Author Archives: Lin White

Nanowrimo survival guide

Four days to go until people all round the world hit the keyboard or notebook for (inter)NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. But what’s the best way to achieve that?

  1. Aim to write every day. The target is an average of 1667 words per day, but it’s better to aim higher than that in the beginning if possible, as it can be very hard to catch up if you fall behind right at the start. Your enthusiasm may wane later in the month anyway, so bank extra words whenever you can.
  2. Use all your available time – not just that time when you can sit and physically put words down, but the time when you’re cleaning your teeth, or waiting for a bus, or sitting in traffic. Time spent planning means that when you reach the page you’re ready to start the words flowing. The best part of nano is getting totally involved with your story.
  3. Even if you are so hard-pressed for time that you can’t fit in your normal writing session, at least aim to open the file and look at it. That’s easier than ever this year, with Scrivener available on iOS. Letting the story drift from your thoughts, even for one day, can be hard to recover from.
  4. Don’t worry about the quality of what you write. You’re working out the story. There’s plenty of time to polish later. Sometimes you need to push through to figure out what your story is about.
  5. Don’t be afraid to change things as you go along – but don’t go back to fix earlier things. Just make a note to yourself for later and plough onwards. If you must rewrite a section, then leave the original there too for now – they still count as words written during November.
  6. Remember that everyone goes through a stage of hating and doubting their writing. Acknowledge that you’ve reached that stage and work through it. You only have 30 days maximum on the one project. After that, you can re-evaluate and do something else instead, but this project deserves its 30-day 50k-words of attention.
  7. Other ideas will rear their heads once you open yourself up to creativity. Thank them, note them down and promise them attention in December.
  8. If you have the chance, local write-ins can be great for motivation and companionship. There’s nothing quite like sitting at a table with other writers and just hammering out the words.
  9. Accept that whatever work you do will probably need to be redone or at least edited thoroughly, but remember that you’ll be that much better as a writer for the regular practice.
  10. Most of all, when you hit 1st December, don’t stop writing!

Opinions vary on the usefulness of nanowrimo as a writing tool. My opinion is that as long as you don’t expect to write in November, publish in December and then do nothing until the following October, then nano can be a fantastic tool.

 

Powerful dialogue – add subtext

There are many aspects of dialogue to manage, and different ways of tackling it. The aspect that interests me most is the subtext: not just what the characters are saying but what they mean.

 

Think of any family rows you might have. What are they really about? What on the surface is about what’s on TV might be about control. Argument about who you’re going to for Christmas dinner is really about relationships between in-laws. Someone reassuring a member of the family might be seeking to reassure themselves just as much – or even more.

 

When your characters are talking, think about what they’re actually saying, and then think about what they are revealing about themselves as a character. If the conversation isn’t working on both levels, then reconsider if it’s really pulling its weight.

 

Listen to conversations about you, or on TV programmes, and hear the subtext in them if you can. Here’s one quick example I overheard in the summer, by a stall that sold signs for gardens.

“Oh look, ‘Grandma’s herb garden’. Your mother would like that.”

“Yeah.” Pause. “But she’s not a Grandma.”

“No, but she’d like to be.”

Now didn’t that just tell you so much about the dynamics of that particular family?

 

My beta reader has gone silent!

One issue that crops up a lot with beta reading is the silence that can ensue once a manuscript has been sent out. When you’re sitting waiting for that message that tells you what they think, and nothing happens, what is the problem and what can be done?

 

There can be many reasons why you don’t hear back from them, and it’s not always because they hate your writing: it might be that their personal life has just hit problems, and they just don’t have time or energy to deal with your book. It might be that they’ve been inundated with books to beta read and they don’t have the time for them all. Or maybe they’ve realised that whatever the quality of your writing, the story itself just isn’t for them. They should be letting you know, if any of that is the case, but sometimes people panic, feel guilty, or just don’t find the time and motivation to let you know.

 

Or maybe they are one of those who are just seeking free books to read, and can’t be bothered to reply. It’s true, that can happen.

 

So what can be done to avoid or mitigate these problems?

 

First of all, try to agree with your reader a timescale. When do they expect to have finished? Some readers offer turnaround within a day, while others prefer closer to a month. Time itself isn’t the issue; what is important is to agree. If you need a fast turnaround, find a reader who offers that. If you are more relaxed (after all, how long did it take you to write the novel?), then that will give you more scope.

 

Some readers are happy to give progress reports, while others prefer to read the whole thing before giving any kind of feedback. It’s unfair to your reader to expect constant feedback, unless that’s what you’ve agreed in advance. It’s also unfair to constantly nag them about how they’re doing. They have better things to do than to reply to regular messages asking them how they’re getting on.

