Search Results for: story structure

How to outline your story for National Novel-Writing Month – checklist

Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?

We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.

However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)

Why is this story going to grab a reader?

All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:

  • a literal outrage like a murder
  • a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
  • an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.

Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.

What do the main characters want?

Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?

What is the first change that starts the story rolling?

Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?

How does it escalate?

No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.

I never would have thought…

How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?

Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?

Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.

In the end…

What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?

Characters  

Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.

Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.

But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.

Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?

Thanks for the pics Wonderlane and Takomabibelot

That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!

You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.

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Plot is linear, story doesn’t have to be

I put a tweet up this morning that’s been causing trouble. I was summarising a point from Ingrid Sundberg’s series on plots.

In my tweet I summarised a paragraph I thought made a great point: ‘Plot is always linear, but story doesn’t have to be.’ And so the tweet-storm began, showing that such a point can’t be adequately explored in a space the size of a bird’s chirrup.

Eh?

First a few definitions. In the nature of a self-taught craft, we all mean slightly different things by our writing terminology. Indeed sometimes I’ve used ‘linear’ to mean a predictable plot with no twists and surprises (as in Nail Your Novel). Here, I’m using linear to mean, as Ingrid did, A, then B, then C… and so on – possibly (hopefully) with surprises, reversals etc. In other words, the timeline of the characters’ lives in chronological order. What they saw as the clock ticked through each day and night. That’s linear.

Spice it up

But storytellers don’t have to stick to that order.

We cut away to another story – a sub-plot, a parallel plot. Maybe slip in some back story. And if we have a scene that ends on tenterhooks, we shuffle a few cards in from a different pack to keep the reader tingling a little longer. That’s the storytelling part of the job – what you do with the material.

You could cut the deck and put it together in a different order, like Pulp Fiction. You could tell it backwards like Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, or Daniel Wallace’s Ray In Reverse.

Use the shuffling as an integral part of the story and you end up with the time-hops of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – although that novel has both because the main character’s life unfolds chronologically and everyone else’s timeline jumps around.

On Twitter, Marc vun Kannon leaped on my tweet to point out: ‘Plot is not always linear. It’s easier to synopsize if it is, though.’

Good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this at greater length is that I see manuscripts where the writer has attempted something daring with structure, but has got themselves confused. I know it not just from the text, but from the shiver of horror when I ask ‘just tell me, chronologically, this character’s life in the book’. It’s incredibly easy to confuse a reader, especially if you’re making it up as you go along.

Do it in order first

If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is. In some cases, it might be better to write it like that first, then mix it up later. If you do it that way, you can also experiment with the best possible order.

Be deliberate

Good storytelling is about doing only what’s necessary. Some novice writers seem to do it without any clear artistic reason. You shouldn’t do it just because you can. Check that your fiddling and shuffling does actually add something. Again, taking Memento as an example, on the DVD you can watch it in chronological order and you can see that version is not nearly as interesting.

In my novel Life Form 3 I decided my most interesting hook came a quarter of the way through. So I lopped off the first section – but instead of consigning it to back story I made it into a mystery, which the character had to unlock. This gave the story far more tension and momentum.

If your novel is exploring themes, you might find you can reinforce these by the way you cut between different sets of characters. Shakespeare is fond of this – in King Lear he has the scene where Lear splits his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to play ball, then shortly afterwards we see the sub-plot characters talking about legitimate and illegitimate offspring. This creates the sense of a universe where the usual laws of family are going to be bent and upset.

Okay, I’ve run out of examples for now. Give me yours in the comments!

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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Structure, creativity, one-click publishing… and the fossil record for our books

John Rakestraw of Unbridled Editor invited me on his Blog Talk Radio show today. John used to be an actor before he became a freelance editor, and we had a great time nattering about fleshing out characters, creativity, where a story starts, the liberating influence of story structure and how to create a story that pulls the reader in.

We also waded into the big questions facing writers today. What becomes of publishing if epublishing is as easy as hitting a button? As the classics of the future are written on computer and manuscripts disappear, will there be a fossil record for how our books evolved? And speaking of what is on record and what is not, there’s a little chit-chat about ghostwriting and not being able to tell people I wrote the books they loved… Proper post tomorrow, in the meantime – hope you enjoy our natter.

