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My Favorite Plotting Book EVER* (*Contains Cats)

4 Feb

It was September 2006 and Ihad  just moved to Orlando, Florida. I didn’t have much money, no car and my job hadn’t commenced yet, so I basically knew no one. I spent most of my days wandering around Downtown Disney, tracing a path which always ended up in the Virgin Megastore on Westside (which is no longer there, sadly). Upstairs there were magazines, a bookstore, and a cafe: the perfect place for me. The bookstore wasn’t the kind where you could walk in with a book you wanted in mind and find it there on the shelf, though; this place was more of a let’s go in with an open mind and see what we find type of place.

savethecat

One day I found Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Synder and started to flip through it. Not only did it make me laugh, standing there in the aisle, but it also explained story in a way I could understand, and used examples from movies I was familiar with to show that like it or not—and done consciously or not—all the movies that leave us feeling really satisfied, that have us walking back out into the light after seeing it in the movie theatre and saying to our friend, ‘That was really good, wasn’t it?”, adhere in some way to these principles.

Even though I shouldn’t have been spending any money at all, I just had to buy the book so I could take it back to my crappy little apartment and read the rest.

Disney 7656

Have I shown you this before? This was my crappy Orlando apartment (the one I shared with partying Russians who never locked the front door). I believe that’s called 80s Office Chic. 

Which is where I discovered that this screenwriting book is amazing for plotting commercial fiction.

It’s even more amazing if you’re asked for a chapter-by-chapter outline, as I once was, before I’d even written a word of the book.

Need a one-page synopsis? Or your entire book down pared down to just three paragraphs? Whip out Save the Cat!, flip to the beat sheet page (my copy now just falls open there) and fill in a sentence—one sentence—for each of the fifteen beats. Divide into three, jazz up a bit and there you go: your one-page synopsis.

And if you can’t fill in a sentence for each of those fifteen beats? Then your structure might have a weak spot. There’s room to improve.

Putting The Fun Back Into Story

If you’ve read Story by Robert McKee, Save the Cat! is like that only in a language you’ll understand and a length that won’t fry your brain. Save the Cat! is actually a fun read, and something you’ll return to again and again. The book isn’t that thick, even. Story is just too much for me. I can’t take it all in. It also seems to squeeze all the fun out of it, every last drop, until it just gets so technical and nit-bitty that it can only leave you feeling totally overwhelmed (I think).

Another thing I love about Snyder’s books is that he assumes you know what you’re doing. He takes it for granted that idea, characters, etc. are all already there. His beat sheet is more of a test, something you can lay down over the story you already have to check it for structural integrity, for weak spots and holes.

Now, yes, I am aware that I’m supposed to be writing books, not screenplays. But if you write commercial fiction, there is no real difference between you and a screenwriter in terms of the plot beats you should aim to hit. Only the novelist, I think, faces a much deeper, wider and darker chasm (100,000 words) than the screenwriter does (120 pages) and so if there’s help out there, why not take it? Especially when most of us have a great idea for a beginning, a vague idea for an end, a cast of characters and not much else.

How are you going to fill in the middle, eh?

‘Story Structure’ Does NOT Equal ‘Formula’

Let’s just take a moment here to address those of you whose teeth are already grinding and eyes are already a-rolling at the thought of doing anything to our work other than letting it run free and wild across the blank pages of Pretentious Meadow. A beat sheet isn’t about writing to a formula. This is about the elements of story which, if you’ll recall, is what all this is supposed to be about in the first place.

For example, let’s say that I came rushing up to you, breathless, and said, “Oh my god, you will not believe what’s just happened to me. I was sitting in traffic, right? Waiting for the light to turn red. Next thing I know this guy comes running up to my window and starts pounding on the glass!”

And then I abruptly stop talking.

What would be your reaction?

Wouldn’t it be to ask, “Yeah, and? What happened then?”

Because every story has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and I clearly left out the ending of my traffic tale. Therefore, it doesn’t sit right with you. You know it’s missing something. You knew it as soon as you heard it, because you’re wired for story. So you have a natural, human reaction to hearing the beginning and middle of a story: you look for the end.

