What’s In A Name: Things to Consider When Titling Your Novel

We all know the old adage. “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. And we all know that we are all guilty of doing exactly the opposite. Not just its covers either, but its names too. Think, for a minute, about the process you go through when picking a book off a bookstore shelf. Not when you are looking for a specific novel or specific author but just when you are blind browsing, just looking for something new. Perhaps you have a genre in mind, or maybe a single criteria (e.g. female lead character) but mostly just a want to read. What do you look at?

The cover? Sure. Everyone does. I cannot tell you the amount of rubbish books I’ve been conned into buying just because they were so damn pretty to look at. But it’s not just the aesthetics we consider on the cover. We consider the words too. We are writers after all! We look at the author. Maybe the publisher. But definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, we look at the title.

For me, it is girl’s names. I will, without even thinking about it, categorically avoid any contemporary book with a girl’s name in the title. Odd, particularly given that some of my favourite classics are exactly that – Anna Karenina, Jane Eyre, Emma, Alice in Wonderland – but I will not pick up their modern equivalents.

And sitting here, writing this, I’m thinking how terribly unfair that is of me. I am casting off a whole library of books on the unbased grounds that girl’s name = disappointing reading experience. And yet, even knowing that, I will still avoid them. I can’t help it. It’s instinct.

Where am I going with this you cry?

Titles are important.

In some ways more so even than character names, covers are the power suit but titles are your first verbal contact with your reader. You need both to get the job. They need to make a good first impression.

So no pressure then?

It’s not like the success or failure of the novel you’ve spent the last decade cultivating lays in the balance? Right?

Okay, okay, so I have a flair for the melodramatic but the point remains. Titles are important. So how the hell do we go about deciding them?

Tips for Crafting the Perfect Title

Titles are funny things. In my experience, they always happen one of two ways: instinctive, or like pulling teeth. I’ve never had to name a child but I imagine it is not too dissimilar. Sometimes it’ll be obvious. Known for years or just known in the moment. Never questioned. Never doubted. And sometimes you can spend the entire nine months (or years) musing and wrangling and wordplaying and still have no idea what to choose. And it isn’t an author by author thing, it’s a book by book thing.

Both my current fantasy projects – The Butterfly Children and The Magician’s Apprentice – came to me without a thought. Right at the beginning of the process and have stuck like gum on the bottom of a shoe. But White as Snow, my published novel, must have gone through at least a dozen title variations. And I’m still not happy. Love the series name (In the Mirror, Darkly) but the individual book name still makes me wonder if I could have come up with something better – and it wasn’t something I really realised until after publication.

Whether you are forming your title or testing the one you already have, what follows are a couple of things to just think about:

1. Length

I’d say seven words is my limit. Modern life is fast. People want quick and easy titles. Books are sold on word of mouth. Don’t start yourself at a disadvantage by choosing a title that is such a mouthful people either forget it or just can’t be bothered. I’d say six is the most, most people will bother with (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)(The Men Who Stare At Goats). After that, people get a bit fuzzy or start chopping bits off (Goblet of Fire)(Order of the Phoenix).

A quick check of the books on a single random shelf of my bookshelf (mixed genres): 21 books. Average number of words in the title: 2.5 (median was 2 for the record).

2. Focus

The title is the first signpost for the reader. It’s our way as writers of going “this bit. this bit is important.” So what focus do you want to pull in?

Is your focus your lead character? What about them? Their name? (Carrie) Their job? (In my case, The Magician’s Apprentice) Their role in the story? (Sophie’s Choice). In the case of Dracula, the title is used to warn the reader that their principal character isn’t actually the first, second or even third that you meet. It is, in its own way, a builder of suspense. You find yourself turning the page waiting to reach this character you’ve been promised from before page one.

Is it your world? (Jurassic Park) Or a specific setting? (The Night Circus)

Do you want it to give hints as to what the story is about? (The Time Traveller’s Wife – the story about the wife of a time traveller, likely a romance of some kind, certainly science fantasy; The Martian – particularly with dear ole Matt Damon smiling off the cover, once little green men are ruled out, you have a good idea of what you are in for) Or be completely enigmatic? (Death of an Owl)

My personal favourite titles tend to be those that tie to the theme of a book. For me, Wool, is one of the best named novels of all time. It resonates on so many levels. And the best part is, you can’t fully explain this to someone without spoilering the book (see my review if you want my full commentary).

Telling someone the title and asking them what they’d guess it is about is a good way to test this.

3. Genre

Books, given their nature, are oddly formulaic things these days. I always thought I was pretty observant about books but I tell you, nothing sharpens your eye like suddenly having to worry about cover art and titles. Suddenly you find yourself pulling book after book off the shelves, critically assessing every inch of each cover. Colour choices. Image choices. Font choices. And title.

In my young and naive days as a reader prior to really taking my writing seriously, I didn’t really think about titles. I mean, I’d know which ones I liked, which ones I didn’t but I didn’t really think about them. They were just… there. Since choosing indy publishing, they’ve become an obsession. I notice patterns, trends, repeated words.

Each genre has its own character. Though I caveat heavily with these are only trends. These are not rules. I am sure anyone who cares to can come up with a hundred exceptions.

Action/crime novels tend to be the shortest titles. One word, up to a maximum of three. Less likely to start with “the”. I like to think of these titles like firing bullets. Sharp. Noisy. On point. Action words are popular. “Get Even” “Trigger Mortis” “Mayday”. Words like revenge, blood, killer, murder as well as weather pop up quite a lot.

Mysteries and thrillers tend to be more cryptic. Almost vague. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. “The Girl on the Train”. “The Abortionist’s Daughter”.  Also have a tendency to lead with the word “the” but not always “Flowers in the Attic”

Woman’s fiction tend to have soft titles. Often frivolous. Sometimes sappy. Most likely to use slang or popular phrases. Less likely for word play. Most likely to contain humour.  “Fangirl” “Watermelon”. “PS I Love You”

Fantasy and science fiction are more diverse (as a general rule). It’s easy to get caught into a “box” though. Beware any word puns involving vampires. You will be automatically relegated to that kind of fiction. A lot of titles will reference at least one element that warns the reader of the genre (Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy) or a reference to the world itself (Neverwhere). And sometimes can get a tad… well pompous (Lord of the Rings)(A Game of Thrones). Oddly, a lot of the titles are actually quite self descriptive as to the plot. Both the above two more or less sum up the various goings on between their covers and Harry Potter tells you right from the outset the key adventure of the year.

Ultimately, ask yourself, does your title “fit” your novel?

4. Sell-ability

It is a sad, but inevitable, truth that at the end of the day, if you want to be a successful writer you have to sell your books and to do that, trust me, you need every advantage going. This is where I fall down. Particularly with titles I’ve fallen in love with, I’ll become stubborn as an ox and just refuse to change them, no matter what the consequences. And that, in my personal opinion, is entirely fine but I have to be prepared and know what consequences I’m invoking.

Things to think about here.

