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This is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.
Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.
Is it a premise or a plot?
A writer in my class told us she’d had a literary agent, who had said: ‘Your problem is that you have a premise but not a plot.’
So what might that mean?
A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)
Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.
So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.
Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.
Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.
And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.
So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.
The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.
So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.
More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto, change, Conflict, creative writing, curiosity, Guardian, Guardian masterclass, how to tell a story, how to write a plot, Plot, premise, story, suspense, what is a plot, what is a premise, writing
I’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount, how to flesh out a draft that’s too short and a problem of pacing if much of the plot concerns the fallout from one event. Today I’m looking at another interesting problem:
Important character disappears – how should I handle it?
One writer had a key character who vanishes from the narrative. Her novel was based on family history and she had a character who was significant for the early chapters and then drifted away.
The character didn’t die, and didn’t have a formal farewell event to create a definite exit from the story world. There was just a period where they ceased to be involved. The writer was worried that this might look like a continuity problem or a mistake.
She was right; it needed to be handled carefully. This character would be important to the reader because she was a key player in early scenes.
The earlier a character is introduced, the more significantly they lodge in the reader’s mind. The original cast members of a book are like the first friends you make in a new and strange place. They are probably noticed far more than those you introduce later.
(This is why prologues can seem irritating, because they might set up people who don’t play a major part, or are never seen again. There’s lots more about handling prologues and character departures in the Nail Your Novel books.)
So if a key character will disappear, you have to be careful. The reader needs their attachment to the character to be acknowledged, and to be comfortable that the disappearance was intended. They mustn’t lose faith in your control of the material.
We explored ways to do this. By far the most obvious solution was to invent a scene that made a feature of the departure, but in this case the writer felt that would be inappropriate or untruthful. And she didn’t want to invent letters or phone calls from the missing character.
With that in mind, we moved on to ways to keep the character in the text, if they couldn’t be in the scenes. I suggested the writer add a friend who was close to the departed character, who could continue the association on behalf of the other characters (and the reader). A relative or colleague would work well too. This character could carry some of the presence of the original and keep them on the reader’s radar – for instance by thinking or remarking ‘Kate would have liked this’, or ‘if Kate were here she’d know what at do’.
(BTW, if you’re using elements of real life in your stories, you might like this recent episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)
What would you do? Have you had to withdraw a character quietly from a story and how did you handle it? Have you seen it handled clumsily or well, and what did you learn from it? Let’s discuss!
characters in fiction, Guardian masterclass, how to convert family history into a novel, how to write a novel, real events, real life, self-editing, self-editing for fiction writers, using real life events in stories
I’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount, and how to flesh out a draft that’s too short. Today I’m looking at an interesting problem of pacing:
Characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?
One student had a story in which the characters are coping with the death of a close family member. How, she said, could she keep the new developments coming, as the grief process would take many months?
We’d been talking about pacing the story, and how it was crucial to be aware of change. Each scene should present the reader with something new, to keep the sense that the narrative is moving on. That change could be big or small – a major twist or a slight advance in the reader’s understanding, a deepening of a mood or maybe a release. What’s important is this sense of progress – because it’s one of the chief ways we keep the reader curious.
So what do we do when the characters are in one intense emotional state such as grief, whose very nature will not let them move on?
The answer is to find ways to keep the reader surprised about it. And indeed, a life-changing shock is not a one-time blow. The loss is felt in infinite details we are unprepared for, and this is what makes it so vicious. Look at any grief memoir and you’ll see how every act of normal life becomes a new ordeal. The wound is being reopened over and over.
Indeed, grief counsellors generally describe a number of distinct phases – up to seven, depending on how you define them. They are:
- Shock and denial.
- Pain and guilt.
- Anger and bargaining.
- Depression, reflection, loneliness.
- The upward turn.
- Reconstruction and working through.
- Acceptance and hope. (More here.)
Forgive me an apparently insensitive comment, but this is a fantastic framework for storytellers. Nature tells us how to shape our plot.
