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Posts Tagged how to write a novel
Have you ever filled in one of those questionnaires that’s supposed to tell you what your ideal job is? Whenever I did, I usually found them desperately disappointing – but then they probably weren’t meant to send people to precarious, impractical occupations like writing. Except that one day, I filled one in that did. And it did it with one excellently judged question: ‘do you value the strange’?
Not only did this prove there is only one job I’m really fit for, it also summed up what drives me to write.
Today I’ve been invited to Writer.ly, who asked me to describe how I develop my novel ideas. Expect a lot of head-scratching, thinking, running, shopping – and writing of notes that no one will ever see but me. Come on over… and tell me if you also value the strange …
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Scratch that; they weren’t just tricky. They were a forensic slog.
I’d already checked everything that affected the central plot events – journey times, important dates and so on. But that was months before. Not only that, there were countless niggles I hadn’t realised would alert an editor’s eye. It was amazing what I didn’t know about my own book. How many hours had passed since the hostages were taken? On what day did the characters meet the mysterious man? She questioned every plot beat, flashback and nightfall.
Sitting down to answer that exhaustive list, I felt like Arthur Dent when he lamented that he couldn’t get the hang of Thursdays.
Thankfully my timelines held, give or take a minor snag, but I learned my lesson. Ever since, I’ve been fastidious about them.
Timelines are mainly invisible
Unless you’re writing a time travel story or a novel with condensed action, timelines are mainly invisible to readers. Like plot and character arcs, they’re the unseen looms of the storyteller’s art. And this means writers often don’t realise they need to take control of them. Until they face an editor’s interrogation.
You’ll be astonished what editors – and readers – will call you on. Is it possible for Joe to have recovered from his broken leg enough to climb a ladder? Are those characters in two places at once? How can that scene be back story if the event hasn’t happened yet?
If you take control of your timeline, you’ll find it much easier to know if your plot is plausible, and to sort out the hiccups.
Here are my tips.
If the timeline drives the story, you might want to design it before you start writing, or sketch out the main markers – historical events, calendar landmarks. Some writers use year planners, but a sheet of A4 is just as good.
You might also want to verify possibilities that require precision – such as travel. (And if you’re writing time travel you need to be very precise.)
Otherwise, be casual. You can decide these details in revision. If you stop and fret every time you need to write ‘last night’ or ‘next June’ you’ll probably get paralysed by indecision. Write something magnificently vague such as ‘the other day’ or ‘soon’, and sail on.
Before you revise
Now get serious about time. Before I revise a manuscript I analyse the first draft with an exercise I call a beat sheet. Essentially it’s an at-a-glance summary of every scene. You can make it on paper or a spreadsheet, and one of your columns is reserved to record when the scene happens.
As you summarise each scene for the beat sheet, notice if you’ve made a point about the date, time or event, and record it in the timeline column. If you haven’t, leave it blank.
Also write in if a deadline has appeared – for instance, 20 minutes before the bomb detonates. If your plot includes a race against the clock, the timing often needs to be worked out to the minute. With the beat sheet it’s simplicity itself to write the timings against plot events and check they work.
Then fill the blanks, deciding what will be plausible for those sections of the story. Perhaps the precise date isn’t important and you can bracket them together as ‘summer’, to ensure your weather descriptions are consistent. Or you might decide you can enhance the action by setting it at Christmas or even a time that corresponds with a newsworthy world event – whatever suits you.
But when those editors and beta readers quiz you on your story’s plausibility, you’ll have the answers ready. Painlessly.
The beat sheet is my go-to method for revising my novels’ structure, plot and character arcs. It’s explained fully in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence.
Do you have problems keeping track of time in your novels? Have you found a solution? Share in the comments
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One of the special pleasures of hosting The Undercover Soundtrack is the honesty of the writing. My guests are ready to delve into their innermost creative spaces and share the bare, exacting process of turning memories, experiences and feelings into stories. My guest this week is one of those writers who drew on raw times to create the novel she shares with us. Music helped her examine two tragic losses, with their conflicting emotions and struggling hours. The soundtrack is haunting and melancholic, but is also rakish and fun – Rod Stewart makes a welcome appearance as life recovers and warms up again. The author is romantic mystery novelist Anne Allen and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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This question appeared in my inbox from Adam Nicholls after I reported on Facebook that I’d managed 4,000 words of The Mountains Novel in one day. Adam DMd me, in not a little anguish:
How many words do you write per day? And do you have to force yourself to do it? I love writing, but it’s work.
