Posts Tagged writing a novel
This week I’ve been advising a writer who wants to gather his professional experiences into a daring expose of … well, I’m not allowed to reveal that. But there is malpractice, corruption and a lot of harm being done to innocent people. Publishers have told him they’re wary because he doesn’t have a platform as an investigative reporter. Others have suggested that he could make his experiences into a novel. And that was one of the questions he asked me. Should he?
Obviously, if you’re going to embark on fiction, there are certain mechanics to learn – storytelling, character invention, show not tell, arcs, dialogue.
But this kind of book comes with an extra challenge. If your material is a true-life account, or a memoir, or an expose, you also have to change your attitude to the content. You have to be willing to change everything – anything – in the service of the story.
If you’re drawing on real experiences you’re often wedded to the exact details. ‘What really happened’ is part of the authenticity. Its very unbelievability might be part of its extraordinary nature. Real life is often stranger than fiction – that proverb exists for a good reason.
In fiction, believability works in a different way. You have to persuade the reader that the situations and developments are real. In memoir and autobiography or any other kind of anecdotal narrative, we already accept that it is. We accept whatever is put in front of us.
People in fiction must be believable too. Fiction has to present its characters with great care, especially the main characters. We might have to alter them from our original concept. An antagonist might seem ridiculous unless they’ve given a quality that makes them human. A protagonist might seem drippy unless they’re given a chance to be wicked sometimes. To create the credibility of novels, you have to be much more willing to adapt as you work. And invent.
Legal aspects – will fictionalising get you off the hook, legally?
Probably it won’t. If you’ve been a thorn in someone’s side and you bring out a novel that seems to enact your conflict with them, you’re probably vulnerable to being challenged. Changing a few details – or a lot of them – won’t stop somebody recognising themselves, their organisation or their battle with you. And if you’ve improved on the real events to make a better story, you might have compounded the possible libel by suggesting they’d do things they haven’t done.
But people do make real life into stories, quite effectively and without getting sued. The trick is to use the real details as a starting point and present them in heavy disguise – here’s a post all about that. Look out for Dave and me in that pic. (Ghostwriters do it too, for famous and infamous people who, ahem, write novels about their lives. If you’re curious about how that happens, step this way)
Assess your priorities – and perhaps adjust
You can still use fiction to expose an injustice or tell your unbelievable truth. Fiction writers usually want to probe for truths, anyway, even though they’re using invented people and events. Although fictionalising might involve compromise, you don’t have to see it that way. Aim instead to identify some core truths and then build a story that stays faithful to those. Your goal isn’t to be a chronicle; instead you’re communicating the deeper spirit, the themes, dilemmas, rights and wrongs.
Your turn! Have you tried to make real-life experiences into a novel? Do you know anyone who has, perhaps in a writers’ group? Any experiences, lessons or wisdom to share?
FLASH SALE Congratulations to Sophie Playle and Mary McCauley, who won the paperback copies of My Memories of a Future Life in the prize draw. Thanks to everyone who entered … and if you weren’t lucky this time I have an extra treat for you. Until Monday 17 Oct, My Memories of a Future Life is 0.99 on Kindle. Hurry there now! If you’ve already got it, send your friends!
‘Those immortal days we might have enjoyed if we’d known better’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Tim McDonald
My guest this week is a true hybrid of the two Undercover Soundtrack disciplines – music and writing. He’s primarily a musician with the indie rock band Broken Poets, but he traces his songwriting to a profound childhood loss – the death of his best friend at age 13. He decided he had to write about this in prose as well as music, and the result is a multimedia work which he calls a ‘music novel’. He is Tim McDonald and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
We’ve probably all had a note in a critique that tells us we’ve failed to include an important scene. Eg – ‘We know these characters well and have seen their lives in close detail. When the cousins died in that boating accident, where was the funeral scene? What about the period where the family adjusts to the tragedy?’ (Indeed, that’s not just a missing scene; it’s an entire story thread.)
Sometimes this happens because, well, we were concentrating on a million other plot developments. We do a lot of dumb, impulsive things when we can’t see the wood for the trees. The omission only becomes apparent when we give the book to a reader who isn’t lost in the forest of book decisions. And the easiest remedy is:
Replace it with something less drastic
Well of course it is. Ask yourself: why did you include the event? Was it only to bring some characters together? To show passage of time? Brainstorm some other solutions that will be less disruptive.
The second option is to embrace the disruption, drop the bomb and enjoy mopping up.
So far, so obvious. But sometimes, the workings of the writer’s heart are more complicated – especially first-time authors who aren’t yet confident with story-wrangling. They might have the gut instinct that it’s ‘right’ for the cousins to die. But something stops them writing the scenes that explore the aftermath. When I’ve seen this, I’ve found there are two main reasons. (And here are the remedies.)
