Posts Tagged how to write a novel
My guest this week has written a psychological thriller in which two former school friends confront a life-changing event from their past. To create their teenage years in the 1980s, the author delved into her own archives, discovering old mixtapes and an Elvis Costello LP whose sleeve contained a lyric sheet written out by a close friend. She was struck by the way music became less significant over the years. What had once been such a fierce marker of personal identity was now an emblem of a simpler time – though not necessarily for the characters in her novel. She is Women In Journalism advocate Meg Carter and she’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack for The Lies We Tell.
Yesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.
1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.
Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)
So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.
2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.
How did they do that? By reading with awareness.
Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)
Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.
You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books, courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.
BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.
3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.
Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.
But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.
(Pic by MC Escher)
That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!
My 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.
The year was 1992ish, and it was my first time at the critique class. A member read some uncertain opening chapters and asked the group for guidance on where to develop it next. One of the other members began to play the role of analyst and asked what statements he wanted to make with the story, and what answers and conclusions he wished to present.
I hadn’t been writing long, so I kept quiet. Even so, this line of questioning struck me as mistaken. Weren’t questions more potent in stories than answers and statements? And if you were going to present conclusions, or lead the reader to deduce them, didn’t you have to write the story to discover them?
Questions are everything for a creative writer, aren’t they? They are open doors. Possibilities. A beckoning finger; a calling voice. Questions are the very essence of mystery, which is the current of wonder that keeps most stories afloat. What will happen? Come and see.
By the way, I’m not supposed to be writing this. I should be finishing a piece on why I write, but it’s much easier to noodle around with something else. In considering ‘whys’, I’ve been diverted back to that college room, and questions about answers that should have been about questions. Especially the question ‘why’.
Some questions are better than others
Why ‘why’? Because there’s a hierarchy of questions. ‘What’, where’ and ‘how’ are important, because we must have events and cause and effect, but ‘why’ is the golden ticket. ‘What’, ‘where’ and ‘how’ are facts. ‘Why’ is emotions; the personal and individual urges that make us do interesting stuff; the forces that bend our judgement or make us take risks. ‘Why’ does not have a simple answer. It needs a story or a lifetime. It shows us the human condition; that one person is kind while another is vengeful, or one is fearful while another is forgiving. Indeed, the whodunit was perhaps misnamed; the real appeal is in whydunit.
Find your plot holes
‘Why’ is a magic bullet for the writing process too. Most plot holes can be diagnosed by conscientiously and relentlessly asking ‘why’. Why did the character do it? Why does this event matter? Why do the characters persist on their path if it’s causing such strife? If a plot event looks shaky or improbable but your gut says it fits, keep nibbling at why. (BTW, my characters book gives these concepts a thorough workout.)
I think that first session in the critique group taught me something valuable, even though it wasn’t my own work being discussed and I probably didn’t contribute a thing except super-concentrated facial expressions. For a storyteller, questions are more useful than answers.
Thanks for the pic Graeme Maclean
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a piece to finish. But do you have a particular lesson you remember from a critique group?
I’ve had this great question from a reader:
Do you think somebody who has only done screenwriting would be able to write a novel? I have spent the last 18 years writing screenplays and, while there has been some success (two distributed films, a screenplay option, meetings with nifty LA people, admission letters from both USC Film School and the AFI Conservatory), I know that to take the next step would require me moving to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I have a medical condition that prevents me from relocating. However, I do love storytelling and would like to attempt novels.
I know the story structure is basically the same. I worry about the novel seeming too bare, particularly when it comes to description and inner monologues. Thoughts or suggestions on how to get past this?
What a good question. Thoughts and suggestions coming right up.
First: expand your story ideas
A screenplay plot is little longer than a novella, so for a novel you usually need to spread the idea further. Often writers have a natural length they’re comfortable with, according to the demands of their medium. Short story writers, for instance, are often daunted by the much bigger task of a novel. They’re used to a certain number of characters, or they look for an idea they can explore and resolve in a short time. Here’s a post on how to turn a short story into a novel, adapting to a longer distance by adding subplots, beefing up other characters’ roles and delving further into the potential of the idea.
