Archive for category How to write a book
How do we learn to write good prose? Indeed, what is it? How do we develop our use of language, play our literary instrument with more elan and flair?
We were probably all encouraged at school to use difficult words instead of simple ones. I see plenty of work that still seems in thrall to that, thinking that ‘printable writing’ must mean to use the thesaurus as often as possible.
Now I’ll happily use a thesaurus to find the bon mot that’s slipped my mind. But we’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, looks self-conscious and overdone.
The other huge sin is tortuous obfuscation, as if the writer is trying to prove they are clever. Just for a giggle, look at this example in The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of bullying superiority, not communication. The writer who committed it, BTW, is an English professor. Heaven help those who wish to learn from him.
We certainly want readers to be impressed by our writing, but for the right reasons. So how do we do that? Here’s my totally subjective account of what impresses me.
Tip 1: Be clear
Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.
This means that before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. Especially on this point: what do we want the reader to feel?
Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:
Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier
He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens
There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions. The effectiveness comes from the writer knowing what they want to say and wanting the reader to understand it.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but effortless to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’
It’s not a bad concept and it’s certainly vivid – but the writing is full of tripwires:
- ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
- ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
- ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ with everything else we have to process in the sentence, does it even matter if the flames are scanty? And do we need to detain the reader with the thought that life is hard for the lamps? While we’re at it, is it the darkness the lamps are struggling against or the wind? If the writing was handled gracefully we’d allow a struggle against darkness as a poetic idea, but as it’s so clumsy it is merely ridiculous.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.
And look back at our very first example from the English professor. He stuffed so many words into his sentence that he had to use italics to add stress. A well-written sentence doesn’t need typographical tics. It leads the reader perfectly well with the usual tools of punctuation and the careful use of word order.
Tip 3: Suit the occasion
Language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen.
For instance, thriller writers want to grip you with a pacy beat. They use a vocabulary that tingles with action.
I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.’ Jonathan Kellerman
It’s a long sentence, but it’s lean and spare. And it’s not even describing a crucial piece of action, merely the character’s drive home.
More than that, language can operate other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you to the narrator’s mind and the details that will tell you the story.
All these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Find books you want to savour
I’ve always been a slow reader. I can’t skim through a good book, and often find myself trapped by an exquisite phrase or a startling sentence. I’ll keep rereading it, hoping to decode its power, discover its trick. When I studied for my degree in English literature, I found the workload impossible because I couldn’t gallop through the reading list like everyone else could. Charles Dickens on his own could have kept me profitably occupied for a year. While I may not have been the widest-read English student, that habit of pausing over good sentences has tuned my ear.
Tip 5: Try many styles
A tenuous reason to use this picture, but I hope you’ll agree it’s lovely. Now – back to the matter in hand.
Every now and again you’ll discover a writer who blows a hole through your idea of what good prose is. Let it; soak up the possibilities it opens for you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. Mimic the rhythms, the sentence structure, the tone, the types of things they would notice. You won’t be able to keep it up, and after a while you’ll be back to your own evolving style. But you’ll have learned a new trick or two. Then read, repeat and repeat.
Ultimately, becoming a good wordsmith is a process of self-examination and gradual evolution, like getting fit or mastering an instrument.
Here it is in a nutshell:
1 Strive to be understood
2 Develop an ear
3 Suit the occasion
4 Find books you want to savour
5 Try many styles
Or: to avoid this
Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr. Glass and instrument pics by Pixabay. Other pics by me
Psst …. Remember, the words are only the skin. If you’re still working on the underlayers of characters, dialogue, structure, themes etc, you might like my Nail Your Novel books – process, characters and plot.
Let’s discuss! How do you develop your literary ear?
As royals get hitched in London again, I thought this might be useful…
If the little wedding in London is sending your head awhirl with thoughts of court and nobility, you might like to know how to get your royals right
First of all, there’s a general hierarchy. Emperor beats king; king beats viceroy; viceroy beats archduke; archduke beats grand duke, who beats duke, then prince, marquess, count, earl, viscount, baron, baronet, hereditary knight, knight and dame. Of course, we don’t have all of those in England. And plenty of other countries have their very own courtlies such as csars. More about royal hierarchy here, plus how long those titles have been in use for all you historical fans.
