Posts Tagged Fix and Finish With Confidence
I tweeted this piece yesterday by agent Jenny Bent : ‘Why reader taste differs from publisher taste‘. I urge you to read the whole article, but briefly, she’s talking about what’s wrong with the way the industry tries to second guess what readers should be offered – whether literature or popular fiction. A friend on Twitter came back to me and said ‘come come, surely it can’t be that bad?’
Jenny’s in the US, and I’m on the other side of the Atlantic. But here, it is indeed that bad.
I know a few agents, and they’re tearing their hair out. An agent recently told me ‘editors in big publishers are basically readers for marketing departments’. Another said in the past year she’d got more than 10 excellent books to editorial board, with all the editors staunchly behind them, but marketing vetoed them. An editor I know – very senior in terms of job title and the publisher she works for – laments that she is no longer allowed to accept the rich fiction she loves to read and has to publish shallow sure-fire supermarket titles.
Jenny says books are that too quirky or defy comparison don’t get a chance. Again, that’s the same here.
The interesting and popular authors I like wouldn’t, I’m told, get published if they were starting today. Especially not with their most ambitious work. David Mitchell would be told to take Cloud Atlas away and keep it on his hard drive. Kingsley Amis wouldn’t be allowed to hop between genres. Michael Morpurgo wouldn’t be allowed to write a non-genre novel about horses. Holes by Louis Sachar? Forget it. And David Almond’s Skellig. Readers seem to like them, though. They still buy them.
It’s the big monolithic publishers I’m talking about here. They were a good model five years ago but they’re breaking down because they can’t take the interesting books. But the smaller boutique publishers are a different matter. They can – and are being – much more adventurous. The economist Tim Harford has in fact written an entire book on this subject (Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure), about how you cannot prevail in today’s business environment without a willingness to experiment and take risks.
One of the things that’s so nice about Jenny Bent’s piece is that she pays tribute to the self-published writers who are getting out and finding their readers. That’s something we’re not hearing enough of. Some self-published authors I know who’ve been to conferences recently felt like they were about to be chased away with pitchforks.
Reviewers, who you’d think were less restricted, haven’t yet caught up with the fact that quality, competent, worthwhile authors are self-publishing. The theory goes that this is because journalism is funded by advertising and indies don’t buy expensive adverts. Whatever the reason, this industry needs to find a way to give good self-published writers a fair chance at creating a decent and widespread reputation.
But there’s no point in negativity, and ending on a whinge. The other thing I’d like to say is that the agents, editors, and publisher sales forces I’ve met are all book lovers too. It’s just their end of the business that’s broken. Thankfully, as Jenny points out, we’re all now building a new one.
(Thanks for the picture, Frankh)
Rant over. Do continue in the comments if you feel so inclined…
On November 30th, or thereabouts, Nanowrimoers typed ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month. At least.
Become a stranger to your story
We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.
To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.
Let the flavours marinate
Your manuscript needs to marinate. Like a good wine, all that stuff you put in has to blend. A novel isn’t just characters + plot + description + setting + dialogue + cool bits + pizzazz + your undercover soundtrack, if you do that. It’s all those things working together.
Put more sensibly, your characters are not just characters. They are people in a world, with forces they are fighting, with people who embody their worst fears or their happiest hopes. The world and the plot are personal challenges to them, not just places to go and stuff for them to do.
If you look at your manuscript too soon, you’ll only see the separate ingredients. Not how they work together. You won’t see the parts where you were cleverer than you thought – or the overall patterns that you could amplify. You’ll miss the things you unconsciously wrote that echo higher themes, or create an overall symmetry to the story.
But I have things I want to fix right now
Make notes about them, but don’t do them yet. When you look at the manuscript afresh, you might have better ideas for how to tackle them.
But I was on a roll and I don’t want to stop
Nobody says that when your manuscript is resting you have to stop writing. Go and tinker with another story. If you’ve done Nanowrimo to kick-start a writing routine, use the time for reading and research. Stephen King in On Writing says to leave the manuscript for at least six entire weeks – and to work on something totally different to give yourself time to recharge.
Revise in haste, repent at leisure
If you revise too soon, you’ll only scratch the most obvious itches. You’ll miss so much more.
So close the file. Don’t touch it at least until after Christmas.
What’s the longest you’ve left a manuscript before revising it?
I have tools for assessing manuscripts in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available here.
We’ve got a tonne of stuff to let readers know at the start of a novel. What’s going on, who wants what, why it matters. And then there’s the background to the characters’ lives – how they know the people they’re with, what they do day to day. All the inventory that isn’t action but gives context and depth.
That’s back story.
Here are the two main problems with back story.
- Most writers fling it in too early.
- Most writers dump back story in one big chunk.
Both these problems mean the story grinds to a standstill. Which means the reader stops being engaged.
So how do you judge when is the right time?
First woo your reader
Imagine you have a new acquaintance. I’m talking about real life, by the way. Don’t even think of telling them about your life until they’re curious about you. Tell them the bare minimum until you’ve bonded with them in an experience that has drawn you closer together. Even then, give dribs and drabs; don’t whammy them with your entire biography. Give only what’s immediately relevant, what arises naturally from what you do together and what you already know.
In our hypothetical friendship, can you see how much is being held back? And how the full picture might not come out for a long time?
This is like your book’s relationship with the reader.
Your reader meets the book, is pulled into the world of the characters. You have to judge when they are genuinely curious for a dollop of back story. And it’s usually much later than you think.
So where do you put it?
I’m just thrashing through a final edit of My Memories of a Future Life, and with a title like that you can bet it’s got heaps of back story. Here’s what I did.
Cut it all out
I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story. It ran very smoothly without its weight of explanation, and offered me natural places to reintroduce a paragraph or two. Once I’d got the characters safely (or perilously) to their point of no return, the reader was warmed up enough to welcome the first chunk of back story.
Here’s how I’m dealing with the rest.
Make the back story part of the action
What you imagined as background may not have to stay as background. Could you make it part of the active story? In Life Form 3, which my agent sent out to publishers this week, I caught myself struggling with a lot of explanations. I realised I’d brought the reader in too late. So I started the story earlier and dramatised a lot of the explanations in real time.
Leave it as late as possible
As we said above, there are points in the story where the reader will welcome a few pages about the distant details of the character’s childhood, or how they first got a job at the circus. The later you leave it, the more delicious it might be.
Use back story as bonding material
As well as explaining back story directly through the narrator’s voice, you can also use it to deepen a bond between two characters in a story. If one character tells another how their relationship with their stepson went wrong, that’s miles better than leaving it in back story.
So much of what works in writing mirrors real life. If you think of your book as developing a relationship with the reader, it’s much easier to see you can’t pitch a chunk of back story in the first few chapters. So woo them a little. Intrigue them. Bond the reader to your characters and to you as a storyteller. There will come a point where your back story is very important to them.
Breaking news – historical and speculative author KM Weiland has obviously been wrestling with this topic recently too. She’s just posted a case study on back story in one of Hemingway’s classic shorts – check it out here.
There’s lots more about back story in my book Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3
Thanks, Binder.donedat for the pic How do you deal with back story? Do you find it a problem? Do share any examples of novels that have handled this well!