Monday, 29 August 2016

Spam from the Slushpile

By Nick Cross

Here at Notes from the Slushpile we love comments, especially on this post (hint hint). But, whilst enabling comments on a blog helps to inspire debate and bring the readers closer to the content, there is also a downside. Sometimes - shock horror! - people disagree with us, or they have technical problems on their device that prevent them from commenting, or (even worse) they spend ages writing a comment that Blogger then swallows forever. And there is a group of commenters who we don’t want on the blog under any circumstances – the spammers.

A successful blog like this one receives a large quantity of spam comments. How large, I hear you ask? Well, at the time of writing, there were 3745 messages in the Notes from the Slushpile spam folder:



Now, this would be a nightmare for us to administer, were it not for the fact that Google (who owns Blogger) has a very clever algorithm for automatically detecting spam comments. So, for the most part, you can go on surfing our blog without ever having to know about the turbulence below the surface.

But, as writers, we all know the feeling that what we’re writing is falling into a void. We send out streams of queries to agents and publishers, with no idea if anyone is even reading the material, let alone responding with anything more encouraging than “meh.” Do the spammers feel that way too? Maybe they’re sending thousand upon thousand messages out there in the hope that one – just one – will connect with a living human being.

Spammers of the world, it’s your lucky day! Because I’m here to dig deep into the spam folder and provide the critique that your unique work so richly deserves...

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Breaking Bad for Children's Writers

By Candy Gourlay

So today is supposed to be Teri Terry's turn at the blog but she's, like, having her nails done (see left), buying new teddy bears and appearing in the Edinburgh Festival, as you do when you're a bestselling young adult author. She asked the rest of the Slushpile team if anyone wanted to blog in her place. Of course I immediately wanted to. But, I told Teri, I knew I  really shouldn't because I was supposed to be finishing my book. So we agreed to see what happened when the week rolled round.

Sigh. Here I am. She who never knowingly does not procrastinate.

But enough about me.

Last Spring, my husband and I binged on all five seasons of the super excellent TV series Breaking Bad. It was created by American writer Vince Gilligan, who also wrote 30 episodes of the hit series of my teenagerhood The X Files, back in the 1980s.

If you haven't watched BBad and still hope to do so, then sadly for me you ought to click away from the Slushpile now. Come back when you've watched all five seasons. BBad is really good. I don't want to spoil it for ya.




'Breaking bad' basically means going bad ... which is the show's premise. Walter White, a mild-mannered-verging-on-dull Chemistry teacher discovers he's got terminal cancer and — with the help of his reluctant, foul-mouthed, failure of a former student, Jessie — uses his chemistry super powers to become a crystal meth cook.

If like me, you spend all your waking hours reading books about character arc, the premise is clear: this goodie is going to become a baddie to end all baddies.

How the series writers achieve this, how they make us love their vile characters, how they make us hunger for the next episode, is the joy of watching all five series in a compressed period of time.

Now writing a TV series is not the all-by-your-lonesome experience we children's writers have to endure. On series like Breaking Bad there are scores of writers who do all the tough work together. They brainstorm. They work out the plot. They leave no plot hole unfilled. They must have a lot of fun (she says enviously).

Back in 2013, just before the series screened its wham bang finale, the Guardian did us all the favour of publishing an excerpt from Difficult Men: From the Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad — the part where the writing team spend an entire day working out the details of a banal plot point.
Nearly every discussion in every writers' room, Gilligan explained, boils down to one of two questions: "Where's a character's head at?" and "What happens next?" Ideas v action. Text v subtext. This, as it happened, was a "What happens next?" day.

I do a lot of 'Where's a character's head at?' and 'What happens next?' days too. But being a solo act surely couldn't possibly match the creative ability of the team of brains behind BBad.

