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Archive for category How to write a book
I’ve had a question from Samantha Warren, who saw me at the Get Read conference, where publishing journalist Porter Anderson was interviewing me for a session on reaching readers. Some of the discussion was about balancing all the demands in our lives – social media and promotion versus the writing and production of books. In reply, I waved a notebook that I use to keep myself organised, not to mention sane.
Samantha has emailed: First, where did you get that fabulous notebook? Second, how do you organize your to-do list using the notebook? I have post-its everywhere! Any advice you might have for a disorganised amateur would be greatly appreciated.
First things first. The notebook was a freebie at the London Book Fair 2011; a dummy book with blank pages produced by print company CPI Books to advertise their services. They’d probably be pleased to know it’s standing up well to daily use.
Post ideas for this blog (that’s another one crossed off… crossing off is incredibly satisfying, so you must do this)
Consultancy enquiries and bookings, with dates
Events checklist – I refer to this if I have a reading or an event, to make sure I take everything I need. It includes printout of speech or prompts on notecards; backup on Kindle; copies of my books; Moo cards; pens for signing (my handwriting is so dreadful that my signature only looks right in cheap Bic biros….); camera.
WIP reading lists – each book gets a separate page: The Mountains Novel; The Venice Novel; The Flying Novel. That one’s just hatched, after a conversation I had with a gentleman who came to a signing and wanted to talk about My Memories of a Future Life.
WIP launch notes – again, one page for each book, including bloggers who’ve expressed an interest, reviewers, Twitter folks and websites on related subjects who are worth approaching.
Blog and website tweaks – I’m always thinking of improvements I could make to this blog, my writer website and The Red Blog. Fiddling with websites is a great way to fritter away your hours, so I wait until I’ve got a purposeful list, then work my way through it. And cross things off.
Special projects – when I redesigned the cover of Nail Your Novel I made a special page for all the fiddly jobs I’d have to do, such as redesign the livery on the blog, websites I needed to update.
Style guide for the Nail Your Novel print books - as the books are a series, they need to follow a consistent format. Crossheads (including their spacing), title page, copyright page and so on are uniform in all the titles. So that I don’t have to open the previous book and pick through the typesetting menus, I wrote out a house style page.
Which brings me to ….
When I ran an editorial department I had a big ledger that was a schedule for the entire imprint’s output. Every stage of a book’s production process was listed so that nothing got missed: Copy commissioned; art department briefed; interior design approved; copy in; copy edited; 1st proof; 2nd proof etc. When you have 30 titles on the go at once, you utterly believe in systems.
If you’re not self-publishing you won’t need this, but if you are, you might find it useful. I don’t tend to chart the writing stages (eg first draft, beat sheet, edit, beta readers etc), but I do list the publishing nitty gritty. This is just a selection:
- Cover finalised
- Proper images bought (it’s easy to let watermarked roughs slip through on a PDF because you get used to looking at them)
- Book on Kindle
- Book on Kobo
- Book on Smashwords
- Spine finalised
- Index done
- Page numbers taken off prelims for book interior (title pages etc shouldn’t have folios)
- Back cover copy written
- Back cover fully designed.
I also keep track of other places I need to update once the book is published:
- Recent Releases page
- What’s Next page
- website images and headers
- teasers inside the other books
- Amazon author pages
- group blogs I need to inform etc.
So that’s my to-do book. Is there nothing a blogger won’t post about? Here are my writing scarves.
EXCITING NEWS! A while ago, The Guardian Newspaper asked readers to nominate their favourite self-published books. Out of 3200 authors, they featured 34 that were featuring frequently – and My Memories of a Future Life was one of them!
I was so thrilled to see my book made the list, so I’d like to say enormous, heartfelt thank-yous to everyone who took the trouble to nominate me. I’m still grinning.
In the meantime, tell me: how do you keep track of your to-do list? Share in the comments!
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My cover designer, Frazer Payne, is as adept with words as he is with images. As we were fine-tuning the cover of Lifeform Three, he said to me: ‘I don’t know how you get a book finished. I have all these ideas but my imagination’s like a rope that frays into too many ends.’
(You see what I mean? He should definitely write.)
‘Do you make notes?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but when I look at them they’re dry and dull.’
