Posts Tagged how to write a better book
You know the situation. A beta reader or editor says a precious part of your book has to go. You resist, strenuously. They fix you with an unforgiving eye and say: ‘kill your darlings’.
Sometimes we resist a change for good reason. The character/scene/description/flashback/whatever might be needed. It explains something, or adds resonance, or fills a gap in the story, though perhaps it doesn’t yet do its job. That’s fixable.
We also resist changes that will cause a hot mess, though we’ll probably make them when we’ve mustered the courage.
Those aren’t darlings.
What are darlings?
Darlings are things we cling to, with especial defiance, when we shouldn’t. They’re anything we’re keeping mainly because we like them, not because they are necessary for the book.
We all do it. We’ll do it on our first book and yea unto our umpteenth.
So why are darlings such a blind spot? Here’s my theory, from experience at both ends of the editing sword. Darlings carry emotional baggage.
- We might keep a darling because it’s based on something personal.
- We might keep a darling that’s totally invented, but it took a long time to draft or edit and because of that investment, it’s going in the goddarned book.
But look at those reasons. Are they about the reader’s experience? Or are they about us, the writer?
Assuming the beta readers are right, what are the options? Sit down, this is painful.
- Remove the darling.
- Change it so it better serves the book.
For some authors, the second option is every bit as scandalous as the first. And this is another way you can recognise a darling, should you wish to. It’s sacred. It must not be changed.
Truly I get it. A story isn’t a purely mechanical process, like building a bicycle. It’s a work of emotion too, a flow between the reader’s heart and ours. Our empathy, our gut quirks, give our book its distinctive life. All this is often beyond analysis. But our emotional contribution must be used carefully. Sometimes the most heartfelt parts of a book don’t touch the reader in the way they touch us. They’re muddling noise. Or embarrassing self-indulgence. Or boring. That’s what the beta readers are saying. They’re not feeling the vibe.
Still we resist. Dig our heels in.
I am NOT taking that out or changing it.
Loyalty to the darling runs deep.
It’s a tug of love. So here’s a more helpful question.
Which do we love better? The darling or the whole book?
It’s a hard call. I’m just as guilty as anyone of keeping stuff for bad, muddled reasons. You should see the outtakes files for my novels. But I’ve always found this: there comes a point where the manuscript seems to mature. When the book is working well, I appreciate what it needs as a whole. Then, I’m able to make the tougher decisions. I love the book more than I love a scene I’ve clung to for a long time, or a character or a description.
How you will know them
Here are a few more things I’ve learned about darlings.
They lurk in deep disguise. They often come from our very earliest workings on the book – for instance, a scene that helped us start the writing in the first place, or the first things we wrote about a character. They seem to be set in stone. But they don’t have to be. They might be scaffold – vital at first, unnecessary for the final piece.
A darling might come from our actual life, a secret ingredient of real experience or knowledge. This is another reason why they’re so hard to remove, because they are a kind of proof that we know what we’re writing about, that they came from something we learned first hand.Our vision and understanding of the book might be intrinsically tied to these darlings.
They once had an important purpose, but do they suit the book now? Has the book outgrown them?
These kinds of darlings don’t show their true nature until late on. It’s as if the editing process is a long relationship. In the first flush, we welcome everything we create for the book, especially the parts with the biggest life. (Darlings are often startling, dramatic, distinctive.) We’re discovering. From these, we might make numerous inspired and rewarding decisions. Those were important, but we don’t always need the material they came from.
I promise, because this always happens to me, that late in the process, you acquire a level of clarity and vision that will amaze you. When you’re very sure of the book, and of yourself in its skin, you’ll know when something no longer fits, even though it has been personally important to you in the book’s making. You recognise it strikes an unsuitable note, or tunes the reader wrongly, or muddies an important moment, or halts the emotional action. That’s when we can judge:
Which do I love more? This one precious part or the whole book?
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 (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.
I love systems. And here’s one I developed to help with a knotty aspect of revising a novel – the moment when you suddenly fear you’ve missed something big.
This happened to me with Ever Rest, which I recently finished. I was well advanced in revisions when I read an essay that brought me to a screeching halt.
One of the characters dies tragically young, and the story follows the fall-out of this. So when I saw an essay about young grief on Literary Hub I gave it a read.
