Posts Tagged how to write a novel

Using real people in historical fiction – how much can you invent?

I’ve had this question from M:

I’m writing a historical novel set in Australia in 1872. The fictional events are based on real events or phenomena. A few characters are based on real people, who I’ve researched. One is Thursday October Christian the second, grandson of Fletcher Christian, of the Bounty Mutiny fame. During his life he held positions of responsibility on Pitcairn Island. He is making a cameo appearance, greeting characters as they arrive in a ship.

My problem is this. There is very little information on him, so I am wondering how to describe him. There is information on his father, who was a colourful character, so I would like to model TOC 2nd on him. But what would you do?

No matter what you write, there’s one thing you must assume. Whatever you fudge, whatever you’re inaccurate about, will be found out.

Partly this is sod’s law. Your book will find the one reader who knows this obscure thing. But actually, it’s more than that. If you’re writing about a particular time, or a particular geographical place, or a particular exciting profession, you’ll attract readers who love that special story world. They’ll be geeks for it. If they spot something inaccurate, they might shrug and forgive you – or they might lose confidence in you altogether.

So even though we’re making things up, we have to be as respectful of reality as possible.

Also, we need to be careful about sources. Wiki is a good start, but it’s not necessarily the oracle. Double-check anything you find there. You might even have to be wary of experts. I’ve just seen a post on Facebook from a writer friend who’s researching Jane Austen’s plotting methods. She says: ‘A historian states something I know to be wrong, but it’s so often repeated that it’s now taken as fact.’

I know. That way madness lies.

But when, like M, you’ve done all the research possible and haven’t found what you need, what are your options? How many liberties can you take?

M is caught in a classic historical fiction conundrum: how strictly should she stick to the facts if she’s fictionalising?

Libel

First, is there a danger of libel? Not in M’s case. She’d like to use TOC 2nd because of the historical timing, and model his personality on his father, who seems interesting and memorable for readers. Both guys are long dead, so there’s no legal repercussion. And it sounds like the portrayal would be harmless and even a bit flattering.

How big is their role?

More importantly, this character’s role is incidental. You’d need to worry more if he had a more major role – and if he did, you’d probably find it easier to invent your own character so they can do all the things you need them to do – and speak as you need them to. But in M’s case, there’s probably little harm in splicing the personality of one TOC to the personage of the other. But M knows it’s not accurate.

More research you can do

That’s where I’d do some more research. Find out how much these particular facts matter.

How protective are historians about fictional portrayals of this character? How protective are his actual descendants or his cheerleaders who are alive today? (You’d be surprised who has cheerleaders, at least in the UK. Go to any tiny town and you’ll find there’s a local historical celebrity who invented pencil lead or washing powder.) I’d look for past instances where a portrayal of this guy might have rubbed people wrong.

It’s the same principle for writing stories about issues and cultures beyond our own lived experience. We might use sensitivity readers or specialist beta readers to ensure we’re accurate, authentic and respectful. So look for common misrepresentations and misconceptions.

You might find there are things you simply can’t do. Perhaps because of facts you’ve found. Perhaps out of good manners. Whatever you have to change, it’s not a setback. Constraints often give us much better ideas because they force us to be more inventive. I learned this while ghostwriting – many dead ends eventually became surprising breakthroughs. You might even find that a trivial moment becomes a pivotal character scene.

Not a setback after all

For instance, if M finds she must make her TOC bland and colourless, she could use her own disappointment. She could transfer the anticlimax to some of the characters and have them discuss their expectations. (‘Really? He was descended from Fletcher Christian? I hardly noticed him.’) Choose some characters who need to show their colours in some way – with a humorous bonding moment, or a falling-out (‘I hate the way you’re so judgemental’), or some other moment that drives the narrative onwards. Something new might develop because they talk about this. A straw might break a camel’s back.

You have remained accurate – and you’ve also found a way to advance the plot or character development. (Big hint: if the incident doesn’t drive the narrative onwards in some way, it shouldn’t be in the book at all. Maybe that’s the revelation – you needed to learn it isn’t interesting enough.)

On the other hand, you might find no problems with your plan. The chances are you’re safe to discreetly invent whatever feels true to the situation. If you feel the need to clarify, you could include an afternote that explains your sources and any assumptions you’ve made.

Also, remember that you’re writing fiction. The reader expects fiction; if you’re hamstrung by history and reality, they expect you to find ingenious ways around it. That’s what you do; you make it up while being faithful to what’s known. It’s what fiction writers of all hues do – we write convincing stories with a combination of research, empathy, respect and understanding of human nature.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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How to cope with a hefty report from a developmental editor

Getting your manuscript back from a developmental editor can be an ordeal. Indeed it’s a writing rite of passage. But – deep breath – we’ve all been there. So here is some friendly handholding.