This is exactly what Save the Cat! and other “plotting” books, devices and advice is all about. The only difference is that they go much deeper than the basics of beginning, middle and end. For instance, Snyder can break a story into two halves (Opening Image <- Midpoint -> Final Image), four quarters (Act I, Act II Part 1, Act II Part 2, Act II) or fifteen by way of his famous beat sheet (see the first Save the Cat! book for this).

But you can just take what you want or need, and leave the rest. For example, when planning my current WIP I thought of the story like this:

  • Half way through is the “midpoint”, where the hero does something that means he can never return to his “Before” life, a point of no return
  • Act II up until the midpoint is all about the hero being proactive, moving into a new life (without committing to it)
  • Act II after the midpoint is all about the hero resisting the (inevitable and permanent) change that’s up ahead
  • Act I is the “Before” or Old World, where if the hero keeps doing what he’s doing, life will be pretty sucky
  • Act III is the hero deciding to move into his “After” or New World, and settling there
  • At each turn (end of Act I, midpoint, end of Act II) there’s a significant stakes raise, greater than the one before.

My constant re-reading of Save the Cat! helped me fill in all the other bits as I went along, but when you’re first faced with the question Is this idea enough for a novel?, being able to figure out if your story has a beginning, middle and end can save you a lot of staring-out-the-window time.

I’ve mentioned this book before, but I wanted to post about it again because I recently re-read the other two books in the series, Save the Cat! Goes to the Movies and Save the Cat! Strikes Back, and remembered just how wonderful they are. Tragically Snyder passed away suddenly at the age of just 51 before Strikes Back had even hit the shelves, but not before he’d become famous (and appreciated!) in screenwriting circles and was traveling all over the world to help other writers with their scripts.

So if you’re struggling, give Save the Cat! a chance and see what it can do for you. At the very least, it’ll make you giggle.

Find Save the Cat! on Amazon and visit Blake Snyder’s website here.

Don’t Break the Chain

28 Jun

It’s T-minus 6 days until I turn 30.

Age is but a number and all that, but 30 comes with an annoying alarm sound, because my goal has always been to get a book deal before I reached the big three-oh. This isn’t because seven days from now, should an editor come knocking on my door, I’ll say, “Thanks, but you’re grand. [Meaning no in Irish-speak.] I’m 30 and a day now so the moment’s gone.” I presume I’d be just as excited getting a book deal at sixty as I would be today. It was just a goal, a self-imposed deadline intended to motivate, and one that I thought gave me plenty of time.

But there’s only six days left, and I don’t have a book deal. I’ve done all the other big things on the Before I’m 30 List—live in the U.S., see a Space Shuttle launch, see the Grand Canyon—but I’m still waiting for some Fairy God-Publishing Type to descend with a sheaf of contracts in one hand and a pen in the other.

But there’s a very good reason why I’m still waiting.

(At least one; I may also not be good enough. But let’s not dwell on that happy thought and just assume, for the purposes of this blog post and my continued mental health, that I am.)

I don’t have a book deal because I don’t deserve one.

I don’t deserve it because I don’t do the work.

I don’t know what it looks like from the outside, but I’m not very productive when it comes to writing. I wrote Mousetrapped over the summer of 2008, and Results Not Typical between September of that year and May 2009, including re-drafting and editing. I wrote the first edition of Self-Printed in a month in April 2010—I swear, my fingerprints were starting to disappear after that session!—and although I probably shouldn’t admit this publicly, after procrastinating for weeks on Backpacked, I ended up writing the whole thing in just a fortnight. (A fortnight in which there was only sleep, coffee and Backpacked, I might add.) I don’t like to talk about the work I do that’s intended for submission to agents and editors on here, but suffice to say that although there has been plenty of partials and chapter outlines and synopses and sample chapters and extravagant and superfluous visual plotting devices consisting of expensive and unnecessary stationery in complicated color schemes, I haven’t finished writing a whole novel since Results. Therefore, I have only ever written one novel, start to finish, and I ended up self-publishing that.

Therefore, I don’t deserve to get published.

(And anyway, what would they publish? My to-do list?)

But it’s okay. It’s okay because I’ve realized this—that I don’t do the work—and I’m all geared up to do something about it. And that something is my summer project, Not Breaking the Chain.

