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Posts Tagged how to edit your novel
Yesterday 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.
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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I see a lot of manuscripts by writers who tell me they’ve been honing their book for years, sometimes even decades. Often these are first novels, slowly maturing as the writer feels their way – not just with that story’s material but with all the controls of their writing craft, and the influences they’re absorbing from other fiction they read. Even their idea of what kind of writer they are might change.
And quite often, I can see these phases in the novel itself, like a Frankenstein monster. In some paragraphs the narrator sprouts a personality, and starts to present a humorous view of proceedings that wasn’t in the narrative before. Sometimes the plot events or dialogue abruptly switch to the conventions of a different genre, or the writer’s vision for the characters seems to change from tragic to dreamy.
When I flag them in my report, the writer usually says that the line or section came from an earlier version, or they were unsure whether to include it or not.
Mood to mood
It’s inevitable that we’ll write or edit in different moods from one day to the next. That’s fine; we’re not machines, after all. And we often get our best revelations from messing and experimenting. But we don’t want to develop a patchwork of tones.
One of the many things we must do as we edit is to create an even tone to give the reader a consistent experience – or at least make sure we don’t change it unintentionally. That doesn’t mean we can’t create characters who are contradictory or multifaceted. Or narrative styles that are flexible and supple. But we must watch out for the moments when our narrative veers too far from variety and we have slipped into a different version of the book.
This is difficult to spot. If we’ve been working on a book for a long time, we’ll have got used to assembling it piecemeal from bits we like. As we read through, we know what it all means and we don’t realise when we’re giving the reader an unwanted mental gear change. We become tone deaf to our book.
We need to edit with an awareness of this moment. If at any point we catch ourselves making a mental hop to process a sentence, this could be because its tone doesn’t quite belong.
This kind of editing is usually only possible in the late stages of the novel, when we’re happy and have stopped experimenting. It isn’t until then that we have the coherent vision of our work, the deep knowledge of what we are trying to do, and therefore the certainty to feel when something fits and something doesn’t. Or, indeed, the strength to let go of the parts that don’t fit – the evergoing purge of darlings.
But if you learn to recognise the shadows of former versions of your novel, you’ll give the reader a smoother ride.
Thanks for the pic petsadviser.com
NEWS If anyone’s in or near London, I’m teaching in the one-day Guardian self-publishing seminar, along with Joanna Penn, Orna Ross, Ben Galley and Polly Courtney. Funnily enough, most of them have been or will be guests on The Undercover Soundtrack – except for Joanna, who writes to the sound of rain. I’m working on her to write me an Underwater Soundtrack. I’m teaching the module on print books, and other modules include marketing, formatting and using social media.
Back to tone! Do you have problems with your novels shifting tone? How have you solved them? Let’s discuss
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A publisher was interested so we had a meeting. In a creative, convivial afternoon, we brainstormed ideas. I took reams of notes. But in the end I did nothing they suggested. Not one thing.
They were right
At home I made a beat sheet (one of my all-time lifesaving revision tools, explained in Nail Your Novel). It had been a while since I’d read the manuscript. The beat sheet showed that too much of the first half was atmosphere instead of story. My esteemed colleagues were right that it was slow.
They were wrong
But they were disastrously wrong about how to pep it up. ‘Let’s have a character on the run, a threatening political movement in the wider world of the book, another sub-plot to keep characters busier’… All sorts of plot fireworks, all out of kilter and unnecessary. I knew the central character had a compelling major problem and that the action must come from that, not from a carnival of chaos around the edges.
So how did I fix the book?
As always, the best insight came from examining why I wrote the story the way I did – made possible by the beat sheet (left, with fortifying accessories). I included those slow scenes for a good reason – to introduce ideas and threats that would emerge later. I’d made them strange and intriguing, but I now saw they didn’t have enough momentum in themselves. They didn’t immediately generate interesting situations.
I’d known I was in trouble
I had even suspected they were weak, so I’d tried to solve it with false jeopardy. I confess I made the main character worry that nasty things could happen. I now clutch my head in shame – these extended periods of worrying were not jeopardy, they were nothing darn well happening.
I even realised this, and tried to atone by making the main threat bigger. In hindsight it creaked with desperation.
Agent and publisher were nice enough not to say any of this. Perhaps they didn’t notice or mind. Perhaps only I knew how bad it was, because I knew my desperate motivations.
Unpleasant as it was to examine my writerly conscience, the answers helped me decide what to keep, what to add and what to adjust.
Better. Stronger. Faster.
I returned with a leaner, stronger Life Form 3. A really compelling read, said my agent – not noticing it was actually longer. He didn’t give a hoot that I’d ignored his suggestions. He didn’t even remember them. Unfortunately the publisher’s imprint closed that month – so Life Form 3 was out in the cold again. But that’s another story.
Some writers hate it when editors, beta readers et al make suggestions. I don’t – I welcome them as oblique illuminations from the surface to the murky deep. And if you’re new to the writing game, or need to fit an unfamiliar genre, there’s much that a savvy editor can do to guide you.
But you mature as a novelist by understanding your own style and your individual ways – which includes how you handle your material and second-guess your own process. In a talk given at BAFTA, screenwriter, playwright and novelist William Nicholson said it’s the editor/producer’s job to tell you something’s wrong, and the writer’s job to find out what that is.
Before you act on revision notes, reread your manuscript and examine why you wrote what you did. This is how you stay true to your novel – and how you come into your own as a writer.
Thanks for the camel pic Loufi
In my next post I’ll discuss in detail how to add jeopardy to a story. In the meantime, let’s discuss –
Have you had detailed editorial advice on revisions, and how did you approach it? Do you appreciate it when editors chip in with changes they think would improve a book?
You can find my beat sheet in my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. A second Nail Your Novel is under construction – if you’d like information, sign up for my newsletter.
And – spoon tapping on glass – this week I had an email from CreateSpace telling me that demand for the print edition has been so high that Amazon placed a bulk order so they have enough stocks for Christmas. Who says indies are killing print? 🙂
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- 9 tips to nail dialogue – guest post at Ingram Spark July 8, 2019
- The ‘under-arrest’ test – how to see the holes in your story’s ending June 20, 2019
- Roger Ebert, Werner Herzog, Antarctica … and a manifesto for maverick creatives May 23, 2019
- Writing multiple projects and keeping in touch with a book when you take a break – interview at Joined Up Writing podcast May 12, 2019
- ‘Something elusively wistful’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Gwendolyn Womack April 28, 2019
- On interrupting the story for your brilliant philosophical ideas April 22, 2019
- Write a brilliant novel by asking the right questions – guest post at The Creative Penn April 5, 2019