1 Rest assured, you are not alone in feeling anxious or, indeed overwhelmed. Opening a document with reams of comments usually feels like being disembowelled.

2 So much commentary? Most of us aren’t prepared for the level of detail. But editors are sensitive to issues, ideas and nuances you never thought would matter. This is what you want. They are a supercharged, supersensitive version of your ideal reader. Also, they are primed to explore the nooks and crannies you haven’t explored yourself, probably because you were intent on other things.

3 Many of the editor’s comments will be questions and appreciation, not deletions and corrections. They are working with your material, not against it. They are your book’s advocate.

4 Your first reactions won’t be the most reliable or useful. But you need to see everything, and quickly, so do a fast read just to see what’s there. Streak through the manuscript, perhaps with wine or a hefty bar of chocolate, but don’t take the comments too much to heart at this stage. That’s not to say they will be negative, but your book is a sensitive nerve and your first read-through will not be in your calmest state of mind. So read it, maybe sulk and fume. Then put it away. That first essential task is done. Take a break.

5 After this, it’s not as bad as you think. Read the report several more times. Now you’ve seen the worst – which is what you were looking for in the first read – look for other kinds of comment. A developmental report should be constructive, not destructive. Its aim is to help you make a worthwhile book for readers. Appreciate the report’s full scope. It should tell you what works as well as what doesn’t work. It should ask questions that are helpful, and guide you to solutions, not dead ends. Almost certainly you will fail to notice the things that the editor has praised, or the things that are not as bad as you think.

6 Let it settle. After a few days you’ll start to get spontaneous answers from your subconscious. Also, the outlook will seem more positive, especially if the report recommended drastic changes. At first, these might seem disruptive or impossible, and you might not adopt every suggestion your editor makes. The best solutions will come from you anyway. But after a few days you’ll have a new perspective on the deeper questions and you’ll see new possibilities. You might even begin to like the changes that initially made you despair.

7 Your editor will be waiting for follow-up questions, but allow time for their commentary to bed in. You will solve a surprising amount on your own, and soon a new vision of the book will take shape in your mind. Once you have that, you’ll find the most useful questions to discuss with your editor.

8 Also remember: you’re doing this for your book, because you believe in it.

Psst… there’s loads about self-editing and getting critiques in Nail Your Novel and my Nail Your Novel workbook.

Is there anything you’d add?

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued at @Litopia by literary agent @agentpete , reader @kaylie_finn and me!

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members Kaylie Finn, who knows her way around a critique.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)

As always, the submissions had many strengths. And also much to teach us. Issues we discussed were unfortunate connotations in names, how to make fantasy ‘special’ enough, what signals a blurb gives about tone and genre, whether a blurb is misleading, how a title sets up expectations, whether a prologue is a good idea or an unnecessary distraction, how much exposition to include in a first scene, when we might need more explanation in a first scene, when action might be confusing, how much you need to explain when your story world is a well known historical event, and tricky considerations when writing in dialect.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. 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 been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent, author/Bookstagrammer @KateESalisbury (and me!) at @Litopia

I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s producers, Kate Salisbury, who I’ve corresponded with numerous times but never met. She’s formidably qualified for the critic role, being herself a memoirist, YA author, school librarian and Bookstagrammer.

The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and publishers would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.

As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included how much detail to include in a blurb, setting up an emotional hook for the reader, the suggestions inherent in a title, what literary fiction is in today’s market, whether a story has to be made socially relevant, introducing the world in science fiction and historical fiction, digressions and flashbacks in memoir, and how the author’s voice can create a sense of charm or bleakness.

Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.

PS I’ve had a release of my own this week – my third novel Ever Rest. Find it here in all print and ebook formats.

What’s it like? Here are a few reviews to help you decide.

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. 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 been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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Stuck at the beginning of your novel? How to get going

‘Please help,’ wrote the author to me. ‘I’ve been writing a novel, I have a mass of text but no idea how to pull a plot out of it.’

We’re now doing well with the plot. But one big thing is holding her back.

‘Should this be the opening? Or this?’

We don’t know yet, I say. Don’t worry. Write a placeholder scene, and make the decision later.

We talk. We make much progress about themes, events and character arcs. Then my author returns to the question. Should this be part of the beginning? Or this? We haven’t even got to the first plot point. (What’s that? Here are posts about story structure.)

