Husband Dave and I have recently been watching the Showtime series Ray Donovan. And sometimes, we’re finding the storytelling is rather uneven.
Interesting developments pop up that seem to promise a new and unexpected direction for the plot. Instead, though, they’re defused and then the main story trots along again, pretty much unaffected.
Here’s an example. Ray is a hired troubleshooter for the rich and famous, and has a few skeletons in the closet. In the first season he’s pursued by an FBI agent of formidable reputation; we’re told he always gets his man. This seems to be setting up a potent adversary. But then the writers then did their best to hustle him out of the story.
First they made him into a figure of fun by spiking his coffee with LSD. Then he’s shot by one of the characters. It’s clear the writers didn’t want to let him cause big trouble, so they got rid of him. (And in case you’re wondering, the shooting doesn’t seem to have had any consequences either.)
This seems to happen a lot in the Ray Donovan scripts. Interesting obstacles pop up that promise a swerve into a more serious gear. But they’re neutralised, and in a way that looks rushed or unbelievable.
For the audience, it’s terribly frustrating. If a serious problem arises, we want to see it cause lasting trouble. And we want it to have serious, unpredictable consequences. We don’t want it to be solved, and for everything to continue as before.
Last week I talked about rookie plotting errors, and this was one of them. Tunnel vision; not giving brilliant plot ideas enough development. No of course I’m not suggesting the Ray Donovan writers are rookies. But there’s another characteristic reason that this problem arises – when writing to a deadline. When a daily quota must be filled. And when the writer has to fit an overall outline.
In TV, a writer probably doesn’t have much leeway to alter the master series arc. They have to fit the show runner’s mission. But if you’re writing a novel, you’re the master. If you’ve made an outline, you can change it, even if you’re rattling the words out against a deadline.
Here’s a plan to examine a show-stopping idea without losing control.
- Acknowledge – stop and look that idea firmly in the eye. Might it upset your plans? A sure sign is if you’re already looking for a way to stifle its effects. Take a moment and let it breathe.
- Assess the consequences. Step away from your outline. Open a new file or Evernote tab or grab a pen. Make a what-if list – if you incorporated this development fully into the story, what would the consequences be? Explore them in this safe space.
- Run the comparisons. Make another list. In one column write the reasons to change. Perhaps a character’s motivation would be stronger. The setting might be used more effectively. In another, write the reasons not to. It might cause inconvenience – perhaps you’d have to rethink earlier passages. (Might that be so bad?) It might take the story into territory you’re not interested in or would be off genre. (That’s a stronger reason not to.) Be honest. Sit and mull.
- If you decide to keep the idea, adapt your outline – and sail onwards with a more robust story.
Thanks for the pic, Pixabay. Discreet cough… There are a lot more tips on outlining and on making the most of plot developments in the Nail Your Novel books.
Another discreet cough… if you’re interested in ghost-writing, my course starts its live period tomorrow. The course will be available after that period as well, but for the next four weeks, you get to take part in a secret online forum and I’ll be holding live Q&A sessions where you can pick my brains. Learn more here.
Back to plots etc. Do you write using an outline or a daily quota? Do you find this sometimes hampers your creativity, or you feel you can’t use an off-the-cuff idea? Or do you have a method for harnessing these brainwaves and making the most of them?
It seems there are certain pitfalls we all encounter when we’re plotting a novel. Creaky story metaphors; genre muddle; clumsy handling of ‘non-real’ material; tunnel vision; ignoring common-sense solutions to the characters’ troubles. This week I had the hot seat at the Alliance of Independent Authors blog, listing dumb things we all might do when building a story (whether self-publishing or not).
As I’ve dinged your inbox several times already this week because of the ghost-writing course launch, this will be my regular writing post. (And this seems a good moment to mention that, if you’re interested, the ghost-writing course early bird offer expires on 17 May – more details here.)
My guest this week grew up in the Mojave desert where rain was a rarity. So a key for her creative space is the sound of wild, wet weather. Sometimes it’s tracks that include storm noises, but she’ll just as easily tune into a rain station at the same time as a piece of music. The sounds go in tandem, whipping up just the right tumult for her writing. So it’s probably not surprising that her work has a Gothic element; she writes what she describes as Victorian and Gilded Age with a Gothic twist. It certainly went down well with USA Book News, who voted her first novel 2013’s best cross-genre title. She is Stephanie Carroll and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
In this post at Jane Friedman’s blog, I outline the mindset and skills needed, some of the challenges you might encounter …. and most of all, why ghost-writing is an attractive option.