(I’m just back from a trip, and there’s another one planned for October. That makes a nice stretch of time in between: July, August and September. I know that’s not “summer” but just go with it, okay?)

Shortly after my realization, I came across three things on the internet that I really needed to see. The first was this post about training your brain to write on demand. The second was this dangerously useful post about how one author went from writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000. And the third was a post about Jerry Seinfeld.

Yes, Jerry Seinfeld.

Maybe I was the only person with an internet connection who hadn’t read it about yet (the date on the post is 2007), but according to Seinfeld the secret to his success was productivity, and the secret to his productivity was a method he called “don’t break the chain.”

Essentially, it’s this: get a large wall planner, the kind that has a box for every day, and hang it somewhere prominent. Arm yourself with a thick red marker. For every day you complete your writing task—another chapter, another page, a thousand words—put a ‘X’ in the box for that day. Do it a few days in a row and you’ll have a nice chain of red ‘X’s. Now, your only goal is don’t break the chain. As you can imagine once you have a week’s unbroken chain, you’ll want to keep it going and because you’ll probably see the planner several times a day, any break will be staring at you accusingly forever more. (Or at least until the end of the year.) You can read the full post here.

Just before I went to LA I visited The Writers’ Store website to get their address (I wanted to stop by when in LA but never got around to it) and lo and behold, weren’t they giving away a free download of a “Don’t Break the Chain” wall planner

I’m totally taking it a sign.

I love a good motivation idea, and I adore ones that involve the purchasing of stationery products. So starting next week, I’m going to try to not break the chain. I’m going to combine it with what I learned from James Chartrand’s post about training your brain to click into writing mode with a regular routine, and Rachel Aaron’s lesson that trying to simultaneously make stuff up and write it down is not good for your word count. I’m going to give it approximately 90 days—until the end of September—and see what I manage to achieve in this time. I’d like to manage 1,000 words a day, every day. If I did that—IF—I’d have a completed first draft  by the end of it.

I’m telling you this because I only ever seem to achieve things when other people are aware that I’m doing them. (And, let’s be honest, because I’ll get a few blog posts out of it.) I’ll keep you abreast of my progress. But for now I’m wondering…

Who’s with me?

2011 Replay: 6 Ways to Survive Bad Reviews

29 Nov

Between now and the end of the year I’m going to be using Tuesdays and Thursdays to replay some popular posts from 2011, in case some of the people who’ve discovered my blog in the meantime missed it first time round. Think of it as a “year in review” kind of thing. This post was first posted last January, just after a SEETHING review of one of my books and when Oprah was still on air…

Once upon a time I used to think that the worst thing about Being a Writer was the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love having written and I love making up stories and I love writing funny dialogue that (shamefully) makes me chuckle as I type it up, but I don’t much like the actual writing bit, which can be really hard sometimes and gives you headaches and breeds guilt and gets in the way of mindless TV watching. When it’s going well it’s the most amazing feeling in the world ever, but when it’s going bad you wish that your biggest dream was something a bit more doable, like to fly in a plane or find a toy inside of a Kinder egg.

But anyway. I digress. My new worst thing about Being a Writer is reading bad reviews.

Now I’ve been very lucky not to have had too many bad reviews. I’m hoping this is not because the people who hate the book couldn’t be bothered to review it, or because they are discussing what a wretch I am on Disney fan message boards I can’t access because I’m not a member. And to clarify: a bad review is not a review where the reader didn’t like, wasn’t impressed by or is ultimately ambivalent about the book you spent a year of your life writing. Those are just normal; we don’t all like the same things. A bad review is a baaaad review – one where the reader is so annoyed by the sheer audacity of you committing words to paper that you can practically hear them spitting blood as you read their opinion.

Yes, I am normally dressed in evening wear and wearing (what was) a full face of make-up when crying over bad reviews. Who isn’t?

What does it feel like to read a bad review of a book you’ve written? Ooooh, it’s really not nice. The closest universal experience I can compare it to is when you’re like 19 and you really, really, really fancy someone and you think, after a protracted flirtation or other signs, that they like you too and then out of the blue and without any warning at all, they show up with their girlfriend. And she’s pretty. And thin. And they’re all over each other right next to you and you have to carry on as if nothing is amiss at all, that you’re fine, when really you just want to run home and cry. It’s that sudden-stomach-dropping feeling, that I’m-about-be-sick-feeling, that blood-rushing-in-my-ears-drowning-out-all-other-sounds feeling – or, sometimes, all three rolled into one.

