Posts Tagged how to write a book

The ‘under-arrest’ test – how to see the holes in your story’s ending

It’s hard to see the flaws in our own work, and the ending is especially a problem.  We know ourselves how it’s supposed to pack its punch, or we hope we do, but will the reader?

Here’s a handy test.

You’ve seen arrests in movies. And you know, don’t you, that a person may harm their defence if they don’t mention any evidence they later rely on in court.

This is like story endings.

A good ending

First of all, what’s a good ending? It has a feeling of ‘rightness’, even if it has surprises, leaves questions or unresolved issues. It must be fair (to the reader, not necessarily to the characters). It mustn’t look arbitrary.

When an ending fails, it’s usually because it wasn’t sufficiently set up.

It fails the arrest test.

Which is this:

It may harm your story’s effectiveness if you fail to mention any evidence (about events and character issues) that you later rely on ….  at the end.

Epic fail  

How do you spot this epic fail?

You may already be good at it.

We are in an era of long-running TV shows, which get cancelled or renewed at the last minute. Some writing teams can weather this with aplomb. Others collapse in a pickle of chaos. We’ve all seen a smart, richly written show that falls apart in a late episode and becomes unsatisfying, or ridiculous, or changes direction jarringly.

Behind this story implosion, there’s usually a script crisis. The showrunners might have planned a one-off series with an arc that finished nicely. Then late on, they’re told they’re being renewed and mustn’t wrap up after all. They can’t rewrite. The first episodes might even have been shown. So hasty rearrangements are needed at the end.

It happens the other way round too. The show is cancelled unexpectedly, so the writers must tidy up in a tearing hurry.

What the viewer sees is this.

  • Heaps of new stuff is tipped in at the last minute.
  • Things happen that haven’t been properly set up.
  • Characters behave in ways that are hard to understand and don’t fit with what we know about them.
  • There may be a lot more expositional scenes than before, which usually look contrived.

Golden rule

Don’t put anything in your ending that you haven’t seeded much earlier.

Back to evidence

Let’s stay with the arrest scenario and think about evidence.

Evidence is audience knowledge. And it must be revealed at the proper time.

Because a good, satisfying ending is built from knowledge and emotions the reader has gained throughout the entire book.

A health check for your ending

So here, in more detail, is the ‘under arrest’ test. Look for the following in your manuscript.

No new plotlines or characters

Any new characters or plotline that appear suddenly. After a certain point in the story, you shouldn’t introduce anything new. However, you can if you’ve paved the way for them (which means they’re not, actually, new). And you must be specific. If you add a long-lost cousin who becomes pivotal, we must know they might exist in the specific world of this story and that they might be drawn out of hiding. If you don’t make these preparations, it won’t look fair – even though most humans on the planet might have a long-lost cousin. (Though they might not all have had a long-lost Dalek.)

A new relationship or set of character feelings is revealed. He was adopted! She was always jealous of them! If you want to introduce a relationship surprise, make sure you’ve laid oblique and indirect clues. If a character does a thing that is surprising because they have a change of heart, does it make deep sense without lots of explanation? Or should you prepare more earlier?

Expositional scenes – how much are you having to explain? If you are giving long explanations, have you already got the reader insanely curious about these facts? Are they the subject of an ongoing mystery? If you’ve already primed the reader to want the answer, they’ll pay close attention to your explanation. If you haven’t, they’ll see it as an info-dump and you need to set it up much earlier so that they care about it all.

And if you need a long sequence of exposition, how do you handle it? Are you delivering it in the most interesting way? The most straightforward way is long speeches, which can look uneven – one person talks a lot, the other sits quietly, maybe drinking tea. Or you might convey it through thoughts and sudden realisations – which might also look dull and static. Instead, could you make these discoveries more dynamic? If a person is hearing the explanation, could it matter directly to them? Could some of the information be acquired by action rather than a long explanation?