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Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going

‘Please help,’ wrote the author to me. ‘I’ve been writing a novel, I have a mass of text but no idea how to pull a plot out of it.’

We’re now doing well with the plot. But one big thing is holding her back.

‘Should this be the opening? Or this?’

We don’t know yet, I say. Don’t worry. Write a placeholder scene, and make the decision later.

We talk. We make much progress about themes, events and character arcs. Then my author returns to the question. Should this be part of the beginning? Or this? We haven’t even got to the first plot point. (What’s that? Here are posts about story structure.)

My author is finding it extraordinarily hard, very counter-intuitive, to postpone the decision about the beginning.

Why now is not the time to decide the beginning

Although you have to start somewhere, you cannot decide the proper opening until you know the rest of the book very well. Here’s what an ideal opening has to do.

1 It holds a lot of information back.

(You didn’t expect me to say that.)

2 It tells the reader just enough.

(Just enough for what?)

It tells the reader enough to make promises. About the tone, style, themes. About how the narrative will scrutinise the characters and events. About the issues and experiences the story will explore. Those are deep promises, and you must live up to them. (How do you know which promises to make?)

There’s also a 3:

3 The beginning should intrigue, beguile, ignite the reader’s curiosity. And in a way that’s faithful to 2.

Some beginnings are simpler than others

Beginnings are simpler for genre writers, as the reader’s expectations are relatively well established. But if you’re writing a novel that’s more complex or unconventional, you have to direct the reader to your unique flavour – your themes and angles and interests. You might not yet be aware of them all.

Certainly you won’t know them as you’re assembling the book for the first time, from all your swirling ideas. Perhaps not until you’ve made several revisions. (That’s one of the meanings of revision. Not just rewriting. Re-vision. )

The beginning is somewhere in the end

Here’s a nice cryptic idea. The story’s resolution, the what-it’s-all-about moment, will also be, in some way, signalled in the beginning. Probably obscured, of course.

Why is your ending your ending? Usually because a question is solved or a situation concluded. In some novels, particularly non-genre, you may not be sure at first what you’re solving or concluding. The biggest questions will stir up as you live with your themes, plot and characters, the angles that most attract you as you write and revise. Go with that, let the book become what it becomes. If it’s taking you a surprisingly long time, you might be cheered by this: the slow-burn writer.

Your ending will probably work best if it’s somehow signalled in the beginning, so once you know where the bulk of the book is taking you, you can shade the beginning appropriately. But if you fix the beginning from the start, you may limit your explorations. (There’s more about this in my plot book.)

Start here… for now

Write a placeholder opening, something that gets you going. Don’t worry at all about whether it works for the reader. Make sure it works for you, gets you in the flow. This draft, and probably others that will follow, is for you, your playground, your lab, your quarry, your rehearsal.

The beginning, the official proper beginning, is for the final performance, when you’ve done all the other work and are ready to invite readers in.

(Thanks for the bike picture Paul Harrop.)

PS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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We’ll make you believe the unbelievable – writing fiction that falls between fantasy and reality: an interview with Margarita Montimore @damiella

All writers are in the business of make-believe, from fantasy and science fiction to dead-straight factual.

And then there’s the fiction that likes to play between the two, explore the strange, bend the possible (here’s my own manifesto on that). When I came across Margarita Montimore’s debut novel The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart (Gollancz) ((Oona Out of Order in the US, published by Flatiron Books), where a woman lives her life in non-chronological sequence, I recognised a kindred creative spirit.

Margarita worked for more than a decade in publishing and social media before she decided to focus full time on the writing dream – and here’s a good moment to mention that Oona is a USA Today bestseller and Good Morning America Book Club pick. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and her dog. She didn’t tell me her dog’s name, but she did mention that Mr Montimore is called Terry. Here are the human Montimores giving a reading at Oona‘s launch night at Powerhouse Arena in New York City.

Pic by MacKenzie Cadenhead

Roz Margarita, you describe yourself as a ‘writer, editor, weirdo’. I love that. I’m going to leap on the standout word for me: weirdo. Why weirdo?

