Posts Tagged beginners
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
Joanna Penn was writing this week about how she’s smartened her writing routine as a result of what she learned while writing her first novel, Pentecost. I thought I’d share the ways in which I’ve found my own writing sped up from those early, stumbling days.
It’s as if we write our first novel with a blindfold on. We have an idea for a story and off we go, grabbing things, finding they’re not what we thought, discarding them, discovering holes. At some point we pay more attention to learning to write. By the time we roll out a manuscript that will please our most critical readers we’ve come a long way.
Obviously by novel two that learning curve is behind us. We know what a story needs, structurally and emotionally. We appreciate the needs of our genre. We’ve worked with editors or feedback groups and we understand how outsiders see our work.
Establish a method
As I’m sure you’ll appreciate from reading this blog, writers who produce reliably establish a method for getting the work done. I put mine in Nail Your Novel and it seems to work rather well for a lot of people
All that is part of the craft. But there’s the other half of the writing process as well – the creative one. That’s harder to control because with ideas we tend to get what our inspiration gives us. To an extent, we still have the blindfolds on.
Make your muse work smarter
When you’re arming yourself to tackle another novel, it helps to look at the way you handle creative problems. You will probably find you hit a number of blocks the first time round, and you can take more control of them now. With a bit of analysis, you can reduce periods where you’re scratching your head because you don’t know what’s wrong or you have no ideas at all. In other words, you can fend off the dreaded block.
Ask yourself these questions
Where in the story did you waste time on things that didn’t work? Were they a particular kind of scene?
How long did it take you to find out what engaged you about your story? Are there questions you could ask yourself to drill down to that more quickly so that you know where your story is going?
How could you have prepared better for writing each scene in close up?
What darlings did you keep on life support that you ended up killing anyway?
Where did you go around loops of a maze instead of taking a straight line?
Where were you lazy – and unmasked by your editors or crit partners?
Where did you contrive situations to get something in that wasn’t going to fit?
Where did you get in a tangle with continuity and could you have made things easier for yourself?
What did your beta readers or editors identify as your weaknesses? What can you do to pre-empt those problems this time around?
What kind of research did you need to do and what was a waste of time?
Thank you, Mockstar on Flickr, for the picture. Have you ever diagnosed where your muse could have worked smarter? If you do it now, what would it tell you? Share in the comments!
I was critiquing a manuscript recently and as with all drafts, there were areas that sang beautifully and others that needed more work. Some types of scene came to life in a three-dimensional, gut-pummelling experience. Others trotted through at a distance as though the writer was including them dutifully but wasn’t interested in them. (And this distance wasn’t deliberate; sometimes we use these techniques for specific effects but that wasn’t what was going on here.)
Of course you know what I’m going to say. If you’re not interested in writing a scene, the reader won’t be interested in reading it. Either don’t bother or find something in the scene to engage you.
How to pep yourself up
Perhaps you don’t feel very sure of the content. Ask yourself – what are you not sure of? Do you need to do more research to bring it to life – for instance, if it’s a new location you don’t know well? Or do the characters need more to do beyond the main goal of the scene?
Or maybe you know full well what’s going to happen but you’d rather get to the next interesting bit. In which case, you either need to generate something in the scene that excites you (for instance, add conflict, twist events an unusual way) – or do something else entirely, no matter how inconvenient that seems.
But listen to the voice that tells you you’re unengaged. It’s telling you for your own good.
But this client’s manuscript was different. It was a thriller, but the author wasn’t engaged by his chases, backstabbing, skulking and close shaves with assassins. All of these were competent and well planned, but told at a summarised distance. I showed him how to make them ping off the page, of course. But he came to life, all by himself, in spectacular fashion in an extraordinary near-drowning scene, where the character has a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with the people stalking his psyche from his past. It was as though another book was trying to fight its way out of the one he thought he was writing. And one that was much more real to him.
This is, I suppose, one of the mysteries of writing. Just as parents have to let children be who they are rather than who they can be moulded into, writers sometimes have to let their true genre bust out by itself. Inconvenient though that might be if you think you’re writing a straightforward, saleable genre novel.
Is your book telling you you haven’t yet found the right genre?
Thank you, Iko, for the picture. Coming August 30: My Memories of a Future Life.
I’m fascinated to know if anyone else has done this. Have you tried to write one sort of novel and found you naturally wrote another?
