Posts Tagged how to write a novel
I’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Last time I discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount. Today I’m looking at the opposite problem.
‘My drafts are too brief’
One writer in the class confessed that he had an uncommon problem – his drafts were quite brief. While most of us had fluff we needed to cut, he never did. Which was an interesting problem. (It turns out he’s not alone. After last week, I had a number of comments from writers who also found their drafts were on the skinny side.)
Here are some places to pump up the pagecount –
- secondary characters
- secondary paths in the main characters’ lives
- back story
- parallel stories
- action that seems to echo the theme.
And here’s a post I wrote about turning a short story into a novel, which includes a link to another post about filling gaps in your story outline.
But back to my student. The key to his problem was rather more interesting, and came later in the day. We were talking about moments when your story might need downtime – say, to give the reader a breather after a sequence of shocks and reversals. Sometimes you need a moment of light relief or a chance for the characters to relax and bond. In movies this is often called a campfire scene. My student made an interesting comment – he understood the need for such a scene but found them boring.
Aha, I said.
Are you a bit bored by the scenes you’ve planned to write?
If you don’t find the scene interesting, you sure won’t get the reader hooked. We know we’re not always the best judge of what is interesting – look at our fondness for indulgent scenes, aka the darlings that must be killed. But an absolute rule is that we must not write a scene we’re not committed to. If we can’t muster a bit of enthusiasm, no one else will.
This led to another discussion – about how we often need a scene to form a particular function but feel disinclined to write it. It’s usually for continuity or story mechanics, but the thought of writing it … zzzz. The answer, obviously, is to find an exciting angle. Find an unlikely setting. Or add a person who mustn’t know what’s going on. Unruly animals are good value. Introduce a factor that lifts your bog-standard, box-ticking event into the unusual. Or consider whether you could despatch the business in a simple line – ‘they flew to the Bahamas’. (Although that isn’t going to solve your problem of a short manuscript. In that case, return to the above.)
Repurpose your flabby scenes to give them new life
One of the exercises we did on the course was a beat sheet. This is a scene-by-scene summary of the entire book, noting the scene’s purpose and what it adds to the story. (Lots more about it in Nail Your Novel, here.)
My student here had another interesting insight. He looked at his own beat sheet and remarked that several sequences in his novel didn’t have that sense of forward progression. Things were happening, but they weren’t moving the story onwards. (What did he say about not having fluff he needed to cut? After looking at his story’s pace, it turned out he did. He was thinking about events, instead of what took the narrative forwards. It’s strange how we can confuse the two.)
Aha, many of us said.
You’ll probably want to trim those out, I said. But you know what? You can repurpose them – perhaps for a subplot, or those downtime scenes. Perhaps rewrite them with a lighter flavour, or use them to demonstrate how characters are bonding. They’re probably events that you were interested to write but are surplus to the main story thread. So use them to enrich the story in other ways.
Thanks for the stamp, Smabs Sputzer
Next time: characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?
There’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did you do it?
When you sit at the keyboard (or seize your writing irons), how certain are you about what you’re going to write?
I’m a big fan of plans, but sometimes they’re frustrating. We know the next point in the story but can’t get the characters there. We need to set up a development and it won’t work. Or we need something, anything to darn well happen.
This week I heard the broadcast journalist Libby Purves (@Lib_Thinks) ask two creatives about their processes, and the results were rather interesting (listen to it here) . They weren’t writers, but what they described was exceedingly familiar.
The moment when you get the pencil out
Fashion designer Katherine Hooker (left) @KatherineHooker and furniture maker Peter Korn (below) (who has written this book about creativity) were asked about the moment ‘when you first get the pencil out and think now I’m going to create something‘.
Peter Korn immediately modified the idea. ‘Getting the pencil out is a challenging moment. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail, or how long it will take to come up with something pleasing, until the pencil stumbles on the right thing.’
Katherine agreed. ‘Rather than making it happen, you see it happening. You see it presenting itself. And then you’re away, thinking this is good.’
