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Posts Tagged having ideas
I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.
I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.
It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)
But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?
Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.
He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.
One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.
Take, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.
We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.
The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.
Science fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.
We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.
Science fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.
So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange … Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?
POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.
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Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Wed afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
- giving yourself permission to write
- establishing a writing habit
- thinking like a writer
- getting published 101
- how to self-publish.
This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.
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Why? Because they looked like they had the potential to be significant.
I’m not going to tell you the true details, of course, so this is a paraphrase. Broadly speaking, the characters have formed a new business venture. If it succeeds, it gives the narrator a new start in life. Also there’s a romance that will be threatened, because the girlfriend wants to settle somewhere else. The business makes this more tricky. Yet the writer summarised this period of preparation and change.
It’s fair enough to fast forward if there was nothing interesting to show. But during those hours, the characters are playing unfamiliar roles, and getting closer to their hopes and dreams. Relationships will change because of the responsibilities. Tensions will be growing. I said to my client: are you sure there is nothing interesting in these scenes? Do you really want to leave them out? To me, they’re gaps in the narrative.
I’ve often been guilty of this myself. I’ll be working through my outline and I’ll find a section where I’ve glossed over a set of events, not imagining they might hold important developments. I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought, but as I write, I detect this is leaving an unacceptable hole, disconnecting the reader from the characters’ arcs.
However, I don’t know what to write in these scenes. I certainly don’t know what might make the scene interesting. So what do I do? Apply backside to seat, start the fingers and let the characters guide me.
Some of my most satisfying scenes were born this way. It might be a good campfire moment, a small-hours conversation that turns surprisingly confidential. It might be a time to have an argument, confess some back story or blurt out something unwise because a character is ratty and tired. There might be a switch in a character’s attitude, a hardening of resolve, a feeling that this venture is committing my people to a disastrous path.
I start by writing any old nonsense and look for the point where the significance begins to grow. I might cut 90% of it later, but some part of this new material is usually valuable. And if I’d let myself summarise, I’d never have found it.
Gaps in research
Another reason I might dodge writing a scene like this is because, well, I didn’t do the homework. I have no idea what the practicalities of the situation would be. You’ll probably agree that’s a lame reason to leave a scene out, and might shortchange the reader. Writer, get thyself to Wikipedia.
Not all summary is bad!
Summary can be good, of course. You have to condense sometimes. But if you’re summarising scenes only because you find it too difficult to jump into them, or you hadn’t thought what they might contain, or you don’t have the knowledge to write them, don’t assume the story doesn’t need them. Get in and start exploring. You might be surprised.
Thanks for the pic Alistair Sutton
Have you surprised yourself with a scene you summarised and then wrote out at greater length? Let’s share examples! (I’d share some from my own work but, having a direly inefficient memory, I can’t remember what they are. So it’s over to you.)
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Some writers say they don’t look at their reviews. I don’t know how they find such sangfroid. If I know there’s a new review I have to pounce, and immediately. Inevitably, we’ll sometimes wish we hadn’t – like one of my regular readers this week, who sent me the anguished message you see in the title of this post.
After sympathy, we had a discussion that went in interesting directions, and I thought it might be useful here too.
My main question to him was this. Are you afraid the reviewer might be right? Have you got a good enough groundswell of opinions from people with sound judgement?
My correspondent replied that he knew he’d taken a risk, but wanted the final note to pack a punch. ‘That apparently has worked,’ he said, ‘and my book is being remembered – for better or worse. I have around twenty 5-star reviews and this is my first bad one.’
Twenty to one doesn’t sound like a bad ratio to me. And we’re all going to get bad reviews.
I got off to an early start with My Memories of a Future Life. Just as I was gathering launch reviews, someone who’d read an advance copy sent me a furious, offended email. I’d passed muster with my trusted inner circle, but this was the first true outsider and it hurt madly. It doesn’t help that with self-publishing, there’s hardly any time for the writer to surface out of the book, so early reviews might hit us with no defences. So I was extremely relieved when the other advance readers were happy.
What did you promise the reader? Marketing
Not everyone will like your book, especially if you’re aiming for something unusual as my friend is here. Part of good marketing is targeting – as much as possible – the right readers. So check these.
- Is your blurb misleading?
- Ditto your title?
- Does your cover send the right messages?
- Does the beginning of your book promise something very different from what the reader gets (allowing for arty misdirection…. )
Nurse the bruise, then look at the averages. Note any consistent concerns and decide if your marketing apparatus could be better tuned.