Then there’s how you address them. If you’re talking to a duke, it’s ‘I say, Duke’, as though you were addressing John Wayne. Marquesses and their wives are Lord and Lady with their place name…
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What I learned about writing novels by failing at short stories – and how to make a short story into a long one
Lee Martin wrote recently on his blog about how he hadn’t intended to write longform fiction. He started with short stories, and graduated to novels only when an editor suggested it.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but that was also my path. Though I was considerably less masterful at it than Lee, who had a respectable bank of published shorts by the time he began the big one.
I started small, and writerly friends urged me to think bigger, mainly because short stories were a much more difficult sell. At the time, I didn’t think I had a novel in me, though I dearly wanted to find one. And, being a beginner, I had my hands entirely full with the craft basics. I couldn’t control more characters, threads, etc etc.
I also wasn’t good at brevity. This was the first reason I was unsuccessful. Whenever I looked for competitions or magazines, I’d bust the word count by several thousand. Even with strict pruning, I couldn’t bring one in under 5,000 words.
And then there was another problem. I was Miss Misfit. I was complimented for style and originality, but literary folk said I was too fond of plot. It didn’t help that I used concepts from science fiction and suspense. Try genre magazines, they said. ‘Try literary magazines,’ said the genre mags.
Much as I yearned for someone, anywhere, to publish me, I’m glad nobody did because I now see a more fundamental problem, beyond the style and subject matter. Even if I didn’t think I could write a novel, my concepts needed a novel’s scope.
In my work as an editor, I’ve often seen how rushing a powerful idea can make it trivial. Usually it’s most apparent with individual scenes, especially emotional ones – a turning point might look unconvincing if it’s too brief, but becomes a spellbinding showstopper if the writer slows and takes their time over every moment. I think this may be why I never had success with short stories – I was rushing a bigger idea. Blurting it out in a state of panic instead of giving it the space and pace it deserved. So the result was underbaked for literary people, and ungraspably off-beam for genre people. In short, I was shortchanging an idea that needed to be bigger. That’s not to say a big idea can never be a brief story, but I wasn’t suited to that approach.
I’m thinking about this because of Lee Martin’s post and because I’m now putting one of those old stories on a bigger canvas. As you might already know if you saw this recent post about the wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process, Ever Rest began as 7,000 words and has now grown to around 110,000. You’ll also see from that post that I began with trepidation. In my mind, Ever Rest was frozen in that small space. Was expanding it even possible?
I’m happy to report it was, so in case you’re also in an expanding frame of mind, here’s what I’ve been doing.
Is it still the same story?
Good question. It is because some parts of the core situation are technically the same, like the two Westworlds, Fargos, 2001s, Flowers For Algernons. And here I shall be magnificently vague as I’m not ready to explain more yet.
The how-to bit: making the story bigger
Find the other characters who have a story arc
My original story was a single viewpoint, first person. I looked for other souls who had a significant experience triggered by the core event. Gradually the cast list grew. The original character became two and they are now such distinct people that I can’t believe it wasn’t always thus. The story is now third person, six narrators.
Go beyond the original timescale
Ever Rest original had a timescale of a few days, with flashbacks to childhood and teen years. Gosh, didn’t I stuff a lot into 7,000 words? What if I spent longer in those years? I free-wrote in the characters’ viewpoints, not planning anything, shooting footage until they did something surprising or moving.
Look for missing moments
As I pieced my footage together, I found a pattern of situations that were always worth writing. When character A first met character B, what made them interested in each other? When character X started to change their mind about situation Y, what was that moment? Sometimes it was apparent that key conversations were missing. I didn’t know how those conversations would go; it was more that I knew the opposite – the characters would not be able to keep quiet.
Brief moments become major turning points
This is one of the joys of the bigger canvas. Moments that the original story glided through – or never even looked at – can become turning points, or even twists.
The end of exploration
Some of my explorations went to dead ends. I had plenty of footage that was ultimately dull, though nothing’s ever wasted. Even if a piece of text doesn’t stay in the manuscript, it helps with your own knowledge of the book. There were also plot directions that felt forced, so I took them out again. (Hint: keep all your versions so you can undo.)
The big question is this. With so many possibilities, how do you know when you’ve got an idea to keep? I always found the answer was this.