Here’s an experience of mine that might help. One of my early writing jobs was TV and film tie-ins. I’d be given the script and a wordcount – but no matter how much I lingered over narrating the action, there wasn’t enough story for the size of book the publisher wanted. Sigh. So I had to get creative and invent more scenes – without padding, of course.
I explored the characters’ thoughts and gave them scenes where they were alone, dealing with an aspect of the plot or their lives that was around the corner from the main action. I looked for moments that had been condensed for the sake of fitting the show’s time slot, especially explanations that could become a sequence of scenes. And I had to make them interesting or they’d be red-penned. The key to that was usually humour, interesting characterisation, irresistible back story or a cool bit of info or procedure. If it had been my own story, I could have used these to enlarge my original idea as they often had interesting potential.
You never know what you might discover once you start opening some cupboards, lingering with a moment you were intending to dismiss in a single line.
Here’s your first piece of homework. Read novelisations written from filmscripts and compare them with the original. The author probably had to add like crazy to make the wordcount.
Also look at plays that have been made into movies. Two of my favourites are Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus, which had extra scenes written for the movies (and also because the action could be more realistic).
And try the other way around. Study novels that are now movies. Which characters were spliced together? Which plotlines were dropped? What was wildly skewed or simplified, for better or for worse? (Sometimes it’s an improvement. Sometimes it’s sacrilege, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which steamrollers a complex story into a rather angst-ridden romance.)
Sometimes the different versions each stand up as artistic works of their own – think of the two English Patients – Michael Ondaatje’s novel and Anthony Minghella’s film. Here’s a post about that.
So think long. Think deep. Indeed, if you usually write on a three-act structure skeleton, try stretching that. See what potential there is in your material if you aim, perhaps, for five distinct phases. Going back to TV, look at the recent adaptation of House of Cards, which was a four-episode mini-series on the BBC and is now a multi-season monster on Netflix. Watch the movie of Fargo and notice how it was enlarged – without a single ounce of flab – for the FX series.
Second: develop your narrative style – by reading (again)
In your question you mentioned thoughts and description. Screenplays aren’t the final form of the story, as I absolutely don’t have to tell you. Novels, though, are – and that’s one of the reasons I find prose so exciting. The novelist has the direct line to the audience, one on one. We pour the experience into the reader’s mind. This is why prose is my weapon of choice.
As a screenwriter, you already know some vital voodoo – how to control the reader’s understanding and emotions from the structure of the plot. With prose you have so much more. In a movie, you’d have emotional effects from lighting, shot framing, foley, staging and the actors. In a novel, you do it all yourself – from your tone, word choice, the shape and fall of a sentence, the careful use of themes. Whatever you’re going to write, read some great examples in your genre and pay close attention to how the authors do this. Savour every sentence that gives you a thrill or a shiver or a smile. (You might become an extremely slow reader, like me.)
And, by the way, relish the fact that you can do this solo. Depending on the kind of story you like to write, you can be more than a director of actors and action, more than a describer of what happens. You can be an illusionist, a mesmerist, a singer.
You said in your email that you’d already seen some of my posts on how movies and prose differ, but in case others are reading this, here they are. Thanks for a great question and welcome to our perhaps megalomaniac world.
Guys, what would you add? Have you transitioned from one storytelling form to another? And are there any book-film or TV combinations you’d add to my reading list?
I’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount, how to flesh out a draft that’s too short and a problem of pacing if much of the plot concerns the fallout from one event. Today I’m looking at another interesting problem:
Important character disappears – how should I handle it?
The character didn’t die, and didn’t have a formal farewell event to create a definite exit from the story world. There was just a period where they ceased to be involved. The writer was worried that this might look like a continuity problem or a mistake.
She was right; it needed to be handled carefully. This character would be important to the reader because she was a key player in early scenes.
