Writing & Publishing For Yourself: The Indie Author Handbook, Self-Publishing Toolkit, and Staying Sane Survival Guide – or ‘The Adventures of an I.T. Helpdesk’ by Lisa Scullard (non-fiction/humour)
FREE on Kindle for a limited time (regular price $2.99 or equivalent) – Write a decent book, Tweet a few times, accept any spontaneous reviews graciously, and keep all of your friends…
Hi folks! Seeing as I didn’t know what I’d really done to earn recognition as a top blogger on here, a while ago I went through all of my posts on Writing and Publishing and compiled a list (see my Tutorials pages). Following that, and reading them through, I realised I had a whole lot more to add – to update – and articles elsewhere that were relevant. As well as journal entries of everything I’ve learned on the indie author rollercoaster.
I’ve now`organised them, fully-revised and updated, into this eBook above – containing my earliest advice on writing (reviewing the 27th Brussels International Film Festival, in 2000) to the latest. The eBook was was published yesterday, and I’ve just finished the final tweaks after uploading.
Here’s the blurb:
This isn’t a ‘How to sell a million copies’ or ‘How to be a New York Times bestseller’ guru session. This is not for seasoned ‘Authorpreneurs’ looking for new promotion and sales tactics. It is NOT a tried-and-tested formula for writing a blockbuster novel. And it will not tell you how to become a billionaire through exploiting your hidden USP (Unique Selling Point).
Neither is it a Zen lifestyle guide, telling you that it is simply a case of convincing the world (and yourself) that you are the world’s top author, and you will be showered with money, Nobel prizes, Oscars, Specsavers Daggers, retail sponsorship, street-value turnips, or whatever else takes your fancy.
None of the above. It’s a journal of the everyday life of a modern, under-the-radar indie author since the global self-publishing trend started, and a few confessions of advising others while being a Useful Technical Person to Have Around…
It is also a book for beginners, giving tutorials and case studies – on the subjects of inspiration, motivation, genre, legal hurdles, research, editing, and identifying your ideal market audience – along with the rocket science of formatting your documents, embedding illustrations, creating and linking to external content (such as audio and video), uploading them, and some gentle cautionary advice on publishing issues and promotions.
There will be laughs. There will be tears. There will be revealing examples made (and for readers with browser-enabled tablets or PC/phone reading apps, links to working samples of multimedia content).
Above all, it’s designed to save you time, hassle (and ultimately, save you money) when joining the indie author phenomenon.
Lisa Scullard went online one day in 2014 to find she was suddenly (and without warning) a WordPress-promoted top blogger in Reader on the subject of ‘Writing & Blogging’ – and promptly understood the full meaning of the phrase: “With great power comes great responsibility.” This subsequent book is an organised compilation of relevant blog posts, tutorials, articles, experimental book trailers and journal entries made over the years, covering the topics of writing, researching, editing, publishing and promotion. It has been an undertaking of mass rewrites, edits, revisions, expositions and updates, and some keyboard-crunching efforts at formatting, in order to justify such an unprecedented amount of recognition.
…And it’s FREE until midnight PST, Wednesday 28th October 2015, on Kindle worldwide. Grab it while you can.
It’s already available in print on Lulu directly (postage £2.99 basic shipping) and should appear on Amazon in paperback form over the next few days.
Last updated: 14 November, 01.30 GMT – The latest updated version is now live. If you’ve downloaded your copy already, make sure it’s automatically synched to the newest version. You can use the Kindle Customer Services ‘Contact Us’ by chat/email method to request it to be re-delivered free to your app/tablet if it doesn’t update automatically from your reader settings. You’re always entitled to request the newest revision of an ebook for free, even after a paid purchase.
One of my supporting examples of fiction is also available FREE on Kindle for the same time period, for reference – Death & The City: Cut to the Chase Edition. (Also worldwide).