Watch out for off-screen action you’ve introduced to fill logic holes. ‘I found this out because I phoned that guy you used to work with who I’ve never met before, I must admit, so a phone call is out of character for me…’ Yes, you should have written a scene shouldn’t you? Evidence, innit.

So… list everything the reader must understand to really ‘get’ your ending. A thread to be resolved, a thread to hang in a tantalising way, a note to sound your theme, a comedy twinkle or a note of sinister continuation. You could even write the ending you most want, then interrogate it with these questions to find out what to expand. Then you’ll have an ending that does your book justice.

Thanks for the justice pic Jessica45 on Pixabay

There’s more about endings in my book on plot and also in my workbook.

Endings are on my mind as I’m currently being fussy about the denouement of my current novel, Ever Rest. If you’d like to know more about that, here’s my newsletter.

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It’s a workbook! Unlock your book’s full potential and finish like a pro

In my previous post, I mentioned how I’ve just hit my ten-year blogging anniversary and the surprising things that brought. So it’s high time to revisit the first book I ever published under my real name – and today I’m proud to present the Nail Your Novel Workbook!

(The title’s a bit longer than that… Nail Your Novel: Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence – A Companion Workbook.)

It enlarges the 10-step process in Nail Your Novel Original, with expanded questions to tackle all the creative stages. I’ve added sections to help you discover your best writing method, beat writer’s block, squeeze maximum originality out of your idea, keep yourself on message when the manuscript is having a rest. And an in-depth workshop to help you find a knockout title. It’s a contract with yourself to produce your best possible book.

A proper post is coming tomorrow – continuing the in-depth interview with creative writing professor Garry Craig Powell. Last time we asked when – and if – it’s worthwhile taking a writing degree. This time, we’ll be discussing how to choose one.

In the meantime, have fun with the new book – and if you want to take pictures of your workings, I’d love to see them. x

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Not Quite Lost is launched! And making-of interview with Henry Hyde

Oh my heavens, it’s publication day. Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is no longer a tease in a tweet or a blogpost. It’s a real thing. A paperback book. A hunk of Kindle estate, or Kobo, or whatever other ebook format floats your boat. (Though there are no boats in the travels … plenty of buses, however.)

And my writer/designer friend Henry Hyde has invited me to his blog to chat about it. We cover technical stuff like developing a writing style, influences like Bill Bryson and Gavin Maxwell, and  some of the main thematic stops such as the romance of old houses, impostor syndrome and 1970s Doctor Who. Do hop aboard.  Oh, and you can find the book here.

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‘You get an idea and… it just grows’ – interview with book and writing blogger Michelle Dunton

michelle-intToday I’m at Michelle Dunton’s Youtube channel, talking about ideas, where they come from and how they end up as books. Michelle’s been reading my novels and decided to pick my brains for her podcast. One question of hers I particularly liked: she asked how a first-time fiction author should start writing a book. Should it be the characters, the plot, what? My answer: ‘start with something you can’t stop thinking about’. And from there, everything flows – as it does in this discussion. Do hop over.

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5 qualities of a brilliant story

3389004318_2e8d3200fb_zI 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.

Here goes.

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.

317454974_4bf323fafa_oCharacters 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.

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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.

(Lots more about characters in Nail Your Novel 2, and plots in Nail Your Novel 3.)

Thanks for the pics Hans Splinter Kadorin   Rachel Johnson  

Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!

 

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Are you a writer? Don’t neglect your reading – guest post at Writers Helping Writers

writershelpingIt’s always a struggle to find time to write. If you’ve got a book in progress, it’s tempting to spend all your free moments on it. But don’t sacrifice time that you would usually spend reading. It’s a false economy.

Similarly, don’t fear that your reading is going to influence your work to a detrimental extent, or that you might end up copying ideas. The chances are you won’t. Your book is much bigger in your mind than anything you read, or watch, or any conversation you overhear. Any influence will be minor by comparison with the huge amount of work you’ve already done.

But if you stop reading while you write your book you might lose touch with the way prose tells stories, and you won’t be using your ideas to their maximum potential. We do many things on instinct, and those instincts are learned unconciously. Reading feeds our muse and our technique.

