Archive for category Writer basics 101

Something wicked this way comes: plot book ready soon

3nynsThis week I’ve been pouring my grey cells into edits for Nail Your Novel 3 so I hope you’ll forgive this brief hiatus in my blogging schedule. The third Nail Your Novel book finally has a title (Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart), a cover and most of its insides. I’ve been adapting and greatly enlarging the posts I’ve published here into an in-depth exploration of what plot is, how it works and how to write a good one. In asking these questions I’ve taught myself a thing or three as well.

If you’re eager for a taster right now, one of my recent shows at Surrey Hills Radio discussed plot – you can find it on this page as show no 6 (we’re working on getting proper titles but we don’t have control of the website!).

The plot book should be out within the next month … hopefully. I’m waiting for comments from my critique partners so I reserve the right to be coy about the actual release date in case they find a howling omission or other embarrassing disaster. If you want to know the very moment it’s out, you can get my newsletter here.

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I’ll be back with a proper post next week. I hate to miss a week but sometimes we need to. How about you? Do you have a strict blogging schedule? What makes you bend it? Til next time… R xx

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How do I develop something special in my writing?

special in writingI’ve had this great question from Lindsey Maguire:

I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years :)

What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.

It can’t be rushed

First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…

What are you reading?

You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.

As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.

Learn what you are made of

So how will you be distinctive?

Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.

What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.

When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?

Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.

Try lots of ideas

Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.

How long does it take?

Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.

Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo.  Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.

le moulin 286Yours truly: how did I start off?

I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.

One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.

Honesty

This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.

nyn soloAnd finally… how do you start a novel?

Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)

 

What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!

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Dialogue special part 3: subtext

8290528771_4ab84a0303_hIn 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. :)

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2

Thanks for the iceberg pic NOAA’s National Ocean Service

 

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How to nail Nanowrimo – post at Writers & Artists

nano1nailnanowaNearly November! I’m at Writers & Artists today with a preparation regime for November’s big writing event, National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).

It’s ultra-streamlined to suit all writing approaches. If you like to create a detailed synopsis, my tips will get you going. If you want only the barest essentials, they’ll guide you while giving you room to explore and express. And if you’re still undecided or wonder if NaNoWriMo is even possible, hopefully they’ll persuade you to take the plunge.

Step this way…

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3 ways the author temperament hinders our writing – post at Authors Electric

aecharsCharacters and personality. Not the ones in your books: I’m talking about you, the brain that’s parked snugly behind your eyes and the temperament that feels the urge to write. Sometimes our human wiring is not ideal for creating the kind of havoc we need for stories – which is quite amusing in its own way.

Anyway, I’m enjoying this conundrum today at Authors Electric – do jump the gap and see.

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A Christmas newsletter for modest authors – post at Authors Electric

christmas lettersOn this blog I try to cover all your writing needs. Including the short but painful  requirement to brag about your year’s achievements to your Christmas card list.

If smugness isn’t as natural to you as it is to Nina and Frederik here, you might need some help. So today at Authors Electric I’m giving tips to get you started. Do drop in.

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How we learn to be original – a story about creative writing

Developing a strong writing voiceI first unleashed my creativity through writing. My handwriting.

In infants’ school I remember being taught to write neatly. Servicably. We copied letter-forms. As we matured, certain pupils were singled out for approval and the rest of the class fell in with their styles. The Debbie – slanting copperplate. The Elizabeth – small and round. The Katie – wide and loopy.

Seeing this, I chose to invent my own.

I don’t know why. Perhaps because we spent most of our time all writing the same thing. Copying from the blackboard, taking dictation, answering questions – 20 girls all processing the same words and thoughts. I must have decided I had to do it differently.

I experimented with letter-shapes. One week, ys and gs might curl under the line in luxuriant loops. The next they would be jagged reversed lightning bolts. I might team this with a Debbie cursive slope for a while, enjoying the clash of styles. All possible Greek letters were tried, and for a while all Rs were small capitals (very time-consuming, so not practical).

roz handwritingTeachers grumbled about neatness and legibility. I thought they needed to be more open minded, although I realise now they probably just wanted to get through a pile of marking.

Fascinated by a computerish font on the back of a sci-fi novel, I tried to emulate that.

Serifs were another passing phase, too fiddly for everyday use. An American girl arrived at the school who dotted her ‘i’s with a little bubble. A teacher told her off for it in front of everyone. Outraged, I adopted it immediately.

