Archive for category How to write a book

Writers, are you showing off or sharing? A way to kill your darlings

fa5e3d4961d73a6701f7b74729d8ad29I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island and he describes a moment in an Edinburgh art gallery when he saw a father talking to his son about the difference between early and later Goya. Bryson says:

The man was describing the pictures with a fondness and familiarity that were truly heartwarming and the boy was raptly attentive to his every word. He wasn’t showing off, you understand; he was sharing.’

Showing off. Sharing.

It seems to me that this distinction could apply, not just to art appreciation or father-son conversations, but to art itself.

It’s hard to pin down what makes a piece of art effective, but one explanation could be this – an essential quality of transparency, of real communication. Whether it’s painting, dance, acting or writing, you forget it’s being accomplished through words on a page, or strokes of paint, or somebody dressing up and pretending, or performing a much rehearsed sequence of moves. It seems to be there completely without artifice or barrier or skin.

It’s sharing.

Where does this sense of naturalness come from? One answer might be in this post I wrote a while ago, inspired by an interview with Michael Caine. He was being asked about his relaxed performance manner, and how he made it look so effortless. he said ‘the rehearsal is the work, the performance is the relaxation.’ Put another way, to be effortless requires … hours of non-spontaneous effort.

caine-nail-your-novel

It also means we have to get our ego out of the way. But this is a finely judged thing. We want our writing to hold the reader’s attention, so we have to be a bit bold. We need flair and panache. Characters who are memorable. Plot events that make us turn the page. For each of those qualities, we tread a fine line. A phrase might be startling and true, or it might strike a fake note. A character might be distinctive and unforgettable, or they might be unconvincing, or jar with the tone. Figuring out which is which is one of the eternal quests of honest self-editing.

Sometimes, we can get an answer by taking a long look at our motives. Often, deep down, we know if we’re keeping an image, line, simile, plot event or description that doesn’t belong. The reason is usually this – we’re pleased with them.

If that’s your conundrum, this question could be the clincher.

Was it showing off or sharing?

Newsflash!

If you follow me on Facebook or get my newsletter, you might have seen this cryptic message:

93993b1c-98f0-4765-ad2d-dc881f4aefc0

Assuming you give two hoots, you’ll find more about it here. It all started with this.

399c89f5-67c6-477c-b2e7-5e2ac6e798b6

 

Save

Save

, , , , , , , ,

11 Comments

5 qualities of a brilliant story

3389004318_2e8d3200fb_zI write a lot of posts about problems with book drafts. But isn’t it just as important to look at the positive? If we listed the qualities of a brilliant read, what would they be? (Plus, I think we need a feelgood post.)

So, as I sit here on Sunday morning in London with an hour to get this post out of my head and into the grey matter of the blogosphere, this is the list I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll storm your brains and join in at the end.

Here goes.

Deft use of details

A writer needs to give a lot of details to evoke the setting, time period (if it’s not contemporary), distinguishing features of the characters, points about the weather. A skilful storyteller will smuggle a lot of these in as part of the action. A historical period might be evoked by showing a character cleaning their teeth, or lifting their skirts away from the horse manure on the city roads. If we need to know a character is left handed, we might see them borrowing a friend’s PC and clearing the clutter off the desk to rearrange the mouse before they start to use it. Weather might be evoked by a character worrying that the rain will ruin their suede boots on a day when it’s important to look smart. We’ll never get the sense that the narrative is marking time in order to explain something.

317454974_4bf323fafa_oCharacters that are real

We hear this phrase a lot, but what does it mean? The characters will seem to have their own agendas, and good reasons for everything they do. They won’t seem like puppets for the plot. Their emotions will spur them to act so we feel everything they do is genuine and believable. They’ll have distinctive ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Even if they are conflicted or make bad choices and decisions, they’ll have ways of justifying what they do. They might have interesting blind spots about how the other characters feel.

