Posts Tagged self-editing
I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island and he describes a moment in an Edinburgh art gallery when he saw a father talking to his son about the difference between early and later Goya. Bryson says:
The man was describing the pictures with a fondness and familiarity that were truly heartwarming and the boy was raptly attentive to his every word. He wasn’t showing off, you understand; he was sharing.’
Showing off. Sharing.
It seems to me that this distinction could apply, not just to art appreciation or father-son conversations, but to art itself.
It’s hard to pin down what makes a piece of art effective, but one explanation could be this – an essential quality of transparency, of real communication. Whether it’s painting, dance, acting or writing, you forget it’s being accomplished through words on a page, or strokes of paint, or somebody dressing up and pretending, or performing a much rehearsed sequence of moves. It seems to be there completely without artifice or barrier or skin.
Where does this sense of naturalness come from? One answer might be in this post I wrote a while ago, inspired by an interview with Michael Caine. He was being asked about his relaxed performance manner, and how he made it look so effortless. he said ‘the rehearsal is the work, the performance is the relaxation.’ Put another way, to be effortless requires … hours of non-spontaneous effort.
It also means we have to get our ego out of the way. But this is a finely judged thing. We want our writing to hold the reader’s attention, so we have to be a bit bold. We need flair and panache. Characters who are memorable. Plot events that make us turn the page. For each of those qualities, we tread a fine line. A phrase might be startling and true, or it might strike a fake note. A character might be distinctive and unforgettable, or they might be unconvincing, or jar with the tone. Figuring out which is which is one of the eternal quests of honest self-editing.
Sometimes, we can get an answer by taking a long look at our motives. Often, deep down, we know if we’re keeping an image, line, simile, plot event or description that doesn’t belong. The reason is usually this – we’re pleased with them.
If that’s your conundrum, this question could be the clincher.
Was it showing off or sharing?
If you follow me on Facebook or get my newsletter, you might have seen this cryptic message:
Assuming you give two hoots, you’ll find more about it here. It all started with this.
I’ve had an interesting question from Ben Collins.
I have read that each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and that every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted. Is this too rigid a formula, or do you think it is correct?
That’s a good question with a lot of answers.
So let’s take it apart.
‘Every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted’
I certainly subscribe to the view that every scene should feel like it’s moving forwards. Something should change, and in a way that keeps the reader curious.
In my plot book I talk about the 4 Cs of a plot – crescendo, curiosity, coherence and change. You can hear me discuss it here with Joanna Penn on her podcast. Three of those Cs are relevant to this question – curiosity change, and crescendo. Crescendo is a sense that the pressure is building – which, if we’re thinking in terms of formulas, comes from a constant state of change.
So what about that other C, conflict? Well, plots come from unstable situations. They can be epic scale – character flaws, character clashes, impossible choices, regrets in the deepest recesses of the soul, attacks from outer space. They can be tiny – two protagonists who irritate the hell out of each other. Good storytellers will sniff out every possible opportunity to add conflict to a scene.
But do you need conflict in every scene? It depends what you’re writing. In a high octane thriller, you need to pack in the punches. If your book is quieter, your developments might be sotto voce. Nevertheless, it’s good to think of keeping the story bounding forwards, in whatever steps would be suitable for your readers.
Beware of overdoing it, though. Even the fastest-paced thriller or suspense novel needs downtime scenes or you’ll wear the reader out. Relentless conflict is exhausting after a while. The most famous illustration of this in action is the campfire scene in an action movie. Usually before a climax, there’s a quiet scene where the characters get some personal time, in a safe place away from the main action. This is a great time for a romance to blossom. Or to drop in a personal piece of back story – a character can finally tell their life story. It lets the tension settle so that the audience is ready for the final big reckoning.
Is it keeping up the sense of change? Well yes it is, because it usually deepens the stakes. The characters might grow to like each other more. It might add an extra moral dimension, so there’s a deeper reason to right a wrong. And the reader will feel more strongly bonded to the characters, so it becomes more important that they succeed – which is onward movement in the pace of the story.
