Posts Tagged writing a novel

‘Everything about the characters was held within these notes’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jason Hewitt

for logoMy guest this week says that when he gives talks, he often says that writing a novel is the literary equivalent to composing a symphony. He describes how his lead characters are like the principal instruments, plotting the crescendos on paper beforehand (not unlike to an idea I sketched out in my first Nail Your Novel book – drawing the characters’ parts on manuscript paper, like a score). One of his novels is set in 1940 and music pervades the whole narrative, especially as the principal characters are musicians. There is music for each character’s mental signature, music for particular moments, music that helped him retune if he felt his grasp on the story slipping. And watch out for a track with a simply sublime title: And In The Endless Pause There Came The Sound of Bees. He is playwright, actor and award-winning author Jason Hewitt and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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5 tips for handling amnesia and back story

amnesiaI haven’t forgotten I’m half-way through the self-editing masterclass snapshots, but I got this fantastic question from a writer who’d read a post of mine about back story.

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.

ebookcovernyn3There’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!

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots – how much will you write to create your book?

guardLast 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

ideas book crop

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.

(Here’s my writing process in pictures.)

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.

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfresThere’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?


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Why writing a novel is not like writing for your day job – and how to transition

Nail-Your-Novel_2_cities_presentationcuYesterday 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.)

Two worlds

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.

rebThe ‘reporting’ way to use dialogue is to cut to the chase and summarise – showing only what is necessary to back up the journalist’s assertion.

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:

  1. – make the journey purposeful, but tangled
  2. – try being unreliable, biased and manipulative
  3. – be lengthy
  4. – build the truth gradually, and seek it in the details that seem irrelevant
  5. – read novels – and notice how the prose does its work

ebookcovernyn3There’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?

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