Archive for category How to write a book
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.)
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.
I’ve had this interesting question from Kathryn Lane Ware Berkowitz on Facebook.
Does it ever work to have a parallel, allegorical, fantasy-type plot going along with your story? If so, when and how should they be woven together?
Aha – the perils and joys of combining genres. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the rest of your novel is contemporary fiction. I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts where writers try this – with variable success.
Here’s the problem: the book ends up as two genres. And readers of contemporary fiction don’t necessarily enjoy fantasy. The same applies if you’re mixing historical fiction with your fantasy strand.
Location, location, location
Setting is important to readers – and not just in terms of place, but time period as well. It’s one of the factors that makes us choose to read a particular book – perhaps because it’s set in a place we personally know, or a time in history that interests us. Some readers are drawn to stories simply because they are set in ancient Rome, or King Henry VIII’s court, or outer space.
And this is the peril of introducing a story strand in a different setting. You introduce an element they perhaps hadn’t bargained for. And fantasy or science fiction are just about the most difficult kind of world to blend with another kind of setting.
Here be dragons…
Fantasy and SF readers relish an invented world. Part of the pleasure is getting to know the customs, social order, laws of physics, magic systems, races, what people eat…. absolutely anything might be unfamiliar. But readers of contemporary or historical fiction don’t necessarily appreciate that.
How to sneak your fantasy/allegorical thread in anyway
However, some books get away with crossing the divide. How do they do it? Here are some guidelines.
1 Establish the first genre thoroughly before you introduce the second world.
2 Get the reader so insanely curious about the second world that they’ll be dying to go there. A good way to do this is with mysteries in the master story – will the second world explain who somebody is, give clues about a murder?
3 Write the second world in a way that will appeal to readers of the first. If your first genre is contemporary, remember that’s what your readers want. The familiar. So don’t present the fantasy/allegorical events as though it’s for fans of fantasy, with plenty of rich details about the world etc. Instead, be very sparing with those details – as though you were telling them to somebody who might easily be bored by them. (They might!)
Would you add anything? What annoys you when writers introduce an allegorical or fantasy thread to a story? What do you enjoy about it? Do you want to namecheck any books that do this well? (Psst… there’s more about this in Nail Your Novel: Plot. And may I be so bold as to mention My Memories of a Future Life?)
Here’s another great discussion from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass.
What is a scene? And why does it matter to know that?
Those in the know will probably all have their own slightly different way to define a scene, but this is mine. I think of a scene as the smallest unit of a story’s events.
Like a scene in a movie, a scene in a novel will be confined within a location, or a set of characters. But not necessarily. A scene might cover a number of locations, characters and times if it’s a linking sequence, such as a journey or a flashback or a chunk of back story. So I find the most helpful, graspable definition is to think of it as a step in the storyline, or the reader’s understanding.
Why does it help to think about this?
It helps the writer break the book into manageable chunks – if you construct your novel from scenes you can think more easily about finding the optimum order for the emphasis you want. If you use a revision tool like my beat sheet (in Nail Your Novel), you can easily control the plot.
Writing in scenes helps the reader too. If you indicate the change to a new scene by a line break ,the reader will subconsciously think ‘I’ll just read to the end of this…’ which is your opportunity to build to a nice interesting change so they have to gobble up another. So scenes offer the reader a break… and then reel them right back in. Which is nifty.
Look for change So this leads us to another vital quality of scenes. Each one should move the story on in some way. It might be big or small, but by the end of the scene, something will have changed. Indeed a scene usually has a beginning, a middle and end – like a microcosm of a balanced story. Indeed, change is one of the four Cs of a great plot – curiosity, change, crescendo and coherence (more on that here).
So you should think of your novel as a movie, right?
Not necessarily. If you’re writing a genre piece, it will usually be like a movie in book form – a sequence of discrete scenes. But this might not suit you if your style is more internal, more of a continuous experience in the mind of a character. After all, real life doesn’t occur in packages; it’s a stream. Even so, for the purposes of using your material effectively and controlling the pace, it helps to build in scenes, even if you have to create artificial breaks in the prose. You can segue them together later on, in the editing stage.
But this is obvious. Why even mention it?
Ho ho. The scenes question is like most fundamentals of writing. Some writers grasp it instinctively and never give it a thought. Others don’t – and find it helpful to have it explained. Which are you? And has it helped to think about what a scene does?
Thanks for the pic seda yildirim
Here’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…
How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct
One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.
Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.
Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.
Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.
Where the differences really lie
If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.
If you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.
Two characters …. two tenses?
Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.
I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.
But then she said something that was rather interesting.
She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.
The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.
Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.
There are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?
Masterclass snapshots: must plot twists always be misfortunes or disasters? And where does your story end?
Hello! I know I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. I’ve been trying to finish a rather exciting project that’s turned into a corkscrew of learning curves. It’s not quite there yet, but the end is nigh.
Which also seems an appropriate way to introduce this post. Yesterday I was back at The Guardian, teaching an advanced editing masterclass, and as usual, my students gave as good as they got. Here’s one of our discussions.
