Getting Better All The time

Why does traditional publishing get so excited about debut novels? I understand that there’s excitement to be had about the next big thing, the new model, latest craze, fresh, original, up to the minute, must have, must read book . . . but it strikes me that unless an author is a one book wonder, the second book will be better than the first and the third book better than the second and so on.   For example, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – her third book – is stronger both in concept and execution than her first two novels.

In TV, a debut scriptwriter will not be commissioned to write a six part, prime time series on the basis of a solitary spec script. Most script writers work their way up, perhaps doing radio, long running TV series, children’s TV, writing teams, because the more you write the better you get and TV production is expensive – too expensive to gamble on a completely new writer. Unlike book production.

On Saturday I did my first signing for my novel, Be My Friend. It was both fascinating and enjoyable meeting readers and talking to them. One of the questions I IMG_1229was repeatedly asked was whether Be My Friend is my first novel. Yes and no. It’s the first novel in the Darkbridge series; it’s the first novel I’ve published, but it’s not the first novel I’ve written, neither is it the first story I’ve crafted. I wrote my first novel at 15 and I’ve been script writing and editing for some time. And I’m getting better.

Last night I thought about getting better when I saw a Sheffield band called Acoustic Angels play in a marquee on a village green in Surrey. These guys have been around for a while and they are brilliant. They play covers but make them their own; the band is tight, polished and intuitive to the mood of the audience. In other words, they’re not a debut band. They combine talent, skill and experience.

If I hit the big time I’ll have them at a launch party, meanwhile if you get the chance, see them and you’ll understand what I mean and what I seek to achieve. Talent, skill and experience – and getting better at what I do.IMG_1235

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Writer’s Block – Myth or Reality?

I recently script edited a talented writer who wrote a terrific story outline, an excellent scene-by-scene breakdown but, when it came to the first draft, instead of flying through it and delivering on the promise of her preparation, she not only missed the deadline but she also didn’t deliver anything like her best work.   Worse, she was aware that her writing wasn’t hitting the sweet spot and was having a major panic. What was the problem? A bad case of writers’ block.

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I’ve heard writers claim that a block is simply a result of not knowing your story or your characters but having experienced a real block myself I think it’s a little more complicated as demonstrated by the writer I was editing.

Writer’s block is the moment when the slight anxiety one always feels before writing, that little voice whispering, ‘Who are you kidding to think you can write something anyone will want to read,’ grows.  The inner critic becomes a towering banshee screaming, ‘You are a totally useless waste of space with zero talent.’ Interestingly, this inner critic tends to be an echo of a particular person in your life who, like a bad fairy, sprinkled poison dust on your psyche.

Last week I went to Shakespeare’s Globe and was so enthralled I rewatched the perfectly scripted and brilliantly executed film, Shakespeare in Love. In it the young Will Shakespeare also has writer’s block and spends the first third of the film trying to overcome it any way he can.

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In the end the script I was editing got written and nobody died. The writer is trying Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way. It worked for me and having my own moment of writing anxiety this morning I was looking at the book and saw my pencil marks on the printed text. You’ve got to be totally desperate to do The Artist’s Way because writing affirmations is kind of nuts, but who the hell cares? In the end, the most important thing is beating the block, spitting on our own bad fairies and grinding them into the dust.

