Posts Tagged Rewriting
1) Get the characters talking This may sound obvious, but it’s an effort to break out of ordinary narration and hop into the characters’ heads. If we’re writing first person, we have to stop sharing the consciousness of their narrator to let the other people come alive. Writing down what each character says, in their own voices, will probably be quite enough to concentrate on in one pass.
2) Visuals Dialogue needs to be more than just a soundscape. Characters act while they speak. They shrug, pull faces, refill the kettle or polish a sword. The scene has to exist visually in the reader’s mind. While you’re writing, it’s easy to get tunnelled down one sense – usually aural – and forget that there are others.
3) Change As every scene must move the story on, we hope that each dialogue scene will contain something that matters to the characters. They can’t just natter for nothing. Even if they’re establishing their characteristics, it’s better if the scene does something else too. That could be a plot change or a shift in their relationship – perhaps the scene bonds them more tightly or creates rifts.
4) Reactions When your characters are talking, are they also reacting? If your other scenes show their internal dialogue, does this continue while they’re talking, or has this evaporated because you were concentrating on making them vocalise?
5) Subtext The scene might have more heft than a simple exchange of information. It might be a battle to get the upper hand. One character might be telling the other that he loves her, or to stop trying to find out what happened to the missing neighbour. The scene might have a layer that only one group of readers will understand: for instance, if the novel might be read by both adults and children, it may contain meanings that will only make sense to older readers.
6) Language Depending on your genre, the language might add a poetic dimension, reinforce your themes, reflect the characters’ different backgrounds and outlooks. Pathetic fallacy or your descriptions may add colour, feeding the texture and atmosphere of the novel.
7) Declutter Dialogue scenes are meant to run swiftly in the reader’s mind. Although we need context, action and description, we don’t need to add every breath and eyeblink. It may not matter that the character pours a glass of water while he lets out a sigh. You may have been too obvious with your allusions; the reader may be able to fill more blanks than you think. Let the scene sit for a few days, then go back with a fresh perspective and take out the clutter.
Do you have any steps to add? (Apart from a complete phase of changing your mind – which for me happens to me ad infinitum when I’m letting the characters talk to each other.) Share in the comments!
If you found this post useful, there’s an entire section on dialogue in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life. Weightless editions are ready right now, twinkling on the servers of Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords and Kobo.
GIVEAWAY Andrew Blackman is offering a signed copy of his novel A Virtual Love on The Undercover Soundtrack. For a chance to win, leave a comment on the post or share it on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note saying where you shared it).
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Another Soundtracker returns this week, a new book under his belt. Andrew Blackman had set himself a steep challenge with his second novel. His story of love in the internet age had seven narrators, each needing their own voice and style. Early feedback from his agent said they weren’t distinct enough, and for a while, Andrew despaired of finding a solution. Then, as he always did in times of trouble, he turned to music. Which saved the day. He’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack to his second novel, A Virtual Love.
GIVEAWAY Andrew is offering a signed copy of A Virtual Love. For a chance to win, leave a comment on the post or share it on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or anywhere else (and don’t forget to leave a note saying where you shared it).
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I’m somewhat preoccupied with characters as I’m finishing NYN 2: Bring Characters To Life. I’ve recently read two novels with several main characters – one that made them real and the other that didn’t. I thought it would be interesting to compare the key differences.
The former is Ruth Rendell’s The Keys To The Street, which uses several points of view, all with their own internal identity. The shaky one is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It follows eight separate people but they all sound exactly the same.
Briefly, The Keys To The Street is about a handful of characters in Regent’s Park, London, whose lives intersect over one summer. The Slap begins as an extended family gathers for a suburban barbeque. One of the children gets out of hand and one of the other parents gives it a slap. There is uproar and the novel explores the ripples.
In both, the narration is close third person, so although the ‘I’ pronoun isn’t used we’re following the thoughts and feelings of each individual.
Rendell is good at characters who sound distinct on the page. Their vocabulary, thought processes and speech rhythms make them into separate, recognisable people. Tsiolkas’s dialogue, both quoted and internal, sounds like it all comes from the same person.
