Masterclass snapshots: must plot twists always be misfortunes or disasters? And where does your story end?

guardian classHello! I know I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet. I’ve been trying to finish a rather exciting project that’s turned into a corkscrew of learning curves. It’s not quite there yet, but the end is nigh.

Which also seems an appropriate way to introduce this post. Yesterday I was back at The Guardian, teaching an advanced editing masterclass, and as usual, my students gave as good as they got. Here’s one of our discussions.

I was talking about major plot twists and how they usually made the situation worse or added a new complication. One student said could you have a nice event as plot twist?

How interesting. Well, it depends. If it s a pleasant event because it solves the character’s main problem, that would probably end the story. But if it s a stroke of luck or a turn for the better, well that might be quite surprising. The only thing you need of a twist is that it shakes everything about and makes the characters reassess priorities, or it changes the stakes. So the story could continue if this nice event sparked some new complications for the current situation. So your characters could have a lottery win or, depending on the historical period, an inheritance. And this could add fresh pressures.

Or they could fall in love – a useful happy event that can cause a whole heap of trouble.

All we ask is this: your plot twist should create more mess and struggle.

This brings to mind a problem I’ve often seen discussed …an author who is too nice to their characters. Some writers don’t seem to explore the consequences of a story situation thoroughly enough, or meet the expectations the reader has in their mind. Indeed, perhaps they’re writing simply as an act of escapism, to spend fantasy time with their characters. We have to think what makes the reader curious. It’s usually mess, struggle and complications. When that mayhem stops, so does the story.

may 2014 sackville 080 smlWhere does it all end?

And this brought us to another question. At what point does the story end? It’s generally when there’s nothing else to be done with the main conflict.

One student was writing about a group of prisoners, and confessed he was unsure if the ending would work. His narrator escaped, but there were no big revelations or questions answered. No resolutions either. The escape formed a natural end, but would it be satisfying?

I asked him what the narrative drive of the story was. He said it was the narrator’s experience with the other prisoners. Did he change during that experience? Definitely, he said. So once he got out, what happened? Not much, said my student, but he’s carrying the experience with him. I thought it sounded like it would work just fine.

The character has changed, he’s acquired a bunch of experiences he’ll carry with him and he’ll never forget those other people. Sometimes the ending isn’t a definite door closing, or a puzzle solved, or a foe defeated. It’s more of a blurred mark. So you have to identify a point to withdraw, where there’s a new state of stability and equilibrium.

Perhaps the characters have more self-knowledge, which may be a comfort but it might be a burden. Eva, the mother in Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, is left picking over the debris of a long and terrible battle. Her husband and daughter are dead. Her social status is ruined because her neighbours – and indeed the country – blame her for the deeds of her son. In Lord of the Flies, Ralph, rescued from the island, weeps for the loss of innocence.

Your characters might not slay their monsters; they might discover they are monsters themselves. The jealous, obsessive central characters of Josephine Hart’s Damage and William Sansom’s The Body end their stories having discovered their own true depths.

There will usually be a settling, a sense that the final ordeal has caused a new order. The last scene of The Wings of the Dove by Henry James has a line that is a fine maxim for any story ending:

We shall never be again as we were.

We also discussed a different problem with endings: if you’ve got multiple threads to tie, where do you position them? One student was writing a whodunit,  so he had a murderer to confront, and a few other resolutions such as characters getting a promotion.

He needed to figure out a hierarchy of endings. Which conclusion has most impact? The promotion doesn’t, indeed it seems to be a nice segue into the characters’ next chapter. So it would be good as an epilogue. Confronting the murderer would clearly be the most dramatic and difficult part of the story, so that goes at the climax. It’s important that the reader experiences this final battle at close quarters because it’s been the characters’ greatest challenge. There were other subplots that needed resolutions too. They could be part of the final settling – the pieces coming down in fresh positions as the characters begin their new lives.