Aha, my friend. You’re making the wrong kind of notes.
The wrong kind of notes?
Years ago, I used to keep a dream diary. I found it a few months ago and expected the entries would be indulgent nonsense, without the meaning, resonance or early-morning mind that makes a dream a good experience. But no; in those fragments the experience came back, just as odd and wondrous. Now I’m not going to bore (or scare) you by quoting one here, but what I will tell you is why they still worked.
They were written with a dream-head. They captured experience as well as logic and explanations.
What’s this got to do with making notes?
In Nail Your Novel (original flavour), I wrote that you should keep your earliest draft. If a scene has lost its sparkle, look back at the first time you had a go at writing it. Yes it will be shambling and embarrassing, blurted onto the page. But it will also contain emotional language, straight from the things you were feeling as you discovered it. This is the freshness and immediacy that can disappear with editing, or when you try to refine, get formal or explain.
It’s also the quality that can disappear when we write notes after a brainwave.
So when I write down an idea, I make sure I include this raw response. I write them as a stream of consciousness, like a dream. Because that’s what comes to me first: the certainty of what I want the reader to feel. If possible, I’ll also keep a talisman that will allow me to replay it again, and indeed might have been the initial inspiration – a scene in a book or a film, or a piece of music. (We know all about that here, with our Undercover Soundtracks.) There will be practical elements too, so it’s not complete gobbledygook – eg ‘man sees woman in coat that’s just like his wife’s, assumes it’s her and follows her’, but those look dry when you read them in isolation.
Stories are emotional. You want to make sure your notes help you remember the impact that made you so excited, as well as the hows and whyfores.
Do you find your ideas have dried up and died when you read your notes? Do you have any tips for keeping it? Let’s discuss!
Psst… My second novel Lifeform Three is coming very soon. It’s a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury. If you’d like to hear as soon as it’s released, sign up for my newsletter. If not, as you were
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You know The Undercover Soundtrack? The Alliance of Independent Authors got curious about it and asked me to write a post. Why did I set the series up? What do I get out of it? What do the participating authors get, aside from a singular blogging challenge and another place to get their work seen?
I’m musing on these questions and others at the ALLI blog today. And if you’ve been wondering if you dare ask for a spot, I talk about that too. Do come over. (Or if you’ve wanted to ask but are shy about doing so in public, email me on rozmorriswriter at gmail dotcom…)
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In part 1, I discussed how to get into the mental zone for writing dialogue. In part 2, I talked about the non-talking and action elements that also make a dialogue scene come alive. Which brings me to the natural conclusion of this trilogy of posts on dialogue – subtext.
What is subtext?
Put simply, subtext in dialogue is what’s between the lines.
I find it easiest to split it into two aspects – subtext for the characters and subtext for the author.
The former is the hidden agendas or feelings of the characters; these may be deliberate, unconscious or a mixture of the two. The latter is the author’s themes; the universe of the story influencing the language and tone.
Subtext and characters
Novel dialogue has to be more condensed and purposeful than real-life chattering. As writers, we need to pick the encounters that will show something significant about the characters, the way they interact, the way they view the story events.
Subtext is useful when we don’t want to show this significance plainly. Indeed, it might be jarring if a character says ‘I don’t think you love me any more’ or ‘I know you meant to kill Jane’. It’s more human if characters say things indirectly, or the reader can intuit that they are grasping at a thought – perhaps one they haven’t fully acknowledged.
Another use of subtext is to demonstrate that characters know each other well. They might make assumptions about what is said, answer what they think the other person meant, rather than the literal words. Perhaps they’re in a situation where plain speaking isn’t possible. This gives a layer of depth under the superficial conversation, like a kind of code.
So if the characters are having an argument about a washing machine, they might also be displaying what’s wrong with their relationship. Perhaps one of them is always leaving all the household tasks to the other, or is much fussier than the other. Maybe the characters are flirting but not wanting to admit it. If you explore what might be left unsaid, it’s a terrific way to build tension.
When subtext works well, we can feel these agendas vibrating – but it doesn’t look obtrusive.
