Posts Tagged page-turners

How to cut a novel (and enjoy it)

7968121396_96df1a8d43_cI did my first bookshop  signing yesterday. Big landmark! It was a terrific day, lots of people (which was a relief).  The local writing group came in force and one question came up time and again. ‘My manuscripts end up so long. What should I do?’

Many of their novels were tipping 150,000 words. One gentleman was turning out whoppers of 500,000 and knew he needed to do something about it. But what?

How long is too long?

Actually, length is not a question of wordcount. It’s about pacing. No book seems too long if the material has been handled well. A tome of 100,000 words will read like lightning if it is well paced. A novel of half the length will be a tedious trudge if the pacing is poor.

Of course, the book may be considered too long because of the market and genre. That’s a whole subject in itself. But let’s assume for today that you can have any length you like, so long as it is, like Goldilocks’s porridge, just right.

Pace

What is good pacing? It’s holding the attention of the reader. Plot revelations come at just the right speed. Not just plot, but emotional highs and lows, notes of comic relief, moments of growing tension. Well-paced novels keep the reader up past their bedtime.

Coherence

A novel also reads smoothly if it is coherent. Whether it’s a simple story of two friends or a sweeping epic with seven protagonists and a plot that spans a century,  it holds together as one elegant work. Like a well-designed room, everything has a place and it belongs. The material is under control. The more a reader feels the author has this authority, the more they will be gripped.

So when a reader, critique partner or editor tells you the novel is too long, they usually mean you need to fine-tune its coherence and pace. You need to make it a more compelling read.

Why do novels end up too long?

Three reasons:

  1. the writer was having fun and went off at a tangent – nothing wrong with that, it’s part of the organic growth of the novel
  2. the writer found it was more difficult than they expected to get their characters from A to B – again, this is good and will make your novel unpredictable, organic and true
  3. – and most important – it’s almost impossible to keep control of coherence and pace while you are writing. You have to tackle these issues once you have the manuscript complete, and can see what belongs and what needs emphasis. (Some of the writers I spoke to yesterday were surprised by the concept of revising. Especially that revising was an essential, radically artistic process, rather than a quick brush-down for spelling tweaks.)

Take a break, then make a beat sheet

Readers of my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence will be familiar with these two steps. To edit productively, you need critical distance. So take a break. Write something else. Lock your manuscript away until you’ve forgotten most of it. Most of us need at least a month, but the longer the better.

Then make a beat sheet. This is my ultimate revision tool. Before I start editing, I need a way to grasp the structure of the entire book. So I make a summary of each scene’s purpose – why it’s in the story, whether it advances the plot or our knowledge of a character. I use this to decide if I have scenes that aren’t necessary, or are in the wrong place or if they repeat other material.

carrielu2Take many passes

When I start editing, I’m feeling my way. With each pass, I climb further inside the novel. I understand what every scene and character should do, and realise whether to emphasise or condense.

It’s as if cutting is like marathon training. To start with, I make light, obvious  excisions. Repeated words, over-long descriptive passages, portions of scenes that go nowhere. By the end, which may be weeks or even months later, I’m hardcore. I’ll think nothing of reordering a whole sequence of scenes, downgrading a character’s role or merging them with another person. I will gladly let go of ‘darlings’ – scenes, descriptions, characters and plot developments that are there only because I like them, and not because they are needed. (I may have to add scenes too.)

Cutting is creative

Cutting a book can sound like a negative, dispiriting process – another reason why some writers find it difficult. In fact is creative, not destructive. Although the net effect is a tighter wordcount, we’re not throwing material away but discovering what’s not needed. It’s a process of refinement. I love it because it’s where the book develops its distinct personality and identity.

nyn2covsmlThe beat sheet is in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence 

And… announcement! You may have noticed a new cover has appeared in the sidebar. Nail Your Novel: Characters is due for release in May, so if you’re interested to know more, sign up for my newsletter.

Thanks for the swordsmen pics CarrieLu 

Do you like cutting your novels? Do you have any tips to add?

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To be continued… What everybody misses about chapter breaks

Are you putting your chapter breaks in the best place?

What’s the purpose of a chapter break? Is it to split the book into manageable chunks? Is it to give the reader a chance to have a rest?

If that’s what you think, you’re missing the point.

Sure, the breaks make the book look like an easier read. But what you do with a chapter break is offer the reader a point to stop – and then convince them to stay longer anyway.

So how do we know where to end a chapter?

Narratively, a chapter has to feel complete, and the ending needs to shift the story on a gear. There are probably three natural ways this happens, depending on the type of novel you’re writing:

  • a cliffhanger
  • a question
  • closure.

Closure

Some manuscripts I see end too many chapters with closure. For instance, the character moves to a new town. That’s quite an old-fashioned way of writing, and worked fine in the days when everyone finished books as a point of principle. But these days, if we don’t feel a little tug of tension too, or enough curiosity about the consequences, it’s a sure opportunity for the reader to slip away. Possibly for ever.

Cliffhangers

You might think cliffhangers are the perfect solution for keeping the reader gripped.  And they’re de rigeur for certain types of genre, of course.

But some writers misjudge them. To take the expression rather literally, if you send a hero over the edge of a ravine we know very well that the chance of them splatting at the bottom is slim. The reader knows, if only subconsciously, that what awaits over the page is a rather dry sequence of physical explanations and that the outcome is almost a foregone conclusion.

Physical action is not what prose does best. Unless you can pull out a real surprise that makes a significant change (eg it’s the point where someone discovers they can fly) it’s probably not going to keep the reader addicted.

But these types of endings are focussing on the wrong outcome. Instead of ending the chapter with the question of whether the hero will survive (which is no question because they will), end it on the real moment of change – the point where they soar away on the breeze and think ‘oh my, I didn’t know I could do that’. That’s the real surprise for the character and the reader. It’s the story-changing point that’s worth grandstanding as a chapter ending.

If you’re ending on a physical cliffhanger, is there a more interesting development that comes from it? Should you move a few paragraphs on and end on the really interesting development?

(Interlude: In case you’re thinking this is an indication of the shenanigans in My Memories of A Future Life, it’s not. No one flies in that book, except with the assistance of an aeroplane. Various rules are broken in that story, but not the laws of physics. Now back to the post.)

Questions

What prose does best is emotions and questions. They’re what binds us to characters and stories – and they’re the best ways to keep your reader sitting up that little bit later. Most of your chapters won’t end on cliffhangers or closure, they’ll be lower key. But you can make sure every single one feels complete but tugs the tension tighter, answers a question but poses another.

When to put them in

I don’t split my books into chapters until very late in the editing process. I don’t think it can be done until I know the whole book inside out in its final form. Then I spend a lot of time chopping and rejigging, assessing where the natural turning points are for maximum intrigue. Sometimes I find an episode in the book is too long to be a chapter on its own, so I rework it and slip in a break half-way. All this helps maintain the pace of the story and give it irresistible pull power.

Your chapter endings are not where you give the audience a break. They are where you get them to recommit to the book.

Thank you, Dave and Leo at Mirabilis, for the picture!

My Memories of a Future Life will be available from 30 August, 2011

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