Posts Tagged Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft
I’m particularly pleased to welcome this week’s guest as I seem to have known her for all the time I’ve been zipping about the internet. When I was first blogging, and launching the original Nail Your Novel, she was writing and blogging too. Now she’s got five novels to her name, and one of them was shortlisted for the Festival of Romance fiction 2014, writing what she describes as historical romance with a twist. But what about the music, I hear you ask? Yes, it’s a pervasive influence, as you’ll have guessed from the headline of this piece. And among her choices is an unorthodox version of a well-known song, so she ticks those boxes for me too. She is Glynis Smy and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
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.
On November 30th, or thereabouts, Nanowrimoers typed ‘The End’. Whether you’re a Nano or not, the next thing you must do is put the manuscript away. Close the file, stow the notebooks, do a happy dance. Unless you have a deadline that demands you thrash it into shape straight away, don’t touch it for at least a month. At least.
Become a stranger to your story
We all know how we can read a page over and over and somehow miss the appalling typo in the first sentence. When we’re too tangled in a novel we see what we think is there – not what is actually on the pages.
To do useful revision work, you need to allow enough time for your novel to become unfamiliar – so that you’re no longer thinking like its writer, but as a reader.
Let the flavours marinate
Your manuscript needs to marinate. Like a good wine, all that stuff you put in has to blend. A novel isn’t just characters + plot + description + setting + dialogue + cool bits + pizzazz + your undercover soundtrack, if you do that. It’s all those things working together.
Put more sensibly, your characters are not just characters. They are people in a world, with forces they are fighting, with people who embody their worst fears or their happiest hopes. The world and the plot are personal challenges to them, not just places to go and stuff for them to do.
If you look at your manuscript too soon, you’ll only see the separate ingredients. Not how they work together. You won’t see the parts where you were cleverer than you thought – or the overall patterns that you could amplify. You’ll miss the things you unconsciously wrote that echo higher themes, or create an overall symmetry to the story.
But I have things I want to fix right now
Make notes about them, but don’t do them yet. When you look at the manuscript afresh, you might have better ideas for how to tackle them.
But I was on a roll and I don’t want to stop
Nobody says that when your manuscript is resting you have to stop writing. Go and tinker with another story. If you’ve done Nanowrimo to kick-start a writing routine, use the time for reading and research. Stephen King in On Writing says to leave the manuscript for at least six entire weeks – and to work on something totally different to give yourself time to recharge.
Revise in haste, repent at leisure
If you revise too soon, you’ll only scratch the most obvious itches. You’ll miss so much more.
So close the file. Don’t touch it at least until after Christmas.
What’s the longest you’ve left a manuscript before revising it?
I have tools for assessing manuscripts in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available here.
We’ve got a tonne of stuff to let readers know at the start of a novel. What’s going on, who wants what, why it matters. And then there’s the background to the characters’ lives – how they know the people they’re with, what they do day to day. All the inventory that isn’t action but gives context and depth.
That’s back story.
Here are the two main problems with back story.
- Most writers fling it in too early.
- Most writers dump back story in one big chunk.
Both these problems mean the story grinds to a standstill. Which means the reader stops being engaged.
So how do you judge when is the right time?
First woo your reader
Imagine you have a new acquaintance. I’m talking about real life, by the way. Don’t even think of telling them about your life until they’re curious about you. Tell them the bare minimum until you’ve bonded with them in an experience that has drawn you closer together. Even then, give dribs and drabs; don’t whammy them with your entire biography. Give only what’s immediately relevant, what arises naturally from what you do together and what you already know.
In our hypothetical friendship, can you see how much is being held back? And how the full picture might not come out for a long time?
This is like your book’s relationship with the reader.
Your reader meets the book, is pulled into the world of the characters. You have to judge when they are genuinely curious for a dollop of back story. And it’s usually much later than you think.
So where do you put it?