Characters might sound similar because they come from the same culture and social milieu. But even so, there can be individual variation from the characters’ different natures. In the simplest terms, some would be introvert and some extravert. Some will see the glass as half-full. The emotions and urges behind their speech and thoughts would not be the same.
In The Slap they all have similar levels of aggression and introspection. In The Keys To The Street, there are several characters who are homeless or nearly homeless, but each has their own internal landscape. Some feel persecuted, some are tragically numbed.
Indeed, characters in the same milieu have many reasons not to be similar. They might have an assortment of occupations, which would make them tackle a variety of life problems and people.
In The Slap we potentially have these, but none of the differences are used. The TV scriptwriter sounds just like the civil servant and the businessman. In The Keys To The Street, the girl who works in the museum has different daily influences from the former butler who walks everyone’s dogs. These environments shine through their vocabulary and the comparisons they use. Their back stories are also vastly different, which affect how much each of them will trust other characters. Again, the girl in the museum believes good of people whereas the dog-walker suspects nasty motives in everyone.
Behaviour in extremis
Sequences of anger, sex and other kinds of extremis should tear the characters’ masks off. They should show us who they really are.
In The Slap, all the characters default to one pattern of behaviour when upset or emotional. They want to smash things or people. They brood on conversations and wish they had hit the offending person, pummelled their faces, grabbed them by the hair and shouted obscenities at them. When they curse, which they all do plenty of, they use the same words. Readers really notice when all the characters have the same curse personality. When they have sex, they all have the same preferences and urges.
In The Keys To The Street, the characters react according to their personalities, even when roused to the same emotion. When angry, the mentally unbalanced drug addict uses violence. The dog-walker resorts to blackmail or spits (or worse) in his employer’s tea. The museum curator’s former boyfriend is also violent, but immediately regretful. One emotion: three individual ways to handle it.
Other private moments
Other private moments can be very revealing. In The Slap, many of the characters are inclined to look at their reflection or a body part and think about their lives. In The Keys To The Street, the characters have their diverse ways of reflecting. Many of them don’t need to manufacture a specific thinking activity; they do something from their usual routine. This makes their reflective scenes different from each other. The dog walker collects his animals and does his job, meanwhile plotting and fulminating. The violent psychotic takes crack. The tragic down-and-out goes for his long walks, pushing the barrow that contains his possessions. What they do to get thinking time can be ways to differentiate their souls.
If you’re interested in either of these books, here’s Guardian Book Club on The Keys To The Street
And here’s a review of The Slap in The London Review of Books
Thanks for the pic r h
Have you read other novels that handle several point-of-view characters and differentiate them well? Or conversely, novels that do it badly? Let’s discuss!
GIVEAWAY On the Red Blog, Andrew James is giving away 2 signed copies of his novel Blow Your Kiss Hello. For a chance to win, he wants you to reply or tweet where the book title comes from. If you take the tweet option, include the link to the post and the hashtag #undersound. Find it on the Red Blog now
If you liked this post, you might like NAIL YOUR NOVEL: Bring Characters To Life, coming in May. Find out as soon as it’s released by signing up for my newsletter. Latest edition of this random and infrequent publication can be found here
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I adore, adore, adore my computer. I have acres of folders for each book I write, stuffed with research links, musings about characters, thoughts about the story’s overall direction. I have thematic notes, background, significant geography, historical events that might make a difference. I write my text on the computer, I have scribble files for experimenting, outtakes files and the text proper.
But there are some parts of my work that I have to do in ink.
I hadn’t thought about this until an email arrived from Robert Scanlon, who’s using Nail Your Novel with Scrivener and was wondering whether to put the beat sheet analysis into the note cards for each scene. The short answer is, yes if it works for you. Personally I wouldn’t write a beat sheet on the computer, but we all work in different ways.
So this will be a very idiosyncratic post, but I thought it might make a creative discussion. I’ll tell you mine, then you tell me yours, okay?