  • Is it easy to spell? JK had to rename the first book for the American audiences (make of that what you will). How many of this generation only know how to spell philosopher because of her? And how many people still call it “the first one” because it’s easier?
  • Has someone already used it? There is no copyright on titles of work (so long as you aren’t using a registered trademark (though please if you are concerned, take legal advice. I am not, in any way shape or form a lawyer and this is only my opinionated ramblings. It should not be taken as advice). The same title can be used over and over again. But that also has its downsides. Firstly, it’s hard to brand something against something else with the same title. People will mix them up. It’s only natural. It is that much harder to create your own individual footprint for your version.
  • For series writers, how are you going to brand? Do you want to be Harry Potter 1, Harry Potter 4? Or do you want Twilight, Breaking Dawn? Pretty sure the Twilight Saga was a series umbrella adopted afterwards for ease. Also, beware of similar titles. Sure, the ever increasingly darkening hues of the 50 Shades series is a lovely progression but honestly, does anyone remember what order they are supposed to come in? Or is that the point? Do you want them to blend into one another?
  • Accidental ghost words? In this world of web domains and hashtags, run your title into one long string and make sure nothing unwanted is spelled accidentally in the middle!

5. Like-ability

Do you like it? Does it feel right?

This is the single most important. You are going to be saying those four, five, six words over and over again. You are going to be hashtagging them, instagramming them, blogging and billboarding them until they are branded on the back of your eyelids. They are going to become your identity for so long as you are promoting that novel. You need a string of words that make you proud. Something that feels right for your work. Does your title give the first impression you want to give?

If it was you, stood in that bookshop, would you pick it up?

7 Tips for Writing Romance Readers Fall In Love With

In honour of Valentine’s Day, I thought I would turn my attention to all things roses and glitter and take a look at romance writing. It is perhaps a sad but inevitable truth of modern literature that it is rare (not unknown, but rare) to see a best-selling novel that does not, at some point, in some way, in some form, involve a romantic storyline. Even crime fiction these days seems to require the mandatory Castle-Beckett relationship.

It means that writing romance needs to be a part of every writer’s arsenal. Whether you are planning to keep it to the periphery (like Harry Potter for example, where the romance story lines had very little impact on the plot) or dead centre (Twilight. 50 Shades of Grey – or for a better example, The Fault In Our Stars) chances are you are going to come up against writing romance.

And you’d think it was easy.

We all know the blueprint – Boy Meets Girl – They fall for each other – They suffer through a series of unfortunate events that keep them apart – They end up together. It should be easy.

But romance is one of those things that is so easy to get wrong. It is so easy to go too cheesy, or too saccharine. (I’m sorry but I’m putting anything ever written by Nicholas Sparks here). We feel the compulsion to add a love triangle but doing that without it seeming both contrived and also a waste of time as she is clearly going to go with choice a) leaves us stumped (Twilight **cough** **cough**). And then there is the compulsion to add conflict. To add danger. Which can result in just ridiculous story-lines. See Divergent. See Twilight. And then there are the books where the romance storyline is meant to be background, it is meant to just be soft character development and yet somehow ends up hijacking the book and stealing the limelight (Doctor Who – Season 8 – and the title character wasn’t even involved in the romance *she grinds her teeth noisily*).

So when even the pros are struggling, how are we, the breakers-in, supposed to get it right? Well, there is no simple how-to to follow but there are a few easy steps you can take to at least help you along your way.

Romance Tips

1. Choose your players

Is this going to be a linear romance (which I’d recommend for background romances) or is this going to be trifecta? Or are we talking quadrophenia? If you are going to try for a love-triangle, do that from page one. Don’t realise when your book contract is renewed that you are running out of “they are so perfect for each other” plot and need to add a second man to the mix to eek out another three pointless books only to get back to the ending you wrote in book one because that was always the ending you wanted. It cannot be someone out of the blue. Or a random secondary character that you yank out of their mid-novel obscurity to drag them kicking and screaming into the limelight. The readers have to care about all involved for it to work.

2. Give them a ‘why’

“Because they want to be loved” is cliché and two-dimensional unless there is a back story that gives it depth. If I read another damn story about a ‘plain girl’ that steals the heart  of the ‘local hunk’ I may scream. Romance needs variety. In real life, love is not conventional. It doesn’t work like that. People get into relationships for all sorts of reasons. Love at first sight is rare (it does happen, I’ve seen it) but rare and these days makes people roll their eyes in books. Every character needs a motive for everything they do. It beds the romance, stops it being only surface deep and allows it to have real gravitas in your story. So whether she is an orphan who has never had someone and just wants to know what it feels like to be ‘loved’ or he is a serial playboy trying to go straight after his ways got someone hurt badly and so he is choosing the straightest arrow he can find, make them interesting. This is one of the many reasons Game of Thrones is so popular. The relationships might be bitter, and twisted, and often plain disturbing, but they are still 100 times more believable that Edward and Bella.

3. Don’t make it easy

Love is not simple. Love is not straight forward. So don’t write it that way. Let them fight. Let them hate each other at times. Give them conflict. Romeo and Juliet is a classic for a reason. But don’t feel the need to go Mills and Boon. I have known marriages that have honest-to-God broken down over the dishwasher. It is the small things that break people apart. Don’t look at conflict like a giant hammer. Look at it as a ream of tiny cracks.

4.Keep it natural

This is a rule in any kind of writing but worth repeating. Don’t have things happen for the hell of it. Readers can smell it a mile off. Divergent is a great place to look for things that happen for no good reason other than to set up forced ‘romantic’ moments. Some readers go for that but I’m not one of them, and I consider it lazy writing. Let the characters lead. Ask why at every step. Ask would he/she actually do that. And don’t let the plot be driven by the need to add romantic moments. Let the romantic moments take you by surprise. There are always moments. And if they surprise you, they will surprise the reader as well, making each moment more poignant, tender and stronger.

5. Be open to all eventualities

Because if you are, the reader is too. If you go into your romance story already absolutely decided on how it is going to end, the readers will feel it. It takes the shine off the romance. In this case, I refer to Hunger Games. I never felt like she was going to **spoilers** end up with Gale. It was clear from the start that Peeta was always going to be her eventual choice. The problem with that is you can never really convince the reader that anything else is going to happen. I knew Peeta was not going to die. Katniss too **spoilers end**. It was in the tone, in the inflections, you just sensed that happily ever after was coming. GRR Martin is the polar opposite, and in recent times, taken the theme a little too far in the other direction in my humble opinion, now just killing off his characters for some rather flimsy reasons that could be summed up somewhat easier with “because that’s what I do”. If you have a triangle, be open to both endings. Actually all three endings, be open to her ending up alone. Let the characters lead the story. I want to be on the edge of my seat. If romance is your leading story, you have to keep it alive by keeping the reader convinced that it may not happen. That there is a chance anything could happen. The Fault In Our Stars is a master class.

6. Keep it flawed

Another writing basic. No one is Snow White. No one is Prince Charming. No one is perfect. We fall in love because of our imperfections. So give her morning breath. Give him an inability to articulate his feelings. Uncertainty of self is not a flaw. It is a cliché. It is something everyone suffers from so don’t lean too heavily on it. The “oh he could never fall for someone like me” has been done to death. It bores readers. So give it depth. Same with looks. Everyone wants their hero to look like Dean Winchester but there is a reason Dean looks the way Dean looks and unless you are writing a soldier or a hero who spends a lot of time working out, people won’t buy it. So give them flaws. Give them big ears. A crooked nose. A weird laugh. Make them interesting. Again (and promise this is the last time I worship the Master but…) The Fault In Our Stars is a perfect example. Before they got Hollywoodised for the movie, Grace and Augustus were flawed. And when he likens her to Natalie Portman, it makes it all the more powerful because you realise that is how he wants to see her, that he doesn’t see all the flaws that we know she has.

