Michelle Knight. Writer, photographer, programmer, truck driver and general, all round nut case. Life is a journey and that's what this blog will probably end up being. Let's see where we go, eh? ;-)
I'm no famous author. However, communication is the glue that holds my career together and I thought I'd jot down a few things that might help some random passer by with their own aspirations of getting published one day.
- I've got other people involved.
I think Companion went to about ten people in the end. Some came back with punctuation advice. Others came back with re-writing suggestions where sentences didn't flow for them. Some came back with questions where I had made assumptions and they didn't follow the jump. People came back with all sorts of different feedback, and their own style of feedback to boot. Some of it was contradictory, you can't please all the people all the time. Others of it, I disagreed with; but a good chunk of it enabled me to make Companion a smoother read.
- Writers block - walk away.
I'm fortunate in that I have a day job. I'm not reliant on writing to pay the bills. In a job, however, (particularly a creative one,) the best thing you can do is take a break; it takes the pressure off your brain and allows it to function differently. In the UK, some managers think you're skyving but that walk around the block can be just what you need sometimes. Suddenly, the answer will pop in to your head. I drive a lot to work lately and if I'm ever stuck trying to work out how a scene is going to progress, I can usually sort it out in a day or two; the answer will just come to me from nowhere.
- Language level
I read things written by language experts like Stephen Fry and I find myself reaching for the dictionary so often that I just don't bother reading him. Although I know a chunk of words, I shy away from using them. Especially today I am talking with people from different parts of the world; one of the engineers I deal with on a frequent basis is from Brazil (and speaks Portuguese) and we have to speak technical to each other even though English isn't his first language. I spent a few years working in Europe myself; in the Netherlands and Germany, and communicating with people required a careful choice of words.
One of my friends from Germany read Companion and he recounted that he started by trying to work out the meaning of every word; (and I don't use very awkward words) but when he put down the dictionary and just read it ... well, these are his words ... "I decided to ignore my dictionary and extrapolate the unknown expressions from the kontext. From that moment your book pulled me inside the story and I couldn't stop reading. It's excellent!!!" ... keeping it basic helps you reach the readers for whom English isn't their first language. After all, look at how many pop groups are big in non-English countries! You never know, you might become a hit in a completely different part of the world and remain unknown in your own little corner. How scary is that, eh!?!
It can get difficult because on a re-read I'll pick up places where I've used the same word more than once, too close to itself and then I've got to hunt around for alternatives; but it is really worthwhile, I think.
I love deadines. That whoosing sound that they make as they go flying by. (what do you mean you've heard that one before?) However, if you're serious about getting your book out there, then you need to have some form of structure. I'm not talking the kind of thing where you're beating yourself up if you haven't written 2,000 words today, but rather some of the more distant ones, like having 10% of the book completed this month, or 25% completed this quarter, or get the book finished this year. Those kind of deadlines help keep things on track. Also, when it comes time for my friends to get me feedback, I'll set a deadline then. Life will get in the way and some of them won't get the chance to read it and provide feedback, and I have put that deadline back a week; but it gives some structure which will help you get a realistic view on whether you really are going to finish that book and become an author.
Having said all that, many works are written and will never be published. Writing can be a cathartic process in itself; but if you really, really want a book to be published, then you need some structure. However I don't think I could become a professional writer because, for me, it is a labour of love and if I was forced to do it to a time frame, then perhaps I wouldn't be writing the same, if you know what I mean.
- Descriptive practice
Something will just fire me for some reason. I'll get it down. If I'm putting it up somewhere for display then I'll do a bit of research so that I don't look like a complete idiot, but be it a scene of someone I have seen, standing and waiting for a bus, or a scene from a helicopter fight, I'll just get it down and mess with it...
“In the snap of a moment, Joe hauled the collector up and yanked the stick hard to the right. The Rolls-Royce engine screamed holly hell fire as it heaved the six ton gunship in a hard banking manoeuvre with so much ease that it might just have been a paper airplane. Joe’s stomach became a lot more intimate with his solar plexus because of the forces involved. The chasing pilot behind him had but a fraction of a second to process what just happened, and what, if anything, they were going to do about it.
Joe’s concern was starting to turn to panic. He only had one hellfire missile left, and he had to make it count. He was reading two hundred rounds left for the guns. This was so tight and so fast that his sphincter didn’t even have time to think about clenching.”
...in this case my original gun ship was twenty tons before I found out that the apache only weighs a little over five ton. Also, there was one version of the apache with a Rolls Royce engine that was made for Britain; so if I decided to take this further, these things already have a part to play in a story line.