I hope you all have a great weekend, and for those of you off school and college, enjoy half-term break (and happy forthcoming Halloween) 🙂
Bird… bird… bird… Personally, I prefer the Skrillex/Trashmen mashup versions 🙂
There are two types of unintentional repetition in writing. I’m not talking about intentional repetition, related to storyline or humour (the only thing you need to be concerned about there, is that your plot makes sense for characters to revisit scenarios more than once, and that your hilarious repetitions in dialogue and description are in fact funny).
Unintentional repetition comes in two forms.
The first is word-blindness, where you have used a key word more than necessary in a passage, making it sound clunky to the new reader. These are usually forgivable, and easy to miss for the novice writer while rushing through a proofread:
She shut her eyes as she heard the door shut behind her. Why was he shutting her out like this? She shut the thought off immediately. She decided to go to the store instead, but then remembered at this time of night it would already be shut.
This type of repetition is usually cured by checking a thesaurus:
She closed her eyes as she heard the door slam behind her. Why was he excluding her like this? She blocked the thought immediately. She decided to go to the store instead, but then remembered at this time of night it would already be shut.
Not every word you replace has to have the exact meaning. Note that ‘slam’ is more descriptive of action and emotion, while ‘blocked’ is a different internal action, but serves the same purpose in illustrating the protagonist’s attitude. You don’t have to replace every incidence of your ubiquitous word – it’s fine to keep one in where appropriate, and you’ll find it becomes much less of a nuisance when pared down to the minimum of appearances per scene.
Another form of word-blindness is The Room Full of Pillars:
She stepped out from behind the pillar, and faced the pillar. Pressing her back to the pillar at first, eventually she stepped bravely away, passing the pillars, until eventually she reached the pillar in the middle. The pillars stretched out in all directions. She looked back longingly at the safety of her pillar.
The same scene could take place in The Forest Full of Trees or The Auditorium Full of Seats.
If you have a scene which involves more than two of anything – pillars, kittens, cars, nameless children, police officers, protesters, apples, pubs – find some way of describing the scene to your readers so that they can see what you see in your mind’s eye without feeling as though they’ve been left in a stock warehouse of your writing without an inventory.
With children, animals and crowds, it’s easy enough to give them names, or a passing description. Even a car can be described shortly, without sounding clunky or dated – ‘the red car’ or ‘the red muscle/sports/hatchback car’ is sufficient, while ‘the red Audi R10 with super-slick wheels’ will have your readers recalling how it caught fire on Top Gear several seasons ago. So unless that’s your intention, try to limit your taste in consumer product envy regarding briefly transitional objects.
People can be described in all sorts of ways. Depending on the tone and attitude of your protagonist/narrative voice, accompanied by varying levels of political correctness or offensiveness. You would be safe to describe a child in a woolly hat, or a man with a limp in order to identify them. You might cause a few bloodstreams to boil if you referred to the child’s ethnic group in slang terms, or the man’s conveniently obvious mental condition in the same way, when his only purpose in your plot is to fill a gap in the crowd. But with satirical novels, as with the author Tom Sharpe, even that borders on acceptable in context.
Mix it up a bit, though. You don’t want your crowd scene to be depicted as a parade of differently-coloured woolly hats – you’ll run out of colours, for one thing…
The child in the red hat was being chased by a dozen children, the ringleader in the pink hat, closely followed by one in a yellow hat, one in an orange hat, and then three of them were wearing very similar blue hats, but Officer Rainbow could see that one was turquoise, one was Royal blue and one was aquamarine, a child in a magenta hat was egging them all on, especially the one in the peach hat, and the only one who appeared to be in any doubt was the one in the chartreuse hat, which the Officer would later describe in his report as ‘Forest green, possibly Kelly, but not quite Khaki’.
…In the same way, a crowd scene can be crippled (pun) by over-enthusiastic issuing by the author of quirks, disabilities and passing viral infections. Do not hand out warts, boils, speech impediments, age-related conditions and man-flu in a cavalier fashion. For a start, why would any of these people be in a crowd scene, unless they’re keen to catch something new???
