Posts Tagged Stephen King

Does it serve the book? Killing your darlings is a mark of writing maturity

kill your darlings Roz Morris Nail Your NovelLast 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.

DSCF3083smlBut the dress scene is lovely!

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.

Be strict

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.’

ebookcovernyn3There’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!

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Can writing be taught? And what do writing teachers teach?

2658174628_049a403892_bThe other night I was watching The Rewrite, in which a Hollywood scriptwriter reluctantly becomes a writing teacher. In the early part of the film he asserts that writing can’t be taught.

In some ways, I agree.

But wait, you might say. And you might brandish a kettle at me, or a pot as black as night. What, Ms Morris, are you doing here? On your blogs, in your seminars, with your nifty tips and nailing books?

Well, I hope I’m being useful, but it’s interesting to consider how much of a writer is made by what is taught, and how much is … something else.

You do the work
No matter how many courses you take or books you read, they won’t build your facility for you. You’re the one playing the instrument, and you need years of practice and exploration. The fabled 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, if we’re to believe Malcolm Gladwell.

stephen kingActually, at two hours every day, that’s 13 and a half years – which may not be encouraging to know. But this figure does perhaps explain why some characters doubt the use of teaching when it comes to making writers. Indeed Stephen King says in On Writing: ‘to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’. And: ‘the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself’.

Time for T
Dare we mention the T-word? Talent? There, it’s said. What might talent be?

I guess we could call it the qualities that can’t be taught. Imagination, a grace with the written word, the tuning of mind and soul that sees unique significance and connections.

We should add the disposition to persist for 10,000 hours (or however much it might actually be) – because talent will only last so far. Before Picasso could have a blue period, he learned to draw properly so he knew what he was doing to his audience. Then he could mess around all he wanted.

So what am I doing here?
A writing teacher can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can’t do the work for you. In that case, what am I teaching?

1 Awareness – of how stories work on the intellect and heart, the invisible tricks that writers use, some of which they’re probably not aware of.

2 Methodology – ways to cope with the difficulties when we’re out of ideas, disappointed with our work. And how to organise the tons of material we have, changes of heart, brainwaves for new directions.

3 Critical thinking in ways that are helpful rather than destructive.

4 Ways to discover what we should be writing, and how to fulfil our distinctive potential.

5 The joy of creativity, of the pursuit of craftsmanship, the respect and wonder of what we can do with printed marks or pixels. I will always be amazed how prose seems infinitely richer than photographs or film. A great piece of writing is worth a thousand pictures.

6 We’re also sharing our own curiosity. I’m first a writer, then a teacher. I’m on my own odyssey with another ornery book and it’s nice to talk to those who understand.

Thanks for the pic, Kate McCarthy

If you liked this post, you might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss a tricky question – what, exactly is writing talent?

Over to you. Can writing be taught? What aspects of writing can’t be? What do you learn from writing teachers? If you’re a writing teacher, what do you teach?

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Point of view shifts and head-hopping: always bad?

4585943478_351eb03f76_zI’ve had this interesting question from Robert Scanlon:

‘What are your views on head-hopping? In my steep learning curve, I gathered it was frowned upon (maybe just for newbies?).

Head-hopping. First of all, what’s Robert talking about?

All narratives have a point of view – the ‘eyes’ through which a story is told. It might be a dispassionate third-person camera following everyone. It might be a more involved third person account with insights into one or more characters’ thoughts and feelings (close third). It might be first person, where there is only one person’s experience.

Head-hopping is where the point of view changes. It’s not always verboten – we’ll come to that. But it’s often done unintentionally – and when it is, it can cause a logic hiccup. It can even kick the reader right out of the story.

It’s easiest to spot POV slips in first-person stories, where the narrator describes something they couldn’t possibly know or experience – another person’s intentions, or an event they aren’t present at. (Indeed, this is usually where writers realise the limitations of first-person narration. And so the character finds a diary or a secret blog…)

Head-hopping problems are not confined to first person (or close third), though. A third-person scene might be following one character’s experience, then slip into a perspective that somehow doesn’t fit. Maybe it’s just a paragraph, or a line. It’s often hard to spot. If you asked the reader what was wrong they might not be able to explain it. But they’ll sense something’s off and they’ll disengage from you.

However, point of view shifts aren’t bad per se. In most novels we need to accommodate a lot of characters and their stories. Here’s part 2 of Robert’s question:

I’ve been reading a lot of Stephen King, and my word, does he head-hop! Is that because he is such a good storyteller? Or should he be advised to avoid this? (I can write to him and let him know…)

Hah! It’s a while since I read Stephen King, and the chances are even slimmer that I’ve read the same Stephen King as you, Robert! But some general points.

He might indeed have got it wrong. All writers have blind spots. And it’s entirely possible that he wasn’t edited rigorously.