It was spellbinding, raw. So unexpected. I finished with sickening anxiety. This was what I wanted for my characters, but I feared I hadn’t done it. My confidence was in tatters.
This is what might have happened: open the manuscript, flail about in a panic, rewriting stuff. Over-reacting etc etc. Making ill-considered changes. Getting in a big heap of mess.
However, I’ve been here before. I know not to revise in a panic.
In crises like this, we tend to think everything’s wrong. And it might not be.
Sure, you might be right, you might have missed something big.
Or – it’s probably not as dire as it seems, but something needs to be adjusted.
How do you discover the right thing to do? And how do you remain sober and sensible, and not make edits that mess up everything you’ve already got working well?
In my other life, I edit magazines for doctors. (Very useful when writing characters who are medics.) With my book howling in pain, I decided I’d think like a doctor. If a patient comes to the surgery saying they feel dreadful and they hurt all over, what do you do? Take a history. Ask: where does it hurt? And what causes it to hurt?
Stage 1 – start a panic (document)
I copied the LitHub piece into a textfile. We will call this the panic document.
I read the article again. Every time I came to a sentence that bothered me, I highlighted it. (Find the source of pain.)
Already this was more manageable. Large parts of the article didn’t hurt at all. It was toes and fingers, not the whole arm or leg, not the whole body.
This surprised me. See what I mean about panic?
Some parts were very sore, though.
Stage 2 – where does it hurt?
Find where the pain is coming from. These sentences twinged because they suggested issues I hadn’t paid attention to.
Were they major (arm and leg), or were they just a finger or toe?
When I’m unsure about something in a manuscript, I don’t change the manuscript. I use Word’s comments feature. I did this with the panic document. On each highlighted section, I opened a comment box and discussed the issues it raised. This included:
- Which of my scenes made me wince with this new insight
- Which of my characters it affected
- Which of the characters’ actions it might influence
- What I might add or adjust.
Soon, a few issues emerged. (In medical parlance, targets for treatment.)
I went through the panic document several times, discussing, re-discussing, reminding myself what I intended for the book, considering how significant these issues were in the overall balance.
Stage 3 – venturing into the manuscript
I opened the manuscript. I went to the scenes I’d earmarked as problems. But I did not change a word!
I now knew the scenes where I might tackle the problem, but I still didn’t know if I should.
Once again, I reread my discussions in the panic document. It was now clear that my notes were all the same solution, in several versions. I probably didn’t need them all. The revision task was not nearly as large as I first thought.
I used comments again, this time in the manuscript. I began by copying the most useful notes from my panic document. Many of them already seemed unnecessary now I’d calmed down and had a grip of the true problem.
Yes, there was indeed a problem. It was just one scene, actually, where the ending was weak. The character needed to go to a deeper level. To fix it, I needed a few other adjustments in earlier scenes too. But the situation now felt good. (Especially after the aforementioned panic.)
Stage 4 – something else
I went out running. Best to edit with a clear eye.
Stage 5 – do what must be done
I opened the manuscript again, looked at the notes. Did I still agree with them? Was this the solution? (Often, a good skip in the outdoors will suggest a different angle.)
From Stage 1 – panic and disaster – to stage 5 – a detail I was glad to rethink. Phew.
And that, my friends, is the panic document. I used it to tackle my response to an essay, but it will work for any situation that trashes your confidence in your book. Just write down the problem in detail, cover all the points that triggered your worries, and discuss with yourself what to do about them.
Thanks for the panic and freak out pic, RSNY on Flickr;
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips like this. 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 (US only at present) use Bookshop.org.
Ever Rest is now complete and is seeking its fortune with literary agents. Here’s a preview. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Last month I was preparing for beta reader comments on the manuscript of my third novel, Ever Rest.
I’ve now received them, so I thought it might be useful to write a follow-up post for how I tackle them.
I was very lucky – and relieved – that the verdict was overwhelmingly positive. The book works. Nevertheless, each reader found minor queries, which is entirely expected.
Some are easy to solve – a change of word or phrase. They won’t upset the flow. But some will be more disruptive, requiring explanations to be unpicked, dialogue to be altered, scene choreography to change. Those notes are more stressful.
But I have a strategy!
1 – Merge everything
My first step is to merge all the comments onto one Word doc. Not every query needs to be acted on, unless the reader is a specialist in a factual area, then their comments obviously have extra weight. But I pay serious attention if more than one person raises a particular problem.