Margarita I’ve been drawn to the left-of-center for as long as I can remember. And I’ve accumulated my own quirks over the years. Nowadays I think of being a weirdo in terms of embracing the unconventional and celebrating original ideas.

Roz All my life, I’ve been told I’m weird or strange. I find that hard to understand – because to me, I’m normal.

Pic by David Swanson

Margarita I grew up in Brooklyn as a Russian immigrant, and being part of one culture while assimilating with another gave me an outsider’s perspective. From the time I was a kid, I was exposed to foods many would consider weird (meat jello, anybody?) and odd superstitions, while also developing an interest in the paranormal and general high strangeness (yes, watching Unsolved Mysteries probably had a lot to do with that). Then there was my goth phase… I think I started out wanting to be normal but embraced the weird as being true to who I am.

Roz My kind of weirdness, at least in terms of my writing, is a taste for the unusual. It might be described as high concept – a strange thing happens, which creates its own physics for the characters and a new way to explore what it is to be human.

Margarita Yes! I’m drawn to this same thing. How ordinary people respond to something extraordinary. I’m also a fan of atypical story structures—playing with timelines, unreliable narrators, etc.

Roz I think our kinds of weird are similar. Your novels are praised for their sense of romance, mystery, suspense, and bold story concept, and also their literary qualities. When we messaged on Facebook, you used a phrase that really captured this – ‘making the unbelievable believable’. What do you aim to create with your fiction?

Margarita I aim to create stories that will entertain, but also offer thought-provoking themes if readers want to dig deeper. I like to present a world that’s a bit off-kilter but rooted in the real and familiar, so that it’s easier for readers to buy into the reality I’m presenting. And I hope that giving people a taste of the less familiar makes them look at things with a fresh perspective (whether it’s the notion of memory or aging or something else).

Roz Tell me about Oona. It’s a charming idea. Readers have commented that it raises questions about living in the moment.

Margarita Writing it also helped me be more cognizant of living in the moment, because I found I was prone to basking in nostalgia or imagining an ideal future. Now I’m trying to take the book’s message to heart and be more present, make the most of every day.

Roz I’d like to add a further interpretation – it shows the remarkable degrees to which we can change, into people we cannot imagine we’ll ever be. And if we look backwards, we find we were people we can’t imagine having been.

Margarita I love this—and I never thought about describing the story in those terms. But it’s true; in some ways, our lives are composed of adopting a series of identities. And when we live chronologically, the transition from one into another usually doesn’t seem as dramatic and disorienting.

Roz So true! We hardly notice change as it’s happening. But open a diary that’s 20 years old and… wow! Was that really me?

Margarita Exactly. It’s like an entirely different person wrote all those things.

Roz Tell me how you came to write Oonaand what you were aiming for.

Margarita Oona was inspired by the moments of disconnect I experienced in my late thirties. It was hard to believe I was pushing forty when there were some days I still felt like a teenager. And then there were others when I felt much older than I was. That got me thinking about a story in which a woman experiences her adult life out of order because she time-travels to a different age every year.

I’ve long been fascinated by time travel as a story device, but I felt like there were ways it could be used to explore more personal narrative. You don’t often get an in-depth look at the effects time travel might have on a person’s day-to-day life, their identity, and their relationships. That’s what I wanted to explore in this novel.

Roz I’ve always been fascinated by time travel too. It could be one of the greatest inventions storytellers have given us. Such a rich playground for so many powerful emotions – regret, the yearning to change something, the temptation to cheat…

Margarita And it’s a great way to explore how we deal with mistakes. Trying to fix them vs. accepting them, realizing how mistakes play into our personal growth, etc.

Roz We both have an afterlifey novel. Mine is My Memories of a Future Life. Yours is Asleep From Day – about a woman whose memory is erased in a car crash, who finds herself in a mysterious world, haunted by mysterious dreams.

