Best left unsaid?

One of my beta readers told me that I leave too much unsaid in my book. Too many hints and not enough facts. Inadequate exploration of motivation. Paucity of descriptive nouns. Scarcity of adverbs and adjectives.

The strength of this reader’s opinion rather knocked my confidence and so it was with gratitude that I read this comment from Peter Selgin writing on Jane Friedman’s website:

Whenever we authors state things that are or might be implied, we rob our readers of an interactive moment, of the chance to infer those implications: among the great pleasures offered by good writing.

But as Selgin explains in another post, “never state what you can imply” is not the same as “show, don’t tell”. Sometimes the writer has to tell in order to interpret the action – or simply move the show along.

The crucial thing is that even whilst telling a skilful writer can leave much unsaid – unlabelled, unexplained – because she trusts her reader to understand, even if placing this trust opens up the possibility of misunderstanding.

Telling readers what to think or feel is the job of a propagandist. A storyteller’s main purpose, on the other hand, is to create experiences for the reader, to involve us so deeply, so convincingly, so authentically in those experiences that we feel what characters feel.

“To create experiences for the reader.” Ah, now; that is the challenge – and somehow, with or without adjectives, I failed for this particular reader.

 

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Getting started with beta readers

There’s lots of good stuff out there about beta readers so this is (as usual) a strictly personal account, complete with small successes, upsets and second thoughts.

Before you read on, please see my post about BetaBooks because without that brilliant software none of this would be possible.

So, who is the ideal beta reader?

First and foremost, beware friends!

If you ask a friend or relative to read your book, they will say “yes” because they’re a nice person and you’re a nice person and they want to please you. They will dutifully start reading but then realise it’s really not their cup of tea so will quietly stop. They don’t tell you they’ve stopped – because they don’t want to upset you by saying it’s not their cup of tea – and you don’t ask them why they’ve stopped because you don’t want to appear impatient or pushy (and you’re secretly terrified they hate it and now you by extension). So your book is never mentioned again and becomes the resident elephant in the room of your friendship.

Conversely, beware the friend who says they’d absolutely love to read your book. What they mean is they want to read your book in five years’ time when it’s piled high in Waterstones and they can boast they know the author – not whilst it’s 10,000 words too long and riddled with inconsistencies and loose ends.

Your ideal beta reader is a friend or relative of a friend or relative. Somebody who is close enough that you have an intermediary for asking those awkward why-have-they-stopped-reading questions but far enough that you don’t meet them in the village shop knowing they’ve just read the oral sex bit in chapter 20.

If a first-degree friend genuinely offers to read your book, smile sadly and explain at length what an onerous and tedious task this would be. If she repeats her offer (and she’s not obviously drunk) take her hand off. (And if this friend then moves halfway across England and doesn’t have a job and is happy to engage in long, late-night WhatsApp discussions about the minutia of character motivation, you’ve hit the mother lode.)

Tell readers what they are letting themselves in for!

Choose people who actually like – or are at least tolerant of – your chosen genre. I personally wouldn’t read a contemporary, angst-ridden, kitchen sink drama for love or money so I can’t expect fans of like to persevere with horse-drawn cabs and trouser buttons. There has to be a nominal element of enjoyment 😉

There is a sexual assault in my first chapter with more (mostly consensual) sex scattered throughout the book, plus some brief but explicit violence. After a false start, I now make this clear to potential readers. My eldest son’s partner (too close a connection, on reflection) stopped reading after the first chapter on account of the unpleasantness therein but didn’t like to tell me why.

How many readers does it take to beta a book?

I researched this question online and found the recommended number to be surprisingly low at just two or three. I wanted to be more scientific so I decided to apply the qualitative research principle of ‘saturation’, which means continuing to sample until no new themes or insights emerge. I approached this objective with five readers and achieved it by seven. Additional readers were a bonus.

What guidance should you give your readers?

Don’t waste your beta readers on typos and spellings; we’ve got Grammarly for that chore. Advise your readers to read as naturally as possible but if they do catch-out Grammarly (and it’s easily done) accept with gratitude. Better them than some exhausted literary agent in a few months’ time.