Remember I said earlier on that a change in a scene might be a change in the reader’s understanding? This is an example.
So your scene should definitely contain a change. But there’s a wide definition of what that might be. Each scene should deepen the sense of instability and trouble. It should have something that makes the reader think – that’s not what I expected, or this is now a bit more perilous.
And now to part 2 of the question:
First, let’s define what might be meant by parts. I’m guessing this will be the major phases of the story, or acts. If you’ve seen my posts on story structure you’ll already know what that means. You’ve already got a steady pace of change, with each scene adding something to keep the reader curious. As well as this, you need bigger changes. Something that breaks the pattern and punts everything off in a different direction.
And yes, it might be a disaster. It’s usually something that makes the situation much worse, and sends the story off in a new direction. The murderer strikes again. The Twin Towers fall. The husband begins an affair. It’s a point of no return. a one-way threshold.
So Ben asked: Each part of a novel should contain a ‘disaster’ and every scene should either contain conflict or be deleted.
Let’s amend that statement: each act of a novel should contain something that propels the story into a new, more serious direction; a point of no return. And every individual scene should contain a change, whether big or small.
Thanks for the pic KIm Stovring on Flickr
Clear as mud? Let’s discuss. What would you say?
Here’s another great discussion from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass.
What is a scene? And why does it matter to know that?
Those in the know will probably all have their own slightly different way to define a scene, but this is mine. I think of a scene as the smallest unit of a story’s events.
Like a scene in a movie, a scene in a novel will be confined within a location, or a set of characters. But not necessarily. A scene might cover a number of locations, characters and times if it’s a linking sequence, such as a journey or a flashback or a chunk of back story. So I find the most helpful, graspable definition is to think of it as a step in the storyline, or the reader’s understanding.
Why does it help to think about this?
It helps the writer break the book into manageable chunks – if you construct your novel from scenes you can think more easily about finding the optimum order for the emphasis you want. If you use a revision tool like my beat sheet (in Nail Your Novel), you can easily control the plot.
Writing in scenes helps the reader too. If you indicate the change to a new scene by a line break ,the reader will subconsciously think ‘I’ll just read to the end of this…’ which is your opportunity to build to a nice interesting change so they have to gobble up another. So scenes offer the reader a break… and then reel them right back in. Which is nifty.
Look for change So this leads us to another vital quality of scenes. Each one should move the story on in some way. It might be big or small, but by the end of the scene, something will have changed. Indeed a scene usually has a beginning, a middle and end – like a microcosm of a balanced story. Indeed, change is one of the four Cs of a great plot – curiosity, change, crescendo and coherence (more on that here).
So you should think of your novel as a movie, right?
Not necessarily. If you’re writing a genre piece, it will usually be like a movie in book form – a sequence of discrete scenes. But this might not suit you if your style is more internal, more of a continuous experience in the mind of a character. After all, real life doesn’t occur in packages; it’s a stream. Even so, for the purposes of using your material effectively and controlling the pace, it helps to build in scenes, even if you have to create artificial breaks in the prose. You can segue them together later on, in the editing stage.
But this is obvious. Why even mention it?
Ho ho. The scenes question is like most fundamentals of writing. Some writers grasp it instinctively and never give it a thought. Others don’t – and find it helpful to have it explained. Which are you? And has it helped to think about what a scene does?
Thanks for the pic seda yildirim
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!
Self-editing masterclass snapshots: Characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?
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, and how to flesh out a draft that’s too short. Today I’m looking at an interesting problem of pacing:
Characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?
One student had a story in which the characters are coping with the death of a close family member. How, she said, could she keep the new developments coming, as the grief process would take many months?
We’d been talking about pacing the story, and how it was crucial to be aware of change. Each scene should present the reader with something new, to keep the sense that the narrative is moving on. That change could be big or small – a major twist or a slight advance in the reader’s understanding, a deepening of a mood or maybe a release. What’s important is this sense of progress – because it’s one of the chief ways we keep the reader curious.
So what do we do when the characters are in one intense emotional state such as grief, whose very nature will not let them move on?