Then I get to work. I split the edit into two phases.
2a – the factual and literal stage.
I chop in the new material, amend inaccuracies, add clarifications. Change events if necessary. I keep it rough and obvious. I change the text colour to red so I can instantly see it needs better treatment, like a sore thumb.
2b – the flow stage.
Here’s where I integrate the change properly, re-edit the scene, consider if the characters’ reactions should change, decide if there are more consequences to be stitched in later.
In phase 2b, I might decide that some of the 2a additions aren’t necessary. They might be too literal. Or they might need more oblique treatment. Sometimes a reader’s pain point is not caused in the place they registered it. Like sciatica, it might be referred from elsewhere.
This two-phase system allows me to give all the comments a fair hearing, to accept that something needs to be adjusted, without panicking about the wreckage it might leave, without worrying about the wrong things at the wrong time. It often brings me to better insights, to better understand what I’m making.
I’m just finishing phase 1. My manuscript now has new pieces, chopped in like rough surgery. But I’m excited about healing the joins. I know it’s now more authentic, effective, solid, reliable, which is what I want it to be.
PS I’m teaching a masterclass on back story at Jane Friedman’s online lecture hall! July 1st, book now!
PPS 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 (US only at present) use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
How do you integrate reader comments? Share below!
Back story is a vital element of novel and memoir, but tricky to use well. I’ve certainly been reminded of this when commenting on manuscripts at Pop-Up Submissions. On my first time there, several writers made the mistake of including it right at the beginning, bringing the narrative to a standstill.
But once you learn some tricks and become adept with back story, you have a versatile and exciting tool to add richness, depth and context… all the things that back story should do.
That’s why I’m teaching this course at Jane Friedman’s site on Wednesday July 1st, 1-2pm ET, 6-7pm BST, but if that time doesn’t suit you, a recording will be available.
The course is for writers of any work that contains a story arc – fiction and memoir, genre and non-genre. Whatever you write, if you want to sharpen and hone your use of back story, this is for you. (Where have you seen Jane Friedman’s name before? She’s a powerhouse in the writing and publishing world. Also, she hosts my ghostwriting course.)
Follow this link to find out more about my back story course and book a place…. Hope to see you there!
Welcome back to the rerun of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer. In today’s episode you’ll see one glaring hazard of the seasonal show – the new year issue that’s no longer at new year. But today’s a new week! And, more seriously, we’re all getting used to new normals, so perhaps the material in this show is timely after all.
We’re covering everything you need to harness your creative zeal, get your projects moving, set good habits, keep going when hurdles get in your way.
You might have noticed our inspirational music choices. Obviously you fast-forward through them if they’re not your bag, but I have to give a warning about one of today’s. It’s the Portsmouth Sinfonia. If you don’t know the Portsmouth Sinfonia, make sure you’re not operating heavy machinery. I first heard them while driving and I nearly crashed.
Asking the questions (or most of them) is independent bookseller Peter Snell. Answering them is me!
Stream from the widget below or go to our Mixcloud page and binge the whole lot.
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. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk and how I’m adapting to these strange times, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.
Some books never get out of the writer’s mind and onto the page … and when IngramSpark heard about my new workbook, they thought I might have some advice. Voila, 7 essential points for writing with confidence, which you can see over at their blog. Actually, I didn’t expect to be in your inbox again so quickly after the previous post, but launch times always get a bit frenetic.
This extra post also lets me share a sudden, mad offer. This weekend, in honour of the Bookbrunch Selfie Awards, I’m having a flash sale for my novel Lifeform Three – which a few years ago had a nibble at a very prestigious award (I’ve never been able to tell the story before, but you can find it here). For this weekend, the Kindle edition of Lifeform Three is just 99c. Grab it now!
I’d planned a post about self-editing. But then I thought – really, Roz? This close to the holidays, who cares?
Indeed, it’s more likely that the seasonal ding-dong is turning your routine downside up. If that’s merry and welcome, great.
But some of us (including me) get panicky about losing touch with our work.
This post is for you.
Don’t fight it
Resolve to do smaller sessions on your book. To stave off anxiety about your slower progress:
1 Figure out how much time you can regularly set aside, realistically.
2 Make a schedule.
If you do this, you’re in control. You’re making a plan you can stick to. Goodwill henceforth.
How to think small
Here are ways to think smaller while still making progress.
