Masterclass snapshots: must plot twists always be misfortunes or disasters? And where does your story end?
Hello! 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.
Where 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.
There’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?
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. I 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!
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.
Editing seminar snapshots: How much should you budget for editing your book? And how should you choose an editor?
This very good question came up when I spoke at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing summit a few months ago. And my answer… deserves a post.
First, 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.
The 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
These 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.
Phew, 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!
‘Those immortal days we might have enjoyed if we’d known better’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Tim McDonald
My 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.