Archive for category Plots

Here be no dragons – fantasy stories in a non-fantasy world

We’ve been away for a few days and one of my holiday reads was David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (appropriately enough, as we stayed at an eighteenth-century hunting lodge by the name of Fox Hall). Written in the 1920s, Lady Into Fox is about a man whose wife transforms into a fox shortly after their wedding. They are devotedly in love and determined that this strange change does not matter. He dismisses the servants and shoots the over-excited dogs. She wears clothes, bathes fastidiously and continues to eat her favourite well-bred breakfast of ham and eggs. But her feral nature grows stronger. She forgets to walk on her hind legs and starts to chase ducks – and his struggles to keep her civilised grow more desperate.

Mention fantasy and most of us assume a story set in a world of mythical beings, dragons, elves, unicorns, vampires, magic-doers and medieval technology. But the fable, fantasy’s discreet cousin, is another breed entirely.

In Lady Into Fox, the world and its trappings are normal. There is a hint that the lady’s transformation may be a long-buried family trait; her maiden name is Fox and she has russet hair. That’s the only attempt at explanation; this happening is what it is. Nothing similar befalls anyone else, either. It seems the act of marriage has put this lady in a peculiar state of animal rebellion.

It reminds me (very obliquely) of Dean Spanley, the film based on Lord Dunsany’s novella, in which a clergyman may be the reincarnation of a spaniel. The mood is somewhat lighter and in Dean Spanley, the fabulous happening may be all in the minds of the characters. However, the author is teasing the audience to believe too. There’s a whiff of sorcery when a swami gives a lecture on the transmigration of souls. The Dean remarks that cats don’t like him. He has a weakness for Tokay, which gives him licence for almost hallucinatory flights of fancy as a young, gambolling spaniel. And finally we go along with the fantasy – because of what it will mean to the characters.

Fantasy doesn’t have to take place in a fantasy world.

Thanks for the pic, liz_com1981

While I unpack and catch up on emails chaos, tell me – do you have any favourite unusual fantasy or fable-type stories? Share in the comments!

 

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Plot is linear, story doesn’t have to be

I put a tweet up this morning that’s been causing trouble. I was summarising a point from Ingrid Sundberg’s series on plots.

In my tweet I summarised a paragraph I thought made a great point: ‘Plot is always linear, but story doesn’t have to be.’ And so the tweet-storm began, showing that such a point can’t be adequately explored in a space the size of a bird’s chirrup.

Eh?

First a few definitions. In the nature of a self-taught craft, we all mean slightly different things by our writing terminology. Indeed sometimes I’ve used ‘linear’ to mean a predictable plot with no twists and surprises (as in Nail Your Novel). Here, I’m using linear to mean, as Ingrid did, A, then B, then C… and so on – possibly (hopefully) with surprises, reversals etc. In other words, the timeline of the characters’ lives in chronological order. What they saw as the clock ticked through each day and night. That’s linear.

Spice it up

But storytellers don’t have to stick to that order.

We cut away to another story – a sub-plot, a parallel plot. Maybe slip in some back story. And if we have a scene that ends on tenterhooks, we shuffle a few cards in from a different pack to keep the reader tingling a little longer. That’s the storytelling part of the job – what you do with the material.

You could cut the deck and put it together in a different order, like Pulp Fiction. You could tell it backwards like Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, or Daniel Wallace’s Ray In Reverse.

Use the shuffling as an integral part of the story and you end up with the time-hops of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – although that novel has both because the main character’s life unfolds chronologically and everyone else’s timeline jumps around.

On Twitter, Marc vun Kannon leaped on my tweet to point out: ‘Plot is not always linear. It’s easier to synopsize if it is, though.’

Good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this at greater length is that I see manuscripts where the writer has attempted something daring with structure, but has got themselves confused. I know it not just from the text, but from the shiver of horror when I ask ‘just tell me, chronologically, this character’s life in the book’. It’s incredibly easy to confuse a reader, especially if you’re making it up as you go along.