Asleep From Day reminds me of Iain Banks’s novel The Bridge, where we enter the consciousness of a man in a coma on a strange version of the Forth Bridge. Funnily enough, The Bridge was a touchstone for me when I was developing My Memories of a Future Life. I was inspired by its daring vision, a fantasy where you think you know the real-life version of what you’re seeing but you can’t be sure. And also the fully fleshed characters – Banks spent as much time on their complicated lives and outlook as he did on his high-level concept. With my novel, I did something different from Banks, but Banks was a lighthouse for me. Did you have any lighthouse texts for either of your novels?

Margarita I wouldn’t say Oona Out of Order was directly inspired by any single book, though I do understand the comparisons to The Time Traveller’s Wife, a novel that I love.

Roz Me too! I admire the way she worked the concept so thoroughly.

Margarita If anything, I resisted writing about time travel for a while because Audrey Niffenegger already did it spectacularly. But once I felt I could approach the concept with a different perspective (having a female protagonist do the time-hopping, focusing on broader coming-of-age themes in place of TTW’s epic love story, etc.) I was comfortable developing this story.

Roz You like to flirt with multiple genres, don’t you? I do too. My first novel is contemporary suspense. My second is sci-fi. What will you surprise us with next?

Margarita I love to flirt with multiple genres because I feel like it gives stories more interesting dimensions. It’s not a conscious decision, it’s just that what I write tends to incorporate aspects of various genres. I don’t have specific genres in mind, but I do enjoy giving my work a surreal/speculative quality, so I expect that will flavor whatever I write next.

Roz The publishing industry generally prefers authors to stick within one box. Do you anticipate any problems with your versatility?  

Margarita The problem was getting a foot in the door early on, when agents were complimentary about my work but expressed concern over how to position it. Some suggested I rework my stories for YA, where genre-bending is more prevalent. Others encouraged me to follow a more conventional plot structure, especially with Oona (fun fact: early versions of the manuscript were rejected by 200+ agents!). Thankfully, it was published with its quirk intact and embraced as book club fiction. I’ve been able to avoid being pigeonholed so far, so I’m less concerned about it being an issue moving forward.

Roz Is there a quality or theme that readers might recognise as central to all your work? I find I’m often writing about people who are haunted in some way, who feel out of place and restless, are looking for the thing they need to change in order to settle. Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. How about you?

Margarita We definitely have some overlap here. If there’s a unifying theme to my work, it’s people who are looking for home. And I use the term broadly. Home can be a place, a person, or even something we find within ourselves. It’s where we feel the most secure, where we can feel a sense of belonging while being our truest selves.

Roz Yes – a sense of belonging and security. I’m with you totally. My characters are also looking for that. Perhaps we could call it ‘inner home’.

Margarita “Inner home” is a great way to put it.

Roz You self-published Asleep From Day, didn’t you? Can you talk about that decision? Did you seek a traditional deal for it first?

Margarita The agent I worked with prior to this one submitted Asleep From Day for me and sent it to editors who specialized in literary fiction, women’s fiction, suspense, and mystery, though the novel didn’t neatly fit into any of those genres, and thus it wasn’t acquired. I decided it was best to part ways with that agent and try my hand at self-publishing. Roz, what led you to self-publish? Do you think you’ll ever consider the traditional route with any future work?

Roz My path to self-publishing was similar to yours. I had agents for each of my novels. I had enthusiasm from a range of publishers and was also being tipped for book clubs, but each time the editors worried that I wasn’t a neat genre fit. A few publishers suggested changes that might please the marketing departments, but they compromised my vision too much. Fortunately, I knew all the editorial disciplines because I’d run a publisher’s editorial department and I’d also self-published non-fiction successfully. So off I went.

As for the next novel, I’ll certainly seek a traditional home for it. I’d love to find a publisher who’s a good partner for my work. And I think it’s always worth querying to see what’s possible for each individual book.

Margarita I wish you luck with it. Hopefully, publishers are noticing that readers enjoy genre-bending fiction that doesn’t strictly adhere to formulas.

Roz What was your process for getting all the feedback and support necessary for a polished book?

Margarita I was a book coach at Author Accelerator at the time, so I had access to multiple talented editors, one of whom I hired to work on Asleep from Day. After that, I hired a proofreader.

Roz How did you develop and decide the cover?

