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Novel Writing: Characters, First/Third Person, Slang, Adaptation, Self Publishing

Many thanks to the Bang2writers who sent in these questions via Twitter, email and Facebook over the last two weeks regarding actual novel writing and its side interests, such as adaptation.

Jennie asks: How many characters “should” be in a novel?

In direct contrast to screenwriting, novels can have as many characters as they want. Novels don’t even have to stay with the same protagonist; they don’t necessarily need an antagonist; they can have a huge cast of characters to focus on; they can have an unreliable narrator – YOU NAME IT. This is the freeing – and often very daunting – element of novel writing. To be honest, I’m not even sure how many I used in MY novel, I never counted. Probably about ten main characters (my protagonist has FIVE sisters for starters!) and about thirty or forty supporting characters. Really, as many as that!

So, in answer – you use as many as is BEST for the story. Yay! And ARGH.

Lucy-Jo Asks: Which should I use – first person (“I”) or third person (“She/The/They”)?

I’d let your book idea and its place in the market lead you on this … eg. Is it YA Fiction or Historical Romance? For example, YA fiction *generally* uses the first person whilst Historical Romance *generally* uses the third person. As always, make sure you do your research. If however you feel CERTAIN your book would do better in first person or third, then go with it, because there are always exceptions. Do recognise though whether it’s just because YOU prefer one over the other though, don’t be afraid of the hard work.

I want to use slang in my work, but have been advised not to or to only use it sparingly else it will “date the work”. Should I?

Two different Bang2writers emailed in with this question – Hi Jason and Fiona – and funnily enough, I was talking about this on Script Advice Writers Room at the weekend, too! In contrast to most people it seems, I DON’T think slang should be used sparingly. When I think of all the books and plays and films I love with slang, one thing really stands out – USE OF LANGUAGE. When done well (and why wouldn’t you do it well? It’s part of the craft like anything else), slang can be really satisfying and really impressive. Think of the work of Irvine Welsh, Roddy Doyle, the fantastic ATTACK THE BLOCK and yes, even SHAKESPEARE! Where would they be without their slang? Does it “date” the work? Does it hell. And even if it did, slang words are so often cyclical, they come round anyway … Check out the word “sick” meaning “good”. I used it as a child … then there seemed to be a noticeable break (at least where I lived) … and now I hear the Male Spawn using it. That’s just ONE example. John Rattue on Twitter made the good point A CLOCKWORK ORANGE uses the supposedly dated graffiti “IF IT FEELS GOOD DO IT”, yet I haven’t a clue why this is “out of date” ‘cos it’s before “my time”, which really illustrates my point that using “obscure” things really doesn’t matter. When it comes to slang then, it’s really not a big deal WHAT word you use because context gives meaning AND more often than not, HOW characters speak is more important than WHAT they actually say … Let’s go back to ATTACK THE BLOCK and its use of the classic teenspeak “you get me”. Who on earth CAN’T GET that??? Yet it’s authentic.

So – in answer: YES! PLEASE use slang! Hardly anyone does … And it’s a great way of standing out. You get me?? ☺


Edwin asks the following three questions:

How long is it before a book is available in the public domain to adapt?

In the UK, it’s the author’s lifetime plus seventy years. This means during this time you must pay to adapt it into a screenplay. It’s different in different countries however. Here is a post I wrote previously on this subject.

How do I buy the rights/option a book?

I’ve never done this, but as I understand it you (or your agent) talk to the author (and/or his/her agent AND publisher) to agree a price. Generally it’s the same in the case of free options and/or collaborations with novelists, too. That’s the simple bit. Who-gets-what in the event of the script selling/making a profit is much more complicated I would imagine – and needs deciding in advance, too.

If a book is very obscure, does this make the option more expensive?

Actually, as I understand it, the more obscure the book is, the LESS expensive it is to option. As far as I can see, the more of a bestseller a book is, the more people want it, the more it drives the price up. Some books are considered to have SUCH hit value, the book’s movie rights have sold before it’s even been published.

Self publishing

David asks: What does a publisher do for your book, that self publishing doesn’t?

David has a point: if you’re canny, have a PR strategy and a book with a proper target audience/an excellent hook to sell, you could well take all the revenue for yourself, rather than bother with publishers, agents and so on. We’ve all seen good examples of this, such as 50 Shades of Grey or the work of Amanda Hocking. And it’s never been easier to self publish via the Kindle and Kobo and print on demand services like Lulu and Smashwords. Just a short while ago self publishers were forced to sell their printed books at craft fairs and festivals; my Mum, a jewellery maker, saw them all the time. Now those same self publishers have access to a GLOBAL MARKET.

BUT – (there’s always a but) …

… Let me interrupt myself first. It’s important to note I am not anti-self publishing. I have lots of admiration for self-pubbers out there, I have many in the Bang2writers stable and I’ve bought and read many self-published books myself.

But back to that BUT then …

… Despite the many GREAT examples of self publishing, there is a LOT of bad self-publishing going on too. We all know the kind: badly edited, badly marketed, badly written, blah blah blah probably BECAUSE it’s never been easier to self publish.

So in answer to the question, there’s plenty of things a traditional publisher can “do” for a book a self publisher would have to do for themselves: marketing, inclusion in the catalogue, book fairs, etc.

But there is one thing a traditional deal can offer and that’s that notion of “respectability” which rightly or wrongly, self-publishing doesn’t seem to have – YET. As noted in this blog post, reviewers are less likely to read self published books and there is still some scepticism directed at self publishing in general (again, rightly or wrongly, according to who you are and where you are in the industry). However, maybe this will change as quickly as the market opening up for self publishing, though? I, for one, will be watching with interest.

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7 thoughts on “Novel Writing: Characters, First/Third Person, Slang, Adaptation, Self Publishing”

  1. Pingback: Congratulations! You’ve Just Totally Shot Yourself In The Foot | Bang2Write

  2. Hi,
    In the book that I am writing (Romance novel- hope to become a movie)
    Is it okay for one of my characters to speak bad English? Do you think my readers would have a problem with it?

    1. I don’t see why not Gail, end of the day if s/he says really mad stuff, you can always point to the context of what it could be. End of the day you can write whatever you like really; as long as people can follow, there’s no hard and fast rules, just a bunch of “recommendations”. I always like to think of writing advice – and indeed ALL advice – as being only useful if it resonates with you for a particular reason. Good luck!

  3. Hey there! I’ve been following your blog for
    a long time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout
    out from Kingwood Tx! Just wanted to say keep
    up the fantastic job!

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