Novel Writing: Heading into the Third Inning

Right now I just need to get to the third draft :/

Tammie Painter

I have to say that the third draft is probably my favorite when hammering out a book. “Shouldn’t the final draft be your favorite?” I hear you ask. Well, no. The final draft is a bit anti-climatic. It’s thrilling to be done, but then I have to face the daunting tasks of marketing, publishing and turning a stack of blank pages into the next book.

threeFor me, the third draft is exciting. I’ve conquered the blank-page phobia of the first draft. I’ve sorted out most of the major plot problems in the second draft. By the third draft, I’ve thrown up a super sturdy framework for my building and now it’s time to do a little rearranging, decorating and shoring up of the structure. You know, the fun stuff!

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How to Torture your Characters: Lessons from Gone with the Wind

MAJOR SPOILERS RE: GONE WITH THE WIND AHEAD, LIKE ALL THE SPOILERS

GwtW Gone with the Wind was a bit of a surprise read for me, at more than 1000 pages it took me ages to work through and even though I’d heard the main plot points offhand many times the nature of the story was unexpected to say the least.

Suffice to say Mitchell may or may not have a sadistic streak and Gone with the Wind provides a great case study in how to punish and torture one’s main character and create a successful story from it! As writers we’re often recommended to treat main characters badly and (just saying) I think we often have somewhat of a natural proclivity to dole out the trauma, but it is a tricky thing to get right. So what can Gone with the Wind teach us?

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First of all the MC’s torment cannot be a constant. To use a cliche, stories ought to be emotional roller coaster rides. It doesn’t matter is the exact subject but if reader’s are exposed to the same thing over and over it still get boring quickly. Many stories seem like they are laundry lists of terrible events happening to an MC, but even the darkest of novels will usually contain subtle variation to ensure the trauma has maximum.

This relates to a similar point, that the MC should also show some variation and growth in terms of the trauma. In Gone with the Wind Scarlett faces (at least)

  • The death of 2/3 husbands
  • Rejection from the love of her life x 2
  • Civil War
  • Death of parents, her children and sister
  • Physical attack
  • Social scandal
  • etc

But I would say each trauma is met differently, at times we see Scarlett cower and flee, but at other times standing up and fighting circumstance, sometimes nobly, sometimes not so much. The key point is that each event while definitely pummeling our MC its not repetitious in effect.

Which brings us to the next point (wow these fit together better than I thought). That the trauma’s and punishments for Scarlett are relevant to her character and the story as a whole. Events aren’t selected at random to be thrown at her, they interrupt or ruin her goals, poke weak spots in her character or prompt action. Scarlett isn’t just tortured by the author her character and the story are driven by it.

One last point about character, there are also elements of justice or Karma in regards to the events of Gone with the Wind. Obviously some of the events are not Scarlett’s fault, e.g. the U.S. Civil war, but the interplay between Scarlett’s actions and the consequences creates a richer story. That’s not to say that Main Characters need to deserve their torment, but rather that there is a sense of agency or fate included. For example SPOILERS REMINDER the whole crux of the tale is about how Scarlett’s standoffish and st times harsh and manipulative ways sabotage her chance at true love with a man of similar stature but who genuinely love(d) her. This wouldn’t really have the same impact if Scarlett were completely innocent but her hubby decided in the face of hard events he “didn’t give a damn.” The interaction of a character’s behaviour and the bad events is what makes the story.

There is a piece of advice that if you’re ever stuck on where to next for a story, just think about the worse thing possible that could happen to your character and do that. I think my learning from Gone with the Wind is that there is a subtle art to making the worse thing possible happen!

As always – what are you thoughts on the subject? Any great examples of books with similar lessons? Maybe some contradictory points?

 

The Prologue Problem

If you spend enough time hanging around online writing forums, or looking at articles for new writers you may come across this persistent theme. The consistent advice that if your manuscript contains a prologue, make your manuscript NOT contain a prologue.

In this post I’m going to look at why this is advice at all and how to work through it.

