How to Attend A Book Launch

Yesterday I attended my first ever book launch.

The book in question — not my own, sadly! — was the dark political thriller The Washington Stratagem by Adam Lebor. (You may recall he ran the writing course I attended).

Having never been to a book launch before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What is the correct etiquette? Must you buy the book, or not? What do you wear? Will there be alcohol?

How to Attend A Book Launch

  • To buy, or not to buy?
    While authors would certainly like everyone attending to buy the book, I doubt they expect everyone to — particularly if you’re hard up on cash and/or not interested in the genre. Don’t feel pressured into buying: the important thing is to show your support in whatever way you can.

  • Bring friends!
    The venue will look at turnout for the event, and will be more likely to invite the author back if he/she can draw a crowd. Round up your friends and/or partner and/or dog and bring them along!
    (Yes, there was a dog at the event!)

  • Promote the author online
    Another way to show your support is to promote the event online. You can tweet or blog about it, and even set up a Goodreads event for the launch. Anything that will spread the word!

  • Don’t harass the author
    Book launches are like weddings: everyone wants a piece of the action. The author will want to circulate to greet attendees, so be respectful and don’t hog his/her time.

  • Enjoy yourself!
    What you wear doesn’t matter. Take the time to meet new people, listen to the author’s reading and get your book signed. It’s not every day that you can browse a bookshop with a glass of wine in your hand…

Do you have any other tips to add to the list?

* * *

The Washington Stratagem by Adam Lebor

Washington_Lebor Yael Azoulay, the U.N. covert negotiator, had to kill or be killed when she went rogue in Geneva. Now back in New York, she is tasked with meeting the man at the dark heart of the American military industrial complex. Yael soon discovers a chilling conspiracy that reaches to Iran…and a dark secret from her past. The endgame is a devastating new war in the Middle East. But the closer she comes to the truth, the more she exposes herself to powerful enemies who neither forgive, nor forget.

How To Handle Criticism

He glared at me and said, “Look how you’re dressed.”

I looked down and could see only what I had seen in the mirror that morning, the suit and shirt and tie that was customary for students at the time.

“Your suit is blue,” he said. “Your shirt is blue, your tie is blue. That’s what’s wrong with your writing.”

When my ordeal was over I slunk away from Goodman’s cubicle to rethink the sameness of my writing and to learn the value of variety. It took some time for me to learn the other lesson, that a writer, shy or not, needs a tough skin, for no matter how advanced one’s experience and career, expert criticism cuts to the quick, and one learns to endure and to perfect, if for no other reason than to challenge the pain-maker.

On Writing by Sol Stein

Effective criticism, however hard it is to take, will make you a better writer.

But how do you handle criticism — and how can you tell good feedback from bad?

  1. Detach
    Effective criticism is aimed at your story, not you. Don’t get defensive; stand back and evaluate the feedback logically.

  2. Experiment
    Criticism isn’t necessarily right or wrong, so it’s important to experiment with reader suggestions. It costs you nothing to make a copy of your story and tweak it as suggested. At worst, you’ll go back to the original version, but you may find you love the new version even more.

  3. Compare
    Criticism reveals a reader’s experience of your story. The more feedback you get, the better you’ll be able to sift through the comments and identify what is and isn’t working.

Dealing with criticism the right way will help your writing progress — so take a deep breath and learn to endure and to perfect, if for no other reason than to challenge the pain-maker.

How To Keep A Writer’s Notebook

I’ve previously written about the 7 benefits of keeping a writer’s notebook.

But how do you keep one? Should it be organised or a collection of scribbles? Should you separate prose from outlines, free writes from drafts?

The easiest answer is: do whatever feels right.

But I would argue that you should do whatever will best serve you later on — and that means pinpointing your needs to decide what kind of notebook you need.

A writer’s notebook is a tool; its aim is to help you with your writing. What kind of help do you need?

THE IDEAS NET
Perhaps you simply need a place to collect ideas. A place for quick lines of observation, description, snippets of scenes, character names and inspirational quotes.

There’s no structure to this kind of notebook–and no restrictions. You’ll browse through its contents at a later stage when you’re hungry for inspiration.

THE BRAIN DUMP
Julia Cameron promotes keeping morning pages — writing three stream of consciousness pages every morning to get the juices flowing. You may never use this content anywhere else; the aim is to get into the habit of writing and unblock your creativity.

If you want to increase productivity, this is the kind of notebook for you.

THE ONE-TRACK-MINDED
For Darksight, I’m keeping a project-specific notebook.

