What’s your USP?

So ‘novice crime writer’ Robert Galbraith is revealed in yesterday’s Sunday Times to be the phenomenally successful author, JK Rowling.

One or two publishing houses are nursing their wounds having rejected the manuscript for the now critically acclaimed The Cuckoo’s Calling.  According to yesterday’s Telegraph, Kate Mills, publishing director of Orion bravely admitted she had thought the work ‘perfectly decent, but quiet’ and confessed she could not find a unique selling-point with which to market it.

It must be hard enough to launch a new author, with no public profile and no track record.  Without a compelling USP, it’s easy to understand why a publisher would not be inspired to invest their time, effort and resources, especially in a crowded genre such as crime.

I’m a writer with ambitions to be the next critically acclaimed debut novelist. Assuming I don’t have a gold-etched multi-million dollar alter ego tucked in my back pocket (I haven’t), my first novel needs to stand out in other ways.  More of the same, just like this writer or that book already on the shelves, won’t be enough to get a debut novelist off the ground.  Marketing and selling – whatever the product – is all about the USPs.  Uniques give the publisher something tangible to promote and give the reader a reason to take a risk on an unknown author.

I set out to write the sort of book I enjoy reading, but rarely find.  My (almost finished) work-in-progress is a slow-burning psychological drama with the sun shining on its face, but a dark heart and tension running through its veins.  I’d say it has one or two significant USPs for a publisher to go to work on.  It’s a book I’d take a risk on if I saw it on the 3-for-2 table at Waterstones, particularly if I was going off on holiday. (There – that’s all the clue you’re getting.)

I have 105,000 words to show for two years’ worth of evenings and weekends and I’m editing, editing, editing; tightening the writing, balancing the rhythm of the plot, ensuring my characters are consistent and credible and my landscape sensual and evocative.  If I stay on track, it’ll be out on the wind by October, in search of an agent to help it on its way to the publishing houses.

Then, when a publisher like Orion reads my first novel for the first time I’ll be hoping they feel a rush of blood to the head as they realise they have their hands on something different and exciting – and marketable; something they won’t want slipping through their fingers.

Colouring-in the Matchstick Men

One issue which has recently emerged in my mentoring sessions is that of giving substance to background characters.

You have your main/leading characters and you have your supporting cast, and these obviously need authentic personalities and strong voices.  But around these people swirls a universe of beings whose job it is to add realism to the backdrop of a story.  They are people in the street, diners in a restaurant, classmates, neighbours, fellow passengers, shop assistants, colleagues and more – in fact anybody not central to the story.

Without a little colouring-in, these characters are simply shadows or matchstick men, and the credibility of the world the lead characters inhabit diminishes as a result.

My mentor pointed me to ‘Songdogs’ by Irish author Colum McCann as being an excellent point of reference for well-drawn background characters.  It’s a beautifully written story, lyrical and authentic and I found many examples to learn from.  The multitude of background characters within its pages are brought to life in just a line or two.  These are thumbnail portraits highlighting a defining feature here, a tone of voice there, a smell, a style of dress, a colour, a habit, a posture, a possession. Together they enrich the reader’s vision of the world the protagonist wanders through.

So that’s another thing I’ve added to my near-infinite list of edits – colouring in the background characters.

Not long to go now, before I get stuck into those edits.  I’m only 10,000 words or so away from The End of my first draft.

More is More

As a professional copywriter, I’m often required to write to a word count to fit a defined space in a  web site, brochure or e-communication. I find the best approach is to write what feels necessary to convey the message and then sharpen and sharpen, finding more powerful words to replace flabby phrases, cutting out unnecessary ones and so on, until I arrive back at the designated word count.

I hear it’s not that different when editing your novel’s first draft. Some people say you should expect to cut at least 10% of your word count simply by eliminating superfluous adverbs, finding more concise phrasing and crossing through all the redundant and’s, but’s, that’s and was-ings. That’s never mind what you do to improve the narrative itself.

