Archive for category Rewriting
Writers often have trouble deciding where they’re going to start their story. The first chapter takes multiple rewrites, mind-changes, tweaks and deletions. Chapter 1 frequently has more scar tissue than any other part of a novel.
There are so many decisions to make about what to squeeze in and what to leave out. Sometimes writers get carried away and I see novels with any or all of:
- an introduction
- a mission statement
- an explanation of themes
- a foreword (which as a tweeter has pointed out is technically written by someone other than the author)
- a prologue
- or sometimes two prologues.
Often these are little more than instructions for how to read what follows. But there are times when a prologue is welcome. Here’s my guide to using prologues responsibly.
Not all bad
Readers relish prologues when:
- they show us something important that is out of the main story’s timeline, for instance something that would otherwise have to be shown in flashbacks or cumbersome exposition
- they show action or characterisation that the reader needs to understand chapter 1, for instance the start of a war or a quest
- they are vivid and entertaining in their own right
Even prologue enthusiasts do not like:
- an info-dump for its own sake – or back story that should be worked into the main text in a more natural way or was simply not needed (writers are prone to include too much back story and resort to prologues to shoehorn it in)
- when a prologue is really just the first chapter, given a fancy name – if you put prologue at the top, it had better be truly separate
- when a prologue is a rehash of a dramatic moment from later in the story, shown out of order because the start of the book does not have enough of a hook.
However, as with everything arty, there’s a fine balance to be struck. You can get away quite nicely with a prologue that comes from a scene near the end of the novel, to make us wonder how the characters got into such a mess.
Genre makes a difference
Some genres are more forgiving of prologues – fantasy and science fiction, for instance. These readers enjoy being plunged into unfamiliar worlds, and so the scene-setting aspect of a prologue is a helpful device.
But the closer the genre is to the everyday world of the reader, the less necessary a prologue is – because these readers want to be whirled in, immediately, to the people and the story they are going to follow, at the point that is most likely to hold their interest. They want you to unravel everything naturally and with your storytelling skill. However, they don’t mind:
- prologues that show a crisis from near the end of the novel – perhaps the main character on their deathbed or in some sort of showdown
- an event from a point of view that we will never revisit.
If you’re doing the latter, does it need to be a prologue? Many thrillers start with a startling event that happens to a character we will most likely never see again – quite often their gruesome demise. But these are usually called chapter 1. Why? Because they are the start of the story. Even though we’re probably not going to hear a squeak from those unfortunate characters again. If your opening could quite happily be called chapter 1, you don’t need to call it a prologue.
The first steps are the hardest
Novels are big. It’s always hard to work out how to introduce an enormous work you know intimately to someone who knows nothing about it – and to do justice to it. You’ll find this with the first chapter. You’ll also find it with the pitch you’ll write for an agent or editor, or the sales blurb, or if you try to answer that beastly question ‘what’s your novel about?’.
Sometimes prologues are useful and welcome. But make sure you really, really need one. And you probably don’t need two.
I’m planning a newsletter! I know, that’s terribly grown-up. Add your name to the mailing list here.
In the meantime, share your thoughts on prologues – good and bad – and examples if you have any!
I’m at Tuesday Serial today, a weekly round-up of serial fiction being published throughout the web. They were curious to know about my experiences releasing My Memories of a Future Life as four parts on the Kindle, which is how I originally launched. Thinking back, it made me revise more sharply – and I’m glad I did because it surely strengthened the novel. Come over and see, on Tuesday Serial -or any day you like…
Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.
First of all, what is good language?
I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.
But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:
‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
Tip 3: Suit the material
The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.
More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.
Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Using notebooks
In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.
Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr
How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
If you read this blog regularly you’ll be familiar with my friend, the writer and editor Victoria Mixon. Her book, The Art & Craft of Fiction – A Practitioner’s Manual, is a favourite of mine. If friends utter the words ‘I think I’ll write a novel’, they soon find themselves armed with a copy because of the way it deftly bridges the gap between good reading and good writing. Victoria is about to release the follow-up, The Art &Craft of Story, and asked me to contribute a blurb. While reading it I came across a stand-out passage that I wanted to make into a post of its own.