Margarita The cover was designed by my husband, Terry, who’s a professional graphic designer and illustrator. I gave him a number of ideas but also encouraged him to develop his own concepts. The only thing I was sure of was that I wanted the cover to convey a dreamy quality. He ended up doing about 20 different designs before I picked the final one.

Roz I notice it’s now out of print. Can you talk more about that?

Margarita I decided to take it down so that my publishers at home and abroad could position Oona as my official debut. I may republish it at a later point in time, but for now I’d rather readers focus on Oona, which I believe to be a better book.

Roz Here’s Margarita out of order, 1999 to 2019.

Roz Oona is your second novel, and your debut in traditional publishing. How did that deal come about?

Margarita In very much the traditional way. I sent out queries, got an agent, and the book was submitted to editors. To my utter shock and delight, more than one editor expressed interest, so I was given the chance to speak to each one to get a sense of their vision for the book. An auction followed and I selected the editor/publisher I felt would be the best fit for Oona. Not long after that, it sold in the UK.

Roz Before your novels, you worked in publishing and social media. You also have a degree in creative writing. And you blog at cool places. What was the path from those to your books?

Margarita I initially thought I’d have a career in publishing, but after working at a literary agency, I realized agenting wasn’t going to be the right fit for me. Working at HarperCollins offered a glimpse at many more types of career paths and I loved the years I spent there, but I just couldn’t find my niche in the industry. Transitioning into social media was a lucky break, and I was fortunate to work at some of the places I did, but as I advanced career-wise, I had less and less creative energy to put into my own projects. It wasn’t until I left New York and my hectic work life behind that I could truly focus on writing books.

Roz How has that background helped?

Margarita Having a background in both the agent and publisher side of the industry has come in handy. The technology has changed (there was a lot of photocopying back in my day!)

Roz Oh lord, there was! You’ve just reminded me. When manuscripts arrived… when we marked them up and sent them for typesetting… when galleys came in… when we sent them out again…

Margarita Many of the basics are the same. If nothing else, understanding the gauntlet a manuscript has to run before it’s represented by an agent and then sold to a publisher made me aware of the long timelines and tough odds I was up against. On the social media side, having that professional background has helped me develop my author platform online.

Roz You also freelance as a book coach and editor. Tell me about that.

Margarita I don’t take on as much editorial work these days so that I have more time to write (I don’t draft quickly). But I find it deeply gratifying to help other writers develop their stories and it’s also helped me take a more objective approach to my own work.

Roz Likewise, on all counts. I also freelance as a book coach and editor. I love figuring out what a writer wants a book to be and helping them achieve it. And I often find I learn a lot from their brave attempts.

Margarita Yes, isn’t it funny when you find yourself correcting a particular issue in someone else’s work over and over, only to find the same issue in your own work later on? Editing can be a good way to become a more self-aware writer.

Roz It’s the best education. Or: our students can be our best teachers.

Margarita And we can learn something from just about any piece of writing. Even when it misses the mark, it gets us thinking about how to improve it and what makes for a satisfying story.

Roz What’s it like to be publishing in these strange times?

Margarita It’s a strange time to be doing book promotion. But I’m also amazed by how the writing and book community is unifying in the face of this global crisis. Whether it’s independent bookstore owners hand-delivering books to their customers, book clubs shifting their meetings to online discussions, the numerous reading lists being shared, or the countless ways authors are supporting each other’s work. I hope people will continue to turn to books as a source of comfort and a positive escape. And I’m proud to be part of a creative community that is determined to thrive in difficult circumstances.

Roz Amen to that. Here’s where Margarita hangs out on line. Tweet her on @damiella , find her on Facebook track her down on Instagram , sign up for her newsletter and find her website and her books.

And here’s an update on my own strange times

 

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Conflict in every scene? Disasters in every act? Yes and no

15517166590_fabb8e02ee_oI’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.

I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?

That’s a good question with a lot of answers.

So let’s take it apart.

‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’

I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.

In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.

creative pennThe change in a scene might be major – a secret uncovered, a betrayal. Or it might be lower key – perhaps deepening the reader’s understanding of a problem, or weaving an ominous atmosphere.

So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.

But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.

Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.

Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong.  And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.

Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.

So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.