Do it in order first

If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is. In some cases, it might be better to write it like that first, then mix it up later. If you do it that way, you can also experiment with the best possible order.

Be deliberate

Good storytelling is about doing only what’s necessary. Some novice writers seem to do it without any clear artistic reason. You shouldn’t do it just because you can. Check that your fiddling and shuffling does actually add something. Again, taking Memento as an example, on the DVD you can watch it in chronological order and you can see that version is not nearly as interesting.

In my novel Life Form 3 I decided my most interesting hook came a quarter of the way through. So I lopped off the first section – but instead of consigning it to back story I made it into a mystery, which the character had to unlock. This gave the story far more tension and momentum.

If your novel is exploring themes, you might find you can reinforce these by the way you cut between different sets of characters. Shakespeare is fond of this – in King Lear he has the scene where Lear splits his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to play ball, then shortly afterwards we see the sub-plot characters talking about legitimate and illegitimate offspring. This creates the sense of a universe where the usual laws of family are going to be bent and upset.

Okay, I’ve run out of examples for now. Give me yours in the comments!

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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It took me years to write my first book. Does it get easier?

Yes. And here’s what you can do to help it along.

Joanna Penn was writing this week about how she’s smartened her writing routine as a result of what she learned while writing her first novel, Pentecost. I thought I’d share the ways in which I’ve found my own writing sped up from those early, stumbling days.

It’s as if we write our first novel with a blindfold on. We have an idea for a story and off we go, grabbing things, finding they’re not what we thought, discarding them, discovering holes. At some point we pay more attention to learning to write. By the time we roll out a manuscript that will please our most critical readers we’ve come a long way.

Obviously by novel two that learning curve is behind us. We know what a story needs, structurally and emotionally. We appreciate the needs of our genre. We’ve worked with editors or feedback groups and we understand how outsiders see our work.

Establish a method

As I’m sure you’ll appreciate from reading this blog, writers who produce reliably establish a method for getting the work done. I put mine in Nail Your Novel and it seems to work rather well for a lot of people

All that is part of the craft. But there’s the other half of the writing process as well – the creative one. That’s harder to control because with ideas we tend to get what our inspiration gives us. To an extent, we still have the blindfolds on.

Make your muse work smarter

When you’re arming yourself to tackle another novel, it helps to look at the way you handle creative problems. You will probably find you hit a number of blocks the first time round, and you can take more control of them now. With a bit of analysis, you can reduce periods where you’re scratching your head because you don’t know what’s wrong or you have no ideas at all. In other words, you can fend off the dreaded block.

Ask yourself these questions

Where in the story did you waste time on things that didn’t work? Were they a particular kind of scene?

How long did it take you to find out what engaged you about your story? Are there questions you could ask yourself to drill down to that more quickly so that you know where your story is going?

How could you have prepared better for writing each scene in close up?

What darlings did you keep on life support that you ended up killing anyway?

Where did you go around loops of a maze instead of taking a straight line?

Where were you lazy – and unmasked by your editors or crit partners?

Where did you contrive situations to get something in that wasn’t going to fit?

Where did you get in a tangle with continuity and could you have made things easier for yourself?

What did your beta readers or editors identify as your weaknesses? What can you do to pre-empt those problems this time around?

What kind of research did you need to do and what was a waste of time?

Thank you, Mockstar on Flickr, for the picture. Have you ever diagnosed where your muse could have worked smarter? If you do it now, what would it tell you? Share in the comments!

 

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Pretend your main character isn’t there

You may have developed your main character, but what would your supporting characters be doing if they weren’t there?

As one novel flies the nest, there’s another poking its beak out of the egg.

Its working title is Echo, but so far it’s nothing more than a concept, some exciting developments I must include and two main characters whose story it is.

But I’m not going to do any more work on those two yet. My next job is to look at the other main characters around them – the people who are important, but whose change and resolution is not on the same scale as the MCs’. Not Lizzie and Darcy, but all the Bingleys, other Bennets, Wickhams et al.

What are they doing without my MCs?

