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This week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. So far I’ve covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team, how authors need to allow enough time to use their feedback properly and author control. Today, it’s a rather thoughtful question about writing and self-editing in the digital age.
Who are you? Self-editing to self-censorship
I had a very interesting discussion with a lady who had written a book on creativity, and was turning some of it into a blog. She said she found she was editing differently when putting it on line. Where passages from the book contained deeply personal information, she was removing this, feeling it was not suitable for the public world of a blog, though she was happy to have it in the book.
I wonder, has anyone else experienced this? Are you a different writer in the depths of your book? Less self-conscious perhaps? More secure in your relationship with the reader? Is your blog more of your upbeat, ‘party’ persona and your book a buried, contemplative one?
Last week in Thought Catalog. Porter Anderson talked in about the modern phenomenon of writers sharing so much about their daily lives, which has never been possible before. He asked, does this ready familiarity with an author’s life spoil the mystique necessary to let a book do its proper work on the virgin snow of a reader’s mind?
He talks of ‘a certain remove by the artist of his or her daily private life from the stage…’ so that the book can speak for itself.
But after my conversation with the blogging writer, I wonder this: what might we keep back for a book, let ourselves tell only in a story? Surely a person who is committed to writing always holds something in reserve, a true kernel that gets its expression only in communication with the page, that indeed maybe doesn’t exist except in the private vault where the book speaks for us. That’s what makes us writers. Perhaps on our blogs we are comparatively extrovert. We may not mean to censor or conceal; we tailor our copy for a short-order medium. In our books, we inhabit an introverse. Do you?
Thanks to Henry Hyde for the pic of me, and to Sean Mundy on Flickr for the eye.
Anyway, let’s discuss. Does this say something about the different qualities of blogs versus books? Does it suggest what we might be missing if more of our reading time is taken up by ephemeral media such as blogs and newspapers, rather than books? Especially as we increasingly read them all on the one device? And where are you most you? Am I mad?
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This week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. So far I’ve covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team and how authors need to allow enough time to use their feedback properly. Today, it’s how to cope with criticism.
Editing – an ordeal or not?
Henry Hyde (who took the pic of me!) asked the very good question of how writers respond when they receive a report. He’s the editor of a magazine, and said that contributors are often aghast when their work is red-penned. So what the blazes does a writer make of a 40-page document of major changes (as I described in my previous post)?
Well, I try to be gentle. I also encourage the author to see the report as criticism of the work, not them – although it’s often hard for them to see that. The more writing you do in a professional environment, the thicker your soles become and the more you’re able to see a manuscript as a work for others to help you with, rather than a bundle of your most tender nerve-endings.
It helps to have sensitive criticism, though. In traditional publishing, I’ve had savage editors who seemed to relish their chance to tear an author down – and generous souls who make it clear they are working for a book they already believe in. I hope I’ve learned from them how to be the latter.
The author has control
One author brought up an interesting point about a copy editor who had rewritten her dialogue, converting it unsuitably from period to a modern voice. With hindsight it was clear that the editor was probably working in an area outside her experience and thought all books should be edited the same way – a salutary warning to choose your team carefully. And several authors asked: ‘what if the author disagrees with the editor’?
A good question. It is, of course, entirely up to you what you do with a proof-reader’s tweaks or an editor’s recommendations. You are in control. Burn the report if you like, we’ll never know – but we’d prefer to think we’d been useful. I’m careful to make suggestions rather than must-dos, and to encourage an author to explore what they’re aiming for.
A good editor will also try to ensure they’re in tune with the author before any precious words change hands (let alone precious $$$). (Here’s my post on how a good editor helps you be yourself. I’m not tooting my own trumpet here – for most of you who are reading this, it’s likely I won’t be the right editor. Be highly wary of anyone who says they can developmentally edit absolutely anything.)
Let me reiterate: it’s your book. YOUR book. The editor, copy editor and proof reader make suggestions, not commands. (The same applies in a traditional publishing contract, provided you haven’t assigned moral rights – which isn’t usual.)
Use this power wisely. (And, to return to Messrs Jon Fine and Joe Konrath , don’t publish shit.)
Thanks Toni Holopainen for the pic of the man undergoing a thorough edit
Next (and finally): self-editing to self-censorship
If you’ve worked with editors, how did you feel about their criticisms? If you’ve been through this process several times, have you toughened up? Have you disagreed with an editor’s suggestions, and what came of it? Have you ever paid for an editorial service and concluded it was a waste of time and money? Let’s discuss!