And people are nice. You are nice. And you tell me to not pay any attention and that you liked my book and that the reviewer doesn’t know what she’s talking about and has she written a book? and look at all my good reviews and all this and I really, really appreciate it, really I do, but in that moment of discovering a bad review, it doesn’t matter. You could have just won the Booker Prize (I imagine) and yet you’d still feel like upchucking your Weetabix.

How can this horrible feeling be avoided?

  1. Write a book that everyone will love and/or avoid reading your reviews. Although I have yet to encounter a writer who has managed to do either; if you know of one, do let me know.
  2. Print out or photocopy a review of your book that you really like from a source you explicitly trust and/or one whom you recall has raved about books you’ve loved and been blasé about the same books you’ve given up on. Stick it somewhere prominent, or in multiple somewheres prominent. Maybe even put an emergency copy in your wallet. Force yourself to read it immediately after the encounter of a bad review.
  3. Look up a book you adored on Amazon and read its reviews. This is always a good one, if only because the reasons people come up with to dislike books never cease to amaze me, not to mention the imaginative insults they heap on it afterwards. (Yesterday best-selling author Jill Mansell tweeted about a reviewer who left one of her books on the train because she “couldn’t bear to have such rubbish in the house”. ??!!! etc. etc.) Remind yourself that you loved this book and yet BigReader874124 thought it was “not good enough to wipe my ass with in a no-toilet paper emergency – I’d rather use my hand.” You can’t please everyone. (And why would you want to?)
  4. Look up the reviewer’s other reviews. On Amazon especially, this can be a very soothing exercise. Maybe they gave Freedom one star because it didn’t have any pictures, or maybe they slated Little Women for false advertising once they discovered it wasn’t actually about vertically-challenged females. (Thanks Rebecca!) Or maybe they thought Never Let Me Go, one of your favorite books of all time ever ever, was not good enough to wipe their asses with in a no-toilet paper emergency.
  5. Write a response. Bad reviews tend to linger with us because we are passionately arguing with them in our heads. I didn’t mean it literally! You took that out of context! I really did do that! You obviously don’t understand what I was getting at! Did you even read the blurb? Did you even read the book?! So put a stop to this by sitting down and typing out a response. You can always delete it or dump it or print it out and set fire to it afterwards. Or, you know, comment on the review on Amazon. (Although if you’re going to do this, wait a few days. Cool off. And be sober.) The fan blowing the shit is multi-directional, you know.
  6. If all else fails, get drunk and ask anyone who’ll listen, ‘Did she write a book? No. I didn’t think so.”

On a more serious note, I watched an interview with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Oprah last week (one Big O Disciple, right here!), and he said something really interesting. Oprah asked him what he thought of his rock star status among certain groups – East Coast college students being the prime suspect – and (I’m paraphrasing of course but) he said that he thinks there are people who like him too much and people who hate him too much, and that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

I think this is the perfect way to look at reviews. I’ve had some reviews so gushing I wonder if I bribed them and then forgot that I had, and some so bad I feel like entering the Witness Protection Program is the only way to recover from them. But I think the truth of how good (or bad!) my book actually lies somewhere in the middle, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

And I must remind myself of the alternative: having written no book – good or bad – at all.

(If you’re going to leave a comment, please don’t mention my book. I’m not fishing for compliments or looking to be cheered up – my Twitter stream did that for me on Saturday night, when I shared The Most Horrendous Review That Anyone Possibly Has Had in the History of the World. But do feel free to share your thoughts on Amazon reviews. Do you read them? Do you rate them? Do you pay any attention to them? How do they affect your book buying, if they do? And if you’re a writer, what’s the best rubbish one you’ve got?)

Blog Bytes: E-Books, Talking and Writing.ie

14 Feb

After last week’s blogging break I have loads of stuff to catch you up on but they aren’t enough days in the week to do them all in separate posts. (I have a 2 post per day limit and I’d really prefer to stick to just the one. And I’m sure you would prefer me to stick to just one too!) So here in little blog bytes are all the things I have to tell you about, stuffed in the one post.

