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Posts Tagged Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel
This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure and endings. Today it’s two questions about difficulties with characters.
The bland friend
One romance writer had a character who was the supportive friend for the protagonist. She worried that, in all the scenes of tea and sympathy, the friend was bland. I suggested giving her a rough edge that showed the limits of this tolerant soul. I drew inspiration from Dave’s mother, easily the most accommodating person I ever met. But she couldn’t abide spiders, and would not have been bothered if you squashed one while removing it from her presence. Suppose, I said to my romance writer, your nice lady is so mortally afraid of spiders that she always stamps on them?
The antagonist you’re afraid to write
Another lady had an antagonist who made her feel inhibited. She knew he should have more darkness than she had written but she feared to explore it. She also recognised this was cheating the book. What if, I said, she put that worry into another character, let them act out her discomfort? Would that free her to unlock the antagonist? She seemed to feel that would do the trick. I also encouraged her to look for the kernel of good that let him feel positive and justified about himself – and maybe even disturbed him.
Thanks for the pic, heyjoewhereareyougoingwiththatguninyourhand
Tomorrow: accents in dialogue
I’m really curious about this question of the character who upsets us so much we feel inhibited when we write them. Have you had experience of this? Let’s talk.
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This week I’m running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. Yesterday I ran a post about three/four-act structure. Today it’s a great point about how you tie up the end.
Tying up the ends at The End – should you write an epilogue?
One student in the class had written a major climax scene, then another scene to tie up the subplot ends, then an epilogue so we could see what the characters did next. She asked, how many climax scenes could you have? How long should you go on after that? She also felt she didn’t know when to let go and allow the book to end.
Deciding the order of the end events is tricky. You need a main climax, which obviously is the major plot thread. Other threads can be solved in less prominent positions, and often work well in the post-climax scene, as the dust is settling, as a leave-taking for the whole book.
But then what? Do you need an epilogue to show life going on? At what point do you pull the plug and send the reader away?
This is very much a gut decision, but I’ve seen a lot of writers who can’t leave their characters behind. They embark on epic epilogues which dilute the ending, water down its poignance or sweetness, or delay the final punch for too long.
But I know why we write them. I did it myself with My Memories of a Future Life. I wrote several more chapters after the end, page after page, but I recognised that this was so that I could let go. It was an act of exorcism, just for me. I never intended those chapters to be in the book.
Of course, in your mind and in the reader’s there’s always more to tell. So answer this – what will an epilogue add? And who are you adding it for – the reader or yourself?
Tomorrow: two difficult types of characters
Do you have trouble tying up the end of a novel? Have you ever written extra chapters so you could ‘let go’? Have you ever had feedback that suggested you’d paced these ending chapters wrong, either too abruptly or too slowly?
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Yesterday I was teaching a course for Guardian newspapers on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next 7 days.
Three/four-act story structure – how strictly must you stick to it?
Briefly, most stories have a beginning, middle and end, and seem to work best when the major turning points are at 25%, 50% and 75%.
It’s a formula followed by Hollywood screenplays, and it’s certainly useful for novelists – but as a guideline, not a hard rule. In novels it probably won’t matter if you begin your climax at 80% instead of 75%. If you begin at 90% the ending might feel abrupt because you might not have time to come down the other side. You might also have too much of a lull beforehand. On the other hand, it might be perfect.
Where the structure rules become really useful is if you spot a problem. If the end seems too sudden, or too drawn out, would repositioning it help?
Tomorrow: ends and epilogues
Thanks for the pic TMAB2003 on Flickr
Let’s discuss! Do you find the three/four-act structure is useful to you, too formulaic? Has it helped you iron out a problem in your manuscript?
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My guest this week has written a novel of exiles – artists, sculptors and musicians displaced from their home countries by the border shifts after World War II. The central character is doubly exiled, born between genders at a time when such things were poorly understood. Music helped her create their personalities, guide her research and develop their histories. She drew on a rich heritage of opera, jazz and folk – and even composed her own folk song for the novel. She is Kathleen Jones and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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‘Can I ask you about ghostwriting….?’ As you may know, this is how I first got published, writing novels that were released under the names of other people. I was the secret hand that wrote these (and others…)
I get asked about ghostwriting all the time, from people curious about it as a career path, or thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, or the plain curious. So here’s the dirt. Or as much as I can safely reveal.
Which books are ghostwritten?
Celebrity biographies and novels If someone has an interesting life story or is popular, a ghostwriter might be engaged to help them write a memoir. If that sells they might be asked if they fancy doing novels.