The man with the running nose and thinning hair picked up the pool cue and launched himself at the one-legged lady. The boy with the rampant teenage acne snatched the dartboard from the wall, and knocked the girl with the lisp unconscious. Three seconds later, two children in a red woolly hat and an aubergine woolly hat respectively, one of them eating a Dairylea Dunker and the other one with Asperger’s Syndrome, picked up the snooker table, threw it across the bar at the barman who couldn’t speak English (not the one with the Rastafarian toupee, weeping facial bedsores and an aunt with morbid consumption), and all hell broke loose.
N.B. The above scene might work if it takes place in a doctor’s surgery or hospital waiting-room.
Back to the embarrassment of scenery/furniture that has bred beyond all control in your story. Of course, you can’t put woolly hats on pillars, name them Fred, give them chicken pox or an allergy to small coinage. Pillars, coffee mugs, front doors etc. can be any colours you want, made of a wide variety of materials (although again, once you’ve gone from sandstone to bronze, you’ve still got to fit in a story around your vast knowledge of chemical compounds and load-bearing solid matter). The best way to get around a multitude of identical inanimate objects is to think outside the box – what their properties are, their purpose in the story, and their effect on the characters:
She stepped out from behind her shield of stone, and faced her target. Pressing her back to the pillar at first, eventually she stepped bravely away, passing through the tall shadows, until eventually she reached the featureless tower in the middle. The other pillars stretched out in all directions. She looked back longingly at the safety of her hiding place.
‘Other pillars’ is a manageable reference to the first pillar – but you can only get away with using it once.
This leads us neatly into the other form of repetition – the repetition of Actions, that our characters seem to think is what makes them three-dimensional, living, breathing, frequently sighing, eye-rolling and bottom-lip-chewing flesh and blood beings.
From The Room Full of Pillars we dive straight into The Lovers’ Arms:
Her eyes filled with tears as she leaned forward and took his left hand in her right hand. In her right hand she had hold of the horse Shalimar’s reins, and in his left hand was his briefcase and her Harrod’s hat-box. A tear rolled down and landed on their joined hands. “Oh my dearest,” he sighed, leaning forward and cupping her chin with his hand. “You have no need to cry.” Tears sprang to attention in her eyes as he leaned forward towards her, while his eyes shone with tears. He wiped them away with both hands, sighing in frustration. “But you are the only one!” she sighed, leaning forward and seizing his lapels passionately in her fists, weeping profusely. Their fingers still entwined, tears pricking at her eyelashes, he leaned forward, simultaneously brushed back her hair, gave the horse Shalimar a sugar-lump and a friendly pat on the hindquarters, clasped her face between his two hands and leaned forward to kiss her. “My darling,” he sighed, and his tears torrented forth while she bravely held hers in check – he mustn’t see her as weak! “I believe you!”
Unless your characters are the ten-armed aliens of Betelgeuse, remember that your characters are limited to one pair of hands each. Try to remember where they are, and when they were put there.
Also, try to recall the correct sequence in which crying happens.
How often are your character’s sighing, and is it related in any way to a medical condition?
And also – there are only a fixed number of times that a person can lean forward before they have prostrated themselves fully on the floor.
The same goes for characters who frequently ‘turn to look out of the window’ or ‘turn away to gaze at the distant mountains’ either mid-speech, between contemplating their own navel, or to function as a narrative pause in any other events at the time. If your character is directed to look away from the plot and out at the scenery at any point, make sure something is going on out there requiring their attention. (If it’s distant mountains, they had better be massively significant later on).
I know how it works. You are watching the scene unfold in your head, the dialogue is flowing, and you know, at key moments, that your characters will show some form of reaction, illustrating their emotions or mind-set. So you reach for your ‘realism’ toolkit of shorthand reactions. Rolling eyes. Biting lower lip. Scratching head. Wringing hands (as many as they’ve got). Scuffing toecaps. Farting nervously? No – better stick with rolling eyes again. That’s realistic enough… If your character is a rabbit with myxomatosis, go for your life with the optical twitching and chewing on one’s own body parts.