Echo won’t be their story, but I’m going to start with them – and what they want to do if my MCs aren’t there. They will have aims, goals, agendas, worries, people they adore, people they loathe, rivals and scores to settle.

It’s a little like what mystery and crime writers do. They create a murder or other crime, then add the people who are investigating, or feretting out what’s going on, perhaps getting into trouble with it themselves.

Then add MCs… and stir

But my MCs aren’t going to be investigator, observer types. They have needs of their own and will get into the biggest trouble of all. Once I add those to the other characters who already have full lives… it should be a good ride.

Writing in a vacuum

Too many writers get into difficulties because they start the other way round. They have an MC who is minutely drawn but seems to exist in a vacuum. It can be a struggle to write because it feels as if the character is walking through an undecorated TV studio with only the props that immediately fly into the writer’s mind – a milk bottle, say. Or the people who pop up to help something along – a mother or a boss.

To write your MC well you also have to write their world – and the most significant factors in that world are not where the corner shop is, but the lives of the other people. If you make them up as you go along it can be a huge mental effort, especially if you need to create people with credible lives.

So the more complete your other characters are, and their problems, the easier it is to throw in your main one. Also, the supporting players will be less like puppets of the main trajectory.

By seeing what they would do without my MCs, I can make sure that when I throw them in, they really start some trouble.

Start your story as if your characters didn’t exist, then add them – and you’ll have a lot more fun.

What do you do to flesh out your world beyond the main characters? Share in the comments!

Thank you, Atmasphere, for the pic

In case you’re curious, my novel My Memories of a Future Life launches on August 30th!

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Purple reigns

You may have noticed we’re looking more purple here than we used to. I decided the interior and cover of  the paperback Nail Your Novel were showing their age and so they’ve had a complete facelift and I’m switching publisher from Lulu to CreateSpace.

The text is exactly the same, but typefaces are clearer and the design simplified. The Kindle edition is already wearing the new cover, as I couldn’t wait to put it in its new outfit.

You may also have noticed a certain schizophrenia about the Nail Your Novel covers in the sidebar. Purple on the main Amazon link, blue and coffee on the Bookbuzzr widget. Relax, they are all the same book and the print version isn’t vanishing. I’m waiting for my final proof copy to arrive so I can offer the new edition on Amazon, and at that point I’ll update the Bookbuzzr widget so it shows the new design. Until then it has to show the book that you’ll actually get if you click Buy… clear?

Using CreateSpace should mean the paperback version will be more easily available worldwide. For some reason Lulu didn’t like to ship to Amazon buyers outside the US. And those of you who’ve kicked around here for a while will know that they seriously blotted their copybook when they deleted my Amazon listing early this year, along with my reviews, and then made the book unavailable a second time with no explanation. (Thank you to all of you who repasted reviews when I finally got my listing up again.)

I’ll keep the old coffee-n-blue design ticking over on Lulu as the links are scattered far and wide in the blogoverse. I can’t update it to the new one for reasons too stodgy to bother you with, but I’ll try to let people know in the listing there’s also a fresher version.

But if you’ve got one of the old blue copies, hang on to it. I just noticed this week that someone’s selling them on Amazon Marketplace for USD$136

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Stories are like sharks – to stay alive they must keep moving

A simple trick for writing a compelling story  

One day I want to write a story that runs backwards. I’ll start with the protagonists in a mire of disaster, and then tick back through time, unpicking their mistakes, until they are blithe and bonny.

So I devour all I can about backwards narratives, and the other day I was listening to the actress Kristen Scott Thomas interviewed about her part in Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal. The play is a love triangle; husband, wife and wife’s lover. The first scene takes place after the affair has ended and the final scene ends when the affair begins.

Aside from indulging my long-range planning, her comments about playing the part clarified something fundamental that writers do when we create any story – backwards or forwards.

Scott Thomas said that Betrayal’s chronology stripped away the tools the actors normally used to carry them through a performance. Usually, the actor plugs in at scene one, and what they experience there carries them, changed, into the next one. This domino taps that domino. In each scene their character learns something, commits to something, discards something, and that sets them up for the next. Changing all the time.