Never a dull moment

Every scene will move the action on. There will be a sense of trouble building and escalating. The characters’ plans will never quite work out as they’re supposed to, and every scene will finish on a slightly unexpected note. Whenever the characters get something they want or need, it won’t be in the way anyone could predict.

3541627800_36cc009d80_z

Fresh until the end

The writer will know when to change to a different group of characters, which we’ll welcome. At the same time we’ll be eager to see those other characters again soon. They’ll know when to vary the mood with some humour or a more serious note. They’ll deploy some major turning points at just the point where we think you know where it’s going.

It all adds up

The story might begin by resembling an unraveled sweater with threads going everywhere, but slowly it will converge into a shape. The ending will seem to be inevitable, yet it will be a surprise. Or, if we can anticipate the ending’s events, we won’t be able to predict how we’ll feel about them.

(Lots more about characters in Nail Your Novel 2, and plots in Nail Your Novel 3.)

Thanks for the pics Hans Splinter Kadorin   Rachel Johnson  

Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!

 

Save

, , , , , ,

39 Comments

Writers’ manifesto for 2017 – take your imagination seriously

A lucky turn of the radio dial this week and I got a real treat: the Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine interviewing Brian Eno. The whole piece is worth listening to, but this exchange particularly caught me.

Vine was trying to pin down what made some of Eno’s collaborators so special – David Bowie, David Byrne, Bryan Ferry. He said this: they all had ‘a different quality of imagination’.

And Eno replied: ‘I think everyone has much more imagination than they give themselves credit for. But the difference is that some people take their imaginations seriously.’

Yes. One thousand per cent.

Today, I’d planned another kind of post. Usually my new year kick-off is publishing options for twenty-whatever. I began to write it. I realised as I did that not much had changed. What I’d say for 2017 is much the same as I’d said in 2016. And when I wrote 2016’s post I referred heavily to 2015’s. I’d lined up some good reference posts – Mark Coker of Smashwords, who looked back at 10 years of ebooks and forward to how the publishing ecosystem will continue to evolve. And to Jane Friedman, who give some great pointers for sizing up a publishing offer from a small imprint.

But lordy, it was a slog. I felt like I was rehashing material I’d already tackled exhaustively. Planet Earth did not need another article about how to publish wisely in 2017.

And then, by chance, out of my radio come Messrs Eno and Vine. Take your imagination seriously.

I thought that’s IT. That’s how I want to go into 2017. While we’re figuring out whether to self-publish or look for a deal, or mix a trad indie cocktail never tasted before, we must not lose sight of this.

What we do is about creation. Listening to what interests us, moves us. Growing as artistic, communicative beings, finding things that seem to peel back something we must say about our world and our lives. This is where the joy of our work comes from, where we make our distinctive contribution.

Eno said more:

‘It’s not just having ideas, but being prepared to push them through and try to make them work. Some people get discouraged very easily, but I think successful artists don’t. They get confidence in what they’re doing and they decide “I want to see how it works; I want to see what happens when I do it”.’

At a time when  we’re all making resolutions, and resolutions to help us keep our resolutions, and tips for success, I’d like to offer this one. Who’s with me?

badgesgeneraldec

Thanks for the pic with Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards Rusty Sheriff on Flickr

Save

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

24 Comments

Repost: A writer’s guide to Christmas letters

goldpostboxI’m still working on a hush-hush project, but I think this repost from 2012 might be helpful. On this blog I try to cover all your writing needs. Including the short but painful  requirement to brag about your year’s achievements to your Christmas card list.

If smugness isn’t as natural to you as it is to Nina and Frederik in the picture below, you might need some help.

Let me confess: I’m a fan of round-robin Christmas letters.

It’s fashionable to diss them in the UK, but I disagree. Even if the missive is smug and airbrushed and claims the golden offspring can split the atom, it’s more meaningful than a card that only says ‘from Nina and Frederik’.

But since I approve of Christmas newsletters, that means I must compose one. And I don’t know what to put.

I spent this year writing, rewriting, talking to other writers and, er, working out what to write next. Sure, there was adventure and atom-splitting, but it happened on the page and in my head.