The beauty of a project-specific notebook is that is that it keeps me focused. I flip open to a page, and know that I can only write about ONE story. No procrastination allowed.

To keep myself organised, I’ve split the notebook into two halves.

The front half of the notebook contains outlines, character bios and family trees. (I’ve also seen other authors number the pages and leave space for an index, in order to easily find content as it builds up.)

The back half of my notebook is for snippets and scenes: pieces of prose as and when inspiration strikes.

Eventually the two halves will meet, but I love having all of my notes and reference points in the same notebook as my ideas, yet in some way organised too.

NONE OF THE ABOVE?
There are many more types of notebooks, from dream journals to diaries.

What kind of notebook do you keep? There is no right or wrong way – only what works for you and helps your writing.

The Importance of Proofreading

Everyone bangs on about the importance of proofreading. But why does it matter?

The most important part of an author’s job is to tell a brilliant, gripping, powerful story. No one cares about a few misplaced commas and typos! True readers can see past those minor niggles and appreciate the author’s storytelling genius… right?

Wrong.

The last couple of Kindle titles I’ve bought have contained mistakes – minor annoyances such as missing punctuation and the odd misspelled word. But every error is a distraction from the story.

An author’s job is not simply to tell a story, but to do that story justice.

How can you claim to have given your story every chance in life if you haven’t bothered to proofread it?

Everyone makes mistakes – even the big publishing houses. But indie authors have more at stake. The naysayers who think indie means unprofessional are still out there; don’t fan their flames.

So: Proofread your work. Read the story backwards paragraph by paragrah to sense check every line. (That’s my technique.)

Then get your friends/beta readers to read your work. If you can afford it, get a professional editor involved.

Whatever you do, don’t rely on MS Word’s farcical grammar/spell checker.

Once you accept that Microsoft did not invent grammar, it’s amazing how many mistakes you can find.

7 Benefits Of Keeping A Writer’s Notebook

“But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink.”
– Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

If I have been a quiet on the blog lately, it is because I’m focusing heart and soul on my next novel, Darksight.

The writing process for this project has been very different from my first novel, Above Ground, which ran as an online serial. I don’t have a weekly posting schedule to stick to. I don’t have readers debating the story’s progression.

It’s just me… and my new-found best friend: my notebook.

This is the first time I’ve kept a project-specific notebook, and I’ve come to realise that the physical process of writing is crucial to the development of a story.

I used to think that those who carried around fancy *coughmoleskincough* notebooks were pretentious. A part of me still does: I’m using a bog standard spiral-bound affair.

But my new companion has taught me that what exists in our minds is formless, mutable. Only when it has a physical permanence can we build upon it to take the story further.

Not convinced?

Seven Benefits to Keeping a Notebook

  1. Memory aid: Have you ever thought of something great, told yourself you’d write it later, only to find it has slipped away like a dream? Keep your notebook close and it’ll never happen again.

  2. Stimulate thought: Do policemen walk around without their uniforms? No! Well, you’re an author. Carrying a notebook means that a part of your mind is always subconsciously in writing mode, seeking new ideas.

  3. Evaluate progress: You can track your ideas as they develop over time, and remember how you ended up where you are now. Particularly useful for character development and back stories.

  4. Ask questions: Why does your protagonist hate chocolate? How did the submarine end up in the zoo? A notebook allows you to jot down questions – even if you don’t have the answer.

  5. Focus: Your mind can only handle so much at any one time. Dump all of your thoughts into your notebook, so you can pick and choose what to work on.

  6. Gain perspective: Having a notebook puts your ideas outside of your head. The separation will allow you to look at your thoughts from a different perspective, helping you spot flaws or plot holes.

  7. Solve problems: Sometimes your story isn’t quite working, and you can’t figure out why. Instead of moaning about it in your head, moan about it on PAPER! It’s therapeutic, and you may find the answer somewhere amidst the scribbles.

Do you keep a writing notebook? Why or why not?

The Power of Storytelling Part Three: The 7 Steps of Character Development

“If conflict drives drama, then what drives the character is inner conflict.” – Adam Lebor

In the first session of Adam Lebor’s storytelling course, we covered the the basic framework of a story, and how conflict is a key element to narrative drive.

Conflict, however, does not exist in isolation; it has an effect on and is affected by your characters. By understanding what drives your characters, you can bring the conflict — and therefore your story as a whole — to life.

In the second class we examined character development and the seven steps to creating a strong protagonist or antagonist. By exploring our characters’ backstories, we can understand their motivations and goals, and therefore make their actions more believable.