7. Make them both better people for being together

This to me is the single most important thing. Love changes us. If they fall in love but at the end of their journey are still the same two people they were on page one, then the romance has been cheapened to a gimmick. Love has to be a journey. Romance, at the end of the day, is a very public form of character development. The pair at the end should be different people to the ones you started with. Their relationship, their partnership should have a personality of its own and they need to have grown. The boy becomes a man. The cynic learns to trust. The villain learns to love.

Writer’s Corner: First Chapter Advice

“When it comes to selling your book, the most important words you’ll ever write are those on page one.” –Jodie Rhodes, President, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency.

So no pressure then?

Tips to Writing the Perfect Beginning

So… with the turning of another new year and the beginning of another twelve months of frantic writing, inventive procrastination and trying to build a place for myself in Authordom, I thought now might be a good time to go back to the start and have a look at beginnings. A lot of us, right now, are embarking on a shiny new project. We are going to be sitting down in front of that daunting blank page and think “now what”. 

First sentences, paragraphs and even chapters have never been my forté and yet they are so important. Most people decide in the first three pages if they want to read a book. So it’s a vital part of the book to get absolutely right. Even the pros struggle.

I recently visited the writer’s museum in Edinburgh where they have a copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on display covered in notes from JK herself. The day I was there, it was page one that was on show and with it a confession from the lady herself that she was never happy with the first chapter. It’s well-known that she revised it many, many times but even now, she says she gets people commenting on it and she’s not necessarily inclined to totally disagree with their comments. If even JK Rowling can’t get this right, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Actually, I take this as a bit of a confidence boost. Here is an author who wasn’t completely happy with her beginning and yet, I think it’s fair to say, the book did alright despite it…

She does however note that she is rather proud of her first line. Bringing me neatly to element one…

1. the ‘Hook’ AKA the first sentence

There was a forum thread on the Camp NaNoWriMo community where writers were posting their first sentences. I remember reading some brilliant ones (‘Being dead is not as fun as they promise’), some less brilliant ones (‘When I woke up it was dark’) and some downright bizarre ones (‘I woke up this morning as a cat’). I remember looking at mine (‘It had been the first day of Spring’) and thinking, “oh dear”.

There is a lot of talk of hooks. As far as I can work out, it’s a balancing act. Yes you want it to catch people, but you don’t want it to stand out. The hook has got to fit in with the rest of the feel of the book. There is no point having the most literarily genius sentence ever written, tagged on the front of a Hunger-Games style novel as it just wouldn’t fit. You read a lot of posts about how to write the perfect hook and they often include wonderful descriptive words such as “acerbic, intriguing, bizarre, enigmatic, epigrammatic, poetic, unexpected” and all those are great things to keep in mind but don’t overload. If your book is not poetic in style then don’t swamp your hook with it. If your book has a matter of fact tone to it, a bizarre hook would be just that… bizarre.

For example, the hook “Have you ever wondered if cows go to heaven?” definitely fills a lot of the tick boxes. And if it is followed with a novel with a bovine theme and underlying feeling of discussions of philosophy on heaven and death, great. If it is followed by a romantic chick-flick style novel that never mentions said cows again, it is what I refer to as ‘a headline grabber’.

A trick I picked up a few years ago that works really well for me is starting a paragraph earlier. So wherever I plan to start the novel, I start writing from a moment earlier. It takes the pressure off that first hook. And then I chop away the unnecessary dressing at the front and at least have a starting place from which I can craft a hook that will flow a little easier into the book.

Some excellent hooks include:

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” George Orwell (1984)

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen. (Pride and Prejudice)

“A single line of blood trickles down the pale underside of her arm, a red seam on a white sleeve.” Kate Mosse (Labyrinth)

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” Anthony Horowitz (Stormbreaker)

A good general rule: try to include just a hint of trouble plus some kind of question/intrigue (advice from Les Edgerton, Hooked)

Some things to avoid include;

The weather. It’s cliché and overdone (that said, I’ve also seen books that use it excellently (as perhaps Orwell above), it’s just a bit of a taboo these days)

He/She woke up. Actions of the mundane hold no intrigue for the reader.

He/She looked in the mirror. It does work but it’s a bit of a cliché again. Such openings as “Rosie looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise the woman staring back at her” are a bit overused. It works in paragraph two or three but overuse has weakened it as an initial hook.

One final thing to note, the hook isn’t the be all and end all of your novel. If you can’t find one that fits, chances are your story doesn’t lend and so make your first paragraph your hook. Not all books have powerful hooks;

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) – see what I did there…

And some books defy the rules;

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.” Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games)… what was that they were saying about mundane activities…

2. the ‘Tone’

I hate books that start with an out-of-place action sequence just because it’s an exciting start. For example, someone tuning into Gossip Girl would not expect it to start with a car chase and proceeding gun battle. It doesn’t fit the style. The beginning of a book has to fit. The beginning has to be sharp and exciting but don’t force a sequence just to get that because it will feel contrived.

3. the ‘Moment’

Choosing where to start is one of those odd things. Sometimes it comes completely obviously and naturally, other times it is a real battle. A few questions to ask include:

Why now? What changes in this specific moment that makes it the beginning of a new story?

Why her/him? Why should your reader care about your characters and engage in their story? Choose a moment that shows your character off. Is she brave? Is he ruthless? Is she wise? Is he depressed? Show, don’t tell.

Why should I care? What about that beginning moment will persuade your readers to engage with your characters and be interested in reading their journey?

And things to avoid include:

The Humdrum. Reading about someone waking up in the morning is neither exciting nor gripping…. mostly. Confession, my latest novel, White As Snow, starts this exact way… twice. I’d like to think it works because the situation around her waking is anything but humdrum but I know it is a risk. Has it paid off? Answers on a postcard…

Long description. Personally, I disagree with this one. One of the things I love about old classics is that long beginning setting of the scene but in today’s commercial market this is looked down on as too slow. Descriptions of both characters and places in length are considered a bad choice for a beginning.

Pre-padding. Start with the action. Don’t describe the gun first. Start with the shot and work backwards.

4. the ‘Scene’

First chapters are about setting the scene and tone for a book. Herein I have some measure of disagreement with common instruction. I agree that first chapters laden with heavy description can be too slow but I think to say that it should be all pushed to a later chapter is too cut and dry. A sprinkler approach is the best one in my opinion. Don’t go for block paragraphs of description, but dribble it into the prose as you go along. Likewise with back story and exposition. Where you can, show, don’t tell. Readers want to be intrigued. Don’t hand it all to them in neat little packages but drip it across the dialogue and action, forcing them to work and thus get drawn into the world and the story.

I read some excellent advice that has stuck with me now and become my mantra when it comes to openings.

A lot of us like to think big. Like the first shot of a film, we love to start with that big wide pan shot and then slowly zoom in until we find a singular point of focus (as a general rule, our character). Set the scene, then find the action. First chapters should be viewed as the absolute opposite. Start with the smallest, tightest focus possible and slowly work out. Draw a reader straight to the centre of things and then slowly grow the world around them. Again, the prologue of Labyrinth by Kate Mosse, is an excellent working example of this style of opening.


First chapters are always going to be hard. They are those first impressions that will either make or break your book. And like everything else, they are subjective. The best advice I ever got was to get people reading. I send my first sentences, lines and chapters out to as many people as I can and ask them for their feedback. What tone are they expecting? What do they think of the character? Do they want to read more? What story are they expecting to read? As always, readers are a writer’s most powerful asset.