But! But but! Sometimes it may be more powerful to pull away abruptly. In Lord of the Flies, William Golding ends on the beach, with the rescuers looking at the feral little boys. By stopping at that point, he places the emphasis on this contrast between the ordered, adult world and the wildness that we’ve witnessed in the story. It forces us to think ‘what have I just seen’? This is an ending for the reader. An epiphany. We know the boys probably went on after this moment – they’ll have sailed back to civilisation, gone to their families, resumed school etc. None of that is of interest to the author. That wasn’t what he was exploring. He wanted to look at the animal behind humanity. And so he ended at a point where we’d see this most powerfully. In this case, the ending isn’t about events or even resolutions. It’s about making us understand and think.

Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel by Roz MorrisThere’s a lot more about plot twists and endings in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3

In the meantime, let’s discuss! Have you ever used a happy event as a plot twist? Have you struggled to marshall the endings of several story threads? Have you taken a chance and ended a story in a way that’s ambiguous or doesn’t necessarily tie everything up?

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‘After 13 books I became a real author’ – guest post at Helena Halme

helenaThere’s been quite a fuss about self-publishing on internet channels recently. Brit author Ros Barber swore in The Guardian that she’d never self-publish her fiction, which prompted a lot of us to reassert why we did. This post by me appears to join the general howl, but in fact it was commissioned several months ago.

It’s at the blog of Helena Halme (and in case you’re counting the nationalities, she’s Finnish). Topical or not, I wanted to make the case for self-publishing as a serious option for authors of independent mind and spirit, who can be their own creative directors.  Do come over. It’s just a click. You don’t have to go all the way to Finland.

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Should writers tackle environmental issues instead of playing make-believe? Guest spot at Howlarium

I’m taking a short blogging break to finish a big project before Easter, but in the meantime I can leave you with some slightly unusual bloggery.

Look at the question in the header. When I received it in my email, I thought I’d quietly pass. howlI don’t really see my fiction as a cudgel for issues. But I followed the link and found Howlarium, a thoughtful discussion blog by short story writer Jason Howell. And by then, I was itching to answer. So today I find myself on his blog, with a few other thoughtful types who have plenty to say about what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ write.

If you’ve got an opinion about that too, argue it here in the comments. Back soon!

 

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How to write a gripping, unforgettable plot – video podcast guest spot with Lorna Faith

lorna3Think of all the kinds of novels we might write … from a sensitive character study to a sprawling epic to a nailbiting thriller … are there any common factors they all have?

There are. They’re my secret.

Actually, they’re not a secret at all. The 4 Cs of a great plot is one of the questions I discuss with Lorna Faith on her writing podcast (which also has a visual, handwaving, grinning version, see right).

Lorna quizzes me about the ins and outs of a good plot and we grapple with many storytelling essentials, including structure, turning points and where plots come from. Step this way.

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How to blog about your book … without giving too much away

4356751856_0a4cd864a3_oFollowing my post about not talking about novels I’m writing, I’ve had this question:

I am a new author (just signed) and I am struggling with how to share parts of the story to entice readers while also protecting its integrity. Any suggestions?

Don’t be a tease
My first question is this. How far off publication are you?

If it’s more than a couple of months, you might be wasting time by giving specific details about the book. Internet shoppers are slaves to impulse. They want to buy instantly. There’s no shortage of shiny new stuff to keep their £££s busy. If you can’t offer an instant purchase or pre-order, they’ll go somewhere else and who knows if they’ll remember they even considered your book? And if you flirt with them too often without following through, you’ll wear out their interest. Don’t waste your shots.

Be discreet about the book until you have readership
If you’re starting to blog, don’t feel pressured to talk about the book. Everyone’s doing that anyway. Think of blogging as a conversation opener, like any other part of social media. Talk about other material you’re interested in, things you have in common with the people you hope will be your readers – themes, locations, historical periods if appropriate, other books that have been influential. Go out and find like-minded souls in Facebook groups, Twitter, Linked In groups, Google + communities. Comment on posts at other blogs.

You could put a progress thermometer on your blog sidebar with the status of your books. This would let people know you’re writing and help the title become familiar for them.

