Rich Hall Comedian – Interview – Writing & what you should NEVER do with a good idea

Rich Hall is one of my favourite comedians. Alongside stand-up he’s a firm fixture on TV panels shows, especially QI. In 2000 he won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in the guise of his country singing ex-con uncle Otis Lee Crenshaw.  This week I was lucky enough to see him live where he combined comedy and music in a show that was so funny my stomach muscles still ache from laughing.  During the first half he talked in his trademark drawl, taking an interest in the audience, randomly asking people where they were from, how long they’d been married and what they did for a living.  The second half kicked off with Rich singing a song based around an audience member’s life. I was utterly in awe of how quickly he’d pulled the song together over the interval and my writer mind instantly questioned, how had he done it? As time marched on he sang song after song using new information about different people and I knew these hadn’t been pre-written. How did he, seemingly easily, come up with ideas.

At the end of the show I asked if I could ask Rich directly and blog about his process. Thankfully he said yes.

Rich, I’m in awe of the way you put songs together so effortlessly tonight.

Thanks it’s not always as effortless as it appears.

I thought you’d used the interval to write the first song you sang in the second half but then you carried on singing about audience members. You must make them up on the spot?

Not entirely. The interval helps, trust me. In the interval I’ve got a bit of information to work with. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with it but at least I know. I knew that guy drove a mini metro and I could think about it.  I guess it’s a little like you planning books?

I tend to wing it!

Hehe I wing it too but even then I’m thinking ahead wondering what could come next. Sometimes shows are shorter without an interval and then the pressure’s really on but some writer’s work better under pressure. You one of those?

God no! I don’t like too much pressure but I’m beginning to think I’m better with a deadline of some sort. I don’t have one at the moment.

 Yeah sometimes it stems creativity having to produce something. It sucks the life out of it. But sometimes you need that kick up the arse.

A couple of the songs you sang tonight I’d heard before. How do you approach song writing?

Often I work on the structure first and then I sit and teach the band – here’s what I want you to play – then we’ve got a good feel for it and I fill in the words. It comes easier with experience. Writing is writing whatever it is. Practice definitely helps.

 How long have you been writing?

Thirty five years now. I studied journalism at college and then went to work for the Seattle newspaper writing columns. I hated it. I’d always wanted to be a comedian. One day I just decided to go for it.

It’s not only jokes and songs you write is it?

No there’s plays, books and documentaries. All sorts.

Do you write on the road? Are you structured with your approach?

If inspiration hits I’ll write. I split my time between the UK and my ranch in Montana and I tend to do a lot of writing there.

Do you have any rituals?

I wish I did. I wish it was like a tap that I could do something and it would come. Sometimes I get really stuck, don’t you?

I do but I tend to only work on one project at a time so I have to work through it somehow. What do you do?

 I walk away. Writing’s pretty much the same, jokes, stories, whatever and sometimes you have to walk away from it.

If you could give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?

When you get an idea you know in your gut if it’s a good one and if it is don’t beat it into the ground. If it doesn’t flow and you force yourself to keep working on it you lose confidence in the idea and it becomes old. You’re a writer, Louise. You know what I’m talking about?

Absolutely. I’ve had to put the manuscript for my latest novel, The Date, away so many times because it wasn’t coming and I knew it was too good an idea to let go.

Yeah that’s the thing. You give something space and it could be good.  If you’re sick of thinking about it let it go for a while. That’s what I learned. I was very frustrated when I started out because I thought I had to sit and work on something until it was finished.  Sometimes you’ve got to mix it up. What gets you through the hump?

A mixture of pure panic, cheese and too much wine.

Hehe, I might try that!

It’s been lovely talking to you Rich. Thanks so much for your time.

It’s been a pleasure.

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Writing – Using the senses to make your scene sing

There was much excitement when my lovely friend Emma sent me a huge box of retro sweets for my birthday. 10am Saturday morning found my husband and I in bed, dipping liquorice into sherbet, reminiscing about our childhood. Instantly I was transported to the time my childhood best friend Clare and I would rush to the shop at the end of my street clutching shiny ten pence pieces. We’d deliberate long and hard. Should we buy chocolate mice at two for a penny or black jacks which tasted delicious and kept us amused for hours as they stained our tongues and teeth.