Today I’m at the wonderful Writers Helping Writers site, run by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi of Emotion Thesaurus fame. They’ve devised a series of writing lectures this year and have invited various coaches to be regular contributors, and I’m honoured to be on their list (note that nice award they have from Writer’s Digest). And because I wrote the piece as the year was turning, my mind was operating in resolution mode. If I was to identify a change that I’d urge writers to make, what should it be? Many of my author clients would do their work a world of good by reading more, but it’s  job to persuade them. So here’s my persuasion. Do hop over.

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Doing NaNoWriMo? Nail it with this resource kit

nanoI can’t believe it’s already October. And that means it’s just a month until NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, it’s a worldwide writing lockdown where scribblers of all levels undertake to write a 50,000-word draft in just 30 days.

So here’s a list of NaNoWriMo resources I’ve written on this blog and further afield.

1 NaNoWriMo – should you? No, you can’t write a publishable novel in one month – or very few of us can. But that’s not what NaNoWriMo is about. And you can use NaNoWriMo to get a proper, publishable manuscript up and running. Here’s a post about that.

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2 So how do you do it? Preparation is key. Yes, it’s allowed. Here’s a work plan I wrote for Writers & Artists.

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3. Most outlines focus on the story. Is that too constricting for you? Would you rather just write and see what happens? Here’s another angle. Plan your characters, wing the plot. As demonstrated at Romance University. (But suitable for the staunchly unromantic too.)

nano14. Yes, but HOW DO YOU DO IT? Three old hands share their NaNoWriMo tips.

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5. A little book. Allow me to discreetly mention Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. Use it to guide your research, firm up your story and road-test your plot. While you’re writing it will give you strategies to keep you focussed, creative and confident. And when you collapse on a pile of words at the other end, it will hold your hand as you sort out what to do next.

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6. So much to read! I should be planning my book!  NaNo advice can come to you in your headphones. In this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell, we discuss all things NaNo.

 

 

 

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5 essential habits I learned while ghost-writing – guest post at Jo Malby

jo malbySome of you know that I began my writing career incognito, as a ghost-writer. It gave me certain habits and approaches that I still use to this day, and I’m sure they were a head start for productive writing processes. Today I’m talking about those habits at Jo Malby’s blog. (And as I’ve had two guest posts this week, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking the rest of the weekend off. There is bank holidaying to do, as well as a spot of writing.)

And if you’re wondering about ghost-writing yourself, let me clear my throat discreetly and point you to this…

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‘Tearing open the doors of the heart’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Michael Golding

for logoMy guest this week says he needs silence to write, but not necessarily aural silence. Instead he seeks what he calls a ‘silence of the mind’, a cessation of chaos, so that he can tune his senses to his novel’s world and the feelings of his characters. Music by Bach and Joni Mitchell, among others, prepare the way for his latest novel – the story of a boy born in thirteenth-century Persia with four ears instead of two, and his path towards spiritual awakening and love. Stop by the Red Blog to meet literary novelist Michael Golding, and the Undercover Soundtrack for A Poet of the Invisible World.

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2 interviews about teaching and writing – Venice, BBC Radio London

venice postThe organisers of my Venice masterclass, Henry and Janys Hyde, have just published this interview about the course. If you’d like to know a little more about my teaching approach, or indeed how I came to be doing this at all, this is the place to go. And if you’d like to come to another, let them know!

BBC LondonAlso, I’ve been on BBC Radio London this week, on Jo Good’s afternoon show. The day before I’d listened to Jo interview Candace Bushnell, so I made sure to wear feisty boots. Jo asked me about ghostwriting, tips for writers etc – some of which may be familiar to those of you who have hung around here for a while. Anyway, if you’re curious it’s here for the next 30 days. My section begins at 1 hour 10 minutes.

Oh, and these were my interview boots. Roberto Cavalli. I hope Carrie Bradshaw would approve.

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