2017: A Writer’s Guide To A Productive Year

I think we can all agree that 2016 was a pretty rocky year for the world. It was the kind of year that you know your kids one day will be studying at school – and not for good reasons. Between the terrorist attacks, political meltdowns and saying goodbye to some of our most loved icons, I think 2016 will be a year a lot of people want to forget. Which leaves me conflicted because, actually, I had a pretty great year as a writer. I published a book (Check It Out); I not only took part in a literary festival but spoke on a panel as an actual real-life author (I have a badge to prove it and everything) and did so alongside Martina Cole!!; I finished another novel; completed both Camp NaNoWriMo and the main event herself; I even braved the wild and bewildering world of Instagram; and (for those fellow fangirls out there) I visited not one but two Diagon Alleys!!

I leave the last year behind with my head held high. I may not have achieved absolutely everything on my list but I did pretty darn well. I sat with a very satisfied smile on my lips when I opened my 2016 envelope on the 31st and realised, for the first time in a very long time, that I’d done myself proud and achieved a lot of the things I’d set out to do. It was only when I sat down to look to 2017 that I realised that put me in a whole new position.

How the hell do I top all of that?

I’m not going to lie. I sat there, staring at the blank page and felt overwhelmed. How the hell did I top that? I thought I’d pushed myself in 2016. I did things of which I never dreamed I was capable. The idea of taking a step further into the unknown and pushing those boundaries even harder is terrifying. It got me to thinking how I’d achieved all that in the first place. If I work that out, I can repeat it. Or that’s the theory right?

I decided to post it here because I figure I’m not the only one going through this. I talk to so many fellow writers who at this time of year are full of so much fire and determination, who want to achieve so much in the year to come but then talk to them the following December and fire has turned to barely glowing embers and determination has been worn away by a year of life getting in the way once more. I know this, because until this year, I saw this process on an annual basis in the mirror. So I thought I’d write out a blueprint so I don’t fall into old habits so here’s…

2017 resolutions

#Tip 1: Have The RIGHT People Around You

For me, this is the single most important feature. 2016 was a year I made amazing friendships. I launched myself into the local writing scene and have spent every moment since kicking myself for not doing so sooner. Being around other writers is like having caffeine pumped straight into my veins. I love it. The energy. The enthusiasm. The power of the ideas sat in that coffee shop at that moment. I love laughing over awful wordpuns when procrastinating. Or discussing the pros and cons of guns versus swords. I have learnt so much this year from the people around me. Friends. Family. Fellow Writers. Surround yourself with people who inspire you.

#Tip2: Be Passionate AND HONEST

An important step for me was getting over my fear to be passionate for writing and a career therein. It sounds simple but it can be one of the hardest steps to take. It makes me sad to say it, but admitting aloud that you want to be an author gets greeted with about the same level of cynicism as “mum I want to be Paris Hilton”. If you are going to reach your goals, first you have to admit to yourself, and the world, that you want it.

You have to be honest.

I was literally shaking the first time I had to stand up in front of people and admit that I was an author. More than that, that I want to be an author. That someday I want to quit my day job and be an author full-time. I am terrified of admitting it. Even writing it now, my fingers are resisting. The fear of failure, the instinct to cringe away from opening myself to personality assassination that normally involves the words “hopeless dreamer”, the uncertainty of it is overwhelming. But until I accepted what I wanted to do, I couldn’t go about making plans to make it happen.

At the local literary festival in 2015, I promised myself I would return in 2016 as a published author. That became a resolution when January came around a few months later. I was scared of the idea. Terrified actually. I had no idea if I had it in me. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But I drew up my to do list around that singular goal and, almost to my own surprise, come that same festival in 2016, I stood up as Maxi Bransdale, published author and it felt so good! 

Look in the mirror and be honest. What do you want for yourself as a writer? Is it a hobby or a career? Do you want to publish one book or a dozen? You cannot set goals and targets until you know what your endgame is and you cannot know that unless you are completely, and brutally, honest with yourself.

#Tip3: Take Risks

In every aspect. As a person. As a storyteller. As a writer. Travel Europe on a Vespa. Write the stories that make you blush, or cringe, or both. Tell the tales that when you try to explain the plot premise people raise speculative eyebrows. Put yourself out there. Stand up in front of a room full of strangers and declare yourself a writer. Say yes to things. Be bold. Be brave. Be uncompromising.

#Tip4: Know what you want to achieve

With your holistic goals sorted back at #2, it’s time to look at details. I think this helped me so much last year. I actually knew what I wanted to achieve from the outset and the rest of my resolutions formed the to do list to get me there. It changes everything. I had chance to plan things across the whole year. I knew what festivals were coming up months in advance so I could start making contacts and getting involved. I knew I wanted to publish my book so I sat down and worked out exactly what I needed to achieve to do that and could do the research and give myself the time I needed to finish it. Think in categories. How many words do you want to write this year? Is there a project you want to commit to finishing (and how do you define finished – the end, or fully edited, or submitted to agents, or published)? Is this a writing year or a publishing year for you? Both? Are you self publishing or traditional publishing? Now is a great time to ask these questions. Do your research and work out what is right for you. Is there an event you’ve always wanted to go to but never found the time? Is there a course you’d like to do? Do you have social media targets? Sales targets? Blogging targets? Be brutally honest with yourself and write down nothing less than you will feel satisfied with come December 31st.

#Tip5: Keep Reading

With writing comes its oft neglected friend, reading. I love reading. I am Hermione Granger. I was the kid that ran out of books to read in the library. But adulting is hard and sometimes life gets in the way. I have a bad habit of when I do have a free ten minutes, I always prioritise writing over reading. This year, one of my big targets, is to level that balance. Reading makes us better writers. They deserve equal attention. Goodreads is a great way to track your progress and share with other readers.

#Tip6: Keep it Achievable

You know when you are a kid and people ask what you want to be when you are older and responses tend to range from Premiership footballer to astronaut to prima ballerina? It is so easy to turn writing resolutions into a wish list. Problem with wishes is they are not always tangible or achievable. For example, one could target 500,000 book sales. However, I am self published and I am just starting out. I would love to sell that many books. Every author out there would love to. But setting a goal like that isn’t helpful. I set aims, not wishes. I hope to sell 500,000 but I aim to sell 10,000. Resolutions quickly become stressful and overwhelming if you make them too big. So keep them small. Life does get in the way so set yourself goals that allow for this. Some people will categorically disagree with me here. For some people, the “shoot for the stars” approach works. For me, and my personal advice, is still shoot for the stars, of course shoot for the stars, what is the point of life if we don’t, but use this checklist not as a place to list the endgame, use it as a place to list the stepping stones you need to achieve to get there.

#Tip7: Schedule

I’m one of those people who needs deadlines. I need something to be held accountable to. I used to think it was a personality flaw. That I was just less driven than those people who get stuff done without a ticking clock of impending doom. I’m not and it isn’t. I’m just different. My brain is wired differently. Personally, I blame school. My brain got so used to working to deadlines, it doesn’t know how to function without one.

So I write my writing resolutions down and I hold myself accountable to that half side of A4. Deadlines are still deadlines even if you give them to yourself. I work out what I want to have achieved by when. I actually have a diary specifically just for all my writing stuff so I can manage both my time and expenses throughout the year.

And the best part? You get to open that to do list on December 31st and tick your way down it with a big ole smug grin.

All that’s left to say is good luck 🙂 Cheers fellow writers and here’s to making 2017 our best writing year yet!!