They feel unequal to the challenge
We all worry from time to time that we won’t do justice to a tricky scene or issue, especially if it’s beyond our own personal experience. But that isn’t an excuse to dodge our duty to the reader.
If we don’t feel we can tackle a situation authoritatively, it shouldn’t be in the book. Friends, we are fictioneers. We can use our empathy and curiosity to invent with truth. I’ve never (yet) been in a room with a dying cancer patient but I can find the resources to write about it convincingly and with respect (My Memories of a Future Life). Crime writers manage to find out how murderers think. If lack of life experience is stopping you using a plot idea, take a break to research it. Most of human experience has been set down in other novels or real-life accounts. Find them. Live your events in the imaginations of others until you feel armed to write them.
Here’s a separate reason why writers might avoid that funeral episode.
They assume the characters won’t do anything surprising. It’s just a funeral, right?
Many of us are reluctant to write a scene if we fear it will be predictable. That’s often good, but equally there are events that can’t be avoided without leaving an obvious hole. So we think we know what will happen at the funeral? We think the reader has seen it a dozen times before?
No they haven’t. Not with your characters.
You just set yourself a high-stakes challenge. So rock that funeral. Set up character developments the reader didn’t expect. Heal rifts. Or create them. Set your story on fire. Brainstorm the way to present the funeral, wake, mourning and fallout in a way that is not predictable.
An alternative suggestion: if you want the funeral to be fairly routine, you can show the impact with a light touch – perhaps a montage of details that are vivid enough to remain in the reader’s memory so that the event is marked. A character will put on a seldom-worn smart suit, which tells us there’s a formal occasion. The extended family reprioritise their diaries, all clearing the same date. Perhaps possessions are redistributed. Someone is dismayed to be bequeathed an ugly lamp but doesn’t feel they can refuse it because it belonged to the departed cousin. The mixed feelings this generates will be an interesting way to log the gravity of the event. Get creative. Have fun.
There’s a lot more advice on plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
Have you ever had feedback that told you you’d skimped on an important plot development? Do you remember your reasons for doing so – whether active avoidance or absent-mindedness?
November is when web-aware writers get their speed boots on; NaNoWriMo is afoot. We’ll see growing wordcounts reported around the tweetwires, in the forums and Facebook groups. I’ve never formally Nanoed, but I’m definitely a fan of the fast first draft. Here’s why.
It’s not just about speed for its own sake. It’s about harnessing all possible oomph from that initial ride of discovery with the characters. This draft is when we first make them speak and act instead of viewing them from a distance in note form. I’ve found a fast, intense blast is the best way to capture this in full vividness.
I’ve also learned what disrupts the flow – so here are five tips to keep the ideas coming.
1 Ignore the language. If the perfect wording comes to mind, fantastic. But my main aim is to write what I see, and that’s a scramble in itself. I just get it in the can. In any case, those scenes might be repurposed in edits, given to different characters, the roles may be swapped. Buffing the nuances would be a waste of time. So I don’t worry at all about whether my prose is fit to show around. I just hurl it onto the page.
2 Postpone the research. There are two kinds of facts you need for a novel.
1 The facts to check your story events are possible, or to find ingenious surprises from the special conditions of the story world. Usually we sort these out while we’re outlining.
2 Smaller details that arise while we’re writing the scene. Oh dear, you need to know what pall-bearers wear? No you don’t, because it doesn’t greatly affect what anyone will say or do. I scrawl a note in square brackets – [find out] – and continue to channel the action.
3 Don’t worry about factual consistency within the book – did this event happen on a Thursday, and was it twenty years ago? In most cases, you don’t need to sort your timeline out as you draft. Again, a short phrase in square brackets will allow you to flag it for later.
4 Or what characters look like. Eek, you’re writing your main character’s ex-lover for the first time. Or your main character. What do they look like? What’s it like to be in a room with them? If you haven’t already thought about this, you might grind to a halt, go squirreling off through Google, looking for actors who have the qualities that you’d like, or other things that help you visualise. But you don’t need to know this now. Write [what does he look like] and carry on as if you already know.
5 Or the beginning. You can’t know what the proper beginning of the book should be until you’ve polished the draft multiple times, so don’t fidget and dither about it now. Write a scene that roughly does the job – and you’re in.
Thanks for the lovely racehorse pic, Paul on Flickr
Do you have any tips for smart drafting? How detailed are you about your first draft, and are there any tasks you leave until later?
