Posts Tagged how to write a novel

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.

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10 eye-opening tips to add impact to your storytelling

2013-04-29-eye2When I work with a writer on their first serious novel manuscript, there are certain aspects they usually get right on instinct alone. There’s the content – a believable story world, characters with solid backgrounds and stuff to do. They usually write fluently too. But there are other, more hidden levels of craft that they usually haven’t noticed in good books, but will make an immense difference to the quality of their work. So here are a few.

1 Keeping the reader’s curiosity

When we’re kids we’re taught we must finish any book we start. Like eating every morsel on the plate, even the detested Brussels sprouts. But a reader will not persevere with a book out of politeness. So writers have to be relentless showmen (within the expectations of their particular genre, of course). Curiosity is the name of the game. Compelling writers will prime the reader to be curious about everything they show – a character, story development, back story or historical context. How do you learn this? Read with awareness. Analyse what keeps you gripped in books you enjoy. (Often when I point this out, the reply is: ‘I get so swept up that I don’t give it a thought’. QED. I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment, but learn to read with primed antennae.)

2 The beginning has to grab attention …. But it also makes a promise to the reader

Don’t start with a thrilling piece of action if the rest of the book doesn’t contain that kind of action. lf you do, you’re wooing the reader under false pretences. Instead, find an intriguing scene that is representational of the entire tone of the story, its themes and concerns. That’s quite tricky and you might try out many beginnings. Indeed, you often don’t get the beginning just right until you’ve written the end.

3 Descriptions come to life if you add humans

You might describe a tidal wave by saying it was the height of a house. Or the earthquake split the town hall in two. These specifics are good, but they’re lifeless. For real impact, try showing how it affected the people in its midst. Just as photographers or painters might use a figure of a person to show scale, you can convey the power of disasters by including humans – cowering, trying to run away with a cat under their arm, filming it on their phone while a friend yells at them to flee.

 4 Show not tell

Show not tell is one of the trickiest storytelling techniques to learn. In a nutshell, it’s about creating the experience for the reader. Instead of writing ‘fear was on everyone’s faces’, show us what the characters did that would make you conclude they were afraid. Here’s a post that explains more and you’ll also find lots more discussion of this concept in the Nail Your Novel books.

5 Decide what you want to emphasise

Sometimes you can tell, not show. If you want the reader to feel the impact of the experience, write it in a way that ‘shows’. If the experience doesn’t really matter, you can ‘tell’. Sometimes you can write ‘She had a terrible voyage’ and that might be enough for the purposes of the story. At other times, you want the reader to share the terrible voyage.

6 Don’t wait too long before telling us your main character’s rough age

You don’t have to state it explicitly or numerically, just give us enough to figure out whether we’re looking at a pre-teen, a teenager, a person in their 20s, 30s, 60s. I read a lot of manuscripts where I can’t fathom that out and it interferes with my ability to interpret the action. A person in their 20s who yearns for adventure or love is very different from a person in their 40s or 70s.

7  Home isn’t just a geographical location

It’s a place that owns us – we want to return to it, escape from it, inherit or disown it. If your characters talk about home, what does it mean to them? Take time to let us know.

8 Don’t accidentally create a passive main character

A lot of writers fall into this trap. They create a central character who is thrown into trouble by the actions of other people. They are pushed from one crisis to the next. The pressures mount, they get a bit anguished, but do they do anything about it? No, they wait for the next piece of trouble. That might be lifelike – many of us would prefer to avoid difficult situations. But it makes for a frustrating read (unless the passiveness is a deliberate choice). Otherwise, readers prefer a character who in some ways creates their difficulties and adventures – perhaps because they are restless, or a control freak, or because they succumb to temptation or yearn for something new.

9 Don’t forget to conjure the set-up at the start of each scene

Many writers forget these essential orientating details at the start of a scene – where we are, who is there. Indeed, they often don’t realise an author is doing it every time they load a new location. Even if it’s an ordinary room or an ordinary street – although once you’ve made an environment very familiar to the reader you can use shorthand such as ‘I sat at Mary’s battered piano’.

10 You can’t set the scene through dialogue alone

Although dialogue can help establish the scene, it can’t do it all. Often writers try to, and end up with artificial-sounding lines such as ‘Hand me that glass from the mahogany table’. But prose is a medium of description as well as dialogue (unless you’re aiming for a deliberately abbreviated style). It’s an environment and you want the reader to experience your scenes with all their reading senses. Include the last rays of sun slanting over the roofs. The family unloading children and picnic hampers into a cluttered hallway. The tinkling of crockery as a meal is prepared.

3 nynsPsst…. all these points are discussed at greater length in the Nail Your Novel books.

Would you add any? What eye-opening tips have you been given by editors or beta readers?

 

 

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The first book on writing I ever read – what was yours?

Most of us here probably have a shoal of books about writing craft. Here’s just one of my shelves.

writing bookshelf

But which was the first writing book you ever read?

For me, it was The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire. It was a gift from Husband Dave when we first met in 1992. It’s a tiny volume; just 87 pages including the index at the end and throat-clearing at the start. But it has everything you need – theme, viewpoint, planning, setting, characterisation, style, revision.

Dianne Doubtfire Nail Your NovelI flick through it now. At random, I can see sensible advice to use ‘he said’ instead of ‘she gushed’ or ‘he averred’. A section on writing description so the reader remains riveted, with examples from Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. A paragraph about keeping a notebook beside the bed, including a torch. An explanation of style as ‘a quality as unique as your fingerprints’. A quote from Alfred Hitchcock that ‘drama is like real life with the dull bits cut out’. A section on first chapters, positioned nearly half-way through, because ‘it’s wise to consider … planning, scene and characterisation before you type ‘Chapter 1’.