But also … he might have got it right!

The only way to tell? When you notice it, ask yourself if it was an inconsistency that shook you out of the story, even slightly. A good POV shift keeps you immersed.

Let’s explore a few ways to shift point of view and do it well.

Two ways to shift point of view

tulip2New chapters – a new point of view gets a new chapter. You might even write some chapters first person and some third – as Deborah Moggach does in Tulip Fever. In each she follows one character’s experience closely. And if two of the principals share a scene? She writes one chapter from one point of view, and revisits the event in a separate chapter for the other person’s. She always remains disciplined about which point of view she is following. Charles Dickens writes some of Bleak House in first person, following the experience of Esther Summerson. Her honest, diary-like narrative is a warm contrast to the conniving characters in the Dickens-narrated sections.

Shift within the scene – yes you can get away with it, if you are well behaved. You might:

  • Show one paragraph from one point of view, the next from the other. Make sure the reader will be able to follow which is which without getting confused. But if the scene is intense, you might leave the reader punch-drunk from trying to follow two strong experiences. It might be better to…
  • Switch the entire point of view during the scene – so the first half follows one character’s perspective, then swivels to the other until the end. I’m doing this in Ever Rest as I have several protagonists, all getting into dire angst. Note this is usually a one-time change – it can bust the reader’s patience if you flip back again.

(There’s more about point of view in my characters book)

What we leave out

One of the keys to point of view is judging what to leave out. The writer always knows a lot more than the reader. We know every main character’s thoughts, back story, front story. And that’s why it’s hard to spot head-hopping in our own work – because we make the mental switch without realising. But the reader can’t. They get lost, even if only by a micron.

All points of view have their limitations and boundaries. We have to write within them.

Control is everything

Robert says: In my first book, I found some errors where there was a transfer of POV. When I edited them to stick to the main POV, I thought it read better.

Amen. And this is why: when you begin a story, you establish a set of conventions. In the same way as we set up rules about the story world (whether it’s realistic contemporary, medieval with magic etc) we also set up rules for how we will tell it. If we’re going to shift between experiences, we establish the pattern from the earliest chapters. If we break that pattern, it disturbs the flow. Of course, we might use that to disorientate or shock – imagine a story where the surprise appearance of a new narrator might cause delicious mayhem. That’s the head-hopping principle – used for deliberate impact.

Skilful writers never fumble the reader’s experience. And point of view is a potent storytelling tool.

Thanks for the Rear Window pic x-ray delta one

Do you have problems with POV and head-hopping? Do you have examples of when it’s been used to create an interesting effect – or writers who seem to be getting away – gasp – uncorrected? Share in the comments!

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NEWS The audiobook of My Memories of a Future Life is now live! You can find it on Audible in the US and the UK. If you’re thinking of trying out Audible for the first time, you can get the novel free when you sign up. It will also be on iTunes but that takes a little longer to percolate.

If you’re thinking of making an audiobook yourself, either with ACX or by some other means, you might find my posts about the process helpful.

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How many words do you write a day? And do you have to force yourself? How successful authors do it

Dave writingThis question appeared in my inbox from Adam Nicholls after I reported on Facebook that I’d managed 4,000 words of The Mountains Novel in one day. Adam DMd me, in not a little anguish: How many words do you write per day? And do you have to force yourself to do it? I love writing, but it’s work. There are two significant points in this question:

  • output; books growing steadily at a satisfactory rate
  • difficulty.

How many words per day? I asked this question of a group I’m a member of, The League of Extraordinary Authors (which now blogs under the name Boxing The Octopus… times change!).

Romance author Melissa Foster says she has no difficulty getting 7,000 to 10,000 words written in a day and that she adores the blank page. No issues with output there. (But there’s more to writing a good novel than stacking up the wordcount, as she points out in the comments below.)

Romance author Colleen Thompson says ‘When on a publisher’s deadline, I write 1,000-2,000 words a day 6-7 days a week. Otherwise, I try to produce 20-25 new pages per week. Right now, I’m editing, so all bets are off!’

And contemporary fiction author Linda Gillard says ‘I don’t have a regular wordcount but I doubt if I do more than 2,000 new words a day. I think of it as a chapter a week. It’s more important to me that I should work every day on the book – research or editing. For every day spent drafting, I spend 3-4 days re-writing/editing. Drafting I find quick, editing slow. Once a book is under way, I expect to work most days.’

Ultra noir detective author Eric Coyote says he ignores wordcounts – ‘because so much of my writing is re-writing. I clock time: 2-6 hours a day. Usually I work a couple of hours in the middle of the day, then a blast at night until 2 or 3am.’

Graham Greene, who was hardly a publishing slouch, would set himself a modest target – 500 words a day he was satisfied with, and he stopped even if he was in the middle of a sentence so he  could pick up the following day.

parisreviewStephen King talks in this interview for The Paris Review about how he aims for 1,000 words a day.