If your story is about coming to terms with a great shock, find the day-to-day challenges that keep the experience painfully fresh. Then map the overall path and how your characters will move along it.
There’s more about pacing in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart – including a section on how characters can react plausibly to shock and bereavement. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
I’ll be continuing this series, but next week I’m breaking the pattern. I had rather a good question about back story that I know is quite urgent for the writer, so I’ll be tackling that.
And for now… Have you written about characters who are adjusting after a great shock? How did you keep the reader’s attention, even when the grieving state lasted for a long period? How did you figure out how to shape the material? Share in the comments!
characters, grief process, grief stricken, grieving characters, Guardian masterclass, how to write a page-turning story, how to write about grief, pacing, self-editing, seven stages of grief, writing about grief
I’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Last time I discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount. Today I’m looking at the opposite problem.
‘My drafts are too brief’
One writer in the class confessed that he had an uncommon problem – his drafts were quite brief. While most of us had fluff we needed to cut, he never did. Which was an interesting problem. (It turns out he’s not alone. After last week, I had a number of comments from writers who also found their drafts were on the skinny side.)
Here are some places to pump up the pagecount –
- secondary characters
- secondary paths in the main characters’ lives
- back story
- parallel stories
- action that seems to echo the theme.
And here’s a post I wrote about turning a short story into a novel, which includes a link to another post about filling gaps in your story outline.
But back to my student. The key to his problem was rather more interesting, and came later in the day. We were talking about moments when your story might need downtime – say, to give the reader a breather after a sequence of shocks and reversals. Sometimes you need a moment of light relief or a chance for the characters to relax and bond. In movies this is often called a campfire scene. My student made an interesting comment – he understood the need for such a scene but found them boring.
Aha, I said.
Are you a bit bored by the scenes you’ve planned to write?
If you don’t find the scene interesting, you sure won’t get the reader hooked. We know we’re not always the best judge of what is interesting – look at our fondness for indulgent scenes, aka the darlings that must be killed. But an absolute rule is that we must not write a scene we’re not committed to. If we can’t muster a bit of enthusiasm, no one else will.
This led to another discussion – about how we often need a scene to form a particular function but feel disinclined to write it. It’s usually for continuity or story mechanics, but the thought of writing it … zzzz. The answer, obviously, is to find an exciting angle. Find an unlikely setting. Or add a person who mustn’t know what’s going on. Unruly animals are good value. Introduce a factor that lifts your bog-standard, box-ticking event into the unusual. Or consider whether you could despatch the business in a simple line – ‘they flew to the Bahamas’. (Although that isn’t going to solve your problem of a short manuscript. In that case, return to the above.)
Repurpose your flabby scenes to give them new life
One of the exercises we did on the course was a beat sheet. This is a scene-by-scene summary of the entire book, noting the scene’s purpose and what it adds to the story. (Lots more about it in Nail Your Novel, here.)
My student here had another interesting insight. He looked at his own beat sheet and remarked that several sequences in his novel didn’t have that sense of forward progression. Things were happening, but they weren’t moving the story onwards. (What did he say about not having fluff he needed to cut? After looking at his story’s pace, it turned out he did. He was thinking about events, instead of what took the narrative forwards. It’s strange how we can confuse the two.)
Aha, many of us said.
You’ll probably want to trim those out, I said. But you know what? You can repurpose them – perhaps for a subplot, or those downtime scenes. Perhaps rewrite them with a lighter flavour, or use them to demonstrate how characters are bonding. They’re probably events that you were interested to write but are surplus to the main story thread. So use them to enrich the story in other ways.
Thanks for the stamp, Smabs Sputzer
Next time: characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?
There’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did you do it?
adding subplots, adding to your wordcount, beat sheet, Guardian masterclass, how to edit your novel, how to make a story longer, how to write a novel, professional editing tips, self-editing, what belongs in your story
Last week I was back at The Guardian, teaching my course 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 couple of weeks.
