Posts Tagged creative writing

Pace and story structure: a blueprint for keeping the reader gripped

seattle_bway_mambo_01I’ve had an interesting question from Josephine of the blog Muscat Tales:

Can you talk about pace? How to speed up/slow down the action/plot – and when? Is there a general blueprint for this or does the story type dictate the peaks and troughs of emotion, action and change?

There’s much to chew on here. And I think I can provide a few blueprints.

In order to answer, I’ll reorder the questions.

First, a definition. What’s pace? Put simply, it’s the speed at which the story seems to proceed in the reader’s mind. It’s the sense of whether enough is happening.
When to speed up or slow down?

This comes down to emphasis. You don’t want the pace of the story to flag. But equally, you don’t want to rip through the events at speed. Sometimes you want to take a scene slowly so the reader savours the full impact. If you rush, you can lose them.

Here’s an example. In one of my books I had feedback that a scene read too slowly. Instead of making it shorter, I added material? Why? I realised the reader wanted more detail, that they were involved with the character and needed to see more of their emotions and thoughts. The feedback for the new, longer version? ‘It reads much faster now’.

More pace, less speed. It could almost be a proverb.

So pace is nothing to do with how long you take over a scene or the speediness of your narration. Whatever you’re writing, you need to keep pace with what the reader wants to know. If you linger too long on something that isn’t important, they’ll disengage. If you race through a situation they want to savour, they’ll disengage. But when you get it right … they feel the book is racing along.
How to keep the sense of pace?

This comes down to one idea: change. The plot moves when we have a sense of change. Sometimes these are big surprises or shocks or moments of intense emotion. Sometimes they’re slight adjustments in the characters’ knowledge or feelings, or what we understand about the story situation. A change could even be a deftly placed piece of back story. But every scene should leave the reader with something new.

This feeling of change is the pulse that keeps the story alive – and keeps the reader curious. In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a great plot – two of them are change and curiosity. (The other two are crescendo and coherence, in case you were wondering.)

strucWhere to place the peaks and troughs of action and emotion

And now to peaks and troughs. These are your major changes that spin everything in a new direction. As a rule of thumb, they work best if they’re placed at the quarter points (25% in, 50% in, 75% in). You usually need at least three, but you can have more if you like. Just space them out equally through the manuscript so you make the most of the repercussions. But that’s not a cast-iron rule (more here about general story structure).

The biggest question is this – has the plot settled into an unwanted lull? You might solve it by moving a pivotal revelation to one of these mathematically determined points.

Does the story type dictate the use of pace and change?

Yes and no.

Why no? Because these principles are universal – a change is whatever will keep your audience interested. It might be an emotional shift. An earthquake. A person recognising a stranger across a room. A betrayal. A murder. A cold breeze that echoes the fear in a character’s heart. An assailant jumping in through a window. A line that pulls a memory out of the reader’s own life. It’s all change.

Why yes? Because the type of story will dictate the kind of change your readers want to see. Thrillers need big bangs and danger; interior literary novels need shades and nuance.

Why no, again? Because all stories need change.

Thanks for the pic Joe Mabel

nyn3 2ndThere’s lots more about pace and structure in my plot book, of course.

 

 

 

NEWSFLASH Chance to WIN 2 print copies

So many readers of My Memories of a Future Life have told me they wanted to discuss it with a friend. So I dreamed up a special idea to mark the relaunch with the new cover. Enter the giveaway on Facebook and you could win 2 copies – one for you and one for a like-minded soul. Closing date is this Wednesday, 12 Oct, so hurry. This could be the beginning of a beautiful book club… but don’t enter here.  Follow this link and go to Facebook.

mm-for-newsletter

Any questions about structure or pace? Any lessons learned from experience? Let’s discuss.

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‘A fire was in my head’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Sandra Leigh Price

for logoMy guest this week traces her novel to a series of musical and poetic influences. She says she can’t write or think in silence, but music or poetry orders her thoughts like a steadily flowing river. In her novel, her characters are travelling from darkness and confusion into light and her muses were WB Yeats, Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush. Drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Sandra Leigh Price.

