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I’ve had this question from Kristy Lyseng:
I have trouble when it comes to depth and expanding my writing. I always end up with short pieces. Are there any tips or tricks I could learn for writing longer pieces instead of short ones, both fiction and non-fiction?
Oh what a good question. Here are some ideas.
How much do you plan?
Maybe you’re confident you can keep control of short pieces, and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. With a short piece, you can keep it all in your mind in one go, but with a novel that’s much harder. So to write something longer, you need more detail, to spend longer in the planning or you’ll run out of puff. (Or, if planning hasn’t been part of your method until now, you’ll probably need to start.)
Most novelists plan. They might write a detailed outline they stick to firmly. They might plan and then twist and knead it as other ideas occur to them. But the vast majority of them plan. (Here’s my post on how to write to an outline and still be creative.)
When you write that plan, you need to make sure the idea has enough mileage. This may be where you’re getting stuck and I’ve been there myself. My earliest experiments in writing were longish short stories. I’d get an idea and work it into a situation with a few surprises and a twist at the end. I could get about 5-7,000 words, but no more. I dearly wanted to get my teeth into a big novel, but couldn’t envisage how to make it vast enough.
Actually, the solution was simple. I needed to spend longer on the plan. Some of my short story ideas could have been novels if I’d known how to persevere. Indeed Ever Rest has its germ in a short story I wrote nearly 20 years ago. (It’s wildly different now.)
What to enlarge
So has your idea got the scope to be a novel? There’s only one way to find out. Climb in and explore.
Take your time over it. If it seems to be a short story, let it rest, then come back and see if some of your characters could have bigger lives, or secondary concerns, or the story problem could have more dimensions than you saw initially. Could you add a subplot or a second story arc? Flesh out the characters’ back stories? Increase the significance of the setting in historical and geographical terms? Look for themes and create other story threads that complement them? Look at the structure too. Maybe the structure of your short story is the entire novel arc, super condensed. Maybe what you’ve designed so far is only a section, as far as one of the early turning points, and you could extend it far further. Keep coming back and looking for new layers. You can’t plan a novel quickly, but the more time you spend on it, the more you’ll see.
Here’s my post on how to outline – developed for Nanowrimo, but it lists the essentials for making a good start. Here’s a post on troubleshooting your novel outline. And here’s one about filling the gaps in your story. And here’s how I work – in pictures.
A writer of two minds
Another thing I didn’t realise in the early days is that you have to be two kinds of writer. One does the big-picture thinking – where are we going, what are we doing, what’s the overall aim? The other is doing the moment-by-moment writing and development, crafting the sentences and enacting the characters. Very few people can do both simultaneously.
The wonders of revision
Also, don’t forget you can revise. You don’t have to get it right in one go. The outline can take you several weeks if you need it. When you’ve written the first draft, you can go back over that too (indeed you should). Here are some posts from my Guardian masterclass on self-editing, which demonstrate all the wonderful ways to improve your book when you revise.
There’s a lot more about adding subplots and generating story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have difficulty making your stories long enough? Is there a natural length that you handle comfortably and are you happy with that? What would you tell Kristy?
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This week I’m running a series of the best discussion points from my talk at the Writers & Artists selfpublishing event. So far I’ve covered how producing a good book requires an editorial team, how authors need to allow enough time to use their feedback properly and author control. Today, it’s a rather thoughtful question about writing and self-editing in the digital age.
Who are you? Self-editing to self-censorship
I had a very interesting discussion with a lady who had written a book on creativity, and was turning some of it into a blog. She said she found she was editing differently when putting it on line. Where passages from the book contained deeply personal information, she was removing this, feeling it was not suitable for the public world of a blog, though she was happy to have it in the book.
I wonder, has anyone else experienced this? Are you a different writer in the depths of your book? Less self-conscious perhaps? More secure in your relationship with the reader? Is your blog more of your upbeat, ‘party’ persona and your book a buried, contemplative one?
Last week in Thought Catalog. Porter Anderson talked in about the modern phenomenon of writers sharing so much about their daily lives, which has never been possible before. He asked, does this ready familiarity with an author’s life spoil the mystique necessary to let a book do its proper work on the virgin snow of a reader’s mind?