And since you asked (or Adam did), I track wordcounts if I have a deadline, as when I’m ghostwriting. The plot is agreed beforehand and by the time I write it’s simply a matter of enacting what’s in the outline. I’d usually get 2,500 words done in a day, 5 days a week.

My own fiction is trickier because there’s much more discovery and exploration, even though I plan, so wordcounts grow erratically. They might shrink, too, as I realise I can’t leave the passage I wrote the day before.

The day of 4,000 words isn’t a consistent norm although I didn’t stop there. By the time I closed the file that day I’d added another 2,000. Only time will tell how much of that I’ll keep as I’m sure I was cross-eyed by the end. Indeed, like Eric, I find it more useful to record the hours spent. With novels like mine, part of the work is understanding how to handle the idea. So a session on the book may produce no new footage in the manuscript, but several hours writing notes or reading.

Get on with it

Of course, we could research and tinker endlessly. It’s easy to slip into procrastination instead of getting the writing done. There are two main reasons why we might dither for ever:

  • we can’t immerse
  • we’re worried about getting it wrong – the inner critic

book at the end of the tunnel Nail Your NovelFind a place to immerse

Where do you write? Stephen King in The Paris Review says he creates a ‘refuge’ where he can shut away. He also remarks that being close to a window is fatal because it’s easier to look outside instead of inwards to the imagination.

I posted last week about getting into the zone, using music. Writing tutor and suspense author James Scott Bell explains in this post how he subscribes to the oft-repeated philosophy of writing when he feels inspired, and making sure this happens at the same time every morning. Yes, be brutal with your muse.

Don’t lose contact with the book

A surprising number of writers feel a stab of stage fright before they sit down with their novel. I do myself, but only if I’ve had to leave the manuscript for more than a few days. The more I keep my contact with the book warm, the more I feel comfortable to venture back inside it. It helps that I’m drawing on the experience that the other novels worked in the end. What if you don’t yet have that or for some reason that isn’t enough?

Warm up the writing engine

Some writers favour freewriting exercises. Freewriting is basically splurging onto the page or screen, regardless of grammar, spelling, quality or any other critical issue. The point is to remove inhibitions and let the ideas flow, to connect with your creativity. Famous exponents include Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down The Bones, Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way, and another of my cohorts in The League of Extraordinary Authors, Orna Ross.

Get out more

In my conversation with the League of Extraordinary Authors, Linda Gillard had this terrific advice. ‘I find the best way to stimulate the flow of ideas and the desire to write is to put myself in a situation where it’s impossible, eg Christmas.’ Indeed, this is one of the tactics I recommend in Nail Your Novel – if you’re stuck, go and do something messy that will make holding a pen impossible. Make meatballs or go to the gym. Inspiration is no respecter of convenience.

Do you have wordcount goals? Do you find writing a struggle? What would you tell Adam? Share in the comments!

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4 low-cost ways to get writing tuition if you can’t afford an editor

jurvetson

I’ve just finished writing my first novel. I want to get published but I can’t pay for an editor. What can I do? Edith

Every week I get emails from writers who want help but can’t afford the cost of an editor. And I can see why. Good editors cost a big chunk of money and the job can’t be done cheaply. I don’t think seriously committed writers assume anything otherwise.

But sometimes, the writing world can seem like those schools where rich parents hothouse their kids by hiring personal tutors. If you don’t have the spare dollars, will you be left behind?

Not necessarily. Many of the writers I know never hired editors, yet we earned our spurs somehow. And you can still learn the way we did. It still works.

I probably sound like I’m doing myself out of a job here. Certainly a good editor will zoom in on your individual weaknesses (and strengths), and will improve all the novels you write, not just the one they assess. Also I’ll state that I’ve learned heaps from the agents and editors I’ve worked with. But the bulk of my learning came from elsewhere.

It wasn’t all free, but it was considerably cheaper than hiring an editor.

1 Find a good evening class

For two years I went to a novel-writing course at an adult education college. This was fantastic – an intensive two hours each week in which we’d critique a couple of works in progress, guided by a tutor who was also a literary agent. In case you’re in London, it was Morley College in Waterloo. Almost any well-populated area should have adult education facilities, and you can probably access them online too.

Intensive weekend courses are also useful (in the UK Arvon is well regarded), though the cost is getting on for the price of an editor, but there’s definitely something to be said for a regular dose of writing tuition every week to realign your awareness. Writing minds are trained gradually, so hothousing doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage.

Cost: Evening classes at Morley College about £130 per term

2 Find a critique group

Your evening class might fulfil this function, as mine did. But if it doesn’t, find a critique group or a clan of beta readers you can trust with your WIP. They may not be as expert as tutor-level critics, but can still be very valuable as they will react to your work as real readers.