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‘Music brought me closer to that amalgum of confusion, self-pity and nostalgia’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anne Goodwin

for logoMy guest this week has a novel about a woman who has kept her past identity hidden. The novel is its reckoning, of course, and its author had a challenge in evoking the many colours of her protagonist’s progress from child to woman. So she built herself a soundtrack. It’s a mix of radio theme tunes from her own childhood (possibly the first appearance in the series of Listen With Mother), traditional songs that conjure a powerful sense of place and melancholy reminders of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence. Drop in on the Red Blog to meet Anne Goodwin and her Undercover Soundtrack.

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‘Freedom, broken ties and love outside of marriage’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Diana Stevan

for logoMy guest this week delved into personal experiences to write her latest novel. In the 1970s she was working on a psychiatric ward where electric shock treatment was taking place. Years later, troubled by what she had seen, she wrote a novel. She turned to music to reawaken her own memories of the time and to create a cast of characters who are lost in the midst of a broken system. She remarks that her Soundtrack is as much about her own inner world as her characters’ – a line that for me is the very essence of the Undercover Soundtrack series. She is Diana Stevan and she’s on the Red Blog with the music that helped her write The Rubber Fence.

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‘When I feel like a storm is raging’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephanie Carroll

for logoMy guest this week grew up in the Mojave desert where rain was a rarity. So a key for her creative space is the sound of wild, wet weather. Sometimes it’s tracks that include storm noises, but she’ll just as easily tune into a rain station at the same time as a piece of music. The sounds go in tandem, whipping up just the right tumult for her writing. So it’s probably not surprising that her work has a Gothic element; she writes what she describes as Victorian and Gilded Age with a Gothic twist. It certainly went down well with USA Book News, who voted her first novel 2013’s best cross-genre title. She is Stephanie Carroll and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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Ghostwriting 101, why I write and a brief blog hiatus

alli ghostingI’m sneaking away from the internet for a brief period so there won’t be any posts for a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, as if by magic timing, a couple of guest posts are setting sail.

First there’s a swift guide to becoming a ghostwriter. Debbie Young, chief blogatrix at the Alliance of Independent Authors, asked me for a starter piece for writers who might be interested in ghostwriting as a career move. It’s something I’m forever asked about, and if you’ve hung around this blog for a while the advice won’t be new to you. But otherwise, step this way.

writers of the worldSecondly, I was contacted by Warren Adler, author of Wars of The Roses (yes, THAT Wars of the Roses), who’d seen me loitering on Twitter and wanted to include me in a showcase on his website, called Writers of the World. The brief was exacting – 150ish words on why I write. Of course, I could give him a complete dossier, and while I tried to super-condense my million-or-so favourite reasons, I ended up with a post about the power of why in storytelling. But I eventually completed my assignment and it’s here.

So I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, with posts and Undercover Soundtracks. In the meantime I’ve cued up a selection of useful tweets to keep your writing at a healthy bubble. See you soon.

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots – do you have a plot or a premise?

guardThis is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.

Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.

Is it a premise or a plot?

plot or premiseA writer in my class told us she’d had a literary agent, who had said: ‘Your problem is that you have a premise but not a plot.’

So what might that mean?

A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)

Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.

So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.

Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.

Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.

Still life
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.

And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.

So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.

The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.

So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.

More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
ebookcovernyn3In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.

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‘Tenderness, fragility, an understanding beyond her years’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Myfanwy Collins

for logoMy guest this week has just one musician in her book-s arsenal – a singer who  perfectly, wholly, uncannily embodied the character she was searching for. The story is a young adult novel – a new departure for the writer, who has had other works published in the adult market and in literary magazines. Anyway, the emotions run high – and also the fragility. Hop over to the Red Blog where Myfanwy Collins is sharing her Undercover Soundtrack.

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What keeps you resilient as a writer?

