A Question of Balance

A million books a year is the boast of Amazon – for me a mind boggling number but not unreasonable when authors churn out a book a month. It is a market in which I flounder, and each day see myself slipping further and further into obscurity. Among the million or so authors marketing their books, I can’t be the only one who feels this way? For me, every time I put on a spurt and think I have got up-to-date , someone publishes a new way of doing things or someone delivers a homily about what not to do when Facebook and Amazon change their operating procedures and remove reviews unless you spend money with them (currently $50). Sometimes I totter away from the screen bedevilled by all the rules and regulations connecting the use of social media. I don’t want to learn how to create ‘paid-for’ ads or study the in-depth rules on how to get more reviews. I want to enjoy the experience, something which has disappeared over the hill since everything became so very technical. As for the many different apps you are urged to download, I ignore them, aware my eyesight doesn’t register with the tiny print on my mobile, convinced that only the athletic brain of the young can grasp every twist and turn with ease and efficiency.

I have decided like the swan, I shall sail on regardless of everyone else content to stumble on copies of my books in public libraries and schools (and Waterstones on occasions) and leave others to take the strain.

Nevertheless, despite the intricacies more and more people are writing books of which 99% are self-published. For some, the exercise costs almost nothing apart from a large helping of effort and time. Expense is limited to the purchase of a ISBN and a professional cover. For others, self-publishing is expensive, especially if you are intending to employ a professional copy-editor, proof-reader, and publisher who will print the paperback for you and upload the ebook as well.

Is it worth paying for these services? For many people … yes. Their reasoning: you wouldn’t exactly set out to go bungie jumping or enter for the Olympics without a soupçon of training. I recently met up with Ann Barron who published a memoir of her grandfather, ‘No Ordinary Man.’ It documents his life of service to his country, including his military and civilian service in Palestine, present at events which have shaped the Middle East of today. After working extensively with editors (Ann happy to admit her grammar wasn’t perfect) the publisher in Bath printed 100 copies, which through friends and local outlets she has sold and has embarked on a second hundred. In fact the perfect type of book for this method of publishing and very, very different from fiction.

Yes, I know it is widely thought that everyone has a book inside them but I firmly believe the ability to write creative prose is an inbuilt gift, describing this gift as the skill to set down words and phrases in such a way as to elicit a reaction from the reader: excitement, happiness, sadness, interest, anticipation, even dislike. But not boredom and ennui. Sticking words down on paper in a higgledy-piggledy fashion is not exactly what Shakespeare and Dickens had in mind when they embarked on their careers. And while there are many possessors of this amazing gift they still may be unable to produce a good book.

My granddaughter, for instance. She has fantastic ideas, writes brilliantly in short bursts, fixating on elaborately drawn characters with unpronounceable names who live in an equally unpronounceable world and by the time she has written herself into a series of dead-ends, she gives up. (Having said that, I want to steal one of her ideas!) To write a readable coherent script takes many skills, not just a way with words. But these can be learned.

I list a few!

Good Grammar: Unfortunately, having the ability to write well-constructed paragraphs and chapters doesn’t necessarily mean you can punctuate them correctly. My ability to place a comma in the wrong spot is well-known, and so I employ a proof-reader with a degree in placing punctuation judiciously!

Since computers are good enough to correct spelling, the only conundrum there is whether to use English or American spelling. Even then it’s not exactly exchanging s’s for z’s, there are many words spelled differently including kerb and curb. Again the question arises: English punctuation differs from American which differs from European. An easy example is single or double quotes for speech. So choose your medicine and stick to it.

Text Layout: In today’s computer age filled with self-help books, there’s very little excuse for failing this category. Admittedly, I use a publisher. I want to write, not faff around uploading drafts onto Amazon, and worrying whether text should be justified or flush with the margin.

Structuring Scenes and Chapters: this is a whole different ball game and a skill worth learning if you wish to be plucked from the crowd and published. I know at least fifty percent of those reading my blog will be pantsers – who travel where the mood takes them. But whether you are a plotter or a pantser at the very least you must know the nuts and bolts of chapter construction and where you are heading with a particular chapter.

Most books are an even balance of description, action and speech. Description is needed to set the scene. A skill of paramount importance particularly when writing for children. I learned early on that readers (no matter their age) like to feel comfortable in a story. They love descriptions BUT not too much. Readers can become bored with pages of description so like the story of Goldilocks – the amount of description has to be just right.

Conversation and action rarely prove a problem and need no advice from me – in awe of writers’ ability to create battle scenes etc. Recently, though, there has developed an alarming tendency to overdo the adjectives. For those who are ex-Friends devotees, there was a wonderful episode in which Joey is introduced to a Thesaurus. Adjectives are a modern addition, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the like used that particular part of speech quite sparingly. And I agree with them. Do I really need a entire paragraph about luscious lips, red and ruby!

A modern glitch: The other stumbling block which is infiltrating modern writing and spreading like wildfire is the habit of lacing dramatic scenes, in which time is of the essence, with stop-start conversation, love scenes and incidentals. In a situation in which the heroine (or hero) are seconds away fom certain death from their pursuers, five minutes of your reader’s time spent reading paragraphs about the hero’s past, while admiring his full-lips, manly chest and muscles is the height of absurdity. Get on with telling your audience how you intend to rescue him and leave the chit chat and swooning till later.