He talks of ‘a certain remove by the artist of his or her daily private life from the stage…’ so that the book can speak for itself.
But after my conversation with the blogging writer, I wonder this: what might we keep back for a book, let ourselves tell only in a story? Surely a person who is committed to writing always holds something in reserve, a true kernel that gets its expression only in communication with the page, that indeed maybe doesn’t exist except in the private vault where the book speaks for us. That’s what makes us writers. Perhaps on our blogs we are comparatively extrovert. We may not mean to censor or conceal; we tailor our copy for a short-order medium. In our books, we inhabit an introverse. Do you?
Thanks to Henry Hyde for the pic of me, and to Sean Mundy on Flickr for the eye.
Anyway, let’s discuss. Does this say something about the different qualities of blogs versus books? Does it suggest what we might be missing if more of our reading time is taken up by ephemeral media such as blogs and newspapers, rather than books? Especially as we increasingly read them all on the one device? And where are you most you? Am I mad?
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I found this interesting note in a piece on Futurebook. Porter Anderson was quoting a speech made by author George Berkowski in advance of the Futurebook conference. It got me thinking about the shaping role of editing, and some crucial differences between indie publishing and traditional.
A quick disclaimer before we proceed. This was not the point of Berkowski’s speech or Porter Anderson’s article. It is merely a sentence that simmered for me after I read it. Also, Berkowski is not talking about fiction, as this blog usually is. His book is How To Build A Billion-Dollar App. But a fiction manuscript is scourged and rebuilt just as thoroughly as non-fiction when it enters a publisher’s editorial department.
This is what I want to explore; how a submission can be greatly changed by editorial input. Improved, usually, but undeniably changed.
My point is the nature of that change.
When a publisher edits, they are focused on their market. That makes perfect sense, of course. Like any business, they aim to please their clientele. If your artistic vision is perfectly aligned with that, that’s terrific (though you still may have drastic rewrites ahead).
But if you’re not? Many a first-time author has been uncomfortable about editors who are dumbing them down, or imposing directions that strip away their originality. Generalising is risky, of course, as one person’s depth is another’s dense mess. But what is good for the publisher may not be good for your creative identity, your long-term brand or your book.
Dare to be different
When you self-publish, you choose the editor who most closely suits your style and vision. There’s a lot more room for you to be daring and different, if that’s what you want. An indie editor will discuss what you want the book to be. Or they can help you find it. They won’t try to force you in a direction. They will help you come into your own.
I have, in reporting on a client’s novel, suggested they are more naturally literary than, say, the thriller market they thought they were writing for; that they were forcing when they should follow their instincts. It goes the other way too. I’ve advised writers who thought they should write literary that their strengths are the gripping page-turner of world-burning mayhem. I’ve steered would-be historical novelists to write non-fiction, as their every fibre screamed against inventing people, scenes and dialogue.
Because I don’t have to please an imprint, I can consider what’s best for the writer. I can truly be the book’s advocate.
Don’t imagine, though, that this is an issue with every indie author. Many know exactly what they aim to write. But if they’re feeling their way, an indie editor will help them be more truly themselves. When such an author is accepted by a publishing house, the process will shape the book to fit the house’s requirements. An indie editor will help you work out what your own requirements are.
Second novels … and beyond
And what about subsequent novels? If you write a second novel that hits different notes from the first, a traditional publisher usually tries to make you change it. You might not have realised how that first novel sealed your doom.
Such feedback might be helpful, of course. On the other hand, many authors resent it. They’re only just discovering their potential. The indie world is full of first novelists who were dropped because they developed, matured or wanted to flex their art a different way. Certainly if I’d had a traditional publisher for My Memories of a Future Life, I would never have been allowed Lifeform Three as novel 2. I would have been told to write another contemporary odd literary book.
If you’re an indie author, your editor can help you embrace new directions. Or you are free to find a different editor.