And that’s my update. One paragraph. How can I spread it out?

When in doubt, study the requirements of the genre.

christmas letters

Boasting

Christmas letters need boasting, with bells on. Your friends will report a mighty throng of promotions, bonuses, and other unceasing achievements. Traditionally published authors can name-drop with the imprints they’ve wooed but indies also have a wealth of impressive material. Deploy the word ‘bestseller’. Normal folks don’t know how niches work or how chart positions soar and dip every hour. If you’re feeling really bold, trot out blog awards. The Happy Candy Sweetness Blogger doesn’t sound that far from the Costa.

Hobbies

Your newsletter-writing friends will list their accomplishments in karate, ballroom dancing, local politics, golf, the PTA. Fortunately as a writer, you are blessed with the ability to acquire unexpected expertise. Pick juicy subjects you’ve been researching but remember it’s family viewing. Please, no ’50 vile ways to murder with a drug overdose’, it’s ‘needlework’.

Holidays

Forget how much strife it took to travel afar. Yes, you had to complete twice as much work first. Yes, the night before, you fell in love with your novel and couldn’t bear to leave it. Despite all this, you must say it was the trip of a lifetime (it certainly felt that long without a manuscript to escape to).

Pets

You can talk about your works in progress if you pretend they are your cats. The newest is adorable. The fat old thing who’s sprawled on your laptop for years has outstayed its welcome. Another has been forcibly stuffed under the bed and won’t be let out until June. Perhaps leave out the news that little Nanowrimo may be euthanased or chopped up to make something better.

cat

Children and family

Open the study door and check if you have real children, husbands etc. (Hint – you may need to ask their names.) Mention them in the newsletter or the reader may fear disaster. Also, talk about your books that have fled the nest. If your fiction is taking a while to make its mark, report that it is on a gap year while it finds itself. Or finds anyone, really.

Use the Christmas letter as preparation

For a few mad days, there will be socialising. Oh mighty dread. Dialogue will not be editable and we will have to talk to characters we haven’t studied first. Penning a Christmas letter is good practice for your return to earthly form.

Merry Christmas. R x

, , , ,

11 Comments

Finishing your draft? Don’t open it again until after Christmas

I’m sneaking away from the internet for a little while, so there won’t be any new posts for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile I’ve cued up a few tweets of writing links to keep your muse simmering – which you can follow at Twitter or on the sidebar here if WordPress and the tweetwires are playing nicely. And here’s a post that deals with a timely writing matter… See you soon
R x

Nail Your Novel

On November 30th, or thereabouts, Nanowrimoers typed ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month. At least.

Become a stranger to your story

We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.

To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.

Let the flavours marinate

Your manuscript needs to marinate…

View original post 346 more words

3 Comments

3 ways writers fail to get maximum impact from a story – and what to do instead

13155461724_8107915efc_bNovels in progress will always have rough patches and individual quirks, but there are certain common issues I routinely see that have quite simple fixes. Here are a few – and they can make a big difference.

Crucial event is underplayed or buried

Does an event change a character’s emotional state or world view? Does it make them change what they want, or strengthen their resolve? Make sure you haven’t buried it in a hasty paragraph of background or other explanation. These shifts in priorities are milestones in the story. Try showing them in real time so the reader experiences them. If a key event happens before the story timeline, consider making it a flashback.

Big reveal… falls flat

Is your big reveal a damp squib? I’ve read many climax scenes that fail to ignite, but I can tell the author was hoping they would be a thunderbolt. On some level, they know what they want … but they haven’t clarified it. Often it helps to dig into your ideas about why this moment will be so important. Write a mission statement – what do you want the reader to feel when they read this scene or revelation? Freewrite and brainstorm – you might not have given it much thought before now. Once you know what effect you’re looking for, consider what you should add in the earlier parts of the story to make it happen. Does it give the main character some important answers? What answers? And have you asked the questions earlier on? Is the moment a bigger, thematic connection, a sense of order being restored? Look back in the text – have you established a sense of instability, the world gone wrong?