One consolation, even great writers of prose find their work littered with booby traps.

Typical author traps

Repetition: Make sure you don’t constantly repeat the characteristics or beliefs of your characters. I know my editor once scribbled, ‘Okay I got it first time around.’ He was correct, readers do usually get it first-time. Maybe phrased differently you can repeat once but time after time! Loud yawns and exit running.

Show not tell: A greatly overused phrase and bandied around all the time, although it fits right in here. In some cases, especially when recording past events, telling is the only way to get them down on paper. But future happenings? If they are not worth a scene in their own right, get rid or reduce to a sentence or two that links action. I have seen books given 5* on Amazon with pages and pages of narration (telling).

Where less is more: From time to time authors invent extra scenes purely to emphasise a particular aspect of the story. It can be an extra scene of violence and bloodshed to make their book more exciting or it can be an extra scene to emphasise a particular characteristic in their hero or villain; it might well be inserted purely to extend the length of the book. It has become fashionable to write long books but why? Does it matter if it takes 8 hours to read or just 6? The only thiing that matters is that the reader enjoys every word. And while such pages are usually brilliantly written, do they actually add anthing to the story?

Unfortuately these traits have become a regular feature in novels and this has led to my skipping pages wanting to move on to fresh territory. Even more so reading a book on Kindle, the electronic experience somehow reinforcing this habit of skipping. This new habit became very apparent when I sent my novel, The Drumming of Heels, to be read and criticised by a panel of ordinary readers who, in our writing group had taken on the job, yet, for whom, it turned out, skipping had become an art form. ‘It was suggested that I should mention the lack of food. I got so annoyed I listed the number of times and where in the novel I had actually referred to the starvation undergone by the people of Amsterdam in the war. The references were so obvious you were tripping over them.

For me, though it is in the balancing of events within a story where books so often fail. Not the writing, nor the grammar – all of these pass muster. It is the decision as to how long a scene should be and whether it should be included in the first place.

Just because a scene is well written, it shouldn’t necessarily have a place in your novel. This piece of advice was drummed into me by Cornerstones, an editor who worked for them using the words: if it adds nothing to the story – get rid.

I suppose this is why I am a plotter rather than a pantser because I plot the relevance of each scene in my story. Most of my children’s books went to Cornerstones for analysis, others to JBWB – who made me laugh because he was so forthright. (If he hated it, he said so. But with humour. Much better than shilly-shallying and tip-toeing around scared to offend – which I do.)

One of my most popular YA novels, ‘Time Breaking’, is the story of a modern but unhappy young girl (Molly) who slips through a time chute and reappears in 1648. (Charles I was executed in 1649.) There, she takes the place of Molly, the eldest  daughter in a Puritan household. Of course, it is a mystery as to why she went and how can she possibly get back. This is the blurb:

I so hate my life. Why can’t I be someone else?

      But plunged into the nightmare world of the 17th century is not exactly what Molly had in mind when she said this.

Constantly at loggerheads with her parents, fifteen-year-old Molly is dragged off to stay in a 17th century manor house, once the home of Sir Richard Blaisdale, a Royalist, There, she triggers a time-chute and reappears in 1648 towards the end of the English Civil War, to find she has taken the place of Molly Hampton, the eldest daughter in a Puritan family. Labelling the seventeenth century as ‘barbaric’, Molly is hell-bent on escaping back to her own life only to find the manor house now barred to her. Forced to continue with the charade, Molly meets Richard, Sir Richard’s eldest son, and supposedly her best friend, only to find herself falling in love with him She also discovers in Ann Hampton and her new sisters and brother, the family she has always dreamed of. Gradually, Molly begins to change her mind believing that she can stay and take Molly Hampton’s place little realising that danger and disaster lie in wait for her …

Halfway through, I wrote a scene in which Molly goes with Ann Hampton (Molly’s mother in 1648) to Bryanston the town where John Hampton’s business is located. Leaving the horse and carriage at an inn, after visiting various places in the town, including the cemetery to visit the grave of Molly’s father, they return to the inn for a meal. Having researched the subject quite extensively, I waxed lyrical about the town and the inn, and indeed their meal, wanting to show details of life in those times.

Cornerstones editor wrote about the scene in the inn; ‘great scene, very atmospheric but it takes up 8 pages and adds nothing whatsoever to the plot except window dressing.’ She was so right. Two chapters later, up comes a really crucial scene which took up only 2 pages of writing.

So plotter or pantser, weigh up the importance of each scene and write accordingly.

Barbara Spencer
Award Winning Author of ‘The Year the Swans Came’

Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Barbara-Spencer/e/B001KDUEFM/

Website: https://www.barbaraspencer.co.uk

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6 thoughts on “A Question of Balance

      1. Hi Barbara, you’re very welcome.

        You know? Something I’ve always tried to teach all my clients about marketing is that a person needs to pick one or two platforms and run with them and not worry about reading and trying to do every little thing you see talked about out there.

        Everything I have studied and all the truly successful authors say the same thing so if they’re having great success with it, it seems OK to me.

        Like

      1. Hi Barbara and all.

        If you’re following my blog and receiving them via email you should receive the post right in your inbox.

        If you’re not following, let me know and I’ll sign you up. It is the easiest way for you to keep up with what work I am sharing from you and others and will make it easier for you to share as well.

        Like

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