Tips and Musings For Defining “What Kind Of Writer” You Are

There is a question that we as writers are often asked:

What do you write?

You’d think this would be a nice simple opener. It’s a natural response after “hi, I’m a writer” but I dread this question. Hate it indeed. For starters, it is impressively vague. I won’t lie – there have been times, normally at social gatherings that have inflicted upon me their prerequisite small talk, that I have flippantly responded “books”. Chances are, in that environment anyway, the other person is just relieved not to be forced into listening to a twenty-minute monologue on my latest bestseller idea. For the particularly judgmental (you know, the ones that raise their eyebrow and metaphorically pat us “struggling artist” types on the head), I reserve the wonderfully obtuse “words”.

(Warning: Rant in progress: If you want to skip my opening rant *cough* I mean musings, and go straight to the tips, scroll down to the main image)

But that is not the reason that I hate this question. I hate this question because it demands a specific answer and I just don’t have one to give. And for a long time, that made me feel like I was doing something wrong. It took a lot of soul-searching and depressing dinner parties before I realised that the flaw wasn’t with me, it was with the question.

Suppose for a minute that JK Rowling was posed this question (because yes, I suspect there are actually people living on this planet who have no idea who she is). How would she answer? “Urban fantasy fiction adventure novels for children”? Except well… by the end they are sort of for adults too. And then there is the play. Oh and that screenplay she helped on. Oh and those pesky Galbraith novels. Those are contemporary detectiving for adults. And I have absolutely no idea what to call The Casual Vacancy. Social Commentary? Human drama? A four-hundred page rant on why modern life sucks?

But you see my problem with this question and moreover the question generally where writers are expected to place themselves into nice neat three hundred word summaries. If we assume for the moment that the inquirer is not seeking the vague or obtuse, and something a little more expansive than “fiction” – then it demands that we, as writers, put ourselves in a definable category – not our books, but us as writers. To put a label on our lapel that makes us nice and conformist.

Writing just does not work that way.

I find this approach, amongst other emotions, highly amusing as the one thing writers are typically not, is conformist. And yet you see it again and again on advice on how to get published. Stick to a genre. Find your niche and stay there. Publishers like consistency. Which brings me onto my main topic –

How to answer "What do you Write"

It was something I was advised of right when I first started exploring publishing options and namely the so-called traditional route. Agents like consistency. Publishing houses really like consistency and marketing departments love it. They want writers to be a brandable commodity. Not just our books, but us as people. It isn’t enough to just write any more. You are the “Detective Smith author” or “Surreal Fantasy Novelist Mr Smith” or “the one that writes the war books”. We see it on covers all the times and hear it in interviews. We are boxed up before the end of the first sentence.

Now, of course, each individual book must have a clearly defined genre, but the author? Nora Roberts (JD Robb) and JK Rowling (Robert Galbraith) are not alone in creating entirely new personas to carry their crime genre books while writing fantasy under their given names. It is said we form our opinion of a person within the first thirty seconds of contact. Books and writers faster. We quickly become defined by our work until bizarrely it is our own work that is suddenly trapping us in a given genre and defining our future work. Arguably indie publishing has lessened this impact but whether we like it or not, it is something we have to think about.

So here are just a few common talking points to think about when considering genre and “what you write”…

1. Write What You Know:

This is an overused idiom you hear all the time in writing blogs and advice books. “Write what you know”. To me, this is a bastardisation of a more general idiom “Play to Your Strengths”. Most people (and I emphasise most because there are many writers out there who can change genre like clothes and do each with ease and finesse) have a particular genre at which they are strongest. For me personally it is fantasy. Why? Because I’ve been writing it for years and years. Because it is my favourite genre as a reader and viewer. Because I grew up on a healthy diet of local folklore and Disney. Or maybe just because I have an overactive imagination. My strengths (or so I’m told) are world building and a writing style that has a poetic, lyrical edge (not my phrase) to it. Both lend well to fantasy.

Sticking to one genre allows you to focus on your areas of strength. You are giving yourself a natural advantage and in the brutally competitive book market, we need every edge we can get.

2. Practice Makes Perfect:

Another idiom and a fairly self-explanatory one. The more you do something, the better you get at it. Writing is an art. It is not something learnt once and then applied. It is something that is constantly evolving. We are always learning and the best way to do that, is practice. Sticking within one genre allows you to spend time honing skills. Each time you try something and it doesn’t work, it makes the work that follows stronger.

3. Consistency boost Commerciality:

I touched on this above. At the end of the day, it is easier to sell yourself as a brand if you have one coherent message. Promoting a fantasy writer has a very different feel to promoting a crime novelist. Chances are you won’t really be able to discuss both in the same interview. They appeal to different audiences. A Sci Fi writer is going to be perfectly placed talking at a ComiCon but a Romance novelist is much better suited to bookclubs and female dominated events. The more genres you write across, the more work you will have to put in. Even if you don’t give yourself different personas, each marketing campaign will need its own personality, own audience, own requirements and demands.

Equally, beware of confusing the audience. People think in soundbites. “That Sci Fi dude” or “the one that does those Tudor books”. It sends a confusing message to go “Tudor book written by that Sci Fi dude”. Normally the first question will be “are there space ships?” It’s human nature. We are creatures of habit and routine. Be braced for a few “huh” faces.

4. Plot Bunnies Must Be Free To Roam

I don’t know about you but my plot bunnies are very definitely free range. They go wherever they want to. I spend half my time retrieving them from the most unexpected of places. I have started books on such basis as “I want to write something with a steam train in it” or “ooh a tiger, how cool would it be to have a tiger”. And for me, this is the joy of writing. It is the challenge of musing, “what story can I come up with that features a steam train” (ended up being a steampunk fanfic of Night Circus). Plot bunnies should be tamed only when they are given a home. But this does mean bunnies of all shapes and sizes, which can result in broad spectrum genres.

5. The Broken Record Phenomenon

Consider Jodi Picoult or Nicholas Sparks for a moment. When I picked up my first of each of theirs (My Sister’s Keeper and The Notebook) I loved what I found. The books were engaging and surprising and emotionally devastating. The writing was refreshing and innovative. So obviously, I reached for more. Nowadays, I rarely pick up either author. Why? Because I got bored. Now, I am aware I chose two authors who are particularly formulaic in their stories – with Picoult in particular, if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all – different story, different characters, different moral dilemma of the week but all the shock and awe is gone because you can predict each turn. As for Sparks, I go back to my favourite jpg.

Image not mine. Please click image to go to source.

They are both, very much, single genre writers. And very specific at that. They have found a niche and they are working it (to death). I’m actually somewhat impressed both are still coming up with new variations upon their themes. That is not to say, in any way shape or form, that their books are bad. They aren’t. They still write now with that same engaging, exciting voice they wrote then, my problem is I’m not surprised by them any more. I’m bored. I like books that surprise me. That’s what keeps me engaged. It isn’t enough for me to have just great characters and a strong story, that story will only be compelling if I can’t predict the ending from chapter three.

I should caveat this strongly though with the note that there are authors who stick with their thing and keep it fresh. For example, Torey Hayden has never (to my knowledge though I haven’t read her full back catalogue) moved away from her, what I like to think of as, “tortured children” model but each one I pick up still hits me with the full force of a sledgehammer. But I do think this is why I’m not a big fan of crime books, particularly series, as they get very formulaic. This is a very personal opinion but I regularly speak to other readers who have similar feelings, so it is something worth keeping in mind.

