Posts Tagged George Orwell

Past master: how to stop back story slowing your novel

Human – business evolutionI’ve had this email from Henry Boleszny, who is struggling with unwieldy back story:

My novel is more than 170,000 words without the back story, which I had to cull because it was 70,000 words. I tried eliminating it; the book was a shallow disaster.  I’ve tried summarising; it interrupted the story without explaining what was going on. The problem is that the culture and setting are predicated on an event 70 years before the story begins.  This is key to the protagonist’s behaviour, attitude and circumstances.   

The villain is involved 5 years before the story starts and works behind the scenes against the protagonist, who thinks the villain is dead. But if I don’t introduce the back story involving him, a lot of the story doesn’t make sense and characters’ reactions are hard to understand – especially in later books. I’m grateful for any suggestions.

Wow, Henry, I can see you’ve got a lot to squeeze in. And it’s far too much for the reader to catch up with. We need to restructure your story. This is what I would do.

Solution 1 – Try to simplify

DOES the story have to be this complex? Has it run away with you as you’ve added events and complications?

I frequently get myself into this kind of fix. I invent far more than I need. At some stage, I take a hard look and decide what I can streamline.

Take a blank sheet of paper and write down only the most important pieces of history. How do you decide that those are? They’re what help your readers understand the problems of your protagonist.

From other information you’ve told me, I know you’re writing a dystopia. There’s no better model than other novels that do it well – try Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both have a heck of a lot of explaining to do, but never overwhelm the reader. They begin with the protagonist on an ordinary day, coping with a feeling they don’t fit with the world. This is accessible and relatable to everyone, and lets the reader connect with the character’s humanity. So look at your world’s problems in terms of what disturbs or distresses your protagonist in their normal life.

Both those novels do eventually reveal a lot of back story. We do get to World 101 – why it’s in such a mess, on a knife edge and who made it that way. But we don’t find out for some considerable time. First, we bed in with the characters. When the larger chunks of back story are revealed, they are parallel to the protagonist’s state of mind. They come at a stage where the character is curious to ask these deeper questions: how did we go so wrong? How can I get out of it?

If you do this, you will see how little of your back story you need to get the plot running. Concentrate on the characters and what makes life hard for them – and preferably harder than for other people in the story, so that they are the canary in the coal mine. The protagonists of Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four are first and foremost unhappy misfits. Second, they are echoing a sense of humanity gone wrong.

Even so, the authors might not have told us everything they had developed. So while you’re simplifying, look out for ideas you could leave out (even if you’re proud of them).

nynfiller2Solution 2 – the opposite – expand and write the prequel

You made the back story this complex because it interests you, right? It’s become as important as the present story.

For instance, your villain had his heyday before your narrative starts. Why not write that story? And the main events happened 70 years before – that could be another story.

You could twine them together as parallel narratives – like The Godfather. Vito Corleone’s life is one strand: his son, Michael Corleone, is living in the world Vito made.

Now I can understand why you might not have thought to spotlight these stories. The outcomes, as we know, must be that baddies triumphed – a downbeat ending. But some books go like that – especially books about worlds. Think of A Game of Thrones – an epic series where some characters succeed and some fail. Your villain’s victory could surely be a dramatic story. People must have opposed him; he can’t have got away without a fight. Even if he succeeds, you could also suggest a twinkle of hope, a scrap of resistance that won’t stay quiet for ever.

 Solution 3 – add a newcomer

Another way into a complex world is to introduce it through a proxy character like John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series, who arrives on Mars from Earth. All the civilisation is new to him, which means he has to acclimatise along with the reader. (Same as John Carter in ER.)

You could also begin with a character growing up in the world, and having it explained – like Suldrun in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse series.

Thanks for the pic patriziasoliani

What would you say to Henry? Are there any books you would add to his reading list? Share in the comments!   

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compDystopias, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 are among the books and topics tackled in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life. Out now in all formats, including (ahem) combustible.