My author is finding it extraordinarily hard, very counter-intuitive, to postpone the decision about the beginning.

Why now is not the time to decide the beginning

Although you have to start somewhere, you cannot decide the proper opening until you know the rest of the book very well. Here’s what an ideal opening has to do.

1 It holds a lot of information back.

(You didn’t expect me to say that.)

2 It tells the reader just enough.

(Just enough for what?)

It tells the reader enough to make promises. About the tone, style, themes. About how the narrative will scrutinise the characters and events. About the issues and experiences the story will explore. Those are deep promises, and you must live up to them. (How do you know which promises to make?)

There’s also a 3:

3 The beginning should intrigue, beguile, ignite the reader’s curiosity. And in a way that’s faithful to 2.

Some beginnings are simpler than others

Beginnings are simpler for genre writers, as the reader’s expectations are relatively well established. But if you’re writing a novel that’s more complex or unconventional, you have to direct the reader to your unique flavour – your themes and angles and interests. You might not yet be aware of them all.

Certainly you won’t know them as you’re assembling the book for the first time, from all your swirling ideas. Perhaps not until you’ve made several revisions. (That’s one of the meanings of revision. Not just rewriting. Re-vision. )

The beginning is somewhere in the end

Here’s a nice cryptic idea. The story’s resolution, the what-it’s-all-about moment, will also be, in some way, signalled in the beginning. Probably obscured, of course.

Why is your ending your ending? Usually because a question is solved or a situation concluded. In some novels, particularly non-genre, you may not be sure at first what you’re solving or concluding. The biggest questions will stir up as you live with your themes, plot and characters, the angles that most attract you as you write and revise. Go with that, let the book become what it becomes. If it’s taking you a surprisingly long time, you might be cheered by this: the slow-burn writer.

Your ending will probably work best if it’s somehow signalled in the beginning, so once you know where the bulk of the book is taking you, you can shade the beginning appropriately. But if you fix the beginning from the start, you may limit your explorations. (There’s more about this in my plot book.)

Start here… for now

Write a placeholder opening, something that gets you going. Don’t worry at all about whether it works for the reader. Make sure it works for you, gets you in the flow. This draft, and probably others that will follow, is for you, your playground, your lab, your quarry, your rehearsal.

The beginning, the official proper beginning, is for the final performance, when you’ve done all the other work and are ready to invite readers in.

(Thanks for the bike picture Paul Harrop.)

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. 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, find my latest newsletter here (where you could win many beautiful books) and subscribe to future updates here.

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The book or the film? How storytelling differs in prose and live action. Ep 32 FREE podcast for writers

We recorded this episode as the TV-watching world was getting ready for the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, from the novel by Susanna Clarke. Straight away, Peter and I were in dispute. Is it ‘NorRELL’ or ‘NORRell’? Nobody has to decide until it’s said out loud.

And that’s one of the key things about seeing a movie or TV show of a favourite book. It’s different from the version in your head.

We had a terrific time discussing dramatisations that weren’t like the original books, in good ways and bad. Some were simplistic. Some were surprisingly faithful to the spirit of the original or took it in a good new direction. We visited Frankenstein, the James Bond novels, Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, Vertigo, The English Patient, Mash. Did you even know Mash was a novel?

We also deduce some lessons for writers. Storytelling doesn’t work the same across all these media. We unpick some interesting principles.

My co-host is Peter Snell, independent bookseller.

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. 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.

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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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3 ways writers fail to get maximum impact from a story – and what to do instead

13155461724_8107915efc_bNovels in progress will always have rough patches and individual quirks, but there are certain common issues I routinely see that have quite simple fixes. Here are a few – and they can make a big difference.

Crucial event is underplayed or buried

Does an event change a character’s emotional state or world view? Does it make them change what they want, or strengthen their resolve? Make sure you haven’t buried it in a hasty paragraph of background or other explanation. These shifts in priorities are milestones in the story. Try showing them in real time so the reader experiences them. If a key event happens before the story timeline, consider making it a flashback.

Big reveal… falls flat

Is your big reveal a damp squib? I’ve read many climax scenes that fail to ignite, but I can tell the author was hoping they would be a thunderbolt. On some level, they know what they want … but they haven’t clarified it. Often it helps to dig into your ideas about why this moment will be so important. Write a mission statement – what do you want the reader to feel when they read this scene or revelation? Freewrite and brainstorm – you might not have given it much thought before now. Once you know what effect you’re looking for, consider what you should add in the earlier parts of the story to make it happen. Does it give the main character some important answers? What answers? And have you asked the questions earlier on? Is the moment a bigger, thematic connection, a sense of order being restored? Look back in the text – have you established a sense of instability, the world gone wrong?