If you find you are fond of a trait you have ‘invented’ for your character, try counting the number of times you show this trait in your prose so far. Whether it’s that she chews on her hair, or he fingers his moustache. Why authors find these sadly-afflicted nervous wrecks attractive as protagonists (and antagonists) is a mystery, but a reader should not be brainwashed by the end of your book into pulling their own hair out by the roots one at a time, or letting their eyes roll around like marbles, particularly while driving. Keep your character’s nail-biting, earlobe-tugging, mouth-chomping, foot-stamping and hair-tossing to a minimum. More than once, as with anything else, and it loses its impact.
That’s the point. You want your story to have impact, and you want your characters to leave an impression.
A love scene is not defined by the number of times the characters say “I love you” – more than once each in exchange, and the power drains out of it. The same goes for sighing, storming out, slamming doors, stamping, bursting into tears, and blatant attempts at attention-seeking.
Someone who suddenly cuts out 6000 calories a day and reduces their portion sizes is on a diet (or possibly a hunger strike). Someone who has only eaten a lettuce leaf a day for the past 20 years just has a small appetite (or is a rabbit, hopefully not with myxomatosis). The difference is change.
If your characters are constantly demonstrating repetitive ways of illustrating their mood, mindset, and characterisation itself, they are static – even predictable. Nothing about them changes, moves on, develops, affects the plot, or in turn, is affected by the plot in your story. Just because your protagonist chews gum while she thinks, or flicks his Zippo on and off when trying to control his temper, doesn’t make them enthralling characters to the reader. Not after the sixth or seventh time it happens, especially.
Does your heroine cry crocodile tears every few paragraphs, and is your hero crying wolf with his adolescent tantrums? How are you going to make the reader care when something really dramatic happens – and if you’ve used up all of their ‘personality’ already, how are you even going to portray it?
How do your characters put up with one another?
The other problem for you as the writer, is that repetitions at this scale mean your book is not ready for an editor to look at, let alone an agent or publisher. It does not yet contain enough of your writing. It merely contains a bit of your writing, replicated a number of times and in various word order. If you ask an editor to fix it at this stage, the result of such major surgery will not be your writing – anything they create to replace your repetitions will be their writing (you will basically be needing a co-writer or ghost-writer to rewrite your book for you, rather than an editor to proofread, correct grammar, and spell-check). These additional, necessary ‘edits’ will be reflected in the huge unsightly gaps that subsequently appear in your bank balance.
In other words, address the problem yourself first, before reaching for your wallet and the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.
Realism is smart. But repetition is not.
L 🙂 xxx
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SHE TO HIM
by Robert Graves
To have it, sweetheart, is to know you have it
Rather than think you have it;
To think you have it is a wish to take it –
Though afterwards you will not have it –
And thus a fear to take it.
Yet if you know you have it, you may take it
And know that you still have it.
Robert Graves, who wrote the most terrifying Emo-Gothic love poems, somehow nailed it with this short one above. It summarises the bonding and commitment, trust and faith that true love between soul-mates brings, which so many of the human race are still pursuing.
Another couplet of Graves’ at the end of the poem The Finding of Love, “With end to grief, With joy in steadfastness” illustrates how humanity as a whole – not just readers and writers – endlessly seek the comfort and escapism of a ‘happy ever after’.
If it evades us in reality, magical words on the page, perfect words read aloud, and words of everlasting love, whether spoken or sung, are summoned to feed our empty unrequited souls. Grief is what we experience when love is unattainable or impossible, even if we’ve never experienced it first-hand. It’s one of the universal experiences that as a human we can feel or sense is an entitlement, and although some of us have similarly strong feelings about obtaining success, money, fame and other artificial achievements created by humankind, love remains the most mysterious and elusive to pin down.
All the best Hollywood blockbusters rely on it. Blockbuster novels rely on it. Whether it’s romantic love, family love, love of pets, childhood love of toys, love of friends, love of country, love of one’s own faith, love of knowledge, love of art – love is the glue that sticks eyes to the screen or page. Even when we think it’s not there, or think we’re enjoying an amazing story without all that slushy stuff, truly epic writing has a way of sneaking it past us. These writers know that the magic and mysteriousness of uncompromised ‘love’ is the true universal language of the narrative spirit.