New E-books for Writers

Two fantastic books for writers were released into the ebook world recently: Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence by Roz Morris, and Bringing the Dream Alive: Write to Get Published by Inkwell‘s Vanessa O’Loughlin.

Bringing the Dream Alive covers everything from essential fiction writing tips to plotting and planning, and tips for writing winning short fiction. It also has advice on how to cope with and avoid rejection, and how to build an author profile to sell yourself, as well as your book, to editors and agents. Anyone who has ever attended an Inkwell workshop will tell you how motivated they felt afterwards – now that same motivation can be delivered to your Kinde, iPhone or computer! You can purchase it from Amazon.com here or from Amazon.co.uk here.

I’ve read Nail Your Novel and am a big fan of Roz’s blog, and I can tell you that its practical advice is invaluable. It focuses on that especially thorny problem of plotting, which not many How To Write… books do, and is so well explained and laid out you’ll end up returning to it again and again. You can purchase the Kindle e-book from Amazon.com here and from Amazon.co.uk here.

Writing.ie

Writing.ie is the new home of Irish writing online, a brilliant website for Irish writers at all stages of their careers founded by Vanessa O’Loughlin and supported by the Arts Council of Ireland.

It has advice, tips, blogs, forums and hopefully centralizes all news of literary events, courses and festivals in one place. It also has some great interviews and articles from all your favourite Irish writers in the ‘Meet the Authors’ section. There really is a wealth of useful writing information on there and the site  is well worth a good look round.

I’m also on there. I’ve expanded my How To Publish an E-book, How To Make a Novel ‘Bible’ and Using Screenwriting Techniques for Plotting guides, and I’ll also be blogging on there too once a week.

I know – all I need to do now is bring out the Ferrero Rocher and I’ll really be spoiling you.

Me, Talking About Stuff

I have two events (get me!) coming up so if you near anywhere near Belfast or Birmingham, are interested in using social media to build an author platform or working in Walt Disney World, and love the sound of people who’ve had way too many espressos talking, please – come see me!

On February 24th I’ll be speaking at LitNetNI’s Making a Living as a Writer in the 21st Century Workshop in Belfast, along with Eoin Purcell and Carlo Gebler. I’ll be talking about the practicalities of blogging, tweeting and social websites as marketing tools for writers, sharing my own experiences of exploiting digital and online technology and going to town on a PowerPoint presentation. (It’s pink! To match the blog!) You can get all the info and book tickets here.

Then on Saturday April 30th I’ll be doing a presentation about Mousetrapped at Mousemeets in Birmingham. Mousemeets is the UK’s only Disney fan convention that brings together fans from all over the country to enjoy a weekend all about the Mouse. Guests will enjoy presentations, film screenings, trivia, pin trading and much much more. To find out about the event and how to obtain tickets visit www.mousemeets.co.uk.

And in case you missed it…

Mousetrapped and me were in the Irish edition of the Sunday Times yesterday. Thank you to everyone who sent me a message of congrats or retweeted the link or even pointed at the article and said, ‘I know her from Twitter!’. It was all very exciting and wasn’t I very good at keeping that a secret for the whole of last week? I think so, especially since I was bursting to tell you.

Those of you following for my self-publishing advice might wonder how I finagled that. (Finagled: LOVE that word.) The truth is I didn’t really do anything but sell books – or e-books, specifically. I’m no Konrath or Hocking, but they are benefits to being a relatively big fish in a small pond. Here in Ireland, if you’re lucky, five or six hundred copies of a book can get you into the Top 10 bestseller list, so selling nearly 3,000 copies of a self-published book and doing it without spending any money makes a good story. I wrote a blog post about it, that post got picked up the website Irish Publishing News (thanks Eoin!) and I’d say that’s how the writer of the Times piece found out about it, and emailed me.

(And yes, I did squeal a little when I saw ‘sunday-times.ie’ at the end of his email address.)