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How to find the right title for your book – a brainstorming workshop

book titles

Jane Austen’s unfinished masterpiece

I’ve had this question from Kate Calcutt.

How important is the title of a book?

Good titles make you stop and wonder. Catch-22. Wow, what’s that? The Other Boleyn Girl. Wait, there were two? Nineteen Eighty-Four. Why then? What happens? (The book was published in the 1940s, so the forward-reaching, inverted date was startling.)

The more famous you are, the less hard your title has to work. Iain Banks graduated from The Wasp Factory to The Business. Would you have picked up The Business if it had been his first? Barbara Vine gets away with No Night Is Too Long because her name already tells readers what they’re getting. Which is just as well because No Night Is Too Long has zero stopping power and is darn hard to remember.

If you’ve got a long-running series, you can coast with the later titles. The first needs to audition with bells and whistles, but later titles can trade on insider knowledge. Mockingjay would be a challenge to remember unless you’d been primed by The Hunger Games. But it’s really a title that says ‘welcome back’.

But if you don’t have much already on the shelves, your title is your one chance to make a reader stop and consider spending time with you. It is your novel’s chat-up line in a place with hundreds of suitors. It needs to thrum with promise, intrigue.

Is this title okay?

Kate also said: I’m considering a title change from ‘In the Background’, to ‘Life, Captured’.

I’m afraid both of those fall at the first hurdle. They’re so vague that they can’t give a flavour of the book, and a reader is likely to pass them by in favour of a title that makes a strong case for what it’s about. Both these titles could describe just about any story.

Now, you might argue that we want our books to appeal to the widest number of readers. And I’m sure if there was a genre category called ‘for anyone who likes a good read’ we would all hope our book belonged in it. But marketing can’t be about ‘vagueness’ or ‘everyone’. It’s about specifics, individuals and distinctiveness.

Let’s get specific

So what are the specifics of Kate’s book? She described her novel to me as contemporary female fiction – the story of a woman’s life as observed by those in the background of her holiday photos.

Now this is an interesting concept and I can understand why she’s toying with those titles. But they didn’t make me want to pick the book up. In The Background might work with a stunning cover. But titles are seen just as often without their artwork, so we can’t rely on that.

So what shall we do to find a better title? We need to brainstorm.

I’m not saying I’ll get a better title in this post, but here’s a starter. Only Kate knows what really mirrors the soul of the book.

nynfiller21. Dig out the thesaurus

Find words that suggest photos, snapshots, images, likenesses, portraits. Exposure. Shot. Frame. Lens. Subject. Picture. I got down to ‘image’ and I found ‘angel’ – a nice emotive word. Photos aren’t the only interesting concept here. Let’s look up watchers, onlookers, witnesses. And moments. Even jigsaws, as this novel seems to present a life in pieces. Or chorus, as the piecemeal narrative is like the commentary of a Greek chorus. What about biography, as it’s the story of a life? Make a huge list of possible nouns.

Now start another list of verbs and adjectives that could go with those. You’re looking for something surprising or emotive. The blurred girl? Background is a good word if we use it strongly. Could that go with something?

Don’t stop with single words. List questions, enigmas, dilemmas that might arise from the book’s concept.

2. Go for the familiar – and twist

Find idioms that use all the words you’ve listed. And book titles – Amazon is useful for this, as is my beloved Library Thing. Song titles too. As good titles set up a frisson, you can get a powerful effect from altering a phrase that’s already familiar. Look at Anthony Burgess showing off (as ever) with a novel called Nineteen Eighty-Five.

In my scoot around LibraryThing I found a novel called Autobiography of a Family Photo by Jacqueline Woodson. That’s got an intriguing vibe so it’s definitely worth looking at other titles that are similar. There’s also The Photograph by Penelope Lively. The descriptions of these two novels necessarily explain the title, which could give you extra ideas to explore.

3. Look in the text

The perfect title might already be in your novel, hidden in a line of dialogue, or introspection, or a description.