Stories that pretend to depict emotionless lead characters often have a supporting act, somewhere (if not an outright sidekick), who is secretly, sympathetically, and irrationally in love with them, causing the audience to believe that this sociopath is not just coldly charismatic but also lovable, beneath their tough outer shell.
We all want what that secondary character wants. Through their eyes, we think we can see through the icy armour too – even as the emotionally-dysfunctional protagonist denies it in as many words. The only emotions they can express are anger and frustration, usually at the sidekick’s insistence that they really are warm and fuzzy inside like a cashmere hot water-bottle cover, instead of being a calculating mess of grudges, hourly work rates, and logic.
If you take the love-struck idiot out of the story, er, I mean, the romance angle, viz, the infatuated sidekick/concerned neighbour/timid single parent (stereotypically new to job/town), you’re left with the Grumpy Old Psycho Codger – who was usually unmasked at the end of Scooby Doo.
So at least one of your characters has to be the manifestation of the most relatable human condition we are aware of.
By that, I don’t mean we introduce them asleep, or on the lavatory.
Imagine if going to the toilet was considered to be the universal narrative – no wonder artists and poets had to invent the concept of falling in love, so much more scope for plot in the complexities of relationships than in solitary bodily functions! Even DH Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover dissected this question. What if as much discourse in life and literature was dedicated to the analysis of lavatorial visits as it is to love and sex? Would over-attentiveness to any other simple necessity of life transform it into the vast, mysterious, lucrative, umm, intellectual and artistic industry that love and relationships are today?
(Looking at any comedy written in the 20th century, many people would say that scatological humour certainly had its heyday).
So we know that love and romance appears in various forms in most of what we consume. There may be different degrees of passion and wholesomeness, but it’s there, to tease, tantalise and inspire.
Even the most introverted, inexperienced desk-pilot like me will have the occasional rose-tinted steampunk-goggles moment, unexpectedly, in real life.
Those moments have to be treasured. One day I might have the need of a rose-tinted romantic analogy for my writing, in between toilet jokes, zombie anatomy, pop-culture psychology, and basic engineering mathematics and principles…
Barbara Cartland was the British doyenne of romantic literature in the mid-1900s. She was prolific, pink, frilly, the heroine of many real-life humanitarian campaigns in her lifetime (including fair wages for midwives and nurses, strangely enough an issue highlighted again today) – and perhaps economical in her writing practice. In her 1978 art history hardcover ‘Book of Love and Lovers’ focusing on art and its romantic subjects through the centuries, you can detect the skill she had in sparse, glossy (of the time), attention-grabbing, scandal-suggestive (but not explicit) prose – brief and to the point, rather like the gossip columnists of today’s celebrity magazines:
Napoleon: “On the night of the Coronation in the Tuileries, ablaze with thousands of lights, Napoleon dined alone with Josephine. He thought her crown ‘suited her so well’ that he made her wear it during dinner. Afterwards they went to bed.”
Napoleon, continued: “Eighteen, with slanting cat-eyes, Marie-Louise was more sensual than Josephine. On her wedding night, delighted with Napoleon’s love-making, she asked him to ‘do it again’. Impatient to have a son, he carried her off to bed before she reached Paris.”
I wonder if she knew she was pre-empting her own parodies?
“Chapter One… The End.” Matt Lucas dictates as Barbara in ‘Little Britain’
Today’s romance novels are aimed at a wide range of interests and age groups, but the main thing they have in common is their function as brain-candy. Feelgood hormone promoters such as serotonin and oxytocin, stress-reducers and blues-busters. Whether it’s a romantic comedy, a historical epic, a paranormal or SF romance, a coming-of-age drama or a romance/crime thriller, your target is reaching the emotional context that other plots and prose do not reach.
Romance is all about positive pattern-matching for the characters and the reader as the relationships in the storyline develop, so you may have to write in an ‘alert’ state if you are new to the genre. This means being aware of your similes and your descriptions of the protagonists’ reactions and internal responses to one another. Your own writing has to be congruent with the mood you want to set – your whole book is presenting the ‘mood’ to the reader.