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This week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. Yesterday I covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team. Today, it’s about allowing enough time to use their feedback properly.
Editing – will it derail your schedule?
One of the points I made was how long to allow for rewrites after the editor has done their worst – er, best. (Here’s my post on a publishing schedule for indie authors. )
I get a lot of enquiries from first-time authors who have already set a publication date and allowed a nominal fortnight or so to sort out the book after my report. They have no idea how deep a developmental edit might go. Especially for a first novel, or a first leap into an unfamiliar genre, you might need a few months to tune the book up. I know some writers who’ve taken a year on a rewrite, and I recently wrote a document of 20,000 words on a book of 100,000. Equally, other authors don’t need as much reworking and should have a usable manuscript inside a month.
But don’t make a schedule until your editor delivers their verdict – er, worst.
Thanks, Henry Hyde, for the pic of me :)
Next (after a brief sojourn at The Undercover Soundtrack): negative criticism
Have you had editorial feedback (whether from an editor or critique partners) that required major rewrites? How long did it take you to knock the manuscript into its new shape? Were you surprised?
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As you might have seen from various flurries on Facebook and Twitter, last weekend I gave a talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event in London. There are some interesting discussion points I want to share, and some of you will have crawled out of Nanowrimo and won’t be in the mood for a giant reading task, so I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next 6 days.
Editing – many minds make your book better
My task at the event was to explain the various steps of editing and why they were important – developmental editing, copy editing and proof reading (here’s my post on a publishing schedule for indie authors ).
This care with the book content was an absolute gold standard for the day, and was stressed over and again – guided rewriting with expert help, and attention to detail.
JJ Marsh of Triskele Books in her talk on how their collective works, said that the combined critical talents of her fellow authors had made her books far better than she could have made them on her own. Psychological thriller writer Mark Edwards, women’s fiction author Talli Roland all talked about the people who helped shoulder the responsibility of getting the book to a publishable standard. Jon Fine, director of author and publisher relations at Amazon, cut to the chase by quoting thriller selfpublishing phenomenon Joe Konrath : ‘Don’t publish shit.’ (Next time I’ll just say that.)
Some of the delegates didn’t need to be told anyway. From a show of hands, roughly a fifth of them had already been working with editors, in thriving professional relationships where their limits were being pushed and they were being challenged to raise their game. If there’s one advantage selfpublishing can give us, it’s the control over our destiny and artistic output, and many of these writers were committed to making books they could be proud of.
Eek, the cost!
True, good editing comes at a cost. Jeremy Thompson of the Matador selfpublishing imprint gave grim warnings about companies that advertise editing services for just $99. And it probably seems unjust that a pastime that should be so cheap has such a steep price tag. Writing is free as air, after all. But publishing isn’t. It never has been. No manuscript ever arrived at a publisher and went straight onto the presses. It went through careful stages of professional refinement – which takes time and money.
That said, there are ways to get useful developmental help without breaking the bank – here’s my post on 4 low-cost ways to get writing tuition if you can’t afford an editor.
Thanks for the picture, Henry Hyde
Tomorrow: how long to allow for rewrites
Have you worked with an editor or critique partner who helped you improve your book? Or perhaps the opposite….? Let’s discuss!
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I found this interesting note in a piece on Futurebook. Porter Anderson was quoting a speech made by author George Berkowski in advance of the Futurebook conference. It got me thinking about the shaping role of editing, and some crucial differences between indie publishing and traditional.
A quick disclaimer before we proceed. This was not the point of Berkowski’s speech or Porter Anderson’s article. It is merely a sentence that simmered for me after I read it. Also, Berkowski is not talking about fiction, as this blog usually is. His book is How To Build A Billion-Dollar App. But a fiction manuscript is scourged and rebuilt just as thoroughly as non-fiction when it enters a publisher’s editorial department.
This is what I want to explore; how a submission can be greatly changed by editorial input. Improved, usually, but undeniably changed.
My point is the nature of that change.
When a publisher edits, they are focused on their market. That makes perfect sense, of course. Like any business, they aim to please their clientele. If your artistic vision is perfectly aligned with that, that’s terrific (though you still may have drastic rewrites ahead).