I was talking about major plot twists and how they usually made the situation worse or added a new complication. One student said could you have a nice event as plot twist?
How interesting. Well, it depends. If it s a pleasant event because it solves the character’s main problem, that would probably end the story. But if it s a stroke of luck or a turn for the better, well that might be quite surprising. The only thing you need of a twist is that it shakes everything about and makes the characters reassess priorities, or it changes the stakes. So the story could continue if this nice event sparked some new complications for the current situation. So your characters could have a lottery win or, depending on the historical period, an inheritance. And this could add fresh pressures.
Or they could fall in love – a useful happy event that can cause a whole heap of trouble.
All we ask is this: your plot twist should create more mess and struggle.
This brings to mind a problem I’ve often seen discussed …an author who is too nice to their characters. Some writers don’t seem to explore the consequences of a story situation thoroughly enough, or meet the expectations the reader has in their mind. Indeed, perhaps they’re writing simply as an act of escapism, to spend fantasy time with their characters. We have to think what makes the reader curious. It’s usually mess, struggle and complications. When that mayhem stops, so does the story.
Where does it all end?
And this brought us to another question. At what point does the story end? It’s generally when there’s nothing else to be done with the main conflict.
One student was writing about a group of prisoners, and confessed he was unsure if the ending would work. His narrator escaped, but there were no big revelations or questions answered. No resolutions either. The escape formed a natural end, but would it be satisfying?
I asked him what the narrative drive of the story was. He said it was the narrator’s experience with the other prisoners. Did he change during that experience? Definitely, he said. So once he got out, what happened? Not much, said my student, but he’s carrying the experience with him. I thought it sounded like it would work just fine.
The character has changed, he’s acquired a bunch of experiences he’ll carry with him and he’ll never forget those other people. Sometimes the ending isn’t a definite door closing, or a puzzle solved, or a foe defeated. It’s more of a blurred mark. So you have to identify a point to withdraw, where there’s a new state of stability and equilibrium.
Perhaps the characters have more self-knowledge, which may be a comfort but it might be a burden. Eva, the mother in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, is left picking over the debris of a long and terrible battle. Her husband and daughter are dead. Her social status is ruined because her neighbours – and indeed the country – blame her for the deeds of her son. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph, rescued from the island, weeps for the loss of innocence.
Your characters might not slay their monsters; they might discover they are monsters themselves. The jealous, obsessive central characters of Josephine Hart’s Damage and William Sansom’s The Body end their stories having discovered their own true depths.
There will usually be a settling, a sense that the final ordeal has caused a new order. The last scene of The Wings of the Dove by Henry James has a line that is a fine maxim for any story ending:
We shall never be again as we were.
We also discussed a different problem with endings: if you’ve got multiple threads to tie, where do you position them? One student was writing a whodunit, so he had a murderer to confront, and a few other resolutions such as characters getting a promotion.
He needed to figure out a hierarchy of endings. Which conclusion has most impact? The promotion doesn’t, indeed it seems to be a nice segue into the characters’ next chapter. So it would be good as an epilogue. Confronting the murderer would clearly be the most dramatic and difficult part of the story, so that goes at the climax. It’s important that the reader experiences this final battle at close quarters because it’s been the characters’ greatest challenge. There were other subplots that needed resolutions too. They could be part of the final settling – the pieces coming down in fresh positions as the characters begin their new lives.
But! But but! Sometimes it may be more powerful to pull away abruptly. In Lord of the Flies, William Golding ends on the beach, with the rescuers looking at the feral little boys. By stopping at that point, he places the emphasis on this contrast between the ordered, adult world and the wildness that we’ve witnessed in the story. It forces us to think ‘what have I just seen’? This is an ending for the reader. An epiphany. We know the boys probably went on after this moment – they’ll have sailed back to civilisation, gone to their families, resumed school etc. None of that is of interest to the author. That wasn’t what he was exploring. He wanted to look at the animal behind humanity. And so he ended at a point where we’d see this most powerfully. In this case, the ending isn’t about events or even resolutions. It’s about making us understand and think.
There’s a lot more about plot twists and endings in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3
In the meantime, let’s discuss! Have you ever used a happy event as a plot twist? Have you struggled to marshall the endings of several story threads? Have you taken a chance and ended a story in a way that’s ambiguous or doesn’t necessarily tie everything up?
Editing seminar snapshots: How much should you budget for editing your book? And how should you choose an editor?
This very good question came up when I spoke at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing summit a few months ago. And my answer… deserves a post.
First, there seem to be two modes for charging: by the hour and by the wordcount or page. With the wordcount, writers can be quoted a fixed price, so everyone knows where they stand. With an hourly rate, it’s much more difficult for the writer to know how much they’ll be spending.
The convention seems to be that developmental editing is quoted by the wordcount or page, and other phases are priced by hour. Here’s a post that describes the different editing processes and the order to use them in.