6975005928_55153f82c3_oThe life of a writer is a kind of madness. We have the pressure to produce. The expectations of ourselves and, if we’re lucky, our readers. We have, usually, the feeling that we can never do enough – can’t write enough words or books, can’t be in enough online places, can’t sell enough copies. We might also have the feeling that we’re failing in comparison to others, that we have too many opportunities we can’t fulfil well enough – or no opportunities at all because, as we hear every minute of the day, the market is glutted and nobody needs any more writers.

But writing and publishing are long games, and those of us who keep at it have to develop a resilience. Day by day by day, there’s a secret fuel that keeps us keeping on. Otherwise this would be a dumb way to live, right?

In my corner of the world, March has dawned bright and full of promise. I still can’t figure out how, as it seems just a fortnight since Christmas, but as we’re here I thought I’d share the things that put a spring in my step.

Noting each hour I’ve spent on my fiction. Those of us who write and edit as a day job often find our soul projects get pushed aside. That’s one of the surprising truths about the writing life. Emma Darwin posted about this recently, in which she talked about ring-fencing time for her own writing. I cherish the time I spend with Ever Rest each morning before I open the deluge of emails. Just an hour loads the book in my mind and keeps it ticking over while I deal with the day’s demands. Sometimes deadlines make it impossible, and if that continues for a few days I start to get twitchy. But a proper appointment with my own writing restores my equilibrium. Even if that’s an hour of filleting a paragraph over and over, hunting for the right tone, that was well spent. Page by page, it adds up to a book.

The sense that so much of a book is serendipity. I look back at my completed novels and can recognise where incidental details came from, and sometimes the big ideas too. So much of a book’s texture seems to have come from random remarks I heard, news headlines I glimpsed, a novel I happened to be reading or a film I saw when my own story was at a sensitive point. My books are made of a collection of happenstances and lucky discoveries. Which is a bit magical.

Finding an email, a tweet or a Facebook note about one of my books. Sometimes they’re from a stranger, or a name I recognise only glancingly. We are probably more widely read than we suspect. But every single remark is a genuine, welcome surprise – or at least confirms I’m not howling into the wind.

An afternoon reading for pleasure. My reading time is usually appropriated by work – manuscripts in progress, research to get ideas and to make sure my WIPs are properly informed (both non-fiction and fiction). So I try to make time for an indulgent read, purely for fun and curiosity (which is how the rest of the literate world probably reads anyway). Again, I don’t always succeed when the deadlines go wild. (If you like to explore more about how writers read, bookseller Peter Snell and I discussed it recently in one of our radio shows. Find them all here – it’s show no 21.)

A good sales day, of course, which is different for everyone, and seems to be more of a challenge now than ever. But they do happen. I’ve written before about how much harder it is to sell fiction than non-fiction, and how to take a long-term view, and how a sale of one of my novels delights me about five times as much as a sale of a Nail Your Novel book (but I’m still very grateful to have those, thank you very much).

The Undercover Soundtrack I started this series on the Red Blog and have kept it going now for four years. It’s fun. People enjoy it and it’s nice to be able to offer an unusual kind of showcase for other writers. But also The Undercover Soundtrack keeps me in touch with the essence of creativity. These essays ground us in the work we do. It’s not about communities, forums or sales. It’s the pleasure and struggle of sitting down with yourself, the long persistence of flying blind through an idea, seeking clarity, gathering substance, the process of gradually making something from nothing.

The wonderful web of writer support. Most of the time we all try to be upbeat on line. And there is much to do, and many opportunities to grasp, and many reasons to press onwards and upwards. But I’m grateful whenever one of my co-conspirators lends an ear for a moment of woe, or confesses they are having just the difficulties I am – when I thought I was the only one.

Thanks for the pic MadAdminSkillz

Over to you – what keeps you resilient as a writer?

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Which courses should I take to become a writer?

4063109507_ab9b84c033_zI’ve had this question from Ellie Jackson, who blogs at aquamarinedreams.wordpress.com

I have just graduated from high school and dearly wish to become a writer/author. I am asking different authors what their recommended education would be – pursue a degree, take courses, or read books and blogs and get as much experience possible?