- Readers aren't idiots
I talked with people about their book reading. Given the subject matter of Companion, and the fact that 50 Shades had hit the press, it was easy to talk with people about Shades without raising their suspicions that I was writing a book myself. One of my colleagues commented that it was unbelievable in places. She thought, "Phhhht! Yeh, right!" The other thing is that people can jump the most awesome of caverns in their imagination provided that you give them a clear definition of the other side and the desire to get there. People have to relate to the story and be able to emotionally connect. If you lose that connection, then you've lost the reader. I know, "keep it real," is a pretty naff saying but it is the closest I can get.
- Easy to grasp characters
I picked up one e-book recently and I think the first chapter introduced something like characters in the double figures and was asking me to get to grips with a good chunk of them in a fair amount of detail. I was like, "Whoa!" and I put the book down.
I try and introduce only a few characters at a time and make them memorable. When a chapter changes and we're on to a new situation, then I jog the reader's mind and freshen the character a little so they have the chance to bring the character back in to their imagination; it makes the story flow a little smoother because they know who is involved.
Some people can grip a character in their mind so well, like if I introduced Ethel as a smoker in chapter one, and then made reference in chapter thirty to some mysterious character having been hiding behind the curtain and there was a cigarette butt on the floor ... some people would immediately know that it was Ethel. However, not all readers are like that. While some people have not been able to put Companion down until they've finished it, some people have taken a few months to read the book and indeed have been reading several books simultaneously. How they do that, I haven't got a clue, but clear character recognition definitely helps. You don't need to go overboard, but just something small to key them in to the readers imagination.
- Easy to flow with the story
Chapterisation is a difficult one and many people handle it in different ways. I use it mostly to change major scenes and I've drawn criticism from some people because some chapters are too short, but praise from others because it gives them a clear delineation in their mind. This links with giving the book to friends to read; they highlight the bumps so I can smooth them out in the edit and improve the flow. There's nothing so bad for a reader as being thrown out of the grove.
- Don't rely on local knowledge
Mark Tufo's, "Zombie Fallout," had a fog for the first 20% of the book. It relied on loads of quick fire American humour to set the pace, and I just wasn't getting the jokes because I'm not American and I didn't know a chunk of the language or the TV and radio personalities that were being referenced. He was lucky I didn't give up on the book. In Companion, a scene is set at Brighton Pier. Some of my readers haven't been to Brighton, but they'll know what a pier is; so long as I mention a sea side, then they should get that reference and this should be enough to bring them along.
"I'm dyslexic; so sew me." That's generally what I say, because I am, actually dyslexic! I'm heavily reliant on spell checkers and things like punctuation require special effort because I don't get it right first time. However, it takes time to go over a work and do things like making sure that apostrophies are in the correct place and used in the right way. One of my test readers gave me a bit of a tongue lashing for that because it threw her out of the grove. So always make time to go over things, dot the i's and cross the t's because to some readers, it matters.
- Publicity and reviewing
If you want your book to go anywhere, then you're going to have to publicise it. There are now so many books out there from aspiring authors that you're going to have a hard time of it. Also, look at War Horse; which I think went undiscovered for something like twenty five years; and now everyone is reading it.
The book world is currently broken in my humble opinion. The professional reviewers have their pick of what they want to review and beneath that is an army of enthusiastic blogger reviewers who have "To Be Read" piles in the hundreds. These people chew through a book a day, and I find myself wondering how they do it. Is there a literary version of sorbet that they use to clear their pallet between books? Who knows, but anyway it is a nightmare out there.
Think sideways. Think outside the box. Keep lighting the blue touch papers because one of them just might lead to the explosion you're looking for.
However, be critical. If you start hawking a book that isn't properly polished then all you're going to do is make yourself a name as being yet another author that doesn't take enough care and that will make it harder for yourself in the future. Again, this is where feedback from other people comes in. Make sure you've done your polishing before you start putting it out there.
Companion went in to second edition because of a perfect storm. After writing the film script a decade ago, it became an infrequent weight around my neck. I had read and polished it so many times as a film script that when it came time to do it again as a book, I just wanted it out the door; so my deadline of getting it to the publisher before I went to Germany for a few weeks was an understandable thing to do, but it was a wrong move. Net result of that was to release a second edition a few months later which is probably the last time I want to look at it!!!
But I'm working on book two now, and that's fresh and I'm engaged with it.
As an example of thinking outside the box, I was first published not because I had a great book and found a publisher who liked it, but rather I went to a publisher and said, "What are you short of?" and wrote what they needed. I mean, heck, it worked for me! I got myself a publisher and I had started on the long, long road...
When everyone is walking North, then the way to get noticed sometimes, is to strike up a path to the South. ;-)