Subtext and the author’s thematic intentions
Subtext can also be wider than just the characters’ little world. It can resonate with the whole conceptual problem your story is tackling. So in My Memories of a Future Life the narrator remarks that she feels as though she’s in a dream where she’s been thrown out into a hostile world with nothing to protect her. This states one of the themes of the story – the difficulty and pain of a major life-change. (It also arises naturally from the action.)
How to do it
Subtext has to look natural (unless you’re aiming for an artificial effect). You’re building it from a scene where characters need to talk to each other, so that’s where you start. Don’t do it the other way round or the reader will feel jarred out of the spell of the story. Figure out what the characters will say on the superficial level, then make it stand for more than that. As with all aspects of dialogue, you might need a few passes to really hone it. I find this kind of editing very creative and rewarding (but then, I do like editing…).
For character subtext, play with Freudian slips, misunderstandings, questions that one character might be avoiding, coded dialogue, tensions that can’t be expressed. Look for underlying harmony and agreement too; it’s not all negative or sinister.
For thematic subtext, pay attention to your authorly portrayal of the scene. Look for suggestive synonyms, imagery, a dark bird sitting on the skyline that makes an ominous shape, church bells that suggest a celebration. The characters probably won’t demonstrate they are aware of this kind of subtext – unless they’re a first-person narrator.
Does every conversation in a novel need subtext?
By no means. Although subtext is very satisfying, not every line – or scene – has to have a hidden meaning. Sometimes characters just chat.
There are more tips on character creation, character voice, subtext and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
Thanks for the iceberg pic NOAA’s National Ocean Service
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‘But I’m not religious,’ I said.
‘So what?’ she said.
And then I remembered a story I read as a teenager that greatly influenced my attitudes. If you were around two years ago when I was launching My Memories of a Future Life, it may be familiar because I first wrote about it then. If not, or if you don’t mind deja vu, take a leap into Beyondaries. You can also read interpretations of the subject by Dan Holloway, Chila, Scathe meic Beorh, Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick, Michael Potts and Grace Bridges.
In other news, Lifeform Three is coming soon! If that makes you curious, sign up for news. If not, as you were
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One of the deadly sins of writing is the ‘head-hop’ – inconsistency with the narrative point of view. The writer will be following one character’s perspective, then forgets to keep to it, or switches to another in a way that creates a logic hiccup.
The problem is often subtle, which is why it’s hard to spot in your own work. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and you’ll have lost your grip on their imagination.
First-person narratives usually don’t have this problem. The writer is usually extremely aware of what the character can and can’t know. (And often realises they need devices such as letters and diaries to get information across.)
But not all stories are written from one perspective only. Perhaps we have many characters whose experiences count. Or an omniscient narrator who contributes observations from time to time. Once you have these multiple voices, you need to be strict about how you handle them.
Here are my tips for keeping multiple POVs in control.
1 Stick with one POV per scene
Simple is usually best, so write each scene from the experience of just one character, making the POV clear in the scene opening. What if two equally major characters have a dramatic scene? I’ll discuss that below, but let’s get into good habits first.
Some novels with multiple POVs name their chapters according to who is ‘speaking’. Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever hops around a large cast in short chapters, each following the experience of one character. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl alternates between the male and the female accounts in different timelines, and the headings allow her to show who’s talking and when the action is happening.
Of course, many other novels use multiple POVs without chapter headings, and that’s fine too. But if you get confused about what you can and can’t show, put them in your draft to focus your mind. Or tint the text in a colour according to whose experience we’re following. Later, remove these props and you should have a logically flowing story.
3 Establish the POV pattern early on
At the beginning of the novel, you need to establish the rules your narrative will follow. If you’re going to circulate through a big cast, give each of them an early chapter, then we’re prepared for the pattern. If you stick with one character for a while and then switch, you might need a more obvious signpost such as a chapter or section heading to ease the gear-change.
Want to narrate some of your book as first person and some as third? No problem. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.
Deborah Moggach presents one of her Tulip Fever characters as first person, and explained on BBC Radio 4’s Book Club that she wanted the reader to understand some of the cruel things she does. Everyone else is close third person.
Moggach’s device of the headings also allows her to slip into omniscient distance – to convey time passing and chaos settling. One chapter is ‘Autumn’; another is ‘After the storm’.