On the wall behind Gilligan was a large corkboard. Across the top were pinned 13 index cards representing the 13 episodes of the season. In rows beneath them, more neatly printed cards ... contained detailed story points. The cards looked like a pile of leaves that had faced a stiff, left-blowing wind, clustered deep under the early episodes but gradually thinning as the as-yet-unwritten season progressed. Under 413, the final episode of the season, there was only one single, fluttering card. It read in bold, matter-of-fact Magic Marker ink, "BOOM."

When the watching was over, I was so bereft, I went off and binged on the BBad spin off,  Better Call Saul, which basically features all the loveable baddies from BBad before they broke bad. The agent Donald Maas,  in Writing the Breakout Novel, noted:

Delight your readers with your own brand of story, then continue to delight them in a similar way (only better) on a regular basis. That is the way to build an audience. It is the only way to become a brand name author.

Basically: familiarity breeds, not contempt, but success.

Better Call Saul was a different story from BBad. But it was fascinating how it snagged the loyal BBad fan in me with carefully crafted grappling hooks. It was unmistakeably a product of the same stable. It's a lesson on continuing success for any writer who has published a first successful story. (Thinking critically of course one wonders whether it will expand BBad's devoted audience or cater to the already converted? But that's a discussion for another blog post).



I watched both series with my notebook in hand, trying to pick up some writing ideas. Here's a list of the top five plotty things that caught my attention:

1. EPISODES OPEN WITH CLOSE UPS OF OBJECTS DAMAGED BY THE CHARACTERS

Broken objects as framing device. In a hospital men's room, we see a dented hand dryer. Walt is going to punch it later in the movie. But it is revealed to us before any of the action takes place. In Better Call Saul, an episode opens with a crumpled dustbin. Later, we are shown how Saul kicked it in frustration.

Note to self: how could I do this in a book?  In the medium of words, framing a chapter with such a foretelling, that object will have to be super distinctive.

2. IN BOTH BBAD AND BCS, THERE ARE KEY CHARACTERS WHO KNOW EXACTLY WHAT'S GOING ON

Walter White spends all five seasons of Breaking Bad trying to hide his nefarious activities from his wife, Skyler. But somehow, Skyler always seems to know what's really going on.  It makes Skyler a wonderful character. She is innocent. But once she knows, she is culpable. In BCS, Saul is presented as a small time con-man devoted to his accomplished big brother, Chuck, who is Mr Righteous. Chuck, like Skyler, can see through Saul's every lie. His bitter flaw is that he cannot bear his kind, con-man brother to be successful.

Note to self: It's almost a super power, isn't it? The ability to see through the subterfuge of the hero. What a fun secondary character that would be. And what about if that character were the baddie? Woah!

3. THE ONE SIDED DIALOGUE

This is dialogue in which only one character actually talks. Making plans, dreaming dreams, explaining stuff. The other character just listens. And in the face of the listener, we can see the frailty of the talking character. There is nowhere to hide. Many times in the five seasons, Walter White patiently explained to another character some devious plot or some plausible explanation to cover up a lie. And in the dead eyes of the listening character we could clearly see that a deception has not passed unnoticed. Who held the cards now?

Note to self: what a clever way to do exposition! So often, there is a need to explain that something has happened or to make sure the reader understands some important point. You see this poorly rendered in many books when two characters converse just to reveal expository points: "Superman cannot be near kryptonite ." "The alien mineral? The one that has the power to deprive him of all his powers?" The one sided dialogue on the other hand generates such an emotional charge that your reader absorbs information but is too busy feeling for the characters to notice. Expository sleight of hand. Cool!

4. THE BLIND SPOT

One of my favourite characters was Hank Schrader, an agent of the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) and brother-in-law to chemistry teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White. Hank spent Breaking Bad's five seasons hunting down meth kingpin Heisenberg, Walter's handle in the drug world. But he never, never, EVER suspected his mousy brother-in-law and even enlisted Walter's help in chasing down leads. Blind spot.