And now to part 2 of the question:

structureShould each part of the story contain a disaster? 

First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.

And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.

Ben’s question

So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.

Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.

Thanks for the pic KIm Stovring on Flickr

Clear as mud? Let’s discuss. What would you say?

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The first book on writing I ever read – what was yours?

Most of us here probably have a shoal of books about writing craft. Here’s just one of my shelves.

writing bookshelf

But which was the first writing book you ever read?

For me, it was The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire. It was a gift from Husband Dave when we first met in 1992. It’s a tiny volume; just 87 pages including the index at the end and throat-clearing at the start. But it has everything you need – theme, viewpoint, planning, setting, characterisation, style, revision.

Dianne Doubtfire Nail Your NovelI flick through it now. At random, I can see sensible advice to use ‘he said’ instead of ‘she gushed’ or ‘he averred’. A section on writing description so the reader remains riveted, with examples from Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. A paragraph about keeping a notebook beside the bed, including a torch. An explanation of style as ‘a quality as unique as your fingerprints’. A quote from Alfred Hitchcock that ‘drama is like real life with the dull bits cut out’. A section on first chapters, positioned nearly half-way through, because ‘it’s wise to consider … planning, scene and characterisation before you type ‘Chapter 1’.

Other books may cover all of these in more depth, but as a primer it will get you going with good habits. I’d recommend it still today.

To begin at the beginning…

I’d studied English literature at school and university. Yes, we considered theme, character, resonance, symmetries and counterpoints in character arcs and story structure. And historical and social context, an author’s place in the overall evolution in the artform. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why good was good. Reading Dianne Doubtfire was like meeting someone who thought and felt about books in the way I wanted to.

Studying literature can put it in on a pedestal as a thing to be revered. It can paralyse you with feelings that you could never, yourself, presume to write to a standard that’s even readable, let alone half-creditable.

Dianne Doubtfire’s succinct, wise book made writing seem possible.

3 nynsPsst … Speaking of writing books, and flashing forwards many moons and scrumpled drafts, I’ve been jazzing up the Nail Your Novel covers. Take a peek here…

Can you remember the first writing craft book you read? How did you come to read it? How did it affect you? Did it open possibilities? Did it make it all seem impossible? If you still have a copy, what do you think of it now?

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One for them, one for me: ghost-writers and their soul projects

Most writers have day jobs. Some of us ghost-write books for others – here’s my own, suitably censored, introduction to my ghosting activities. And some ghosts are also building our own body of work. I thought it would be fun to talk to some of my nebulous comrades to answer some questions: how do we balance the two types of writing?

The players

Daniel Paisner

Daniel Paisner

Daniel Paisner   @DanielPaisner  –  you might recognise Dan from his recent Undercover Soundtrack. He has ghosted more than 50 books for the great, good, notorious or extraordinary – including tennis champion Serena Williams, Ohio governor and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich, and Academy Award winners Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington and Anthony Quinn.  He is the author of three novels: Obit, Mourning Wood  and A Single Happened Thing.

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers

Joni Rodgers @JoniRodgersanother Undercover Soundtrack veteran.  Joni had a few novels published, then her cancer memoir Bald in the Land of Big Hair  brought her offers from celebrities and other extraordinary people who wanted her to help them tell their life stories. Since then she has worked as a ghost-writer, book doctor and story strategist. Her own books include Crazy for Trying, First You Write, and Sugarland.

ager-po

Deborah Ager

Deborah Ager @deborahager1 is the founder of Radiant Media Labs, a consultancy to help experts turn their big ideas into books. Behind the scenes, she has an MFA in creative writing, writes poetry, co-edited the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry (2013) and Old Flame: Ten Years of 32 Poems Magazine (2012) and is working on a novel set during the Great Depression.

Really me

The big question is this:  how different is their own work from their usual ghostwriting milieu? Do the two complement each other in any way?

Joni says she finds there’s considerable synergy and overlap.

Joni: ‘As myself, I write quirky, character-driven fiction informed by politics and travel. Right now I’m working on a screenplay to showcase five actresses over 40 in a story about strong, smart women. My little yop against Hollywood sex/age inequity.