The lesson to be learned here, I think, is that we are a year on from Mousetrapped‘s release (almost) and it’s only now become a news story good enough for some place like the Times. Nobody but my local paper was interested in it at the beginning, and only then it was to cover the bookstore launch (which I had for that very purpose). And why would anyone else have been? Self-published books are released every day, if not every minute. I had to make myself stand out amongst the rest to get noticed by the big boys. So if you’re just at the start of your self-publishing journey, don’t despair. There are opportunities for publicity every step of the way. There’s plenty of time yet.

P.S. I do know what day today is, but I am opting out because my ice-cold heart considers it a pile of Hallmark branded poo. But I do really like this, the best Valentines Day gift guide for “your stupid relationship” that I ever did see. Enjoy!

A Year in the Life of a Book

26 Jan

I’ve mentioned before AliMcNamara’s video blogs which chronicled her adventures as a debut author, covering everything from her writing room to delivery of her proof copies to her book’s launch (From Notting Hill With LoveActually, which I reviewed here). Now Miranda Dickinson, author of Fairytale of New York and and Welcome to My World, has made a New Year’s resolution to video blog once a week for year about the long process of writing, publishing and promoting a book.

Miranda explains:

“I’ve set myself the challenge this year to post a video blog every week for 52 weeks, to show a year in the life of a book. The video diary will follow the progress of It Started With a Kiss, from first draft, through editing stages, proofing, cover design, publicity, launch and beyond… I’m holding nothing back, so the good and not-so-good bits of taking a story from an initial idea to published novel will all be there for you to see.”

I think this is a great idea, and I love the videos Miranda has made already. The one below is actually Week 2 in which Miranda talks about writing a first draft, engagement rings and hats. The publishing process is always such a mystery for those of us aspiring to publication so I’m really looking forward to hearing about her adventures.

(It also doesn’t hurt that she’s pretty funny too.)

I found Miranda and her vlogs via the wonderful Chick Lit Reviews. Find out more and check out the videos on Miranda’s lovely blog, Coffee and Roses.

6 Ways to Survive Bad Reviews

25 Jan

Once upon a time I used to think that the worst thing about Being a Writer was the writing itself. Don’t get me wrong: I love having written and I love making up stories and I love writing funny dialogue that (shamefully) makes me chuckle as I type it up, but I don’t much like the actual writing bit, which can be really hard sometimes and gives you headaches and breeds guilt and gets in the way of mindless TV watching. When it’s going well it’s the most amazing feeling in the world ever, but when it’s going bad you wish that your biggest dream was something a bit more doable, like to fly in a plane or find a toy inside of a Kinder egg.

But anyway. I digress. My new worst thing about Being a Writer is reading bad reviews.

Now I’ve been very lucky not to have had too many bad reviews. I’m hoping this is not because the people who hate the book couldn’t be bothered to review it, or because they are discussing what a wretch I am on Disney fan message boards I can’t access because I’m not a member. And to clarify: a bad review is not a review where the reader didn’t like, wasn’t impressed by or is is ultimately ambivalent about the book you spent a year of your life writing. Those are just normal; we don’t all like the same things. A bad review is a baaaad review – one where the reader is so annoyed by the sheer audacity of you committing words to paper that you can practically hear them spitting blood as you read their opinion.

Yes, I am normally dressed in evening wear and wearing (what was) a full face of make-up when crying over bad reviews. Who isn’t?

What does it feel like to read a bad review of a book you’ve written? Ooooh, it’s really not nice. The closest universal experience I can compare it to is when you’re like 19 and you really, really, really fancy someone and you think, after a protracted flirtation or other signs, that they like you too and then out of the blue and without any warning at all, they show up with their girlfriend. And she’s pretty. And thin. And they’re all over each other right next to you and you have to carry on as if nothing is amiss at all, that you’re fine, when really you just want to run home and cry. It’s that sudden-stomach-dropping feeling, that I’m-about-be-sick-feeling, that blood-rushing-in-my-ears-drowning-out-all-other-sounds feeling – or, sometimes, all three rolled into one.

And people are nice. You are nice. And you tell me to not pay any attention and that you liked my book and that the reviewer doesn’t know what she’s talking about and has she written a book? and look at all my good reviews and all this and I really, really appreciate it, really I do, but in that moment of discovering a bad review, it doesn’t matter. You could have just won the Booker Prize (I imagine) and yet you’d still feel like upchucking your Weetabix.