Note to self: a character's blind spot creates a cat and mouse, will-he-won't he? tension. It's just delicious, like that moment in a horror b-movie when you're shouting, 'Behind you! THE MONSTER IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU!' And the characters blithely continue on. How do I plot something like this into my story? How do I make my reader sweat?

5. THE MONTAGE

Time passes. Things happen. BBad tried very hard to follow thriller writer Elmore Leonard's advice: ‘Don’t write the parts that people skip.’  (I did mention this in my last blog post, it's good advice)

The movie montage has to be the tried and true method of getting quickly through a massive bit of exposition. There are plenty in the five seasons of BBad — notably the murder montage, when Walter hires hitmen to simultaneously (and gruesomely) murder targets in several jails; and various meth-making montages — Walter and Jessie learning to work together, Walter working with a new partner in a new lab, and in one climactic episode, Jessie manufacturing meth in chains.

Note to self: Montages are not a bad way to get from one plot point to another. But they can be done very, VERY badly. Just remember that they're like guitar riffs. They've got to be the sort of thing that makes your reader, sit up, take notice, burst into applause. Because you're doing so much in such a short time, your montage have got to be better than 'And then and then and then', you've got to show off a bit, make the scene sing.


ooOoo

That's all I've got time for now. If you haven't seen Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, I hope this has persuaded you to do so. Even if it's not the kind of show you like to watch, I can guarantee you'll learn something from the series.

It's such a struggle, enjoying movies and TV when your brain is hardwired to pay attention to plot and character technique. That's what I loved most about BBad: I was so absorbed I completely forgot to think about writing. I had to watch it again to take notes.

Till next time.



Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and Shine, books that have been nominated for prizes like the Carnegie, the Guardian Children's Fiction prize, the Blue Peter and the Waterstone's Book Award. Read her last post on Notes from the Slushpile: Getting to the End

Monday, 15 August 2016

Panels, Pals and Prancing About: the Serious Business of Promoting Your Book by Kathryn Evans


By Kathryn Evans

This is a heart on sleeve blog post. You may hate me after you've read it. You have been warned.

My debut YA novel, More of Me, was released in February this year. It took me a long time to get published - fifteen years in fact, during which time I accrued quite a gang of fellow journeymen through Facebook and SCBWI.


Monday, 8 August 2016

Wearing the Write Stuff or What to Wear at Your Book Prize Ceremony

by Addy Farmer

It's Summer and there are things to do
Because it is Summer and nobody is going to read this and crucially, I wear clothes, I have decided that I am qualified to give advice on the important matter of what to wear at a prize ceremony.

Hooray!

Monday, 1 August 2016

Getting to The End


Greetings from the Philippines where I am currently sitting on the verandah of a grass hut staring at this:



And wondering idly if now is the time to enjoy this:



These past months have been SO hectic what with trying to finish my manuscript while getting through a packed schedule of speaking engagements. I’ve been a very, very bad blogger. I missed my turn on the Slushpile rota last month and I didn’t even realise it until a day later!

My Slushpile colleagues have been very forgiving. After all, here on the Slushpile, we are authors first, bloggers second. I am on the home stretch of my next novel. ‘Home stretch’, you must note, does not necessarily mean I’ve almost finished.

 It means: The End is in sight.

It means: so near and yet so far.

In the author’s roller coaster quest to write a book, I am at a kind of final reckoning. You see, I have written my story several times already, explored many versions of the narrative. But this is my final draft. This is the story that my reader is actually going to read.

In this final drive to The End, I am no longer searching for my voice or bringing my character to life or figuring out plot. This final quest is not a pursuit of a story but for The Book itself.

PROPOSITION VS OUTCOME

In a screenwriting lecture, playwright David Hare said:

It’s only the great films that move towards the end so the incredibly simple rule of writing a screenplay is always to end-load it, always to write something where the outcome is more important than the proposition. All Hollywood is interested in is propositions.