When it felt like it had been there all along.
If you want to know more about Ever Rest, and anything else I’m working on, sign up for my newsletter!
How do we tease a bunch of ideas into a plot? How much notice should we take of common plot shapes such as the Hero’s Journey? Are they worn to death now? If we get creative and throw the rules out of the window, how do we ensure we don’t end up with an unreadable mess? IngramSpark noticed I have a book about plot, so they asked me over to their blog to write a quick guide to plotting with pizzazz, panache and unpredictability. (I realise that’s 3 Ps, but my post is actually about Cs. Oh well. All will be explained.) Do come over.
Novelists are sculptors of real-life, but some have to be particularly sensitive to their raw materials. Especially when that material is events that have made headlines in the news – natural disasters, wars, or terrorist incidents.
That’s what I want to explore today. You might recognise my interviewee – Jane Davis, who has hosted me on her Book Club series and was one of my co-conspirators in the Women Writing Women box set. In her eighth novel, Smash All The Windows, she tackles the aftermath of a fictional disaster, for which she drew on the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989.
In this interview we talk about
- Why the story’s time period was an important choice
- Why she created a fictional situation instead of writing about an actual event
- How she created an authentic experience
- Sensitivity issues
Roz Your novel was sparked by the second inquest into the Hillsborough disaster. What was it that grabbed your attention?
Jane It was the press’s treatment of the families. They thrust microphones at family members as they emerged from the courtroom and put it to them that, now the original ruling had been overturned, they could finally get on with their lives. What lives? Were these the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Or the lives that they might have been entitled to expect?
[For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crush occurred during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. Live commentary informed television viewers that Liverpool fans were to blame, and victims became scapegoats. It would be 27 years before the record was set straight.]
Roz But you didn’t end up writing about Hillsborough. You created your own fictional incident. Why was that?
Jane You have to treat recent history with respect, especially in cases where the survivors and relatives and partners of the victims are still alive. Twenty-seven years after the disaster, the pain on their faces was still so raw. My gut feeling was that I didn’t want to add to that. And what could I add to the material that’s already been produced? Jimmy McGovern’s powerful 1996 TV dramatisation formed part of the protest before the original verdict was overturned. McGovern based his script almost entirely on court transcripts and eye-witness reports. And he had blessing of the families. You have to ask yourself, would a fictional account be welcomed? Would it be disrespectful to add a fictional character to the storyline? And what right do I have to tell this story?
Actually, have you tackled recent history in your own writing?
Roz I use a recent disaster in Ever Rest. In 2014 there was an avalanche that killed 28 people and caused lasting ripples through the climbing community. It’s actually not the focus of my story; it happens on the periphery. Even so, I was careful to research every detail. I read the eyewitness accounts, watched real-time footage and interviews. Much of the information I gathered wasn’t needed for the book, but it allowed me to write with confidence and respect.
Jane And that’s why researching your subject matter and timeline is so important. Even if you only touch on it briefly, it would be a crime not to be aware of it.
Roz In my ghostwriting days I went much further. I created earthquakes and mass floods, and it’s a huge undertaking. The amount of factual research is enormous. First there’s the event itself, the special responses of bodies like the police, ambulance and fire brigade; then all the other surprising possibilities that make a gripping story well beyond the obvious. I’ve seen you remark on Facebook that this book darn near killed you and I can well believe it. Tell me about creating your disaster in logistical and practical terms. What did you draw on?
Jane Research – obviously – but also personal experience. The previous year, travelling by Tube to a book-reading in Covent Garden, I’d suffered a fall. Already overloaded from a day’s work in the city, I also had a suitcase full of books in tow. I was totally unprepared for how fast the escalator was. When I pushed my suitcase in front of me, it literally dragged me off balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But the day could have ended very differently.
In terms of research, as I’m sure you’re aware, creating a fictional disaster doubles your workload. Firstly I researched Hillsborough and unpicked the elements that led to the tragedy. Facilities which dated from a time when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t understood. Someone in management who was new to the job. Elements of institutionalised complacency. (‘We’ve always done things that way.’) Risk assessments that failed to consider that several things might go wrong at the same time and how multiple casualties might be dealt with. I also wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their appalling treatment as they searched for loved ones, and then as lies were spread.