At the sight of the love hearts lipstick, the taste of Parma violets, the smell of sherbet lemons I was seven again. The long summer holidays stretching endlessly before me as we rode our bikes under a clear blue sky and shimmering sun. 

Bringing senses into a story is guaranteed to make your scene sing. Whether it’s creating nostalgia or a creepy atmosphere, you want to set your reader firmly in the story. While the first draft is often focused on getting words down, the edit is the perfect time to pause. Put yourself in your characters shoes. What can they hear, see, taste, touch, smell?

Often when I’m out I’m observing my environment. What shade is the sky? How does the wind feel on my skin? What sound does the rain make? Small things I can use in my stories, and often the small details can make the biggest difference. The longer I spend being in the moment. Watching. Listening. The less time I spend staring at a screen. My mobile remains in my pocket and I feel infinitely more creative.

What colour is your sky today?

Novel writing 1st draft – When the end is also the beginning

Today, I typed two words on my fourth manuscript. The two words that are often the most exciting to write. The End. Although it’s only a first draft, the relief I feel is immense but it’s also mixed with a nervousness, and if I’m honest, a little sadness.

Relief, because despite the success of my first three books the self-doubt has never completely gone away. The little voice whispering I won’t be able to do it again. This book has been such a hard write, and a long time in the making, started and abandoned twice, and there were times when I absolutely believed that voice and almost, almost gave up.

Nerves, because this is when it goes over to my agent and publisher for their feedback. This psychological thriller comes from a different angle and I’m hoping it’s one they will like. It’s also pacier, darker and more emotive than my first other books, although I hope it still retains the same feel.

Sadness, because again, I’ve become ridiculously attached to my main character, Ali and in a way this feels like letting her go. She’s been through such a lot in her life (and in my story!) and after spending 8 hours a day with her for almost a year I am already feeling lost without her.

I remind myself that this is not the end, this is the beginning and it’s the next part of the process I enjoy the most. The editing, the shaping of the story, polishing the language. It will be interesting to see, when the edits come back, how they compare to my previous books. I feel I’ve learned so much working with an editor and I’ve tried to put it all into practice. I shall let you know shortly as well as sharing the tips I have picked up along the way.

 

Diamonds & Dust #FlashFiction

Image courtesy of Roger Bultot

 

Nothing. I’ve nothing except dust and junk. Mama’s attic virtually bare now. Opening the last box, I’m hit by colour and memories as vibrant as the shimmering material I find myself clutching to my chest, which aches with longing.

‘Do you have to go?’ I’d asked.

‘It’s how we’ll make our fortune.’ Mama kissed my nose as she set off for another long shift, sewing clothes for the ungrateful jewellery maker’s wife.

I lift the dress to the light. It’s heavy. Surely too heavy? The sparkles too bright to be fake?

I remember the headline ‘Missing diamond mystery.’

Perhaps I have something after all.

 

Happy New Year! Tomorrow, Thursday 4th January, at 19.30 GMT I’m live on the Facebook Group Crime Book Club, answering questions about writing, publishing and books as well as discussing my latest novel, The Surrogate. Whether you’re a reader or writer do pop over and join me if you can. You’ll need to join the group first here.

Diamonds & Dust was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 words story challenge inspired by a photo prompt and hosted by Rochelle. You can read the other entries here

Hook an Agent Part III – The dreaded synopsis…

 

In Part I of my ‘Hook an Agent’ series I shared my submission letter for The Sister which you can read here. In Part II, here, Literary Agent Rory Scarfe told us ‘Never let your ideas be ordinary.’ We’ll skim over the part where my teenage son now thinks that’s a fabulous quote to get tattooed on his arm and move swiftly on to nailing that synopsis, often the most feared part of the submission package.