There are two significant points in this question:
- output; books growing steadily at a satisfactory rate
How many words per day?
I asked this question of a group I’m a member of, The League of Extraordinary Authors. Romance author Melissa Foster says she has no difficulty getting 7,000 to 10,000 words written in a day and that she adores the blank page. No issues with output there. (But there’s more to writing a good novel than stacking up the wordcount, as she points out in the comments below.)
Romance author Colleen Thompson says ‘When on a publisher’s deadline, I write 1,000-2,000 words a day 6-7 days a week. Otherwise, I try to produce 20-25 new pages per week. Right now, I’m editing, so all bets are off!’
And contemporary fiction author Linda Gillard says ‘I don’t have a regular wordcount but I doubt if I do more than 2,000 new words a day. I think of it as a chapter a week. It’s more important to me that I should work every day on the book – research or editing. For every day spent drafting, I spend 3-4 days re-writing/editing. Drafting I find quick, editing slow. Once a book is under way, I expect to work most days.’
Ultra noir detective author Eric Coyote says he ignores wordcounts – ‘because so much of my writing is re-writing. I clock time: 2-6 hours a day. Usually I work a couple of hours in the middle of the day, then a blast at night until 2 or 3am.’
Graham Greene, who was hardly a publishing slouch, would set himself a modest target – 500 words a day he was satisfied with, and he stopped even if he was in the middle of a sentence so he could pick up the following day.
Stephen King talks in this interview for The Paris Review about how he aims for 1,000 words a day.
And since you asked (or Adam did), I track wordcounts if I have a deadline, as when I’m ghostwriting. The plot is agreed beforehand and by the time I write it’s simply a matter of enacting what’s in the outline. I’d usually get 2,500 words done in a day, 5 days a week.
My own fiction is trickier because there’s much more discovery and exploration, even though I plan, so wordcounts grow erratically. They might shrink, too, as I realise I can’t leave the passage I wrote the day before. The day of 4,000 words isn’t a consistent norm although I didn’t stop there. By the time I closed the file that day I’d added another 2,000. Only time will tell how much of that I’ll keep as I’m sure I was cross-eyed by the end.
Indeed, like Eric, I find it more useful to record the hours spent. With novels like mine, part of the work is understanding how to handle the idea. So a session on the book may produce no new footage in the manuscript, but several hours writing notes or reading.
Get on with it
Of course, we could research and tinker endlessly. It’s easy to slip into procrastination instead of getting the writing done.
There are two main reasons why we might dither for ever:
- we can’t immerse
- we’re worried about getting it wrong – the inner critic
Where do you write? Stephen King in The Paris Review says he creates a ‘refuge’ where he can shut away. He also remarks that being close to a window is fatal because it’s easier to look outside instead of inwards to the imagination.
I posted last week about getting into the zone, using music. Writing tutor and suspense author James Scott Bell explains in this post how he subscribes to the oft-repeated philosophy of writing when he feels inspired, and making sure this happens at the same time every morning. Yes, be brutal with your muse.
Don’t lose contact with the book
A surprising number of writers feel a stab of stage fright before they sit down with their novel. I do myself, but only if I’ve had to leave the manuscript for more than a few days. The more I keep my contact with the book warm, the more I feel comfortable to venture back inside it. It helps that I’m drawing on the experience that the other novels worked in the end. What if you don’t yet have that or for some reason that isn’t enough?
Warm up the writing engine
Some writers favour freewriting exercises. Freewriting is basically splurging onto the page or screen, regardless of grammar, spelling, quality or any other critical issue. The point is to remove inhibitions and let the ideas flow, to connect with your creativity. Famous exponents include Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down The Bones, Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, and another of my cohorts in The League of Extraordinary Authors, Orna Ross.