This makes me sound like a rebel. I wasn’t. You couldn’t have pointed to a more obedient pupil. I wanted a hassle-free life, even if the rules were bewilderingly dumb. But no matter how often I was penalised for eccentric letters or lack of neatness, I couldn’t toe that line. My identity on the page was not the teachers’ business. It was a sacred search for originality in world where everything else was repetition and regurgitation.

Freedom – or not

At least English allowed us to express ourselves.

In the middle school, that changed too.

One day we were discussing exams, and how to tackle the essay question options – factual, debate, true-life account, story prompt. ‘You mustn’t pick the story prompt,’ said the teacher. ‘They’re very hard. From now on, we won’t do them.’

This was ludicrous. I always, without hesitation, picked the story. I got high marks. (And I bet I wasn’t the only one.)

I didn’t want to write an account of a holiday or discuss the popularity of the motor car. Not when I was being invited to finish the story that started ‘I should never have gone for that bicycle ride…’ And if no one did these essays well, should we not be taught to do them better?

This was my second great disobedience. I carried on choosing the story option, as I always had. Again there were grumbles but it did me well enough at O level, if A is a respectable grade.

sidebarcropManifesto for a creative mind

These tiny rebellions gave me habits that I now realise are essential to the creative nature, whether our weapon of choice is art, music, writing (or handwriting). This is how we do what we do.

  • We will not accept the ordinary
  • We dig for the remarkable in the everyday
  • We ignore what everyone else is looking at and peer around the corners instead
  • We collect what moves us, especially if we don’t know why
  • We listen to our instincts instead of the voices who tell us we can’t
  • We play endlessly
  • We see expressive potential in everything
  • To non-creatives we probably seem infuriating and insane.

 

What would you add? How did you first start being creative?

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7 tips for keeping your motivation as a writer

I’ve had an interesting email from Zoe that sums up some typical challenges of the writerly life:

I started writing two years ago. I’m bored with my story. I have outlined every scene and character and I know how it will go; but I find while I am writing that I change it completely and like that better. Do I stick to my outline?

1. Outlining to flatlining

Outlining is essential. Very few writers can make up a whole novel on the spot as they’re typing. Even if they don’t plan in writing, they’ve usually done a lot of preparation in their heads.

We all have a greater or lesser need for a formal plan. You may be discovering that if you outline exhaustively you kill the idea. In that case, don’t write a detailed synopsis, just put a few notes on cards and set sail (more on outlining methods in Nail Your Novel). Or you may be discovering that detailed outlines free you to take turns you wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

2. Have you let the book rest?

Are you changing stuff because you’re stale, or because you’re having better ideas? We all get to the stage where it’s impossible to tell. Change if you’re improving the book, but not for its own sake because you’re no longer entertained.

Sometimes working on a novel is like hearing the same joke over and over. We need a break before we can tell if it’s funny.

3. Is this your learner novel?

You mention you’ve been writing for two years. Is that on this same book? Most of us start writing because we’ve had an idea and we hurl ourselves in. A few years later, that novel has had a lot of pummelling as we learn what to do.

Sometimes we should let that learner novel go.

We might grow out of it, but cling on because we like the familiarity, or we refuse to be beaten by it, or we worry we won’t get another idea.

Some learner novel ideas are so ambitious we won’t have the wisdom to write them for many years.

On the other hand, some learner novels turn out just fine.

Again, the best cure is to let it rest.

4. Going in new directions

Don’t be afraid to take the book in new directions if the muse suggests them. Novels evolve all the time – as you understand the characters more, fill logic holes, make new discoveries in research or fix things you’ve fudged. These realisations make your book stronger and you shouldn’t try to force the book back on track.

But I find that if I go totally off piste I can get in a fearful muddle. So if I need a new direction I stop and work out the consequences. Redraw the map and continue.

5. Get your enthusiasm back

When you take a break, give your book the best chance to win you back. Read some novels that are like it, to remember why you love that kind of story.

Do you still have the very first notes you made? It’s always worth keeping notes from the honeymoon period. Dig them out and find what got you excited in the first place.

6. Writer’s block

Zoe also asked:

What do you do when you get writer’s block and don’t feel like reading over what you have written?

If I’m blocked it’s because there’s a problem I haven’t diagnosed. Like you, I don’t want to open the file. But this reluctance is my brain’s way of telling me I’m sending my story in a direction I don’t like. So I figure out what that is and find ways to change it. Once I have, I’m happy to continue again.

7. Confidence

Zoe’s final question was this:

Do you ever feel like no one will like your work?