I freely admit this post exposes my priorities. I am not the person to ask if you want to know about marketing or writing a commercial success. But I’ll certainly tell you the fundamentals of gripping readers and giving them a good ride, whatever you write. I’ll also say that success, both commercial and the deeper reward of satisfaction, comes from good craft and a thorough understanding of where you fit. If your heart truly beats for genre fiction, the devoted reader of that genre will sense it. They’ll also know if you’re painting by numbers. Your best chance of success is to find your groove, be true to yourself, whatever it is.
But this is another reason why indie publishing, at its most careful and respectful, is more likely to produce genuinely original books. Traditional publishing will edit a book for the good of a defined clientele. Sometimes everyone is happy, of course. But in a traditional publisher the priority is the company interest, not the author or the book. I’ve seen enough occasions when this created a ghastly compromise.
Indeed, readers are far more adventurous than publishers can accommodate. The reader couldn’t define for you what they want; they know it when a skilled author invents it. (And thus I refute the oft-repeated claim that indie authors are expert only in marketing, not in the art. But that’s a different brawlgame.)
It’s often said that successful marriage is one that makes you feel more yourself. A successful editor partnership will make your book more itself, not more like someone else.
Let’s re-visit the quote that began all this: ‘publishing is very good at editorial’. It may be, within limits. But I contend that indie authors whose values are originality and craft are doing it better.
And let’s discuss – what’s your experience of working with editors, whether independent or within a publishing house? Have you ever been made to fit a mould that you suspected wasn’t truly suitable for your book?
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Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Saturday afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
- giving yourself permission to write
- establishing a writing habit
- thinking like a writer
- getting published 101
- how to self-publish.
This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.
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Some writers say they don’t look at their reviews. I don’t know how they find such sangfroid. If I know there’s a new review I have to pounce, and immediately. Inevitably, we’ll sometimes wish we hadn’t – like one of my regular readers this week, who sent me the anguished message you see in the title of this post.
After sympathy, we had a discussion that went in interesting directions, and I thought it might be useful here too.
My main question to him was this. Are you afraid the reviewer might be right? Have you got a good enough groundswell of opinions from people with sound judgement?
My correspondent replied that he knew he’d taken a risk, but wanted the final note to pack a punch. ‘That apparently has worked,’ he said, ‘and my book is being remembered – for better or worse. I have around twenty 5-star reviews and this is my first bad one.’
Twenty to one doesn’t sound like a bad ratio to me. And we’re all going to get bad reviews.
I got off to an early start with My Memories of a Future Life. Just as I was gathering launch reviews, someone who’d read an advance copy sent me a furious, offended email. I’d passed muster with my trusted inner circle, but this was the first true outsider and it hurt madly. It doesn’t help that with self-publishing, there’s hardly any time for the writer to surface out of the book, so early reviews might hit us with no defences. So I was extremely relieved when the other advance readers were happy.
What did you promise the reader? Marketing
Not everyone will like your book, especially if you’re aiming for something unusual as my friend is here. Part of good marketing is targeting – as much as possible – the right readers. So check these.
- Is your blurb misleading?
- Ditto your title?
- Does your cover send the right messages?
- Does the beginning of your book promise something very different from what the reader gets (allowing for arty misdirection…. )
Nurse the bruise, then look at the averages. Note any consistent concerns and decide if your marketing apparatus could be better tuned.
Should you fight back?
No. Not unless there are libels or factual inaccuracies – which are usually hard to argue in fiction anyway. I’ve commented on Amazon reviews that said the proof-reading in Nail Your Novel was poor and hadn’t realised it was UK English. I intend merely to set the record straight, but often it’s made the reader withdraw the review.
What to do about the reader who’s genuinely offended or upset?
Probably you shouldn’t do what I did. I wrote back. A writer friend told me off for it, saying ‘never apologise for your work’. But his fury was flaming my inbox and I couldn’t ignore it. Actually, it turned out well. He admitted he had mistaken the genre in spite of everything I said – and even sent me a gift as apology. I resolved to be even more extremely careful never to mislead a reader.
What if there’s a problem with the book?
Be honest now. Pride and sensitivity aside, has the bad review touched an important nerve? If so, why?
Did you skimp – either on revising, or getting quality, useful feedback?
Some people self-publish for the sake of fulfilment and completeness or to make a book for family or close friends. They’ll probably not be found by the general reading public. These remarks don’t apply to them.