‘My ghost-writing projects are all over the map, but there’s a lot of crossover in the big picture. Every ghost book I’ve written has taught me something that made me a better novelist. Some ghost projects are craft skill boot camp; others take me to places I never could have seen as a casual observer.’

‘I’ve seen things…’

I find this too. Here’s a post about the things I’ve learned to fake …   But that trivialises the true nature of the ghost-client dynamic. The ghost-writer does more than write about derring-do they’ve never done. We climb inside the client’s inner life. We truly walk the miles in their shoes. It’s a privileged, trusted position.

indexJoni also found that ghost-writing opened unexpected doors for her own writing.  ‘While I was working on a memoir with Kristin Chenoweth, I got to know Aaron Sorkin, who was incredibly generous with his time. Hanging out with him was like a personal masterclass in storytelling. He looked at an early draft of my novel The Hurricane Lover, gave me valuable feedback and encouraged me to explore the possibility of screenwriting. He gave me a stack of scripts and a long reading list, and the final draft of The Hurricane Lover was exponentially better because of that. A few years later, I got a call from a well-known director who was considering hiring me to do his memoir. As part of the vetting process, he read The Hurricane Lover. Though he ultimately decided not to go forward with the memoir, he was so impressed with the dialogue and story structure, he hired me to thrash out a story strategy and doctor some dialogue for a screenplay he was working on.’

An antidote

While Joni finds her two writing worlds run in parallel tracks, Dan realises his fiction might be an antidote to his commercial milieu.

978-0-9847648-3-9Dan: ‘The stories and characters I’m drawn to in my fiction tend to be small, out-of-the-way, under-the-radar.  I look for moments where we live and work, quietly, where not a whole lot happens. What interests me are the ways we connect with each other, the ways we don’t, and the choices we make in the spaces in-between. What genre is that exactly?  I don’t know, but judging from my sales history this is not the stuff of page-turning, best-selling fiction.  Oh, well…

‘I’ve never really thought about this in just this way, but I suppose there is a connection.  The ‘celebrities’ I work with in my day job tend to be larger than life.  They live loudly, purposefully.  Meanwhile, the characters I choose to spend time with in my novels are somewhat smaller-than-life.  They live quietly, sometimes aimlessly.  I guess without even realizing it, this is how I balance the scales.’

One for them, one for me

One for them, one for me: in theory that’s how it goes. But ghost-writing isn’t nine-to-five. Commissions often come at short notice, and clients, agents and publishers are all clamouring for a book they can sell as soon as possible. How do my friends here manage this balance? Do they have a routine to keep their own books alive while meeting their ghost-writing deadlines? Or do they clear a few months to retreat and create?

Dan: ‘There is no such thing as routine.  The idea is to have two books going at once — one of theirs and one of mine.  But the reality is that almost never happens.  Deadlines extend, mutate, turn in on themselves. Projects overlap. I find that when I’m working on my own novel, I need to clear the decks — shut out all social media and other outside distractions. Very often, I’ll trade off by weeks.  I’ll go hard on a celebrity collaboration for a week, eclipsing my goals, just to have a free week to work on my novel. Last summer, I went away for three weeks to our house in the mountains, just to have that uninterrupted chunk of time.

41mXOkOLs3L._SX370_BO1,204,203,200_‘But I find I have to work to create those free moments. I don’t have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike.  I have to schedule its appearance, and if it doesn’t show up in quite the form I was hoping, I just have to work with what I’ve got.’

Let’s hear from Deborah Ager, who spends much of her energy on her Radiant Media clients. Meanwhile, she is persevering with her own poetry, her editing and her novel:

Deborah: ‘Writing is a lot like exercise. My brain will become flabby if I don’t keep chipping away at the writing on a consistent schedule. Even if I only have a short time, I aim to write on a regular basis. It’s too painful to do it the other way.’

‘A good life vs a good living’

And sometimes, a good ghost can be a victim of their own success. Although it’s tempting to take every gig that comes along, Joni Rodgers established early on that she needed to pull back sometimes, for a more fulfilling balance.