Going back to Robert’s question, I find the beat sheet’s distinctive methodology ( a sheet of A4, coloured pens and smiley faces) helps me to see it as a fresh phase and therefore to analyse the material for new ideas and narrative directions. So it’s paper beat sheets for me.
In a nutshell, the beat sheet is a way to analyse your entire novel for pacing, character arcs, structure, subplots and theme. It shrinks your novel to a few easily readable pages of A4. It’s singlehandedly saved me from literary chaos over and again.
I tried writing beat sheets on computer and they were a disaster. Something happens to my brain when I get keys under my fingers. It’s like letting a fresh horse step onto springy turf. I just go. Words gallop away and I end up with a long, musing essay about the book. Although this might do me good in some ways, it is useless for analysis.
So I have to write beat sheets on paper. The pen makes me aware of every mark. Some writers like spreadsheets because the format forces similar practical distance.
Index cards for synopses
When I’m outlining, I write the main events on index cards and shuffle them to get the best order. Although I’ve tried this on the computer, my brain thrives on complication and it always gets out of control. Index cards and a fat marker pen keep me focussed. (The cards game is also a tool from Nail Your Novel.)
I plan my Nail Your Novel books differently from my fiction. I write scribbled outlines on scraps of paper. The characters book is nearly finished and I’ve thrown its notes away, so this is the outline for NYN 3, which is in rough manuscript. Yes, those are bits of paper torn from the bin. I love the organic look of them, which reflects the feeling of a book evolving and becoming better. Don’t be fooled by the ramshackle appearance. They are highly organisational and will be much-consulted documents until the manuscript is ready for polishing.
Each book generates vast amounts of admin. Research needs to be done, books must be added to reading lists. I find it easier to keep track of this in a notebook. Then I also have the pleasure of crossing items off and they stay there, a testimony to another job done. Way more satisfying than erasing them with ‘delete’.
My notebook also contains charts for each book’s production. This is a legacy of my years in books and magazines, where I had to invent systems to keep track of 30 books at different editorial stages. It covers everything from checking cross-references, finalising spine wording, buying artwork, the websites I’ll need to update when new books come out etc. Again, I prefer this on paper because I can see the books developing at a glance.
Journals of scribbled ideas were the very first kind of notebook I kept. I still use them, but the ideas in them aren’t very findable. This irks me and I wish I could x-ray them to categorise all the useful stuff, but alas that would be a mammoth job. So I now dip into them as an inspiration slushpile. Most things I find are rubbish or irrelevant to my immediate needs, but I also uncover useful gems.
Why not Scrivener?
I clearly have the organisational mindset, and people often ask me why I don’t use Scrivener. Especially as Nail Your Novel fits it like a glove, I’m told. I’ve thought Scrivener might be fun, but I like to have some aspects of my books in touchable form, on scattered (but precisely organised) papers and notebooks. Also, I love inventing, period, and that includes systems for my books. Or put another way, I’m a nerd.
If there is a general pattern, I use handwritten notes to get clarity, distance, control and simplicity. The big picture stuff. I use the keyboard to indulge my creative riffing, musing, speculating and – of course – for the writing.
Now it’s your turn. When do you use the computer and when do you use ink and paper? Do you have set habits and how did you develop them?
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How exact do story milestones have to be? I did a lot of planning and put them in the ‘right’ points in the story (25% for the first turning point, half way for the midpoint, 75% for the second turning point). But they’re off by 1-2k words. Will the story feel unbalanced? Or should I keep trimming and adding?
The short answer: Stop! There is much to discuss…
What are we talking about?
Let’s backtrack. Stories have natural turning points, where the plot increases the pressure on the characters. When you build a story from beats (episodes where something changes) you’ll find they often fall into a pattern (usually used in movies).
Act 1, the first quarter, is the set-up with the event that begins all the trouble – the inciting incident. Act 2 is the second two quarters, where the problem is being actively tackled and confronted. Act 3, the last quarter, is the resolution. In each of these phases, the stakes change, and the protagonists’ goals and feelings change.