Should you fight back?
No. Not unless there are libels or factual inaccuracies – which are usually hard to argue in fiction anyway. I’ve commented on Amazon reviews that said the proof-reading in Nail Your Novel was poor and hadn’t realised it was UK English. I intend merely to set the record straight, but often it’s made the reader withdraw the review.
What to do about the reader who’s genuinely offended or upset?
Probably you shouldn’t do what I did. I wrote back. A writer friend told me off for it, saying ‘never apologise for your work’. But his fury was flaming my inbox and I couldn’t ignore it. Actually, it turned out well. He admitted he had mistaken the genre in spite of everything I said – and even sent me a gift as apology. I resolved to be even more extremely careful never to mislead a reader.
What if there’s a problem with the book?
Be honest now. Pride and sensitivity aside, has the bad review touched an important nerve? If so, why?
Did you skimp – either on revising, or getting quality, useful feedback?
Some people self-publish for the sake of fulfilment and completeness or to make a book for family or close friends. They’ll probably not be found by the general reading public. These remarks don’t apply to them.
But everyone else, listen up. I see a lot of writers rush to the market too soon. If you put the book up for the public, you won’t get a free pass. Get the book evaluated by someone who will tell you how to get to publishable standard. Although you might have learned a lot since you started writing, you need a professional to point out the flaws you simply cannot diagnose for yourself. (See my post about editors and how much they can surprise you with what they find. ) You don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune – here’s a post about cheaper options than a bespoke development report. But all writers have blind spots, and if you haven’t had critique partners who have opened your eyes to them and changed you for the better, you’ve missed an important step.
Think to the long term. You will write more books and carry on learning. Make sure whatever you publish is something you’ll continue to be proud of.
Some experienced authors I know recommend novice writers use a pseudonym for their earliest work so they don’t pollute their real name. Get something out, satisfy your curiosity, test the water, learn the ropes. (Unmix your metaphors too.) Your early books may indeed be brilliant, or they may, with the benefit of a few years, be embarrassing. You can’t know how you’ll develop.
Could you withdraw a book that was a mistake?
That’s not as easy as you might think. With ebooks you can update the files but it’s difficult to make them vanish entirely. On Smashwords they’ll stay available to the people who bought them – although in direst straits you could overwrite with a blank file or a note of explanation. If you’ve gathered bad reviews, those will remain.
With print books, it’s even harder to hide. I changed the title of the characters book because I felt it didn’t zing enough. I asked CreateSpace if they could remove the original listing in case of confusion, but they said it wasn’t possible. It had to stay up, even if it was unavailable. And second-hand copies might still be sold on Marketplace. This made little difference to me (and some people still want the old one!) but imagine if this was your book that you wanted to bury. You can’t remove it, or its association with your name.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Sometimes we have to accept that a pie in the face is part of the job. If you look on Amazon I’ve got one or two stinker reviews for my fiction. I’ve had some that were malicious, and there’s little to do about them except make a cup of tea. If I get a remark that cuts seriously, I run it past my critiquing crew. I know they’ll tell me if it’s fair. Then I get on with the next book.
What do you do about bad reviews? Have you ever replied to one, or had a malicious one? Have you ever regretted putting a book out too early? Any advice to give? Let’s discuss!
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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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All this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue , a fundamental misconception about self-editing and letting the manuscript rest. I want to end on this note -
The revision journey
A clear message emerged as we discussed my usual stops in the self-editing process – checking the pace, structure, character arcs, tone, using beat sheets and the number of passes you might do to get a scene right. Revision is more than a process of tidying and troubleshooting. It is a voyage towards a state where we know our book extremely well.
It reminds me of when I was at school, revising for chemistry A-level. For a long time the equations and Periodic Table rules seemed an impossible amount of information. I kept rereading my notes, hoping more would sink in, when gradually I noticed it was making sense as a grand pattern. From that point, I felt I could use it.
When I first start to revise a novel, it is a mystery to me. I wouldn’t scrape even a GCSE pass. Revision brings familiarity, clarity, the insight to understand what human forces are at work in the book, how the themes will bind it together, where the most fundamental resonance lies. And that’s why I find revision is more than a process of correcting, polishing or changing. It is learning to use my material. And it is thoroughly creative.
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. There’s also more about it here.