Plot events make no sense

Are your plot events believable? If not, it may be because you haven’t established a plausible motivation, or given context. If we don’t know why a character does something, their actions  might seem random or even dumb. What happens is important, but why is more important. Sort out the why – and you can make us believe pretty much anything (usually).

Thanks for the aurora borealis pic Patrick Shyu

Have you had to tackle any of these issues in your work? Have you spotted them in someone else’s – or even in published books? Let’s discuss!

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These tips have come from my mentoring work with writers. If you found them useful there are plenty more in my books on character and plot … and let me discreetly mention that a set of Nail Your Novel paperbacks makes a terrific present for other scribblers you know, or even for yourself…

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‘There’s something timeless and questing and unique about Talking Heads’ – the Undercover Soundtrack, Stephanie Gangi

redpianoupdate-3My guest this week says her novel is steeped in music – and indeed had a massive Spotify playlist to accompany her drafts and rewrites. But certain tracks stood right out, tracks that seemed to catch her attention from the radio, or stick in her mind with an essential flavour of the characters and story. They’re strong vocals – Van Morrison, Rihanna, The Lumineers, Adele. Powerful, sassy, feisty, rocky, tormented and brimming with humanity – and perfect for her novel of obsessive revenge after love goes wrong. Do drop by the Red Blog for the Undercover Soundtrack of Stephanie Gangi.

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Is your writing a hobby, an art, a business, a vocation, a profession? Let’s discuss

van_gogh_-_starry_night_-_google_art_projectThis question was raised in a Facebook group this week: if you’re not earning much from writing, does that make it a hobby rather than a serious pursuit? My gut reaction was ‘no’, and I’d like to examine why. What follows will be a few attempts at definitions, a few assumptions – and I want this to be the start of a discussion rather than the last word. So do let me have your thoughts at the end.

Here goes.

A hobby?

First, let me state that when I use the term ‘hobby’, I’m not suggesting a pastime that isn’t serious. I have hobbies that matter greatly to my enjoyment of life. I ride horses and I attend dance classes at Pineapple Studios in London. My weekly schedule is constructed to accommodate these activities. They are essential outlets in a cerebral, sedentary life and they ensure my general wellbeing. I spend money on them; I’ll buy a good pair of riding boots to see me through the winter or because I’ll enjoy using them. I’ll pay serious attention to technique and invest in tuition. Because of my perfectionist nature, I’ll be frustrated if I’m having a klutz day.

But they are hobbies. I don’t kid myself I can match the standard of real professionals. I’ll perform them with dedication and I’ll try to improve. But my expectations are capped. I don’t have ambitions for them.

A business / profession?

Any level of writing where you’re earning money would fall into this category. Or is it that simple? Perhaps not.

If you’re writing as a business or a profession, the sums are important. You are careful about the investment of time. Will the book repay in terms of sales, or as a gateway to other kinds of income such as speaking or consultancy? When you buy equipment or services, it’s not an indulgence as my boots might be. It’s an investment that must save time, or add polish to the final product.

An art / vocation

What follows will be completely subjective. I’m going to try to explain why I regard my fiction writing as an art or vocation, not as a hobby.

I’m not happy to write – or use my writing sensibilities – just for income. Of course, I have to take income seriously, but I also want something more worthwhile to show for my days, months and decades. Stories have been some of my most enthralling, memorable experiences, so that’s what I think a proper story should be. When I read a good writer, it is a challenge to my sense of worth – if I don’t aim for this, I am not respecting the medium. Some people don’t feel like this about their writing, and that’s fine. But I do.

The crossovers

Writing this piece, I’m struck by the crossovers. The hobbyists and artists are not so far apart, in terms of devotion. So let’s quarry further.

In my hobbies, I don’t compare myself to others. A hobby is something we largely enjoy, give or take the odd teething trouble or bad hair day. We keep a sense of proportion. But many serious authors find writing exquisitely hard. They like ‘having written’. They can be profoundly disappointed in themselves.

Let’s return to the question of income. I earn most of my income by editing, teaching and ghostwriting, and I find these rewarding in more ways than just £££. I’m not a mercenary, I believe in my craft and I love to teach. But I see them as enablers for the work that matters to me most – my fiction. Like a director or an actor who makes one movie for artistic satisfaction and another to pay the bills, the work that truly defines them is the passion project.

An artist finds their identity in their work, for better or worse; which is why it’s hard and relentless and a personal quest that will probably be endless. Is that it? Let me know your thoughts.

If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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