Writing Literary Fiction With Roz Morris

    Categories: Writing

OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn

If you want to write literary fiction, or you'd like some inspiration for improving language, character, research and more, you'll enjoy this lively interview with the lovely Roz Morris.

Roz Morris has written 11 novels as a ghostwriter, including 8 bestsellers, and has just released her first book under her own name, My Memories Of A Future Life. Roz also helps writers with the craft at NailYourNovel.com. [Video interview at the end of the post]

***Roz and I are doing a 3 part webinar series on How to write a novel for just US$99. Click here for more details***

In this interview, we discuss:

  • My Memories of a Future Life is an original , disturbing novel. Roz describes it as reincarnation in reverse. You are the past haunting your future incarnation. Would it give you the answers you're searching for in your own life?

On character development

  • There's a lot of normality and abnormality in the book, so Carol is more of a grounded character and the others are in opposition to her. It's a first person book so Roz started with a lot of research into what her life would be like as a concert pianist. A lot of the book is about relationships so writing the characters was about how they interact.
  • How do you write these characters? Do you have a sheet with all their details on? Roz didn't so much write down details of people but explored them with scenes she wanted in the book. It was all built out of relationships. Some people interview their characters. Roz put them in situations and then saw what they did together. They are built from the inside.
  • We talk about using physical images for characters. Roz found photos on Flickr that embody the characters. [I do this too although mine are all movie stars because one day I will have the movie!] Check out this post on building character sketches.

The definition of a literary fiction novel

  • It's as much about the inside as the outside plot. It also asks bigger questions than the actual story, for example, belief as unconscious creativity. [I disagree with this as I believe genre fiction can also discuss big themes. In Prophecy I am investigating whether belief can be manufactured in the brain]
  • Literary fiction is not an exclusive genre. You can have heavily plotted novels that ask these questions too, so the edges of genre are permeable. Some purely literary novels can be without plot and some literary people even disapprove of plots. A story should take you further than just the story, as in it should invoke questions.
  • If you're pitching a literary novel to an agent, make sure they are focusing on that area. Only pitch to people who ask for this type of book. Opinion is divided as to whether you should mention books your book is like, e.g. Roz's book is like The Time Traveller's Wife. But you can severely mis-represent the book if you get this wrong. Your idea is much more important. Writing the blurb can take a long time because you have to distill your idea into 150 words for a blurb and even shorter for a pitch.
  • It took Roz several years to write this book but it was an idea she had a long time ago and just didn't know how to write it. It took around 2 years with the reworking and rewriting. A lot of time is head-time where you work out what ideas you want in the book.

How to improve your language

  • Language is critical in literary genres and language lovers appreciate the complexity of literary books. Literary novels can be plain language though, example of Hemingway. It all comes down to reading in an aware fashion. Go over the piece and work out how the writer made you feel the way you do. Look for the imagery you've never seen before. Ask yourself why it works. You may need to get out of the day job head-space. Try reading poetry which will deepen your language sense. [I talk about how I write down words and something goes in over time.] Make it a habit to actively notice words.

On Research

  • Wet work vs web research [cue laughter! at 22:40] Prepare your questions in advance and question what people might say. Find someone you can ask questions to. Roz interviewed someone by email who was a professional pianist. People are often very generous. Bounce your assumptions off people who actually know.
  • Verisimilitude (real -life) vs making stuff. Why do you draw the line? It is fiction so you can make things up – but fabricate with authority. You do have to take some liberties but don't spoil it for people who know about the area or topic. Research can also give you ideas and can be stranger than what you make up. Example: the enharmonic piano. Synchronicity happens as well where you find you didn't actually make it up.

Why Roz self-published

  • Publishing has changed such a lot and with the economics of the industry, few risks will be taken on books that are not easily categorized. Self-publishing enables more unusual books to be put out there which benefits the creative spirit. Writers can alternate with their books, satisfying economics but also the art form. Roz didn't want to write a genre book under her own name as she does as a ghostwriter.

The launch experiment

  • Roz released the book in 4 episodes over 4 weeks. Dickens published his novels like this. The book does split this way with an emotional cliff-hanger at the end of each one. Each episode was 99c and enabled entry to new fiction at a lower price. It was also another way to stand out in the crowded market.
  • People have tried it that wouldn't have tried the book before. Tip: You can upload to different categories on Amazon for the parts so you can find different markets.
  • The launch was longer and marketing could be spread over a month. There was new material to offer. There were new launches on Goodreads. The aim with marketing is to increase opportunities to see and it sinks in over time.
  • Perhaps the downside was that reviews were spread between books but you can always ask people to add them again.
  • It's exciting that as indies we can do whatever we like with our books. If you have the rights, you can do whatever you like.