But everyone else, listen up. I see a lot of writers rush to the market too soon. If you put the book up for the public, you won’t get a free pass. Get the book evaluated by someone who will tell you how to get to publishable standard. Although you might have learned a lot since you started writing, you need a professional to point out the flaws you simply cannot diagnose for yourself. (See my post about editors and how much they can surprise you with what they find. ) You don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune – here’s a post about cheaper options than a bespoke development report. But all writers have blind spots, and if you haven’t had critique partners who have opened your eyes to them and changed you for the better, you’ve missed an important step.
Think to the long term. You will write more books and carry on learning. Make sure whatever you publish is something you’ll continue to be proud of.
Some experienced authors I know recommend novice writers use a pseudonym for their earliest work so they don’t pollute their real name. Get something out, satisfy your curiosity, test the water, learn the ropes. (Unmix your metaphors too.) Your early books may indeed be brilliant, or they may, with the benefit of a few years, be embarrassing. You can’t know how you’ll develop.
Could you withdraw a book that was a mistake?
That’s not as easy as you might think. With ebooks you can update the files but it’s difficult to make them vanish entirely. On Smashwords they’ll stay available to the people who bought them – although in direst straits you could overwrite with a blank file or a note of explanation. If you’ve gathered bad reviews, those will remain.
With print books, it’s even harder to hide. I changed the title of the characters book because I felt it didn’t zing enough. I asked CreateSpace if they could remove the original listing in case of confusion, but they said it wasn’t possible. It had to stay up, even if it was unavailable. And second-hand copies might still be sold on Marketplace. This made little difference to me (and some people still want the old one!) but imagine if this was your book that you wanted to bury. You can’t remove it, or its association with your name.
The good, the bad and the ugly
Sometimes we have to accept that a pie in the face is part of the job. If you look on Amazon I’ve got one or two stinker reviews for my fiction. I’ve had some that were malicious, and there’s little to do about them except make a cup of tea. If I get a remark that cuts seriously, I run it past my critiquing crew. I know they’ll tell me if it’s fair. Then I get on with the next book.
What do you do about bad reviews? Have you ever replied to one, or had a malicious one? Have you ever regretted putting a book out too early? Any advice to give? Let’s discuss!
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As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)
In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.
Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.
Does it matter?
Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.
If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off – usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.
Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.
Passive main characters
In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.
Unwillingness to alter events
Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.
Events need to matter more
Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.
I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…
Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)
I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.
If you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.
Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.
How to write a character who isn’t like you
Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.
In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.
So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.
Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!
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‘Can I ask you about ghostwriting….?’ As you may know, this is how I first got published, writing novels that were released under the names of other people. I was the secret hand that wrote these (and others…)
I get asked about ghostwriting all the time, from people curious about it as a career path, or thinking about hiring a ghostwriter, or the plain curious. So here’s the dirt. Or as much as I can safely reveal.
Which books are ghostwritten?
Celebrity biographies and novels If someone has an interesting life story or is popular, a ghostwriter might be engaged to help them write a memoir. If that sells they might be asked if they fancy doing novels.
Megabrand genre novels It’s well known that James Patterson uses ghosts, outsourcing early draft work to keep up with demand. And that publishers hire writers to keep popular authors feeding the market after they die – eg Robert Ludlum. There are also plenty of other big-name authors in commercial fiction who are still alive and use ghostwriters, unacknowledged. (Knowing wink. You would be scandalised.)
So there’s plenty of work.
It’s all about who you know.
Editors and agents If you have a literary agent, let them know you’re up for ghosting. Also it’s worth mentioning to book editors you’ve worked with.
Journalism Journalism is another way to break in, especially for non-fiction. You might meet someone who wants help writing their life story or a book on their patch of expertise (but see below).
Author services companies I get frequent approaches from author services companies, who want reliable ghostwriters they can recommend to clients. I don’t know what the terms are, but, in general, I worry about working for services companies. Judging by other areas of publishing, one party gets a bad deal – either the client pays over the odds, or the freelance gets a lot less than market rate.