What do we mean by ‘like’? Do we mean ‘where’s the market’? Will agents, publishers, readers in their millions like our work?

We can’t write with fashions in mind because they’ll have changed the next time it rains. We can only write the books that would satisfy us as readers.

There’s another question here – will you like your own book?

All the creatives I know – artists, animators, game designers, musicians, choreographers – worry that we are creating rubbish. We’re hoping we can fix it before anyone finds out. I look at my finished novels and cannot imagine what super-brain made them so coherent – because now I’m on a new idea (The Venice Novel) I’m splashing blind.

Our sense of perfection can paralyse us. But it’s also the spur that makes us raise our game. So like most things in writing, polish the book until you’re satisfied, have a rest and repeat. When you can’t go further, find beta readers, polish until they’re satisfied… approach an agent or an editor… and spread out wider and wider until you have a comfortable majority who agree it’s good to go.

For more on outlining and editing methods, see Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence

It’s a year since I launched My Memories of a Future Life and I’m planning a very special giveaway. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to my blog (somewhere in the sidebar) or sign up to my newsletter (somewhere in the sidebar and also here)

What saps your motivation as a writer? How do you beat it? Share in the comments!

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If something matters in your story, your characters must earn it

Here’s one of the timeless problems with novels. The reader knows the author can do anything they like. And one of the things I see in manuscripts is that the author has the story firmly by the ears and is steering it. Enough to make me wince.

Being killed or falling in love

In real life, love can just happen, right? A glance across a crowded room might be enough. And, at the less optimistic end of the spectrum, people do just die.

But in stories they can’t if it’s convenient for the plot. You have to work harder to earn that development. There may have been a time when you could erase a villain by striking him down on the golf course, but very few readers will swallow that now.

Finding the murderer

In some manuscripts, detectives find their suspects far too easily. If the murderer is Chinese, all they have to do is go to the Oriental supermarket and chat. Hey presto, a vital clue.

When characters get information they badly want, it needs to be hard won. It’s a way for the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, bravery, doggedness. Or maybe gullibility, if that’s what you want.

In fact, it’s better if they chase the wrong lead for a while. Suppose the person he talked to was protecting the real villain. Remember, stories aren’t a linear escalator to a success, they need slips and reversals. In Silence of the Lambs, a SWAT team stakes out a house – and it turns out to be the wrong one. This blunder dramatically raises the stakes for the heroine who is about to confront the killer on her own. In The Day of the Jackal, the police seem to have discovered the assassin’s true identity but at the end he’s revealed as the wrong guy – a neat twist in the coda that preserves the mystery. (If you didn’t know that, um sorry…)

Fight scenes

Many writers mistake where the real drama is in a fight scene. They think it’s the trading of blows, or perhaps the natter that goes on (rather unrealistically) between them. But readers know that the writer can keep all that going as long as needed. The police won’t burst in until the right moment. The roof won’t collapse, no matter how much it’s wobbling.

What makes a satisfying end to a fight? It has to be a surprise. Perhaps it’s storytelling sleight of hand. In the film of Georges Simenon’s Red Lights, a whisky bottle bought earlier by the protagonist is smashed and turned into an impromptu weapon.

Perhaps the reader is convinced the hero can’t win. In the climax of Goldfinger the story has established that James Bond can’t beat Oddjob in a straight fight – so when he outsmarts him and electrocutes him with an electric cable, we’re so surprised that we feel the win is deserved. (Moreover, Oddjob had sliced the electric cable with his hat – a neat comeuppance.)

Another satisfying way for a protagonist to win a fight is if they complete an arc – perhaps defeating the monster inside themselves. Or – like in Blade Runner when Roy Batty saves Deckard instead of killing him – a complex victory for both.

A story is not just what happens, but how and why. And one of your jobs as a writer is to make failure possible and triumph surprising. The more an event or discovery matters, the more your characters have to earn it.

Thanks for the lightning pic, Opacity

Do you have favourite examples of earned victories or discoveries? Share in the comments!

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here. And you can find out more about Nail Your Novel, original flavour, here.

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Why we need stories – tales of the earthquake at Authors Electric

We know why we write. It’s a natural inclination that some of us have to express ourselves on the page. But what might bring out the storyteller in non-writers? This incident from my recent trip to Italy turned a disparate group of friends into campfire tale-tellers – it’s on the Authors Electric blog now.

Have you had an experience that turned you and your non-writing friends into storytellers? Tell your tale in the comments here

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