Writing is full of potential ‘dump’ areas. The back story dump, which I talked about last week. The info-dump, aka exposition. And this week, I came across a novel that was wearing its themes rather dumpishly.
When this author wanted to alert us to one of her themes, the characters had a chat about it. Or it was on a TV programme they were watching. Or in the college lecture they’d gone to. So far in this book we’ve had the failure of language 101, the women’s movement 101 and male/female stereotypes 101. (And this isn’t, by the way, one of my clients’ WIP manuscripts. It’s a published literary novel.)
There’s nothing wrong with the odd mention of a theme here or there, of course. After all, characters have got to talk about/watch/learn/be interested in something. A line or two won’t hurt, to give flavour here and there. So long as you don’t stop the action for half a page while you deliver a lecture. (And some writers do it for far longer.)
Bring theme to life
If you feel the need to shake your resonances, you have to do a bit more than dump an essay on the reader. Theme shouldn’t come from what the characters intellectually talk about, but from what they feel. The kind of problems that cause trouble for them. Or the way everyone in the universe of the novel behaves. Then the themes become tangible influences in the novel.
So how do you create this feeling?
Sub-plots, my friends
One of the best ways is with sub-plots. Your main plot may examine the theme from one angle; if your sub-plot comes at it another way, that makes the reader more aware of it as a force in the world of your story.
Shakespeare, as we might expect, knew how to make a theme sing for its supper. Take King Lear. In the main plot the king is abdicating and splitting up his kingdom, and trusts the wrong children while wronging the one who is truly decent. In the sub-plot, an illegitimate son (treated badly by everyone from the day he was born) schemes to get his brother disinherited because he feels he deserves his chance. Yes, from time to time the characters deliver speeches about thankless children and unnatural behaviour, but they are provoked by what is what is happening to them. (You can find out more about using sub-plots in my book, Nail Your Novel.)
Themes tend to be intellectual concepts. To make them work in a novel, you have to bring them to life. Not dump them in and constipate your story. I dare you to tweet that line.
Thanks for the picture, Marco/Zak on Flickr
How are you bringing themes alive in your novel? Share in the comments!
On Courage2Create, Ollin is documenting his journey to write his first novel and equip himself for a long-term and lasting writing career. As part of that quest, he seeks advice from a diversity of sources, practical to spiritual.
Though I have to confess that despite the name, the ghosting I discuss is entirely practical…
A problem I see in many manuscripts is that the main character is passive. By this I mean the character doesn’t seem to do very much. The trouble and events are inflicted on them and the story consists of them reacting or trying to extricate themselves. They’re in the back seat of the story – and other people (and forces) are in the driver’s position.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Certainly, many stories might kick off with an act from an outside person, a coincidence or bad luck. But if most of the mess and trouble that follows is caused by other people, and not the central character we are reading about, what happens?
The person in the driving seat becomes the more interesting character.
Well, of course they do. They have more gumption. They are pushed further by their hopes and fears. They are active shapers of their own destiny. They are more likely to surprise us. In short, they are riding a bigger rollercoaster than the character who is centre stage.
(Of course, you may be making a deliberate choice to make your character passive; but if not, you’re probably unintentionally neutering them.)
Not just novice writers
But the problem of making main characters passive seems to be a tricky blind spot – and not just for first-time novelists. I was once in a writing group that included several much-published authors, at least one of them award winning. While they read excerpts from their WIPs, the rest of us would frequently tell them off for making their main characters passive.
So it seems our natural inclination might be to put our characters in the back seat, rather than the one that has the wheel. Which makes me wonder – why?
Because we like it that way
For most of our lives we’re in routines – juggling the conflicting demands of work, play, family. Traditionally, a story might start when an event bolts out of the blue and disrupts the status quo. The writer thinks as we all would – what would I do? We’d deal with the distraction and try to restore normality as soon as possible. Because this is how real life works.
The second reason we naturally make our characters passive is this – most writers are the hermit, routine kind of person. It’s not that we aren’t shapers, making our destiny, but we do it most actively inside our heads. We observe, react, shuffle the cards – and write. It’s no wonder our natural inclination is write passive characters.
Stories are not like life
So all that is true to life, but stories and entertainment don’t work in the same way as real life. In stories we want trouble and change or they’re hardly worth telling. We also want to feel we are on a journey with a person who is driven to unusual and interesting lengths by what is happening to them. Someone who isn’t just reacting, but has interesting urges awoken by what is going on. Not fire fighting, but about a fire that is forging a new them. Active characters aren’t naturally more dashing than you or me. They are driven to new extremes – possibly to do things that they never thought they were capable of.
