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Posts Tagged deepen your story
As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)
In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.
Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.
Does it matter?
Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.
If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off - usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.
Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.
Passive main characters
In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.
Unwillingness to alter events
Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.
Events need to matter more
Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.
I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…
Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)
I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.
If you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.
Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.
How to write a character who isn’t like you
Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.
In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.
So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.
Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!
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I’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.
A typical spread looks like this
Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.
It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.
The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.
The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.
Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.
It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.
He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.
There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.
The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.
I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.
This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.
No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?
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You might remember the terrific question Adam Nicholls asked me about daily wordcounts and now he’s sent me this: May I pick your brain about fleshing out a character? I’m struggling with someone who’s addicted to heroin.
What a challenging subject. It’s daunting to portray a character whose experience is well beyond your own, especially to such an extreme. Here’s where one of my day jobs comes in handy. My freelance gig on a doctors’ magazine means I’ve edited a lot of pieces by people who help addicts. So this is my checklist for creating a plausible, three-dimensional character in the grip of a demonic addiction, whether illegal drugs, alcohol or a habit such as gambling.
Choose your poison
The addictive drugs have different effects. Adam has already decided his character uses heroin but you might want your character speeded up, slowed down, made more confident or just mickey finned. For one of my ghosted novels I needed a drug that would produce ghastly, debilitating hallucinations with possible flashbacks and could be easily obtained by ravers. With that wish list I decided on ketamine. (A horse anaesthetic, since you ask. Horrible if taken by humans. And make sure your internet firewall is working. You’ll find some seriously shaky stuff.)
Decide how the drug or habit alters their personality
The drug will probably amplify or change certain parts of your character’s personality. So you need to know what they were like without the drug. And remember personality is not the same as back story. Although you might use back story to demonstrate a traumatic event that led them to addiction, their reaction is individual. That same event may have had a completely different effect on another person.
Consider what the drug does for them
What do they get out of it? Why did they like it at first? Why did they try it? Have they used other drugs and what did those do for them? Are they calmer, more intensely concentrated, does it take the edge off, make them more confident, ease awkwardness with other people, numb a sense of not belonging, being fundamentally wrong or dull some other pain?
Decide how addiction controls them
You’ll undoubtedly be reading first-hand accounts of addicts and those who have been close to addicts. But you can also do a little role-play yourself to understand a person in the grip of a fierce dependence. You may not have dabbled with drugs, but I’ll bet there’s something in your life that is so important you arrange everything around it. Your children, partner, job may all govern your day-to-day decisions and choices. So you know what it’s like to place something at the centre of your life and defend it when necessary. This is like your addict’s need.
What does your addict do to fund the habit and how does that impact their life? Do they steal? If so, do they commit crimes or do they steal from the people close to them? Or are they independently wealthy? Is their supply guaranteed or do they struggle to find the drugs? What dangerous people might their habit bring them into contact with?
Significant others who aren’t addicted
How does the addiction affect the lives of those around them? What story conflicts might that create? Does your character have family and friends who aren’t addicted? How do they react? How are relationships changed by it? Who might be driven away? Who might grow closer in an attempt to help? Who knew the character before they were like this? Who has only known them since it started?
Does your addict have the capacity to stop? What might help them? What might throw them back down?
Introduce the reader to the behaviour that will be abnormal
Your addict character won’t behave like the others. If they develop the addiction through the story, you can introduce their bizarre actions gradually. But if they’re already addicted at the start, you need to handle the character-establishing scenes carefully in case the reader mistakes them for clumsy writing or refuses to believe them. This may be tricky for you to judge by yourself, so when you give the book to beta readers, ask for feedback about it.
Ultimately, when writing an addicted character, it’s not about the substance/habit or the extreme physical experiences. Concentrate on their personality, priorities, conflicts and other people. Thanks for a terrific question, Adam – I’ve enjoyed tackling this.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
Guys, do you have any tips to add? Have you had to write a character who’s addicted, or somebody whose world is significantly different from your own?