6. Hard to Break Free:

I go back to Ms JK for this one as she is a perfect, if heightened, example of this. She wrote Harry Potter. It became a global phenomenon and made her very famous. She became “the woman that wrote Harry Potter” but then the series ended but she still had other stories in her. She wanted to try new things. Now, I don’t think many would dispute her ability to write or come up with engaging stories but she felt the need to create a whole new persona to get her crime fiction launched. Now, yes, I know there are lots of contingency factors (like she wanted to be successful for her writing etc. etc.) and I do find it hilarious that some agents and publishers turned down the Galbraith novels – bet they are kicking themselves now – but I truly believe that at least part of this choice was her attempting to break free of the “Harry Potter” label.

Once you are known for something, it is hard to kick the stereotype. Things I’ve noticed over the years: it’s much easier to transition from adult to kids books than VV, particularly if you are trying to move from YA to A; fantasy and crime seem to be a popular/unpopular mix, with the most examples of authors writing under two names to cross that bridge; generally speaking, not always, but generally speaking, whichever genre comes second, does less well.

Again, there are always exceptions but just something to keep in mind when you are seven book down in an eight book fantasy series and suddenly you realise you want your next novel to be a spy thriller.

7. Practice Makes Perfect:

Yup. I know I’ve already used this one but I wanted to separate out the two variations as they directly contradict. This time, I mean it in the simple sense of if you don’t try something you’ll never know. If I only wrote fantasy, how do I know that actually I’m a secret regency romance genius but I’ve never given it a try? Plus the more genres you play around with, the more you hone different sides of your craft. Crime and thrillers are great for working on suspense writing. Sci Fi and Fantasy are the obvious choices for world building. Psycho thrillers are excellent for character work. The more you write, the more you can write.

 

This post was not written to draw to any particular conclusion. I have my own opinions but I think on this matter, it is up to each writer to decide where they sit and what is right for them. But whether you agree the debate should exist in the first place or not, I think the above are some things to just keep floating in the back of your mind. If you are writing for pleasure, then feel free to ignore this whole post, but most of us are writing with a commercial path in mind and that means turning ourselves into a brand. Whether we want to or not.

8 Tips to Prepare for Camp NaNoWriMo

So… earlier this week I talked you into joining Camp NaNoWriMo (hopefully) but with less than two weeks to go, how do you prepare for such a journey into the wilderness? I’m a bit of a NaNo veteran. As those who follow my blog regularly will know, I’m not much of a planner. I prefer the panstering style of novel prep. So the two-week point is usually the point at which I start putting together my NaNo survival kit. I don’t believe in over planning but I also know if you go trampling around in the woods without a map you’ll probably get eaten by a bear.

So here are my top tips for what prep to do before launching into the camp.

8 ways to prepare for camp nanowrimo

1.Choose a project

I know some people will disagree with me on this (and just about every other point I’m going to raise) but I have personally found I am about 1000% more productive if I go in with a project in mind. Up until the two week mark, I normally have a couple of different options on the radar. At this point, I make the choice, and stick with it. It gives my brain two weeks to get embedded in the relevant world and ready myself for launching in.

2. Choose a target

I don’t necessarily mean word count though this will more or less be how this is endgame represented. I more mean this in the sense of what you want to achieve by the end. I personally find it a bit soul-destroying sometimes to write to word count alone so I equate it to something. For shorts, this may be finishing the project. For novelists, this may be aiming to get to a certain plot point. I’ve found when I’ve given myself a tangible goal, I’ve been able to reach it easier, often overshooting word count in my enthusiasm. Think about what progress you would personally be happy to see.

3. Have a rough story in mind

Again, probably a surprise to hear from me but I never go into NaNo completely blind. Even with The Butterfly Children (which was basically written with a blindfold) I had a rough idea of what type of story I wanted to tell and a very basic spine of plot points to follow. And the one project that never got off the ground (Black Feathers) was the only time I went in with absolutely no prep. Chances are once you are in the heat of the moment, you’ll end up deviating and going in all sorts of unexpected directions but I would highly advice having a vague plot map from the outset.

4. Have a set of reasonably rounded characters

To me, this is the key to sprint writing. Sprint writing is more or less about listening to the characters and letting them to do the hard work. Letting them run amok on the page and tell the story for you. But the only way you can do that, is if you and your characters have had a nice long sit down chat beforehand. You need to know your characters. I’d recommend the two weeks before mark is when you sit down and refine your character list. There are loads of really good character sheets out there, including one from NaNo themselves for this purpose. I’d focus on at least a list of five characters (traditionally hero, best friend, love interest, villain, character of authority/wisdom/guidance in a fairytale for example). Look at it this way, if you are going to let your characters doing the heavy lifting, you need to give them shoulders first.

5. Tense, point of view and narrative style

Another good thing to have in mind before launching in. Are you going passive omnipotent third person or on the ground first person present narrative? My other bit of advice would be to stick with it. Even if after day three you know you’ll probably change it later, keep with it for the Camp else you’ll end up backtracking ground and get into serious danger of editing yourself as you go which is deadly when sprinting to a target. My advice would be to read around in the genre/style for which you are aiming. See what other writer’s are doing. What styles grip you? What grips you about them? Why do they work? How would they work in your story?

6. Make sure you are all signed up and ready to go

Sounds obvious but I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve ended up signing up on the 30th of June because I just plain forgot the admin bits and was so wrapped up in the story planning. As I said before, I’m setting up a cabin this year, so if you want to join me, just leave your NaNo name below and I’ll send invites to the first eleven.

7. Choose your platform

I’m actually a pretty multi-media gal when it comes to writing. You’d think my preference would be computer when it comes to sprint writing, and for November I would completely agree, but for the camps I actually have a preference for handwriting. It’s the most flexible for me to fit around my lifestyle. I can carry a notebook everywhere. I can write on the bus on the way to work, in the canteen at lunch. In the ten minutes when the internet is down. On the beach. In a cafe. Whenever and wherever I have ten minutes it’s with me. I don’t have to wait for boot up or anything like that. I can just open and go. This is how I’ve done nearly all my NaNo projects. Either way, it’s worth taking a moment to work out what is best going to work for you and make sure you are all kitted out.

8. Work out a rough schedule

Perhaps the hardest part of Camp NaNoWriMo is fitting it around life. Life happens. And the problem with this retreat is that it is only as secure as a closed door. I would guess most of you, like me, are juggling a day job as well as the writing gig. Many of you will be fellow bloggers so you know how long that takes and how much work that can be. Then there is the marketing and social media platforms. Plus family commitments, remembering to eat. And that annoying sleep thing they tell me is a good idea from time to time. And if all that isn’t enough, I hear there is this thing called a social life I should look into at some point…

My point is, you are going to have to commit a serious chunk of time to the Camp so work out when and where that will best work for you. I give myself a rough timetable. I know I blog before work. I study in my lunch hour and then know my evenings are mine to write and during NaNo seasons, I also dedicate my Sundays exclusively (where I can) to writing. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to about NaNo have said one of the biggest contributors to their success or failure was time management.