But whatever you do, stick to it. If you begin by narrating one character as first person and change them to third, you risk disorientating the reader unless you have set up a mechanism for them to understand it. (And preferably a reason why they should bother.)
5 Two key characters in one scene? Which POV?
Of course, some characters will have overlapping experiences. For these, you could:
- Pick the person who will have the most intense experience.
- Pick the person with the least intense experience and rely on the reader to intuit the turmoil in the other character (can be very effective, but needs setting up)
- Hop between their experiences in different paragraphs, but be very disciplined to make sure the reader is clear whose experience they are following. To do this might interrupt the flow of the scene, especially the dialogue. And often when I see writers do this, they’re missing an opportunity for more tension.
- Settle into one POV, then change. Start the scene from one character’s experience and after a while, make the switch. Do this with a break in the action, or even a line break, so that the reader understands to tune into a different experience. And it’s a one-time thing. Don’t switch back again. Moggach solves this by writing a chapter in one POV, then starting a new chapter from the other character’s angle and winding time back to revisit the episode. (Do you notice something important here? She never breaks her rule. She’s schooled the reader to expect a framework and she never breaks it.)
There are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life
Have you seen other ways to handle multiple POVs? How do you do it? Have you seen the rules ‘broken’ to interesting effect? Let’s discuss!
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I’m thinking about this because the other day I heard an interview with the British actor Peter Bowles. He explained that much of the time in acting life, he’d try to second-guess the director. When his character seized a sword or opened a letter, he’d be trying to figure out how the director wanted him to do it. Partly this was survival – after all, he wanted to be hired again. And he had a team player’s instinct to collaborate and please. However, he was aware that he was missing a fundamental connection – with the author of the text, and what they wanted.
But, said Bowles, this all changed when he put on a mask. Yep,. he couldn’t see the director any more but that’s not as fatuous as you think. It narrowed his awareness to just him and the text. And then it was as if all doubts vanished; the white noise of other people disappeared and he was suddenly certain of the emotions and truth in a dramatic moment. He knew, from inside, what to do.
It strikes me that writers spend a lot of time second-guessing. We’re surrounded by muddling influences. What’s popular in the market, what our favourite authors recently did. Suggestions from our extended writing family. Even, requests from our readers.
Writing has never been so connected. We can bust out of isolation, join social writing communities and cheer each other through Nanowrimo. As soon as a chapter leaves the brain, we can offer it for comment if we wish. Oh I’m not saying it isn’t fantastic to have support and guidance. If I disapproved, I’d hardly bother you with my weekly volume of bloggery. I love the world wide web of creativity we have. But no one knows a work’s bones as well as its creator. Are we taking enough quiet time to discover its deeper, instinctive truth?
I think there’s a part of writing that cannot be social. It must be done alone, unplugged and in a safe space. That’s how we strike out and find true inspiration – for the direction of a story, the meaning of a setting, the innate humour in a scene. It’s how we develop instincts we can rely on and a voice that’s indubitably our own. It’s how we become original and authentic.
Like those actors, there are times when we need to put on the mask and see what we find.
TINY NEWSFLASH Continuing the theme of creating our own space, I’ve revamped my author website with a new design and some extra pages, including Why I self-publish and a picture tour of my writing process.
Let’s discuss in the comments: Do you take time to retreat with your work? What do you do to cultivate your writer’s instinct?
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As you saw last week, I’m plotting The Mountains Novel on cards. I know the big picture – how it begins, where the characters can go and what the final note is. I’m now shuffling the events to get the strongest order and viewing the results with a critical eye.
Here’s what I’m looking for.
1 Finding the logic gaps
Is a story beat missing? Should a character react to an event? Is there a consequence I should cover?
2 Characters fitting the plot
Am I forcing a character to do something to suit the plot instead of what comes naturally to them? Is anyone behaving for the plot’s convenience, instead of the truth of the story? For instance, is someone doing something dumb so that the plot can advance?
This isn’t always bad, by the way. Sometimes characters do things that aren’t in their best interests or that spoil things for themselves – and it’s part of their complexity. And if they do, I need to make a feature of it.
