What is plot? What ingredients are essential, regardless of genre? How do we use themes effectively, and subplots? What makes a satisfying ending? Author-entrepreneur and heroic podcaster Joanna Penn invited me to her podcast to answer these questions and more – and as you see, at 33:47 you can be assured of authorly hilarity.
You can either listen to it as a podcast or read the transcript here, or you can watch us laugh, furrow our brows and occasionally drink tea by clicking on the screen below.
My guest this week has a background in acting and theatre directing. When he had the idea for his novel, he was very aware of music helping him to create the setting, the characters and their tensions. Flamenco gave him the unease in one protagonist’s heart; Greek drinking songs suggested another’s melancholy temperament; Miles Davis and Bowie suggested a bridge between them. He is Paul Adkin and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
We all have periods when our creative time is nuked. Day jobs, family responsibilities or out-of the-blue crises can make our writing goals streak away into the impossible distance. Even if writing is our chief occupation, there are platforms to build, decisions to mull. And if we self-publish we can add more exacting tasks to the list.
This year I’ve become more aware than ever how scarce my writing time has become. As well as editing work, I’ve got invitations to speak and run courses. I’m thrilled, and happily surprised as I never expected it. I consider myself fantastically lucky to be able to build a career on this art I’ve practised quietly for decades. But if my own novels take a back seat, my soul will shrivel. So this is how I stay on track.
You don’t always need big chunks of writing time. Instead, schedule micro-sessions. Can you set the alarm 20 minutes earlier? Earmark that to spend time with your book’s textfile, planning the next scene, honing the one you’re currently writing, creating your beat sheet if you’re in the revision stage (more about that here). Begin your day with a short stretch of clear, quality book time – and it will travel with you all the rest of the day. I’ve written more about that here.
Develop smart triggers for quick access to your book’s world. If you’ve hung around here for any period of time you’ll know how keen I am on music for this . At the moment, I’m gathering an Undercover Soundtrack for Ever Rest, and it keeps my enthusiasm stoked, reminds me of the book’s world, the characters and their mysteries.
Draw inspiration from everyday life
The more I am immersed in the book, the more I find useful material comes to me – the view out of a window will help me build a scene in a new location, the outfit of a guy on the Tube is how one of my characters will dress.
Baby steps keep your mission clear
It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the little glitches that spring up as we write and edit. We can be just as disrupted by new ideas that suggest fresh possibilities. Suddenly our clarity has gone, the book’s getting out of control. The mistake is to try to muddle on with all those new ideas boiling around you. Instead, isolate a question you want to consider, brainstorm it, consider the consequences for one path or another – and when you’re ready, return to the main book. When I bump up against a problem with plot or characters, I scribble it on a scrap of paper and carry it with me so I can work it out without getting confused or derailing the rest of the book.
Remember editing is part of the writing
Some authors regard redrafting as a chore of corrections, a dispiriting process of confronting what we did wrong. And indeed, some authors still don’t realise they can self-edit at all. (I get emails from writers who worry their first draft is turning bad, and want to send it to me for a developmental report.) But revision is 1 – necessary and 2 – an intensively creative opportunity. Most novels get better from multiple visits. The more you edit, the more you understand what your book needs and how to streamline it. More here on this – revision is re-vision.
Find a buddy
I have a writer friend who’s also fiercely defending his writing time, while over-run by a busy career. For a few years now, we’ve been direct messaging on Twitter first thing each morning, a little nudge to say ‘I’m on my book – are you on yours?’ Find a buddy who’s also in danger of drowning, and keep each other accountable.
There’s a lot more on getting your novel finished in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.
And tell me – how do you stay in touch with your writing when time is scarce?
This week’s guest discovered by accident how music could be such a useful a creative partner. She found that whenever she got stuck on a scene or a character, the most distracting thing would be the silence around her. She began playing music purely so she wouldn’t hear it – and magical things started to happen. The novel she’s talking about in her post is a romantic suspense with a whiff of murder, and her first book was a finalist in the Poolbeg Write A Bestseller competition. She also writes short stories for the UK women’s magazines Take a Break and My Weekly. She is Louise Marley and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week has a historical novel with two timelines, each of them full of loss and turmoil. Music by Portishead, Jem and The Moxy defined the characters and their dilemmas, hurling her into their lives and channeling their emotions as she wrote. Modern Greek music by Elena Paprizou and Glykeria inspired the setting – the island of Zakynthos. She also writes short stories and poems and performed at the 100 poems by 100 women event at the Bath International Literary Festival 2013. She is Chrissie Parker and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.
That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .
An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).
Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?
When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.
Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:
Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.
Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.
But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.
And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.
The conflagration spread to Twitter
And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’
It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?
It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.
Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?
This is something, as writers, we must avoid.
I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.
Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.
We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?
Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.
Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.
Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.
So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?
Again, I’ll let Dave speak:
In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.
Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’
So, er, what?
I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.
Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.
So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.
Anyway, the floor is yours.
My guest this week has a theory that everyone’s head is carrying a tune – a permanent soundtrack, a default earworm. Her own cerebrum is tuned to Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower, which has special significance when she starts writing as she sees the process of plotting as the search for an escape. And her book centres on two characters who need this escape – sisters who were professional singers, who go through multiple misunderstandings before they find their equilibrium. (Cue Nina Simone: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.) The author is Nadine Matheson and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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!