Today I’m joined by the utterly fabulous Rowan Lawton, from the dynamic Furniss Lawton, who will share her top 3 tips to bear in mind when writing that synopsis.

1) Know the difference between a pitch blurb and a synopsis.

There is a big difference between writing a blurb for your pitch letter and putting together a synopsis. Your synopsis should be a plainly written description of specifics – what actually happens in your novel. There is no rule about length but I’d advise sticking to a couple of pages at most.

Approach the blurb as though you are writing your own jacket copy for the finished, printed version. Imagine your book on the shelf in a bookshop and what elements of your story would entice someone to choose your novel over another.

2) Do give away the ending in your synopsis.

When an agent is reading your synopsis they want to see how it’s all going to come together at the end. Will it be a satisfying read? Is the plot convincing? We get so many submissions that we often want to know how a story is going to end before we commit to reading a whole manuscript.

3) Don’t try to make claims about the themes of your novel in the synopsis.

This advice applies to your cover letter and blurb too, apart from possibly a line or two right at the end. I want to know who your main characters are, what is going to happen to them and where the action is going to take place, much more than I want to hear generalisations about themes. ‘This is an epic love story exploring themes of loss, human connection and forgiveness’ tells me nothing about what’s actually going to happen the book I’m about to read!

Fabulous advice Rowan, thanks.

Now I’ve pondered how to share my synopsis for The Sister (submitted as Buried Memories), as I did my covering letter, and have been advised not to as it would ruin the book for those who have yet to read. I will however share my opening so you get the general idea without giving away spoilers. For me, it only came together firstly, when I was able to put aside the rich, descriptive language I love to use when I write and keep it very basic and to the point. Secondly, I had to stop viewing it as an enemy. The synopsis is a friend we use to demonstrate the plot hangs together and an epic love story doesn’t suddenly fall apart when aliens randomly appear in chapter 43 and in the epilogue it turns out it was all a dream anyway.

 

‘BURIED MEMORIES’ is a domestic noir story featuring Grace Matthews, an anxious 25-year old woman who is devastated by her best friend Charlie (Charlotte) Fisher’s death and can’t understand why Charlie’s Mum, Lexie Fisher, would blame her. She feels until she discovers the meaning behind Charlie’s last words ‘I’ve done something terrible, Grace, please forgive me,’ she can’t move forward.

Struggling to know where to start unravelling the mystery Grace remembers a memory box she and Charlie buried as teenagers and digs it up. Grace realises that Charlie’s biological father might know what Charlie did and decides to trace him. During the search Grace is followed by a mysterious figure and becomes paranoid and dependent on medication.

Dan, Grace’s boyfriend agrees to help find Charlie’s father even though he’s struggled to cope with Grace’s misplaced sense of guilt, and erratic behaviour, since Charlie’s death. They begin an online campaign and Anna comes forward. Anna tells Grace she is Charlie’s half-sister and that their shared father is deceased. Lonely Grace seizes the chance to form a bond with Anna, keeping a link to Charlie. Without checking her out Grace readily agrees when Anna asks if she can stay for a few days…

 

I do hope that was useful. Take a deep breath, remember to stick to the submission guidelines (the synopsis might need to be anything from 300 words to one or two pages).

You’ve got this. Good luck!

For the final instalment we’ll be joined next time by Eugenie Furniss who’ll give her advice for tightening those all important first three chapters.

 

The day before publication – Why The Surrogate was never meant to see the light of day…

Tomorrow my third novel, The Surrogate, will be released and I can’t express just quite how excited I am about this story.

The Surrogate was never intended to be my third book. I’d written the opening chapters of a dark and twisted tale that was going to be book three and sent it over to my agent and editor to see what they thought. While I was waiting for feedback I had to go to the doctors. Flicking through their dog-eared magazine a photo caught my eye. A beaming couple holding a baby, with a lady lovingly looking on. In this case the surrogacy worked out really well but my writer mind started whirring. What if the surrogacy hadn’t gone according to plan, and even worse, what if the surrogate was an old friend with a hidden grudge?