3 Is anything predictable?
Could I introduce more twists and surprises? While plotting step by step, it’s easy to follow an obvious pattern. Now I need to make sure everything happens in the most interesting way, and look for opportunities to misdirect the reader or reinforce my themes. I also need to watch out for convenient coincidences.
I’m wondering if I need comic relief? The Mountains Novel is quite elegaic, and too much might get monotonous or precious. I’m looking for opportunities to add lighter moments so that I don’t wear the reader out.
5 Other rethinks
I’ve realised I’ve called two characters by the wrong names. One of them started out as comic relief, a variation on a stereotype who would give the reader something familiar to follow in a bizarre situation. But he is now so much of an individual that the name seems crude. This is annoying, because when I invented it I was rather delighted. But funnily enough, it would suit another secondary character, whose role must change because of the character who has developed. Can I adjust my mental image of the name? Or should I (reluctantly) consign it to outtake history?
6 Reviewing my wrong turnings
While I was conceptualising The Mountains Novel, I wrote reams of notes for possible story directions. With each new exploration, I didn’t dare read the old material in case I lost my way. But now I’m confident in its direction, I can look back over those early conjurings and see if there is material that might be useful. Many of them won’t fit, but some will add richness.
You can find other tips on outlining and troubleshooting in Nail Your Novel, which writing teacher and literary agent Lisa Cron recently recommended as part of her shortlist of essential writing books (hooray!).
And – hooray #2! My Memories of A Future Life (nailed novel) has been given a Seal of Excellence for Outstanding Independent Fiction by Awesome Indies. This was a big surprise as they first assessed it two years ago and I never thought they’d even remember it. Thanks, guys!
Do you troubleshoot your outline? If so, what kinds of things have you changed that made a big difference?
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It’s planning time on The Mountains Novel. I have the scenes spread out on cards and the dining table is out of bounds (see Two authors in the house).
At the moment I’m taking a hard look at the set-up chapters. Of course I’ve got my own spider sense, but it’s rather fun to have a guide to remind me of what I might not be seeing. (And what I might be ignoring because, well, to change it would be inconvenient.) So I’m sharing the fun with KM Weiland’s rather useful new book Structuring Your Novel.
Today, she is reminding me what I need by the first plot point, roughly a quarter of the way through my story.
Introduce the setting and world
I need to establish where the story takes place, what era, what special things might be interesting or significant about the world. A setting isn’t just any old backdrop. It’s the perfect resonant environment for themes and the characters’ plights. I’m making sure my beginning gives inklings of this, while still seeming entirely natural.
Introduce the main characters
By the end of act one, I need to have the major characters established. The reader must know who they are, what makes them individuals (and distinct from each other), what their beliefs and dilemmas are, where the instabilities and disturbances might be in their lives. Even if I’m going to reveal more later, I have to give the reader enough to provoke their curiosity.
Make the reader care
Curiosity isn’t enough. The reader must feel emotionally bonded to my protagonists. Whether they’re Mr Average or someone extraordinary, I need to show their humanity. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes; Winston Smith feels an urge to write a diary even though it’s against the rules. (In Winston’s case, his streak of humanity is going to draw him into danger. If I can combine any of these set-up steps, that will look very smart.)
Establish the need and the stakes
By the end of act one, the reader needs to understand what the main characters want. Perhaps they want to solve a crime or murder their uncle. Perhaps they want to stop their family finding out about their secret life. The reader must also understand why this is so personally important – and what failure will cost them. This is the other half of making the story matter.
Back story on a need-to-know basis
There’s quite a lot of background to establish, but it must be done – as much as possible – with scenes that advance the plot, rather than pages of explanation. Back story is important, of course, but we need to earn the space for it. Deploy back story only when the reader is hungry to know.
Add an element that makes sense of the ending
The story’s ending must resonate with the beginning. Perhaps it answers a question, solves a problem, resolves an imbalance. But if the seeds of the end aren’t in the opening, it will not be so satisfying.
The first big change at the quarter mark
Just as I have all that bubbling, I have to push the story over a point of no return. The characters make a choice, cross a Rubicon. Perhaps disaster strikes – and that dreaded event becomes reality. Why is this a quarter of the way through? As Katie points out, readers – and moviegoers – have an innate story clock. No matter how interested and enthralled they are, if you don’t shift the goalposts at a quarter through, they’ll feel the story is slow.