A final thought on plotting…

This is a very personal subjective matter. There truly is no right or wrong answer to the “How much should I plot?” question. For some people, I know they need everything in place beforehand or they come out in hives. I personally know that over planning is the easiest way for me to kill one of my own projects. Something I haven’t mentioned above, for example, is (for fantasy and sci-fi) world building. That’s because my personal feeling is that this is something that can evolve with writing and be edited into clarity later. But then I’m a character writer. My characters build the world around them and then I colour in the gaps later. But some people feel the complete opposite way. And that’s cool too. For those people they would want to have the world and mythologies in place but not really care what characters they are dealing with and create those as they go along. Equally, I haven’t spoken to research (for crime particularly). Again, I’m personally comfortable with vagueness (e.g. he shot him with a gun, I can work out what kind of gun later) and some scientific breaches in my first draft because, personally, I like to see the full picture of what I’m dealing with before I launch into the research and use that as an editing tool. But again, I’m an editor. My first drafts are normally full of plot holes and inconsistencies. I know this. I accept this. And I’m committed to fully being aware that my editing process is a lot longer than other people’s. It’s just how I write. You may be different.

Ultimately, NaNoWriMo is about you. Only you know how you write. Only you know your preferences. My only advice, ironically, would be don’t listen too hard to all the advice out there. Read it. Listen. But don’t feel like you have to do it that way. We are just providing one particular opinion, or path. Don’t be afraid to do it your own way. Camp NaNoWriMo, more than anything else, is about embracing the inner writer and having fun with what we do. You can’t do that if you are bound by seventeen contradictory “rules” on how to do it right. The only right way to do it is to write. End of.

As always, comment below your views and opinions.

Maxi x

A Beginners Guide to Camp NaNoWriMo

So… it’s that time of year again. The sun is (finally) shining. Ice cream shops are at capacity and suddenly the idea of that summer holiday seems like a really good plan. For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to be escaping to Paris or Prague this summer for a bit of writing TLC, we have to look closer to home for our writing retreat.

Cue Camp NaNoWriMo. Here’s everything you need to know about the (free) writer’s retreat of the season.

Beginner's Guide to Camp NaNoWriMo

1. What is Camp NaNoWriMo?

Camp NaNoWriMo is the little sister of November’s National Novel Writing Month where writers from around the world stock up on caffeine and chocolate, say goodbye to their loved ones and lock themselves in their office with their laptop and tackle the rather daunting prospect of 50,000 words in a month.

Camp NaNoWriMo currently runs twice a year, once in April and once in July.

2. How is it different to NaNoWriMo?

Flexibility on word count. In the November event, you have to write to the 50,000 word target. Camps are much more fluid. You choose your own goal. Anything from 500 to 100,000 words. Whatever you feel you can get done in the time prescribed. Which is kinda awesome when, like me, you are juggling four hundred other balls at the same time. This year, I’m keeping my goals lower (I’m thinking 25,000) because I have an essay due in at the end of the same period. Oh yeah, and if something happens mid month and you have to drop the target, that’s fine too. You have until (I think) the last 7 days of the session to finalise your word count goal.

3. What can I write?

Anything. Yup. You heard me. Anything. There are more or less no rules with the Camps. Screenplays. Second drafts. Poems. I know a lot of people who choose to spread their word count across three or four different projects. It’s one of the things I absolutely love about the camps. It means no matter where you are in your project, you can take part. I’ve struggled to take part in November in the past because timing hasn’t worked. I’ve been editing or drafting second or third runs which doesn’t suit the 50k sprint mentality but equally I haven’t wanted to take a whole month out to work on a different project. Camp mitigates any of these problems. Wherever you are at with your writing, you can enter it into the camps.

4. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo before? Should I do that one first?

I’m biased on this one. Funnily enough, I’d been wanting to do NaNoWriMo for years but timing never worked out. When I heard about the camps, I wasn’t initially intending to take part. It sort of happened by accident. I picked up my The Butterfly Children project about a week before the April camp was due to start and I thought “what the hell” and signed it up as a bit of an experiment.

And loved it.

I was so productive, made so many useful contacts and just really had a lot of fun. I’ve more or less taken part in every camp since. I’ve also done NaNoWriMo itself since.

To me, they are quite different experiences. The November session is the high stakes table. It was still fun but I found it more stressful and there was less of a community feeling to it without the cabin element (see below). It’s where you go when you want to push yourself. It’s the London Marathon. The camps are more like the Liverpool Marathon (for non-Brits, shorter and waaaaaaaaaay less competitive). It’s a social event. You wear silly hats and tutus and spend as much time debating the Oxford comma rule as you do writing.

5. Where do I find this holiday destination?

Check it out: https://campnanowrimo.org

6. You keep mentioning cabins? We aren’t going anywhere are we?

Sadly no. But again, another element of Camp NaNoWriMo I really love. You have a choice of three things. Either you can write solo in a cabin on your own. Or you can set up a private cabin of you and other writer of your choosing or (and my favourite) you can choose to be “put” in a cabin of eleven other strangers. You have lots of choices (e.g. people writing the same genre, people writing for the same audience, writers in the same time zone etc…) but essentially it’s a giant mixer. I would really really suggest choosing the randomised cabins. It is a great way to meet new writers, listen to their awesome story ideas and together you get to go on the writing journey for the next month. And hey, if you don’t like who you get the first time, you always have the option to move cabins.

Talking of cabins, I’m trying something new this year. As usual, I will be taking part in July’s camp and I’ll be setting up a cabin. I would love to write with some of you guys. If you want to be in the same cabin as me, my NaNo name is M Bransdale. Leave your NaNo name tag in the comments section below and the first eleven get to rock up on July 1st with me. I don’t care about time zone or genre or anything like that. I’m just looking for eleven writer’s as excited and passionate as I am.

7. So how many times have you done Camp NaNoWriMo?

This’ll be my fifth time rocking up to the camp. I’ve hit my target three times out of the last four. Check out my profile: http://campnanowrimo.org/campers/m-bransdale/novels

8. How do I sign up?

Couldn’t be easier. Just follow the link above and then the instructions from the good folks at NaNo and you’ll be a member in no time. FYI, they don’t spam you with endless emails so don’t worry about putting in an email address. Again, it is completely up to you how much or how little information you put up. Just remember that the more you put out there, the more you can get back. I try to supply at least a brief synopsis for each of my projects where I can.

9. What do I get out of it?

Aside the connections and progress in your project, there are also a load of cool freebies and prizes for anyone who gets to their finish line. As you set this yourself for Camp NaNoWriMo, this is normally pretty doable for most folks. In previous years, there have been substantially reduced subscriptions to programmes such as Scrivener and huge deals on getting books printed, that sort of thing. They really do a great job at providing awesome treats for us writers. You can also help them out (though it is completely voluntary) by donating to help them keep the programme running and buying their merch. They have tee-shirts, posters, mugs every year with the theme of the camp. You also get your very own certificate and cool badges to add to your blog.

And of course, the most important,

10. How do I know my work is safe?

To “win” and get your work “validated” you have to copy your novel up to the NaNo website for checking. I will be honest, the first time I found out about this, I was not particularly happy. I think it would be fair to say that most writers are very protective (and for good reason) of their work. However, please note:

nanoprotection

And for the record, I’ve never had a problem and I’ve validated every project I’ve done (including November sessions that’s six projects).

I hope I see you guys at the camp this July. Next week, I’ll talk about prep and what to bring to get the most out of your time at the camp.

Til then, so long and happy writing my fellow scribes. And remember, leave your NaNo names below and I’ll start setting up a cabin.