Having inflicted a new post on you for the last 7 days, I’ll be a bit less prolific next week. The next novel-nailing post will be on 17 August, although there will be an Undercover Soundtrack as usual. And of course I’ll be answering comments. On that note -
Any thoughts on the creativity of the revision process? Let’s comment! Except for Robert Scanlon, who raised this point already in his most recent note here. Robert, you can give yourself a gold star for being ahead of the class :)
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All this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue and a fundamental misconception about self-editing. Today I’m talking about the rest period before we edit.
Putting the book away to get distance
How long do you have to put your book aside before you can see it objectively? One student asked this because he’d left his in a drawer for several years. However, when he read it again, he couldn’t judge whether it worked because he remembered exactly what he meant to say.
One of the biggest editing problems is spotting the difference between what you mean and what comes across. It’s possible that this gentleman did write the novel perfectly. Or maybe he has an unusually retentive memory and will never be able to judge that for himself.
My own memory is terrible. I can barely remember a book I read two months ago – whether my own or anyone else’s. Never before have I considered this to be an advantage but perhaps it is.
Moreover, his point made me realise how individual our writing and revision routines have to be, and also the fundamental essential of the rest period. Leave your book until you’ve forgotten it and are no longer reliving your intentions as you read. If you know you’ll always have trouble with this, or your production schedule doesn’t allow a long wait, line up some beta readers for the test drive.
(Thanks for the pic, Phineas H)
Tomorrow: what revision really means
How long do you leave your manuscripts before you edit? What’s the longest you’ve ever left one? And has anyone seen my car keys?
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This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.
Editing is not just tweaking the language
One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.
Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.
Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance
How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!
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This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings and characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write. When I posted on Tuesday I forgot there would also be an Undercover Soundtrack to disturb the sequence, so here, slightly later than trailered, is Masterclass Snapshots part 4.
Regional accents to make a character sound distinct
One writer had his characters encounter people with strong local dialects. He asked how he should render their speech.
We discussed why he wanted to do this. He explained that it was to include a flavour of the setting and emphasise that the main characters were in unfamiliar territory. The odd speech was one good way to show this – with caution. Strange spellings or contractions will trip up the reader if overused. We discussed other ways of achieving this effect – perhaps by showing local customs and attitudes, lifestyles and so on. All of this will create a sense of a different culture.
This led to another good discussion – how do you make characters look distinct through their dialogue? Favourite phrases are useful, and that might be a way to show foreignness too. Habitual gestures are also good.
Humour styles are a very interesting way to differentiate people. (Curse words too, but some writers might not explore this very thoroughly.) I often see manuscripts where writers have given all their characters the same sense of humour, which makes them look like clones. In reality, you could take any group of people and they’ll all have their individual ways of expressing humour. Some enjoy wordplay. Some will try to grab attention and be the joker of the group. Some will be understated and enjoy the odd ironic quip. These are all ways to use dialogue to create a three-dimensional, distinct character.
(There’s more about this in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, including a discussion of phonetic Glaswegian.)
Thanks for the pic Lee Carson
Tomorrow: editing is more than tweaking the language
Have you had difficulty making your characters sound distinct? How have you tackled this?
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This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure and endings. Today it’s two questions about difficulties with characters.
The bland friend
One romance writer had a character who was the supportive friend for the protagonist. She worried that, in all the scenes of tea and sympathy, the friend was bland. I suggested giving her a rough edge that showed the limits of this tolerant soul. I drew inspiration from Dave’s mother, easily the most accommodating person I ever met. But she couldn’t abide spiders, and would not have been bothered if you squashed one while removing it from her presence. Suppose, I said to my romance writer, your nice lady is so mortally afraid of spiders that she always stamps on them?
The antagonist you’re afraid to write
Another lady had an antagonist who made her feel inhibited. She knew he should have more darkness than she had written but she feared to explore it. She also recognised this was cheating the book. What if, I said, she put that worry into another character, let them act out her discomfort? Would that free her to unlock the antagonist? She seemed to feel that would do the trick. I also encouraged her to look for the kernel of good that let him feel positive and justified about himself – and maybe even disturbed him.
Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand
Tomorrow: accents in dialogue
I’m really curious about this question of the character who upsets us so much we feel inhibited when we write them. Have you had experience of this? Let’s talk.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘My word-hand is singing’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcus Sedgwick October 22, 2014
- Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be? October 19, 2014
- ‘Is there life after death?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christina Banach October 15, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose October 12, 2014
- ‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval October 8, 2014
- Voices and accents for your audiobook – how to choose the right narrator October 6, 2014
- ‘Skinny-dipping in greenish-hued waters’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Consuelo Roland October 1, 2014
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