Second, editors set their own fees. Does a low price indicate good value? It might if the editor is starting out and doesn’t yet have a reputation. But might they also be lacking in experience? Indeed, might they be a complete amateur?
Conversely, if an editor’s charges are high, does that mean they’re good?
I think everyone can see it’s a buyer beware situation.
How do you tell? Here’s how to navigate the maze and spend your ££$$ wisely.
Establish that the editor is right for you.
For developmental edits, you need a specialist in your field. I would be useless to a fantasy author because I don’t read fantasy. But I can edit its close cousin, magic realism. I can’t edit genre romance of the Mills and Boon variety, but I can edit any number of stories that feature a romantic relationship. So find out what if their tastes are in tune with yours.
Find out where they got their experience.
There are a lot of people setting themselves up as editors. Are they just someone on the internet who’s been to a few critique groups and thinks they can edit? Are they writers whose only experience is helping out their friends? They might be great – everyone has to start somewhere – but they might not at all.
The best editors will have done the job for publishing houses or literary consultancies. Even if they mainly work with indie authors or authors who haven’t yet published, they’ll have that background.
Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, narrative non-fiction?
This may seem obvious, but make sure your editor has developmentally edited your kind of book. If they’ve chiefly worked with non-fiction, or even scientific and technical books, they might be too pedantic to allow for the artistry in a more narrative manuscript.
The fussy quotient: will the editor’s approach suit you?
Do you want an editor who’ll be good at explaining how to fix problems? This is where an edit from an experienced professional is far more useful than a critique group. Your beta readers might say ‘the characters are thin’. A good editor will identify why and offer suggestions for fixing it. They’ll spot other potentials in your book too – which you may be surprised about.
Why do charges vary so much?
There are various industry recommended rates (see Writer’s Market, as quoted by Writer’s Digest here), but developmental editors have to set their fees according to how long a project takes them. I spot a lot in a manuscript, so the work takes me more time than it takes a less pernickety editor – because I find there are a lot of points I need to raise. Some authors are eager for this, and some aren’t. Do you want an editor who will approach your work in that depth? You might not. But you’ll pay according to the depth of the work.
Should you ask for a test edit of a small portion of your book?
Opinion is divided. Personally, I’ve never had to do a test edit. All my clients have hired me after an email conversation. But they’re not acting on blind faith because I can demonstrate my approach and degree of thoroughness from the posts on this blog, my books and my video interviews. Some editors might offer a test edit, or they might have a pre-prepared sample that illustrates the kind of comments they make. Be worried, though, if they send a report they wrote about someone else’s book; that should stay confidential.
Copy editing and proof reading
These are less specialised, and tend to be charged for by the hour. How long will it take to edit or proof your book? It depends what shape the manuscript is in. The copy editor has to take charge of consistency and clarity. So if your use of language is imprecise, the copy editor will have more to do. If your plot is complex, and especially has a lot of time shifts or locations, they’ll have more checking to do. If you’ve been woolly about any of these details, you’ll multiply their workload.
Should you ask for a sample copy edit or proof read?
Unfortunately, a sample is no gauge of how long it will take to do the work because the second half of your book might fall apart, and the copy editor will have to hammer it together. I recently copy-edited one 50,000-word book that took 50 hours, and one that took more than twice that time. What I tend to do is to charge in blocks of 20 hours, then keep the author informed of progress so they at least have a warning of the cost.
So… how much?
But I still haven’t answered that question: how much will editorial services cost you? For a 50,000-word novel, budget GBP£1000-2500 for the developmental edit, the same for the copy-edit and the same for the proof-read. Minimum probably £2000 if your manuscript is really clean. Maximum (depending on the quality of the editor and the manuscript) £7500.
Phew, that looks like a lot, doesn’t it? If you were traditionally published, you wouldn’t see these costs, but this is part of the publisher’s investment in your manuscript. And yes, there are people who manage to produce good books on a much smaller budget (I have tips here on low-cost options for getting good help ). The sums can be a bit of a shock when the rest of our writing activity seems so cheap and free, unlike, say, skiing or learning to fly. But I hope this post has helped you to see how to get good value.
POSTSCRIPT I’ve had a few emails since I published this post, so a clarification might be helpful.
One reader remarked that copy editing and proofreading don’t usually cost as much as developmental editing. Generally, that’s right. The costs all hinge on how much time the editor has to spend, and that’s related to how much has been done to the manuscript after each stage. But in real life, if a developmental edit leads to a lot of rewriting, that might leave a lot of tidying for the copy editor. Once we get to proof-reading, it should be a fast and final read with minimal changes … but again if a lot has been altered this will slow things down. I’ve had manuscripts where so much had changed after the copy edit, that the proof read was in fact another copy edit. Which is why I made the point that everything hinges on the cleanness of the manuscript.
Thanks for the money pic, Pixabay and soccerlime for the scrumpled page
Any questions? Fire away!
BTW, my Nail Your Novel books are distilled from the issues I most commonly find in manuscripts. Much much cheaper than getting me in person!