Why do they divide like this? The audience seems to have an internal clock, and feels the story needs these emotional shifts. They also find it most satisfying when played out in these phases. (BTW, some people call it the three-act structure, some decide there must be four acts because act 2 has two parts. Both terms mean the same thing. Another name for these shifts is plot points. Clear?)
How exact do these act points have to be?
If you’re writing for TV they matter to the minute. Movies could be more fluid, but commercial studio executives are so used to formulae and paradigms that they only commission stories that fit it. And they go to expensive conferences that reinforce this so it becomes holy writ.
Although stories fit a natural structure, the divisions aren’t exact, as Jen is discovering. Here’s another part of her letter to me:
Once we start writing the scenes out, they take on a life of their own, and no matter how careful we are in planning, things will shift around
They do indeed. And that’s good.
Stories are organic. You can’t rush certain sections to get them to a plot point or you might race ahead of the reader. Curiously, when that happens, they might tell you you’re going too slowly. In fact, you might need to slow even more, make sure the reader understands why the scene’s events are important.
Remember, these plot points are emotional crescendos. They are times of greatest tension, pressure and surprise. And they work because of how you’ve primed the reader.
Equal but not equal
Here’s an example in action. My Memories of a Future Life is 102k words. When I released it in episodes, I aimed for roughly 25k words each. I actually got 26k, 31k, 19k and 28k.
I have to admit, I’d forgotten the proportions varied that much (although they obviously worked as readers said they were gripped). I realise this tells us something about the different flavours of each act. (So thanks, Jen, for making me consider it.)
Act 1 contains set-up, which has to be balanced with momentum. That’s tricky and it’s why beginnings are often too slow. The reader needs enough back story to understand what matters, but must also feel they’re seeing characters reaching a point of no return. (I wrote a while ago about a scene that I cut from Act 1 because of the pace – Carol’s performance dress. Not because of wordcount, but because it repeated an emotional point. If I’d left it in, the reader would have felt the story was circling over the same ground.)
In Act 2 we’ve settled down. We’re involved with the characters enough to be curious about their back story and lives. (I could have added the black dress scene here, but the moment for it was gone.) At the same time, the complications are thickening.
In Act 3, we’ve turned a corner. Situations get worse, problems are more desperate. There won’t be much new material because this is a phase of consequences. Bad choices come back to bite. Fuses burn up. We’re building to a crisis.
Act 4 is the climax, and the reader will be turning pages fast. But it has a lot to pack in. The denouement will be intense and pressured. There will be reversals where it doesn’t go as planned, and moments when all seems lost. There will be revelations. Each of these story beats will need immense space, as if time has slowed down, to do justice to their impact and to allow the characters to react and adjust. There will be many ends to tie. After the final action, you don’t just tip the reader into the street, blinking. You need a leave-taking, to send the characters on into new lives. The reader knows they’ll be leaving them behind, so will savour the chance for a few less-pressured, appreciative moments before parting for good.
Here we can see there are good, organic reasons why each act may not hit the same wordcount, even though it will feel near enough to the reader.
Novels aren’t movies
Although there’s a lot that novel-writers can learn from movie storytelling, the media are not the same. The popular prophets of the three (or four)-act structure – Robert McKee, Syd Field and Blake Snyder – are script doctors. They’re not talking about novels and they probably don’t read them. Indeed movies and TV have to fudge the plot points with fillers – extra miles in a chase, a scene where the character polishes his revolver and stares into a glass of whisky. There’s usually music or a montage to divert the audience’s attention from a scene that’s spinning its wheels. In novels you can’t use fillers; they don’t work. And what’s more, you don’t have to.
So Jen, you’ve already done enough. You’re writing in a medium that allows you different act lengths. Enjoy it!
What would you say to Jen?
Little bit of news
My Memories of a Future Life is now on Kobo and Smashwords. I’d put it off because it would look unconvincing without reviews and also because I expected formatting migraines. But it was easy, and I’m an idiot for not doing it sooner like any other go-getting indie. Also, you can now port Goodreads reviews to Kobo – here’s a post by Eric Edstrom explaining how. Even so, I only braved it because of a request from The Alliance of Independent Authors, who are teaming up with Kobo for the London Book Fair and wanted to put my books on a shortlist to be featured. My work is a tiny proportion of the books they’re submitting, so the chance of making the cut is small, but it’s terrific to be asked! Do you put off uploading your books on all platforms? Tell me why (or tell me off) in the comments!