But if you’re not? Many a first-time author has been uncomfortable about editors who are dumbing them down, or imposing directions that strip away their originality. Generalising is risky, of course, as one person’s depth is another’s dense mess. But what is good for the publisher may not be good for your creative identity, your long-term brand or your book.
Dare to be different
When you self-publish, you choose the editor who most closely suits your style and vision. There’s a lot more room for you to be daring and different, if that’s what you want. An indie editor will discuss what you want the book to be. Or they can help you find it. They won’t try to force you in a direction. They will help you come into your own.
I have, in reporting on a client’s novel, suggested they are more naturally literary than, say, the thriller market they thought they were writing for; that they were forcing when they should follow their instincts. It goes the other way too. I’ve advised writers who thought they should write literary that their strengths are the gripping page-turner of world-burning mayhem. I’ve steered would-be historical novelists to write non-fiction, as their every fibre screamed against inventing people, scenes and dialogue.
Because I don’t have to please an imprint, I can consider what’s best for the writer. I can truly be the book’s advocate.
Don’t imagine, though, that this is an issue with every indie author. Many know exactly what they aim to write. But if they’re feeling their way, an indie editor will help them be more truly themselves. When such an author is accepted by a publishing house, the process will shape the book to fit the house’s requirements. An indie editor will help you work out what your own requirements are.
Second novels … and beyond
And what about subsequent novels? If you write a second novel that hits different notes from the first, a traditional publisher usually tries to make you change it. You might not have realised how that first novel sealed your doom.
Such feedback might be helpful, of course. On the other hand, many authors resent it. They’re only just discovering their potential. The indie world is full of first novelists who were dropped because they developed, matured or wanted to flex their art a different way. Certainly if I’d had a traditional publisher for My Memories of a Future Life, I would never have been allowed Lifeform Three as novel 2. I would have been told to write another contemporary odd literary book.
If you’re an indie author, your editor can help you embrace new directions. Or you are free to find a different editor.
I freely admit this post exposes my priorities. I am not the person to ask if you want to know about marketing or writing a commercial success. But I’ll certainly tell you the fundamentals of gripping readers and giving them a good ride, whatever you write. I’ll also say that success, both commercial and the deeper reward of satisfaction, comes from good craft and a thorough understanding of where you fit. If your heart truly beats for genre fiction, the devoted reader of that genre will sense it. They’ll also know if you’re painting by numbers. Your best chance of success is to find your groove, be true to yourself, whatever it is.
But this is another reason why indie publishing, at its most careful and respectful, is more likely to produce genuinely original books. Traditional publishing will edit a book for the good of a defined clientele. Sometimes everyone is happy, of course. But in a traditional publisher the priority is the company interest, not the author or the book. I’ve seen enough occasions when this created a ghastly compromise.
Indeed, readers are far more adventurous than publishers can accommodate. The reader couldn’t define for you what they want; they know it when a skilled author invents it. (And thus I refute the oft-repeated claim that indie authors are expert only in marketing, not in the art. But that’s a different brawlgame.)
It’s often said that successful marriage is one that makes you feel more yourself. A successful editor partnership will make your book more itself, not more like someone else.
Let’s re-visit the quote that began all this: ‘publishing is very good at editorial’. It may be, within limits. But I contend that indie authors whose values are originality and craft are doing it better.
And let’s discuss – what’s your experience of working with editors, whether independent or within a publishing house? Have you ever been made to fit a mould that you suspected wasn’t truly suitable for your book?
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I get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.
Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)
First of all, what’s a beat sheet?
It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.
Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.
- Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
- Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
natural world & how people are isolated
- M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
- Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
true feelings, everyone’s doing this
- Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
- M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
- Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
- Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
- taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
- M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
- Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
- M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
- B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
- M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
- M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…
So that’s how it’s done.
Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?
Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.
First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)
We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.
Connecting us with the character
In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.
In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.
Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life
Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.
Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.
I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here
And more about Lifeform Three here
Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire
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‘What are your views on head-hopping? In my steep learning curve, I gathered it was frowned upon (maybe just for newbies?).
Head-hopping. First of all, what’s Robert talking about?
All narratives have a point of view – the ‘eyes’ through which a story is told. It might be a dispassionate third-person camera following everyone. It might be a more involved third person account with insights into one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings (close third). It might be first person, where there is only one person’s experience.
Head-hopping is where the point of view changes. It’s not always verboten – we’ll come to that. But it’s often done unintentionally – and when it is, it can cause a logic hiccup. It can even kick the reader right out of the story.