1 If you use wordcount targets, reduce them, obvs – then surprise yourself when your concentration lets you exceed it.
1.5 Or turn the limited time into a challenge. Use it as a chance to try a new approach – if you’re a slow and careful drafter, see what happens if you write fast, hell for leather, as a deliberate experiment. Sometimes, busting our habits can make us unexpectedly spontaneous and creative. Nobody need see the results if they’re bad. But you might just find you’re soaring.
2 Make a list of small but important tasks. We all have niggly stuff that we postpone. Consistency about character names, the plot timeline, pieces of research to check later. For me it’s place descriptions – I don’t have the mental space for them while I’m in the flow of characters and action. It’s great to have time to sort this out properly and not worry about anything else. Make a list of small tasks you can do in short bursts of time.
Embrace the break – and prepare for a smart restart
Or – accept that you’ll let your book doze for the period. And prepare for a calm and bright restart.
1 Make handover notes. The 2018 you to the 2019 you. What issues were you were working on? What was the next thing you were going to check, revise or fix? What new idea were you going to try?
1.5 Worried that you’ll forget why an idea seemed perfect? Here’s how to write down story ideas and remember why they were brilliant.
2 Annotate the manuscript with comments. I’m doing this with my own manuscript. Where I have an idea for a sequence of dialogue or a nuance, I write a comment at the appropriate point in the Word doc – eg ‘I want this to echo what xxx expressed earlier’, or ‘make sure I haven’t repeated this’.
3 Kick up your heels. Read greedily, anything that tickles your mistletoe. As I wrote in this post recently, my own reading tends to be constricted by my work, like a strict diet. But if I’m not worried about skewing my WIP’s tone and style, I read … anything I like the look of… like a normal booklover. It’s no bad thing to rejoin the normal world once in a while.
Speaking of which, here’s what I’m working on at the moment (my newsletter)
One last thing. The writer in the family often has a seasonal duty at this time of year. Yes, the Christmas letter. If you have to write one of these, here are some tips.
Do you have strategies for juggling holidays and writing? Let me know in the comments!
Wishing you a very merry and refreshing whatnot. See you in 2019 – or earlier if I get the sudden urge to tell you something.
I write a lot of posts about problems with book drafts. But isn’t it just as important to look at the positive? If we listed the qualities of a brilliant read, what would they be? (Plus, I think we need a feelgood post.)
So, as I sit here on Sunday morning in London with an hour to get this post out of my head and into the grey matter of the blogosphere, this is the list I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll storm your brains and join in at the end.
Deft use of details
A writer needs to give a lot of details to evoke the setting, time period (if it’s not contemporary), distinguishing features of the characters, points about the weather. A skilful storyteller will smuggle a lot of these in as part of the action. A historical period might be evoked by showing a character cleaning their teeth, or lifting their skirts away from the horse manure on the city roads. If we need to know a character is left handed, we might see them borrowing a friend’s PC and clearing the clutter off the desk to rearrange the mouse before they start to use it. Weather might be evoked by a character worrying that the rain will ruin their suede boots on a day when it’s important to look smart. We’ll never get the sense that the narrative is marking time in order to explain something.
Characters that are real
We hear this phrase a lot, but what does it mean? The characters will seem to have their own agendas, and good reasons for everything they do. They won’t seem like puppets for the plot. Their emotions will spur them to act so we feel everything they do is genuine and believable. They’ll have distinctive ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Even if they are conflicted or make bad choices and decisions, they’ll have ways of justifying what they do. They might have interesting blind spots about how the other characters feel.
Never a dull moment
Every scene will move the action on. There will be a sense of trouble building and escalating. The characters’ plans will never quite work out as they’re supposed to, and every scene will finish on a slightly unexpected note. Whenever the characters get something they want or need, it won’t be in the way anyone could predict.
Fresh until the end
The writer will know when to change to a different group of characters, which we’ll welcome. At the same time we’ll be eager to see those other characters again soon. They’ll know when to vary the mood with some humour or a more serious note. They’ll deploy some major turning points at just the point where we think you know where it’s going.
It all adds up
The story might begin by resembling an unraveled sweater with threads going everywhere, but slowly it will converge into a shape. The ending will seem to be inevitable, yet it will be a surprise. Or, if we can anticipate the ending’s events, we won’t be able to predict how we’ll feel about them.
Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!