I’m just thrashing through a final edit of My Memories of a Future Life, and with a title like that you can bet it’s got heaps of back story. Here’s what I did.
Cut it all out
I made a copy of the book up to the first turning point and cut out all the back story. It ran very smoothly without its weight of explanation, and offered me natural places to reintroduce a paragraph or two. Once I’d got the characters safely (or perilously) to their point of no return, the reader was warmed up enough to welcome the first chunk of back story.
Here’s how I’m dealing with the rest.
Make the back story part of the action
What you imagined as background may not have to stay as background. Could you make it part of the active story? In Life Form 3, which my agent sent out to publishers this week, I caught myself struggling with a lot of explanations. I realised I’d brought the reader in too late. So I started the story earlier and dramatised a lot of the explanations in real time.
Leave it as late as possible
As we said above, there are points in the story where the reader will welcome a few pages about the distant details of the character’s childhood, or how they first got a job at the circus. The later you leave it, the more delicious it might be.
Use back story as bonding material
As well as explaining back story directly through the narrator’s voice, you can also use it to deepen a bond between two characters in a story. If one character tells another how their relationship with their stepson went wrong, that’s miles better than leaving it in back story.
So much of what works in writing mirrors real life. If you think of your book as developing a relationship with the reader, it’s much easier to see you can’t pitch a chunk of back story in the first few chapters. So woo them a little. Intrigue them. Bond the reader to your characters and to you as a storyteller. There will come a point where your back story is very important to them.
Breaking news – historical and speculative author KM Weiland has obviously been wrestling with this topic recently too. She’s just posted a case study on back story in one of Hemingway’s classic shorts – check it out here.
There’s lots more about back story in my book Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3
Thanks, Binder.donedat for the pic How do you deal with back story? Do you find it a problem? Do share any examples of novels that have handled this well!
Two weeks ago I dotted the last pixel on my novel Lifeform Three and now it’s got an agent who loves it. Phew.
A few months ago no one would have loved this book. Not even me. Although occasionally scenes and characters would flash a winning smile, there was so much that remained wrong with it. And I’d already been working on it for much of the year.
I have had to drill virtually to the Earth’s core to find out what the story in this idea was. Then I had to work out the very best way it should be told. I have pulled it and punched it until it has revealed its themes and I have sweated over how to explore all that without bludgeoning the reader, being saccharine or vastly obscure.
I have refined every metaphor, analysed every action and reaction, listened to every niggling symptom that something is not right. I have put that book on the psychiatrist’s couch and had endless discussions with it about what needs to change, whether characters are pulling their weight, whether we should let go of a scene I’d always cherished. I have been prodded back to the drawing board by every good film I’ve seen or great book I’ve read. Even the bad books seemed to be doing a better job than I was. The beginning has had more corrective surgery than Michael Jackson.
Finding the right voice was an ordeal all of its own. I’ve gritted my teeth at every respected blogger who said don’t use present tense, because for this book present tense always felt the most natural way to tell the story. I’ve gritted at every post that warned about intruding narrators. I’ve needed a narrator who could place a cosy humanity around bleak events and get away with jokes that the main character would never be able to make himself.
For more than a year it seemed as though Lifeform Three was born damaged and has had to be nurtured, massaged, corrected, restrained, disciplined, until it was fit to stand up on its own, walk into an agent’s inbox and say ‘read me’. Of course, there are still a few notes to come about niggles and clarifications, but it substantially does exactly what I wanted when the idea first grabbed me. And more.
And do you know what? This is what it takes to get a novel right. This is normal.
This is why writing is not just about the first draft. It’s why revising is not just correcting your spellings or twiddling with your literary expressions. This is why the hard work is the ruthless and endless rewriting, the questions we ask about what we are really writing about, the demands we make of ourselves to do better. This is why it takes so long.
And now, I start another. I write this post to help me through the storms ahead and for anyone else currently trapped by a difficult book. This is what it takes to do the job.
Where are you with your WIP? First draft, second, umpteenth?