Then, having chosen my setting, I set about researching how an accident might happen in an Underground Station, and the difficulties that the emergency services would encounter, which meant looking at accident investigations from Kings Cross and London terrorist attacks. I documented everything I could about the vulnerabilities of the system and weak spots, and that meant tracking down reports on transport policy, overcrowding, the impact on health, recommendations that have not been implemented… the list goes on.
Roz So you created a story about a disaster on an escalator in a London Tube station? What then?
Jane After that, I plotted my timeline. It took over a decade of legal wranglings before the Hillsborough families even managed to get their hands on paperwork to help them build their case, but I didn’t want the timeframe to be as long as 27 years. Somehow, to suggest my fictional characters suffered as much as the Hillsborough families seemed disrespectful. But to reflect the issues that existed at the time of Hillsborough, the story had to happen before the explosion of the internet, when voices weren’t heard as they would be today and photographs wouldn’t be posted on Twitter.
Roz The expanding internet. A boon for research; a bane for plotting. How many storytellers have wound their timelines back for that very reason? But I digress. You then created a character to personify the fight…
Jane Yes. When most injustices are overturned, there’s usually an individual who worked away tirelessly to construct a case. With Hillsborough, it was Phil Scraton, a professor of criminology. With the disaster in my book, it was Eric, a law student. He’s the outsider, someone who arrives at a point when the families have all but given up. His conviction reminds the families that they still have a little fight in them.
Roz You also have to grapple with a lot of human stories – and in a sensitive way. You create characters who experience the worst because that makes the most drama, but you must handle everything with respect and not appear to exploit it. Can you talk about that?
Jane The question of whether it’s possible to exploit a fictional character is such an interesting one! But yes, the human drama is what’s going to grip the reader, so characterisation is crucial. You have to translate the emotional fallout with delicacy and honesty, allowing your characters to retain their dignity. I wanted to show the terror and the horror of the disaster, without making anything gratuitous. So how do you go about that? I write in close third person from multiple viewpoints and I think this lends itself to a very personal relationship with my characters. I also do a little of what I call ‘method writing’. If I need to write a tired and emotional scene, I try to write the first draft when I’m tired and emotional. If my character has had a drink or two, you get the picture…
Roz That’s not unlike the ‘musical method writing’ used by many of the guests on my Undercover Soundtrack series. We’re all searching for the truth in these emotional scenes. What about the scenes of the actual disaster?
Jane My choice of setting was deliberate. I suffer from claustrophobia and anxiety and so travelling in rush hour on a Tube train is something I have to do, but I struggle with. I hope that I’ve managed to translate my feelings of claustrophobia onto the page. As for the disaster itself, I show the various characters travelling towards it, and so we see the build-up from different angles, but I tend to cut away from the disaster itself quite suddenly. If you create the right atmosphere and rack up the tension, the reader is perfectly capable of imagining what happened next.
In the book, I have my character Maggie ask my character Jules, who is a sculptor, if the work they are planning to make for his art exhibition is going to be too shocking, and he says, ‘It is going to be just shocking enough. You cannot make art and then apologise for it.’ So I suppose my question to you would be where would you draw the line? What would be too shocking?
Roz A good question. Sometimes understatement is beautifully devastating. Graham Greene described a shooting as ‘a thud like a gloved hand striking a door’. I think you have to do what is true to your style.
On the subject of shock, it’s now not unusual for authors to have a sensitivity edit, done by a person with more direct experience of the issue or that kind of event. Did you have a reader who performed this for you? Maybe more than one because you’ll have several human issues like post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, marital difficulties… The human fallout of such an event is endless. How did you get to the stage where you felt confident you’d appreciated the situation fully and been fair?
Jane I hadn’t heard the term ‘sensitivity edit’ until a few weeks ago, when I shared an interview on Twitter from a sensitivity editor, so no, I haven’t sought out that kind of professional help. But you’re so right. Many lives are blighted by an incident on this scale. I chose to focus on five key characters and the people they lost.
Hillsborough had already given me long-term view, but while I was writing the book, the 50-year anniversary of Aberfan took place. Aberfan was a Welsh mining village where a slag heap collapsed on the village school. Because the world’s media descended on this small community, there’s a wealth of photographic evidence – it’s almost obscene. And if we measure the long-term impact of large-scale disaster in terms of medical records, we see it all here. Alcoholism, addiction to prescription drugs, a rate of minor ailments that far exceeds the norm, mental health issues, suicide, premature death. I actually wonder if I have gone far enough, but then you return to that question of exploitation.