Ready for my close-up
If you’re close to publication, you can start your dance of the seven veils. Aim to generate intrigue. Here’s what I do, and what I’ve noticed seems effective for the writers in my blogosphere.

covCover and visuals
Readers love to see the evolution of a cover. (Writers do too, to learn!) This is one of your chief opportunities to attract attention and you can get several blogposts out of it, whether you’re indie or traditionally published. Talk about how you fixed on a design concept, any wrong turnings you took (I’ve got a humdinger here as I nearly loused up my second novel with an unsuitable jacket. But it gave me a great yarn for my blog.)

Some authors create mood boards on Pinterest for their work in progress. Or they lay a quote from their book over a picture, like an advert, and put it on Pinterest. This is enormously satisfying, and Pinterest is certainly a phenomenon. Does it lead to book sales? Who knows. I doubt that people go to Pinterest looking for a book to read. But they do look for stuff to share, and if your picture has wide appeal it might get spread around. Again, does that get it to people who might want to know about your book? Who knows. We’re venturing into the haphazard, unmeasurable realm of advertising here. do it if it satisfies you, but don’t let it become more important than spreading the word… in words.

Stories about your stories
What made you write your book? Most of us could pinpoint an experience or a twinkling idea that set us on the path. Work out your origin story – it’s an excellent way to reach out to new readers while remaining discreet. On the blog for My Memories of a Future Life I’ve got a section called Glimpses . And on Lifeform Three it’s Origins.

There are more ideas in this post – keep your stories about your stories.

delShould you post excerpts?
I’m cautious about excerpts. Either they spoil a carefully laid surprise or they look bonkers because the reader doesn’t have the context. But there are certain excerpts that a browsing reader would expect to find, and I’m happy to post those. On my novel pages I’ve got the first page and the page 99 test.

Well-polished outtakes are another good way to demonstrate your style and substance without giving too much away. Here’s one of mine . And here’s one by historical thriller author David Penny.

Once the launch party’s over
There will come a time when you can’t squeeze much more out of the launch. Know when to draw back. Now your blog isn’t about an agenda, it’s back to conversation – your personality, little snatches of life. It’s giving people your company, not your campaign. Indeed, this is where you’ll be glad you established this from the start.

octHere are two different approaches: Chris Hill  has a mix of author interviews, thoughts on reading and writing. Or this more visual group blog (right) from Joni Rodgers, Colleen Thompson and Dr Kathryn Peterson. And so we go back to the start, until another book is ready.

Thanks for the bird pic TheRealBrute

Have you had to grapple with this issue? How much do you share about a book in progress? How far in advance do you talk about the content? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t? Let’s discuss!

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‘Vulnerable and isolated’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Sanjida Kay

for logoMy guest this week has been here before. Not in a reincarnation sense; she’s guested on the series, but under a different name. For her latest novel she’s using a pseudonym for a change of direction. She’s written a gritty psychological thriller about a woman who discovers her young daughter is being bullied at school. Her attempts to intervene spark a series of sinister events, played out in the gritty, graffiti-scrawled areas of Bristol. Her soundtrack is full of brooding menace (and includes some of my own favourites, Massive Attack and Tricky). Anyway, come and meet Sanjida Kay on the Red Blog, when she’s sharing her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Editing seminar snapshots: How much should you budget for editing your book? And how should you choose an editor?

w&alogoThis very good question came up when I spoke at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing summit a few months ago. And my answer… deserves a post.

dollar-1071788_960_720First, there seem to be two modes for charging: by the hour and by the wordcount or page. With the wordcount, writers can be quoted a fixed price, so everyone knows where they stand. With an hourly rate, it’s much more difficult for the writer to know how much they’ll be spending.

The convention seems to be that developmental editing is quoted by the wordcount or page, and other phases are priced by hour. Here’s a post that describes the different editing processes and the order to use them in.

Second, editors set their own fees. Does a low price indicate good value? It might if the editor is starting out and doesn’t yet have a reputation. But might they also be lacking in experience? Indeed, might they be a complete amateur?
Conversely, if an editor’s charges are high, does that mean they’re good?
I think everyone can see it’s a buyer beware situation.
How do you tell? Here’s how to navigate the maze and spend your ££$$ wisely.