You can find My Memories of a Future Life book, audio and more here. You can also find Roz at her site for writers NailYourNovel.com


Joanna Penn :

View Comments (28)

  • What a deeply interesting, and entertaining, interview. I don't think I've ever seen two sets of more animated eyebrows!

    It's so refreshing to see genre and literary novelists come together and have a lively debate with no hint of unhealthy competition. It just goes to show that writing is a shared experience, no matter the approach.

    As I'm halfway through my second novel, interviews like this keep me motivated and reflective.

    I'll be going out tomorrow to buy some notebooks and adopt Joanna's "Steal Like An Artist" approach to note-taking.


    • Thanks Stu - it's funny you mention competition because I don't see any competition in writing or indeed online. Perhaps it's just because I am hopelessly positive and just see the pie as getting bigger. Also, as a voracious reader, I am always looking for more books. If we can help each other like this, people will find more and they appreciate the recommendations. I am horribly aware of the snobbery that perhaps established literary types have about genre writers, but to be honest, they wouldn't be hanging out here! As Roz mentions, she has plot as well as all the literary devices.
      I'm so glad you enjoyed the interview and hope you can steal lots of great ideas from this site as well as other books!

    • Thank you, Stu. I have to confess I didn't realise how hard my eyebrows work until I saw the playback.

      That's such an interesting point you raise about competition. You're right that some kinds of writers feel they have to be rivals, but quite honestly I enjoy so many types of story that I love sharing the experience of creating them. Especially with a writer like Joanna, who has such a can-do attitude.

      And very pleased to have spurred you on - best of luck with your second!

  • Excellent Interview. It is great to "see" you both. I love the ideas of the sectional launch. Am very interested to hear how this marketing approach works.

    Am fascinated with Roz's concept of the book - reversing the "past life" with the future life. It had me very curious -- would that mean you are the ghost of the past? Would your future self meet up with you in the past? An interesting twist. However, Joanna, you're revelation of being drawn to the dark character is slightly disturbing (LOL), --aren't we all?

    Looking forward to finishing the "series" -- thanks again for a great Interview, gals. As always, entertaining and useful.

    -- Suzanne

    Thanks for a fascinating and

    • Hi Suzanne! I'm going to be posting about the sectional launch in detail in a week or so - I'll keep you informed. It had its ups and downs but was a fun experiment.

      Ah, past lives, future lives... how many of us might feel we're a ghost in our own life? How many of us might fear there is no future, or that we're finished? Does, as you say, the future self know of you and what do they feel?

      That dark character - Gene Winter - has kept quite a few readers in thrall, judging by feedback I've had! This book was a real challenge to write - but such fun. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Wonderful interview! So many good tips for writers! Thanks!

    Brittany Roshelle

    The Write Stuff

    • Thanks, Brittany! Joanna asked some great questions and it's so interesting to compare the different styles of writing.

  • I've spent a good deal of time with this question lately, and there are, I believe, two primary things that distinguish literary fiction from genre fiction:

    Style -- specifically sophistication of style, which even Ernest Hemingway, with all his deceptively simple sentences, at his best does possess -- and (number 2) the seriousness of the approach. This translates to style and theme.

    Literary fiction concentrates on those two elements. Genre fiction in general doesn't. (When genre fiction does, it crosses over, and Eric Ambler, among many others, is an excellent example of that.)

    Just incidentally, I watched the YouTube version of your interview, and I must say, I do envy you both your poise and your articulateness. Every time I get in front of that damn video camera, I'm all stammers and stridulations.

    Roz: "Out from under the sheet."

    I like that.

    • Thanks Ray. If you listen to my earliest podcasts, you will find I wasn't always so poised - plus, editing is a marvellous thing! I really have to work hard at video, it is difficult - but definitely worth it, so I urge you to persist.

    • Hello Ray
      Thorny question, isn't it? Style and substance do seem to be at the heart of the literary experience. Yes a literary novel is a story (to a greater or lesser extent) but it also feels as though it was about much more - and something very important. Each word is part of a hypnotic experience, carefully chosen to keep you in the spell.

      'Stammers and stridulations...' - it just takes a bit of practice, Ray - and an interviewer like Joanna who makes it look so easy! Thanks for taking the trek from YouTube.

  • "Each word is part of a hypnotic experience, carefully chosen to keep you in the spell." Well said. And a delightful interview! Enjoyed it very much.