You want more than just to use writing in your job, right? You want to write books that will be your signature in the world.

A degree?

I’m guessing that careers advisers would pick the obvious – take a qualification in English, perhaps literature. That’s the way I was advised, but studying English didn’t help me write. It was the subject I was good at and a way of keeping me parked in education while I figured out a profession to aim for. (I went into publishing.) Casting around my real-life friends who’ve ended up as published writers, they have degrees in archaeology, history, theology, PPE. Husband Dave has a degree in physics. Some of my writer friends don’t even have degrees.

Writing courses

None of my writer cronies have a formal education in writing. They – we – wrote as a natural pastime and this became such a habit that we always had a book in the works. We read craft books when we found them, but mostly went with our instincts and learned by reading with awareness. Then we gathered our courage, queried an agent or an editor and had a period of rude awakening when we discovered our blind spots (and also strengths).

Not everyone gets that kind of feedback or opportunity, of course, especially as publishing deals are now more scarce than ever. But we now have far more ways to find mentors – hiring an editor, joining online or real-life writer groups. I had my baptism of fire in an evening class at Morley College in London, where we read excerpts of WIPs and discussed them critically, guided by an agent. All genres, all types of writer. Eyes were widely opened.

Good as that was, I’ve done miles more learning since. Each novel gives me new craft challenges, and Ever Rest is no exception. To be a writer you have to relish that work as much as the days when the muse is obliging. It also means you don’t have to get all your learning in one hit.

Last word on courses

Creative writing qualifications might prime you with the basics, but I don’t think they’ll equip you any better than learning by practice, training your sensitivity, reading observantly and experimenting on your own soul. Creative writing degrees probably exist because there’s a demand for them, not because they’re necessary.

What’s my evidence for this? In more than 20 years as an editor, I have not noticed that clients with MFAs or creative writing qualifications are any more adept than those without.

Again – which course?

Here’s what I’d do. Get a fallback skill you can ultimately use for freelance work. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to make a living just by writing, so train in a skill that will pay the bills and scale up or down as needed. Even if you aim to write a high-selling, lucrative genre such as romance, you still need to earn while you build a reputation, a network and a body of work.

It’s more likely, though, that you won’t give up the day job. Sorry. Many acclaimed writers I know are also immigration officials, teachers, night watchmen (good for story material), doctors, lawyers, PR consultants, tailors, journalists, farmers, electricians. I don’t subsist solely on writing. I freelance as a fiction editor and also as a magazine editor. And occasionally a film and TV extra.

whatremains44This doesn’t demote your writing to ‘just a hobby’. If you are arranging your life around your writing, it is not a hobby.

Should you try to work in book publishing?

Here’s an upside – you meet useful people and learn handy skills (for me it was how to make books – dead useful with the invention of CreateSpace).

Here’s a downside – little reading time of your own. You must read to develop your art. Although you learn a lot from rough or unsuitable manuscripts, or the latest upcoming bestsellers, you need to read for your own education and for your current WIP. See my previous remark about prioritising.

Experience

We’ve talked about ‘experience in writing’ – but experience in another sense counts too. The best education for writing isn’t craft books or courses. It’s life. If we only mix with writers, that’s all we know – like those authors whose main characters are always authors, or pop stars who only write songs about the agony of fame. That’s a rarefied life that doesn’t resonate well with the people who might be your readers. This fantastic post by Randy Susan Meyers at Beyond The Margins talks about the things she learned from frustrating jobs where people treat you impolitely, reveal their true natures or regard you as invisible. We write more truthful, relatable, enduring books when we get out.

Becoming a writer isn’t necessarily about getting qualifications. The learning process is too long for that. You can’t bank on making a living through it – although you might, the business is too precarious and fickle for such guarantees. So what is your best plan for success? To build a life that enables and enriches your writing. Good luck. And let me know what the other authors say.

Thanks for the writer pic Alan Weir

What would you say to Ellie? Share in the comments (especially if you’re a careers adviser)!

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