First of all we might have to talk about what a prologue actually is and does. The technique is almost unique to the epic fantasy genre although there is no particular reason for this (In my humble opinion) other than its become a bit of a genre expectation, much the same as fantasy series are often expected to run for multiple books (which we’ll save for another post). Prologues seem to fit with the lofty large-scale feel for fantasy but there certainly are not a requirement or restricted from other genres.

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The official definition of a prologue is a separate introductory section for a piece, but the actually use of and purpose of one is more complicated. Usually prologues are divided from the main story of a novel by either: time, character, setting and/or perspective. That is to say you might have a chapter set far before the events of the main story, or from the perspective of a non-main character or perhaps a more world building sort of POV before focusing on the MC.

A prologue can be quite helpful in terms of establishing aspects of the story that wouldn’t necessarily sit well with the main narrative, as mentioned above you might want the reader to know some worldly lore that the MC doesn’t even know OR you might want to create a sense of a broader world. GRR Martin in Game of Thrones creates this effect by using a prologue to introduce ‘The Others’ a supernatural threat that barely features in the main story, but hangs over the head of the reader as an existential threat to the world.

So why the heck are prologues frowned upon or advised to be avoided?

Well without sounding too patronizing (after all I am essentially an aspiring writer too) I think that like flashbacks, and POV changes (and surely more techniques I just can’t bring them to mind) prologues are commonly screwed up by new writers.

Because prologues by definition sit separately from the main story, they are practically asking to derail, bog-down or distract readers before the story even startsIt’s devilishly hard to craft a prologue that does all the things its supposed to while not feeling like its just dead-weight on the story. For example many aspiring writers see prologues as an opportunity to world-build, thinking (perhaps logically) that knowing the world of their story is imperative, before actually embarking on the story. Of course this conflicts with the fact that many readers will put a book down if they aren’t drawn in within a few paragraphs – or perhaps more importantly an agent/editor will put the book down possibly just from seeing the 60th prologue that day.

So I think the question to ask (other than can you just rename your first section chapter 1 or not call it a prologue) is whether a prologue is necessary? Does it actually help the story to have a section like that, especially considering that the first parts to your story are the most important for drawing readers in and establishing your tale?

 

Saggy (and absent) Middles

Oh middles. If you’re like me then the tendency is to come up to a climatic finale far to soon (insert inappropriate joke) OR to pen an good introduction only to flounder early on wondering where on earth to go.

Often however the issue is that material is there, but people feel that their work just doesn’t ‘POP’ that their middle is present more to provide word count than anything else. Both situations are common problems and both are big struggles for me so I’ve put some thoughts below.

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First of all to make sense of the situation it might be wise to dive into what the whole point of ‘middles’ are. In thinking about it I’ve come to suspect that middles are one of the key differences between short stories and novels. Short stories by their nature get to the point, whereas novels almost do the opposite – but what is the function of the extra material and how do we make it work?

(If you look at the image attached it doesn’t really help at all, they’ve just written obstacle several time!)

The key thing with a novel is to look at how the material deepens the overall premise. In Lord of the Rings, not only did we see Frodo’s journey, but Merry and Pippins, and Aragons’s too. Now you there is probably a thesis to be written in studying that but I want to focus on one idea. If you went a rewrote the story to really just focus on Frodo Baggins getting the ring to Mordor (Spoiler?) it would technically work as a story, it would have a beginning, middle and end, all the rest. So I don’t think the point of a middle of a novel is just to make more pages – but by hearing the whole story of the minor characters this gives more impact to what happens to Frodo.

I’m waffling a little, what I’m trying to say is that it seems like the point of the middle of a novel is to provide material that is going to make the final conclusion all that more intense and significant. That’s why cheesy action movies often have a hero ‘fail’ at this point, why romances go back and forth, and thrillers have red herrings.

How one achieves this is both genre and individual story dependent. It’s also helpfully important to consider one’s theme funnily enough, as the theme of the story can guide what ought to happen or what will make the story more powerful. For example if the theme of the story is “love overcomes all” then you don’t want a middle that explores nothing to do with love or ‘all’. That’s not to say a middle might look quite different to the rest of the book it just to relate somehow.