I gathered ideas for beta reader guidance from across the internet and distilled my findings into what I considered at the time to be five manageable questions:

  • What did you like most about this chapter?
  • Was there anything you found particularly unlikely, annoying or confusing?
  • Are the characters believable? Did the dialogue keep your interest?
  • Did the ending hook you and make you want to read the next chapter?
  • What are you curious about now?

If a reader has particular expertise or you are aware of specific issues or loose threads, should you ask further leading questions – or wait and see what happens? After trying both approaches, I recommend the latter course. You may (like me) be pleasantly surprised. Never mind not seeing the wood for the trees; we writers can only see individual leaves. Readers step back and view the whole county. They may not spot each subtle element of foreshadowing or acknowledge every lovingly-crafted sentence but they do make intelligent and unexpected connections.

In reality, most readers ignored my five questions after the first few chapters and did their own thing, somewhere between brief bullet points and long thoughtful, literary critiques. (Both, I hasten to add, were equally welcome; I have eternal respect and gratitude for all my beta readers.)

Towards the end of the book, feedback from a couple of readers was reduced to excited emojis. I didn’t mind that either! The flurry of BetaBooks notifications told me that they couldn’t put the book down – so, in some ways, this was the nicest feedback of all 🙂

beta books image

Image from BetaBooks

 

 

 

 

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On writing only what you know

A paradigm-changing snippet courtesy of a piece by Lidija Haas in The London Review of Books.

Reviewing A Grace Paley Reader: Stories, Essays and Poetry, Haas highlights Paley’s inversion of the established advice to “write what you know”, asserting that to do so is the “best way to end up with something dead on the page”:

It’s a real mistake [Paley suggests] to assume that what is nearest to the foundations of your own life is what you know best: nothing dulls the senses like proximity. […] If you find you already know the answer, ‘drop the subject.’

I like this!

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Accepting the inevitable

I’ve just completed a nice writing exercise suggested by editor Andrew Wille.

Without looking back, summarise your draft in under 100 words. Then 50 words. Then 20. What does your instinct tell you is its intention: not only your intention, but the intention of the writing? Use this to craft a mission statement to evaluate your book.

I rattled off 500 words and then, with great difficulty, refined this down to 50:

A suffragette and a soldier find unexpected happiness together only to be torn apart by war. Battered by grief but supported by the courage and tenacity of other women, the suffragette undertakes a dangerous mission for her country before being forced into a desperate race against time to save her lover’s life.

Distilling this down to twenty words was even harder. What is the essence of my story when stripped of all sub-plots and secondary characters?

Two unlikely lovers are torn apart by war. Only her courage and determination in the face of tragedy will reunite them.

And then it hit me: this is a romantic thriller. After two years of trying to convince myself otherwise (such is the literary snobbery where romance is concerned), I’ve now accepted the inevitable. I’m writing a love story. Yep. A love story.

Version 2

And my mission statement? (Who’d have imagined a book needed a mission statement, eh?)

To celebrate love in its many guises and tell of the honour and courage that can exist amidst the horrors of war.

It was like cropping a photograph on my iPhone or pruning a rose ready for the summer. For the first time (after twelve months of intermittent editing; how embarrassing!), I understand what really matters in my story.

 

 

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The writer’s task

A writer ought not to be an opinion-machine… The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth … and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation. Literature is the house of nuance and contrariness against the voices of simplification. The job of the writer is to make it harder to believe the mental despoilers. The job of the writer is to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.

It is the job of the writer to depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture. It is the essence of the wisdom furnished by literature (the plurality of literary achievement) to help us to understand that, whatever is happening, something else is always going on.

Susan Sontag (2007) At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches quoted in a post on the beautiful, brilliant, challenging website Brain Pickings

Quotes like this both inspire and trouble me. IMG_3804

I am troubled because such wisdom humbles me (agonising over my tawdry romantic thriller) and because I don’t know if I understand.

I think Sontag is saying that truth is not absolute and to pretend otherwise is to collude with over-simplification of a complex world; that it is the writer’s job to deal with shades of grey and the general messiness of life – and the writer’s privilege to give hope (and instill fear) in a world of endless possibilities. But I’m not sure!

 

I am inspired because these thoughts help me see that although I may work with small stories from obscure corners of history I can – I should – nevertheless aspire to “depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture”. And because it helps me make sense of a question I felt compelled to put recently to one of my beta readers (a dedicated reader who is struggling with ambiguities in the central relationship): Surely love and lust can co-exist? 