I also use a team of about 35 beta readers who come from wide circles. They always surprise me but, unbeknown to me, one of my team had survived the Hatfield rail crash. That discovery led to a valuable exchange about survivor guilt and flashbacks. Particularly pertinent were the what ifs? ‘If I’d asked him to get me a coffee, he wouldn’t be here.’
Another beta reader had suffered a fall down the escalators at Euston Station two years ago and is still walking with a stick (in fact, I’m gathering a file of escalator incidents – falls seem extremely common). She found my descriptions of the fall terrifying because, of course, she superimposed her own experience over what she read on the page.
Roz Add me to your list of escalator casualties. I have a triangular hole in my shin from a mishap at Knightsbridge Tube.
Jane Another one! And I’m hearing about them all the time.
But another beta reader thought that the way I depicted a pregnant woman was too generic. She exercised right up to the birth of her first child – she had climbed a mountain two weeks beforehand and had been jogging a couple of days before the birth. Of course, pregnancy is something I have no experience of, so her input was extremely helpful.
My choice of Dan Holloway as a structural editor also served me well. He asked probing questions like, ‘Is that really the first thing you want your readers to know about this character’?
Wearing your editor hat, I assume authenticity is something you comment on?
Roz I do! I’ve developed a nose for authenticity, or rather, its opposite. Sometimes I can comment from my own knowledge – for years I’ve done editing shifts on medical magazines, so I have a wide experience of mental and physical health issues, and also of the professionals who treat them. Also, ghostwriting gave me other surprising life-skills because I had to write convincingly about things I hadn’t ever done. That’s made me an obsessive checker. When I’m editing a manuscript, even if I don’t know the subject, I can usually tell if it has been researched thoroughly. Of course, it’s harder to know if a writer has made a wrong assumption, so there’s no substitute for befriending an actual expert.
What other obstacles did you encounter?
Jane The main problem was that time refused to stand still. While I was writing my book, disasters kept on happening. News broadcasts and front pages of newspapers were dominated by terrorist attacks. Paris was already on my mind, but Nice, Berlin, Manchester… Then in May 2017, the London Bridge attack happened. Would it be insensitive to continue to write about an incident that took place within a real life disaster? Part of me said yes. On the other hand, I saw the aftermath. The cars parked diagonally across city streets, the bouquets of red roses propped up against the bridge. The messages written to loved ones. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries. I had to make conscious decisions about whether I should let this disaster shape the story I was writing.
Roz That’s a perennial problem – the book that keeps growing in scope. Life keeps adding possibilities. You have to decide when you’ve got enough. Which seems a good place to end!
And if that snippet about Ever Rest piqued your interest, you can find out more in my newsletter, including adventures like this:
I recently recorded this interview at The Bestseller Experiment, and I’m hugely flattered because their guest hotseat has held some pretty famous bottoms. Bryan Cranston has sat there. Richard Morgan who writes Altered Carbon has sat there. Tad Williams and Michelle Paver have sat there (and Michelle and I share a liking for Everest so I made sure I listened to that one). Anyway, it’s my turn. You can find the others if you dig around their vaults.
And if my interview has made you seriously consider ghostwriting, don’t forget to check out my course.
Want to learn some ninja plotting skills? Try these exercises at Reedsy.
Reedsy is principally known as a marketplace for authors and publishers, but it also offers a range of useful lists, from review sites to writing tips. It’s just compiled a set of 100 creative writing exercises from its favourite bloggers (thanks, guys!).
I was invited to contribute three short exercises and I’ve chosen subjects that help you read with a writer’s mindset. They are:
1 Foreshadowing plot twists so they are surprising and fair (the clue hunt)
2 How to keep the reader gripped (the page-turner)
3 Using your material with economy and elegance (the observant writer)
And psst … there are plenty more insider plotting tips in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3
There’s a question I get asked a lot. So I thought I’d let two Rozzes, 15 years apart, slog it out.