This is why I think some middles fail because they explore something vaguely interesting, perhaps bring a subplot into focus or throw some unexpected problems their hero’s way, but if it doesn’t connect with the other parts of the story it will feel out-of-place.

So what are some solutions to the problems of middles.

For one thing I think this is an area when planning is almost definitely a must. Don’t get me wrong many people pants and garden their way through a work perfectly fine, but maybe in revision or even a few notes of what is going to happen really helps. Why? Well if you agree with the thesis above, middles are in some respects trickier than beginnings and ends. Obviously people tend to focus more on the previous two sections, but in many respects you craft and change your novel around what want to be the beginning and end whereas the MIDDLE will always be a different beast, almost like something you have to get ‘right’ depending on what you select as start and end points for the story. Even if you make up the whole story as you go along there is some point where middles will become the disobedient servant to the rest of the story.

So by planning I don’t mean necessarily plotting out every detail, but more some element of brain storm – if the novel is a romance, planning just what tensions and events will be needed to really make the final conclusion ‘pop.’

Which brings up another point (gotta love writing every aspect you contend with leads to another element to be understood) what sort of material ‘deepens’ the climax as I’ve tried to claim. To bring back another point, the reason action movies often have some sort of ‘fail’ in the middle of the story is that the hero defeating the villain has that much more impact if the hero has already lost once, or in the romance the two lovers getting together only really has significance if we thought that was under threat.

So one of the ways to make a middle work is to use that time to cast doubt on the final ending. Stories are often quite predictable, in the sense we don’t really believe that the hero isn’t going to triumph or the lovers aren’t going to hook up – but good writing puts that doubt in the readers mind, or makes them question just how the ending is going to happen. Finding conflicts and events that cast doubt is a good strategy for a middle.

I’ve already mentioned that one way to do that is to have the hero fail. Another technique is to look at the antagonists and have them make a move or get close to succeeding, this is often how writers bring the story from the second act to the third by having the villain get so close to success all seems lost.

Whatever is planned it’s key to  make the story dynamic. Where I see some of my friends struggle is sometimes writing stories which are a little too much like video games – by which I mean a hero encountering tougher and tougher situations before the final boss. This works for gaming because the player experiences the tension by being involved, in a work of fiction tension is created by fooling the reader into thinking the characters are autonomous beings who might make the wrong choices in getting towards their goal.

It sounded earlier like I was dismissing subplots, but middles are a good time to consider them, just not for only the purpose of filling pages. Subplots are by their very nature there to flesh out the main story so middles are a good time to explore them. To bring back romance genre examples, the middle is often where a main character helps out a friend with their romantic problems, causing them to reflect on there own. (very broad examples I know)

So I think for me (who is still struggling with middles by the way) the key points to focus on for a middle, is asking how this deepens the final act, and how can this be done with dynamic action (rising and falling tension etc).

What are your thoughts on middles? Do yours usually sag, or are you like me and find them lacking?

 

The Theme of Theme

Theme is a tricky one for me. For the longest time I’ve thought of theme is something “post-hoc” a topic that English teachers and academics like to toy with when they analyze a work, rather than an intention technique by the author. After all story is king and should themes emerge that just shows the brilliance of the author right? No need to stress about theme whilst writing.

Well in with more rigorous consideration I’ve started to change my mind. Considering theme can make the difference between an aimless plot and a coherent narrative, the quantitative gap between a shallow vacuous book and a piece with something to say.

But I’m not necessarily talking about high brow essays and thematic analysis, I’m more interested in whether thinking about theme helps a writer with their works. Writing with theme in mind sounds a little arduous, however what I think helps is knowing the message or messages of your work and can guide your creative process, supporting you in figuring out ‘what’s next’ or what tensions and resolutions should be put in place. Typically in writing there are multiple ways to take a story and a theme can guide this process.

I don’t think that writers need to set their theme in concrete from whoa to go in their WIP, nor do I think stories need to be anchored to one theme. But having some idea of what the story is “about” is a great balm to uncertainty.