Get out more
In my conversation with the League of Extraordinary Authors, Linda Gillard had this terrific advice. ‘I find the best way to stimulate the flow of ideas and the desire to write is to put myself in a situation where it’s impossible, eg Christmas.’ Indeed, this is one of the tactics I recommend in Nail Your Novel - if you’re stuck, go and do something messy that will make holding a pen impossible. Make meatballs or go to the gym. Inspiration is no respecter of convenience.
Do you have wordcount goals? Do you find writing a struggle? What would you tell Adam? Share in the comments!
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You could divide my Undercover Soundtrack guests into those who aren’t put off by lyrics and those who are. My guest this week is one of the latter. He says that music with lyrics is too domineering when he’s trying to write – but that orchestral or ambient electronic music sets his imagination free to roam. His novel is a quirky noir of dirigibles, automata, back alleys and a hardboiled hack (the bipedal journalistic sort, not an equine), and his central character was honed by long hours simmering with Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for The Dark Knight. He is Aaron Sikes and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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You’ll have seen the posts here about my blog series the Undercover Soundtrack.
Over the years, the posts consistently repeat certain bare essentials, both for reaching the writing mindset and creating a good story. Here they are, and whether you write with music or not, we all need them.
To enter the zone
In front of us is a keyboard and a screen, or maybe a pad and pen. Whether you’re putting on a soundtrack, closing the door on your favourite silent space or seeking the anonymous corner of a coffee shop, the first step is to find a way to delete the outside world.
Start the time machine
Whether we write gritty memoir or the most extravagantly invented fantasy, we need to harvest our emotional memories. Many of our scenes, dilemmas and storylines are drawn from feelings we had at important times with family, friends, loved ones.
To keep the pace
Stories aren’t static. To keep the reader gripped, we need to generate a sense that the world of the story is changing all the time. For me, music is a useful reminder, because music does not stand still. There may be a new instrument snaking into the mix, a new variation on a theme, a creeping, evolving harmony. If this is going on in my ears while I’m spending time with my book – whether I’m musing or typing – I find it keeps me up to the mark – pushing for ideas that give this forward pressure.
We’re getting more musical now. A song is not unlike a well-told tale. It creates a territory of familiarity – a pattern we recognise of verse and chorus. Then we have the second verse – familiar, but not the same because the background is more dense or the lyric more intense. The second chorus is usually more substantial than the first, and even if it has the same lyric, it packs more punch. And on the song goes, seeking a climax.
For all its variation, a song is tightly disciplined. It develops by adding only what belongs. As story writers we can splash about in ideas, locations, settings, characters and events, but the more they align with the home territory (or exquisitely contrast with it), the more they will seem to belong in one piece.
In a piece of music, there might be a breakdown, where most of the elements are subtracted, perhaps leaving only the drum track or the melody at great distance. Breaks are important for a reader too; perhaps a campfire scene, a time out from the pressure to let the reader breathe before the tension comes flying back.
To calm the inner editor
Novels are huge and often daunting. Getting from beginning to end requires persistence, and we always find our confidence tested. Many of my Undercover Soundtrack guests report that music is an essential companion in this. It helps us believe more in ourselves, our story, our characters, our world – and in our ability to finish.
How about you? What essentials would you add? And if music isn’t your aide of choice, is there something you use to get a novel finished?
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I have a friend who is French, and despite years of living in England, he uses a vocabulary that is sometimes unintentionally hilarious. He became a legend when he referred to a top-down convertible as a ‘topless’ car. (I am so looking forward to the SEO results of this first paragraph.)
I’m currently reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, and one of the narrative strands is in the voice of Alex, a Ukrainian who speaks very little English.
In an attempt to seem more educated and impress the hero, Alex is, as he himself would put it, ‘fatiguing his thesaurus’. In his account, people sitting around a dinner table or at the wheel of a car are ‘roosting’. If something is nice or good, it’s ‘premium’. If a character is standing still they are ‘reposed’; annoyed is ‘spleened’. Alex’s choices are often unintentionally ridiculous, and he has no idea of their appropriateness or connotation.