Megabrand genre novels It’s well known that James Patterson uses ghosts, outsourcing early draft work to keep up with demand. And that publishers hire writers to keep popular authors feeding the market after they die – eg Robert Ludlum. There are also plenty of other big-name authors in commercial fiction who are still alive and use ghostwriters, unacknowledged. (Knowing wink. You would be scandalised.)
So there’s plenty of work.
It’s all about who you know.
Editors and agents If you have a literary agent, let them know you’re up for ghosting. Also it’s worth mentioning to book editors you’ve worked with.
Journalism Journalism is another way to break in, especially for non-fiction. You might meet someone who wants help writing their life story or a book on their patch of expertise (but see below).
Author services companies I get frequent approaches from author services companies, who want reliable ghostwriters they can recommend to clients. I don’t know what the terms are, but, in general, I worry about working for services companies. Judging by other areas of publishing, one party gets a bad deal – either the client pays over the odds, or the freelance gets a lot less than market rate.
Pros and cons Cons first. You’re caught between two masters – which you realise when the ‘author’ wants one thing and the editor wants another. You will be amazed at the issues that blow up into diplomatic incidents and you’re left trying to please both. (Knowing wink. You’ll earn every dime.) Commercial ghostwriting is satisfying because the book will be published, and because of the cost of hiring you, it will probably be well marketed. Depending on your deal, should be a worthwhile addition to your CV and earnings stream. If you ghostwrite for an author services company, you may find there’s no long tail because the book is far less likely to earn in money or reputation.
What will you be paid? Deals vary, obviously. But to generalise, you get much better terms if you have representation. My agent is horrified at the contracts I have from my ghosting days.
My personal beware list
Don’t do any ghosting work for individuals unless you’re very sure they’ll get a publishing deal. Even if they’re a celebrity you know personally.
Don’t do any work on spec for agents. In more naive days I spent four months rewriting a thriller for a phenomenally well-connected gentleman, persuaded by an agent to do it for a future profits share. The book never sold and I never saw any payment.
Be even more careful of the situation that might land you in court – or worse. I get a lot of approaches from people who want me to help them write a book about their murder trial. Such a book couldn’t be published without cast-iron legal backing, which only a major publisher has the chops for. And as for the chap who wanted me to write the book about how he was manipulated into assassinating … No I can’t tell you. (Knowing wink with a nervous twitch. You might be dead.)
Can I hire a ghostwriter myself?
Question. Can you afford to pay six to nine months’ salary for a writer to do a proper job of your book? This is why, in commercial publishing, ghostwriters are generally funded by the publisher, not the writer (although they don’t always get a fair fee – see above). But if you have a strong concept for a book and a writer who is a good match, you could seek a deal together.
What about royalty-split deals? See the caveats above, but these are frontier-busting times. Indies are leading the way with new ways to fund books, as we’re seeing with ACX for audiobooks and translation deals.
How can I break in?
Aside from personal contacts, there are opportunities for beginners if you know where to look. Book packagers are companies that dream up commercial ideas for novels, which they pitch to publishers. Some of these become phenomenally successful. They need writers.
They give you the plot in painstaking detail, so your job is to flesh out the story into scenes. Sounds a doddle? There are two downsides. One – the pay is rubbish. Two –they demand rewrite after rewrite because they design the story by committee and change their minds. But it is a way to get experience, and you might make useful friends. Find them in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or the US equivalent. Contact them and ask if they’re looking for writers. If you send them a sample and it’s good enough, they might ask you to try out for a live project.
Have you any questions about ghostwriting? Or wisdom to add? Your turn!
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‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman
My guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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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My guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just overheard a conversation that gave him an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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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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My guest this week writes urban fiction imbued with magical realism and horror. His characters are drawn directly from soundtracks, from music that expressed their desperation, loneliness, fragility and streetwise sass – Sinead O’Connor to Madonna; Dead Can Dance to Suede and Soft Cell. He is Rohan Quine and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- Self-editing masterclass snapshots: bland friend and upsetting antagonist July 29, 2014
- Self-editing masterclass snapshots: endings and epilogues July 28, 2014
- Revision and self-editing: masterclass snapshots July 27, 2014
- ‘The music of exile’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kathleen Jones July 23, 2014
- Ghostwriting FAQs: should you get a ghostwriter, do you want to become one? July 20, 2014
- ‘Abhorrent combinations… fear not as the music writes the story for you’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Josh Malerman July 16, 2014
- How to fix a plot hole July 13, 2014
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