It’s probably a whole other post to talk about what sorts of themes are suitable/ideal for a modern work, the ultimate idea though is that your story tells of or explores some aspect of human nature of existence. That sounds pretty poncy, however theme can range from basic to eccentric, the simplest of action flicks tells us about overcoming adversity while Game of Thrones is almost like a political ethics course over several books.

What are your thoughts on theme, is it something you think about or intentionally develop?

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Why are Writing Habits so hard to Maintain?

So its been a while since I sat down a put something bloggish out there, so I figured it better be something about the challenges of consistency in writing habits. I was somewhat reassured/dismayed to see that writers blogs in particular seem to be a challenge to keep going with, some friends I’ve seen are getting onto double digits for the number of blogs they have left fallow and then started a new one.

I talked ago taking a Behavourist lens to writing and goal setting and I thought it might be wise to revisit in slightly more plain English just why its so hard to establish and maintain good writing habits.

What I’ve noticed about myself is that I tend to throw myself at a project with much enthusiasm, but as soon as some speed-bump hits (and that speed bump can be a small as over-sleeping a couple of mornings, catching a flu, or just being a little more negative towards writing than usual) I find it incredible hard to get a good routine back.

If I go back to my last post part of the reason that writing is difficult is the rewards are somewhat fuzzy. For the most part its around your own sense of satisfaction having done some work, otherwise you don’t really get much out of an individual writing session and the ultimate prize of becoming a multi-billionaire best seller is at least a couple of years away.

But the truth is there is another little devilish details accompanying the above issues with reward. After all there are some good ways to reward yourself, whether it be by publicly posting your word-counts, getting feedback from a writer’s group or buddy OR maybe just coveting delicious fake internet points like blog views/likes 🙂

No there is something much more insidious that undermines my writing routine and I’m willing to bet it hampers others too – its the fact that when you don’t write nothing goes horribly wrong.

(well other than writer’s guilt but let’s be honest that is just a constant anyway AMIRIGHT)

That is to say if I jump out of bed and hit social media or a game rather than writing, the world doesn’t grind to a halt. In fact sadly I probably have a better time (in the short term) than struggling with a WIP.

Of course I’m not suggesting that writers need consider a cattle prod extension for their laptops – but I’m just trying to understand myself and why this pattern of initial enthusiasm and at times good habits can be so easily derailed and hard to get back on track.

Of course its possible that I am indeed just Mr….

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Anywho in that face of all that hoping to get back into good regular blogging habits!

 

What are your guys tips and tricks for getting into and sticking to a routine?

TL;DR- link to pre-order.

My name is Joe. I'm addicted to hiding ghost stories in hotels.

Good news everybody!

We are all set for this Friday. Here’s a link to the TL;DR pre-order: http://amzn.eu/gIme7Um

I’m still working out the final bits for the createspace stuff, but I can confirm the price for the hard copies is going to be $10 or £7.11.

Huge, massive thanks to Cameron Frank for his help today! Cheers, dude.

Cheers

Joe

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Reading as a Writer

A topic which comes up haphazardly in my sphere is the perils, advantages or just general thoughts of reading as a writer.

While it seems to go without saying that a writer should be well-read, its worth a discussion and some thought.

Firstly I must address what seems to me to be completely bizarre – but a trend of a (hopefully) minority of wannabe writers who don’t read. And I don’t mean writers who maybe don’t read screes, or perhaps have long periods of not reading, or who don’t read novels specifically, I mean people who honestly and genuinely want to write books but have little to no experience reading them and have no plans to change this.

Now typically I try to be a non-judgmental person, we all have our differences and we all have our flaws. But for this group I struggle to maintain sympathy, especially when it seems the majority of these folk are basically television and movie fans who see fiction as an easy out for getting their brilliant ideas seen. Now I have nothing wrong with writers who dream of screen-play deals from their writing (I mean that’s got to be ~80% of us right?) but it seems really daft to take that approach when what you really want is to write screenplays or cartoons.

Anyone point is, writing or wanting to write without reading at least something is pretty odd.