Plot events make no sense

Are your plot events believable? If not, it may be because you haven’t established a plausible motivation, or given context. If we don’t know why a character does something, their actions  might seem random or even dumb. What happens is important, but why is more important. Sort out the why – and you can make us believe pretty much anything (usually).

Thanks for the aurora borealis pic Patrick Shyu

Have you had to tackle any of these issues in your work? Have you spotted them in someone else’s – or even in published books? Let’s discuss!

photofunia-1479373542

These tips have come from my mentoring work with writers. If you found them useful there are plenty more in my books on character and plot … and let me discreetly mention that a set of Nail Your Novel paperbacks makes a terrific present for other scribblers you know, or even for yourself…

, , , , , , , , ,

13 Comments

2 tips for balancing writing and marketing time – Q&A from New Generation Publishing Summit

book-marketing-nail-your-novelLast week I spoke at the New Generation Publishing summit and this thorniest of questions came up: how do you strike a balance between writing books and working on marketing and sales?

toni-jenkinsWe had good examples of two extremes. In the marketing-gone-mad corner, we had debut author Toni Jenkins. She cheerfully confessed that when her first book launched she went to the mattresses, working until late every night, identifying possible audiences, writing emails introducing herself, following up leads. She added that her mentors at NGP, while applauding her energy, reminded her not to lose sight of her writing.

In the other corner, the ‘just-leave-me-alone-to-write’ department, we had staunch representation too. NGP director Daniel Cooke told me he has too many authors who can’t be persuaded to consider marketing at all. Joel Friedlander had a good piece about this recently by Judith Brile – is your plan for success ‘I just want to write my books’?

Clearly neither situation is ideal.

Whether we go it alone or have the backing of publishers or PR agencies, we need to accept that we have to be our books’ ambassadors. But not only is marketing a separate job that takes time to learn, we can’t easily measure what works. (This remains an eternal conundrum even for experienced marketers.) Small wonder that we either get marketing frenzy (like Toni) or cover our ears (Daniel’s authors).

Measuring results

If you’re writing, it’s easy to measure results. More words added to your manuscript, more scenes feeling ‘right’, more research done.

With marketing, you don’t know if you’re wasting a whole heap of time. Some activities give measurable results, but a lot more don’t. Marketing is about presence as much as sales – your Facebook adverts, social media activity, newsletters, guest blogging may not always ring the cash registers. Your shot-in-the-dark letters to book bloggers or other persons of influence might not get a reply, but they might still make an impression. They let people know that you exist; that you produce.

The rewards of marketing are long-long-longterm. Like adopting a healthy lifestyle, the most significant benefits aren’t instant, they’re cumulative. Stick at it, over months and years, and you start to see that people know of you, they’ve heard of your books. (Then you can get embarrassed when they introduce themselves to you at events, and you rack your brains in case they’re a Facebook friend or devoted blog commenter you can’t remember, ahem.)

Can anyone hear me? Anyone?

Can anyone hear me? Anyone?

And the converse of that is …. If you don’t do it, your book launch is like a tree that falls over in a wood with no one to hear.

Time for both

So we must make time for both marketing AND writing.

And we must make sure that one doesn’t swallow the other (barring exceptional circumstances like a book launch, or the final push to polish a book for press).

But so many possibilities…

The trouble is, marketing could drive us bonkers with possibilities. Every week I trip over several new wonderful things I could consider. To evaluate them takes time – and I might end up discarding them because they won’t reach my audience. This is why we get so overwhelmed, because we could do this 24/7 and never, ever get to the end of it. Then we enter a panic cycle of thinking we’re not doing enough, or not doing the right things, or everyone is somewhere we’re not.

But it’s possible to develop a sensible approach.

This is mine. It has two principles.