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My guest this week admits she is antisocial. She likes to people-watch from behind wide sunglasses, and cocooned inside big headphones. She says her day is characterised by a constant flow of music, which has fed directly into the set of vignettes in the short fiction collection she has just published. I particularly have to thank her for introducing me to one of her special trigger tracks, by Florence + the Machine, as there’s something in it I might need for Ever Rest. And so the muse hops from mind to mind; I hope it will to yours too. She is Amanya Maloba and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The Self-Editing Masterclass Snapshots will resume tomorrow.
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My guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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‘Can I ask you about ghostwriting….?’ As you may know, this is how I first got published, writing novels that were released under the names of other people. I was the secret hand that wrote these (and others…)
I get asked about ghostwriting all the time, from people curious about it as a career path, or thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, or the plain curious. So here’s the dirt. Or as much as I can safely reveal.
Which books are ghostwritten?
Celebrity biographies and novels If someone has an interesting life story or is popular, a ghostwriter might be engaged to help them write a memoir. If that sells they might be asked if they fancy doing novels.
Megabrand genre novels It’s well known that James Patterson uses ghosts, outsourcing early draft work to keep up with demand. And that publishers hire writers to keep popular authors feeding the market after they die – eg Robert Ludlum. There are also plenty of other big-name authors in commercial fiction who are still alive and use ghostwriters, unacknowledged. (Knowing wink. You would be scandalised.)
So there’s plenty of work.
It’s all about who you know.
Editors and agents If you have a literary agent, let them know you’re up for ghosting. Also it’s worth mentioning to book editors you’ve worked with.
Journalism Journalism is another way to break in, especially for non-fiction. You might meet someone who wants help writing their life story or a book on their patch of expertise (but see below).
Author services companies I get frequent approaches from author services companies, who want reliable ghostwriters they can recommend to clients. I don’t know what the terms are, but, in general, I worry about working for services companies. Judging by other areas of publishing, one party gets a bad deal – either the client pays over the odds, or the freelance gets a lot less than market rate.
Pros and cons Cons first. You’re caught between two masters – which you realise when the ‘author’ wants one thing and the editor wants another. You will be amazed at the issues that blow up into diplomatic incidents and you’re left trying to please both. (Knowing wink. You’ll earn every dime.) Commercial ghostwriting is satisfying because the book will be published, and because of the cost of hiring you, it will probably be well marketed. Depending on your deal, should be a worthwhile addition to your CV and earnings stream. If you ghostwrite for an author services company, you may find there’s no long tail because the book is far less likely to earn in money or reputation.
What will you be paid? Deals vary, obviously. But to generalise, you get much better terms if you have representation. My agent is horrified at the contracts I have from my ghosting days.
My personal beware list
Don’t do any ghosting work for individuals unless you’re very sure they’ll get a publishing deal. Even if they’re a celebrity you know personally.
Don’t do any work on spec for agents. In more naive days I spent four months rewriting a thriller for a phenomenally well-connected gentleman, persuaded by an agent to do it for a future profits share. The book never sold and I never saw any payment.
Be even more careful of the situation that might land you in court – or worse. I get a lot of approaches from people who want me to help them write a book about their murder trial. Such a book couldn’t be published without cast-iron legal backing, which only a major publisher has the chops for. And as for the chap who wanted me to write the book about how he was manipulated into assassinating … No I can’t tell you. (Knowing wink with a nervous twitch. You might be dead.)
Can I hire a ghostwriter myself?
Question. Can you afford to pay six to nine months’ salary for a writer to do a proper job of your book? This is why, in commercial publishing, ghostwriters are generally funded by the publisher, not the writer (although they don’t always get a fair fee – see above). But if you have a strong concept for a book and a writer who is a good match, you could seek a deal together.
What about royalty-split deals? See the caveats above, but these are frontier-busting times. Indies are leading the way with new ways to fund books, as we’re seeing with ACX for audiobooks and translation deals.