But moving on to the meat of the topic, what is best for a writer? As mentioned above being well-read seems important, although what exactly does that mean and how should a writer approach reading?

Personally I think the first step is to consider the difference between active and passive reading. Technically all reading is active because the whole deal is the words on a page activate your imagination, but one doesn’t always read with great scrutiny or through a readers lens. Again in my experience it isn’t valuable to expect every book to be a writerly revelation and over-studying a text can ruin the enjoyment of it. My approach is to never study a book I plan on enjoying as a reader, at least not until after the first read through. I also don’t necessarily think its viable or useful to ‘study’ read entire novels – by which I mean paying great attention to the prose and structure for the intent of learning – not only is it exhausting to do this for a whole novel it just seems more sensible to pick out what you’re going to look for and focus on specific sections, such as observing the dialogue in a particularly exciting scene.

All this brings me to an interesting point. Again I have a risk of sounding like a massive snob, in many of my discussions with writing buddies they mention that “writing ruins reading” but in my opinion it does the opposite, however not at first.

You see when a novice writer starts picking up “on writing” books and studying the craft one of the first things they learn is about what makes “bad” writing and about newbie mistakes. Then they go out and wonder why on earth so many published and successful books are riddled with those exact errors. This is when writing ruins reading, because as a (and this is my snobby bit) novice the beginner writer tends to obsess over their basic learnings and fail to notice or analyze what makes a successful book so. For example many of my allies mock me for reading books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, and continue to mock when I talk about said book’s strengths. I could go on but the point is that as a writer grows in craft they come to appreciate the strengths and see how obvious flaws either don’t matter as much or can even add to the flavour (in the example of 50 Shades the so-called “bad” writing successfully creates a sense of a down-to-earth protagonist in a ludicrous situation, tweaking the prose to be “good” would have been a bad fit for that story)

So that kind of covers how to read as a writer, but what about being ‘well-read’ and such? Often discussions about what books a writer should read become quite heated and complicated – so what follows are simply my thoughts and opinions not a recipe for success (not that any of my other words necessary are either)

I think it is really valuable to read tonnes in your genre. Some people suggest its better not to because then you’ll be fresher and less freaked out about what other people have done, but I see that as a bit of a head + sand approach. The thing is about writing is it does involve entertainment and reader consumption and not that you can plan your whole project around what reader are going to want, you don’t want to start a 7-epic-book project about several warring families, dragons, back-stabbing with a particular penchant for killing characters (or rather if you do want to rip-off Game of Thrones at least to it intentionally).

It’s not just about keeping up with modern pieces either, being up with the seminal works especially genre setting books is somewhat vital. The benefits of this aren’t just about not being too derivative or being comfortably in the genre its also knowing the tropes to use and abuse them skillfully.

How about outside the genre?

This is a tricky one, books even for the most rabid reader do take a fair whack of time to complete, you can’t simply read every piece in the world, so how does one balance this when selecting books outside your own project’s genre?

Something that I’ve found useful is considering subplots and aspects of a project and how focusing on that genre might help beef them up a little, an obvious example being reading up on romance to help flesh out relationship sub-plots. Equally picking up a horror to kept with some scary parts of a murder mystery, or perhaps an adventure tail to inform the action sections of a fantasy.

Finally somewhat randomly I think its useful to read in completely bonkers works the opposite of not only your projects but what you usually enjoy too? Huh? I think writer’s need an open mind and like I said earlier making sense of what makes a book successful is much more important than avoiding flaws (mostly). Reading outside your comfort zone is far more likely to prompt unexpected learning, after all you don’t know what you don’t know right?

So those are my thoughts on reading as a writer – do you have anything to add?

How do you strike a balance between reading and writing?

The Contradictions of Writing

To write you must:

  • Be almost supernaturally arrogant to believe your words are worth writing, yet sublimely humble in receiving feedback and accepting some won’t like your stuff
  • Be creative AF, yet disciplined and routine in craft
  • Write originally yet understand ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’
  • Be an optimist while understanding ‘the market’

Basically keep your head in the clouds but your feet on the ground!

 

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What other writing contradictions are there?