1 A formal list. Each Friday, I make a to-do list for the next week. It includes the marketing tasks I’ve decided are worth doing, balanced with my writing, editing and mentoring commitments. (This also allows you to audit how much time you’re spending in the marketing and writing camps.)

2 Obey the list. Do not do any task unless you’ve added it to your list. Have you stumbled across a Brilliant New Thing? Do not do it this week if your dance card is already full. That great new gimmick, website, social media platform, hot books blogger will still be there in seven days’ time. It will not leave the planet. So whenever you read about a new wonderful opportunity, resist the urge to do it immediately. Unless it has an urgent deadline – eg a competition – put it on the list for next week. You already have a plan for this week. Continue with that. And remember: you’re working on long-term presence as well as short-term sales.

It’s actually bleeding obvious, isn’t it? Again, I’m going to use the comparison with diets. Diets work if you stick to the rules. They don’t if you don’t. And the great thing about this marketing/writing diet is that you’re allowed as much cake as you like.

book-marketing-2-nail-your-novel

And the other part of the plan, of course, is to have a solid writing process that leaves you free to create. So allow me to discreetly mention Nail Your Novel, a system I developed from the questions I’m most commonly asked by writers, and still use now, with many books behind me. Even more audaciously, allow me to suggest that Nail Your Novel trio make groovy gifts for other scribblers you know.

photofunia-1479373472

Have you hit on a plan to balance marketing and writing? Let’s discuss!

Save

, , , , , , , ,

21 Comments

Help, what’s my genre? Some tips for deciding – guest spot at Anne R Allen

genreWhen we’re writing, we just let our instincts pull us on. But at some point we have to decide who our book’s readers will be, and how to categorise it. Enter the G-word: genre. And the various A-words – young adult, new adult, adult, age. Here’s how to unmuddle yourself. Hop over to Anne R Allen’s blog where I’m attempting to pin down some principles.

nyn3 2ndAnd you’ll find more discussions of genre – including the whole question of literary – in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

, , , , , , ,

2 Comments

Traditional publishing & selfpublishing … not so different: Q&A from New Generation Publishing summit

yin-yang-14264436247ktSelf-publishing and traditional publishing. What are the differences? Today I’ve been on a panel at the New Generation Publishing summit, and it’s clear there is no longer an absolute divide between the publishing approaches. These days, we have a spectrum.

So that sounds abstract – let’s have concrete examples. This is how the discussion went at the event today – plus some more thoughts I wanted to elaborate on. (Yes, being a typical author, I muster my best lines several hours after the conversation.)

The question: What do you see as the main differences between self and traditional publishing?

My answer was :

  • The solo artist – and who’s in charge
  • Who pays
  • Speed

And here’s where we find ourselves in grey areas.

1 The solo artist – and who’s in charge

When you self-publish there are no gatekeepers. You don’t have to be accepted by anyone. Also, you have the final say about the text, the cover, the way the book looks. When you traditionally publish, you have to be chosen, and your book is filling a publisher’s need to fit a certain market. They will make many of the decisions – including the cover and the title. They might direct certain rewrites. They’re usually unwilling to let you lobby for changes; they don’t regard it as your territory. Some writers are happy with this; after all, they are writers, not publishers. Sometimes it turns out well for all. But plenty of authors end up feeling railroaded or compromised, or with covers that attract the wrong kind of reader (who then respond with negative reviews).

Indie authors shoulder all this responsibility themselves – but that doesn’t mean they’re one-man bands. Indeed, they shouldn’t be. Although they might know how to write, that doesn’t mean they also have the other skills needed to publish well. In the early days of indie, many had a go anyway, and the Kindle shelves were stuffed with unedited, unproofed horrors with unsuitable covers. But indies have wised up, and a well-turned indie book will have creative input from editors, cover designers – and even blurb writers. There’s no change in who the final boss is, but an indie book is now more of a team effort – and editors might even steer the book significantly.

2 Who pays for production!

Here’s where the boundaries start to blur. In traditional self-publishing, you pay all the editorial work, cover and launch. And in traditional traditional publishing, the imprint pays. Plus they pay you an advance or a fee to acquire the book.