4. Look at the genre

Your book needs to woo the right kind of readers, so you need to capture the right tone. Note, especially, the emotions that titles evoke – that’s the promise to the reader. And avoid misleading ones. Although ‘witness’ is good for the brainstorming list, if you put it in the title you might give the impression that it’s a crime novel.

A shortlist

Write a shortlist of titles. Force yourself to come up with many more than you need. Then put them away and come back when you’ve forgotten what they are. Try the best ones out on friends, then go back to Amazon to see how your shortlist compares with the books already out in the marketplace.

Repeat until satisfied.

You’ll find some more notes on titles in this post by Ray Harvey aka Journal Pulp.

Do you struggle to think up titles?  Do you have any tips? Share in the comments! And if you want to continue brainstorming Kate’s book – or if you think of a possible title share it here!

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Got to explain my story’s world… but how do I avoid exposition?

I have a client who has written an ambitious novel set in a dystopia. It’s a powerful idea, but he hadn’t made me understand the world. I was constantly confused about what the characters were doing and why the scenes he showed me were significant.

He explained he was trying to avoid exposition – for which he gets a stack of brownie points, if not actual brownies. But how should he fill the gaps?

Don’t even mention ‘prologue’

Neither of us even uttered the words ‘explanatory prologue’. I’m saying them here for the sake of completeness. A prologue describing the world is not, generally, a good way to captivate a reader. They want to plunge into the story and bond with characters, not sit down for a lecture.

What’s exposition?

Exposition is when the author tells the reader something they need to understand and is obvious about it. So a pair of characters natter about a subject they don’t need to talk about. ‘I have to go and clean the neutron drive, Susan. As you know, we’re on a big spaceship and have been for many months.’ Unless the line is to show an ironic character quirk, this is the author shoving his face between the characters.

Opposite of TMI

But if you give the reader too little context, they don’t know where they are or what anything means to the characters. Yours truly, Baffled.

Let me explain

The only sin of exposition is that it is unnatural. So you find ways to slip this material in without breaking the fourth wall.

If the world is new to the character, like Harry Potter’s entrance to Hogwarts, your task is simple. Get the reader curious, then show them all the mad stuff. But if the world isn’t new to the character, you have to be more subtle.

Here’s how George Orwell does it in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

He begins with a tour of Winston Smith’s ordinary life. We have a day in April (relatable, familiar) and clocks striking thirteen (borderline normal, and strange enough to intrigue us). Winston is hurrying along in the wind to his grotty apartment block (normal). The lift is out of order (relatable) because of Hate Week (crikey, what’s that?). There’s a poster: ‘Big Brother is Watching You’ (intriguing and sinister). Inside his mostly familiar apartment is a telescreen, which he can’t turn off (weird). Outside his window there’s a sign in a distorted form of English (skewed and forbidding). He tries to find a place where the screen can’t see him (exactly as we might, because it isn’t nice being watched). Why is he hiding? To do something we take for granted – he is writing in a diary.

This sequence is explaining the world but it’s totally natural. (Historical novelists have to do it too.) It’s showing a piece of life that we would recognise, and intriguing us with what’s distorted. Even better, Orwell has added the character’s need: privacy to be himself. Because a world isn’t about things, it’s about people.

Information, information

At any time in a story, we might have to convey lumps of information that the characters know but the readers don’t – for instance, what spelunking is, how a horseshoe is made. Explaining a world is no different.

Exposition is simply when you do it badly.

Let’s have some more examples of authors who explain their characters’ worlds with style – share in the comments!

 COMPETITION WINNERS If you get this blog by email, you might have had trouble with the post I whipped up first thing announcing the winners of the Future Life special edition. I loused up the link to the Red Blog – it should have been this. Doh. Scoot to the bottom of the post for the results. And note to self: medicate with coffee before hitting publish.

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Never begin your story with weather – a writing taboo examined

Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.

So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:

That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’

It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?

1 It’s interesting

Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’

But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

2 It’s about people

We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?

In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)

3 A storyteller is luring us in

Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.

The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.

Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson

What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos

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