Unless your mood is ‘wooden’ or ‘flat-packed furniture’ you wouldn’t set your scenes by basic stage direction:
He walked in and closed the door behind him. He went to the chair in the living room and sat in it. He turned on the TV. She came in from the kitchen and asked what he wanted for dinner. He said pizza. She went back to the kitchen and switched on the oven.
…And stuck her own head in it, most likely, at that point.
What would you do with this paragraph? Does it sound like a paragraph from a romance novel? If it was a romantic comedy, what could you make happen? Can he smell another failed baking attempt as he walks in? Has she been caught washing the dog in the kitchen sink? What the hell has happened to his favourite chair? Where’s the dialogue itself?
You don’t have to go over the top, either…
“Honey, I’m home!” he announced as he burst into the hallway, a torrent of autumnal leaves following him in off the street. He was just in time for Storage Hunters! He dashed to the living-room, scattering leaves, coat, briefcase, pants and shoes in his headlong run, and dove flat onto the sofa, grabbing the remote. He nearly careered straight over the far end – damn wax furniture-polish on the leatherette again! “Where are you? And what’s that smell?”
“Nothing sweetheart! Must be the new doggy kibble mix,” she greeted him, appearing in the doorway, drenched from head to foot, holding a sink plunger in one hand and a dog-lead in the other. To him she looked as amazing as ever, and her scent today was Eau de Petit Chien. “We’ve only just got in from our walk. Shall I start dinner?”
“Great! Can we have pizza?” Only the thought of a piping hot spicy pizza was stopping him from jumping on her right now, and subsequently missing Storage Hunters.
“Sure!” she beamed, and went to make a lot of noise in the kitchen, turning on the fan oven and rummaging in the cupboards, while she discreetly rang Domino’s and ordered a large stuffed crust Pepperoni and two rounds of garlic bread…
Well, I’m already hooked, knew I shouldn’t have started that one… anyway, you see the difference? Same scene – two different ways of writing and setting the mood. It’s the same approach when writing any genre fiction. In horror you want to instill fear, in crime thriller you want to excite, in comedy you want to raise a chuckle (or at least a wry smirk). You don’t have to go as far as my bit of parody above, though…
What you want, is to imagine or remember a romantic mood – sometimes those can be the briefest flashes of inspiration, a piece of music, a dream you once had (as I did with One Stolen Kiss), a face you once saw… and keep that mood alive as you write. Don’t let other moods spoil it. The author’s mood will dictate the style of writing, so if you need certain music, or a scented candle beside you, or a hot chocolate, indulge yourself while writing romance. (You can go to the gym later).
Treat your romance writing as you would your actual romance.
Make it ‘special writing time’ – if you aren’t convincing yourself, who are you going to convince? It doesn’t mean you have to have the Ann Summers website open in the browser, or a wealthy dating guru’s webinar on dating NLP techniques channelled into your headphones. Treat yourself well while writing, think happy thoughts, plan how you’ll spend that first 99p you earn from your book on a treat from eBay (seriously, I won designer shoes for 99p that no-one else bid on!)
Imagine how happy you’d want to feel after reading a good romance – and work with that.
Romance is one of the genres that is easy to promote and has reader peer-recommendation networks already in place – you don’t have to stress about that. Put aside any thoughts about promoting and selling at this stage. Just enjoy writing the story.
Some authors, who are married or in relationships, find that writing romance fiction for the first time can be awkward, worry about being judged when it reaches the public, or, in contrast, are keen to use it as a form of sneaky self-disclosure.
Basically, write what you’re comfortable with – but if you’re feeling the strain, or the words coming out appear to be pointing back at you in an accusatory fashion, try being someone else while you write. Invent an author name for romance fiction.
That’s what I did. I find while I’m being Lauren the romance author, I’m a completely different writer. I don’t have my usual insecurities and hang-ups, I don’t worry what my writing says about me, and I’m not thinking about cars and dieting and exercise and zombies instead. That last one, definitely the important one, in my case.