‘Where words fail, music speaks’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rhian Ivory (with help from Hans Christian Andersen)
My guest this week has written a novel with a dual timeline and an intriguing title that has more than a hint of fairytale – The Boy Who Drew The Future. She flitted past me on Twitter one day and I set off in pursuit, waving an example of The Undercover Soundtrack and hoping she’d find it appealing. Thankfully she did, and her piece describes the music that drew her into the hearts of her characters. One particularly memorable line is the phrase she used to describe Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings – a private and fragile piece, a place for learning secrets. The Boy Who Drew The Future is her fifth novel and she’s held a string of distinguished writing posts including a WoMentoring mentor, a Patron of Reading and National Trust Writer In Residence. She is Rhian Ivory and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
I’ve begun the same novel a couple times and it relies so heavily on back story that I’ve begun to wonder if I should just write it as a separate novel.
But I want to write a novel about AFTER the hero saves the world – and in doing so has forgotten HOW he did it and WHAT happened, which is a huge plot point. I want to avoid the ‘zero to hero’ shtick that is so overdone – and I want the reveals to be important with emotional impact. I’m not sure it will work. Thoughts?
(Here’s the post that started it, and the question in full. Scroll down and look for Mark.)
I like this concept of exploring the save-the-world scenario from an unusual angle. And I don’t see why you can’t make it work – with a few considerations.
First, do you have a convincing reason for the amnesia?
Second, you have a convincing mechanism for paying out the story surprises? Why doesn’t he remember all at once? (I tackled both these problems in Lifeform Three, although it wasn’t a save-the-world.)
As for the emotional impact, focus on how the revelations affect what your hero is doing now, what he wants, and the people who matter to him. Set those up so that the reader cares about them, then deliver your blows from the past. Did he betray someone or renege on a promise? Has ne now got a family who will be threatened by what happened? Make sure we’re involved with characters who will be hurt.
Also, have you got enough story in the ‘aftermath’ chunk? Otherwise the reader’s attention will wander and they’ll just skip to the flashbacks. Make sure the resolution in the ‘present’ is more interesting to you than the resolution of the big hero story. Make sure you have enough in your aftermath story to keep the reader’s attention firmly on that, rather than the questions of how he saved the world. (This is on my mind at the moment too; Ever Rest has a lot of major events in the past, but my biggest interest is the mess in the present.)
Will you tell the back story in chronological order? If so, you’ll need a convincing reason for the discoveries to happen in such a convenient way. If you tell it out of order, that might be more realistic, but it might also be confusing. Non-chronological order isn’t always muddled, but remember that readers are much more adrift in your book than you are. Chronological order is the easiest for them to understand. You, as the writer, can hop around the timeline easily because you know it so well. You might write a romantic scene and then flash back to the hero’s love life before the big heroic act, because they seem thematically linked. But your reader might think ‘did this happen before that?’
On the other hand, you might want this fragmented approach because it’s how memory works. Send the reader on unraveling trails if that will enhance the emotional effect you’re looking for.
So in summary, you need:
A convincing mechanism for the amnesia and revelations
A current scenario that will be threatened by the past revelations
A disciplined approach to the revelations so that the reader doesn’t get confused.
And psst…. the Bourne Trilogy is great study material.
There’s loads more about handling back story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
Have you had to tackle a story where the hero is rediscovering a hidden past? What problems did you encounter? What smart solutions did you come up with? Let’s discuss!
Last week I was back at The Guardian, teaching my course on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next couple of weeks.
You’ll write a lot of material that is not intended for publication
One student who had taken a creative writing MA was bemused when her tutor set her the task of writing a scene from a different character’s point of view. This wasn’t intended to appear in the book; it was intended to encourage her to explore ramifications she hadn’t thought of. She said she found it a surprising idea, to create something that was never intended for publication.
We all have material we write that never reaches an audience. Sometimes this might be book ideas that don’t work out, or apprenticeship novels that are best filed in the ‘forget it’ drawer.
But those aside, a lot of our written output won’t end up between covers. I hadn’t thought about this until my student talked about this exercise, then I realised the amount of wordage we might write in order to get to the text.
In my own case this might be:
- musings on the meaning of the central idea, to hone the themes and discover the story, maybe with an Undercover Soundtrack
- ditto about characters, individual plot problems
- outlines and refinements thereof, or scrawlings of events on cards
- beat sheets for afterwards to aid revision
- tryouts of story events from other points of view, like the exercise my student was set.
That looks like a colossal amount of wastage. If I look in the folder for Ever Rest, I have 68 exploratory documents, and some of them are 20-30 pages.
And then there’s the material that gets cut from the manuscript – even more pages written that the reader never sees. The novel that emerges is a super-concentrated distillate.
I hadn’t ever questioned this, but I realise that for some writers it seems odd. They often think that, except for a bit of polishing, every word they write is intended for the book.
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.