The idea of Proposition vs Outcome resonates at a time when finding the Hook that will get you published has become a kind of Holy Grail for fellow authors who have yet to be discovered. For the past few years, there has been a glut of events catering to the wannabee author focusing on hook and proposition. How do you catch the eye of a publisher? How do you write a first page that will keep an agent reading? How do you come up with a Big Idea so compelling that editors clamor to publish your book?

In his lecture, Hare described how a film based on a proposition degenerates as it proceeds: ‘The first 30 minutes you are having a completely wonderful time and going, “Oh this is absolutely marvelous”’ – only to find that vitality dissipating as the film proceeds as the idea is exhausted.

I’ve been experiencing this a lot recently. Picking up a book with a compelling cover and blurb, thinking ‘What an amazing idea! I’ve got to know what happens in the story!’ only to find myself disappointed as the story thins in the telling.

I’ve picked up a book with a compelling cover and blurb only to find myself disappointed as the story thins in the telling.

With screws tightening more stringently than ever before, the publishing scene is now driven not just by editors but by accountants and marketing departments. In this scenario, a good Proposition or Hook equals a Publication Deal equals Sales equals Success.

But will your book actually get read? Do you care if it does or doesn’t?

In this sense, The End is also The Outcome.

“I avoid and never accept any movie that is a proposition.’ Hare said in his lecture. ‘I am only interested in what I call outcome movies.’ He described an outcome movie as one that gave you no reason to panic because you were confident that the outcome would be profoundly satisfying.

AM I WRITING A BOOK THAT IS ‘PROFOUNDLY SATISFYING’?

This is the question that has been keeping me up late at night, the question that
hangs over my head, like the sword of Damocles, as I write everyday.

It is not about writing to impress my way into getting published anymore. It’s about adding to my body of work as an author. It’s about installing another building block to my career. It’s about writing the book someone might fall in love with.

Ultimately though: it’s about the story.

Have I told it to the best of my ability? Have I learned what I needed to learn as a writer to give it a good chance of being read?

I have often quoted Neil Gaiman quoting his friend Gene Wolfe: ‘You never learn to write. You only learn to write the novel you're on.’ Have I learned to write this book?

The truth is, I’ve written three novels to which the answer to the profoundly satisfying question is ‘No’. No, publishers saw no spark in them. No, they weren’t written well enough. No, they weren’t ready for the reader. These sit quietly in my desk drawer, waiting for the day when I decide to take them out and reimagine them. Their time will come. But what about this novel? Have I served it well?

CHECKLIST

We like lists here on Notes from the Slushpile. It’s always helpful to have action points and tips and checklists. So here is a list of thoughts for any author who, like me, is on a quest for The End.


1. Inciting Event vs Crisis 
(If you don’t know what an inciting event or a crisis is then skip this blog post and read a few books on narrative structure.)
It’s been three years since I began writing this book. Three years since I first penned the inciting event that launched my characters into their adventure. As I take my characters to crisis for the very last draft, it’s a good time to revisit the Inciting Event, that moment when my character first walked through the fictive door of no return. Because writing a book takes years (well, for me), it is so easy to forget the triggers that sent your hero on his journey. It’s so easy to get lost down wormholes and distractions. Now is the time to look at your story with eyes that see. And if you see something that doesn’t work? Well. You gotta fix it.

2. Have I said what I wanted to say? 
Andrew Stanton, the writer/director of many great Pixar films, said: “You should have something to say in a story”.

When I was a child in the Philippines, my teachers taught me that every story had to have a moral lesson. Interestingly, I still get ‘fan mail’ from children in the Philippines asking me, ‘What is the moral lesson of your story?’ So perhaps Filipino teachers are still asking the same questions.

Be that as it may, as authors, ‘having something to say’ lies at the heart of our storytelling. In Into the Woods, John Yorke explains:

That doesn’t always mean a message. It means truth, some value that you yourself as a storyteller believe in, and then through the course of the story are able to debate that truth. Try to prove it wrong. Test it to its limits.

