Archive for category Rewriting

Help – my characters are all too similar! 5 tips to make them distinct

villa saraceno 201I’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.

nyn2 2014 smlebookcovernyn3There are tips on creating characters in Writing Characters To Keep Readers Captivated and on using characters’ personalities to create your plot in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart.

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)

So You Want To Be A Writer - Episode 29 by Surrey Hills Community Radio on Mixcloud


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?

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Does it serve the book? Killing your darlings is a mark of writing maturity

kill your darlings Roz Morris Nail Your NovelLast 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.

DSCF3083smlBut the dress scene is lovely!

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.

Be strict

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.’

ebookcovernyn3There’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!

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3 ways your novel might carry unwanted junk

junkIt’s a writer’s prerogative to change their mind. All the time. It’s called revision. We’re steering the story one way, then a stronger idea comes along, or a development proves impossible, or an editor or beta reader persuades us to do something else instead.

As we cut, add and rearrange, our drafts build up unwanted junk. Here are three ways this might be tripping the reader up.

Plot and character

So we’ve changed our mind about where we’re pushing a character or a plot strand. We may have tidying to do.

When movies do this – particularly if they have to recut after shooting is finished – they have to patch the scenes they’ve already got. Inevitably we’ll see characters worrying about stuff that looks important but goes nowhere – often to irritating effect. But writers can edit in infinite detail. Are your characters making an issue of things that now don’t matter?

Theme

Quite often a theme won’t become apparent until we’ve wrangled the book through many drafts, but that doesn’t stop us stabbing in the dark to find it. Language, imagery, dialogue and setting will all reflect what we think the themes are. If we’ve had a few reorientations we might end up with theme schizophrenia. Although that can add up to a rich book, it could also make unholy muddle. Look for echoes of earlier themes when you revise – and decide if you still need them.

Structure

A town’s streets show the traces of its history. A road might be crescent-shaped because of a building that disappeared centuries ago. The town is stuck with that – but does your novel have story structures that are more fiddly than they need to be? Do your characters serpentine through the plot because they’re navigating vanished landmarks?

clutter2

Clutter or art?

BUT…

Novel-writing isn’t a science. Our story’s evolutionary dead ends might be like junk DNA – a sequence of instructions that seems to say: ‘grow wings, no don’t grow wings, it’s not a bird any more’. Once thought to be useless to a modern human being, junk DNA is now believed to be important – though what it does is still opaque and mysterious.

By serendipity, your novel’s junk DNA might enrich the themes, or provide quirky, unexpected contrast and relief. (Readers are generous and tend to think you have placed every word deliberately. They don’t know how much irrelevant rubbish passes through a book as well.)

Clutter and clarity

So maybe junk isn’t all bad. Sometimes it’s treasure. Other times, though, it can confuse the reader and clutter the story. Your manuscript will be leaner, more elegant, better honed if you strip it out.

Is your novel carrying the baggage of previous lives? Do you de-clutter your stories?

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Repetition – a two-ended hammer

We all have words and phrases we unintentionally use too often. They’re very conspicuous to readers – and virtually invisible to us.

One of the best proofing tricks – reading your work aloud – won’t necessarily help you spot repetition. A passage that irks on the page may seem satisfyingly emotive when read out loud.

(What’s more, you might even cheat, imagining different stress as you vocalise your prose, thus fooling yourself there is no need to change anything… Yes, I know the tricks.)

So how do you tackle it?

It helps to know where the danger areas are.

Redundant words

Look for the modifying words that don’t need to be there. Just, suddenly, actually, very, effectively, eagerly – these are frequently overused in an attempt to emphasise or add a different quality to a verb, but it would be better to find a more precise verb or description.

Overused verbs

Certain verbs are easily overused too. Feel, see, think, supposed, hoped, wanted, tried all flow from our fingers without hesitation, or while our mind is on the hundred other things we need to juggle in a scene. But they usually have much truer alternatives.

Try Wordle

A good way to spot your own verbal tics is Wordle. You can dump an entire novel into it (and honestly it will cope) and you’ll get a pretty – and alarming snapshot of your lazy words. And if you’ve got a few pet interesting verbs that appear too often with no justification, it will make you aware of those too. (Hold onto that thought of repetition being justified; we’re coming back to it later.)

Using a thesaurus does not make you a dinosaur

We hear a lot of disapproving noises about Roget’s tome. What folks are objecting to is:

1 very obscure words

2 synonyms swapped in indiscriminately with no feel for connotation or rhythm.

To which I answer:

1 the thesaurus has ordinary words too – all of them

2 if you’re staring down an unbearable repetition and your mind is blank, where else are you going to find a better option?

I use the thesaurus all the time when editing, to remind me that more precise, more exciting options exist than the first word I thought of. I also use poetry, to encourage me to reach beyond the literal. (That might suit your genre, it might not. But Roget suits everyone’s.)

Repetition – the good side

Repetition gets a bad rap because it’s usually a sign of unpolished writing. But it can be a powerful tool. Because it’s so noticeable ­- which of course is why it irritates – it can emphasise and echo.