Pros and cons Cons first. You’re caught between two masters – which you realise when the ‘author’ wants one thing and the editor wants another. You will be amazed at the issues that blow up into diplomatic incidents and you’re left trying to please both. (Knowing wink. You’ll earn every dime.) Commercial ghostwriting is satisfying because the book will be published, and because of the cost of hiring you, it will probably be well marketed. Depending on your deal, should be a worthwhile addition to your CV and earnings stream. If you ghostwrite for an author services company, you may find there’s no long tail because the book is far less likely to earn in money or reputation.
What will you be paid? Deals vary, obviously. But to generalise, you get much better terms if you have representation. My agent is horrified at the contracts I have from my ghosting days.
My personal beware list
Don’t do any ghosting work for individuals unless you’re very sure they’ll get a publishing deal. Even if they’re a celebrity you know personally.
Don’t do any work on spec for agents. In more naive days I spent four months rewriting a thriller for a phenomenally well-connected gentleman, persuaded by an agent to do it for a future profits share. The book never sold and I never saw any payment.
Be even more careful of the situation that might land you in court – or worse. I get a lot of approaches from people who want me to help them write a book about their murder trial. Such a book couldn’t be published without cast-iron legal backing, which only a major publisher has the chops for. And as for the chap who wanted me to write the book about how he was manipulated into assassinating … No I can’t tell you. (Knowing wink with a nervous twitch. You might be dead.)
Can I hire a ghostwriter myself?
Question. Can you afford to pay six to nine months’ salary for a writer to do a proper job of your book? This is why, in commercial publishing, ghostwriters are generally funded by the publisher, not the writer (although they don’t always get a fair fee – see above). But if you have a strong concept for a book and a writer who is a good match, you could seek a deal together.
What about royalty-split deals? See the caveats above, but these are frontier-busting times. Indies are leading the way with new ways to fund books, as we’re seeing with ACX for audiobooks and translation deals.
How can I break in?
Aside from personal contacts, there are opportunities for beginners if you know where to look. Book packagers are companies that dream up commercial ideas for novels, which they pitch to publishers. Some of these become phenomenally successful. They need writers.
They give you the plot in painstaking detail, so your job is to flesh out the story into scenes. Sounds a doddle? There are two downsides. One – the pay is rubbish. Two –they demand rewrite after rewrite because they design the story by committee and change their minds. But it is a way to get experience, and you might make useful friends. Find them in Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or the US equivalent. Contact them and ask if they’re looking for writers. If you send them a sample and it’s good enough, they might ask you to try out for a live project.
Have you any questions about ghostwriting? Or wisdom to add? Your turn!
Interested in learning more? Professional course in ghostwriting
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I have bought your book, Nail Your Novel, and it has been really helpful. I was having a blast. Loving my characters, villains, setting, plot. But after 70.000 words I have a huge abyss in my story, I hit this blank between the middle of act II and the climax. Everything before and after that is just fine, but it seems that no matter what I do, I can’t resolve this blank spot.
Eric Alatza, first-time writer, Brazil. (Oh my: Brazil. I know the web is world wide so this shouldn’t give us pause, not for even a picosecond. Especially as you might be reading this in Brazil too. But it reminds me, in London, how much I appreciate that self-publishing and social media lets us reach …. anywhere. #momentofawe #howmuchdoIlovetechnology)
Okay, here’s how I’d attack Eric’s problem.
1 Does your story climax really fit?
You’re trying to join the end to the rest of the book, but does it fit? Has the story evolved beyond your original plans? Do you believe in this ending?
I had this problem with Lifeform Three. In my first draft I had written a storming finale, planned from the start, and indeed it had a lot of material I was chuffed with. You will never see it because it wasn’t the ending the book needed. As I wrote, the characters had taken on deeper issues, confronted essential questions – and my original ending was logical but disappointing. So I nuked it – yes, the entire final third of the book – and started again.
I’m wondering, Eric, if your spider sense is telling you this, which is why you can’t jump the chasm to the finale you planned. Ask yourself:
- Is the ending unsatisfying in terms of themes explored, questions posed, other threads left dangling?
- Are you forcing the characters in a direction they don’t want to go?
- Will a character have to be uncharacteristically stupid to bring about this climax?