The answer is to find ways to keep the reader surprised about it. And indeed, a life-changing shock is not a one-time blow. The loss is felt in infinite details we are unprepared for, and this is what makes it so vicious. Look at any grief memoir and you’ll see how every act of normal life becomes a new ordeal. The wound is being reopened over and over.
Indeed, grief counsellors generally describe a number of distinct phases – up to seven, depending on how you define them. They are:
- Shock and denial.
- Pain and guilt.
- Anger and bargaining.
- Depression, reflection, loneliness.
- The upward turn.
- Reconstruction and working through.
- Acceptance and hope. (More here.)
Forgive me an apparently insensitive comment, but this is a fantastic framework for storytellers. Nature tells us how to shape our plot.
If your story is about coming to terms with a great shock, find the day-to-day challenges that keep the experience painfully fresh. Then map the overall path and how your characters will move along it.
There’s more about pacing in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart – including a section on how characters can react plausibly to shock and bereavement. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
I’ll be continuing this series, but next week I’m breaking the pattern. I had rather a good question about back story that I know is quite urgent for the writer, so I’ll be tackling that.
And for now… Have you written about characters who are adjusting after a great shock? How did you keep the reader’s attention, even when the grieving state lasted for a long period? How did you figure out how to shape the material? Share in the comments!
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?
Last weekend I was teaching a workshop at Writecon Zurich and one of the issues we discussed was killing your darlings. I used the example of a very precious scene I deleted from My Memories of a Future Life. The full story, including the scene, is here, but briefly, it was inspired by a family heirloom and I was keen to include it. But at each revision round I sensed it repeated an emotional beat, tripped the reader up and made the story stall. When, finally, I swallowed my vanity and removed it, the story ran more smoothly.
I found myself using that same instinct the other day with Ever Rest, which I’m revising. I’m recutting the rough first draft in a more dynamic order, now I know the characters more deeply. I’d planned a funky new use for a scene and was pleased with the possibilities – especially as there were some good lines about the characters’ histories. So I improvised a fill-in scene to prepare the way – then realised that had already done the job. Those nice moments weren’t even needed.
I have to admit, this was annoying. If I get excited about an idea, I want to use it, not discard it. But it was surplus to requirements and would spoil the flow. Rather like the dress scene. I liked it for itself, but it didn’t serve the book.
I sighed and parked the sequence back in the rushes file. It might be useful later.
Back to the dress scene. I’ve also used it as an illustration in my Guardian masterclass – and quite often, a funny thing happens. One of the students will argue, quite strenuously, that I should have included it. Why? Because it was nice, they reply. And no matter how I argue about the overall good of the book, they lament that I took it out.
No matter that I tell them readers can find it on my website if they’re that curious; or that I acknowledge the narrator probably had that moment around the corners of the story. That there would have been plenty of moments of the characters’ lives I didn’t show. Real life contains a lot of monotony and repetition, but a storyteller needs to select what to include and what to omit. You get more artistry from discipline, coherence and elegance than you do from sprawl.
The reason I tell the anecdote is to illustrate the kinds of battles we might have as we edit. We have to recognise when we’re trying to include a scene, character or description simply because we like it, and instead search for a more substantial reason.
Now obviously we are not building machines. We are creating works of art and entertainment. A scene, character or description might earn its place for many reasons aside from advancing the plot – thematic resonance, comic relief, helping the reader to understand a tricky situation. And our style is an individual organism that arises from our interests, gut feeling, personality and reading tastes, so the rules for my novels won’t be the same as the rules for yours.
But mature writers have this level of awareness and discipline that helps them edit wisely. I now find I’m catching myself far more often than I used to, examining my personal feelings about a scene, and it’s saved me from stitching in a passage that I’m sure I would have quarreled with later.
Or, in the words of Stephen King: Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’
There’s a lot more about honing your story’s pace in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.
Have you struggled over a cherished passage in one of your books? Have you had feedback where you were urged to delete something, but found it difficult? What made you want to keep it? If you’ve been writing for a while, do you notice yourself becoming more aware of your reasons for keeping scenes? Let’s discuss!