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The Hundred Rule

We’re all familiar with the magic of the number 3 whether it’s three act structure; birth marriage, death; Three Little Pigs, Wishes, Stooges, Bears and so on. There is mysticism about the number 3 and there’s even a Latin expression, “omni trium perfectum” that means everything that comes in threes is perfect. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_three_(writing)
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I’d like to propose ‘The Hundred Rule.’ This rule states that the initial hundred pages of a first draft are worse than the combined awfulness of the rest of the draft and to quote Hemingway, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’
In the case of a novel, the first hundred pages roughly equates to the first act. It’s the part of the novel when there’s a lot to achieve. You’re setting up the characters, the story world, the theme, dilemmas, motivations and the problems that the characters have to solve by the end of the narrative.
Recently I read the first draft of my new novel and I was so disheartened by the early chapters that I considered walking away from the project. But after a break I forced myself to go back and read to the end and I noticed that around page 102 my notes to myself changed. In the early chapters my notes were: ‘Where’s the drama?’ and ‘No conflict, too much set up’ and ‘This whole sequence is weird.’ After page 100 my notes became more positive with comments such as ‘Quite like this,’ ‘Good suspense.’ ‘Like detail of scene.’
What I found most interesting was that I remember having the same experience in my previous novel, Be My Friend, when I rewrote the first hundred pages more times than I care to remember.
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I’ve also started noticing the same pattern in some of the novels I’m reading so I reckon I am not alone. How many times do we say, ‘Brilliant book but a little hard to get in to but once in, you can’t put it down.’?
I don’t think it’s just a case of getting into the author’s voice, I think this is evidence of the existence of ‘The Hundred Rule.’
Have any other writers or readers noticed this?

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Taking Stories Apart

Recently I gave a writer some screenwriting advice and like most of my suggestions to other people – it’s something I needed to do myself. IMG_1776If you admire the writing of any TV show or film or novel, or you hope to work on a particular TV show or write in a certain genre, the way to work out how it’s done is to take it apart. By that, I don’t mean lying on the sofa, eating chocolates and watching the TV show or film. Neither do I mean reading the script or book over a cup of coffee or a tackling a few pages in bed before you turn out the light. Deconstructing a narrative is far more unpleasant than that.

You need to turn the narrative into a step-by-step outline. This means breaking the story down into scenes, noting the location and then jotting down a couple of lines about what happens and how it progresses the story.

This boring task is invaluable. It’s like taking apart an engine and laying out all the bits on the dining room table. You find out how the thing works. Way back I did this exercise on lots of sitcoms. Among other things I realised that Roseanne episodes were always seven scenes long.

I’ve recently done this same exercise on a novel I admire. It took a while but I now have a strong sense of how the writer increases the tension, how the longer scenes at the end increase the suspense and how the characters are set up.

So by seeing how someone else does it, I hope to improve my own work. And eat more chocolates.IMG_1019

 

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Schooldays and Amazon

About twenty godzillion years ago I was in school, and by ‘school’ I don’t mean cool kid Buffy/Twilight sexy adolescent. I mean braces, zits and grubby school uniform. The class had to vote for a representative. The duties were probably something to do with collecting the register and making sure there was enough chalk in the classroom. But it was a huge deal, not simply because you got to wear a dark blue enamel badge but because your classmates voted for you.

And my classmates voted for me.Me in school uniform

I remember the vote counting and the thrill of being selected by my peers. I also remember being surprised that people liked me enough to vote for me because I wasn’t an alpha girl in either the brains, beauty or sports department.

Looking at the Amazon ratings for my Darkbridge novel, Be My Friend, has sparked off the same emotion. I’m neither Stephen Hawkins nor Angeline Jolie and I’m not going to run the marathon – unless at gunpoint – but people have voted for me by buying my book.

And here’s another thought:

I know we’re all supposed to loathe Amazon because they’re the big bad, they don’t pay their taxes and they really want to sell people washing machines and not books. But my relationship with them has been entirely self-affirming.

Amazon has created a communication bridge for me and now it seems that people, who I don’t know, have been kind enough to buy my book. These people might have enjoyed my work and – steady on – these same people might even have told their friends.

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This is the only explanation I can find for the little red spikes on the Amazon graph. And I’ve got Amazon to thank for giving me the opportunity to connect. What’s more I don’t feel that I’ve sold my soul to the devil because my soul is safe and sound – in my work.

 

 

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Audible Sound Bites

To celebrate the release on Audible and iTunes of Short Season, a Darkbridge story, I have discounted my first Darkbridge novel, Be My Friend for one week.

I also made a perfect Christmas pudding.

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If you email me at merle@merlenygate.com, I’ll send you a FREE audiobook of Short Season which costs $4.27 on Audible and £1.95 on iTunes! (And I’ll even send you a link to the pudding recipe if you’re interested.)

