This post is the second in the series Hitting the Amazon #1 spot – A Killer Plan or Lady Luck?
It goes without saying that the most important aspect of getting to #1 on any best seller list is having a book that people actually want to read. If you choose to write in a genre that is less popular, you have to set your expectations accordingly. Choosing to write a thriller – a very popular genre – wasn’t part of my Killer Plan. It really is simply Lady Luck that I love thrillers.
Taking advice on some aspects of my writing and trying to do better, however, was definitely part of my plan, and so this section aims to share some of the hints that were passed on to me. Once again, I am definitely not trying to set myself up as any sort of expert. I still have so much to learn, and there are so many ways that I can improve my writing. But maybe this post will help others who are on the same journey. These are a few of the things that I have been guilty of, and some things that I have noticed when reviewing indie authored books (naming no names, of course!).
When reading a book, I find self-indulgence a bit of a turn off, even though I came close to making that very mistake. There are two types that I can think of.
The first is “showing off” a degree of expertise. Every reader wants to believe that the author knows something about their subject. Absolutely right. But they don’t actually want to become experts themselves. Take a book about computers, for example. As a reader, is it important that we know the difference between a megabyte and a megabit? Does it have any impact on the story? Do we need to know how many bits in a byte, if the story is about a plot to hack into the Central Bank? If the technical knowledge doesn’t move the story forward, why is it there? I skip over pages like that in a book, and I know I’m not the only one.
The other form of self-indulgence is putting in stuff that might amuse people who know you. I was seriously guilty of this. I can quite clearly remember saying to my husband on more than one occasion at an airport – “Why is it that there is nearly always a random parcel going round a carousel on it’s own?” It became a bit of a joke as almost every time we went through an airport, we spotted an abandoned package. So in Only the Innocent there is an airport scene, and it ended with something like – “all the baggage had gone. All that remained was an abandoned package, going round and round on its own.” Probably not those very words (I hope!) but that was the general idea. Then a friend of mine read an early version of the book, and said to me at the end – “I love the way that you have tied up all the loose ends, but you forgot about the package on the carousel.” I explained that this was just an observation – which made all my family smile at least – and she just looked at me as if I was crazy! Was it relevant to the story? No. Did it add anything? No.
It was pure self-indulgence, and it’s gone.
Scott covers some aspects of this in his guest post When is Writing Art? as well, so if you’ve not read it, I suggest you take a look.
There is a lot of sense in writing a book that is intended to be the first in a series. Excellent idea – people love characters that return time and time again. But one thing that I have noticed in reading some indie books is that occasionally an author feels that the way to create intrigue for the next book is to leave stuff out of the first book. There may be a way of doing this that works technically – and I am not the right person to advise on that.
It seems to me that a good book should be complete in itself; even best-selling trilogies seem to manage that. There is a difference between leaving the reader wanting to know what happens next with the characters and leaving them with a feeling of frustration over what was missing.
This is almost back to self-indulgence. Characters that don’t actually have an impact on the plot just get in the way – another lesson I learned from feedback on my book. I had this lovely character that had no bearing on the book because I couldn’t think of how to fit her in. But she was a character I’d had in my mind for a long time. When I had my book critiqued by a professional writer, it was the first thing she spotted. I read a book for review recently, and there was quite an obnoxious character that appeared at the beginning of the story. Other than being absolutely revolting he soon disappeared altogether and I can’t think what he was supposed to add.
A good plan
I think this is quite a contentious subject, to be honest. Some authors say that planning stifles creativity, but I plan to the nth degree – every detail. I even have photos of my characters. I know their birthdays, what food they like and hate – all the little bits that go into making a character. And then I have a timeline. Two, actually. I have the timeline of events, and I have the timeline of ‘secrets’ – when little hints are made, and when the secret is revealed. Once I start writing the story takes on a life of its own. But not only is the plan firmly in my head by then, it’s also on paper so that I can check that everything is covered.
I started to read a book recently that had a good storyline and was well written. But the timelines were all over the place, to the point that I had to stop reading. The book refers to a series of events involving a man and a woman – but these events appear to have taken place six months before they met. Aspects of personality were discovered with surprise, even though they had apparently been a bone of contention in the past. Even lunch was appearing after an exhausting afternoon. It was a desperate shame, because I really wanted to read the story. But I was constantly fighting with my mental image.
Point of view
Speaking of mental images, I was given a great tip by the professional writer I mentioned before, who critiqued a very early version of my book. She told me that I was switching point of view within a scene. She called it “head hopping”. I did actually know that this was a bad thing to do, but only because I had read about it. Some people seem able to do it with great style – but I think it’s a skill that very few people have.
Of course, the whole novel doesn’t have to be written from one person’s point of view, but my very helpful mentor gave me an excellent tip. She suggested that I annotate the start of each chapter with the point of view I am writing from. So it would say POV LAURA, and I would keep that there to remind me until the final edit.
Of course, within a chapter you can change POV – but it is usually recommended to insert a scene break – just a blank line. This signifies to the reader that something has changed. There are other tools you can use, but I’m not the person to give a lecture on the subject – it took me long enough to sort this out.
Here’s an example that I’ve taken from the Writers’ Circle website.
John stared at Leslie, his eyes flashing fire as flames of righteous anger licked through him. How could she have betrayed him?
I’ve chosen this from several examples included in this blog post, because it’s quite subtle. We – the readers – are inside John’s head. We are seeing things from his perspective. But “his eyes flashing fire” is a visual reference. If the reader is in John’s head, how can we see his eyes? I would recommend taking a look at the rest of this post, and others on the site, for more inspiration. http://www.writerscircle.biz/Contrib/Threads/2668.aspx
I find head-hopping very distracting. I am a visual reader; I see the scene through the character’s eyes. So if the POV is constantly changing I get dizzy!
Grammar and punctuation
If you don’t intend to have your book professionally edited, you need to make sure that your grammar is up to scratch. I have read perfectly decent books without an apostrophe in sight! And the English language is full of confusions – a very subtle subjunctive clause, when to use who and when to use whom, split infinitives, dangling participles … the list goes on.
If you don’t think that grammar is your strong point, I would recommend going to a great site by Bristol University http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/index.htm It contains a whole range of tutorials, and more importantly – interactive tests. You will be able to identify your weak points through the tests so that when you are writing, it will raise your awareness level and give you something to check back against.
I am horrified to have to admit that there are still some mistakes in Only the Innocent. I proof read that book about twenty times. Not just on the computer – I printed it out, edited it, printed it again. An iterative process until I thought it was perfect. Then I produced a Kindle version and read it all again, and found MORE mistakes. Just bear in mind that it had already been proof read by a professional writer!
What it proves is that you can’t proof read too much. You have to go through it until you have done a complete pass without finding a single mistake. Print it out and read it sitting on the sofa. Things look different somehow. I always choose the booklet option on my printer settings, and print 32 pages at a time and staple them down the centre. Then I feel as if I’m reading a book.
But in spite of that diligence and the help of a professional writer, there are still one or two very irritating errors, so if you can afford it, I would strongly advise a professional editor. It will be worth it.
I hope this gives a little insight into my process. Next time I’ll do a brief post on formatting, with a couple of guest posts along the way to offer other perspectives. Keep the comments coming!