Also, I’m well into edits on Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life. It’s due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.
And third: GIVEAWAY! Over on the Red Blog Dave Malone is giving away copies of his new poetic noir crime novelet Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten. Leave a comment and you might grab one!
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I did my first bookshop signing yesterday. Big landmark! It was a terrific day, lots of people (which was a relief). The local writing group came in force and one question came up time and again. ‘My manuscripts end up so long. What should I do?’
Many of their novels were tipping 150,000 words. One gentleman was turning out whoppers of 500,000 and knew he needed to do something about it. But what?
How long is too long?
Actually, length is not a question of wordcount. It’s about pacing. No book seems too long if the material has been handled well. A tome of 100,000 words will read like lightning if it is well paced. A novel of half the length will be a tedious trudge if the pacing is poor.
Of course, the book may be considered too long because of the market and genre. That’s a whole subject in itself. But let’s assume for today that you can have any length you like, so long as it is, like Goldilocks’s porridge, just right.
What is good pacing? It’s holding the attention of the reader. Plot revelations come at just the right speed. Not just plot, but emotional highs and lows, notes of comic relief, moments of growing tension. Well-paced novels keep the reader up past their bedtime.
A novel also reads smoothly if it is coherent. Whether it’s a simple story of two friends or a sweeping epic with seven protagonists and a plot that spans a century, it holds together as one elegant work. Like a well-designed room, everything has a place and it belongs. The material is under control. The more a reader feels the author has this authority, the more they will be gripped.
So when a reader, critique partner or editor tells you the novel is too long, they usually mean you need to fine-tune its coherence and pace. You need to make it a more compelling read.
Why do novels end up too long?
- the writer was having fun and went off at a tangent – nothing wrong with that, it’s part of the organic growth of the novel
- the writer found it was more difficult than they expected to get their characters from A to B – again, this is good and will make your novel unpredictable, organic and true
- - and most important – it’s almost impossible to keep control of coherence and pace while you are writing. You have to tackle these issues once you have the manuscript complete, and can see what belongs and what needs emphasis. (Some of the writers I spoke to yesterday were surprised by the concept of revising. Especially that revising was an essential, radically artistic process, rather than a quick brush-down for spelling tweaks.)
Take a break, then make a beat sheet
Readers of my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence will be familiar with these two steps. To edit productively, you need critical distance. So take a break. Write something else. Lock your manuscript away until you’ve forgotten most of it. Most of us need at least a month, but the longer the better.
Then make a beat sheet. This is my ultimate revision tool. Before I start editing, I need a way to grasp the structure of the entire book. So I make a summary of each scene’s purpose – why it’s in the story, whether it advances the plot or our knowledge of a character. I use this to decide if I have scenes that aren’t necessary, or are in the wrong place or if they repeat other material.
When I start editing, I’m feeling my way. With each pass, I climb further inside the novel. I understand what every scene and character should do, and realise whether to emphasise or condense.
It’s as if cutting is like marathon training. To start with, I make light, obvious excisions. Repeated words, over-long descriptive passages, portions of scenes that go nowhere. By the end, which may be weeks or even months later, I’m hardcore. I’ll think nothing of reordering a whole sequence of scenes, downgrading a character’s role or merging them with another person. I will gladly let go of ‘darlings’ – scenes, descriptions, characters and plot developments that are there only because I like them, and not because they are needed. (I may have to add scenes too.)
Cutting is creative
Cutting a book can sound like a negative, dispiriting process – another reason why some writers find it difficult. In fact is creative, not destructive. Although the net effect is a tighter wordcount, we’re not throwing material away but discovering what’s not needed. It’s a process of refinement. I love it because it’s where the book develops its distinct personality and identity.
