Archive for category Rewriting
I’ve been asked this question twice recently – in a conversation on G+, and by a student at my Guardian masterclass the other week. In both cases, the writers had encouraging feedback from agents, but one crucial criticism: the characters all seemed too similar.
And probably this wasn’t surprising because of their story scenarios. Both writers had a set of characters who belonged to a group. A bunch of flatmates, or a squad of marines, or a group of musical coal miners forming a choir. To outsiders, they probably looked identikit – they’d talk the same, use the same cultural references and have similar aims.
So how can you flesh them out as individuals?
1 Look for incompatibility
The first step is to assemble your cast carefully. In real life, if you were choosing a team, you’d go for compatibility and congruent aims. For a story, you need to plant some fundamental mismatches that may threaten the group’s harmony.
So, they might seem similar on the surface, but deep down it’s another matter.
Choose as your principals the people who will be most challenged by each other’s personalities and attitudes. They might be in one choir, but they don’t have to sing from the same hymn sheet.
2 Include this in the story
Make sure these differences are exposed by the plot events.
A couple, who might be well matched in other ways, might disagree fundamentally about whether to send their children to boarding school, or whether to take out a loan. Make that a story issue and explore the fall-out. You could give one of your characters a secret that will clash with the group’s overall interests – a drug habit, perhaps, or a forbidden lover.
Or if your characters are embarked on a bigger task, such as solving a crime, make the attitude differences into unsettling background music. William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach is worth looking at for its distinct bunch of scientists who are living together in a jungle research station (fresh in my mind because I just wrote a Goodreads review).
3 Humour, stress and swearing
Aside from the plot conflicts, your characters will express themselves individually in other ways. Think of their temperaments, and how they handle stress. One of them may go to a boxing gym. Another might stitch a quilt, which may seem intolerably mimsy to the pugilist. They’ll have different ways to express humour, or curse. There’s more here about polishing dialogue so that characters sound individual.
4 Keep track of their different outlooks
With my own WIP, Ever Rest, I’ve got four principal players. It’s tricky to hop between so many consciousnesses, so I’ve made aides-memoirs. I have a list of how they differ on important issues such as romantic relationships, ambition etc. Just writing this list produced some interesting insights and clarifications. As always, so much can unlock if you ask the right question.
Actors sometimes talk about how they don’t know a character until they’ve chosen their footwear. In a similar way, you could walk in your characters’ shoes by choosing a simple characteristic. Perhaps one of them wears glasses. One of them walks with a slight limp. One of them always worries about losing things. A small detail like this might help you remember how their experience is distinct.
Another fun tool is to collect pictures of strangers. You know how we’re told not to judge by appearances? Tosh. We can’t help it. And this instinctive trait becomes very useful when we create people out of thin air. Look through photos of strangers and you probably make instant – and of course erroneous – assumptions of what you’d like and dislike about them. It’s okay, no one will know. You don’t have to tell your mother. Here’s a post I wrote about this in detail.
5 Have dedicated revision days for particular characters
You don’t have to get everything right in one go. And we don’t have to revise a book in one go, or in chapter order, either. We might need a particular mindset to write one of our characters, so it might help to work on all their scenes in one batch.
You also might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss whether fictional characters have to be likable. Click this thingy for more (plus an audacious cover of a Prince track… no, not by us)
And meanwhile, let’s discuss – have you had feedback that your characters aren’t distinct enough? What did you do about it? Do you have any favourite examples of writers who do this particularly well?
Last weekend I was teaching a workshop at Writecon Zurich and one of the issues we discussed was killing your darlings. I used the example of a very precious scene I deleted from My Memories of a Future Life. The full story, including the scene, is here, but briefly, it was inspired by a family heirloom and I was keen to include it. But at each revision round I sensed it repeated an emotional beat, tripped the reader up and made the story stall. When, finally, I swallowed my vanity and removed it, the story ran more smoothly.
I found myself using that same instinct the other day with Ever Rest, which I’m revising. I’m recutting the rough first draft in a more dynamic order, now I know the characters more deeply. I’d planned a funky new use for a scene and was pleased with the possibilities – especially as there were some good lines about the characters’ histories. So I improvised a fill-in scene to prepare the way – then realised that had already done the job. Those nice moments weren’t even needed.
I have to admit, this was annoying. If I get excited about an idea, I want to use it, not discard it. But it was surplus to requirements and would spoil the flow. Rather like the dress scene. I liked it for itself, but it didn’t serve the book.
I sighed and parked the sequence back in the rushes file. It might be useful later.
Back to the dress scene. I’ve also used it as an illustration in my Guardian masterclass – and quite often, a funny thing happens. One of the students will argue, quite strenuously, that I should have included it. Why? Because it was nice, they reply. And no matter how I argue about the overall good of the book, they lament that I took it out.
