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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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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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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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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’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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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 like Nail Your Novel,’ said Lauren Orbison to me on Twitter recently (which was nice). ‘But you now need to write Nail Your Second Novel. It’s tough sometimes to get back to writing after finishing something.’
I understand what she means. First novels are usually written over many years. We might put more time, work and learning into it than we ever dreamed we could put into one project – short of actually rearing the next generation. Then suddenly, the novel’s done, it’s out and we’re wondering: how did I do it?
I’ve certainly felt like this. One minute, I’m stealing time to be with a book that has become as familiar as an old friend, refining to get the depth and finish I want. No other phase for me is so rewarding. I’m understanding my material. I have a book, for sure, at last. It reminds me of when I was at plays at school. In the final rehearsals we’d be adding refinement on refinement, amazing ourselves at how inventive we were being. The shambolic months were behind us.
Then it’s over. On the one hand, my novel is out in the world as a finished piece. Readers might be asking what’s next (bless them). And what have I got? Something much rougher, perhaps – to me – offensively so.
This, I think, is what Lauren is talking about. Some writers find it blocks them completely.
I’ve learned the way to deal with this is to get another novel to a confident state before the mature one sets sail. I know that if I get to the end of The Mountains Novel and I haven’t got a serious contender for Next Novel, I will be severely fretful and will rail at the muses for abandoning me. But The Mountains Novel will need periods of enforced rest after each draft and that’s when I’ll get developing the next one. Could be The Flying Novel, The Venice Novel, or – as I’ve had a few other ideas arrive – Someothernovel entirely.
So far, so good.
But what if you’ve completed the one novel you’ve spent years on, and you haven’t started incubating another? What if that first idea started so long ago that you’ve forgotten how you ever got it?
Or what if you have ideas but they don’t excite you? I have various plots I’ve thought of, but I don’t feel moved to write them. I’m missing the ingredient that will make me want to quarry them – because I haven’t found the theme or idea I want to take to them. They’re clay without a soul.
First of all, if you’re feeling so emptied, you can’t create. Go and stoke your imagination. Your first idea probably came to you out of the blue, while you were following something you were interested in. So read books and do things just because you want to, no ulterior motive of research. You can’t force yourself to have a great idea any more than you can will yourself to fall in love. But you can flirt with things that could bite back (in a good way).
If you’re still frustrated because you’re not actually ‘working on’ something, make this period of exploration into a project. Set yourself a target to read x number of novels, y number of non-fiction books, or have a brief sabbatical at an evening class so that you feel like you’re completing something. Think of it as an appointment with your muse. If you’re really desperate, read something you’re guaranteed not to like. The chances are, you’ll rile yourself so much you’ll be bursting ideas in no time.
And next time, don’t wait until the first novel is over before you work on the second. (There’s plenty more about developing ideas in Nail Your Novel, whether you’re on debut tome or umpteenth…)
Well that’s my method. Have you finished a novel and found it hard to get on with the next? Perhaps you have a steady stream of works in progress… Let’s share in the comments!
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It seems a simple thing to consider. Unless you’re me.
It’s on my mind because of a film I saw recently, where a couple of characters who were novelists singled out an all-time favourite work of fiction.
But… but… but…. (I informed the screen) that’s not how the writer’s mind works. And while we’re at it, novelists can’t usually quit the day job and they don’t automatically get launches at the London Book Fair.
But back to the original question. I don’t have one favourite book. I have hundreds. If I’m asked what books I’d take to a deserted island, I’d have to make up a fictitious compilation volume that runs to many roomfuls.
I’m aware I might be taking this too literally, but I think it’s an illumination of how a writer’s mind works, how we use what we read – and indeed how we choose it.
Non-creative people rarely understand this, but to a writer, the whole world is an aquarium. We are not spectators, we’re on a life mission to make stuff. Everything is a potential teacher or a trigger. We can’t turn it off. Anything might be significant and we might end up bonding with a book for the oddest reasons. One publication I’d put in my very enormous favourites compilation isn’t even a published book. It’s the colour chart of the paint manufacturer Farrow & Ball. The names of the paints (Clunch, Elephant’s Breath, James White) give me a world of delight.
Indeed I bet most writers have books they wouldn’t put on their public Goodreads profile because they don’t reflect their ‘tastes’, yet they keep them close at hand. When I’m researching ways to handle an idea I’m just as likely to seek out novels that treated it badly or ruined it, because I need to discover what mistakes were made.
And if the question is merely intended to discover what we read for fun, it’s daft to ask if I liked East of Eden better than Rebecca. You might as well ask me to make a league table of my friends. But perhaps that’s just me.
When someone asks you to name your favourite book, what’s your answer? And how do you choose books to help with your WIP?
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I have a friend who is a graphic designer, and he’s as adept with words as he is with images. Recently he said to me: ‘I don’t know how you get a book finished. I have all these ideas but my imagination’s like a rope that frays into too many ends.’
(You see what I mean? He should definitely write.)
‘Do you make notes?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but when I look at them they’re dry and dull.’
Aha, my friend. You’re making the wrong kind of notes.
The wrong kind of notes?
Years ago, I used to keep a dream diary. I found it a few months ago and expected the entries would be indulgent nonsense, without the meaning, resonance or early-morning mind that makes a dream a good experience. But no; in those fragments the experience came back, just as odd and wondrous. Now I’m not going to bore (or scare) you by quoting one here, but what I will tell you is why they still worked.
They were written with a dream-head. They captured experience as well as logic and explanations.
What’s this got to do with making notes?
In Nail Your Novel (original flavour), I wrote that you should keep your earliest draft. If a scene has lost its sparkle, look back at the first time you had a go at writing it. Yes it will be shambling and embarrassing, blurted onto the page. But it will also contain emotional language, straight from the things you were feeling as you discovered it. This is the freshness and immediacy that can disappear with editing, or when you try to refine, get formal or explain.
It’s also the quality that can disappear when we write notes after a brainwave.
So when I write down an idea, I make sure I include this raw response. I write them as a stream of consciousness, like a dream. Because that’s what comes to me first: the certainty of what I want the reader to feel. If possible, I’ll also keep a talisman that will allow me to replay it again, and indeed might have been the initial inspiration – a scene in a book or a film, or a piece of music. (We know all about that here, with our Undercover Soundtracks.) There will be practical elements too, so it’s not complete gobbledygook – eg ‘man sees woman in coat that’s just like his wife’s, assumes it’s her and follows her’, but those look dry when you read them in isolation.
Stories are emotional. You want to make sure your notes help you remember the impact that made you so excited, as well as the hows and whyfores.
Do you find your ideas have dried up and died when you read your notes? Do you have any tips for keeping it? Let’s discuss!
Psst… My second novel Lifeform Three is coming very soon. It’s a fable in the tradition of Ray Bradbury. If you’d like to hear as soon as it’s released, sign up for my newsletter. If not, as you were :)
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Five characters, five musical identities’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jessica Bell October 29, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to handle passage of time in prose October 26, 2014
- ‘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
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