Young Roz, fresh-faced ghostwriter: Why don’t you write a quick series of novels that would sell shedloads and make a mint. Then you can spend the rest of your time on your, er, slower-selling books. The arty ones.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. It’s not that simple.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But you’ve had the best bootcamp ever for commercial fiction writing. You’ve worked with ruthless and brilliant editors. You’ve seen your books as posters on the London Underground.
Older, wiser Roz: When I ghostwrote, I was new to professional writing. Unformed. Looking for my way. Then I started on my own novel and everything changed. Once upon a time, my goal was to please those taskmasters. I discovered I could suddenly please myself. I’d learned to drive the car; now I could take it anywhere I wanted.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Well come on, why do those books take so long? I can hammer out a ghostwritten novel in six weeks. I thought My Memories of a Future Life would be a left-field suspense. Lifeform Three was supposed to be a light futuristic romp. What on earth were you doing?
Older, wiser Roz: The books kept changing. The more I worked on them, the more they seemed to pose an irresistible mystery about life. A novel in progress isn’t just a thing I pick up at the keyboard and put down again. It travels with me. An endless conversation. A personal crusade. Keyboard-time is when I catch up with the points I honed as I watched a film, worked an editing shift, went for a run, cooked dinner, groomed a horse. That process is one of the pleasures of building a novel. And frequently the frustration. Do you know what? I don’t want to live with a book unless I can take it to its genuine limit.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Don’t over-think it. Just write to a trend.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. I was chatting to a senior editor at a Big Five publisher. ‘Roz,’ he said, ‘we’re looking for another Girl On The Train. Just knock one off. The manuscripts we’re getting from agents are rubbish. We need you.’
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: I am totally going to do that.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, you will. You’ll take a publisher’s informal hint and write a thriller that chases a trend. By the time it’s ready, the trend will be over. And anyway, I don’t read books like that.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But … bestsellers. Hot categories. Salivating now.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, the cash doesn’t just rain out of the air if you write one manuscript. You need to feed readers regularly. You won’t just write one, you’ll write several. Even a book that is fast to draft has a lot of other time behind it – knowledge of the market, promotion activities, reading the innovators so your work is fresh enough. Have I mentioned that readers will spot if you don’t adore that genre to your very boot-soles? Writing like that is not a part-time job, it’s a dedicated role. It’s full on, full time. What bandwidth does that leave for crafting a nice book for the soul?
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But there are surprise breakouts. I’ll take a few rejections on my determined chin, and eventually we’ll be Rowling in £££s. I’ll whack a book on Kindle when it’s invented, learn some sales-fu and watch it rain dollars.
Older, wiser Roz: Oh just buy a ticket for the lottery.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Think of those Tube posters for the books we ghostwrote. Wouldn’t it be nice to see our real name there?
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, there was a time when I could dash off a genre book. I was new and eager and didn’t know what I wanted to write for myself. I’m happy to ghostwrite non-fiction, because that’s creative journalism. I like editing too; it’s the fun part of problem-solving, helping another writer with their vision. Being a supportive godmother instead of the flailing, gnashing parent.
In the professional world of publishing, there’s no such thing as writing a book for easy money. So I prefer to be careful how I spend my creative energy. Because there’s a lot I want to do.
(Psst… if you’re curious to know more, sign up for my newsletter.)
How do we create fictional people who feel just as real as our closest friends? How do we build layers of complexity that will bewitch a reader and keep them hooked for several hundred pages? Ingram Spark noticed I had a book about characters (here) invited me to their blog to write my six strongest tips on the subject. The first tip will cheer anybody who’s had feedback that said ‘I don’t believe your protagonist would do that …’ Do come over.
How many drafts does a novel need? Some are ready for an editor by the second or third draft. Others – like mine – are assembled in slow layers of revisions, a process of discovery. There’s more about that in What Takes Literary Authors So Long.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I went through a manuscript at least 50 times, but I’ve never counted. So for Ever Rest I’m keeping a draft diary. How many times do I set out from the start? What am I doing each time and how much difference does it make?
Right now, I’m starting draft 10, which on my usual timescale is early days. But my draft diary has already revealed some surprising and paradoxical benefits of slow writing.