  • Hi, Joanna,
    Abobe, you wrote 'In Prophecy I am investigating whether belief can be manufactured in the brain'. I think I know what you mean by that: can the Pope Ming the Merciless V invent a ray that makes us believe stuff (and or destroys scepticism?)
    Four things to consider, perhaps?
    1) first the stupid question: where else but the brain, since belief is thought
    2)belief is a form of trust, and that form of trust is manufactured in us every day, by the media, advertisers, government, science, educators, etc. An example is the placebo effect. How about Iraq and WMD?
    3) Everyone has a faith if some kind, if you get them to talk about it. They may not have a religion as such, but they have a faith, even if that faith is 'Erm, I'm not sure.' Faith is trust in something which is not (at present) provable, whether it's that it will rain tomorrow, that we will finish writing that novel, or that there's a supreme being. Even Atheism is a form of faith, since it's a reaction to and defines itself in opposition to the idea of the supernatural. It's not a chicken and egg faith, it's a child faith, with religion as the parent.
    4) Ask Derren Brown! Did you see that trick or treat programme where he fooled us as well as the subject into believing she couldn't play the piano?
    Can a ray steer this inbuilt quality? I'm pretty sure drugs could. So if a ray (I'm not suggesting you have such a thing in you novel, but it could be a great deal of fun if there were) triggered a hormonal release connected to faith, well, that could work.

    • Thanks Roger - The technology I refer to is the God Helmet which involves magnetic forces on the temporal lobe to induce various "religious" states. It's a fascinating area, but no sci-fi rays. Crazy purple costumes are out in the thriller genre!

      • Yup, that could work -- you might want to check out what Alice Flaherty M.D. has to say on the subject of stimulating and calming the temporal lobes. If you google hypergraphia or writer's block (or, indeed, Alice Flaherty!), you'll come across her.
        The God Helmet... shades of Joseph Smith?

    • Hi Roger! I got here before Joanna and no doubt she'll reply about her book - but beliefs are something I pose questions about in my novel too. How about beliefs as an act of creativity and collusion? Love Derren Brown - he's such a provocative entertainer. I thought the piano programme involved tricking a girl into playing better, though...

      • Gosh, it shows that it's true that no two witness statements are alike, then. My takeaway from that programme was that the young lady hated playing piano, and his gift to her (he called it his treat) was that he tricked her into believing she was a complete novice. The nett result was that she rediscovered the joy of playing, because she was feeling it was all very mechanical and she'd been about to pack it all in.
        As for beliefs as an act of creativity and collusion -- don't we all do that every time we read a book or watch a movie? So, yes, I agree, it's definitely possible

        • It's a long time since I saw the Derren Brown programme, I have to admit. You may well have remembered it more accurately, Roger.

  • BTW, totally agree with you about genre fiction incorporating the kind of layers normally associated with literary fiction.
    Stephen King is a superb example of this. In Carrie, his first book, there's a moment where a character combs his hair. What King tells us about that character in one paragraph through his relationship with that comb is brilliant. When the monsters in King's novels are human, he's at his best - Dolores Claibourne, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, Hearts in Atlantis. Vampires, though, he's not so scary with. And, as it happens, not so literary.
    I'd go so far as to say that Literary is not only a genre, but ought to be stamped on every book with no discernable beginning-middle-end plot, just as a warning to anyone (such as me) about to part with ten quid who might want such a thing.

  • Structure seems to be a naughty word in that genre, certainly. I'm doing my M.A. in creative writing, and I've had some animated discussions on the subject.
    Put another way, just because something is fiction doesn't make it a story. It might be an account, or a narrative, but it won't necessarily be a story.
    But that is not the question you asked. You asked if something with that structure is disqualified from being considered literary fiction, and my answer is that would be a difficult to defend assertion. However, fiction which is held to fall into the literary genre lacks the structure of beginning-middle-end far more often than does fiction in other genres, such as, say, science fiction or detective.

  • This discussion could go round in circles. Literary fiction can be more experimental with structure as with other qualities, but having a conventional beginning-middle-end structure does not disqualify a story from being literary.
    I strenuously argue that the term 'literary' should not be pejorative, or 'stamped on every unconventionally structured book as a warning'. That is idiotic.
    And readers aren't all alike. I can only try to write what I like to read and hope enough other people will share my sensibilities. That's all any of us can do.

  • 1 Agreed. Each to their own. Although, in fairness, I should point out that Idiotic is one of my many middle names...
    2 The point you make about literary fiction with a beginning-middle-end structure, I agree with. (In fact, I think it's to be encouraged!) It's rare to find a book that lacks beginning-middle-end structure in other genres, though.
    And 3... don't all the best discussions go round in circles?

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