With all that in mind, there are two ways to naturally make your main character more active.
1 – If possible, don’t start a story with an event from outside – a death, a job loss, a hit and run, a murder. Instead, make the kick-off event arise from what the character is already doing. Grafting drama on from the outside can only produce reactions – when an active character needs to take action.
2 – Make this inciting incident something that makes it impossible for the character to go back to their life as they were before.
Find a way to force your character into the driving seat.
Do you have problems with recognising when your main characters are passive? Or do you prefer them that way?
You might have heard this week that the Ed Victor Literary Agency has started its own ebook and print-on-demand venture, initially to republish clients’ books that have fallen out of circulation.
I said in a comment on my recent post Should You Hit Self-Publish that this was disappointing. Because what I’d really like to see is agents using a model like this to showcase the work of original new writers.
As I said in my post, publishers were once allowed to acquire books purely because they were good, but now they have to worry about selling sure-fire winners to book chains and supermarkets. This means the original, the unusual, the unknown, the pesky cross-genre novelists are not getting publication deals. And yet these books were considered brilliant enough for agents to take them on.
There can’t be an agent in the world who doesn’t have a few titles they’re 100% passionate about but can’t sell.
This is bad for our art form. It’s bad for authors. It’s bad for everyone who likes a good read. It’s ghettoising our next generation of original authors, who ten years ago would have had a chance to build a career.
So what I’d really like to see is this. Agents should start their own ‘discovery’ imprints on POD and ebook. They should showcase, say, six titles every few months that they passionately believe deserve to be read.
The major reviewers would take notice, because the titles would have been stringently picked with the seal of approval of a legitimate agent. It would be another way to encourage publishers to have confidence in these new authors. And even if the showcased titles were too kooky for the mainstream, the publishers might want to know about the author’s other work.
It used to be that if you self-published a book, you’d scuppered all chances of it appearing in print conventionally. Even that’s changing. Kindle Direct Publishing’s latest newsletter features the story of Nancy Johnson, who published her novel on Kindle and has had offers of representation and publishers wanting to buy foreign rights.
All in favour, say aye
I used to take singing lessons. I’d always loved belting out a tune, and being rather a perfectionist I wanted to do it well. I sailed through the basics and was sent to an advanced teacher. Then the trouble started. She had been a child prodigy and had been coached, much like a Russian gymnast, to do nothing but her art. So she was entirely intolerant of imperfection.
I’d open my mouth and she’d say ‘your tongue’s in the wrong place’. And I hadn’t even made a sound. Tongues, by the way, are not just the flappy thing you can see. They go all the way down your throat and have to be kept flat. Pretty soon I was so bamboozled by the invisible anatomy that had to be under conscious control that I couldn’t sing at all. Not even a good holler in the bath, because I had a weight of bad habits to eradicate. What used to be so natural became impossible.
I stopped. Gradually the desire to sing came back. I started experimenting with the techniques she’d tried to din into me. I built a singing technique for myself, enjoyed making musical noise again, fortified (and amplified) with what I understood. Now, as friends will attest, just don’t let me start.
The uncomfortable second age
I meet a lot of writers who are flailing in that uncomfortable middle area. They began with ideas to express, stories to tell and a joy of playing on the page. Then they learned how many undesirable habits they had and how much they needed to unlearn. Making a scene instead of summarising. Structuring properly. Making our heroes heroic and believable. Not using adverbs. Thousands of criticisms that tell them they know nothing about the activity that used to bring them joy. Pretty soon, they aren’t trusting any of their instincts – or even letting them speak at all. Or they’ve lost faith in the book they’re writing.
It’s no wonder we hear people worrying that by learning craft they’re becoming robots obeying a formula.
The third age
But if we carry on, we come out into the third stage. One day, we find we’re kicking back and writing as ourselves again. We’re not thinking about rules any more. They’re not strictures into which we are trying to fit. They are tools we are going to use in our own way to make our individual novels. We know them as well as we know our mother tongue.
And, tongues notwithstanding, we’re singing on the page again.
Thank you, pink_fish13, for the picture.
I’ve said there are three stages to becoming a writer. Perhaps there are more. What do you think?