How can I break in?
Aside from personal contacts, there are opportunities for beginners if you know where to look. Book packagers are companies that dream up commercial ideas for novels, which they pitch to publishers. Some of these become phenomenally successful. They need writers.
They give you the plot in painstaking detail, so your job is to flesh out the story into scenes. Sounds a doddle? There are two downsides. One – the pay is rubbish. Two –they demand rewrite after rewrite because they design the story by committee and change their minds. But it is a way to get experience, and you might make useful friends. Find them in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or the US equivalent. Contact them and ask if they’re looking for writers. If you send them a sample and it’s good enough, they might ask you to try out for a live project.
Have you any questions about ghostwriting? Or wisdom to add? Your turn!
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I have bought your book, Nail Your Novel, and it has been really helpful. I was having a blast. Loving my characters, villains, setting, plot. But after 70.000 words I have a huge abyss in my story, I hit this blank between the middle of act II and the climax. Everything before and after that is just fine, but it seems that no matter what I do, I can’t resolve this blank spot.
Eric Alatza, first-time writer, Brazil. (Oh my: Brazil. I know the web is world wide so this shouldn’t give us pause, not for even a picosecond. Especially as you might be reading this in Brazil too. But it reminds me, in London, how much I appreciate that self-publishing and social media lets us reach …. anywhere. #momentofawe #howmuchdoIlovetechnology)
Okay, here’s how I’d attack Eric’s problem.
1 Does your story climax really fit?
You’re trying to join the end to the rest of the book, but does it fit? Has the story evolved beyond your original plans? Do you believe in this ending?
I had this problem with Lifeform Three. In my first draft I had written a storming finale, planned from the start, and indeed it had a lot of material I was chuffed with. You will never see it because it wasn’t the ending the book needed. As I wrote, the characters had taken on deeper issues, confronted essential questions – and my original ending was logical but disappointing. So I nuked it – yes, the entire final third of the book – and started again.
I’m wondering, Eric, if your spider sense is telling you this, which is why you can’t jump the chasm to the finale you planned. Ask yourself:
- Is the ending unsatisfying in terms of themes explored, questions posed, other threads left dangling?
- Are you forcing the characters in a direction they don’t want to go?
- Will a character have to be uncharacteristically stupid to bring about this climax?
Is a new ending too painful to contemplate? Well, it costs nothing to brainstorm. Just as an exercise, cut loose and see where else you might go.
You mention you have problems with the story’s middle. Is that because your ideas so far don’t seem significant enough?
If so, ask why. The middle of act II is traditionally a turning point. Perhaps the story stakes magnify, or an event turns everything on its head. Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, which surprises and appals her. Nothing can be the same after that conversation. Perhaps there are new alliances that change the nature of the conflict – as in The Hunger Games. It might be the point where the character’s flaw, inner problem or true self first emerges as a dominant force – in Fahrenheit 451, the midpoint is where Montag meets a new mentor character. In the film of The Godfather, the midpoint is the scene where Michael Corleone commits murder, setting him on a new path. It might be a transformation that is subtle but deep. In My Memories of a Future Life, it’s where my narrator truly surrenders to the future incarnation. (I tried to write that without giving spoilers…)
So is your midpoint important enough? Have you got that sense of transformation and escalation? If not, brainstorm ways to find this significance. (And allow yourself to think of solutions that might mess up your planned ending.)
3 Get fresh inspiration
As always, you might be running on empty. When I’m stuck, I go to LibraryThing.com and search for novels that tackle similar themes, issues and situations. I also post an appeal for recommendations on Twitter and Facebook. (I’d do it on Goodreads too if I could work out how.)
Dissatisfaction is progress
There is a reason why you’re balking, although you may not consciously know it yet Our instincts are rarely articulate, but they are usually right. You know the rule about inspiration and perspiration? To fill a plot hole, do more digging.