 

 

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In praise of … BetaBooks

beta books image

BetaBooks: The world’s first reader management software for professional authors

I like to think I arrived late at the beta reader party because I was waiting for BetaBooks to come into my life.

 

I knew there had to be an easier way to get feedback on my book than the semi-public humiliation of writers’ festivals and disjointed conversations with my youngest sister whilst she struggled to negotiate a 120,000 word PDF on her smartphone. Thanks to Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed email, I found it.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that joining BetaBooks was a game-changer in my embryonic career; the moment when I came out as a writer and actually let people read my story, when embarrassment gave way to pride in my readers’ enjoyment, and shyness became professional curiosity as to what works and what wobbles in my writing.

BetaBooks is practically perfect. It’s good to look at and intuitive to use, with incredible attention to detail and a real understanding of the needs of authors and the enjoyment of readers. It works as well for me with my newbie novel and my handful of readers as it appears to work for established authors juggling multiple books and a fan base of thousands. I love the pioneering spirit of the authors (themselves writers, I believe), their engagement with users of the software, and the sense of constant review and improvement.

I plan to write a couple of posts about working with beta readers so I won’t describe the process right now. I’d far rather you used the time to hop over to BetaBooks and watch the walk-through video.

 

 

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Less is more

I’ve reached the dreadful climactic denouement in my new story so, by way of light relief, I’ve been thinking about the structure of my first book.

As mentioned elsewhere, I’m not happy with Part 1 of The White Lady in the version currently under scrutiny by my faithful beta readers and recently submitted to unsuspecting literary agents.

I won’t bore you with my entire thought process because I’ve done nothing more than any decent, clear-sighted editor would do (although I will give credit for the daily prompts from this very nice e-learning exercise); suffice to say I have concluded that most of Part 1 (besides the opening section and the sex in chapter 5) is stilted, stodgy and dramatically slack.

I can see how this came about. I had a flash of inspiration (the garden! suffering suffragettes!) and jumped right in. I had no idea what would happen once the roses had metaphorically faded and so I meandered messily along; reminiscing, falling asleep in the sun, and forming unnecessary romantic attachments.

roses on wall

This should not have mattered – after all, my keyboard has a well-used ‘delete’ button – except that 100,000 words later Part 1 had become the stuff of legends; embedded in my psyche and engraved on my heart. My first-born. Perfect. Untouchable.

I’m not beating myself up about this (although I do feel embarrassed regret over my premature submissions) because I could not have written it any other way, at least not at this stage in my writing career. I must not minimise the anxiety I felt at the time: not enough words, not enough worthy themes, not enough story.

But I have learnt two lessons.

Start with a draft. I agonised over words and so didn’t see the paragraphs, let alone the plot. And, having spent so much time and effort on so much beautiful prose, change became impossible.

Have clear aims. My original aim was to write a feminist social history of early 20th century England focusing on the contribution of militant suffragists with additional modules on rural deprivation, mental illness, and temperate climate horticultural.

My new aims are thus:

  • to keep readers reading
  • to help readers get to know (and maybe like) my protagonist
  • to paint my protagonist’s world as she is experiencing it 
  • er, that’s it…

 

 

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Why Journey’s End didn’t make me cry

I went equipped – alone, handkerchief, mini bottle of wine – prepared to silently sob my way through most of the 107 minutes. After all, I cried at the end of Paddington 2 (when Q – sorry, Paddington – opens the door and there’s Aunt Lucy) and I wept as the soldiers read Churchill’s speech post-Dunkirk. I even wiped away a tear more recently when the presses rolled in The Post.

But Journey’s End? Emotionally drained and totally befuddled as I stumbled out into the daylight – but completely dry-eyed.

We love to cry during movies. Crying during a film bonds us with others (all that oxytocin washing around) and, after a short satisfying period of misery, we actually feel happier than we did before the film started.