Here’s how that’s changing.

Crowdfunding If you’re self-publishing you might be able to crowdfund. There are authors who use Kickstarter or Indigogo, to name just two. Ben Galley has a post about it here.

pub-unboundOn the trad side of the fence, there’s Unbound – an imprint with traditional gatekeeping and commissioning editors, who ask authors to raise the money for the first print run (here’s an interview with several successful Unbounders plus a Q&A with an Unbound editor). You might wonder what the upside is? Prestige – Unbound is developing a reputation for books that are more innovative than the safe-bet choices of purely traditional publishers.

So you might think that if you’re offered a traditional-traditional contract, you don’t pay any of the costs. But here are two ways that trad-trad authors might help fund their book’s journey.

Developmental editing The market is so competitive now that it’s not unusual for first-time authors to work with an editor to give their manuscript the wow factor. Sometimes literary agents will nudge a promising author to seek an editor to iron out some craft problems.

Promotion and marketing A lot of trad-trad releases have a limited budget for promotion and marketing. It’s not unusual now for authors to top up the launch package by hiring a book marketing company or funding a signing tour. (But beware of self-publishing services companies that upsell marketing packages of dubious value. You’re better going to a specialist consultancy that handles traditionally published authors as well as indie authors.)

Who pays? The authors in both camps are edging closer together.

pub-offerAnother ‘beware’. There are companies that contact authors, apparently offering a publishing contract, but really they’re just touting for business. See here for a post on how to spot them. If you get an approach like that, you’re often better shopping around properly. Check what value you’re getting.

By the same token, keep your head if you’re offered a traditional deal. A significant number of indie authors are turning these down because the offers aren’t worth their while – here’s a post that expands on that.

3 Speed

Speed is one of the great advantages of self-publishing. It’s as instant as you like. You can, if you like, pull a Word doc off your computer, whack it up on KDP and voila – instant ebook. An hour or so of tinkering and you can be making a print version on CreateSpace. You shouldn’t, of course, but there are no barriers to stop you. The tools are available.

Traditional publishing, on the other hand, means entering a slow-moving machine. Your contract might be inked in January but the book might not releases until October – or even later.

pub-schedSome of that delay is corporation inertia. But actually, indie publishing, if done properly, should also have a long gestation. It might take you many drafts to finalise your manuscript, and after that, you need other processes. The developmental edit (especially if you’re new to publishing). The copy edit. The proof-read. The cover design. The marketing plan (which shouldn’t be left until the book is about to hit the shelves). (Here’s a post on who to hire and when.)

Some of these checking and polishing stages take a necessary amount of time … And good editors and cover designers might need to be booked several months in advance. Many indies then go straight to press once the book is ready, but if you want to pitch to mainstream reviewers, they need bound copies several months before publication – because that’s when magazines prepare their books pages. And bookshops place their orders three to six months before publication – so if you’re selling into shops, you need finalised copies by that time.

All this means that more indies are setting long-term schedules for their publishing plans –in some cases, the same amount of time that a traditional imprint would take.

The artist working solo. Funding the production. Speed to market. These used to be the defining characteristics of indie versus traditional publishing. Now, we’re discovering how to get the best of both worlds – and I find that encouraging. Which other distinct divisions might disappear? What do you think? What have you noticed already? Let’s chat in the comments.

top-100-literary-badge-high-resForgot to add… This blog just got a rather nice honour, alongside The Paris Review and a number of other writerly boltholes.

Save

, , , , , , , , , ,

18 Comments

Two cool ways to use misdirection as a storyteller

2793817435_69e8a3a701_zI’ve had an interesting question from Jonathan McKenna Moore (who was one of this blog’s earliest readers – quick fanfare 🙂 ).