How can this horrible feeling be avoided?

  1. Write a book that everyone will love and/or avoid reading your reviews. Although I have yet to encounter a writer who has managed to do either; if you know of one, do let me know.
  2. Print out or photocopy a review of your book that you really like from a source you explicitly trust and/or one whom you recall has raved about books you’ve loved and been blasé about the same books you’ve given up on. Stick it somewhere prominent, or in multiple somewheres prominent. Maybe even put an emergency copy in your wallet. Force yourself to read it immediately after the encounter of a bad review.
  3. Look up a book you adored on Amazon and read its reviews. This is always a good one, if only because the reasons people come up with to dislike books never cease to amaze me, not to mention the imaginative insults they heap on it afterwards. (Yesterday best-selling author Jill Mansell tweeted about a reviewer who left one of her books on the train because she “couldn’t bear to have such rubbish in the house”. ??!!! etc. etc.) Remind yourself that you loved this book and yet BigReader874124 thought it was “not good enough to wipe my ass with in a no-toilet paper emergency – I’d rather use my hand.” You can’t please everyone. (And why would you want to?)
  4. Look up the reviewer’s other reviews. On Amazon especially, this can be a very soothing exercise. Maybe they gave Freedom one star because it didn’t have any pictures, or maybe they slated Little Women for false advertising once they discovered it wasn’t actually about vertically-challenged females. (Thanks Rebecca!) Or maybe they thought Never Let Me Go, one of your favorite books of all time ever ever, was not good enough to wipe their asses with in a no-toilet paper emergency.
  5. Write a response. Bad reviews tend to linger with us because we are passionately arguing with them in our heads. I didn’t mean it literally! You took that out of context! I really did do that! You obviously don’t understand what I was getting at! Did you even read the blurb? Did you even read the book?! So put a stop to this by sitting down and typing out a response. You can always delete it or dump it or print it out and set fire to it afterwards. Or, you know, comment on the review on Amazon. (Although if you’re going to do this, wait a few days. Cool off. And be sober.) The fan blowing the shit is multi-directional, you know.
  6. If all else fails, get drunk and ask anyone who’ll listen, ‘Did she write a book? No. I didn’t think so.”

On a more serious note, I watched an interview with The Daily Show host Jon Stewart on Oprah last week (one Big O Disciple, right here!), and he said something really interesting. Oprah asked him what he thought of his rock star status among certain groups – East Coast college students being the prime suspect – and (I’m paraphrasing of course but) he said that he thinks there are people who like him too much and people who hate him too much, and that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

I think this is the perfect way to look at reviews. I’ve had some reviews so gushing I wonder if I bribed them and then forgot that I had, and some so bad I feel like entering the Witness Protection Program is the only way to recover from them. But I think the truth of how good (or bad!) my book actually lies somewhere in the middle, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

And I must remind myself of the alternative: having written no book – good or bad – at all.

(If you’re going to leave a comment, please don’t mention my book. I’m not fishing for compliments or looking to be cheered up – my Twitter stream did that for me on Saturday night, when I shared The Most Horrendous Review That Anyone Possibly Has Had in the History of the World. But do feel free to share your thoughts on Amazon reviews. Do you read them? Do you rate them? Do you pay any attention to them? How do they affect your book buying, if they do? And if you’re a writer, what’s the best rubbish one you’ve got?)

Keeping Track of Your Plot: How To Make A Novel “Bible”

1 Nov

After my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit post on Friday, a few of you told me how much you liked my Novel Bible idea (also known as The Only Possible Way I Can Keep Track of The Needlessly Complicated Plots I Write Myself Into) and so today I’m going to go into it in more detail.

My “don’t forget to put this in!” notes from Novel No.1 – and this was with only a chapter or two to go!