 

However, it’s perfectly acceptable to send a message if it’s after the deadline and you’ve heard nothing. This should be a polite “I wondered how you were getting on” message, not an “I assume as I haven’t heard that you hate my book” sort of message! If you still don’t hear anything after a couple of nudges (leaving reasonable time to respond, of course), then put it down to experience and move on.

 

Remember also that messages can and do go missing, on both sides. I’ve sent off reports and heard nothing back, and then had a query a week or so later, asking how I’m getting on. Eventually the message was tracked down: it had just been overlooked. I’ve also had clients send chase-up messages, only to find that their original message had ended up in my spam folder and so the file was never received. It’s for this reason that I will always acknowledge safe receipt of a file within 24 hours.

 

Finding a reliable team of beta readers can be tough, and this is why there’s a growing market for paid beta reads: if a reader is receiving payment for their report, that gives them incentive to read and give thorough feedback. However, be cautious with paid beta reads, and make sure your reader has a good reputation.

 

Finally, if you find a good beta reader, or even better, a few beta readers, treat them carefully and look after them – they are a valuable resource! Always respond to their reports, even if it’s just “Thank you for your time and your feedback. Is it okay to contact you again if I have any questions once I’ve read the report properly?” You don’t have to give them a blow-by-blow account of what you think of each comment, but acknowledgement is vital. And respond quickly, even if your time is tight and you don’t have time to consider the feedback immediately. Just as you’ve been impatiently waiting to know what they think of your work, so they are waiting to know their report has been received safely and appreciated.

 

 

Reading as a writer

Stephen King, along with many other writers, is firm in saying that if you want to write, you also have to read a lot. So what can you learn as a writer who reads?

 

There are many books around that teach you who to write better, but one of the best ways to learn is to see the advice in action. You want to master Point of View? Study books to see how they handle it. I have a list of books that I turn to when I want to see how to handle First Person, for example, to see how they deal with transitions between the present tense and the past, or to see how they make dialogue sound like fiction and not memoir, or avoid telling instead of showing. You want to see how books handle description? You want to see how they handle pace? How long a chapter usually is in that genre? How long the book is? Find a book and read it as a writer.

 

There are different levels of reading. Firstly, you learn to read for information and entertainment. Then you start to notice the little tricks that the writer uses to create an effect, or to make a point. Then you reach the point where you can start to use those tricks yourself. How can you expect to use those tricks if you’ve never seen them in use?

 

It’s also useful to make a note of books that use specific techniques – for example, The Martian is a great book to study. It makes use of first person via logs. It makes use of third person when it needs to. And, of course, it was a self-published book that then attracted a contract and a huge movie.

 

Beta reading can work too; sometimes it’s even more informative to see a less polished piece of work, and try to figure out what the issue is. But don’t assume that beta reading is enough. The wider you read, the better, and enjoy what you read. Just keep at least half an eye on the tricks the author uses, and think about whether you can adapt them for your own use.

 

How do I write…?

The question I see asked most often in writing groups is a variation on “How do I write this?”, “How do I start my story?”, “Will writing it this way work?”, “What’s the best Point of View to use?”

 

It’s as though writers have a limited stock of words and have to get them right first time.

 

If you’re stuck on how to start your story, or a specific scene, then write your way into it. Start with “It was a dark and stormy night”, or “Once upon a time”, or “When he got home”. Then write the rest of the scene. Once it’s all down, go back to that opening that caused so much trouble. Chances are, you’ll find your opening, and just have to delete the waffle in front of it.

 

If you’re not sure how to tackle a particular scene, maybe because you’re uncertain whose POV to use, or what tense to use, or whether to write in 1st person or 3rd, then write it one way and then the other. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the scene, and a better idea of which works better.

 

And above all, when you reach that point in your story where you feel everything is rubbish and not worth continuing, remember: that’s the point where you prove yourself a true writer. That’s the point when you plough on anyway, remind yourself why you wanted to write that idea in the first place, and just see where you end up.

 

When do I need a bleed?

One issue I’m sometimes asked to sort out is a bleed. So what is a bleed and when is it needed?

 

bleed illustration 2As part of the printing process, pages are trimmed. This is not normally an issue on print books, because any text would be well away from the edge,  but if you have illustrations or photos in the book that need to go right to the edge, then it’s important to create the image slightly larger than needed. This way, when the page is trimmed, the image will bleed off it. This avoids an unsightly white line showing, should the trimming be a fraction off (which is very possible).

 

This is usually done in publishing software, which has a bleed feature built in to it. The software will add trim marks to the file, so that the printer can trim to the right size.

 

A bleed is always needed in a cover design.