What an offer!

About a month ago, members of the fantastic and wonderful ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) and ACX – an arm of Audible – hosted an evening in central London. The purpose of the evening was to encourage indy writers to make their work available for Audible. The evening was wonderful. There were five ACX execs milling around, being charming to writers and, sorry to be shallow, but there were canapés and an open bar. That’s right . . . an open bar. For writers.

As soon as I got home, I followed the ACX online instructions, posted a synopsis of my work and found a fantastic narrator, Tim Bruce. He is hugely talented, has been on BAFTA Award winning drama, theatre, and even opera. www.timbruce.co.uk.

Tim took my short story to another level. He’s an amazing actor.Short Season Audiobook cover 4 resized

However, a word of warning; publishing on ACX isn’t yet as seamlessly easy as publishing on Amazon. For example, my Amazon covers were a simple matter of dragging and dropping onto a template and playing with the typeface. For ACX covers I had to get the right number of pixels and this required several phone calls and emails to the helpline.

Tim and I also wrestled with the procedures at different stages. But it all came out in the wash and I am thrilled to be able to offer Tim’s brilliant narrative of ShortSeason to anyone who wants a trip to Darkbridge during the cricket season.

Just drop me a line.

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Top Tips for Author Interviews on Radio

Yesterday I did my first author interview on Brooklands Radio, in Weybridge, Surrey for Be My Friend, the first in the Darkbridge series of psychological suspense novels.

DSCF8666I was nervous because although I’ve talked to groups of people, the last time I did a radio interview I was about as engaging as a wet flannel. For the gibbering interview, I was supposed to be talking about teaching screenwriting – something I happen to know a little bit about. But you’d never have guessed it from listening to me. This was because I was badly prepared.

So for yesterday’s interview I did some preparation and while I am certainly not Terry Wogan or Chris Evans, at the end of the fifteen minute slot, I didn’t feel that I had let down either myself, or more importantly, that I had let down the book that I am now sending out into the world.

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The key things to remember are:-

1     Decide what the points are that you want to make.

In my case the most important point was that my focus is on the reader. And if the reader doesn’t like what I’ve written, then I’ve failed.   So I tried to repeat this a couple of times.

2     Imagine you’re talking to someone you know and like. Smile.

3     Take a few deep breaths before the beginning.

4     Use your hands to give life to your voice – but don’t hit the mike.

5     Try to increase your energy when you speak because TV and radio flatten.

 

My book is FREE till Friday on:-

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Be-My-Friend-Darkbridge-Story-ebook/dp/B00NBMUD56/ref=sr_1_2?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1413289841&sr=1-2&keywords=merle+nygate

 

The interview is being repeated on Thursday between 8-9 pm on:-   http://brooklandsradio.co.uk

Afterwards it will be available on my website.

Like I said, I certainly wasn’t Terry Wogan but I just might be able to listen to it without feeling physically ill.

 

 

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Be My Friend


Next week, October 10th, my first full novel will be available on Amazon. For a script editor, it’s a little odd to be sitting on the other side of the table, waiting for the feedback, waiting for the tough review, waiting to see whether I have managed what I set out to do – engage the reader.

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The novel, Be My Friend, is psychological suspense set in the fictitious world of Darkbridge, an idyllic milieu, where nothing bad should ever happen. Of course, it does and will continue to do so for the ten Darkbridge books I have roughed out in outline.

My writing process is to start by thinking about the deep theme at the heart of the story. I don’t want that theme telegraphed, but I do want a reader to come away with something beyond the thrill of the story. I was wowed last year by Gregg Hurwitz’s Survivor that tackled the difficult subject of what we call in the UK, Motor Neurone Disease and in the US, Lou Gehrig’s disease. Even though, Hurwitz’s book is a page turning thriller, it made me think.

The theme of Be My Friend is madness. I started work on the idea thinking about how we define it. I did lots of stream of consciousness musing on paper and concluded that madness is defined by functionality. In other words, if you ‘act normal’, it doesn’t matter how irrational your beliefs are. Moreover, there are a lot of people among us, including myself, from time to time, who are ‘acting normal.’