And… announcement! You may have noticed a new cover has appeared in the sidebar. Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters To Life is due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.
Thanks for the swordsmen pics CarrieLu
Do you like cutting your novels? Do you have any tips to add?
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Free indirect and deep point of view are ways to help readers walk in a character’s shoes. You may find you already use them. But if you’re told you need to get closer to the main character, you might find these two techniques helpful.
Free indirect is a technique used in third-person narration to show a character’s thoughts. To understand what it is, and why it has such an opaque name, we need to backtrack a little.
Direct speech. The character’s thoughts are reported in quote marks (unless you’re leaving them out as a style choice, like Cormac McCarthy). Example (unless you’re Cormac McCarthy)
She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. ‘Just what are those gnomes doing on my lawn?’
For today’s readers, this can look unnatural. It has the effect of making the character seem to utter the words out loud. Which you may or may not want.
Indirect speech aka reported speech For noveling purposes, this is dialogue without the quotes (not in the Cormac McCarthy sense), and with extra text to explain it’s thoughts.
She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. She asked herself just what those gnomes were doing on her lawn.
So indirect speech avoids that awkward mental picture of the character declaiming to an empty room…
… and is where we get the name…
In free indirect speech, we enter the thoughts of the character. It’s as though we’re having a first-person narrator’s experiences from a third-person perspective.
She slammed the front door and thought about what she had seen. Just what were those gnomes doing on her lawn?
It’s more intimate than normal indirect, less artificial than direct. (And therefore is the most direct of the lot, but let’s not get confused.)
Writers who aren’t using first person often wonder how to show the character’s thoughts. Some resort to quote marks, but that looks weird unless the situation calls for out-loud declamations. Some writers try italics, but this is hard to read. Italics are for emphasis. Great paragraphs of italics make for migraine on the page. Normal indirect speech flows better but adds a lot of extra undergrowth.
Free indirect, though, mimics the immediacy of dialogue without the awkwardness.
This is another way to involve the reader in the character’s experience. While free indirect is about thoughts, deep point of view is about feelings and the senses.
She opened the gate. And stopped. On the front lawn were three small, jagged shapes. She peered into the gloom, waiting for a movement that would reveal perhaps it was a fox. Hopefully not a skulking burglar, but all the same her hands were tightening defensively around her keys. Behind, a car swished down the wet road. Its headlights filled the small front garden. Gnomes. Those things were three garden gnomes.
Now here’s the same scene told in a less deep point of view:
She came down the steps and saw an unexpected shape that made her stop in astonishment. For a moment she peered into the dark, wondering if it was a burglar. Then a car’s headlights revealed the truth. They were three garden gnomes.
The first example, in deep point of view, is closer to what the character is feeling. In the second example, the narrator (not the character) is the personality. Many of the words give distance, in this case slightly ironic – ‘made her stop in astonishment’, ‘wondering if it was’.
It’s not necessarily worse, by the way. If you have multiple story strands with several main characters it’s the natural way to wrangle them all.
If you have a single strong protagonist, whether first person or third, deep point of view will give you immediacy and vividness. You probably won’t use it for less intense moments, such as catching a bus or making breakfast. Readers don’t need every moment in deep point of view. But you can deep-dive to increase our connection to dramatic events.
Do you have problems getting close to a character’s experience? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!
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It’s a writer’s prerogative to change their mind. All the time. It’s called revision. We’re steering the story one way, then a stronger idea comes along, or a development proves impossible, or an editor or beta reader persuades us to do something else instead.
As we cut, add and rearrange, our drafts build up unwanted junk. Here are three ways this might be tripping the reader up.
Plot and character
So we’ve changed our mind about where we’re pushing a character or a plot strand. We may have tidying to do.
When movies do this – particularly if they have to recut after shooting is finished – they have to patch the scenes they’ve already got. Inevitably we’ll see characters worrying about stuff that looks important but goes nowhere – often to irritating effect. But writers can edit in infinite detail. Are your characters making an issue of things that now don’t matter?