THE SEVEN STEPS OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

  1. Biography
    What’s in a name, you ask? Only cultural associations, and indications of a person’s background, education and ethnicity. Where and when were they born, what was their family like? All of these details will influence your character.

    I’ll be honest: I regret picking Lilith as a name for the protagonist of Above Ground. But it seemed fitting at the time since it conveyed a demonic aspect of herself related to leading men astray.

  2. Key events
    Certain moments in our lives shape the person we become. Maybe it was getting that lucky break and being forever grateful, or missing by a hair and becoming bitter and twisted. What moments define your character?

    Silver, the male protagonist of Above Ground, was abandoned by his parents as a child and brought up by a monastic wolf pack. The one time he let his guard down to love someone, she left too. Needless to say, he has serious trust issues.

  3. Inner conflict
    How have the key events in their life created inner conflict? Perhaps your character gets that lucky break, but thinks someone else deserved it more. They don’t want to give up what they have, but are insecure of being revealed as a fraud.

    Because of Silver’s childhood, he struggles to trust people. However, his bond with Lilith forces him to feel something towards her, and the dependency frightens him.

  4. Motivation
    What does the character want or need, and why? Character motivation is central to any story, and it is a good idea to ensure that your characters have a personal stake in what will unfold.

    Lilith’s main motivation is survival, which is a strong, personal want. But Silver’s motivations run deeper: he is driven by the need to help his ailing alpha, because if she dies, the entire werewolf pack will fall apart. Family ties are excellent tools to up the stakes for your character.

  5. Expert or everyman
    How does the character fit into the story? Are they an expert at their job, like Sherlock Holmes, and therefore driving the story? Or are they an everyman like Frodo, reacting to what is happening?

    I’d never seen this distinction spelled out before, but it offers food for thought. Lilith is an every(wo)man, Silver an expert. The type of character you choose will affect how they behave in the story.

  6. Plan of action
    How does the character plan to achieve his goals? Your character needs to make plans and take action to drive the story forward.

    A problem I had with the first draft of Above Ground was that Lilith was little more than a pawn being tossed around. When revising, I made her make decisions and find her own path — even if it often led her astray.

  7. Obstacles
    What is blocking the character from getting what they want, and how will they (try) to overcome them?

    While Lilith is battling werewolves and demons to stay alive, she also must overcome an second, inner obstacle: herself, and the realisation of who she really is. These external and internal obstacles make her life hell, but make the story that much more thrilling.

As someone who generally operates under the “make-it-up-as-I-go-along” technique, I found inventing character backstories surprisingly inspiring — particularly when exploring the key events and how they fuelled inner conflict.

Some authors write diaries for their characters, or letters between characters, to help further build their backstory. I found jotting down notes against each of the seven steps enough to get the ideas flowing.

What about you? What tricks do you use to get into your character’s head?

The Power of Storytelling Part Two: The Basic Framework of a Story

As mentioned, I’m attending a three-evening course on storytelling taught by Adam Lebor, a published author and journalist.

The first session examined creativity – and in particular, the key elements of a good story.

The session kicked off with us reading excerpts from our favourite books to get a feeling for different writing styles, as well as what draws us to particular tales. These excerpts were then used as a launching pad to discuss story structure.

THE BASIC FRAMEWORK OF A STORY

Adam Lebor has a tidy, memorable formula: COCR.

You may think I (almost) typed a rude word — in which case, go to the corner of your room and have a quiet giggle.

Immaturity aside, it stands for Conflict, Obstacle, Climax, Resolution.

These four elements are the key to narrative drive; they make your story compelling, addictive, and just generally awesome. If you are struggling with your WIP and the story seems flat, it could be missing one of these elements.

Let’s start with conflict.

In order to have conflict, you need a protagonist and an antagonist.

In my novel Above Ground, the protagonist is clearly Lilith. The antagonist, however, is not a particular individual but society at large: the hatred and separation between humans and those living above ground is the source of tension in the story.

So what’s Lilith’s obstacle?

What does Lilith want or need — and what’s stopping her from getting it?

Lilith wants to get home alive, and the dangers she faces are the obstacles preventing her from returning safely. As she surpasses each obstacle, a bigger one shows up, driving the story forward.

Here comes the climax!

At the climax, all the events in the story come to a head. It’s the turning point in the story, and often a key moment in the character arc. (More about character arcs next time.)

If you’re anything like me, the climax is one of your favourite bits to write.