This creates various literary effects in the novel, which I’ll come back to if you’re curious. But actually, a lot of writers – across all types of fiction – choose words that make their action or characters unintentionally ludicrous or comic.
In times of trouble
This particularly seems to happen with dramatic moments.
In a fight, the heroes might be ‘whacking’ and ‘walloping’. A vulnerable character might get their hand ‘squashed’ under an attacker’s boot, or ‘bounce’ down the stairs. These words might be accurate, but they have a comic ring that ruins the atmosphere. In a scene where a much-loved character is found murdered, there will be ‘blood-splattered’ walls. (Try this instead from Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’) Someone discovers the body and lets out a ‘squeal’ or a ‘squeak’ – which sounds jolly instead of appalled.
This might happen for a number of reasons. Quite a few of my clients are merry souls even though they write dark stories. Or they’re trying to make a description dynamic, but in their vigour they pick a word that has gusto instead of menace. Or they’re trying to be accurate about what’s in their mind’s eye – after all, blood probably does splatter and spurt from a slashed artery. The trouble is, it sounds slapstick.
In prose, words suggest pictures and atmosphere just by their shape and sound. Those beginning with ‘s’ seem to be especially risky – I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen unfortunate appearances of squashed, spattered, squatted, squirmed and squelched.
Ear and eye
To control our text fully, we need to develop an ear for the mood suggested by a word, and for how it looks on the page. This is different from the way they might work if you were describing the scene to friends, who would have your personality and vocal delivery to disguise the odd inappropriate word. Similarly, you might be led astray if you read a lot of scripts instead of prose. Screenwriters don’t have to be so sensitive to these subtleties. They are presenting instructions for an experience that will come to life in other media.
But on the page, you are creating the actual experience. Your word choice is your tone, the personality behind the scene, the theme music, the lighting. We have to examine these qualities every word we use, both its sound and its shape. Look at that Thomas Harris line again, about a gore-splattered room: ‘Bloodstains shouted from the walls.’
In Everything Is Illuminated, the word choices appear oafishly comic, haphazard; mangled, even. As with all well-executed tomfooling, this belies a great deal of skill. Each odd word has been chosen by the author with great care, with an eye and ear for the grace of a sentence, for how jarring or surprising it might be, and to encourage us to think of what it might really mean. And this clumsiness also gives the narrator a great transparency; he is so unaware of other connotations his narrative has a quality of charm and honesty.
Choose synonyms with care.
Do you have trouble picking the right synonym? Do you have any examples of writers whose descriptions hit the spot for you – or don’t? Let’s share in the comments!
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I’m not sure which category my story would fit into. I had originally intended it to be for 9-13-year-olds (my protagonist is 13), but realised I was dumbing down my language in an attempt to suit the reading level. So I decided to write without thinking about age groups or categories. But now I’m close to the end, I still don’t know how to categorise it. Is it young adult with no sex or violence? Literary? Teen? Paranormal?
Let’s break this down.
Age of protagonist
Readers in any non-adult genre are fussy about the age of their protagonist. They usually like them to be at the top end of the range or a little older. But a 13-year-old main character doesn’t mean you’re writing a book for 13-year-olds. You might easily have a child point of view in a book for adults (Henry James’s What Maisie Knew; Michael Frayn’s Spies).
Certainly the language for child readers has to be appropriate for their age. If you’re feeling hamstrung and frustrated by this, it might be a sign that you won’t be able to keep it up for the whole book. But good writers for children won’t feel they’re dumbing down. They’ll find ways to get variety and style into their sentences so that it sounds natural.
Not just language and age
But age ranges aren’t just about language or the age of the protagonist. The real difference is the emotional development and interests of the audience. So pre-teens are interested in different things from teenagers and YA, and books for adults are different again.
Stories for pre-teens will be more adventure based, whereas stories for teens will be about the trials of that very turbulent time of life. You could even take one story event and make entirely different books out of it, depending on the age you write it for.