Quite often a theme won’t become apparent until we’ve wrangled the book through many drafts, but that doesn’t stop us stabbing in the dark to find it. Language, imagery, dialogue and setting will all reflect what we think the themes are. If we’ve had a few reorientations we might end up with theme schizophrenia. Although that can add up to a rich book, it could also make unholy muddle. Look for echoes of earlier themes when you revise – and decide if you still need them.
A town’s streets show the traces of its history. A road might be crescent-shaped because of a building that disappeared centuries ago. The town is stuck with that – but does your novel have story structures that are more fiddly than they need to be? Do your characters serpentine through the plot because they’re navigating vanished landmarks?
Novel-writing isn’t a science. Our story’s evolutionary dead ends might be like junk DNA – a sequence of instructions that seems to say: ‘grow wings, no don’t grow wings, it’s not a bird any more’. Once thought to be useless to a modern human being, junk DNA is now believed to be important – though what it does is still opaque and mysterious.
By serendipity, your novel’s junk DNA might enrich the themes, or provide quirky, unexpected contrast and relief. (Readers are generous and tend to think you have placed every word deliberately. They don’t know how much irrelevant rubbish passes through a book as well.)
Clutter and clarity
So maybe junk isn’t all bad. Sometimes it’s treasure. Other times, though, it can confuse the reader and clutter the story. Your manuscript will be leaner, more elegant, better honed if you strip it out.
Is your novel carrying the baggage of previous lives? Do you de-clutter your stories?
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Once upon a time, an idea caught your eye. You wanted to spend tens of thousands of words exploring it. Maybe you now can’t remember that, or the work you’ve done has left you weary and muddled.
If we’re talking about an idea that hasn’t been written yet, the first thing I’d do is make it new again. Recreate the gut ‘wow’.
OMG I must write this
I forget everything I’ve tried to do with the idea so far. I identify what grabbed me when the idea was fresh and new.
I also forget what anyone else has done with it, if they have. It’s easy to end up intimidated by other treatments, especially if I’m frustrated. I disregard all that and find what originally demanded I work with the idea.
I create a mood board. I write down random phrases, images, dialogue snatches that the idea suggests to me. As a shorthand I might note moments from other novels or movies, or snatches of music. Anything to capture the excitement I first felt.
Make it fun
The chances are, I’m disappointed with the pointless work I’ve done so far. Ideas will flow better if I’m not reproaching myself. After all, the original idea came unbidden.
As much as possible, I make this process feel like play. Instead of typing on a computer, I write by hand. I often use the gaps in expired appointments diaries, scribbling notes in a different-coloured pen, or using the pages upside down. This lets me brainstorm without judging the results. Or I go somewhere I don’t usually write – cafes, a bench overlooking a view, a Tube train.
If you use Pinterest you could also start a board for your idea, but I’m not disciplined enough and will probably get lost on a browsing spree.
Where to take the idea?
Once I’ve made the idea feel new again, I start thinking about where it can go.
I start new lists for
- characters and what they want
- dramatic events that fit with the idea.
Batteries recharged, I can now face looking at what others have done. I search on Amazon for books tagged with keywords. LibraryThing has even better tags – here’s the page for My Memories of a Future Life and its tags, which I can click on to find other books that tackle the same subjects. (I would do the same on Goodreads but haven’t been able to work out how.) I also use the website TV Tropes (here’s how I use it to fill gaps in my story outline). All these resources will suggest the kinds of events, characters, conflicts and quests I could have.
Importantly, they’ll also help me discard some possibilities. In the novel I’m working on at the moment, I get a heartsink feeling whenever I look over some of my notes. Clearly I’m not interested in that aspect of the characters’ world, even though other writers have tackled it. So I’ll play it down.
When is the idea strong enough?
Ultimately the idea is strong enough when I know:
- who the hero is and who or what might oppose them
- what people are trying to do
- how it will get worse
- what the setting is
- why it will take a long time to reach a resolution
- a rough structure – what kicks off the drama and various twists that will form the turning points. Sometimes I decide the end beforehand, or I let it find itself once I’m writing.