No matter that I tell them readers can find it on my website if they’re that curious; or that I acknowledge the narrator probably had that moment around the corners of the story. That there would have been plenty of moments of the characters’ lives I didn’t show. Real life contains a lot of monotony and repetition, but a storyteller needs to select what to include and what to omit. You get more artistry from discipline, coherence and elegance than you do from sprawl.
The reason I tell the anecdote is to illustrate the kinds of battles we might have as we edit. We have to recognise when we’re trying to include a scene, character or description simply because we like it, and instead search for a more substantial reason.
Now obviously we are not building machines. We are creating works of art and entertainment. A scene, character or description might earn its place for many reasons aside from advancing the plot – thematic resonance, comic relief, helping the reader to understand a tricky situation. And our style is an individual organism that arises from our interests, gut feeling, personality and reading tastes, so the rules for my novels won’t be the same as the rules for yours.
But mature writers have this level of awareness and discipline that helps them edit wisely. I now find I’m catching myself far more often than I used to, examining my personal feelings about a scene, and it’s saved me from stitching in a passage that I’m sure I would have quarreled with later.
Or, in the words of Stephen King: Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’
There’s a lot more about honing your story’s pace in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.
Have you struggled over a cherished passage in one of your books? Have you had feedback where you were urged to delete something, but found it difficult? What made you want to keep it? If you’ve been writing for a while, do you notice yourself becoming more aware of your reasons for keeping scenes? Let’s discuss!
Writers often have trouble deciding where they’re going to start their story. The first chapter takes multiple rewrites, mind-changes, tweaks and deletions. Chapter 1 frequently has more scar tissue than any other part of a novel.
There are so many decisions to make about what to squeeze in and what to leave out. Sometimes writers get carried away and I see novels with any or all of:
- an introduction
- a mission statement
- an explanation of themes
- a foreword (which as a tweeter has pointed out is technically written by someone other than the author)
- a prologue
- or sometimes two prologues.
Often these are little more than instructions for how to read what follows. But there are times when a prologue is welcome. Here’s my guide to using prologues responsibly.
Not all bad
Readers relish prologues when:
- they show us something important that is out of the main story’s timeline, for instance something that would otherwise have to be shown in flashbacks or cumbersome exposition
- they show action or characterisation that the reader needs to understand chapter 1, for instance the start of a war or a quest
- they are vivid and entertaining in their own right
Even prologue enthusiasts do not like:
- an info-dump for its own sake – or back story that should be worked into the main text in a more natural way or was simply not needed (writers are prone to include too much back story and resort to prologues to shoehorn it in)
- when a prologue is really just the first chapter, given a fancy name – if you put prologue at the top, it had better be truly separate
- when a prologue is a rehash of a dramatic moment from later in the story, shown out of order because the start of the book does not have enough of a hook.
However, as with everything arty, there’s a fine balance to be struck. You can get away quite nicely with a prologue that comes from a scene near the end of the novel, to make us wonder how the characters got into such a mess.
Genre makes a difference
Some genres are more forgiving of prologues – fantasy and science fiction, for instance. These readers enjoy being plunged into unfamiliar worlds, and so the scene-setting aspect of a prologue is a helpful device.
But the closer the genre is to the everyday world of the reader, the less necessary a prologue is – because these readers want to be whirled in, immediately, to the people and the story they are going to follow, at the point that is most likely to hold their interest. They want you to unravel everything naturally and with your storytelling skill. However, they don’t mind:
- prologues that show a crisis from near the end of the novel – perhaps the main character on their deathbed or in some sort of showdown
- an event from a point of view that we will never revisit.
If you’re doing the latter, does it need to be a prologue? Many thrillers start with a startling event that happens to a character we will most likely never see again – quite often their gruesome demise. But these are usually called chapter 1. Why? Because they are the start of the story. Even though we’re probably not going to hear a squeak from those unfortunate characters again. If your opening could quite happily be called chapter 1, you don’t need to call it a prologue.
The first steps are the hardest
Novels are big. It’s always hard to work out how to introduce an enormous work you know intimately to someone who knows nothing about it – and to do justice to it. You’ll find this with the first chapter. You’ll also find it with the pitch you’ll write for an agent or editor, or the sales blurb, or if you try to answer that beastly question ‘what’s your novel about?’.
Sometimes prologues are useful and welcome. But make sure you really, really need one. And you probably don’t need two.
I’m planning a newsletter! I know, that’s terribly grown-up. Add your name to the mailing list here.
In the meantime, share your thoughts on prologues – good and bad – and examples if you have any!
I’m at Tuesday Serial today, a weekly round-up of serial fiction being published throughout the web. They were curious to know about my experiences releasing My Memories of a Future Life as four parts on the Kindle, which is how I originally launched. Thinking back, it made me revise more sharply – and I’m glad I did because it surely strengthened the novel. Come over and see, on Tuesday Serial -or any day you like…
Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.
First of all, what is good language?
I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.
But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:
‘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.’
Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.
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.
So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. 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 first what he wants to say.
Tip 2: Develop an ear
Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.
‘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 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…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.
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.
Tip 3: Suit the material
The 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 would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.
More than that, the language operates 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 deeply to the narrator’s mind.
Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.
Tip 4: Using notebooks
In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.
Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr
How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). 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.
If you read this blog regularly you’ll be familiar with my friend, the writer and editor Victoria Mixon. Her book, The Art & Craft of Fiction – A Practitioner’s Manual, is a favourite of mine. If friends utter the words ‘I think I’ll write a novel’, they soon find themselves armed with a copy because of the way it deftly bridges the gap between good reading and good writing. Victoria is about to release the follow-up, The Art &Craft of Story, and asked me to contribute a blurb. While reading it I came across a stand-out passage that I wanted to make into a post of its own.
It’s the tale of how she and husband Jeff created a logo for their publishing company (as well as an editor, Victoria is also a graphic designer). She wanted to use an icon of her childhood, an antique advertisement which features a young woman in an enormous feathered hat with elegant gloves and a dreamy expression. But when she and her husband scanned it, there was too much shading and detail for it to work as a logo. So they started reworking it in Photoshop.
Here’s the story, in Victoria’s words.
She needed enough big dark elements to be recognizable at a casual glance—even tiny—but she also needed her itsy-bitsy little facial features to show up with their soulful gaze. We blacked in her hat and gloves (although the gloves have wonderful highlighted wrinkles in the soft leather) and exaggerated her eyes and mouth. We erased all of her from chin to gloves and then went back, meticulously re-creating only those lines absolutely necessary to give her definition. She has a lot of ruffles around her face, which looked weird when they disappeared. We had to get just enough of them in to remove the weird without competing with her more important elements.
The pièce de résistance turned out to be not even a part of her, but the shadow her cardboard cut-out cast on the wall when she was photographed. It’s only behind one arm (the light came from an angle), but it’s a lovely calligraphic line that thins and thickens as it goes around the curves of her sleeve. We sharpened it up. Then we looked at her other arm, which has no such line. We paused.
We were going to flip the line and use its opposite on the other side.
But then I remembered a fascinating fact about stylized images: what the eye knows should be there it will see even when it’s not there.
And this is something all writers must remember—what the reader knows should be there they’ll supply even when it’s not.
Not only that, but that simple act of the reader supplying the essential last detail is what engages them, sucks them in, pins them down, makes them part of the story.
When we look at our favorite logos, our eye doesn’t keep going back to them because it’s found every single speck of information it needs. It goes back because there’s something missing, and our eye knows what it is. We feel the satisfaction of supplying the missing piece, the sense of completion, the instant of epiphany.
In the book, Victoria uses this anecdote to delve into the way storytelling works in terms of structure, characterisation and description. But as I was reading I was thinking it could apply just as well to revising a novel.
As you might know from reading Nail Your Novel, I believe in messy first drafts. Pile everything in, then prune. This stage is the work of deep imagination – where I make the story come alive after so long constructing it at a distance with broad strokes. The first draft is where I immerse to let the imaginative juices flow. Description, characters, events, back story – all the detail tumbles out of my head and goes into that draft.
Then I come back to my senses and it’s time to edit. To decide, ruthlessly, what detail isn’t needed and what is. It’s exacting, brutal and transformative.
In particular, I have to take what erupted from the imaginative blunderbuss and make it serve the story. And often that means difficult sacrifices.
Only what’s needed
You’ll see that the picture Victoria started with was lovely in its own right, but now it had to do a job.
This is one of the deepest secrets of good writing – or writing that makes effortless reading, which is the same thing. To take something that is good in its own right – a rich scene or a description or a character – and be able to see what part of it your book needs.
Like Victoria with her cherished but too-detailed lady, I examine whether the ruffles are telling details or discardable darlings. Whether the sensually rippled leather gloves are too distracting. And what I need to make each adapted part fit seamlessly together. If you do this stage of the editing right, every letter of your prose works as hard as it can.
The power of suggestion
Although novels build their worlds though telling details, there is only so much a reader can absorb. Too much and you have a muddle; too little and the reader isn’t immersed. While real life is a broadband activity, reading is like dial-up – we can handle only limited input at once, so writers have to be selective about what we focus on.
This applies not just to descriptions of physical objects, people or scenes, but to emotional states, reactions, textual resonances. Sophisticated writers develop a feel for what they can show and what they can suggest.
When you do it right, you invite the reader to fill in the rest.
And, as Victoria says, that makes them feel very good. It’s as if the book is having a conversation with the reader. It creates fiction that feels profound and resonant; stories that linger in the mind and the heart long after the book is closed.
(Excerpt from The Art & Craft of Story used with permission)
Anyway, this has deviated a little from Victoria’s original argument, and that’s definitely worth a read. You can find it in her book, available on Amazon from September 30
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.