In Above Ground, the climax is when Lilith is offered the chance to go home whilst having to confront who she really is. The self-realisation puts her main objective of getting home into question — and she has to decide where her priorities lie.

On to the resolution

How does the story end? How does the protagonist overcome the obstacles and where does he/she go next?

In Above Ground, Lilith reaches her new home. It is not the home she was aiming for at the beginning of the novel, but it’s a home that suits the person she has become.

Conflict. Obstacle. Climax. Resolution.

A simple yet effective framework to get the creative juices flowing.

NEXT TIME

The next session of Adam Lebor’s storytelling course will look at clarity, focusing on character development of both protagonists and antagonists. I’ll let you know how I get on.

In the meantime, what’s the COCR in your story?

The Power of Storytelling: Part One

Human beings are hard-wired to tell stories. From the first caveman recounting his adventures through grunts and signs to his fellows sitting around the campfire, to the literary pyrotechnics of a David Mitchell novel, storytelling touches something deep inside all of us.

These are the opening words to Adam Lebor‘s crash course on storytelling — a course I will be attending next week.

All my previous invitations to similar courses have come from aspiring writers who can only write when drinking coffee, facing east on a rainy Thursday afternoon. The thought of being stuck in a room of similarly impractical artistes fills me with dread.

Needless to say, I have never accepted an invitation.

This time is different: my company has organised this course as a form of “personal development”.

Across three sessions, Lebor will cover the narrative arc, key elements of a good story, narrative building techniques, and how to use storytelling in everyday and business life. Participants also have to write a short story to present to the rest of the class.

The first session — next Monday — will kick off the course by looking at creativity and narrative drive. I’ll report back with my findings.

Have you ever been to a writing course, and would you recommend it?

Adam Lebor is an author, journalist and teacher of creative writing. He has written eleven critically acclaimed books – three novels and eight non-fiction works – including The Geneva Option, Tower of Basel and City of Oranges. Two have been shortlisted for literary prizes, and his books have been published in fourteen languages, including Chinese and Hebrew.

UPDATE:
Part Two: The Basic Framework of a Story
Part Three: Character Development

Signs You’re Procrastinating

Procrastination affects the best of us — but how can you tell if you’re under its dreaded curse?

This post is for any writers seeking a diagnosis on their procrastination levels. If this sounds like you, please call a doctor immediately.

Are you procrastinating?

You sit at your desk to write, and then…

  1. You find yourself reading nail polish ingredients.
  2. You examine everything else on your desk except for your laptop and/or notebook.
  3. You realise the messiness of your desk is a distraction and tidy everything away.
  4. Making tea or coffee is all of a sudden essential.
  5. You may as well do the dishes while the kettle boils.
  6. You decide that now is the best time to clean your keyboard. With a toothpick.
  7. You finish your tea and make a sandwich.
  8. You look up the origin of sandwiches on Wikipedia.
  9. Twitter is somehow open despite a personal promise not to use social media.
  10. You spend several minutes reading a blog about procrastination.
  11. You write this post.

Oops… guilty as charged.

(Psst! I shall be without internet for a couple weeks, so if I don’t reply don’t get offended!)

Putting Pen To Paper

I come today with a statistic:

You will write a novel 50% faster using a computer, but will be 85% more likely to finish if you write longhand.

Here’s another one:

42% of statistics are invented.

Regardless of the evidence behind a statistic, their real beauty is in making us think. Do I actually write faster with a computer? Should I be considering writing longhand?

It turns out that I am far from the first to have these questions. I found a case study examining how people’s writing environment affects the way they write (via Livia Blackburne).

Participants were asked to write two reports, one on the computer, and one with pen and paper. They were given the same amount of time and preparation for each; all that changed was their writing implements.

The study observed that those writing on a computer took half the time and wrote 20% more. However, their writing style was more fragmented, with frequent pauses mid-sentence. Those writing with pen and paper would only pause between sentences or paragraphs, however their pauses were longer.

More interestingly (for me), revision methods differed between typers and writers: those using a computer made 80% of their revisions in the first draft, whereas the pen-pushers only made 50%.

If you write with pen and paper, you’ll spend less time fussing over the first draft and just get on with it.

Yes, you’ll have to do more revision later on. But coming from someone who’s struggling to get a first draft finished, the old tools of the trade are starting to look oh-so-appealing.

Who knew that the infernal inner editor I’ve mentioned before could be put off so easily? You can’t easily move paragraphs around on a piece of paper, and the inner editor is far too lazy to get involved.

What are you waiting for? Let’s put pen to paper.