Drafting is more than transcribing your notes
All the stages of novel-writing are creative. We’re constantly triaging our ideas and refining them. Whether we’re outlining, drafting or editing, we might find new insights and directions. Be ready to make the most of them.
More about the Nail Your Novels here. Even available in Brazil.
Thanks for the pic Corinnely
What would you say to Eric?
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I get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.
Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)
First of all, what’s a beat sheet?
It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.
Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.
- Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
- Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
natural world & how people are isolated
- M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
- Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
true feelings, everyone’s doing this
- Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
- M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
- Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
- Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
- taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
- M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
- Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
- M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
- B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
- M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
- M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…
So that’s how it’s done.
Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?
Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.
First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)
We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.
Connecting us with the character
In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.
In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.
Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life
Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.
Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.
I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here
And more about Lifeform Three here
Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire
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I wrote it with an outline, but even so, it changed a lot in the telling – and this is what I want to talk about today.
Planning v pantsing
Hands up: who’s a planner? And who writes by the seat of their pants?
Planning versus pantsing is supposed to be one of the great divides between writers. On the one side we have systematic processes; on the other, an argument for natural connection and creative flow.
But it is possible to write with a detailed outline – and go with your instincts. An outline isn’t a straitjacket.
Indeed, Ever Rest started to bust its sleeves as soon as I got typing.
The first was the point-of-view characters. I originally nominated three. Pretty soon there were two others. Perspectives galore, who weren’t originally planned for.
Four main characters completely defied my expectations. I thought I knew who they were, but when they got on their hind legs and talked they acquired unexpected dimensions. They then did a thing they weren’t supposed to, which shook up the entire third act.
And this was a book I’d planned (more here about my writing process).
It might seem as though all that dithering with cards and marker pens was wasted. I might as well have made it up day by day. But no; I still stuck to the plan.
Before I put my cards into order for writing, I knew them very well. When my characters took me by surprise, I knew which scenes could be shuffled into better positions. I also found new gaps, and scribbled more cards. And I wrote the last section backwards from the end.
So an outline doesn’t bind you to one path through the story. It does, however, provide a useful framework. A lot of storytelling is form and structure, crescendos and revelations. Without this, you might write your way into an aimless wilderness – which is one of the dangers when we make it up as we go. An outline keeps that mechanism in order; it is a safe space where you can interpret, experiment and follow inspiration.
And despite my deviations, I realise the book is, in essence, what I was aiming for all along. My outline was a series of wishes thrown into a well. The writing made them come true.
My tips for using an outline creatively
- Stick with your outline – it was made with an awareness of patterns, structure and themes. It imposes coherence and shape. But adjust to take advantage of new insights. You may find you can use events you’ve planned in a better way – give them to different characters or shuffle them to new positions.
- If you want to make a drastic detour, make a list of the pros and cons. Is Mary the murderer after all? Spend five minutes making a list of the consequences if she is.
- Some writers use an outline up to a point – then abandon it as inspiration shows the true direction.
But don’t feel that the previous work was wasted. It wasn’t. It’s what got you here.
There’s more in Nail Your Novel about writing outlines and using them creatively.
Do you outline your novels? If so, how strictly do you stick to them? If you don’t outline, how do you work? Let’s discuss!
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‘What are your views on head-hopping? In my steep learning curve, I gathered it was frowned upon (maybe just for newbies?).
Head-hopping. First of all, what’s Robert talking about?
All narratives have a point of view – the ‘eyes’ through which a story is told. It might be a dispassionate third-person camera following everyone. It might be a more involved third person account with insights into one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings (close third). It might be first person, where there is only one person’s experience.
Head-hopping is where the point of view changes. It’s not always verboten – we’ll come to that. But it’s often done unintentionally – and when it is, it can cause a logic hiccup. It can even kick the reader right out of the story.