By the time I’d driven home Kat and Lisa were fighting to be heard so I opened up a blank document to write some notes as a potential surrogacy storyline but never intending it so see the light of day for at least a couple of years as I’d already had an idea I was excited about for book 4. Later that week my feedback arrived, my publishers loved the original idea I’d sent them over for book 3 but by then I knew Kat and Lisa wouldn’t rest until I’d told their story and I couldn’t tear myself away until I knew the conclusion.

Kat and Lisa are the most complex characters I’ve ever written and this is the most layered plot that surprisingly (to me!) evolved very naturally. It’s full of twists, is emotional, with an ending that made me gasp and I can’t wait until release day tomorrow to get it into the hands of readers.

Early reviews have been phenomenal. Book reviewers are calling it my best story yet and one of the best thrillers of 2017 so far.

You can pre-order The Surrogate over on Amazon here so it will arrive in your chosen format (eBook, paperback or audio) for publication day tomorrow.

Please join me tomorrow evening at 7pm GMT over on Bookouture’s Facebook page here where I’ll be taking part in a live Q & A chat with Kim Nash, the Marketing Manager of Bookouture Publishers where we’ll be talking about books, the writing process and getting published.

Hope to see you there. Louise X

 

Writing Diverse Characters – Book Review

 

Writing Diverse Characters for Fiction, TV or Film is the third ‘How to…’ book by Lucy V Hay. Lucy is an editor and script reader with impressive credentials and I couldn’t wait to read this book.

Before I dived in, I looked up the definition of diversity in my Collin’s English dictionary “the quality of being different or varied.” As a disabled writer I was interested to find out what groups Lucy would cover in this book, after all my ‘normal’ is someone else’s ‘different.’ If I were a character in a book I guess I’d be classed as diverse and that initially made me a little uncomfortable but Lucy begins by saying we need diverse stories to actively change society and break down barriers and I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t believe a writer has to necessarily have experienced what they are writing about but creating a diverse character takes time and research. Lucy points out that the characters ‘difference’ does not have to drive the story and shouldn’t be used in a stereotypical way, i.e. a disabled person, depressed, alone and unable to cope. In other words although the character’s difference should have some relevance to the story and the way they live (everything featured in a book should earn its place and have a purpose) characters still need to be fresh and authentic.

Recently, social media has really shone a spotlight on diversity. Readers and movie watchers feeding back to the creators what they like and don’t like regarding plot and characters. With the current popularity of psychological thrillers, particularly female ‘unreliable narrators’ mental health issues are featuring more and more. This bucks the trend of historically main characters being male, white, straight and able bodied. But it’s important these diverse characters emerging don’t become ‘tick box’ created as it were. So does this book help?

Lucy mainly focuses on race, colour, disability and sexuality and it quickly becomes apparent she has done a LOT of research. There are references throughout to both novels and films which make her thoughts really relatable with specific examples frequently given. Lucy has also included quotes from a selection of those in the industry including agents and novelists. Helpfully Lucy also shares the common themes and characters she comes across day to day in scripts and how to think outside the box, suggesting ways to flip those ideas so they become a little less run of the mill.

There are sections in the book covering protagonist goals, character growth and supporting characters and how to research, and Lucy also shares what agents, publishers, producers and filmmakers are looking for – and why.

Lucy doesn’t give you a magic formula for creating diverse characters – there isn’t one – but what she offers is a well researched, thought provoking and concise book which will give you much to ponder on whether you’re a seasoned script writer or a new novelist. This is a valuable addition to my writing library and I’m sure it’s something I’ll be dipping in and out of for years to come.

Lucy V. Hay is a novelist, script editor and script reader. She is one of the founding organizers of the London Screenwriters’ Festival, associate producer of the 2012 film Deviation, and the author of Writing and Selling Drama Screenplays and Writing and Selling Thriller Screenplays. Lucy has read for a variety of production companies, funding initiatives and screen agencies as well as individual directors and producers with her Bang2write script consultancy.

You can buy Lucy’s books on Amazon UK here and Amazon US here.