Make sure you pick people who read your type of book (I hesitate to use the word ‘genre’ after last week’s discussion 🙂 ) and who come together with the intent to help each other improve. You don’t want a mutual stroking society, you want people who’ll stop you making mistakes.

How expert do they have to be? Almost anybody can tell you the places where the book bored them, interested them, confused them, stretched their credibility or kept them up well past their bedtime. If they give you solutions as well, ignore them (diplomatically) unless they have reason to know what they’re doing. You find your solutions from your other experts.

A word of caution: although the participants don’t have to be expert, you need to make sure the group is moderated by someone witcakeh nous who can recognise when personality clashes or personal issues are interfering with the group’s criticism.

If you can’t find a group in the corporeal world, there’s nothing to stop you assembling a brief email list of trusted early readers.

Cost: Wine, cake and other standard bribes

3 Read craft books

For years I mainlined writing craft books. I gobbled up so many I can’t remember all the titles, and I gave loads away to friends, but the ones I still have are by Robert McKee, Jordan Rosenfeld, Stephen King, Dianne Doubtfire , James Wood, David Lodge, Bob Shaw, Syd Field and Blake Snyder.

roz birthday plus NYN2pics 052compAnd of course, I’m now adding to the writers’ reading burden with tomes of my own, distilled into practical tutorials based on the advice I regularly give when I critique. Hence the characters book.

Cost: the price of a book (or several)

4 Read like a writer

This is what I have always done. Each time I read something that impresses me, I stop and examine how it was done. This means I dither through books, often trapped by a sentence, a description or a wrenching twist. This extreme predisposition to wonder is what made me write in the first place and it’s what inspires and teaches me still.

Cost: what price can you put on pleasure?

The long and the short

It can’t be denied that an editor is a fast track to proficiency. But some of the necessary lessons can’t be learned in a hurry. We need time for unfamiliar concepts to become habit, to make the knowledge our own and to put it to full imaginative use. That isn’t bought with money. It’s earned with time and dedication.

Thanks for the money-burning pic Jurvetson Just for the record, the lady in the pic is not a financially challenged – or blessed – writer, but an entrepreneur making a point about energy wastage. But we’re both talking about money that may not need to be spent 🙂

Where are you in your writing journey? How did you learn and how are you learning still? Is there anything you’d tell Edith?

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How to state the obvious – obligatory scenes in Stephen King’s The Green Mile

Sometimes writers have to state the obvious or
put in a scene everybody is expecting. But that’s
not a licence to coast. Here’s how Stephen King’s
The Green Mile  makes an obligatory scene into
something special

Stephen King’s The Green Mile is a story about the lives of guards on death row. One of the first things it does is set the scene with an execution.

Some writers might coast here – surely the material is startling enough that you don’t have to do anything else with it, right?

Wrong.

Here’s what The Green Mile does.

It shows two execution scenes, in stark contrast.

The first isn’t real, it’s a rehearsal. One guard plays the ‘condemned’ man. He gibbers like a loon and makes lewd last requests. When the other guards throw the switch he writhes and screams with glee. The prison governor allows them to lark about, knowing he is seeing nervous men struggling with a difficult job. He also tries to keep the joking to a minimum because there is a newcomer who needs to be trained. This allows us a way in – in several ways: the prison governor trying not to let the hi-jinks get out of hand, yet realizing the men need to let off steam. The guards themselves, coping with the stress the best way they can. And the new guard, seeing all this for the first time. It also gives the author a licence to dump in as much exposition as he wants. Masterful.

And then he goes one better by showing an actual execution. And how different it is. The prisoner is frightened. The governor handles him with great sensitivity. The guards who were roaring with laughter before are nervous and gentle.

The Green Mile could have gone straight to this scene, relying on the content to speak for itself. But because he put the other one before it, the real one becomes much more appalling. We see how strange and difficult a thing it is to extinguish life.

I often see manuscripts in which the writer assumes there are some things they don’t have to explain. Execution is a nasty business – who’d have thought?  Surely you don’t have to spell that out.

Wrong. For two reasons.

1 One of the things audiences have paid their money for is details of the grisly process. They need to get it somehow. What they don’t realize they want is for you to make it way more powerful than they were expecting. So you can’t just cruise with scenes like this.

2 In the world of your story, anything is possible. You could have, if you wanted, a bunch of prison guards who were completely blase, and no more affected by executing a man than if they were squashing a fly. You set the rules of the story, what is right, what is wrong, what is difficult and what is easy. And you have to demonstrate them.

So, an execution must be shown and it must be shown to be a difficult job. But The Green Mile turns this into storytelling gold.

Have you got any favourite examples of exposition and obligatory scenes that have been handled with panache? Have you solved similar problems?

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