Saturday 31 August 2013

Some thoughts on design and formatting

One book I’ve recently been editing and that is now in design had raised a few questions for me and might provide some food for thought for writers. The bottom line is that the now so familiar manuscript looks totally different. As a writer myself I’m used to this phenomenon. What I’ve seen for weeks and weeks as a double-spaced text on A4 sheets is now a single-spaced – or maybe 1.5 or .75 on a 8 x 5 or a 10 x 7 book page. It may even be in a different font. And it looks strange.
Book sizes
This particular book is being produced as an 8 x 5 book. It is 138 pages long as double-spaced A4. Double-spaced A4 often translates to almost exactly the same number of pages in single-spaced for an 8 x 5 book. A 10 x 7 is a few pages less. Which format to choose depends on getting a book that is neither too thin nor too fat. So, up to about 250 pages goes into 8 x 5 and over into the larger format.
Paragraph lengths
It is a little disturbing as we read the design copy of the book mentioned above that some paragraphs go over a page. They did not seem overlong as we read them at the editing stage and they probably read fine anyway. However, they could be off-putting for the reader – especially as this text is aimed at young adults. Sure, many of them can read at quite a sophisticated level but they still want quick pace and instant outcomes. The paragraph that runs over a page may imply that the text slows down. We might need to see if we can justify some paragraph breaks here.
Lessons for writers and publishers
Many writers swear by changing the font and other aspects of the formatting as they edit. That way they see their text in a new light. It’s probably a good idea for editors to do this as well.  

Friday 16 August 2013

What a story needs to do

It has to sell the book. It has to cover the cost of production, make a pro rata contribution to the overheads and make some money for the publisher and the writer so that they can live.
How does it do this? I’ve thought about this in the context of my own recent reading and I’ve concluded:
It must include a good balance of the following ingredients.

1.      The right pace – fast, yes, but not so fast that we lose track

2.      Human interest

3.      Tension

4.      Believable characters

5.      Characters you bite your nails for

6.      Rounded characters

7.      An author who understands the setting well

8.      The right length

9.      Something to make the reader think

10.  Something to intrigue the reader

11.  Beautifully crafted prose

12.  A sense of time

13.  A sense of place

14.  A huge problem to be solved

15.  A satisfactory resolution

16.  Some fun

17.  Some more serious moments

18.  A touch of intrigue – even if the work is not a thriller

19.  A touch of mystery - even if the work is not a fantasy

20.  And this one must always be there - something to make first the publisher and then the reader fall in love with the book.

Of course, all of these can be quite subjective and this is what makes the writer’s job quite difficult. But worth pursuing?       

Friday 2 August 2013

Who is the first scene for actually?

One of the greatest signs that we are dealing with an experienced, professional writer is that there is no unnecessary first scene. The real writer knows where the story actually starts.
The three examples below are from my own work. I’m wiser now but still see new writers doing this.
Story of a watercolour
One of my novels originally starts off with a young girl putting the final touches to a watercolour. She is anxious to get this off in the post as it’s part of a letter to her former classmates. Now, that letter does become important later and her classmates do admire her skill but more importantly she disappears shortly after posting that letter. It’s crucial to introduce the first step towards that disappearance on the first page.
A fabulous breakfast
As my protagonist sets out on her adventure, she and her family enjoy a sumptuous breakfast. She feels car sick later and because they have to stop the adventure begins. A one-line flashback to the breakfast is enough. The reader actually doesn’t need to know the details of the breakfast. So,  I got rid of the breakfast. The book has since been published.
A dramatic argument
A couple quarrel. Possibly partly because of this but more likely because of bad weather and bad driving by a third party, the protagonist is killed in a car crash. The rest of the story takes place in his after-world.  Again, it is better to start with the crash itself and then refer to the argument. The argument still has a point as it means that he needs to resolve things form beyond the grave. However, the reader doesn’t need the details. This book is now published.
Why we write these scenes
It was actually still important to write these scenes. It allowed me to get to know the characters really well. But just as with any other writerly research, you don’t need to overwhelm your reader with these details. Just write with the knowledge that th research has given you.
What to do with the killed darlings
Yes, these are certainly darlings that need killing. Often we’re rather pleased with them and have put everything that we know about our craft into these snippets. Keep them anyway, for the good writing they contain.
My watercolour example is turning into a piece of flash fiction – one that tells a very similar story to the whole book. The breakfast will become a piece of flash life-writing. The argument can also become a flash story.
The novel containing the watercolour scene will be supported by a web site once it is published. I’ve written a lot of the copy already and am including “deleted scenes” – there are a few others as well.
Another parallel with the film industry
You probably know how much work goes into a film script before it is made into a film – and much of that work happens after the script is accepted and before they start making the film. Even so, frequently the first couple of pages and even a couple of scenes are left out. We literally “cut to the chase”.
A note of warning
It is important to get this right. Put your manuscript away for a few days before you send it out into the world. Make sure you’re not filling the limited word count in the few chapters you’re invited to submit with those darlings that need killing.