The reason I did this for Novel No.2 is the mess I made without it on Novel No.1. I get most of my ideas while writing, so I could be in the middle of Chapter 3 and thinking of things I want to put in Chapters 11, 21 and 34. I scribbled them down so I wouldn’t forget them when I actually got to Chapters 11, 21 and 34, but as I just kept adding to the same list it quickly got out of control. Starting a new chapter, I’d have to trawl through the list and pick out what I needed and then, once I’d finished it, go back and cross off what I’d put in. (And add the new ones… You can see how this turned into a nightmare.) I was also frequently re-reading the start of the book to remind myself of what I’d done which as this excellent post by Kay Kenyon on Storyfix.com points out can lead to editing blindness. And so I took Kay’s idea of a scene list, added enough paper to satisfy my love of making notes and a cute clip to satisfy my need to peruse stationery catalogues for hours on end, combined it with the idea of a “building a novel in a folder” that I’d read about in Wannabe a Writer? and hey presto, my novel bible was born.

So here’s how to make your own.

You will need:

  • A4 paper
  • A large clip (like a bulldog clip)
  • Your synopsis and notes printed on A4 paper
  • A desire to procrastinate while appearing to work.

1. Decide how many chapters your novel is going to have. (You could also do scenes if you prefer and – of course – the novel isn’t written yet so this is all approximate.) Count out enough pages of A4 paper so that you have one sheet for each chapter. Write or print the corresponding chapter number at the top of each one and draw a horizontal line about a third of the way down the page.

2. My novel is divided further into five or six parts or sections, so the next thing I’ll do is take a page for each part and insert them in between the chapters where I think they’ll appear in the book. (I use my beat sheet to determine where there’ll be, although this could – and probably will – change.) If you want to be fancy about it, you could print out these as title pages and use a different colored paper so you can easily find the section splits when the document is put together.

3. I have a one-page beat sheet showing all the major points in my plot; that goes at the front. Then between that and our blank chapter pages I’ll put any notes I have/Wikipedia entries I copy and pasted. (Joking about the Wikipedia entries. Well… kinda.)

4. Make a cover. By law, this cover has to include the words “A Novel by” so that you’ll start thinking of what you’ll have once you’ve finished (OR it’ll heap tons of pressure on you, so much so that you throw your novel bible on the barbecue and go cry under your duvet). If you’re not ready to start writing yet, you can always waste a day or so mocking up a cover. At the very least, use some clip art.

5. Secure everything together with a clip. (A bulldog clip is what I’m calling it, but that’s not exactly the kind of clip I use, which is the one pictured above.) This way you can flick through it like a book, but add to or subtract from it whenever you want.

How to use your novel bible:

I wrote my first novel section by section, in that I planned out the first section meticulously, wrote it and then started planning the second one, and so on and so on. So let’s say it’s the first day of NaNoWriMo (oh wait – it IS the first day of NaNoWriMo!) and I’m about to start writing Chapter 1, Section 1. I figure out (with my beat sheet) what needs to happen in the ten chapters that make up Part I, and then I divide up the action between each of the chapters. Remember that horizontal line we drew on our chapter pages? Well now we’re going to write a couple of sentences or a few bullet points above that line that’ll remind us what needs to happen in that particular chapter.

This is the one I’m using now for the Dreaded Second Novel. I’m a bit weird about telling anyone else titles until the thing is written, so I’ve blurred that out. But I DID use clip art.

Let’s skip ahead to, say, Friday of this week when if my impossible-to-keep-to-schedule works out, I’ll be starting Chapter 5 or 6. As I’ve been writing all the chapters leading up to it, I’ve been scribbling notes down about things that need to go in future chapters on those chapters’ corresponding pages. So now I can flick to the page titled Chapter 6, read my summary of what needs to happen (e.g. “The unemployed Irish girl trying to make it as a writer runs into a rich, gorgeous musician with a US passport in the security line at the airport and he falls madly in love with her.”) and my own reminders to put in some of the smaller details (e.g. things like “In Chapter 2, Irish girl says she loves pancakes. In the security line, the musician should have to dump a packet of pancakes he’s carrying. This is their conversation opener!” and “Don’t forget it’s not lunchtime yet” and “BUBBLES! LOTS OF BUBBLES!”)

[I'm obviously making these up, but maybe there's a novel in there....)

Now if you’d like a big gold star stuck on your forehead, you can take this one step further. Every time you finish a chapter, replace its scribbly, messy page in the bible with a neatly typed fresh one showing a short summary of the scene in the top third of the page. And can you guess what we’ll do with this? We’ll use it when we do our second draft, of course!

NB: This is entirely separate to the manuscript, which I don’t print out until I’ve finished a draft.

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