You might have covered all these bases but the story still seems limp. In that case, beef up the material you have -
- increase the stakes so that the goal matters more to the characters
- make it more difficult for them to get what they want
- turn up the conflict between the characters.
You don’t have to get it all instantly
This is important. Some ideas need to be shut away and wiped from your fretting brain. If the idea looks feeble, don’t junk it. Give it a sabbatical. The Venice Novel, which I talked about in the TV Tropes post, has worn out my ingenuity for now so I’ve put it in the deep compost department. Meanwhile another novel I thought I’d worried to shreds has – to my surprise – woken up with real substance. I’m working on the detailed outline. For now I’m calling it The Mountain Novel.
Partner it with another idea
Sometimes an idea doesn’t have enough juice on its own. But it’s still worth working it as far as you can. A few key elements in My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form 3 began as separate story ideas. Negligible on their own, they harmonised perfectly in a bigger work.
Don’t be afraid to restart
Sometimes we go wrong with an idea or get lost. If I’m in the early stages, trying to work out what to do with an idea, I return to the pure inspiration and look for a stronger angle. If I’ve already drafted and the story doesn’t seem to matter enough, I look at ways to turn up the heat. (Speaking of which, thanks for the distillation pic Brankomaster.)
Have you had to strengthen a story idea? What did you do? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. Book 2 is now under construction – sign up for my newsletter for details as soon as they become available. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
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Often, writers are gearing up to reveal a big threat in the meat of the story, but fail to give us enough in the early chapters. Instead they show the characters living their lives, surrounded by their important folk. They may show us back story, and what the characters don’t want to lose. This is all useful groundwork – but they are in a state of stability.
What’s missing is the sense that the character is venturing onto a tightrope. The unknown knocking at the door. The trampoline on the balcony.
Genre and generalisations
How obvious you make this instability depends on your readership. Children’s and YA novels have to be pretty literal, while literary novels for adults might create pressures of agonising subtlety. Passages that would be aimless cogitation in a thriller might be enthralling dissonance in another genre.
But whatever you are writing, you still need jeopardy. So if your characters are looking too comfortable, what can you do?
Cut the throat-clearing
The simplest answer is to ditch the throat-clearing and get to the main threat sooner, then generate some complications to spin out afterwards.
Foreshadow with mysterious symptoms
But you might be better to keep your main conflict where it is. In that case, you need a build-up – but one that isn’t aimless.
Start from your main conflict and spin it out backwards, creating less severe problems that will lead to the flashpoint. Like mysterious symptoms that warn of a medical catastrophe, these can give that tingling sense that the character’s world is becoming irretrievably unstable.
Is there any normal activity that they start to find more difficult? Is there a tricky choice they might have to make early on? And could the character handle these in a way that makes everything more precarious? Could they think they’ve sorted it out but find they’ve made it worse?
Sometimes writers try to add jeopardy with a deadline. The gangsters are coming. Or the bomb will detonate. That can be effective if introduced late, but plot timebombs have a short shelf life. If you start them ticking too early and never escalate the problems in another way, the reader can get numbed.
Other characters are a terrific source of instability. Is there something your main character has to do that puts them at odds with other people who are important to them?
When I fixed Life Form 3, I looked closely at the other characters. I found:
- relationships where there was tension, and I made more of it
- ways for characters to spoil things for each other
- a way to give an early warning of the main threat, by making a diluted version afflict another character
I also looked for where this new, more desperate situation might lead to alliances. This gave one character a much stronger role, and became a catalyst for other tensions that richocheted through the story. He emerged with some strong beliefs that made him a far bigger player than he was originally designed to be.
Stories need a sense of instability to tweak the reader’s curiosity. If you need to add more, you can often find the roots in your main conflict and characters.
Have you had to add jeopardy to a story – and how did you do it? Let’s talk in the comments!
If you found this post useful, you might like the follow-up to my book Nail Your Novel. It’s currently in edits and I’m still debating the title, but it will be stuffed with craft advice. If you’d like updates about this and Life Form 3, sign up to my newsletter
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