Is a new ending too painful to contemplate? Well, it costs nothing to brainstorm. Just as an exercise, cut loose and see where else you might go.
You mention you have problems with the story’s middle. Is that because your ideas so far don’t seem significant enough?
If so, ask why. The middle of act II is traditionally a turning point. Perhaps the story stakes magnify, or an event turns everything on its head. Mr Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, which surprises and appals her. Nothing can be the same after that conversation. Perhaps there are new alliances that change the nature of the conflict – as in The Hunger Games. It might be the point where the character’s flaw, inner problem or true self first emerges as a dominant force – in Fahrenheit 451, the midpoint is where Montag meets a new mentor character. In the film of The Godfather, the midpoint is the scene where Michael Corleone commits murder, setting him on a new path. It might be a transformation that is subtle but deep. In My Memories of a Future Life, it’s where my narrator truly surrenders to the future incarnation. (I tried to write that without giving spoilers…)
So is your midpoint important enough? Have you got that sense of transformation and escalation? If not, brainstorm ways to find this significance. (And allow yourself to think of solutions that might mess up your planned ending.)
3 Get fresh inspiration
As always, you might be running on empty. When I’m stuck, I go to LibraryThing.com and search for novels that tackle similar themes, issues and situations. I also post an appeal for recommendations on Twitter and Facebook. (I’d do it on Goodreads too if I could work out how.)
Dissatisfaction is progress
There is a reason why you’re balking, although you may not consciously know it yet Our instincts are rarely articulate, but they are usually right. You know the rule about inspiration and perspiration? To fill a plot hole, do more digging.
Drafting is more than transcribing your notes
All the stages of novel-writing are creative. We’re constantly triaging our ideas and refining them. Whether we’re outlining, drafting or editing, we might find new insights and directions. Be ready to make the most of them.
The ebook of Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart is now available for pre-order and will be at a special launch price until it goes live on Twelfth Night (5 Jan). Even available in Brazil.
Thanks for the pic Corinnely
What would you say to Eric?
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You’ll have seen the posts here about my blog series the Undercover Soundtrack.
Over the years, the posts consistently repeat certain bare essentials, both for reaching the writing mindset and creating a good story. Here they are, and whether you write with music or not, we all need them.
To enter the zone
In front of us is a keyboard and a screen, or maybe a pad and pen. Whether you’re putting on a soundtrack, closing the door on your favourite silent space or seeking the anonymous corner of a coffee shop, the first step is to find a way to delete the outside world.
Start the time machine
Whether we write gritty memoir or the most extravagantly invented fantasy, we need to harvest our emotional memories. Many of our scenes, dilemmas and storylines are drawn from feelings we had at important times with family, friends, loved ones.
To keep the pace
Stories aren’t static. To keep the reader gripped, we need to generate a sense that the world of the story is changing all the time. For me, music is a useful reminder, because music does not stand still. There may be a new instrument snaking into the mix, a new variation on a theme, a creeping, evolving harmony. If this is going on in my ears while I’m spending time with my book – whether I’m musing or typing – I find it keeps me up to the mark – pushing for ideas that give this forward pressure.
We’re getting more musical now. A song is not unlike a well-told tale. It creates a territory of familiarity – a pattern we recognise of verse and chorus. Then we have the second verse – familiar, but not the same because the background is more dense or the lyric more intense. The second chorus is usually more substantial than the first, and even if it has the same lyric, it packs more punch. And on the song goes, seeking a climax.
For all its variation, a song is tightly disciplined. It develops by adding only what belongs. As story writers we can splash about in ideas, locations, settings, characters and events, but the more they align with the home territory (or exquisitely contrast with it), the more they will seem to belong in one piece.
In a piece of music, there might be a breakdown, where most of the elements are subtracted, perhaps leaving only the drum track or the melody at great distance. Breaks are important for a reader too; perhaps a campfire scene, a time out from the pressure to let the reader breathe before the tension comes flying back.
To calm the inner editor
Novels are huge and often daunting. Getting from beginning to end requires persistence, and we always find our confidence tested. Many of my Undercover Soundtrack guests report that music is an essential companion in this. It helps us believe more in ourselves, our story, our characters, our world – and in our ability to finish.