It’s easiest to spot POV slips in first-person stories, where the narrator describes something they couldn’t possibly know or experience – another person’s intentions, or an event they aren’t present at. (Indeed, this is usually where writers realise the limitations of first-person narration. And so the character finds a diary or a secret blog…)
Head-hopping problems are not confined to first person (or close third), though. A third-person scene might be following one character’s experience, then slip into a perspective that somehow doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s just a paragraph, or a line. It’s often hard to spot. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and they’ll disengage from you.
However, point of view shifts aren’t bad per se. In most novels we need to accommodate a lot of characters and their stories. Here’s part 2 of Robert’s question:
I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King, and my word, does he head-hop! Is that because he is such a good storyteller? Or should he be advised to avoid this? (I can write to him and let him know…)
Hah! It’s a while since I read Stephen King, and the chances are even slimmer that I’ve read the same Stephen King as you, Robert! But some general points.
He might indeed have got it wrong. All writers have blind spots. And it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t edited rigorously.
But also … he might have got it right!
The only way to tell? When you notice it, ask yourself if it was an inconsistency that shook you out of the story, even slightly. A good POV shift keeps you immersed.
Let’s explore a few ways to shift point of view and do it well.
Two ways to shift point of view
New chapters – a new point of view gets a new chapter. You might even write some chapters first person and some third – as Deborah Moggach does in Tulip Fever. In each she follows one character’s experience closely. And if two of the principals share a scene? She writes one chapter from one point of view, and revisits the event in a separate chapter for the other person’s. She always remains disciplined about which point of view she is following. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.
Shift within the scene – yes you can get away with it, if you are well behaved. You might:
- Show one paragraph from one point of view, the next from the other. Make sure the reader will be able to follow which is which without getting confused. But if the scene is intense, you might leave the reader punch-drunk from trying to follow two strong experiences. It might be better to…
- Switch the entire point of view during the scene – so the first half follows one character’s perspective, then swivels to the other until the end. I’m doing this in Ever Rest as I have several protagonists, all getting into dire angst. Note this is usually a one-time change – it can bust the reader’s patience if you flip back again.
(There’s more about point of view in my characters book)
What we leave out
One of the keys to point of view is judging what to leave out. The writer always knows a lot more than the reader. We know every main character’s thoughts, back story, front story. And that’s why it’s hard to spot head-hopping in our own work – because we make the mental switch without realising. But the reader can’t. They get lost, even if only by a micron.
All points of view have their limitations and boundaries. We have to write within them.
Control is everything
Robert says: In my first book, I found some errors where there was a transfer of POV. When I edited them to stick to the main POV, I thought it read better.
Amen. And this is why: when you begin a story, you establish a set of conventions. In the same way as we set up rules about the story world (whether it’s realistic contemporary, medieval with magic etc) we also set up rules for how we will tell it. If we’re going to shift between experiences, we establish the pattern from the earliest chapters. If we break that pattern, it disturbs the flow. Of course, we might use that to disorientate or shock – imagine a story where the surprise appearance of a new narrator might cause delicious mayhem. That’s the head-hopping principle – used for deliberate impact.
Skilful writers never fumble the reader’s experience. And point of view is a potent storytelling tool.
Thanks for the Rear Window pic x-ray delta one
Do you have problems with POV and head-hopping? Do you have examples of when it’s been used to create an interesting effect – or writers who seem to be getting away – gasp – uncorrected? Share in the comments!
NEWS The audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life is now live! You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.
If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.
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I’m stuck. I outlined a setting, characters and events. But when it comes to put all together, they don’t fit. Every time I try to change something (aspects of the setting, adding or removing characters) things don’t work. I tried killing several darlings (and reviving them),but the plot is still not making sense. I feel like I’m forcing a cat to take a bath. I keep seeing logic holes. I rearrange and new holes appear. I tried a lot of things (including the card game from Nail Your Novel), but I feel there is something I can’t see, which is the piece I’m missing to put in (or take away) to make things work.
Oh my, what a familiar litany. You must have been eavesdropping chez Morris. My desk is currently littered with notes and scribbles about The Mountains Novel.
What stands out for me is this phrase:
‘I feel like there’s something I can’t see, the piece I’m missing to make things work.’
So there are two things you are looking for: coherence and clarity.
(And what’s that got to do with the title of this post? We’ll come to that. But first, let’s tackle coherence.)
