting photos of your family and where you live and post photos of places you visit only after you leave.

How can writers get started on social media?

Start with Twitter, Facebook and if you have time, Instagram which is growing in popularity. Observe those authors who use social media well, and start to build your online presence. It takes time to gain the right followers, i.e. other writers and authors, and those in the book world as you grow your network; plus book bloggers, booksellers, librarians, potential readers, and followers relating to your brand who may help to spread the word about your books (see “What’s your brand?” below). Build your online presence slowly and steadily, looking for those Twitter and Instagram followers mentioned above.

On Twitter, try not to just retweet. Quote tweets, adding your own comment. Create your own tweets relating to your brand (see below) or to what’s trending (a nice easy way to get started, and to get your profile out there). Get to know the writing community by taking part in writing chats such as #WritersWise #writingchat #histficchat, and use hashtags for writers such as #amwriting (there are many others – see my post on hashtags to understand what they are and how to use them).

On Facebook, make friends with other writers, authors, book bloggers and join Facebook groups for writers and bloggers, as well as those relating to subjects and themes from your books, and your interests. Before your book is released, you can set up a Facebook Page so readers can keep up-to-date with your news, but Facebook Pages tend only to be effective (i.e. Facebook shows these posts in News Feeds) when you pay to boost posts or create adverts using Ads Manager.

If you can, set up a blog and learn how to write an effective blog post, i.e. one that gets the page views. This is good practice for when you write guest posts for blog tours.

Who is the online you?

Decide how much of you, you want to give online. Will you talk about your family and your personal life, your political views, or will you keep your online presence just about writing and general interests? If your book is a memoir or about something going on in your life, then you may want to share more of yourself online.

Be aware that if you talk about politics, religion, big issues, there will be tweet replies and Facebook comments which disagree with you (some more diplomatic than others), and it’s worth thinking about whether you want to, and are able to deal with this. Make these decisions early on, and don’t go on social media after a few drinks – I have seen many a Facebook post and tweet deleted the morning after the night before.

What’s your brand?

Think about what defines you and your books and aim to focus on those subjects and themes when you post on social media.

Getting past the fear factor:

Just get stuck in. You’ll need to invest time in social media to be successful, and make it part of your life. Building your presence slowly and steadily works well, if you haven’t got that book deal yet. Observing those who know what they’re doing is key. It’s better to make a beginner’s mistake before you’re published (such as copying in lots of people on a series of tweets which have nothing to do with them), and of course, don’t say anything online which is offensive to others. I’ve heard stories about authors not being taken on by agents and publishers because their social media accounts haven’t shown them in the best light. It’s worth thinking carefully about what you’d like agents and publishers to see if they google you or look at your social media accounts.

My social media blog for writers includes how-to posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogging and more. Many author guests have visited to give their advice on book marketing and social media too (see my bio below for the link). Good luck!

*What is a Blog Tour? Authors often take part in a blog tour near to the publication date of their book. It can last for a week, two weeks and occasionally a month; with usually a series of daily (one or more) guest posts/interviews and reviews from advance copies of the book (known as ARCs) appearing on book blogger blogs. Guest posts can be on other types of blogs too. Blog tours are often organised by publishers, and also authors by approaching bloggers directly or via a blog tour organiser.

postscript: The above post was written before the Cambridge Analytica data breach revelations, and this article, at The Guardian explains how to protect your privacy settings on Facebook. The information relating to the App Settings page on Facebook and ‘the apps others use’ is particularly helpful.

Anita Chapman is a writer, freelance social media manager with clients in the world of books, and a tutor at Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College (RHACC), Surrey (UK). She runs her own one day social media courses for writers in London and York, and teaches a ten week course, Social Media for Writers and Bloggers at RHACC. Find out more via her website, www.neetsmarketing.com, where there are links to her social media blog for writers (with how-to posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more), and her writing blog. Anita is on Twitter @neetsmarketing and @neetswriter.

 

And if you're a writer new to the Itch, do have a browse. There's a search box up at the top of the right-hand side-bar, which should help you find particular topics. Or click straight through to The Tool-Kit, which is where all my most substantial posts about the art and craft of writing are listed.  

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I’m delighted to say that my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin, will be published by Holland House Books on Darwin Day - 12th February - 2019.

I'm hugely grateful to my wonderful agent Joanna Swainson, of Hardman and Swainson, and Robertt Peet of Holland House Books. But as this is The Itch, I wanted to say a little more, because although the book is rooted in the novelist part of me that wrote The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy, the writer-about-writing, fresh from Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is also involved.

But this book has really come out of my failure to write a different book. For years people have asked me when I was going to write a novel about my family, but as well as my own inhibitions about The Ancestor (of which more here on the blog, and here in the Telegraph) I couldn’t see where the story was. Then I was asked to talk about creative thinking in the wider family, and began to wonder if I could, after all, grow a novel out of the science and the art - the creativity - that runs through two and a half centuries of my family like a seam of Potteries clay.