Next time: ‘My drafts are too brief’
So let’s continue the discussion. How much extra material do you write? Have you ever added it up?
Yesterday I was teaching an editing masterclass at The Guardian. During the lunch break I got chatting to a desk editor from its sister title The Observer, who remarked that he’d always been curious about writing a novel, but wondered where his journalism instincts would be a hindrance and where an advantage. (He was also remaking several news pages to squeeze in the latest royal birth, so was possibly hankering for a life where he’d be in charge of the surprises.)
When I’m not working with fiction, I do sub-editing shifts on a magazine, so I have a foot in both worlds. And many of us have day jobs where we might write reports, presentations, legally required notes or other documents. Although all of this helps us get used to creating text, it doesn’t help us use it in the way a novelist does.
Here are two major differences.
Difference 1 – the reader’s journey
Journalists – and anyone who writes reports or presentations – learn this guiding principle: ‘Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them you said it.’
Fiction observes this three-step principle to an extent. Themes and concerns are evident early on and the end seems to arise out of the beginning. So far, so good. But the way fiction fulfils its mission is not the same at all.
Reports and articles take the reader on a straightforward journey. Draw a diagram of the reader’s progress through an article or presentation, and it will be a straight line. Statement, development, conclusion (though see Hugh’s comment below for a few exceptions…).
In fiction, the journey is anything but straightforward. We do not want the reader to guess where we’re going to end up. We want to surprise, reilluminate, perhaps startle. We might want to create complex emotions. The main character may start with a particular goal, then decide they want something else, then change their mind again, then decide none of it was important.
Draw a diagram of the reader’s journey through a novel, and there will be ups, downs, reversals. It may circle back to the place it started or even go backwards and off the scale. The conclusion might be boldly stated, in terms of a problem solved. Or it may be a resonant moment that leaves the reader assembling the final pieces.
A satisfying novel that takes the reader on a journey will not be a straight line. (If it is, it’s known as a linear plot – and will seem plodding and predictable.)
Difference 2 – the relationship with the reader
In an article or report we present facts, issues and ideas. In a novel we work on the reader at deeper levels. We can be subtle and manipulative. We might plant clues, then misdirect so that the reader doesn’t see them. We might make the reader love a character and then do something vile to them.
In a report or article, we might attempt to be balanced, concise and authoritative. In a novel, we might narrate as characters who are biased, unreliable or on the very bad side. Nya-ha-harrgh.
Two habits to unlearn if you write novels
Avoid condensing the process of change. In novels, change is gradual.
Journalism – and other types of report – tend to be super-condensed. When I’ve critiqued first novels by journalists they have a distinctive problem – when characters change it is sudden. For instance, an errant boyfriend is given a talking-to by a wise friend and in the next scene he’s changed his ways.
This sharp contrast will work well in an article or a report. It makes the point that change has happened. But in a novel, the change is part of the reader’s journey, so it is more gradual, spread out over the book. We might also have periods where the character resists, which is why it is a challenge. Thinking back to our graph of the reader’s journey, this is the meandering line.
Stop using scenes and dialogue to convey only a focussed message
Reports and articles are written with a ‘message’ in mind. Quotes from sources and interviewees are used to back the message up. But dialogue in a novel is much more organic and rich.
Mrs de Winter said she was delighted to be at her new home Manderley, but found the housekeeper Mrs Danvers a little frightening. ‘She gives me the screaming creeps,’ said Mrs de Winter.
For novels, we prefer the reader to draw that conclusion for themselves, by giving them an experience. We include details that would be irrelevant clutter to the journalist or report writer. I just opened Rebecca, looking for the scene where Mrs de Winter becomes aware that Mrs Danvers is an intimidating presence. It isn’t one line, or even one paragraph. It’s a scene that builds over several pages, with clues in the characters’ expressions, body language, tone of voice, choice of words and the narrator’s thoughts, the atmosphere of menace and unease.
Of course, you may want to direct the reader strongly – after all, some narrators are highly judgemental. But I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that stop the characters coming alive because they present the action in a digest.
(Indeed, you might think this topic is looking familiar – it’s that old chestnut, show, not tell. Outside of novels or narrative non-fiction, the norm is to tell, not show.)
So if you’re transitioning to novels from other forms of writing, here are my 5 tips for success:
- – make the journey purposeful, but tangled
- – try being unreliable, biased and manipulative
- – be lengthy
- – build the truth gradually, and seek it in the details that seem irrelevant
- – read novels – and notice how the prose does its work
There’s more on plot twists, structure, show not tell and endings in this little thingy.
And meanwhile … congratulations, my hard-working Observer friend, on your new front page.
Have you had to unlearn any writing habits in order to write fiction? Are there any more you’d add to my list?