You’ll write a lot of material that is not intended for publication
One student who had taken a creative writing MA was bemused when her tutor set her the task of writing a scene from a different character’s point of view. This wasn’t intended to appear in the book; it was intended to encourage her to explore ramifications she hadn’t thought of. She said she found it a surprising idea, to create something that was never intended for publication.
We all have material we write that never reaches an audience. Sometimes this might be book ideas that don’t work out, or apprenticeship novels that are best filed in the ‘forget it’ drawer.
But those aside, a lot of our written output won’t end up between covers. I hadn’t thought about this until my student talked about this exercise, then I realised the amount of wordage we might write in order to get to the text.
In my own case this might be:
- musings on the meaning of the central idea, to hone the themes and discover the story, maybe with an Undercover Soundtrack
- ditto about characters, individual plot problems
- outlines and refinements thereof, or scrawlings of events on cards
- beat sheets for afterwards to aid revision
- tryouts of story events from other points of view, like the exercise my student was set.
(Here’s my writing process in pictures.)
That looks like a colossal amount of wastage. If I look in the folder for Ever Rest, I have 68 exploratory documents, and some of them are 20-30 pages.
And then there’s the material that gets cut from the manuscript – even more pages written that the reader never sees. The novel that emerges is a super-concentrated distillate.
I hadn’t ever questioned this, but I realise that for some writers it seems odd. They often think that, except for a bit of polishing, every word they write is intended for the book.
There’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
Next time: ‘My drafts are too brief’
So let’s continue the discussion. How much extra material do you write? Have you ever added it up?
creative writing MFA, cutting your manuscript, cutting your novel, editing, Guardian masterclass, how to edit your novel, learning to write a book, planning a novel, self-editing for fiction writers, student, writing a good novel, writing a novel
All this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue , a fundamental misconception about self-editing and letting the manuscript rest. I want to end on this note –
The revision journey
A clear message emerged as we discussed my usual stops in the self-editing process – checking the pace, structure, character arcs, tone, using beat sheets and the number of passes you might do to get a scene right. Revision is more than a process of tidying and troubleshooting. It is a voyage towards a state where we know our book extremely well.
It reminds me of when I was at school, revising for chemistry A-level. For a long time the equations and Periodic Table rules seemed an impossible amount of information. I kept rereading my notes, hoping more would sink in, when gradually I noticed it was making sense as a grand pattern. From that point, I felt I could use it.
When I first start to revise a novel, it is a mystery to me. I wouldn’t scrape even a GCSE pass. Revision brings familiarity, clarity, the insight to understand what human forces are at work in the book, how the themes will bind it together, where the most fundamental resonance lies. And that’s why I find revision is more than a process of correcting, polishing or changing. It is learning to use my material. And it is thoroughly creative.
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. There’s also more about it here.
Having inflicted a new post on you for the last 7 days, I’ll be a bit less prolific next week. The next novel-nailing post will be on 17 August, although there will be an Undercover Soundtrack as usual. And of course I’ll be answering comments. On that note –
Any thoughts on the creativity of the revision process? Let’s comment! Except for Robert Scanlon, who raised this point already in his most recent note here. Robert, you can give yourself a gold star for being ahead of the class 🙂
authors, beat sheet, chemistry A level, editing, fiction, get distance, Guardian masterclass, Guardian newspapers, having ideas, how to edit your novel, how to use words, how to write a book, how to write a novel, I want to edit my book, I want to edit my novel, interesting questions, masterclass, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, polishing, publishing, revising, revision, Roz Morris, self-editing, self-editing for fiction writers, what you really meant, write a good book, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
All this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue and a fundamental misconception about self-editing. Today I’m talking about the rest period before we edit.
Putting the book away to get distance
How long do you have to put your book aside before you can see it objectively? One student asked this because he’d left his in a drawer for several years. However, when he read it again, he couldn’t judge whether it worked because he remembered exactly what he meant to say.
One of the biggest editing problems is spotting the difference between what you mean and what comes across. It’s possible that this gentleman did write the novel perfectly. Or maybe he has an unusually retentive memory and will never be able to judge that for himself.