Books about Charles Darwin and his wife and cousin Emma Wedgwood are legion, but I wanted - creatively speaking I needed - to take the road less travelled. There were the fascinating real lives of Erasmus Darwin and the Lunar Society; Tom Wedgwood, the first photographer; Julia Wedgwood, who as a writer and intellectual was ranked with George Eliot; Ralph Vaughan Williams and his extraordinary love story; and poet and Communist John Cornford, first Briton to be killed in the Spanish Civil War.

But even when I invented a fictional character and slid her into the creative lives of Charles Darwin’s grandchildren - my grandparents’ generation - I struggled. There were ten biographies and memoirs written by and about my major characters - there are two on Gwen Raverat alone - and that was before I tackled the books about secondary characters such as John Maynard Keynes, Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf.

Nor was it simply a matter of whether I was “allowed” to change my grandmother’s dates, make a villain of a man whose sons, my cousins, are still alive, or write a sex scene involving someone I’d actually met. The real problem was that these people explore their own motives and feelings, and they tell their own stories: where was the space for me to make a story of my own? In trying to do so, I spent three years in a fierce struggle between my heritage and my identity as a writer - and ultimately the struggle nearly killed me.

When I was better, I gave up the novel. But the desire to write about the family went on scratching at me, and at last I realised how I might do it. This Is Not A Book About Charles Darwin is creative non-fiction, and it takes the reader on a journey through my family, evoking them and their times through the lens of my struggle to grow fiction out of them.

I wanted, too, to evoke what it feels like write creatively: to hunt down something that doesn’t yet exist; to spin invention, memory and research together until you can’t tell the difference; to have mere names grow into real-seeming people who have their own life; to take ruthless technical decisions to make your story seem natural and real: to do what Siri Hustvedt describes as "like remembering something which never happened".

So This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin is part memoir, part biography, part book about writing and how stories are told, but at heart it’s the story of how a creative disaster came out of seven generations of creative thinkers. All being well, a year from today it will be on the bookshop shelves. And, meanwhile, in among business as usual on the Itch - which is mostly about your writing - I’ll be blogging about the process of having my writing published, exploring both the facts and the feelings of having a piece of creative work go out into the world.

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A few weeks ago, I got an email from a writer, Philippa East, who did our online course in Self-Editing Your Novel (We'll have 300 graduates, by the time the current course has finished. Could you be our 301st?)

Hi Emma - I'm wondering if you have any blogs or can recommend any articles on revising a novel to change it from single POV to a dual POV structure? I understand the basics of writing in multiple POVs, but I'm looking for any help with actually tackling this kind of serious rewrite. Currently I sort of know what I have to do but just don't know how to do it. Thanks for any advice!

I said I didn't know of any articles, but I'd put it on my to-do list, so here goes. If you want a re-cap on the basics of point-of-view, and the possibilities when you tell a story through more than one point-of-view, pop over to the Toolkit. Here, I'm assuming that you've taken those posts on board (or know it all already), are well into the project and are reasonably happy with it in other ways. And for now we'll stick to the conventional assumption that once you've decided which character's point-of-view you're working in, you can only show things that they could and would experience, understand or know. (Although that is only the conventional view: for a different take, scroll down my post on internal narrators). 

So, if it was all from Ann's PoV, how do you decide what to re-work in Bill's, or Con's? There are two main things to think about:

What's already "on-stage": existing scenes. In terms of scenes in which Ann and Bill, or Con, or all three, are already both present, you could try reading through each scene with a highlighter, say, and marking which bits would be fruitful in Bill's or Con's. The precise moment of shift might be obvious, or it might be something you decide as you re-work the scene, and realise where there's a natural point to move out of one head and into the other. For more about how to move PoV - and yes, of course you can do it mid-scene - click that link. 

What used to be "off-stage": new scenes. If Bill or Con was at events that Ann wasn't, you can now write those events directly, rather than finding other ways to make sure the reader knows about them. But should you? One reason beginner-writers often shy away from working with several points-of-view because how on earth do you decide, when anything is possible?

How to work it all out. If you want to get maximum creative value out of your new PoV, you're going to have to go back to the basics of how the story is built. Try a planning grid, with rows for chapters. The first column is Anna's PoV - i.e. the current version. Jot a note for each scene which is "onstage" at the moment, so you have the outline of the current version from beginning to end. Column two and three are for Bill's and Con's points-of-view- or whoever else is a possible viewpoint character. Make a note of any "off-stage" scenes which currently happen parallel to the "on-stage" scenes, but which Bill or Con are present for. I would then make a fourth column, which is, if you see what I mean, the "new on-stage" version: a first try at laying out the scenes which will now make up the novel. As I jot the scenes into their right places, I'd put little A or B or C in a circle by each one, to show what I think I'll be doing in terms of which PoV for which bit. Do it all in pencil, and be prepared for a LOT of rubbing out while you work it out, not least because you might want to write ...