Jonathan had seen Anthony Horowitz talk about writing new Sherlock Holmes stories, which led him to ask this question:

‘How does misdirection work in prose? Horowitz says that one of the functions of Dr Watson is misdirection, following false trails that Holmes would never entertain, and lulling the reader into considering them. He goes on to describe misdirection as drawing attention to one object in the room so the audience doesn’t notice another. While I can understand how that would work in a film, in prose you have to go out of your way to mention object 2, and spend time describing it. It isn’t just set dressing. How do you show the reader something, without letting them know that it’s important? Is it just a case of losing the significant detail in a haystack of description?  If so, then that rules out the sparse writing that often suits mystery stories.

Misdirection 101

Okay! First a brief definition – misdirection is planting a clue that will become significant, but disguising it so that the reader doesn’t spot how important it is. Then, at the right time, you reveal it in a lovely ‘aha’ moment. It’s one of the fundamentals of plotting. And it goes a lot further than just mysteries. Almost any type of story might need misdirection.

So … how do you do this in prose?

Two keys to effective misdirection

There are two elements to effective misdirection.

1 Hiding

2 … in plain sight.

When using misdirection in a novel, the reader must feel you played fair. They mustn’t think you randomly invented a new thing that answers the mystery, solves the case, resolves the characters’ problems. So a key feature of good misdirection is that you draw attention to the clue. If you hide it too well, the reader might not notice it.

To use Jonathan’s good phrase, the last thing you want to do is ‘lose the detail in the haystack of description’.

Devil in the detail

Novels contain heaps of details that hardly any reader will remember. So if you are planting a detail that will be important later, you have to draw attention to it – but in a way that looks like it serves some other purpose. The detail must be memorable, so that it’s noticed, but it must also appear inconsequential. Its final significance must be disguised. You have to be sneaky.

And actually, it’s quite easy to do in prose. You always need incidental details to flesh out characters’ lives or enable parts of the plot. Your character needs somewhere to drive to while he has a conversation with his old friend. Your clandestine lovers need a place to meet. Your spies need an item they can use to hide an SD card full of important photos. A character needs an excuse for why he’s late. These are details we often invent on the spur of the moment because they’re not that important to our scene. But they are excellent places to smuggle in an element you want to hide in plain sight. You can make the reader notice it, but they won’t realise how important it is.

Examples might be

  • A location
  • an object
  • an explanation
  • a hobby or talent
  • a personality trait, allergy, dislike
  • a mutual acquaintance or common background.

How to do it

Make a list of any significant details that you need to plant. When you come to a moment where you have to add an inconsequential element, see if you can sneak in something important. (Don’t overdo it, though, or you’ll alert the reader to your technique.)

The false trail

Jonathan also mentioned the false trail. This is another handy way to misdirect the reader. Again, you work backwards from your story’s final solution. Find a way to interpret your clue in the wrong way, send your characters off to chase it, and then bring it back in as a vital signpost to the real thing.

pineapple-nail-your-novelIt’s tricky to give examples from stories without spoiling their punchlines, but it so happens I can illustrate with real life. On Friday I wrote the word ‘pineapple’ on my hand. My hand is my low-tech Evernote, and I needed to remind myself to go home via the supermarket. But it so happened that I was also going to a class at Pineapple dance studios. Naturally, having a storyteller mentality, I started thinking this was an amusing piece of misdirection. If I was found in nefarious circumstances, a detective might see ‘pineapple’ on my hand and think it was connected with the dance class, because they’d find my membership card. So the hunt for clues would start at the dance studio – until someone smart would ask ‘why would she write a note to remind herself to go to class … could it be her shopping list’? Then they might check my credit card use to find my usual supermarket, and find signs of a scuffle in the car park … voila.

 

So, to answer Jonathan’s final point about the use of misdirection in the sparse style of mystery stories … you don’t have to break style and write a conspicuously lavish description of your item. You slip your detail in naturally, as part of the fabric of the scene.

Thanks for the cards pic Gordon Cowan

nyn3 2ndIf you found this useful, there are lots more tips for slick plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Save

, , , , , , , , ,

36 Comments