Establish that the editor is right for you.
For developmental edits, you need a specialist in your field. I would be useless to a fantasy author because I don’t read fantasy. But I can edit its close cousin, magic realism. I can’t edit genre romance of the Mills and Boon variety, but I can edit any number of stories that feature a romantic relationship. So find out what if their tastes are in tune with yours.

Find out where they got their experience.
There are a lot of people setting themselves up as editors. Are they just someone on the internet who’s been to a few critique groups and thinks they can edit? Are they writers whose only experience is helping out their friends? They might be great – everyone has to start somewhere – but they might not at all.

The best editors will have done the job for publishing houses or literary consultancies. Even if they mainly work with indie authors or authors who haven’t yet published, they’ll have that background.

Fiction, non-fiction, memoir, narrative non-fiction?
This may seem obvious, but make sure your editor has developmentally edited your kind of book. If they’ve chiefly worked with non-fiction, or even scientific and technical books, they might be too pedantic to allow for the artistry in a more narrative manuscript.

5730710531_07b49820e8_zThe fussy quotient: will the editor’s approach suit you?
Do you want an editor who’ll be good at explaining how to fix problems? This is where an edit from an experienced professional is far more useful than a critique group. Your beta readers might say ‘the characters are thin’. A good editor will identify why and offer suggestions for fixing it. They’ll spot other potentials in your book too – which you may be surprised about.

Why do charges vary so much?

There are various industry recommended rates (see Writer’s Market, as quoted by Writer’s Digest here), but developmental editors have to set their fees according to how long a project takes them. I spot a lot in a manuscript, so the work takes me more time than it takes a less pernickety editor – because I find there are a lot of points I need to raise. Some authors are eager for this, and some aren’t. Do you want an editor who will approach your work in that depth? You might not. But you’ll pay according to the depth of the work.

Should you ask for a test edit of a small portion of your book?
Opinion is divided. Personally, I’ve never had to do a test edit. All my clients have hired me after an email conversation. But they’re not acting on blind faith because I can demonstrate my approach and degree of thoroughness from the posts on this blog, my books and my video interviews. Some editors might offer a test edit, or they might have a pre-prepared sample that illustrates the kind of comments they make. Be worried, though, if they send a report they wrote about someone else’s book; that should stay confidential.

Copy editing and proof reading

sidebarcropThese are less specialised, and tend to be charged for by the hour. How long will it take to edit or proof your book? It depends what shape the manuscript is in. The copy editor has to take charge of consistency and clarity. So if your use of language is imprecise, the copy editor will have more to do. If your plot is complex, and especially has a lot of time shifts or locations, they’ll have more checking to do. If you’ve been woolly about any of these details, you’ll multiply their workload.

Should you ask for a sample copy edit or proof read?
Unfortunately, a sample is no gauge of how long it will take to do the work because the second half of your book might fall apart, and the copy editor will have to hammer it together. I recently copy-edited one 50,000-word book that took 50 hours, and one that took more than twice that time. What I tend to do is to charge in blocks of 20 hours, then keep the author informed of progress so they at least have a warning of the cost.

So… how much?

But I still haven’t answered that question: how much will editorial services cost you? For a 50,000-word novel, budget GBP£1000-2500 for the developmental edit, the same for the copy-edit and the same for the proof-read. Minimum probably £2000 if your manuscript is really clean. Maximum (depending on the quality of the editor and the manuscript) £7500.

tuition2Phew, that looks like a lot, doesn’t it? If you were traditionally published, you wouldn’t see these costs, but this is part of the publisher’s investment in your manuscript. And yes, there are people who manage to produce good books on a much smaller budget (I have tips here on low-cost options for getting good help ). The sums can be a bit of a shock when the rest of our writing activity seems so cheap and free, unlike, say, skiing or learning to fly. But I hope this post has helped you to see how to get good value.