I look forward to it – mainly because it will feel like an amazing achievement simply to have reached the second-draft stage. For the time being, I’m still on my first draft. And here, encouraged by my esteemed mentor, the job is very different. ‘What else?’ she asks. What else? What can I ADD to enhance the scene, show another facet of my character’s state of mind, deepen the experience and immerse the reader more thoroughly in the time and place and space? ‘Stay here for longer,’ she says. ‘Let the reader into this scene,’ and ‘I want more of this’. I think, I must be doing something right – and that’s encouraging – but it’s not quite right enough.

It’s a challenge to this neophyte, would-be novelist, still flexing and connecting creative synapses and discovering what it means to move beyond fact and marketing-speak into storytelling and imagination. I’ve written WHAT ELSE? on a card and fixed it to my PC monitor. From now on, every scene, every piece of dialogue, every paragraph will get the question, WHAT ELSE? That is, until it comes time for the second draft massacre, when I guess the question will be what else can I delete. . . ?

Not-so-perfect tenses

Another month, another mentoring session.  This time, it was all about verb tenses – and the tension and immediacy they either deliver or dilute.

I last had to think about tenses a very long time ago, when I occupied a grainy and much carved-upon school desk. That was back in the day when, if you weren’t concentrating, the teacher could still get away with firing a blackboard rubber or a piece of chalk at your skull.  Even then, when called upon to ‘parse the following sentence’ I could rarely get beyond locating nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Ask me which tense the sentence was written in, and with anything beyond simple present and simple past, my otherwise capable brain would throw its metaphorical hands in the air and surrender.

My mentor cast a spotlight on three tenses which weaken my narrative.    Until she showed me what I’d been doing, I hadn’t seen it.  In case you’re hobbled by the same grammatical blind-spot as I am, here they are:

Past perfect:

  • Examples – he had studied in London; she had waited for some time

Past continuous:

  • Examples – he was browsing the internet when I rang; she was waiting for me when I got off the plane

Past perfect continuous:

  • They had been chatting for several minutes before I arrived; he had been standing at the bar for the last hour when the police arrived

I’m not going to blather on about how and why each tense is used – there are numerous resources on the internet for that.  The point my mentor was making was that for my narrative to have the most impact, the reader has to be there for the action.  They don’t need to be held at arm’s length, or told what has happened backstage, as it were; they need to see the story unfolding in front of them.

Thus:

The girl’s hands were trembling becomes The girl’s hands trembled

Most of the guests had come down for dinner becomes One by one the guests came down for dinner

And what about this clunker:

Henry had hung back. Whilst everybody else had crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he had taken up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer.

Modified only slightly, it has a more immediate feel:

Henry hung back.  Whilst everybody else crowded the table, anxious to be in the centre of things, he took up a position on a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered himself a beer. 

The impact that choice of tense has on a narrative seems obvious once it’s pointed  out; but I guess that’s what being a neophyte is about – and I love the learning.  Now the burden is on me to go back through my 45,000 or so words and make sure she doesn’t catch me out again.

Reading and learning

I’m soaking up everything I can find on writing fiction at the moment. OK, that’s not strictly true. There is far more written than I can possibly find the time or energy to read, especially if I want to find some time and energy for… writing. Apparently, much of it is of questionable quality too, so I’m told. But here are a few books I’ve already found helpful:

  • The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M Bickham. Good advice, practical and entertaining at the same time.
  • Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. I’m glad I waded through the impenetrable first half of this much recommended book, because the second half turned out to have some very sound advice.
  • Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff. Easy to digest and good advice from the perspective of a writers’ coach.
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Advice on technique from a Master, combined with fascinating biographical insights. A must-read, whatever your preferred genre.
  • Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress. Very usable advice, particularly on two major stumbling-blocks for new authors – showing-not-telling and choosing your POVs wisely.

I’m also now reading fiction that doesn’t immediately appeal to me as being “my sort of book”, watching for technique and writerly skills as well as the pleasure of a good story, well told. And on a cold and soggy Sunday and I can think of no better way to pass a few hours than to make a comfortable nest on my sofa, line up a mug of coffee and a biscuit and stick my head in a book.