It’s good if you have characters with distinctive phrases, or you want to intentionally echo a scene or a feeling. It’s especially good to underline themes and images, creating the sense of an ordering web that’s holding the book together. A repetition with well judged variation can send readers loopy with satisfaction – look at Richard Adams’s Watership Down, which opens with the line ‘The primroses were over’ and closes ‘The primroses had just begun.’

Use with a light touch

Readers are wired to be detectives. All readers are trying to fathom which characters they should look at, what the story is really about, what the moral and physical rules are. They look for and latch onto patterns, even if they’re not aware they are doing so. Repetition is one of those, and we need to be exquisitely tuned to it, use it deliberately and with care.

Thanks for the pics CarbonNYC and sim, youn jim

What’s your feeling about repetition? Do you have any tips for spotting it? And any lovely examples of where it works well?

And have you any idea how few viable synonyms there are for ‘repetition’?

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Prologues: please use responsibly

If there’s one word likely to make an editor bristle, it’s prologue. Why? Because in many of the unready manuscripts I see, they’re not necessary.

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!

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How serialising made me revise more tightly – guest post at Tuesday Serial

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…

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2 misconceptions of new writers

People often ask me what advice I’d give new writers. Here are the two misconceptions I find myself tackling most frequently

1 Rules give you cookie-cutter books

On Facebook the other day, an indie author asked me for feedback on her back cover (bear with me, this is about writing, not covers or indie publishing). Having recently designed my own back cover I’d figured out what worked and what didn’t, so I could see quite a lot that wasn’t right about her back cover. After offering specific pointers, one of the things I recommended she did was look at books that would potentially be her shelf-mates in her genre and follow their style. She replied: ‘I feel my book shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter version of all the others… you know?’

I do indeed know. You are absolutely right that your book is not part of a set of tablemats. It is its own thing, written with heartfelt sincerity and mined from your perceptions and experiences. You have delved deep to make it individual and true to itself. It is not meant to fit in. It was written to stand out.

But if you throw all the rules away and try to reinvent what a back cover should look like, from scratch, unless you’re a genius you’re likely to end up with a mess.

And so it is with writing. This is the age-old problem for creatives everywhere. We don’t want rules. Of course we don’t. We make our books from nothing but the ideas in our very individual grey matter. We want to make something beyond rules. But many of the stories I see that don’t work because of the same generic problems.

Writing rules don’t fetter you. They are observations of what works. Think of them not as templates and strictures, but as the results of experiments, on millions of readers. Knowing the rules means you can use your material to write, more effectively, a great book.

You’ll have characters that readers care about. A story that unfolds at a pace that keeps their interest. A reason why the story has to be as long as it is, rather than a plot that seems contrived to fill pages. Surprises that are astonishing but play fair. An ending that feels satisfying and perhaps leaves the reader with a tear in the eye.

All because you did what other writers did.

2 The book is finished when you type The End

The first draft is just a first draft. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this: ‘I’m five chapters away from the end of my book, then I can send it out.’ Please: no.

Writers often think that because their sentences are careful and fluent, their novel is ready. But a novel isn’t an essay or a blog post. Under the words, there’s a whole machine that needs to run right.

So much of the valuable work on a novel can only be done once you have a full manuscript. Themes will take shape, plotlines will need to be destruction tested. Pacing and flow need to be assessed. Inconsistencies need to be sorted out, timelines unwarped. Characters may have developed their own agendas and you may need to revise the way you set them up. Motivations and developments that only revealed themselves to you in the course of the writing may now change the entire flavour of the book. When you finish the first draft, hard as that is, the real work starts. (There’s a lot more on this in my book Nail Your Novel.)

Repeat after me: your first draft is not your final draft.

Quick, but not insignificant announcement: I’m teaming up with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn to produce a webinar series starting in November. How to write a novel will be three in-depth, interactive sessions from bestselling me and bestselling her. Cost $99.  Find more details and sign up here.

And My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. 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, hop 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.

Okay, back to the post. First of all, thanks Toucanradio for the pic. And here’s my question: If you’ve got a bit of writing experience under your belt, tell me – what writers’ misconceptions would you tackle?

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Four tips for writing good prose

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.

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 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.

 

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The power of suggestion – what can you leave the reader to fill in? (With help from Victoria Mixon)

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.

So we left off the other arm.

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.

Revision

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.

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I rewrote my novel through a critique group but I’ve lost my way

Critique groups are a great way to develop a critical sense and to experiment with what works. And to meet other people who are as dedicated to writing as you are. But too many cooks…

I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.

During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?

Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.

A brainstorming draft

If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.

A learning draft

It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.

Take control

Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.

As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.

Get back to your vision of your book

First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?

Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.

When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.

Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.

Now to your manuscript

Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.

Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:

  • 1 initial gems with rough edges
  • 2 gems from the reworked version
  • 3 don’t-minds
  • 4 rejects.

File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.

If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.

Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.

Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments

Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr

nyn1badgeMore about handling critiques and major edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence

 

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