Maxi x

CNW_Participant

What’s In A Fairytale? 5 Helpful Starting Points

So, we’ve established (more or less) what a fairytale is and what kind of story we want to tell. Question is, how do we go about telling it? Every genre has its own markers – the key elements that readers expect to see. Fairytales are no different. When we pick up a fairytale, or something that guises to be one, as readers we have certain expectations and, as writers, we have to be careful to fulfil enough of them not to leave the reader feeling cheated.


An important caveat. There are no rules in writing. Actually, a lie. Considering we are in the business of art, people seem in a hell of a rush to bind us in so many rules I sometimes think it’s a miracle anything original ever gets published with all the bureaucratic strangling going on in our market. So let’s change that to…

There shouldn’t be any rules in writing

So while the below listed and explored are common themes, they are not the be all and end all. They are guidelines. Ideas. Suggestions. If  you ask me, our job as writers shouldn’t be a tick box exercise of combining an expected set of conditions into one linear narrative, it should be a challenge so see how many of them we can leave out and still get the same end result. Personally as a reader, I love to be surprised. I love that moment when I actually have to put the book down for a moment to admire the mastery of such a warped imagination that created such an unexpected twist.


But that said, if you want to get published, particularly traditionally, you have to play by the rules. (That’s not to say there aren’t agents out there who will take a chance on something new and controversial (in a literary sense) but they are needles in a very big haystack). Most books I pick up these days are so formulaic it hurts.

So here’s a couple of elements to keep in mind when working on your own fairytale as well as a few tips from me on how to rebel (whoo to the writing revolution):

Starting points for fairytales

  1. OUR DASHING HERO, DARLING DAMSEL IN DISTRESS AND VILLAINOUS VILLAIN

The Golden Trio. Pick up any fairytale and you’ll more than often find all three in residence. If your name is Disney, it’s normally the princess of the week, the nameless prince who is only there to kill things and save the afore-mentioned princess from the cliché evil villain. From Snow White, the literally unnamed Prince Charming and equally unnamed Evil Queen to bang up to date with Anna, Kristoff and the we-were-going-to-do-an-original-hero-as-villain-story-but-chickened-out Hans, these three characters are the foundation around which the fairytale is built.

That does not mean by any stretch that there isn’t room for some interpretation. My favourites are where the damsel is just fine saving herself while the hero has his own problems to contend with (Hercules and Meg), linked instead of by a sappy love story but by the mutual villain; or where the villain is actually the hero of the story (Maleficent) or better yet starts as the villain and comes full circle to hero as the hero takes the opposite journey (absolutely loved the Black Swan mirroring in Once Upon a Time S5 p1 with Regina and Emma as they switched roles). I actually love this cliché because it gives us so much room as writers to go “screw that” and mix things up. Why can’t the princess be the villain and the wicked witch saves the prince? Why can’t the hero have their own story completely independent of the princess? What if the hero has to team up with the villain to save the princess and falls in love with the wrong one? There is so much scope here. As any self-respecting Oncer will tell you “Evil isn’t born, it’s made” and “Anyone can be a hero.” Break the rules. Shock the reader. Make them really question their assumptions. Write a story where no one is who they appear to be. All three should be distinct characters with their own stories, motivations and development. That is when a fairytale is at its most powerful.

2. THE EPIC BATTLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL

You can’t have a fairytale without some kind of great war between all that is good and all that is evil. Back when Snow White was released in 1937, people were happier to accept the simple lines drawn between good and evil, cheer on the heroes and go home satisfied. Since then, audiences have become much more demanding and questioning. Our job as writers is to ask those questions. What is good? What is evil? Is someone evil for doing the right things for the wrong reasons? Or for doing the wrong things for the right reasons? Which is better? Which is worse? Can a hero still be hero if they are willing to kill? What makes people evil? Are people all evil or all good? What are the shades of grey in play? Can a villain ever be redeemed? When does a hero become just a vigilante with a sword? Here’s a fun writing prompt:

Write an entire book from the point of view of one character as the hero. It’s only as the reader reaches the end, they realise that character is actually the villain and they’ve just witnessed them killing the real hero.

3. The Great Moral Lesson

Fairytales, as established back in March, are as much about examining the “human experience” as they are about princesses and wicked witches. They are morality tales. Each one has a “lesson” that it wishes to teach. Frozen teaches girls everywhere that they don’t need a prince to save them and depression can be beaten. Tangled teaches little girls that ignoring their mother’s direct instruction and running away is a great idea. Snow White taught a generation that it really is the be all and end all to be the prettiest of them all. Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Tangled is also about growing up and identity. And Snow White is about the perils of vanity. Each fairytale has its core lesson to share with the world. And so should yours.

For me, this is why we choose to write fairytales. This is the very core of what they are. We as writers want to give a voice to a particular story, or struggle, or theme and share that. For me personally, the theme I looked at was the constant fight we all face to find who we are in this crazy, mixed up world that is so quick to want to shove us in neat little boxes and fundamentally  the idea that just because you are born as one thing does not mean that is the thing you must be for the rest of your life – in other words, just because you are born a hero does not mean you cannot become the villain and vice versa. I also wanted a chance to really explore accountability (as for me personally this is something somewhat lacking in fairytales). I chose these themes because they are close to my heart. They are things I struggled with as a kid, and continue to now as an adult and are stories I have never been able to find in the books I’ve read so I wrote my own.

Everyone has their thing. That one or two moral/ethical/emotive topics that really sets our hearts burning. If you aren’t sure of yours, look back over everything you’ve ever written and write down all the things they have in common. You might be surprised by what you find. I did this a couple of years ago and it really made me more self-aware as a writer and in many ways, my findings created the foundation for the fairytales I’m now writing. It’s a fantastic exercise to do, even if you don’t plan on writing anything that ends in “happily ever after”.

4. Once Upon A Time to Happily Ever After

I don’t know if it was different for you, but back when I was just starting to write as a kid, fairytales were the device my teachers used to explain the formula of a story. It starts “once upon a time” there is a great thrilling quest and it ends “happily ever after”. Of course, I’ve since learnt that stories are somewhat more complicated than that but it’s important to keep the format in the back of your mind when you are working on a fairytale. A few questions you might want to ask:

  • Where do I want to begin?
  • Am I going to follow one primary character through the whole story (which is the traditional route) or jump around and show different sides of the story?
  • Where do I want to end?
  • What is happily ever after for me/my characters? Am I a “True Lover” or is there a different kind of ever after I want to explore?
  • Will this have a happy ending?
  • What exists after “happily ever after”? Do I care? Is this something I want to explore? What happens when “happily ever after” breaks?

5. The Sappy Love Story

Can you write a fairytale without one? Frozen tried. But even without it being the primary “love” story, it was still there in the background. Maleficent is probably as close as Disney has ever gotten to a fairytale that doesn’t have a love story (and even then her past/backstory is one giant love story – just because it ends badly doesn’t stop it being a love story, or does it? When does a love story become a revenge story?) As I explored a couple of posts back, a lot of the original fairytales do actually step away from the traditional love story. Some of that is time based, perceptions have changed. Things we are disgusted by now were just not that frowned upon back then. Friendly reminder that rape within marriage only became illegal in the UK in 1990. And some of it is to do with the fact those stories were downright twisted. My favourite retellings are the ones that push the love story to the back. As a woman, I do not enjoy being informed that my happily ever after comes in the form of biceps and abs. As a writer, I’ve made the choice to very much marginalise any romantic storyline in my own work. My protagonist is a strong female whose happily ever after has absolutely no correlation to whom she happens to be dating at the time.