Beginning without knowing what you’re aiming for.
Exploring until you stumble on the right thing.
Hold those thoughts.
So – what has this got to do with being stuck? And writing??
It’s this. Often I’ve found that when I’m stuck with a scene, or frustrated because I can’t find a the right story development, the thing to do is to step back. Remove the expectations.
Usually I’m blocked because there’s a possibility I haven’t seen. Or I’m forcing an unnatural direction, or a phase in the story is missing. Or I’m repeating a beat and haven’t yet recognised it, but the creative elf has put the brakes on. No, we can’t go there again.
Whatever the reason, I’ve found the way to solve it is to forget the plan and just write. I don’t know how long the solution will take, or how much I’m going to delete, but eventually, like Katherine, I’ll see it happening.
What’s more, I’ll find something more new and surprising. (Indeed, over the years I’ve come to see the creative process as a search for questions, instead of answers. More about that here. )
And this spirit of exploration was how these two people, one creating clothes and the other creating furniture, discovered what they wanted to make next.
Here’s another remark I liked from the interview. Peter Korn said: ‘If you draw a lot, you get to the stage where you can remove yourself and the pencil can do the thinking.’
That’s us with our craft, adding the building blocks of story and character, shaping the idea into crescendoes, crises, conflict, protagonists, antagonists, hooks, midpoints.
Blank page panic
We often fear the blank page, especially when it presents at an inconvenient time. But those who do discovery exercises, such as free writing, already know that if you start the fingers, the muse can spring wonderful surprises.
I’m sure someone is about to say ‘trust the process’. Sometimes that’s our craft knowledge. If your narrative’s flagging, check the structure, look for repetition, create more contrast in your subplots. Strengthen a character’s motive. Sometimes it’s our tools like beat sheets or Undercover Soundtracks.
And part of that process is also allowing time for invention and knowing when to welcome the blank page. Tailors do it. Table-makers do it. This is invention at its most pure. (pic from katherinehooker.com)
So in summary, here are my tips for moments when you’re stuck:
1 Back up – are you trying to race ahead to the next development? Do you need more steps?
2 Is the next development really the right one? Subtract your assumptions and see if that frees your ideas.
3 Don’t expect results. Write, and accept that you don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail.
4 Keep going until the solution presents itself – listen to your intuition, you’ll know when the right idea comes along.
5 Add craft – and stir. Or, with reference to Ursula K Le Guin, should that be steer?
There’s lots more about unblocking techniques in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, and lots about plot and characters in the other two books in the series.
When you’re blocked, what do you do? Have you learned any interesting insights from creative people in other media? Let’s discuss.
This week’s guest discovered by accident how music could be such a useful a creative partner. She found that whenever she got stuck on a scene or a character, the most distracting thing would be the silence around her. She began playing music purely so she wouldn’t hear it – and magical things started to happen. The novel she’s talking about in her post is a romantic suspense with a whiff of murder, and her first book was a finalist in the Poolbeg Write A Bestseller competition. She also writes short stories for the UK women’s magazines Take a Break and My Weekly. She is Louise Marley and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week has a theory that everyone’s head is carrying a tune – a permanent soundtrack, a default earworm. Her own cerebrum is tuned to Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower, which has special significance when she starts writing as she sees the process of plotting as the search for an escape. And her book centres on two characters who need this escape – sisters who were professional singers, who go through multiple misunderstandings before they find their equilibrium. (Cue Nina Simone: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.) The author is Nadine Matheson and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
The other night I was watching The Rewrite, in which a Hollywood scriptwriter reluctantly becomes a writing teacher. In the early part of the film he asserts that writing can’t be taught.
In some ways, I agree.
But wait, you might say. And you might brandish a kettle at me, or a pot as black as night. What, Ms Morris, are you doing here? On your blogs, in your seminars, with your nifty tips and nailing books?
Well, I hope I’m being useful, but it’s interesting to consider how much of a writer is made by what is taught, and how much is … something else.