And if you’re concerned about the nitty-gritty, or the pressure to join the more explicit ranks of books out there, you can find advice on writing bedroom shenanigans here, in a post I wrote a while back before I attempted it myself. I mean writing it, of course 🙂
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First, you have to have a grasp of what it is.
My English teacher at school, Steve Ridgeway, spent three years trying to convince me that English Literature was the best subject in the world. I hated every minute of it. Hated all the analysing, the digging around in historical events, the unearthing of metaphors, the excavating of the original authors’ motivations – which as far as I was prepared to see, was “Get into someone’s pants and end all this miserable artistic solitude.”
But I was paying attention all that time, just so I could be fully aware of what and why I was loathing the subject so much. Less than two years later, I wrote my first 110,000-word novel. And I started with my own issues, and motivation, and metaphors, before weaving a story around them – in exactly the way I’d been taught that literature was intended to develop.
In recent weeks, seeing the subject discussed online, I’m starting to wonder if in fact I was the ONLY one paying attention in class.
There’s an urban myth that literary fiction can be simplified and summarised as ‘character-driven, not plot-driven’.
Not true, in itself. If you’re going to construct literary fiction by method, you need to take it back a few steps from the mere concept of ‘complex characters’.
The characters themselves may be metaphors or illustrations of events the author has witnessed or experienced, the embodiment of personal demons or guardian angels, or even satirical/serious representations of real historical figures in another form – animal-form, child-form (see ‘Lord of the Flies’).
Those characters are a way for the author to illustrate and show interaction with forces outside of their own/the key character’s control, whether those are forces of good, evil, or apathy. You’re going to give voice and persona to issues you want to expose or confront through the medium of narrative – the issue might be ‘repression’ or ‘addiction’ or ‘vanity’ or ‘obsession’, for example.
The key character is going to go on a journey, either internal, external or both, with or via these other issues (supporting characters). The outcome for the key character in the story is growth/change/challenge (moral and/or physical). As well as his or her demons and guardians, what social and economic factors influence their progress?
If you have strong views on a certain aspect of your culture, what part of your own existing knowledge would you use in a metaphor for the situation in the story?
For instance: You might have a military background, and have a novel set in a supermarket stock warehouse. Instead of the team being run as you imagine a regular stock warehouse might be, it precisely reflects a military regime. That’s using your life experience to write two stories in one. You’re including your autobiographical experience and observations, which anyone in the military reading it would recognise, but also you are introducing it to an unsuspecting audience of less specific, day-in-the-life books, who might not read a military novel.
Another example would be if you wanted to write literary fiction set in a school, but you have experience of or have researched cults and sects. You don’t describe the school as a cult-affiliated school, or have wannabe wizards turning up there hoping to find out what happened to their missing parents. You write about a normal school. But the actions of the characters, as in the previous example, illustrate that there is another side to the story – that the school, the setting, the social culture within the walls, is a metaphor for a different story.
In a way, literary fiction is “mash-up” fiction. You tell an unfamiliar tale in the guise of a familiar one, a cloaking device to reach and educate audiences that you otherwise wouldn’t. You are breaking the class and culture barrier, in the hope that a greater audience than the one you would reach with only a single military story, or a single cult story, will identify with it – and through that identification, find common ground on both sides of the fence.
You also need to examine your motivation as the author. Pretty much most (grown-up) fiction (and some fairytales) involves something wanting to get into something else’s pants, so there won’t be any nagging about that right now – although you might want to read this first, and perhaps this as well. Maybe even this, if you really can’t stop yourself.
Because the author of literary fiction is of as much interest to the academic as the novel itself, and if like me, future generations of incandescently fuming students are going to be made to pick apart your work until everything you’ve ever done is bare bones laid out for everyone to see, you don’t subsequently want them stalking you on social media, turning up at your book signings or on your doorstep shouting unintelligible things about the state of your mind, the gutter it lives in, and your pants, until they have got it out of their systems and their medications kick in.
Put it this way – a desire to share your insight, wisdom, and life experience in the guise of another tale, to educate and find common ground across class and cultural boundaries, is a healthy motivation. I wouldn’t pin too much hope on becoming a millionaire overnight and installing electric security gates against the aforementioned angry insomniac English Lit students.