My guest this week describes music as ‘a portable environment’. His work patterns have taken him all over the world and he might find himself writing anywhere from a station waiting room to a hotel lobby or a scorching beach. No matter where he finds himself, the music will put him back where he left off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his novels explore people who are lost, displaced or caught between cultures and he finds their soundtracks in the work of contemporary classical composers (including one of my own favourites, Olafur Arnalds). He is Toni Davidson and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
When astronaut Major Tim Peake blasted off for the International Space Station, the UK literary community launched a project of its own. One Giant Read is described as ‘a shared reading experience from Literature Works in partnership with the UK Space Agency, Royal National Institute for Blind People and supported by Gollancz, the Poetry Archive and Plymouth University’.
I’m beyond delighted that Lifeform Three is included in this month’s edition, which explores artificial intelligence in both the provable world (I refer you to that fetching shot of Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game) and in speculative fiction.
Rachel Anderson asks: How did you get into editing? Did you start writing first and then take on editing as a natural second, or was it out of necessity since there are more opportunities for editors than writers?
Oof, talk about cutting to the quick. It’s certainly tricky to make a living as a full-time writer. So most writers also use their wordsmithing in some other way – teaching or working in the publishing trade.
But does that mean all writers could be editors? Not necessarily. There’s a lot of difference between tidying your own work and shaping someone else’s to professional standards.
And you need different skills for the various strains of editing.
Copy editing and proof reading These are the nitpicky, forensic phases. Fact-checking and querying. Reading for consistency, clarity, correctness, house style, possible libel. The copy editor and proof reader are a human error trap – they have to catch anything that might be inaccurate, or would spoil the reader’s experience or undermine the author’s command. They have to spot anything that could possibly go wrong such as characters’ names changing half-way through, repeated passages from copy/paste mistakes, and snafus that no other human has yet encountered.
Rachel: I’ve been reading articles and stuff about developmental editing…
Aha – the creative stuff! For developmental editing, you need a mind for detail and a solid grounding in the mechanics of fiction (or non-fiction or memoir if that’s where you want to specialise – they need developmental editors too). Developmental editing is part diagnosis, part teaching. You need sharp radar for what isn’t working, and you need to explain this to the writer in a way that helps them solve it. Equally, it might be your job to solve it.
The best developmental editors understand how writers work and think – and this is where it helps to be a writer yourself, although it’s not an essential. You need to appreciate what havoc your suggestions might cause – for instance, if you recommend a writer rejigs a plot thread or combines two characters.
You also have to be a mind-reader – the best editors can figure out what the writer was aiming to do and advise them on how to achieve it. Or how to steer them to a wise course with their material. Developmental editors also need to be steeped in the genres they’re working with – the advice you’d give a paranormal writer would be very different from the way you’d direct a literary one.
Rachel: Do I need to get certification or training before trying to get people to trust me? Should I try to land a traditional job with a press or publishing house instead of (or before) striking out on the freelance path?
You can get training in copy editing and proof reading – in the UK a good place to start is the Society for Editors and Proof Readers . It’s trickier to learn developmental editing as it’s a matter of experience and I don’t know of any vocational courses. Even if there were, it’s the kind of thing you have to develop a sense for.
Here’s what I’d advise – read all you can about how fiction works. Join a good critique group where some of the members are working authors. Most freelance developmental editors, though, earned their spurs in a publishing house – so yes, I think this is the best path and it’s the surest way to prove to writers that you’re bona fide. And you’ll usually find yourself doing the copy editing and proof reading as well. Even if that doesn’t light your fire, it’s a useful string to your bow.
If you want to know more about the world of editing, you might like this recent roundtable from Indie Fringe 2016.
Are there any editors out there? What would you add? Aspiring editors, what would you like to ask? And has anyone had bad experiences with an inexperienced editor?
Hands up if you know who Delia Derbyshire is. Don’t put them down yet. Keep them up, waft them gently and imagine you are conjuring a shimmering singing sound. That’s how you play a theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. Theremins are an abiding inspiration for my guest this week; her novel centres on the life and loves of a cellist who becomes famous in the 1920s and 30s for playing this eerie, theatrical device. Her soundtrack is an ethereal mix of Portishead, PJ Harvey, David Bowie, the classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and of course Ms Derbyshire, one of the pioneers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in the 1960s. And I also must mention that the novel (The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt) has been nominated for several awards. She is Tracy Farr and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.