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Setting was also crucial to me. My book is set in beautiful, fictional lush, Darkbridge in Surrey. I love the idea of what happens behind comfortable, middle-class closed doors.

So now I wait with some trepidation to see whether I really have hit the sweet spot in terms of reader engagement.

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Short Cuts and Dirty Writing Tricks: How to Keep Your Story Outline in Proportion

Most screenwriting writers will have experienced the treatment/outline writing dilemma, whether it’s for a feature, short film, TV episode, audio drama, or any other preliminary blueprint for the final version.

DSC00950The process is sometimes: outline (a present tense, 1-3 page outline of the story); treatment (up to 20 pages with all the major beats and character arcs in place); step-outline (the writer’s scene by scene breakdown of what happens in every scene). And then you write the script.

At any of the stages, it’s important to edit, tinker, shunt scenes around, cut or add scenes, and I find, the more prep I do at an early stage, the more fun I have with the writing itself. It’s the fun and energy that I want to get on to the page because I think it’s the fun that connects with the reader.  So if I’m giggling or tearful when I’m writing, those emotions may come across to the reader. That’s the plan anyway.

When script editing, I often see outlines – and scripts – with overlong first acts, as the writer gets into the story. Then there’s a muddle in Act 2 because they don’t totally know where the story is going, or where the beats are, and then there’s an unseemly rush at Act 3 to climax and resolution.

I suggest that if you attempt to turn an outline that’s like this, into a treatment, then a step-outline, and then a script, the script will always be a mess.

The solution is beautifully simple. Once you have worked out your basic story – with the appropriate number of story beats – start writing the present tense outline FROM THE BEGINNING OF ACT 2 TO THE END OF ACT 2. This will feel counterintuitive but I promise that it works.DSC00917

When you have written that part of the story, if you’ve covered roughly six pages, you know that your Act 1 needs to be three pages long, and the same goes for your Act 3.

This means, when you turn your outline or treatment into a step outline, it will still be in proportion – and when you write your script, novel or other narrative  – the same elegant balance will be embedded in the story structure.

This is the second post in my ‘short cuts and dirty writing tricks’ series of posts. The first was about structuring emotional arcs.   If there’s some aspect of writing that you’re struggling with, please drop me a line and if I have an appropriate short cut or dirty trick, I’ll blog about it. No promises though – I don’t know everything!

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How to Structure An Emotional Arc

In a single narrative, it’s satisfying to an audience if the character changes. It doesn’t matter whether the character is a better or worse person, what’s important is that they’re not emotionally static. So the obstacles that you throw at the character, and that they overcome on the route to achieving their tangible goal, changes them.

Often, when a writer has grasped the idea that the character has to change, with so much else to think about, they chuck the emotional shift in at the end. So for example, a character is anxious all the way through and right at the end, the sun comes out, harps play and, hurrah, he finds his inner calm. This feels clunky, and exactly what it is, shoe-horned in.

The way to avoid this is fabulously simple.

Say you have decided that your protagonist is a cold-hearted corporate monster, but by the end of the narrative he or she becomes a self-sacrificing philanthropist.

1          Make a list of the emotional stages between being a cold-hearted corporate monster and a generous, kind person. These need to be roughly 8-12 stages. So for example, greedy, in denial, defensive, obsessive, envious, insecure, ashamed, hopeful, determined, proud, tranquil.

 Do not obsess about this too much.

2          Write the different emotional stages into the emotional arc that you have sketched at the top of your story map – where it says in my example, ‘From Zero to Hero.’Story Map

Job done.

You now know, for example, that in the first act you will show your protagonist as greedy, in denial, and defensive. This should suggest scenes that will SHOW the individual emotional states and the audience will have a sense that the character is gradually changing.

This may sound prescriptive, but I promise you, no one will see the joins.

And if this isn’t clear, please drop me a line and I will clarify.

 

 

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