This relentless momentum, the decisions and acts that cannot be undone, the words that cannot be unsaid, are the pulse that gives a story its life. It’s like a shark who must keep moving otherwise it will die.

That change in every scene is what the actor looks for. It might be gigantic or it might be just a grain. And it is what the writer must look for too.

Thank you, Mrpbps, for the picture. Does each of your scenes have that momentum of forwards change? Do you think there are any situations where a scene can coast without anything changing? Let’s discuss!

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We can’t leave plot alone – first in a series of weekly chats with editor Victoria Mixon

Back in January, Victoria Mixon and I amused ourselves mightily with a couple of rambling discussions about writing and editing – here and here.

For those who don’t know, Victoria is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction, A Practitioner’s Manual, and her blog was rightly voted one of the top 10 writing sites in the Write To Done awards (in which Nail Your Novel was a runner-up).

We enjoyed ourselves so much in January we decided to do it again, this time with slightly more focus on the core elements of novel-writing. For each week in April we’re going to be tackling plot, character, prose and whatever else seems important. As you can probably tell, we haven’t firmed up the last topic yet – so if you have a request, get it in now.

Join us over at Victoria’s, where we’re discussing hooks, conflicts, faux resolution and climaxes – as well as the biggest problems we see with client manuscripts. And what saves the Terminator from being flesh-coloured goo.

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Fiction within fiction – made-up worlds and stories inside stories

Stories within stories, dreams and made-up universes are all tricky because once you leave your story’s established world the reader may leave you too. How do you keep them with you?

Stories within stories can go badly wrong. The reader knows it is not ‘true’. Yes, fiction isn’t true anyway, but the reader allows that because they bought into it when they opened the book. But they didn’t necessarily agree to read the characters’ fiction, or spend long periods in their dream worlds. The reader needs to be connected securely with the other world and want to go there.

I’ve just been reading Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, which I discussed recently on Guys Can Read. Tony and Susan does story-in-story with aplomb. Here’s how.

Susan, who is comfortably married with 2 children and a nice home, is sent a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward, who she hasn’t seen in 20 years. When they split up decades ago, he was a discontented drifter making incompetent attempts to be creative. Now he comes out of the blue and asks Susan to read his novel because she was ‘always his best critic’. Susan feels awkward about it – and not just because she’s worried the book will be awful. There’s difficult history between them – she feels complicated and guilty – and she’s dreading what she’ll find in the novel.

So, by the time we get to this novel within a novel, we’re curious. We want to see if it will be bad – but we’re not too worried about that because the (real-life) author has been assured and entertaining so far. And also we’ve become connected to Susan’s reactions. We have inklings that there is an older, raw Susan in dread of being woken. So we are eager to see what is in Edward’s book and how she reacts.

So the first rule of stories within stories is this: give us something we want to find.

When do you introduce it? As soon as you like, so long as you tick those boxes.

You may not need to wait very long. Tony and Susan has a prologue and a short first chapter and we’re into the book within the book. (Yes, a prologue. This writer is happy-slapping several writing taboos – and getting away with it.)

Another of my favourite books with several tiers of fictionality is The Bridge by Iain Banks. The Bridge starts with a man trapped behind the wheel of his crashed car, in pain and terrified. A mere two pages and we are into a parallel fantasy world which is his consciousness while he is in a coma. In the coma world are clues that anchor us to the real-world scene we’ve just read. Some random delirium words – ‘the dark station’ – become the first line of the coma world. There are other details too – a strange, O-shaped bruise on the man’s chest, which has given him his coma-world name, and which we know was from impact with the steering wheel. (Although the book does get flabby after a while, with dream sequences run to briar…)

Second rule of stories within stories

Give us details that anchor us and help us understand what we’re seeing. Another master-stroke about Banks’s coma-world is its setting on a giant, neverending bridge – the Forth Bridge, where the accident happened.