POSTSCRIPT I’ve had a few emails since I published this post, so a clarification might be helpful.

One reader remarked that copy editing and proofreading don’t usually cost as much as developmental editing. Generally, that’s right. The costs all hinge on how much time the editor has to spend, and that’s related to how much has been done to the manuscript after each stage. But in real life, if a developmental edit leads to a lot of rewriting, that might leave a lot of  tidying for the copy editor. Once we get to proof-reading, it should be a fast and final read with minimal changes … but again if a lot has been altered this will slow things down. I’ve had manuscripts where so much had changed after the copy edit, that the proof read was in fact another copy edit. Which is why I made the point that everything hinges on the cleanness of the manuscript.

Thanks for the money pic, Pixabay and soccerlime for the scrumpled page

Any questions? Fire away!

BTW, my Nail Your Novel books are distilled from the issues I most commonly find in manuscripts. Much much cheaper than getting me in person!  Nail Your Novel: how to write a novel

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I wish I’d written… Five novels that make me raise my game

Sometimes I put a book down and am left a tad envious. These are books that, although I finished them several months ago, still make my green eyes … greener.

……..

Night Work Nail Your NovelNight Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated by John Brownjohn
Jonas wakes up one morning to find he is the last person left alive. There are no bodies. No animals or birdsong. He is completely alone. He searches the city, leaves messages everywhere, dials stored numbers in the phones of offices and shops, gets drunk a lot, develops forms of madness and strategies to stop himself feeling so alone.

A lot of people on Goodreads didn’t like it, and I can appreciate their reasons. Basically it’s a book where hardly anything happens. I usually don’t like that either, but this kept me intrigued. I wanted to see what the author would do with the idea, so perhaps my curiosity was metafictional. I found it to be like a dream, an unravelling of everyday life and what could happen if the world breaks. And this is where I think it really works – not as a story, more as an environment to run in your mind. Next time you’re pleasantly alone in a wood, imagine there is only you. Anyway, my review is here.

The Long View Nail Your NovelThe Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The portrait of a marriage in five sections. I was drawn to it by when Hilary Mantel said Elizabeth Jane Howard was the novelist she recommends most frequently. I found Howard’s style too muddled for my tastes, especially in the early sections. Infuriatingly so. But there were two things I liked it for very much.

First, the structure. The five eras of the marriage are not presented chronologically, but backwards. I’ve long been a fan of backwards narratives (Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace,  The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer ) ever since I read about Peter Ustinov’s play The Banbury Nose, which is the story of an English upper-class family written backwards in time. I’m intrigued by the poignant possibilities of characters growing younger, and perhaps more or less themselves.

In The Long View, Elizabeth Jane Howard uses the backwards narrative to increase the story pressure. Her characters become more accepting with age, but if you wind them backwards they are more raw.
The second reason I’ll forgive her is her central male characters – two immaculately selfish cads who are explored in fine detail and have left many reviewers hopping with indignation. I galloped through the final part, mesmerised by them. My review is here.

Angel - Nail Your NovelAngel by Elizabeth Taylor (not THAT Elizabeth Taylor)
The story of a romantic novelist who is wildly successful but a horror in person (long before Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil. I was drawn to it by a poor film adaptation that made me suspect the original might have a lot more nuance. I was not disappointed. Not only is there nuance, but Elizabeth Taylor is a complete master of pace and tone – able to be humorous, tragic, tender and keep you riveted to the page. It’s also a fun look at the publishing industry (which is why Peter Snell and I devoted one of our radio shows to it ). Here’s my review.

 

 
Round The Bend by Nevil Shute
Read the intro on Goodreads and you have a good example of a blurb that smothers the book at birth:round

Okay, here’s what it really is. A beguiling story of love, faith, loss and missed opportunities, told in exquisitely controlled prose. The narration is cool, but somehow agitates you to turbulent emotion. The main setting suits the subject matter like a stage backdrop. It is an airstrip in Bahrain – a stripped-down place of sand, hangars and engines. The main characters hop between the continents, delivering goods, setting up more export bases, leaving behind personnel who spread the influence of their engineer friend Connie Shaklin, who has become a religious guru. Shute would never be so clumsy as to make the comparison with angels, these people who spend so much time in the sky in their machines, but you are drawn to entertain the idea. My review is here.