The hope of course is that one has said what one wants to say with subtlety. So the drive to The End is a good time to check if you’ve been beating your reader on the head with the stick of your conviction.

3. Unexpected themes you had not originally meant to explore. 
One of the magical experiences of writing a novel is the unintentional emergence of themes. You may have decided on an overarching theme, but somehow as the story comes to life and your characters find their feet, baby themes emerge and evolve. Now is the time to pay attention to them. What are they? Did I miss them? Did I build on them? Did I neglect them?

Discovering a particularly resonant theme can mean a lot of extra work. My current work unexpectedly developed an underlying theme surrounding friendship that grew and grew to such an extent that I realised I should downgrade my previous main theme and rebuild my narrative with the friendship theme at its core. Yes. It meant an extra month of writing. But if I’m seeking Profoundly Satisfying then I have to do the work, right?

Here’s Yorke again, in a discussion of giving shape to a story:

'It is only through fiction that facts can be made instructive or even intelligible,’ said George Bernard Shaw. ‘[The] artist-poet-philosopher rescues them from the unintelligible chaos of their actual occurrence and arranges them in works of art.’ The facts change to fit the shape, hoping to capture a greater truth than the randomness of reality can provide.

4. Writing for meaning, cutting for pace. 
Many times, attending critique groups, I have found myself suggesting that an author write more – more scenes that reveal the character of the hero, more writing to clarify a scene, more dialogue to establish a character’s voice, more writing to pay out a scene, heighten the drama, unfold the reveal. The person receiving the critique inevitably protests: ‘But I thought I was writing too much! I actually cut that scene down! The word count is already way over!’

In the drive for Profoundly Satisfying, there is no editing for word count, there is only editing for meaning. And if that means you have to write more, then so be it.

But what if I’m OVER writing, cries the panicked author. Then do as the thriller writer Elmore Leonard says: ‘Don’t write the parts that people skip.’

At this stage, the story is already laid out before you, it’s the magic carpet ride you are about to offer readers. Your job is to make sure you enhance and retain the magic.

The beginning novelist will stress about whether the publisher/agent/editor will reject their story because the word count was over. She is focusing on the wrong thing. Publishers/agents/editors reject on the basis of story. So write for meaning, cut for pace. Word count? Pah! Word count is not story!

5. Looking for Joy.
The long journey to The End can be a dispiriting one. There is so much that can eat into your confidence. The rejection of new projects you are pitching. Unkind reviews of your existing work. Exhausting day jobs. Real life. Unsupportive friends and family. It is not uncommon for these knock-backs to creep into your storytelling.

So while flying towards The End, watch out for those little tell tale dips. In Write Your Novel from the Middle, James Scott Bell devotes a whole list to tips for getting joy into your writing. He recalls a Writer’s Digest column by Lawrence Block on why Stephen King has been such a successful author:

When you read Stephen King, you feel like you’re reading an author who loves writing, loves making up tales to creep us out, enjoys the very act of setting words down on paper. Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. And that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.


END OF A JOURNEY

Writing about story structure, Yorke (can you tell that I’ve been reading Into the Woods a lot? It's so therapeutic) writes:

As protagonists journey towards completion, they learn to heal the duality in their nature, between inner and outer worlds, want and need, fa├žade and flaw. 

My journey to writing this novel has certainly been that. I have fought and despaired and learned and grown.

Sitting here, on a Philippine island, watching the sea, away from the hustling and bustling of my daily life in London, I can see The End very clearly on the blue horizon. I just need to keep writing until I get there.

Gratuitous photo of 'black beach' (it's actually brown) where we're staying ... the volcanic island of Camiguin.

Candy Gourlay is the founding member of Notes from the Slushpile and the author of Shine and Tall Story. Her books have been listed for the Guardian Children's Prize, the Carnegie, the Waterstones, the Blue Peter and many other prizes. She loves babies, dogs, photography, gardening and drawing. She also blogs on CandyGourlay.com




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