It’s easiest to spot POV slips in first-person stories, where the narrator describes something they couldn’t possibly know or experience – another person’s intentions, or an event they aren’t present at. (Indeed, this is usually where writers realise the limitations of first-person narration. And so the character finds a diary or a secret blog…)
Head-hopping problems are not confined to first person (or close third), though. A third-person scene might be following one character’s experience, then slip into a perspective that somehow doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s just a paragraph, or a line. It’s often hard to spot. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and they’ll disengage from you.
However, point of view shifts aren’t bad per se. In most novels we need to accommodate a lot of characters and their stories. Here’s part 2 of Robert’s question:
I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King, and my word, does he head-hop! Is that because he is such a good storyteller? Or should he be advised to avoid this? (I can write to him and let him know…)
Hah! It’s a while since I read Stephen King, and the chances are even slimmer that I’ve read the same Stephen King as you, Robert! But some general points.
He might indeed have got it wrong. All writers have blind spots. And it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t edited rigorously.
But also … he might have got it right!
The only way to tell? When you notice it, ask yourself if it was an inconsistency that shook you out of the story, even slightly. A good POV shift keeps you immersed.
Let’s explore a few ways to shift point of view and do it well.
Two ways to shift point of view
New chapters – a new point of view gets a new chapter. You might even write some chapters first person and some third – as Deborah Moggach does in Tulip Fever. In each she follows one character’s experience closely. And if two of the principals share a scene? She writes one chapter from one point of view, and revisits the event in a separate chapter for the other person’s. She always remains disciplined about which point of view she is following. 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.
Shift within the scene – yes you can get away with it, if you are well behaved. You might:
- Show one paragraph from one point of view, the next from the other. Make sure the reader will be able to follow which is which without getting confused. But if the scene is intense, you might leave the reader punch-drunk from trying to follow two strong experiences. It might be better to…
- Switch the entire point of view during the scene – so the first half follows one character’s perspective, then swivels to the other until the end. I’m doing this in Ever Rest as I have several protagonists, all getting into dire angst. Note this is usually a one-time change – it can bust the reader’s patience if you flip back again.
(There’s more about point of view in my characters book)
What we leave out
One of the keys to point of view is judging what to leave out. The writer always knows a lot more than the reader. We know every main character’s thoughts, back story, front story. And that’s why it’s hard to spot head-hopping in our own work – because we make the mental switch without realising. But the reader can’t. They get lost, even if only by a micron.
All points of view have their limitations and boundaries. We have to write within them.
Control is everything
Robert says: In my first book, I found some errors where there was a transfer of POV. When I edited them to stick to the main POV, I thought it read better.
Amen. And this is why: when you begin a story, you establish a set of conventions. In the same way as we set up rules about the story world (whether it’s realistic contemporary, medieval with magic etc) we also set up rules for how we will tell it. If we’re going to shift between experiences, we establish the pattern from the earliest chapters. If we break that pattern, it disturbs the flow. Of course, we might use that to disorientate or shock – imagine a story where the surprise appearance of a new narrator might cause delicious mayhem. That’s the head-hopping principle – used for deliberate impact.
Skilful writers never fumble the reader’s experience. And point of view is a potent storytelling tool.
Thanks for the Rear Window pic x-ray delta one
Do you have problems with POV and head-hopping? Do you have examples of when it’s been used to create an interesting effect – or writers who seem to be getting away – gasp – uncorrected? Share in the comments!
NEWS The audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life is now live! You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.
If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Is your main character you? How to tell – and how to widen your character repertoire August 31, 2014
- ‘The power of music and friendship’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Paul Connolly August 27, 2014
- Find the style that fits the story – Jose Saramago’s Blindness August 24, 2014
- ‘Music to grieve by’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Natalie Buske Thomas August 20, 2014
- Heroes and heroin – writing a character who has an addiction August 17, 2014
- ‘Music, grief and sibling rivalry’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn August 13, 2014
- ‘Plundered people and rotten exploitation’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Paul Sean Grieve August 6, 2014
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