Every time you try to streamline, your inner editor-fairy is telling you that’s not the way. Sometimes we’re like detectives following a hunch, and the only way is a 7% solution or strangle a violin. Just what is the connection that makes sense of all this sprawl?
Here’s what I do – and it’s not very different from what you’ve described. I muddle about with possibilities, subtract things, double them, make lists of pros and cons of a new idea, viewpoint or angle, let the idea settle and come back to it anew.
It particularly helps to return to your themes. Jot them down and consider how your plot events and character issues align with them. Perhaps your themes have changed and this is why the novel is looking too sprawling. Has it suddenly become a novel about ‘everything’?
Sometimes you get more coherence by diving into the first draft regardless. If you have a scene order that makes rough sense but isn’t perfect, start writing anyway. See what happens once you live as the characters and let them inhabit the book. You might find their experience fills those gaps and confirms your hunch on a level you couldn’t get by analysis. Or you might see modifications you can make – rewrite cards, shuffle them if necessary, adjust your map as you go.
With The Mountains Novel, I have two big ideas I’m putting together that don’t appear to naturally fit. That’s one reason I’m not going to tell you what they are in this post – but in my gut I always knew they belonged together. And the further in I write, the more resonance I see.
Which brings me to my more practical tip.
I’m currently rereading The English Patient. I love both novel and movie – but they are very different, even though they are made from the same characters, setting and story events. Reading the novel and noticing the differences is suggesting new ways I could use my own ideas – and they’re all the kind of changes we might make when refining a plot -
- characters in the novel have been spliced together to suit the leaner lines of a film
- scenes that happened in the back story of peripheral characters have been reworked as bonding moments for the main players
- the scenes featuring the English patient’s romance are very different and very much condensed, yet true to the spirit of the original novel
- the novel’s climax is not the same as the movie’s, where far more emphasis is on the English patient’s romance
- the novel’s events are more fragmented, less chronological
So find a novel that has been extensively reworked to make it into a movie, and notice how the demands of each medium – and audience – has reimagined common material.
Marco, you’re doing all the right things. You may feel lost, but sometimes this takes a long time (see this post about how I write and here’s the pics version) It’s often frustrating, and you might feel that all you achieve is a big list of duff stuff. But you might not realise how far you’ve come. Sometimes I look through old notes and smirk at the ideas I was trying to shoehorn in but am now wiser about. (My favourite bookseller, Peter Snell of Barton’s in Leatherhead, points out that I have been mentioning The Mountains Novel in enigmatic hints ever since I first walked into his shop in Christmas 2012 and I’m not nearly done with it yet.) But time and persistence will show you what belongs and what doesn’t.
What would you tell Marco? How have you found clarity in a muddled plot? And can you suggest any movie adaptations that depart interestingly from the original novel?
NEWSFLASH Sandy Spangler and I have finished the files for the audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life (here are the posts about our adventures) and I just noticed today on the ACX dashboard that it’s passed the technical vetting. If you’re signed up to my newsletter I’ll be sending an email as soon as it’s out – and I’ll have a limited number of review copies to offer. If you want the chance to get a free copy of the audiobook, sign up here!
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You started writing a book… but will you finish? Laura Pepper Wu of The Write Life Magazine invited me to her series ‘7 Superstars in Writing & Publishing’ to answer that question.
I’m thrilled to be on this because her other superstars are steampunk author and marketing guru Lindsay Buroker, Bestseller Labs founder Jonathan Gunson, Writer’s Digest editor Brian Klems, prolific series novelist and podcaster Sean Platt, magazine journalist Linda Formichelli … and she’s rounding off the series with literary agent Rachelle Gardner! (I’m usually sparing with exclamation marks but I think such a well-connected bunch deserves one…)
In a 20-minute video Laura and I discuss drafting, fixing, beating writer’s block, getting better ideas and writing with CONFIDENCE! And if you scroll through you’ll find the other guys’ interviews too. Come on over…
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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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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Summoning Christmas in July’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jan Ruth December 17, 2014
- Living the stuff of novels: the ghostwriter’s lot December 14, 2014
- ‘Harmony from fragments’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rochelle Jewel Shapiro December 10, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots: writing for a blog vs writing for a book December 7, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots: negative criticism and author control December 5, 2014
- ‘We become readers in our listening’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, EJ Runyon December 3, 2014
- Editing seminar snapshots – how long to allow for rewrites December 2, 2014
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