It’s the tale of how she and husband Jeff created a logo for their publishing company (as well as an editor, Victoria is also a graphic designer). She wanted to use an icon of her childhood, an antique advertisement which features a young woman in an enormous feathered hat with elegant gloves and a dreamy expression. But when she and her husband scanned it, there was too much shading and detail for it to work as a logo. So they started reworking it in Photoshop.
Here’s the story, in Victoria’s words.
She needed enough big dark elements to be recognizable at a casual glance—even tiny—but she also needed her itsy-bitsy little facial features to show up with their soulful gaze. We blacked in her hat and gloves (although the gloves have wonderful highlighted wrinkles in the soft leather) and exaggerated her eyes and mouth. We erased all of her from chin to gloves and then went back, meticulously re-creating only those lines absolutely necessary to give her definition. She has a lot of ruffles around her face, which looked weird when they disappeared. We had to get just enough of them in to remove the weird without competing with her more important elements.
The pièce de résistance turned out to be not even a part of her, but the shadow her cardboard cut-out cast on the wall when she was photographed. It’s only behind one arm (the light came from an angle), but it’s a lovely calligraphic line that thins and thickens as it goes around the curves of her sleeve. We sharpened it up. Then we looked at her other arm, which has no such line. We paused.
We were going to flip the line and use its opposite on the other side.
But then I remembered a fascinating fact about stylized images: what the eye knows should be there it will see even when it’s not there.
And this is something all writers must remember—what the reader knows should be there they’ll supply even when it’s not.
Not only that, but that simple act of the reader supplying the essential last detail is what engages them, sucks them in, pins them down, makes them part of the story.
When we look at our favorite logos, our eye doesn’t keep going back to them because it’s found every single speck of information it needs. It goes back because there’s something missing, and our eye knows what it is. We feel the satisfaction of supplying the missing piece, the sense of completion, the instant of epiphany.
In the book, Victoria uses this anecdote to delve into the way storytelling works in terms of structure, characterisation and description. But as I was reading I was thinking it could apply just as well to revising a novel.
As you might know from reading Nail Your Novel, I believe in messy first drafts. Pile everything in, then prune. This stage is the work of deep imagination – where I make the story come alive after so long constructing it at a distance with broad strokes. The first draft is where I immerse to let the imaginative juices flow. Description, characters, events, back story – all the detail tumbles out of my head and goes into that draft.
Then I come back to my senses and it’s time to edit. To decide, ruthlessly, what detail isn’t needed and what is. It’s exacting, brutal and transformative.
In particular, I have to take what erupted from the imaginative blunderbuss and make it serve the story. And often that means difficult sacrifices.
Only what’s needed
You’ll see that the picture Victoria started with was lovely in its own right, but now it had to do a job.
This is one of the deepest secrets of good writing – or writing that makes effortless reading, which is the same thing. To take something that is good in its own right – a rich scene or a description or a character – and be able to see what part of it your book needs.
Like Victoria with her cherished but too-detailed lady, I examine whether the ruffles are telling details or discardable darlings. Whether the sensually rippled leather gloves are too distracting. And what I need to make each adapted part fit seamlessly together. If you do this stage of the editing right, every letter of your prose works as hard as it can.
The power of suggestion
Although novels build their worlds though telling details, there is only so much a reader can absorb. Too much and you have a muddle; too little and the reader isn’t immersed. While real life is a broadband activity, reading is like dial-up – we can handle only limited input at once, so writers have to be selective about what we focus on.
This applies not just to descriptions of physical objects, people or scenes, but to emotional states, reactions, textual resonances. Sophisticated writers develop a feel for what they can show and what they can suggest.
When you do it right, you invite the reader to fill in the rest.
And, as Victoria says, that makes them feel very good. It’s as if the book is having a conversation with the reader. It creates fiction that feels profound and resonant; stories that linger in the mind and the heart long after the book is closed.
(Excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story used with permission)
Anyway, this has deviated a little from Victoria’s original argument, and that’s definitely worth a read. You can find it in her book, available on Amazon from September 30
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.
I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.
During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?
Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.
A brainstorming draft
If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.