When creating your key character, don’t over-develop it. An overdone, well-rounded, too-realistic character is a thoroughly irritating one, and belongs in the pages of chick lit alongside all of their sidekick friends who only exist to help them through a crisis and to massage their egos over a coma-inducing Blossom Hill strawpedo session.
Take a step back.
If your character is ‘a tough nut, has learned things the hard way, is cynical and tired of life’, then SHOW US THAT BIT.
Tell us that story! Otherwise, your story is merely a series of exchanges and scenarios where your emotionally crippled character makes excuses for their lack of commitment to doing anything remotely exciting for the reader in the narrative. If your character has a back story, then in literary fiction, you NEED to go back and start there. Literature-wise, that’s where things were exciting, where the character learned their limitations, met their demons for the first time, found out what it took to continue living and functioning. That’s where your character became strong. If they start out strong and over-developed emotionally in your narrative, they’ve already alienated most of the insular and shy consumers of deep and literary prose. Be prepared to go back there and share the introduction of those insecurities. Don’t throw them in as deus ex machina later on. A cavalier treatment of back-story just looks like you made it up on the spur of the moment to insert conflict or barriers, to delay progress. Your key character’s journey leads the reader – let them be surprised by what the key character learns about supporting characters and events on their journey, from the point of view of understanding their narrative host, their morals and issues, the effect of personal change.
(Don’t just beat your main character with the ugly stick and give them a hard time in life purely due to that. It’s a metaphor for prejudice. We get it already. The Ugly Duckling went there and did that when we were five years old).
That’s probably what is meant by ‘character-driven’ when that phrase is casually tossed around to describe literary fiction. The way folk say it implies that character is more important than plot. But ‘plot’ has to happen to ‘character’ for the character to go on any journey at all.
In literary fiction, it’s not just social setting and character that is a scope for metaphor. Every event, object, place and dialogue exchange is a potential for analogy. A man may love his car in the anthropomorphic sense, but only think of his wife in terms of chassis and bodywork. A collector of commemorative china plates may find that a broken or missing one constitutes a lost year of real-life memories. Characters apply meaning and emotional connection to strange things, in disproportion to the other people around them. They may gain or lose prejudices on their journey, but it won’t be the obvious things (to the rest of us) which affect their points of view.
All of the senses are involved in the depiction of alternative interpretation and implication in the story. I remember a particularly annoying school term dedicated to the interpretation of cloud and sky descriptions in poetry, followed by four more weeks on the subject of flowers… It’s a ****ing daffodil couldn’t he have just said it was ****ing yellow??!! AAAAAaaaaaarrrgh!! (This rant was delivered by my 14-year-old self, almost verbatim, to my considerably academic grandparents, who are no doubt all smirking down at me right now).
I remember being given Aesop’s Fables when I was very small, and first started out reading – flash fiction with morals. That was what set me up for my understanding of literary fiction in later life. You tell a story which is not just a story – the story also has a message, but the message has ‘multiple attachments’ – it contains unlimited implied alternative scenarios and characters where the same moral is evident, reaching out to a wider and wider audience in its retelling and subsequent analysis.
More than anything else, literary fiction does its work on the author, even before it reaches the audience. You may find yourself in characters you thought were only minor, may hear issues you are uncomfortable about voiced as your own. By its nature of having multiple layers of metaphor and parallel meanings, there is a great deal of potential for psychosis in literary fiction, and you may find hidden meanings when you read it much later on your own personal journey that were not yours at the time of writing.
But don’t worry. That’s completely normal to observe too. Writing literary fiction casts a shadow of yourself, one of those special shadows that can morph into many different things – career-wise, it may fly high into the stratosphere or crawl away under a rock, depending on how much others see of themselves and of their known worlds in your depiction, and whether it gives them new insights.
But as the author, the insights you wrote into your future self are more interesting when you read it later on – so don’t pay too much attention when grumpy students/reviewers later describe it as ‘utter wank’ 😉 x