And now to work
Right. I’ve got some fine-tuning to do on the beginning of The Mountains Novel. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that KM Weiland is one of my favourite writing bloggers. Her book is as clear and wise as her blog posts and I recommend it – whether you’re writing beginnings, middles or ends.
In the meantime, tell me: what stage are you at with your WIP?
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There will be changes
Always. Even if you’ve had beta readers. Even if you’re a seasoned pro. Of the 14 or 15 full manuscripts I’ve submitted, there was only one where the editors didn’t want to change anything, beyond tiny niggles. Only one.
There are two kinds of feedback. In traditional publishing, agents – and editors in the initial stages – will tend to give brief, sweeping notes about character arcs, pacing, credibility and relatability. Even though these won’t be as detailed as the work an editor will do, they might keep you busy for a couple of months.
Moreover, an editor who does a detailed critique may have a different vision from those who have looked at it before. (Should you edit to fit another person’s tastes? A million-dollar question, which I’ll come back to.)
Anyway, most of us swallow hard when the detailed report arrives. This is what I do.
Critique report survival tips
Expect a large document that tackles your book in close detail. Sometimes very large – I’ve written 50 pages for a novice author (but there I’m also taking a tutoring role, so my commentary includes discussion of craft).
1 – Read the report without doing anything. Satisfy your curiosity. Don’t make to-do lists or open the manuscript. Just read.
2 – Set it aside. Yell, scream etc. Wait as long as your deadlines allow. This also lets you digest. When you’re even-tempered about it, start work.
3 – Some suggestions will be easy to fix. Some will be harder. Some will be praise and encouragement, though you might not have recognised them. Read through and mark the easy stuff – either highlight on a printout, or colour in the Word document. Tackle these immediately if it makes sense, and feel satisfied that you’re getting this under control.
4 – Now you’re limbered up – and are familiar with your manuscript again – you’re ready for the trickier suggestions. Separate out the ones you don’t agree with.
Often editors make suggestions that skew the book in a way you don’t want. But they may have identified a significant problem. Disregard their solution and delve deeper for the source.
For instance, an editor who saw an early draft of Life Form Three told me it needed another viewpoint character and that one of my story devices was confusing. I didn’t want another viewpoint character, so I made the original one more relatable. The confusing story device was also important to me, so I reworked it. Result? He was happy because the problems were fixed.
Of course, if you have a traditional publisher, an editor might ask for changes to fit their list and readership. Use your judgement, but remember this: if you are named as the author (ie it’s not work for hire) a publisher can’t change anything without your agreement. Dig your heels in if there is something you really disagree with. In a worst-case scenario they might decline to publish, but this rarely happens. (They also can’t make you agree to a cover or title you don’t like, BTW.)
If you’re indie, you of course have complete freedom to decide what to change. But consider whether an unsuitable suggestion is pointing to a problem you should tackle in a different way.
What, another stage of feedback? I’m afraid so. Copy edits are done after main developmental feedback. But they can still throw up enough problems to make you gnaw the desk.
Copy editors notice the tiny details that slipped by when everyone had bigger problems in mind. They also catch the errors that crept in as you went over the manuscript again and again. The murder victim’s hair might have changed colour. The timeline is impossible.
It’s better to be pre-emptive about this. Keep tight control of these details as you edit – especially the timeline. Although you can probably correct physical details such as characters’ ages and hair colour with a few inventive text searches, you can’t fix the timeline so easily and the whole plot might unravel if it’s wrong. (I map out the timeline when I make my beat sheet.)
The beat sheet is one of the tools described in my book Nail Your Novel … more about it here
Thanks for the pic Brainedge
Do you have any tips for tackling critique reports? Did you ever disagree with an editor’s suggestions and what was the outcome? Let’s share in the comments!
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- From ‘To do’ to ‘Done’ – confessions of an organised author December 8, 2013
- ‘Music to make a creative space’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kirsty Greenwood December 4, 2013
- How to write down story ideas so you can remember why they were brilliant December 1, 2013
- Could The Undercover Soundtrack help you reach readers? Post at the Alliance of Independent Authors November 30, 2013
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