...totally new bits of story. As you roll around in all this material, it may well be that you realise that things are shifting, and you can or must write new events. If so, don't sigh: it's a really good sign. Huge-scale carpentering on an existing draft always carries a certain risk that you're creating Frankennovel, but finding your creative (as opposed to editorial) imagination waking up proves that the novel is being re-born as a creative whole.  (Apologies to whoever first coined "Frankennovel", because I can't remember, but I do so love the concept and have created at least one myself, so please out yourself in the comments if you want to.). 

Remember that the narrative voice may, even should, change. As you'll know if you've got your head round Psychic Distance, a different PoV may also affect the narrative voice. The closer-in we are to that character's consciousness, the more the scene and how it's narrated is coloured and shaped by that character's personality. So changing PoV from Ann to Bill doesn't only change the mechanics of what you show us, now we're in Bill's head, and give you the chance to withhold or supply information, it also may also change the words you use in both Showing and Telling us what happens. If that shift from Ann's voice-and-point-of-view to Bill's isn't coming naturally - often it doesn't - there are various things which help.  

  • Copy-type the new PoV sections, don't cut-and-paste. This is why and, I'd say, it's crucial if you want to make sure you don't give birth to Frankennovel. 
  • Make sure Bill and Con are really developed characters: perhaps review their dialogue, as a way of clarifying their voices now you need them to colour the narrative as well.
  • Write some of Bill's in first person, maximising the differences quite cold-bloodedly, in some of the ways I suggest in that post, then flip it back into third.
  • First-draft a short story in Bill or Con's voice-and-point-of-view. Sometimes it's easier to develop this kind of thing independently of the practical demands of the plot you already have.

And that's it, I think. Oh, and Happy New Year! 

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I don't believe in giving things up for the New Year. True, the days are getting longer, and just this morning on the Essex-Suffolk border the sun is sparkling, but here in the northern hemisphere there's an awful lot of dark-and-cold about. So it's asking to fail, it seems to me, to choose to think in terms of denial and deprivation in matters where you don't have to. Instead, here are some Trees of Life, from the Museo de Arte Popular, in Mexico City. 

 

In a similar spirit, this post, from the same season a few years back, is about forgiving oneself for failure, but this year, by way of wishing my dear blog-readers all writerly health and happiness in 2018, I've been looking ahead. What might you (I) choose to do and think about, to make your (my) writing life richer, happier, easier, more productive and, as a happy by-product, perhaps more successful in worldly terms? 

Walk up a hill every day. You may not care about your bodily health, but the brain's blood vessels fur up as easily as the body's do. What's more, if you pop a plot problem instead of a phone in your pocket, you're likely to come home with the problem solved.

Practice staying inside your head, because that's where the writing is. In this clamorous world, it takes more forethought, but it can be done. Not least, on that walk.

Allow yourself to take your writing seriously. Writing is the thing that we love doing more than anything else, but the ratio of effort to material reward is so very unpromising, it's easy to feel in this post-Protestant, capitalist world that it's self-indulgent. You may have got over the idea that you "ought" to give up altogether, but your Inner Calvinist may still be very good at self-sabotage, in his/her own guise or dressed up as some other helpful but misguided soul.

Allow yourself to take the tools of your trade seriously, as part of taking your writing seriously, from the notebooks that suit you best to the software (such as Scrivener) which doesn't get in the way of your writing and the chair that doesn't wreck your  back. This is one of the wisest ideas in Carol Lloyd's very wise book Creating a Life Worth Living. Of course your budgets of space, time and money are limited, but painters hunt out and pay for the quality of paint they need even if it does mean forgoing some drinks, and dancers know they must have space to practice - but maybe that church has a room upstairs with a decent floor, in return for some help with the crèche. Similarly, the second-hand office furniture shop might let you try a chair for a few days with the promise of a full refund if it doesn't help, and when it comes to notebooks, it may be too late (or too early) for your Christmas list, but when's your birthday

Don't forget to be kind to your writerly self. Writing may be hard in terms of work, and in terms of working with difficult stuff, but that's a reason to be less, not more hair-shirt-ish in other matters.

Write a very short story or a poem every day. Ring-fence the time as you would the time for having a shower or cooking the tea because both are necessary for your health. Just do it. The result doesn't have to be good, or long, or experimental, or developmental or have any other obvious virtue: it just has to be there. The strange thing is that if you keep on writing these little things on which nothing is riding, they will begin to acquire those virtues - or even some virtue that you didn't even know you sought to acquire. As Ray Bradbury says in Zen and the Art of writing: "Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come." 

Take a poetry course if you're a prose writer. Here's why. If you're a poet, take a prose course: not necessarily fiction, but certainly one involving storytelling and human voices.

But don't forget that, since The Itch is always about ideas and possibilities - tools to try, not rules to follow - I'm assuming that you've been reading these (and perhaps this New Year's list of things to try) and applying your Accept, Adapt, Ignore scanner. And if you have anything you're planning to take up, not give up, in the New Year, and are able to add it to the comments, you might be doing some other Itch-reader a tremendous favour, so feel free to do chip in.

And with that, I shall wish all of you

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR & HAPPY WRITING

 

AND HOPE TO SEE YOU IN 2018

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