How about you? What essentials would you add? And if music isn’t your aide of choice, is there something you use to get a novel finished?
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This post is a tad late as I’ve had an oversubscribed weekend, first hosting a workshop at the London Author Fair and then teaching at the Guardian selfpublishing masterclass. In all that whirl I’ve met a lot of writers and would-be selfpublishers and thought I’d share some of the advice I gave most frequently.
1 Whether you intend to go indie or not, learn about selfpublishing
– then you’ll know how to weigh up the value of a publishing deal. As well as the money (which usually won’t cover the time you spent writing), a publisher offers editorial guidance, copy editing and proof reading, cover design as appropriate for the audience, print book preparation, publicity using their contacts and reputation, print distribution.
As I’ve said in this blog post, all of that is services that indie authors do for themselves. Some (not all) are easy to source and manage. Some can’t even be priced, like the publisher’s reputation. But if you have tried to produce a quality book yourself, you’ll have a realistic idea of the value a publisher adds – or whether you can do well without them.
Some of that value might be emotional – the confidence that everything has been done properly and a sense of validation. These may not be as guaranteed as you think. There are always traditionally published writers who sell enough to be looked after well by publishers, and others who decide they are better as indies.
But the more you know about selfpublishing, the more you can assess a publisher’s value as a partner.
2 It isn’t either-or.
Whether you start as indie or traditionally published, you won’t always stay that way.
Traditionally published authors might leave their publishers (or be dropped) and go it alone. They might reissue their backlist or publish in co-operatives with other authors. Indie authors might begin on their own, then strike a deal. Some do all of it concurrently (hybrid authors), choosing what’s best for each project. Some publishers are experimenting with partnering deals – a different beast again.
There are also rights that are much better exploited with help – particularly translations. A few months ago I was emailed by a literary scout because a Spanish publisher was curious about My Memories of a Future Life. If anything more transpires I’ll blog about it (you bet I will), but these are opportunities I’d welcome a publisher for. (Any other offers, I’m all ears!)
Publishing and selfpublishing is now a spectrum. Most writers will zip up and down it, according to where a project fits.
3 Selfpublishing your first book
Don’t be in a rush! Although modern selfpublishing tools let you revise and tweak a naive edition, you cannot edit your reputation.
Most first-time writers map out a schedule for publishing their book, but don’t appreciate how long it will take them to work through issues found by the developmental editor. With first books I often recommend extensive changes and rethinks, or find the writer needs to grasp a technique better – but they’ve already made a plan to get the book onto Kindle in just a month.
What makes it worse is when they see their writer crowd posting on Facebook or Twitter about rattling through their drafts, launch dates etc. I have three things to say about that:
1 These writers might be well practised and on their umpteenth book
2 They might be fibbing (surely not)
3 They might be about to release a book before it’s fit to be published.
I said this yesterday to my Guardian masterclass: when you’re making a schedule for publication, think of your first book as your training wheels. Until you’ve had the editor’s report you don’t know how much work your manuscript needs. For subsequent books, you’ll work smarter, you’ll have a sharper technique and you’ll be able to gauge how long everything will take. But don’t make a timetable for your first book and then discover you haven’t left enough weeks – or months – for a thorough edit.
And this: don’t be swayed by someone else’s schedule. Find the schedule that fits you.
Thanks for the pics, Official US Navy Imagery, Joanna Penn and London Author Fair
What advice would you give to the 2014 writer? Let’s share in the comments
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- Making my honest art – writing and publishing literary fiction: interview at @thecreativepenn July 27, 2021
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- The books that are our teachers – and 5 of my favourite reads (at @muddysurrey ) July 15, 2021
- How to become an author (and how to stay one) – interview at Write-Hearted with @MisterWakefield July 11, 2021
- How I made my writing career – novelist, playwright, photographer, actor Steve Zettler @szettlerauthor July 6, 2021
- Win a signed print edition of #EverRest July 5, 2021
- How do you like to talk about books? Themes, juxtapositions and the complication of being human – an interview at Late Last Night Books @L8NiteBooks June 27, 2021