The earlier a character is introduced, the more significantly they lodge in the reader’s mind. The original cast members of a book are like the first friends you make in a new and strange place. They are probably noticed far more than those you introduce later.
(This is why prologues can seem irritating, because they might set up people who don’t play a major part, or are never seen again. There’s lots more about handling prologues and character departures in the Nail Your Novel books.)
So if a key character will disappear, you have to be careful. The reader needs their attachment to the character to be acknowledged, and to be comfortable that the disappearance was intended. They mustn’t lose faith in your control of the material.
We explored ways to do this. By far the most obvious solution was to invent a scene that made a feature of the departure, but in this case the writer felt that would be inappropriate or untruthful. And she didn’t want to invent letters or phone calls from the missing character.
With that in mind, we moved on to ways to keep the character in the text, if they couldn’t be in the scenes. I suggested the writer add a friend who was close to the departed character, who could continue the association on behalf of the other characters (and the reader). A relative or colleague would work well too. This character could carry some of the presence of the original and keep them on the reader’s radar – for instance by thinking or remarking ‘Kate would have liked this’, or ‘if Kate were here she’d know what at do’.
(BTW, if you’re using elements of real life in your stories, you might like this recent episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)
What would you do? Have you had to withdraw a character quietly from a story and how did you handle it? Have you seen it handled clumsily or well, and what did you learn from it? Let’s discuss!
I’ve begun the same novel a couple times and it relies so heavily on back story that I’ve begun to wonder if I should just write it as a separate novel.
But I want to write a novel about AFTER the hero saves the world – and in doing so has forgotten HOW he did it and WHAT happened, which is a huge plot point. I want to avoid the ‘zero to hero’ shtick that is so overdone – and I want the reveals to be important with emotional impact. I’m not sure it will work. Thoughts?
(Here’s the post that started it, and the question in full. Scroll down and look for Mark.)
I like this concept of exploring the save-the-world scenario from an unusual angle. And I don’t see why you can’t make it work – with a few considerations.
First, do you have a convincing reason for the amnesia?
Second, you have a convincing mechanism for paying out the story surprises? Why doesn’t he remember all at once? (I tackled both these problems in Lifeform Three, although it wasn’t a save-the-world.)
As for the emotional impact, focus on how the revelations affect what your hero is doing now, what he wants, and the people who matter to him. Set those up so that the reader cares about them, then deliver your blows from the past. Did he betray someone or renege on a promise? Has ne now got a family who will be threatened by what happened? Make sure we’re involved with characters who will be hurt.
Also, have you got enough story in the ‘aftermath’ chunk? Otherwise the reader’s attention will wander and they’ll just skip to the flashbacks. Make sure the resolution in the ‘present’ is more interesting to you than the resolution of the big hero story. Make sure you have enough in your aftermath story to keep the reader’s attention firmly on that, rather than the questions of how he saved the world. (This is on my mind at the moment too; Ever Rest has a lot of major events in the past, but my biggest interest is the mess in the present.)
Will you tell the back story in chronological order? If so, you’ll need a convincing reason for the discoveries to happen in such a convenient way. If you tell it out of order, that might be more realistic, but it might also be confusing. Non-chronological order isn’t always muddled, but remember that readers are much more adrift in your book than you are. Chronological order is the easiest for them to understand. You, as the writer, can hop around the timeline easily because you know it so well. You might write a romantic scene and then flash back to the hero’s love life before the big heroic act, because they seem thematically linked. But your reader might think ‘did this happen before that?’
On the other hand, you might want this fragmented approach because it’s how memory works. Send the reader on unraveling trails if that will enhance the emotional effect you’re looking for.
So in summary, you need:
A convincing mechanism for the amnesia and revelations
A current scenario that will be threatened by the past revelations
A disciplined approach to the revelations so that the reader doesn’t get confused.
And psst…. the Bourne Trilogy is great study material.
There’s loads more about handling back story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
Have you had to tackle a story where the hero is rediscovering a hidden past? What problems did you encounter? What smart solutions did you come up with? Let’s discuss!
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.