You do the work
No matter how many courses you take or books you read, they won’t build your facility for you. You’re the one playing the instrument, and you need years of practice and exploration. The fabled 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, if we’re to believe Malcolm Gladwell.
Actually, at two hours every day, that’s 13 and a half years – which may not be encouraging to know. But this figure does perhaps explain why some characters doubt the use of teaching when it comes to making writers. Indeed Stephen King says in On Writing: ‘to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’. And: ‘the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself’.
Time for T
Dare we mention the T-word? Talent? There, it’s said. What might talent be?
I guess we could call it the qualities that can’t be taught. Imagination, a grace with the written word, the tuning of mind and soul that sees unique significance and connections.
We should add the disposition to persist for 10,000 hours (or however much it might actually be) – because talent will only last so far. Before Picasso could have a blue period, he learned to draw properly so he knew what he was doing to his audience. Then he could mess around all he wanted.
So what am I doing here?
A writing teacher can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can’t do the work for you. In that case, what am I teaching?
1 Awareness – of how stories work on the intellect and heart, the invisible tricks that writers use, some of which they’re probably not aware of.
2 Methodology – ways to cope with the difficulties when we’re out of ideas, disappointed with our work. And how to organise the tons of material we have, changes of heart, brainwaves for new directions.
3 Critical thinking in ways that are helpful rather than destructive.
4 Ways to discover what we should be writing, and how to fulfil our distinctive potential.
5 The joy of creativity, of the pursuit of craftsmanship, the respect and wonder of what we can do with printed marks or pixels. I will always be amazed how prose seems infinitely richer than photographs or film. A great piece of writing is worth a thousand pictures.
6 We’re also sharing our own curiosity. I’m first a writer, then a teacher. I’m on my own odyssey with another ornery book and it’s nice to talk to those who understand.
If you liked this post, you might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss a tricky question – what, exactly is writing talent?
Over to you. Can writing be taught? What aspects of writing can’t be? What do you learn from writing teachers? If you’re a writing teacher, what do you teach?
How do we label ourselves as writers? Guest spot at Dan Holloway – and the box set is available NOW!
Forgive the capitals in the title. That’s the problem of being in a group of seven, rather excited writers who’ve been working towards this moment since November. Our ebook collection, Outside The Box: Women Writing Women, went live yesterday. If you pre-ordered it, it will have arrived on your ereader. If pre-orders aren’t your thing, you can grab it right now, because it vanishes on May 24. Oh, and it’s seven full-length novels, so clear a weekend or seven.
We’re getting coverage all over the place, including the UK national press. (This is why the release is such a moment of relief and excitement.) But today I want to highlight a particularly thoughtful, searching interview put together by Dan Holloway. He’s asked tricky questions:
Is this collection a marketing idea, a political statement or both? What are our common threads (aside from the possession of two X chromosomes)? Do they help us come up with a ‘label’ for our diverse range of books? What should that label be? Do labels in fiction cause problems? What about the position of women writers in literary fiction? And, my own favourite: is it better for writers to be ambitious and fall short, or to succeed on more limited terms?
It’s a good discussion. Do come over.
And once again, this is our ensemble. And we are very excited.
Does your plot have enough going on? I see a lot of manuscripts where the story seems to lack momentum, or the characters are spinning their wheels doing not very much of anything. But the funny thing is, the writer isn’t short of ideas. They’ve simply not realised where they are hiding.
Today I’m at KM Weiland’s blog, with 4 places to find the ideas that are right under your nose.
And while we’re at it, let’s discuss: have you discovered your plot ideas were hiding in plain sight?
Misusing back story is one of the most common problems I see as an editor. Writers bury their best events in the back story, and then struggle to think up enough spectacular ideas for the main narrative. Or they rely on secret, past wounds instead of character development. Or they set up secret traumas that are never used in the forward action. Lastly, they heap all the back story into the beginning of the book, stalling the action – the famous back story dump.
But back story is also important. It lets you write with authority. And there are moments when you can play it out and deeply enrich your readers’ experience. So how can you wield back story with panache?
Hop along to Jane’s blog to find out.