My own memory is terrible. I can barely remember a book I read two months ago – whether my own or anyone else’s. Never before have I considered this to be an advantage but perhaps it is.
Moreover, his point made me realise how individual our writing and revision routines have to be, and also the fundamental essential of the rest period. Leave your book until you’ve forgotten it and are no longer reliving your intentions as you read. If you know you’ll always have trouble with this, or your production schedule doesn’t allow a long wait, line up some beta readers for the test drive.
(Thanks for the pic, Phineas H)
Tomorrow: what revision really means
How long do you leave your manuscripts before you edit? What’s the longest you’ve ever left one? And has anyone seen my car keys?
authors, editing, fiction, get distance, Guardian masterclass, Guardian newspapers, having ideas, how to edit your novel, how to use words, how to write a book, how to write a novel, I want to edit my book, I want to edit my novel, interesting questions, masterclass, My Memories of a Future Life, novels, polishing, publishing, revising, revision, Roz Morris, self-editing, self-editing for fiction writers, what you really meant, write a good book, writing, writing a novel - Nail Your Novel, Writing Characters Who'll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart
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, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write and making a character distinct through dialogue. Today I’m tackling a fundamental misconception about self-editing.
Editing is not just tweaking the language
One lady in the masterclass shared a story that illustrates a common misapprehension of novice writers. She said she had come close to a publishing deal, but the imprint folded. Before that, they mentioned the book had some problems and were talking about editing. On her own again, and unable to ask them any more details, she assumed they must be talking about the language, and so she worked to write it in a more suitable way. Still, though, she was unhappy with it and she knew she hadn’t solved the problems.
Editing veterans will be nodding sagely here, knowing that language is only one of our considerations. I’ve leaped into this trap myself. In the early days when I was querying agents, I’d get feedback that mentioned a few rough areas. I made the only possible assumption – that I needed to make the ‘writing’ somehow better. And so I fiddled, line by line, adding and pruning here and there. I probably ended up with an over-bloated muddle and didn’t touch the underlying problems. I had no idea about the mechanisms that work under the words, and that language is really the skin on top of the structure, pacing and character arcs.
Tomorrow: Putting the book away to get distance
How about you? Have you made the same rookie mistake about editing? Or a different one? Let’s discuss!
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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, endings and characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write. When I posted on Tuesday I forgot there would also be an Undercover Soundtrack to disturb the sequence, so here, slightly later than trailered, is Masterclass Snapshots part 4.
Regional accents to make a character sound distinct
One writer had his characters encounter people with strong local dialects. He asked how he should render their speech.
We discussed why he wanted to do this. He explained that it was to include a flavour of the setting and emphasise that the main characters were in unfamiliar territory. The odd speech was one good way to show this – with caution. Strange spellings or contractions will trip up the reader if overused. We discussed other ways of achieving this effect – perhaps by showing local customs and attitudes, lifestyles and so on. All of this will create a sense of a different culture.
This led to another good discussion – how do you make characters look distinct through their dialogue? Favourite phrases are useful, and that might be a way to show foreignness too. Habitual gestures are also good.
Humour styles are a very interesting way to differentiate people. (Curse words too, but some writers might not explore this very thoroughly.) I often see manuscripts where writers have given all their characters the same sense of humour, which makes them look like clones. In reality, you could take any group of people and they’ll all have their individual ways of expressing humour. Some enjoy wordplay. Some will try to grab attention and be the joker of the group. Some will be understated and enjoy the odd ironic quip. These are all ways to use dialogue to create a three-dimensional, distinct character.
(There’s more about this in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated, including a discussion of phonetic Glaswegian.)
Thanks for the pic Lee Carson
Tomorrow: editing is more than tweaking the language
Have you had difficulty making your characters sound distinct? How have you tackled this?
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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.
Contradictions are a great way to make two-dimensional characters into compelling story-people. I’ve written about it at greater length here. And of course, there’s even more about characters here.
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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