Here’s the third rule of stories within stories

Make both stories satisfying. Tony and Susan’s story within the story is a harrowing thriller, with every bit as much tension as the story around it. Often I see manuscripts where the writer is more interested in one strand than the other. It’s often tricky to make sure the crescendos complement each other, but, hey, you knew it would be a challenge,

Fourth rule

Make both stories affect each other.  So the characters have to be changed not only by what they are doing in the real world, but what is happening to them in the other one. It all needs to knit together to make something bigger than both stories separately – otherwise why have them in one book at all?

Again, Tony and Susan has it nailed, and in rather an interesting way. The Tony part (Tony is the fictional MC) is a story of literal, bloody revenge. The Susan part is about psychological revenge. Edward (the writer) knows exactly how to push Susan’s buttons and prod her insecurities. Because of what Edward is making Tony go through, he’s forcing her to have a relationship with her again, through the book, because he knows he’s making her react. That’s all very uncomfortable.

Do you have any rules for writing stories within stories? Do you have any favourite novels – or films – that do this particularly well? (Thank you THQ Insider for the picture)

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Back at Guys Can Read with one of my favourite novels

Those lovely dudes at Guys Can Read have invited me back to recommend one of my favourite books. I chose Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. This novel manages to pull off a trick I have seen done badly so many times – the story within the story. Why is it often done badly and how does this author do it well? Head on over to Luke and Kevin’s to find out – and also hear some other recommendations of thumping good reads.

As usual, I have way more to say on the subject, so on Sunday I’ll be discussing stories within stories, and fantasies within story worlds.

I’m taking questions about it now, so if you have anything you want to ask, leave a comment here!

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How I know when I’ve got the right ending for my novel

There are often a number of ways to end a story. Many options might be logical or surprising. How do you pick the right one?

What makes a good ending? Three words: surprising, inevitable and right.

The first two categories are linked – and come down to what events you choose and how you seed them.

For me, thinking of events isn’t the biggest problem. I can think of many ways to tie up a tale. What I want is the one that will be right.

What is the right ending?

A story is more than a series of stepping stones. It is an emotional journey. There is a reason why it finishes where it does. The end comes when there is a natural feeling of resolution, that the problem, whatever it was, is solved and will never need to be revisited (unless you’re brewing a sequel). So a good ending is more than the knotting of loose threads. It has a quality that psychologists call closure. It is a feeling that there is nothing more to deal with.

How I find the right ending

To find my true ending, I go to the beginning. I look at the core question that is asked, and all the underlying subcurrents. What does the character need, today, next week, in the long-term future? Why are these such big issues? What about the questions they don’t even know about yet, which will be uncorked as they go through the story?

I ask myself what it will feel like when all those are answered. For My Memories of A Future Life, my adult novel which is currently on submission, the answer came on one of my running sprees. Exhaustion plus endorphins often lead me to interesting insights, particularly when a story is keeping itself obscure. I pounded along with, of all things, the George Michael album Older in my headphones. You may smirk but at the end was a short wistful track with one lyric: ‘feels so good to be free’. Sure it’s cheesy, but My Memories of A Future Life would not be done until the MC was able to say that.

I also realise it’s the song for the end of Life Form 3, the MG novel I am now finishing, and it could well be for the next adult novel I am incubating… hey maybe I’m developing an authorly theme here. But when I first drafted Life Form 3 I had a different ending. It had logic and surprise, but not closure. So I took my running shoes for a spin (with Boards of Canada and Peter Gabriel, since you ask), and examined all the questions in the character’s life. That guided me to ditch the final third of the novel and feel my way to the ending that brings true resolution.

Last words first

The children’s writer Alan Garner, author of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, would think of the last line of his novel before any of the others. That’s when he knew he was ready to start writing.

I don’t necessarily plan the last line, but I do plan the last feeling, or the vibe of the shot if it was a movie. When I have brought the story there, I know I have the right ending. (Thank you, Moriartys, for the pic)

How do you find the right ending for your story?

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