Take Geraldine McCaughrean’s White Darkness, which is about an expedition to the Antarctic with a mad, exciting uncle. If it was written for pre-teens, the biggest issues would be the survival situation. But the most compelling trials are emotional – disillusionment with a family member, learning who you are, dealing with relationships. Really, it’s a story of growing up, not of polar exploration. That’s what makes it a teen book.
So to work out your age range, identify the most significant trials the characters go through.
And so to the second half of the question. Oh my, you’ve come to the right place! My debut novel, My Memories of a Future Life, has paranormal ingredients – regression to other lives – but it isn’t paranormal. This is because the paranormal elements are not my main focus. My curiosities in the story are despair, hope, how we live, how we heal and scare each other. I’m using ideas of reincarnation to create unusual pressures in the lives of my characters, but reincarnation is not my subject. My subject is the people and how these experiences are the making of them. Indeed, the paranormal element might even be psychological.
This approach would probably annoy a fan of paranormal fiction. They want to lose themselves in a story that uses the paranormal events as the main fascination. That doesn’t mean they don’t want well-drawn characters with compelling arcs, or good writing, or innovative twists. But they want to see their liking for paranormal ingredients to be given due respect.
Here’s another example. I’ve just been editing a novel set in a historical conflict, but it’s literary, not historical. Why? The emphasis is more on the themes and the people than on the historical period; the period is merely a set of circumstances that give the characters their challenges. Why is The Time Machine science fiction, but The Time Traveller’s Wife is not?
Could a novel be both literary and genre? In a sense, we are all on a line, and some authors fold the line over to touch. Like Ray Bradbury. He writes science fiction, but his stories are metaphors that also unwrap the human condition. Just when you thought it was clear.
Which are you?
So if you’re still puzzled, how do you tell which category and age group you belong in? By reading good examples of the genre.
It’s all a question of how the material is treated.
To sort out the literary/genre question, read books in the genre. Then read some literary or contemporary fiction that uses elements of that genre. If you’re wavering between children’s, teen or adult, read books for different age groups. Which treatments and approach pushed your buttons, gave you the most satisfaction? The odds are, that’s what you’ll strive to write.
Thanks for the pic LouisaThomson
More about characters, including child characters and teen characters, in Writing Characters to Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Have you had trouble working out where to categorise your novels? Any advice to add? Let’s discuss in the comments!
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You really know you’re in a world wide web when an email arrives from a journalist on a newspaper in Malaysia. Elizabeth Tai contacted me for a series she was writing called reading revolutions. She’d seen that I had originally released my first novel, My Memories of a Future Life, as a four-part serial on Kindle, and wanted to ask me how that worked and why I did it. We talk about pros, cons, cautions – and tips I’d give to anyone considering doing the same. Come on over…
And in the meantime, tell me: where’s the furthest-flung place you’ve had a surprise email from about your work?
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Some writers plan to the ennnnnth degree. Before they write, they prepare a trunkload of ideas, route maps and background. Then we have the scribblers who travel light. Just the barest plot twist, perhaps a skinnily-honed last line or a little black denouement. (Actually, I’m warming to this wardrobe theme.)
So if you’re in the former category, what mustn’t you forget? And if the latter, what’s the bare minimum you can get away with?
Today I’m at a festival called Chapter Book Challenge, a month-long event that aims to galvanise writers to write a chapter book in just a month. I’m zoning in on the essentials for the drafting process – and as an added bonus, commenters on the post (THAT post, not this one!) will get entered into a draw to win a paperback copy of Nail Your Novel, original flavour, which is packed with essentials for getting you from first idea to final draft. Come on over to find out what every well-dressed novel is wearing...
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- How to write a novel: following the strange – guest post on Writer.ly April 16, 2014
- ‘Road trips require a soundtrack; so do some novels’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Linda Collison April 16, 2014
- How to make an audiobook using ACX April 13, 2014
- ‘A trickle of notes can flood your thoughts with broken things’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Warren FitzGerald April 9, 2014
- An easy way to make your plot plausible – control your novel’s timeline April 5, 2014
- ‘Tragedy and loss are cornerstones of my story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anne Allen April 2, 2014
- How many words do you write a day? And do you have to force yourself? How successful authors do it March 30, 2014
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