It’s social interactions that make us cry in films, rather than planetary destruction. As the story unfolds we mirror the expressions of the actors, so when things go badly we empathise and reach for the tissues. There doesn’t even have to be a human or a golden retriever involved; Toy Story 3 prides itself on making grown men cry. Heroism, self-sacrifice, and loss are all recognised triggers and close-ups make it all more visceral – which is why we’re far less likely to cry in the theatre. At least 30% of the tears shed in cinemas are happy tears (yes, looking at you, Aunt Lucy); usually tears of relief after a period of tension.

There’s plenty to cry about in Journey’s End (clue: its the Great War, at the start of the spring offensives of 1918; backs to the wall and so on) so why didn’t I cry?

Was it because I was forewarned, my heart preemptively hardened? I’ve read the play, written in 1928 by R.C. Sherriff, a veteran of the Western Front. I’ve also read dozens of other first-hand accounts and memoirs. I know the set-up: Grim-faced men smoking, officer looking at watch with whistle poised. You just know it’s going to end badly. Maybe I was over-familiar with the genre; maybe I am (heavens forbid) desensitised?

I don’t think so.

We love to cry during movies. More significantly, movies makers love to make us cry – because movies with a high weep factor tend to get the awards. Aristotle identified three strands to the art of persuasion, one of which is pathos – or stirring emotion in your audience to induce them to make the right choices. We could call it manipulation. I don’t have a problem with that: Bums on seats. More films. More mindless misery and rebound happiness.

But the height of manipulation – or the depths, depending on your viewpoint – is, of course, the final scene of the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. (Just Google it – and don’t say I didn’t warn you.) The building tension in spite of the silliness. The close-ups (Good luck, everyone!) The scramble over the top into a hail of bullets. And then the relief – for the viewer at least; the retreat into monochrome slow-motion and dirge-like theme tune before we fade to a field of poppies. Good God, I’m welling-up just writing about it!

The one thing I feared above all else was that Journey’s End would be given the Blackadder treatment and that the attitudes of another three generations would be consolidated into futility and tragedy and one-dimensional Great War stereotypes. It wasn’t and I don’t think they will be.

So, why didn’t I cry?

First: There was no soaring movie music; just occasional discordant, edgy bursts of notes. No subliminal prompts when tragedy struck. Nothing to tell me when to blub as surely as traffic lights changing to green. Just the muffled pounding of exploding shells.

Second: There was no break in the tension. A ‘dark night of the soul’ moment in Act 3 but with no resolution. He died but we know this particular death is only the beginning; the beginning of the end of the war, true – but there was no sense of sacrifice or heroism, just love and sadness. (PS The weird aerial shot at the end? Not needed, Mr Dibb. It was a bit too close to fading to a field of poppies.)

Third: He didn’t cry – so why should I? In fact, how dare I indulge myself with weeping in the midst of such tragedy, such steadfastness, such angry stoicism? The sergeant major says come now, sir! So he stood up and he walked away. I didn’t feel manipulated. I felt I was intruding.

What does this mean for the writer?

I have two particularly sad chapters in my first book. I wept as I wrote both of them (not surprising for someone who cries when Aunt Lucy knocks at the door) – yet one of my beta readers described the first as “heartbreaking” and the other as “sentimental”.

I think I have a bit of work to do to understand the difference.

 

 

 

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Farewell Facebook

Following on from my previous post I need a strategy to make better use of my time: to produce work that is the very best it can be whilst making the most of the resources and opportunities social media have to offer.

I have three needs as a writer:

  • knowledge, skills, and stimulation to become a better writer
  • individualised advice and guidance to help me shape my career
  • emotional support and friendship

How best to meet these needs?

Facebook (@hannahhulmehunter) is like a huge, ramshackle hotel. The entrance hall is full of drunks all shouting over the tv but there are hidden rooms where people gather in the hope of meeting like-minded folks. There are hundreds – nay, thousands – of writers’ Groups on Facebook. I’ve done the rounds but am invariably left dissatisfied. The conversations are too noisy and the contact too superficial. I feel battered by other people’s problems and disappointments and find no answers to my own.

If Facebook is Hotel California then Twitter (@mountainhares) is a vast, eclectic party. As I wander around the party I eavesdrop on heated debates on history and politics and sneak off to the library to follow links and check references. Sometimes I spot someone I know and we talk but usually I’m sitting on the sidelines chatting about The Archers and looking at photographs of Cillian Murphy and war graves. Twitter is the scruffy staff sitting room, my newspaper, and my remote control. I’ve learned a lot about writing from Twitter and attended some amazing events.