Outline first, obvs
Ever Rest has been with me a long time. I wrote it originally as a short story, read it out at a workshop and the feedback was unanimous – it had enough guts to be a novel. So began long hours of staring at plot cards in uffish thought, and much collecting of Undercover Soundtracks (music for writing… see here). Finally, I’d assembled a set of troubled characters and some torments for them. I put my headphones on and began writing.
Draft 1 – inhabiting the scenes for the first time. I was trotting nicely through the outline when a couple of characters went off piste and sent everything to pot. Somehow, though, it made glorious sense so I clung on and wrote to the end. And hurrah, I had a wordcount of 76,123. The original short story was 7,000 and I’d been worried it wouldn’t make novel length. Onwards.
Draft 2 – dealing properly with the disobedience in draft 1. It made intuitive sense, but why? Draft 2 was understanding this, pushing the characters harder. When I landed at the end I had 107,471 words. Shortness wasn’t going to be a problem. I suspected much of the wordcount was flab, but I now had room to cut.
Draft 3 – getting strict about facts. I’d left a lot of factual gaps so I didn’t nonce around with research I wasn’t going to use. What colour is a police uniform in Kathmandu? Now it was worth finding out. Also I filled the gaps in back story. How do x and y know each other? When did crucial event z happen?
This draft fizzled out, alas. Other deadlines intervened and I made my ghostwriting course for Jane Friedman. After that the manuscript looked like an exam in a language I didn’t speak, so I started again, draft 3.2. Pretty soon, draft 3.2 did something that disrupted the beginning, so I rewound again and started draft 3 for the third time.
Drafts 4-7 The original short story was a first-person narrative. In enlarging it, I added a lot of people and it grew into an ensemble piece, with short chapters from different viewpoints. Several characters had matured much further than their original roles, so I needed dedicated drafts to give them proper space.
Meanwhile, the book’s Undercover Soundtrack was now the size of a small record shop.
After a detour for a little travel memoir, draft 8 began with a radical scene reshuffle. The book had never felt balanced so I put a main character’s introduction earlier, where it ran more smoothly. Often I don’t know why something is wrong until I make a drastic change; then it seems to sigh with relief.
I was also worried about easing the reader into the story, so I promoted an outsider character to a bigger role. If I introduced the story through him, the reader could learn alongside him. His back story looked thin, so I tipped a lot more words in to give him a more defined life. But despite all this, he was boring. What to do? One of the other characters had a job that resonated with the novel’s main themes. What if he did her job? At first this seemed inspired; a perfect fit. Then I began to hear a false note. Instead of a pleasant resonance, it screamed the smart parallels in the reader’s face.
By the end of draft 8, they were back to their original professions. And I realised I’d been right the first time. The person who originally had that job had a bigger arc I hadn’t suspected. I only found out by breaking the book.
Draft 9. I now knew the supporting character couldn’t kick the book off. So I tried the most complicated character as centre stage. I hadn’t before because I’d thought her situation was too strange and required copious explanations. But if I could find one detail that would plug the reader into her world? I found it. Geronimo. With this new opening, I then chopped a number of redundant scenes and made a list of scenes that were missing. I usually find these tricky to write, but I found if I started typing and made the characters talk to each other, they took the scene further than I ever imagined. When you know the characters, they will surprise you when they talk for themselves.
And now I begin draft 10. What now? In the previous drafts, I’d been singling out particular threads or problems. Now I’m going to read the book in its entirety, to listen to the whole mix. I think I know what I’ve made, but I’m not yet certain. Wish me luck.
Oh and what’s the wordcount? 110,213. Each round, I’ve culled and added a lot, and I’m sure there’s more that can be trimmed, but it seems to have found its comfortable weight. Expect a whopper, guys.
So here are my 3 wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process
- A massive switch in my original plan was so intuitively right … that discovering why helped me understand the whole book.
- Sometimes you have to break the book to understand how it works. Swapping characters’ roles, giving the opening chapter to a different character, even changing the main viewpoint were all useful experiments. Even if you restore it to the way it was, you come away with a stronger understanding. (You might also like Revision is Re-vision.)
- When you know the characters, that’s when they might surprise you most.
Thanks for the balcony pic, Maxpixel.
Are you a slow writer? Have you discovered any wondrous paradoxes? Share them here.
Need a writing plan? My method (including time spent staring at plot cards in uffish thought) is in Nail Your Novel.
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