Martin Amis passes away, aged 73. A poignant moment and one that causes some reflection. After all, I am the same age :-). Martin grew up with well-established writers in both his parents; I was fortunate to have a father who loved writing, taught creative writing, and had his short stories published. Anyway, back to Martin.
In the prelude to his new autobiographical novel, “Inside Story,” acclaimed writer Martin Amis shares an anecdote about speaking at an assembly at his daughter’s school. When he asked the adolescent audience how many of them wanted to become writers, he said nearly two thirds of the room raised their hands.
Amis wasn’t surprised at all by this. Amis believes a desire to write is innate in almost all of us, especially at that young age.
“I think that the urge to write is almost universal,” he said. “I think it is something that naturally coincides with adolescence. This desire you have to commune with yourself, and to take notes, and to write poems, that comes upon us when we become articulate in this new sense when we’re adolescent.”
The subtitle of Amis’ book is “How To Write” and he’s turned the structure of “Inside Story” into something akin to a literary mixtape.
When asked why he decided to go about putting the book together this way, Amis offers another lesson by gently admonishing that “why” is the wrong question to ask a writer. “‘Why?’ did you decide is usually the wrong verb, because in writing you make dozens of little decisions every page, but the big decisions are subconscious. They emerge with the force of instinct and not from the front of the brain, but from the back,” Amis said.
Simile (noun): a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more vivid.
If we drop the “as” or “like” then we get a metaphor. Here are a few similes from my latest novel (feedback welcome):
- Harpoon rose like a surfer lifted by a growing swell and landed hard on the decking
- The question hung like a rotting fish, and none of the sailors dared touch it.
- Squid felt his anger rising like a king tide.
He seemed built as tall as he was wide, yet he could swing his compact frame through the passageways like a reef fish.
It was Doc, flapping her arms like an albatross during lift-off.
When the tapping pauses, he pounces like a car salesman, arriving with iced water and breadsticks.
Jutting into the Western Mediterranean like an overgrown toenail is the tiny nation of Gibraltar.
IMAGINATION IS THE SPARK that ignites a writer, and imagination incubates in the joys and sorrows of life. Imagination is loved by readers, who are taken to new locations, fresh relationships, and exciting discoveries.
My recent imagination-escape was an enjoyable reading of A Gentleman in Moscow, which begins when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is unceremoniously sentenced to life imprisonment in Moscow’s Metropol hotel. His prison is a rich environment for his imagination and I was drawn as much to the workings of the hotel as the interactions between the Count and his many visitors.
Hello again. I was discussing some of the presentations at a recent writers conference with a good friend who attended. He brought up the notion of perfection in writing vs excellence. The aim was to have writers concentrate on excellence and not try to be perfectionists. Writers should feel safe to make mistakes and be innovative. Which then begs the question, what is excellence in writing? I’m not a 100% sure myself. Some say it’s the point where you cannot improve on the story, plot, characters, etc. I agree, but I’m going to stick my writer’s neck out and also suggest that the manuscript being submitted needs to be free of obvious errors, grammatical mistakes, etc. If it isn’t it will be a turn-off for any literary agent or, in the case of self-published work, a negative experience for the reader.
I value my Beta Readers. Like gold, they shine bright and their feedback is invaluable. A keen reader of thrillers – who has devoured over 30 books this year so far – has just finished my book. He was tasked with general feedback, rather than detailed analysis. The golden nugget for me was his comment that he felt the story only got flowing with the submarine action. This got me thinking about the sequence of chapters and made me realise that I could bring the underwater action forward. After some heavy cut-and-paste, this action now begins at Chapter 3 and the story is better paced and more engaging. My reader made a few other passing comments which has led to further tweaks and a better novel. This one made me smile;
“I had a feeling that the story was going to end with a twist and it was a good one.”
Conclusion? Beta Readers are like gold!
Here is an easy guide for Beta Readers:
- Identify characters who are not engaging so I can strengthen or remove them.
- Identify anything that’s confusing (chapters, paragraphs, or dialog).
- Evaluate Plot and Pace: was the book a “good read” that kept you engaged and wanting more? If not, what parts lacked engagement?
- Finally, the ending: was it OK? Unexpected? Can you think of a better one?
- Would you tell your friends about this book after having read it?
Edit 101: A great technique that I have found useful for reviewing my work (after the basic spelling, grammar and sentence lengths, etc.) is to read through a chapter–>research on areas lacking detail and then–>rewrite. Let’s take an example from the 2nd to last chapter in my new book:
I gaze at my surroundings, soaking in the ambience. Beyond the pool and a sixty-foot yacht, sparkling blue water laps the high walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, a bastion protecting us from prying eyes. Rows of olive and citrus trees flood the bank behind us, and the gardener waves when he spots me.
After a short google on “fruit trees in Dubrovnik” my rewrite looked like this:
I gaze at my surroundings, soaking in the ambience. A classic sixty-foot yacht lies tied alongside the pier and, beyond, sparkling blue water wraps the high walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town, protecting us from prying eyes. Rows of olive, apple and citrus trees flood the bank behind us, and a gardener waves when he spots me. He’s gathering bitter oranges from laden branches with a grin as bright as the day.
Notes: a later reference to the yacht required more detail earlier, hence the rearranging and greater emphasis in the second version. The gardener needed a more solid platform, rather than a passing mention.
There you have a minor, but important revision tool
There’s an old Chinese proverb that says “if you chase two rabbits, both will escape”. What a wonderful proverb and it fitted perfectly into my new book.
I recently had a request from an agent for my full manuscript. You can imagine the excitement in our household after four years of punching out, and editing, the 101,000 words. This momentous occasion was a cause for some celebration but, some four weeks later, was followed up with this email;
Thank you for sending the manuscript for [new book name here]. I’m sorry to say that, after further consideration, I have concluded that it is not quite the right fit for me. This of course reflects less on the quality of your submission and more on my own personal tastes. Thank you for considering me this time and if you do not find an agent for this book, please remember to try me again with any future projects.
How did I feel? Gutted and dismayed that my book fell short, and somewhat disappointed that I did not receive more helpful detail from the agent. That resulted in a long lull in my writing and my enthusiasm to write died. But, a few weeks later, I am more determined than ever to take my book “up a notch” for readers (see earlier post) and for my future agent. The difficulty is how to do this. My first step was to send the manuscript out to two readers who I trust to be honest and ask for their feedback. While I await their responses I am taking a brutally honest look at the plot and flow, especially in the early chapters. The Synopsis is also on the chopping block.
Jennieke Cohen (Dangerous Alliance) makes a worthy statement:
“It’s so simple to let rejections take their toll, but we have to keep dusting ourselves off. After all, if you keep your work to yourself, your chance of anyone liking it is nil, whereas submitting could lead to something great. I’ll take slim odds over none any day of the week. And if you are professional and send your materials to enough people, hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to find the person who loves your work as much as you do!”
In essence, reject those rejection thoughts and believe in your story and those beta readers who love it too. Don’t keep a great story to yourself. Keep up the worth challenge to impress a literary agent with the best manuscript that time and energy can polish until it shines bright enough to catch their eye (and their heart).