Other books may cover all of these in more depth, but as a primer it will get you going with good habits. I’d recommend it still today.

To begin at the beginning…

I’d studied English literature at school and university. Yes, we considered theme, character, resonance, symmetries and counterpoints in character arcs and story structure. And historical and social context, an author’s place in the overall evolution in the artform. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why good was good. Reading Dianne Doubtfire was like meeting someone who thought and felt about books in the way I wanted to.

Studying literature can put it in on a pedestal as a thing to be revered. It can paralyse you with feelings that you could never, yourself, presume to write to a standard that’s even readable, let alone half-creditable.

Dianne Doubtfire’s succinct, wise book made writing seem possible.

3 nynsPsst … Speaking of writing books, and flashing forwards many moons and scrumpled drafts, I’ve been jazzing up the Nail Your Novel covers. Take a peek here…

Can you remember the first writing craft book you read? How did you come to read it? How did it affect you? Did it open possibilities? Did it make it all seem impossible? If you still have a copy, what do you think of it now?

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‘Freedom, broken ties and love outside of marriage’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Diana Stevan

for logoMy guest this week delved into personal experiences to write her latest novel. In the 1970s she was working on a psychiatric ward where electric shock treatment was taking place. Years later, troubled by what she had seen, she wrote a novel. She turned to music to reawaken her own memories of the time and to create a cast of characters who are lost in the midst of a broken system. She remarks that her Soundtrack is as much about her own inner world as her characters’ – a line that for me is the very essence of the Undercover Soundtrack series. She is Diana Stevan and she’s on the Red Blog with the music that helped her write The Rubber Fence.

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‘Shadows of the past’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Meg Carter

for logoMy 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.

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Three paradoxes of writing life

MC Escher Paradox of being a writerYesterday 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.)

Certainly, some books take a lot of time – but equally, you can tinker far too long and make a mess.

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.

sidebarcrop3 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!

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Vow of silence: how much do you talk about your novel in progress?

Nail Your Novel vow of silenceIf you’ve hung around here for a while, you might have spotted that I’m writing my third novel and it’s called Ever Rest. Assuming you give two hoots about it, or even just one, you’ll have noticed that’s about all I give away.

I’ve mentioned Ever Rest in posts where I talk about a writing challenge that taught me a new trick. I’ve occasionally asked for help on tiny points of research (glory be to Facebook and Twitter). I’ve revealed occasional pieces of music that I’m using in its Undercover Soundtrack. If you subscribe to my newsletter, you’ll get updates when I discover a particularly breathtaking piece – but I won’t tell you what it’s telling me. Aside from that, the most tangible thing I’ve ever revealed was when I whipped away its working title (I first introduced it as The Mountains Novel). Even in craft posts, I have not explained the slightest thing about the story or characters.

A time of sharing (no, not Christmas)
Am I the only author to feel so inhibited? It’s quite normal to post about characters in progress, or significant locations, or to pin pictures, or publish snippets or early chapters. It’s the ethic of contact, involvement, engagement. It keeps the fans topped up. Certainly I revel in our connected lives and I’m a confirmed social media junkie. But I can’t work with an open door. Or perhaps, because my books need a long gestation period, such sharing would usually be premature for me.

But wait…

Ah, no, I must confess to one lapse. On Facebook I was nominated in a round-robin to share seven lines from the seventh page of a work in progress. I suddenly imagined the fun of instant feedback so I threw caution aside and contributed a paragraph. I may have bent the rules. The excerpt probably wasn’t on page seven unless you squeezed the point size, and it definitely isn’t on page seven now. What’s more, it didn’t give much away about the novel, because without a context, it was just pretty lines. I enjoyed the fact that people seemed to like it – and thank you, commenters – but I felt even that had revealed too much. I felt I’d invited readers in too soon.

Also, as I edit, I realise I’m more protective of those lines, because people responded so warmly. What if, when it comes out, they were looking forward to that passage or the thing it promised? Chances are, they won’t remember it, but it’s skewing my judgement. Good writing needs a ruthless mindset; you include only what’s good for the book, not the pieces you like or the crowd-pleasers.

So this vow of silence is important to my writing method.

Nail Your Novel vow of silence 2

But we might need to pitch…

But sometimes we might have to talk about our WIPs. Won’t we? Suppose we’re at an event and get a chance to talk to an agent or publisher? Well, if the book isn’t likely to be finished for a good few months, you can probably sketch it vaguely and talk about your influences and experience. Agents won’t judge you until they can read you, and they might be grateful not to be pitched a book that’s a way off the finish line. (They’re certainly frustrated by the hordes of authors who send them three chapters of something that isn’t fully written.)

And what should you do if you tweak an agent’s interest? For heaven’s sake, don’t rush to finish. You don’t have to lose the opportunity – get connected on social media and chat with them occasionally to keep the contact warm. Send the book when you’re ready.

Even unto the husband

I don’t even tell Dave (Mr Roz) about Ever Rest. He knows the basic concept, because I brainstormed it with him in the early days. Correction: the early years. This book has been creeping through my mind for decades. When Dave asks how I’m getting on, he gets vague pronouncements like: ‘I thought this character wasn’t going anywhere, but I suddenly discovered what I needed.’ I think he’s learned there’s nothing more irritating than a spouse with a policy of Not Talking About Her Book.

And indeed, it is a policy. No matter what the provocation, I don’t discharge about my novel before it’s fit to be read. I believe in keeping the pressure bottled up, so I give the best of it on the page. The title of Ever Rest might, if you can be bothered, lead you to assumptions; but those, my friend, are merely the tip and I probably couldn’t explain it all anyway. To do that, I must finish the story.

Let’s discuss! Do you have limits on what you’ll share about a work in progress? What do you happily talk about? What do you keep under wraps?

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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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