MASH Nail Your NovelMASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker
You think you know MASH from the film and the movie? Join me in a chorus of ‘the book is better’. Read it for the tone. Richard Hooker has created a style that allows his world to be both hilarious and haunted – the characters are raising hell, but also repairing the sad ravages of it.
My review is here.

Over to you. What books (fiction or non-fiction) have you recently read that challenge you to do better?

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‘Those immortal days we might have enjoyed if we’d known better’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Tim McDonald

for logoMy guest this week is a true hybrid of the two Undercover Soundtrack disciplines – music and writing. He’s primarily a musician with the indie rock band Broken Poets, but he traces his songwriting to a profound childhood loss – the death of his best friend at age 13. He decided he had to write about this in prose as well as music, and the result is a multimedia work which he calls a ‘music novel’. He is Tim McDonald and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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Three diagrams to make your plot a page-turner

Nail Your Novel unexpected plot developmentsI’ve had this question from Elizabeth Lord: I have just finished your book Nail Your Novel and found it extremely helpful for the rewrite phase of my novel. You mention graphs as a way to see where plots are plodding and character arcs intertwine – do you have any examples?

What a good question! Diagrams coming up.

First, though, a bit of explanation. Readers get bored if the plot appears to be predictable – ie the characters start with a goal and proceed doggedly towards it, step by step by step. This is a linear plot and it looks dead dull, like reading the syllabus for an education course, not a story. So when the characters have a clear goal at the start, we try to introduce developments that upset expectations. They’re going on the Orient Express? Great. Make one of them miss the train. Now everyone has a new problem that matters far more.

The major changes diagram
So your first drawing exercise is to go through the plot looking for points where you throw in a development that changes the characters’ priorities in a significant way. Make a ‘didn’t expect that’ diagram.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 001

You want several of these developments, BTW, and they’ll probably be the main turning points in the story. Note also that they’re emotional. They’re about changing the characters’ goals – the things they want, the things that matter to them. So early in the story, they’re trying to catch a murderer. By the end of the story, they’re trying to stop the murderer killing their wife. Or murderer and detective are embroiled in a towering love affair.

The highs and lows diagram
Another helpful diagram might look at the main characters’ emotional state throughout the book. You want them to feel increasingly pressured and troubled, and you want their worst moment to be the climax of the book. So try a diagram where you look at their levels of joy and achievement versus despair. The joy part isn’t so important, although you want to give your characters a few breaks so that the disasters are more agonising – and also to show what matters to them. Make sure the despair increases in magnitude as the story proceeds.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 003

The un-convenience diagram
You can look for smaller reversals too. You might not realise you’ve made everything too easy for your characters. Every time they need to accomplish something, make it harder than they expect. Or make it backfire. You can check on this by going through your manuscript and drawing a little circle whenever you’ve thwarted your characters.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 002

If you have a lot of little circles, you’ll probably keep your reader gripped. If you haven’t, you know to throw some spanners into their spokes.

Nail Your Novel diagrams 004

Compare your plot strands at a glance
If you have several plot strands or main characters, you could combine them on one diagram and use different colours. Thus you will see, at a glance, how your character arcs intertwine and if you like the harmony of their highs and lows. Or you might spot a general lull where several characters seem to be having a successful run – in that case, it might be good to rework the story and introduce a setback or twist. If you’re the kind of person who has music manuscript paper lying around (how stylish of you), you could draw your diagrams on the staves, like lines for different instruments.

X-ray your plot
The serious point is this: these exercises are ways to extract and visualise important plot mechanisms that might otherwise be invisible to you, and help you fix problems with the structure and pacing. Have fun!

Elizabeth’s question was inspired by a section in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. There’s also a lot more about plot and structure in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Do you draw diagrams to assess your plot – or any other aspect of your book? Share them here!

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