Joni: ‘When I was debating whether to take my first ghost gig, my editor at HarperCollins said, ‘Joni, with your skillset and temperament, you could make a better than good living as a ghost-writer’.  Ten years and more than a dozen books later, I’ve realized a good life is more important than a good living. I’ve gotten very selective. For me, carving out time to write my own novels and screenplays is key both to my own happiness and to the sanity and balance I need to serve my clients.

‘As a ghost, you have to bring on all the craft skills and industry knowledge of a successful writer, but you have to set aside all the ego stroking, histrionics and other pseudo-luxuries that might be afforded a pampered author. You have to be the grown-up in the relationship, putting someone else’s needs before your own, listening instead of talking, and keeping to a task schedule so you can deliver the goods on time. You have to be willing/able to subsume your own creative voice and choices in order to stay true to the creative voice and choices of the client. In the publishing process, which is invariably fraught for one reason or another, you are now the Sherpa instead of the mountain climber. You do the heavy lifting and trailblazing; your client gets to plant the flag and ski down to the base camp for champagne. If you’re not genuinely cool with all that, you’re not going to be happy as a ghost-writer, and it’s unlikely you’d be successful — because you wouldn’t be able to serve your clients at the level they’re paying for. But I’m a creative tyrant when it comes to my own soul projects.’

Accept no imitations

Let’s pause on that phrase: the creative tyrant. Amen to that.

As a ghost-writer, I am at the service of another person’s vision. I serve their audience and their publisher or agent. It’s fun to be the missing piece that pulls a book into the daylight. I thought I was easy with the commercial demands of publishing and the inevitable compromises of fitting a market. Until the moment I finished my first novel as myself.

At that moment, I discovered a deep-seated streak of stubbornness. I would take any amount of advice on what didn’t work, but I wouldn’t make the book fit a copycat sales agenda. I think I see that in Dan too, with his quiet explorations, which he publishes through small imprints.

And of course, some of us have embraced self-publishing. We can keep control, nurture and discipline a book for as long as we need to until it’s ready, and make sure it’s true to our hopes. Let’s hear again from Joni:

Joni: ‘I love serving my clients, but ghost-writing can be spiritually and creatively exhausting. I don’t see how truly top-drawer ghost work is sustainable if we fail to stay firmly connected to our mightiest artistic selves. I end up losing ground because I prefer (for creative and financial reasons) to publish my own work, but I won’t compromise on the publishing process, which is time-consuming. Net result: I have three novels and a memoirella collection in my self-publishing queue, waiting for the TLC they need before launch. I keep waiting for a lull on the ghost front, but it doesn’t seem to happen. But I’m not in this to half-bake the books I care about most.

Creative tyrants unite. Huge thanks to Joni, Dan and Deborah. Once again, here’s where to find them: Daniel, Joni and Deborah.

Become a ghost-writer Roz MorrisMight ghost-writing be a good career move for you? I’ll be exploring this tomorrow in a post at Jane Friedman’s site. Or if you’re already seriously toying with the idea, you can hop over to her domain right now and read about my course. Early birds get a substantial discount  – you pay US$149 instead of US$199.

Any questions? Even if you don’t ghost-write, you might find yourself balancing passion projects and artistic vision with more commercial work. If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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Revision and self-editing: masterclass snapshots

guardYesterday I was teaching a course for Guardian newspapers on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next 7 days.

middle

Three/four-act story structure – how strictly must you stick to it?

Briefly, most stories have a beginning, middle and end, and seem to work best when the major turning points are at 25%, 50% and 75%.

It’s a formula followed by Hollywood screenplays, and it’s certainly useful for novelists – but as a guideline, not a hard rule. In novels it probably won’t matter if you begin your climax at 80% instead of 75%. If you begin at 90% the ending might feel abrupt because you might not have time to come down the other side. You might also have too much of a lull beforehand. On the other hand, it might be perfect.

Where the structure rules become really useful is if you spot a problem. If the end seems too sudden, or too drawn out, would repositioning it help?

Tomorrow: ends and epilogues

Thanks for the pic TMAB2003 on Flickr

Let’s discuss! Do you find the three/four-act structure is useful to you, too formulaic? Has it helped you iron out a problem in your manuscript?

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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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