Instagram (@hannahonbrillhill, @gardenonthehill) is a peaceful gallery full of modern art and mountains, gorgeous gardens and portraits of family and friends wherein I wander with a cup of tea. For more sustained refreshment, personal and professional, I turn to my curated list of blogs and websites; well-written, thoughtful places of abiding interest and quiet engagement. I think it is these that really feed my writer’s soul.

So, what is my strategy? How do I quiet the anxious worm that keeps me “chasing someone else’s path to success” on social media and distracts me from the discipline of writing – yet still expose myself to the unknown unknowns of life, those life-changing, life-affirming Black Swan events?

Let’s try this for starters:

Farewell Facebook. Yes, I mean it – except for a weekly visit to dust the shelves on the two charity pages I manage and catch up with village gossip. Refer family and close friends to WhatsApp.

Go cold turkey on Twitter’s drip-drip-drip of dopamine and check my feed just once, in the evening as a reward for a productive day.

Build real-life support. Make application to WoMentoring and consider that if this fails I may have to pay for editing and/or mentoring. Look for opportunities to meet with other writers and expand engagement with readers.

Choose learning resources carefully: 

  • don’t re-visit old tips and tricks; have confidence in my skills and move on
  • push the boundaries: look for resources that offer something new and prioritise real-life opportunities
  • challenge myself: try short stories, flash fiction, writing prompts

Work to a timetable. Write early and late when distractions are minimal and inspiration highest. Set aside time in the middle of the day for research and other reading including blogs and emails. Measure and log actual writing time.

How’s that for starters?

PS Whilst writing this post I downloaded and completed an excellent workbook called Write with Purpose on from well-storied.com. Highly recommended to help one identify priorities and formulate a writing plan. (Pay what you can afford.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Running out of Life

Right, this is going to be quick. Why? Because this post is about not wasting time on social media and it would be deeply ironic if I then proceeded to waste time on social media writing about wasting time on social media.

We writers are constantly urged by pundits to network, build a brand, and generally put ourselves out there. This is known as “planting lightening rods”: one day a tweet may be endorsed by JK Rowling, a Facebook post may grab an agent’s attention, this blog may be read by a bored editor. At least that’s the theory.

Then I read cobbler, stick to your last a short article by American ghostwriter David Moldawer (ironically, following a link posted in a Facebook Group). Moldawer acknowledges the attraction of those lightning rods; he understands that publishers don’t come a-knocking and businesses have to be visible. But he nevertheless makes a devastating observation:

It breaks my heart to think of all the writers—and filmmakers, musicians, designers, inventors—who created even one less thing because of time, effort, and emotional bandwidth invested in the work of social media.

Moldawer urges us to build what he calls a positive Black Swan strategy. Black swan events are rare happenings of extreme impact but low predictability; the “unknown unknowns” of life.  The outbreak of war in 1914 and 9/11 were Black Swan events. An editor chancing on this blog would be likewise – except now it wouldn’t be because I  have anticipated it happening and Black Swan events are only retrospectively predictable (viz the Great War).

A positive Black Swan strategy is to accept uncertainty, and embrace serendipity by exposing ourselves to new opportunities, in all worlds. It’s being insatiably curious and healthily sociable. It means enjoying doing what we do for its own sake.

It means producing work that is the very best it can be – and that ain’t going to happen if we squander the most precious resource of all: time.

Here’s David Moldawer again:

When you invest money, you start with a limited quantity. Lots of people got rich on lucky bets, but if you invest in a handful of lucky-looking stocks to imitate that success, you will have no more money.

Time is different. We can keep making the same mistakes with our time and energy and, sadly, we just run out of life, eventually. We don’t get better at our work and we don’t create as much stuff as we could have, all because we squander our precious resources chasing someone else’s path to success.

I gave up my day job in 2017 because the decades were racing past and I was already a IMG_2889good 20 years past the average age at which writers are first published (ones late thirties
are, apparently, a good age at which to win that publishing contract). I am running out of life and yet I still spend time in the toxic Hotel California that is Facebook and sitting on the sidelines of the over-excited party that is Twitter.

I need a positive Black Swan strategy.

 

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