A learning draft
It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.
Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.
As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.
Get back to your vision of your book
First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?
Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.
When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.
Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.
Now to your manuscript
Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.
Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:
- 1 initial gems with rough edges
- 2 gems from the reworked version
- 3 don’t-minds
- 4 rejects.
File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.
If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.
Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.
Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments
Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr
My Memories of a Future Life: episodes 1 and 2 available now. Episode 3 will be out on 12th September. The print edition will be available at the end of September. Do you like podcasts? You can listen to or download, free, the first 4 chapters
We’ve got a tonne of stuff to let readers know at the start of a novel. What’s going on, who wants what, why it matters. And then there’s the background to the characters’ lives – how they know the people they’re with, what they do day to day. All the inventory that isn’t action but gives context and depth.
That’s back story.
Here are the two main problems with back story.
- Most writers fling it in too early.
- Most writers dump back story in one big chunk.
Both these problems mean the story grinds to a standstill. Which means the reader stops being engaged.
So how do you judge when is the right time?
First woo your reader
Imagine you have a new acquaintance. I’m talking about real life, by the way. Don’t even think of telling them about your life until they’re curious about you. Tell them the bare minimum until you’ve bonded with them in an experience that has drawn you closer together. Even then, give dribs and drabs; don’t whammy them with your entire biography. Give only what’s immediately relevant, what arises naturally from what you do together and what you already know.
In our hypothetical friendship, can you see how much is being held back? And how the full picture might not come out for a long time?
This is like your book’s relationship with the reader.
Your reader meets the book, is pulled into the world of the characters. You have to judge when they are genuinely curious for a dollop of back story. And it’s usually much later than you think.
So where do you put it?
I’m just thrashing through a final edit of My Memories of a Future Life, and with a title like that you can bet it’s got heaps of back story. Here’s what I did.
Cut it all out
I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story. It ran very smoothly without its weight of explanation, and offered me natural places to reintroduce a paragraph or two. Once I’d got the characters safely (or perilously) to their point of no return, the reader was warmed up enough to welcome the first chunk of back story.
Here’s how I’m dealing with the rest.
Make the back story part of the action
What you imagined as background may not have to stay as background. Could you make it part of the active story? In Life Form 3, which my agent sent out to publishers this week, I caught myself struggling with a lot of explanations. I realised I’d brought the reader in too late. So I started the story earlier and dramatised a lot of the explanations in real time.
Leave it as late as possible
As we said above, there are points in the story where the reader will welcome a few pages about the distant details of the character’s childhood, or how they first got a job at the circus. The later you leave it, the more delicious it might be.
Use back story as bonding material
As well as explaining back story directly through the narrator’s voice, you can also use it to deepen a bond between two characters in a story. If one character tells another how their relationship with their stepson went wrong, that’s miles better than leaving it in back story.
So much of what works in writing mirrors real life. If you think of your book as developing a relationship with the reader, it’s much easier to see you can’t pitch a chunk of back story in the first few chapters. So woo them a little. Intrigue them. Bond the reader to your characters and to you as a storyteller. There will come a point where your back story is very important to them.
Breaking news – historical and speculative author KM Weiland has obviously been wrestling with this topic recently too. She’s just posted a case study on back story in one of Hemingway’s classic shorts – check it out here.
Thanks, Binder.donedat for the pic How do you deal with back story? Do you find it a problem? Do share any examples of novels that have handled this well!
At Victoria Mixon’s again, for the last in our current batch of editor chats. It’s been great fun doing the series, bouncing ideas back and forth with a like-minded writer and editor. Even better, commenters are saying our series is as good as a writing conference – so thank you for that!
Tonight our subject is ‘Vision and revision’, or the buckets of perspiration that follow a bolt of inspiration. We talk about brainstorming and developmental editing, the imaginative quarrying that makes a nebulous idea into a solid novel and how, in the midst of all that sweat we keep our vision fresh. Heady stuff – come and see.
(Thank you, Compujeramay on Flickr, for the photo) Plus Victoria was dared by a naughty tweep to give the post an outrageous and topical URL. No, I didn’t encourage her at all. Nothing to do with me.