Remember that memoir you loved and spent ages on, years back? Or the novel you loved which has just spent ages on a slushpile, but come back? Or the story you coolly put in a drawer for six months, and now the light of day is actually cold you can see that it really doesn't work? And yet ... I've blogged about how to tell if your revisions are making it better or worse, and when you should stop revising. But how do you know whether you should be working on it at all?
As ever, it vastly improves the chances of reaching the right answer if you set up the right process. If you're standing there with the MS in your hand or on screen, you have a chance to read it cold and fresh: as if you're a reader. So make the most of your chance: don't dip in and fiddle but instead, as Jerusha Cowless said here, use this read-through as a process of problem-finding, not problem-solving. For myself, that requires hard copy, a biro, a notepad, and a very comfortable sofa: you may differ.
Don't start working on corrections or changes, because readers don't do that: instead, use the hard copy and the notepad to record your readerly reactions. This is a diagnostic read: be open to what the book gives you, and try, as a good doctor does, to set aside your first assumptions about what's probably wrong, so as to listen/feel for what's really on the page. Note the clunks and creaks and saggy bits, but don't try to cure them. Record what works too: what's healthily convincing and exciting is just as important an aspect of the patient. And when you know what this book gives a reader and what it fails to give, there are quite a few options.
1) Give up on it because, actually, you're not excited by it any more. Your interests in writing or in life have moved on. Be honest, now: can you and do you want to do more work? If you're a stubborn type, you may be reluctant to give up but, after all, you've done perfectly well up to now not working on this. A creative worker always has the right to say, "I have better things than this to spend my creative energies on." BUT are you someone who flits from project to project, and finds finishing things difficult? Would it be worth pushing a bit harder, doing some relaxed, speculative thinking about how the story might be re-worked, and seeing whether you do get excited again?
2) Give up on it because a trusted reader or industry person has said it's beyond redemption or no reader would be interested, and you agree. Your plan to tell the story of Savanarola through the consciousness of the stake he's chained to as he burns didn't turn out so well. It's too late (or too early) for a romance set in the First World War to sell. A SciFi thriller which imagines the CIA reading the German Chancellor's emails has been overtaken by that inconvenient phantasm known as Real Life. That's life. BUT if you think through the particulars of that project, to the quality of that story which excited you - the thematic and emotional heart of it - could you transplant that quality to another setting or story which would work or sell?
3) Give up on it temporarily, because you've some idea of the problem, and it's not one that you know how to solve. But another project may teach you more, and meanwhile this novel isn't going anywhere. What's for you, as they say, won't go by you. You could even set up some projects to help you learn what you think it needs, rather than hacking about in the text itself. This is the only option that I can't think of a BUT for, unless there's some way in which the project is time-sensitive and it's now or never; in that case it's perhaps the moment for some help from your writers' circle or a trusted teacher-type editor, to work out how to solve it.
3) Revise it, because you want to and can see what the problems are. This, in a sense, is the obvious thing to do. Now for the problem-solving: click here if you're daunted by the relative sizes of your elephant and your spoon. You could even try importing it into Scrivener and chopping it up, so as to be able to handle individual bits without getting in a muddle. BUT it's worth thinking about the scale of what needs to be different, and I can best illustrate that with an anecdote.
Years ago I did up my kitchen, and I wanted a bare-sanded floor-board floor, but it was a mid-Victorian house and almost every board had been cut and lifted once or more at some point in the last 130 years. "I could get rid of the worst and shuffle up the rest. But would take me all day to do the jigsaw puzzle, which I'd have to charge you for," said the builder. "We'd need two or three new ones which would be a completely different colour and texture, and it would still look terrible at the end. I wouldn't take any pride in it."
The thing is, words on the concrete page always look more convincing than the cloudy words that have arisen in your head to suit your new conception. That's what "darlings" really are, and murdering them is difficult: when you're totally re-working a project it's like pushing a real, teenaged child out of the house to make space for a baby that's not even conceived. So the risk is always that holding onto the old stuff - which may be gorgeous writing or fascinating ideas - distorts your overall sense of what the story needs. It becomes, unconsciously, an exercise in saving old writing, not doing whatever it takes and cutting whatever should go, to create a story which works.
The builder continued: "Whereas if you give me £200, I can pop down to Wickes, get a room's worth of new boards, and have them down by lunchtime. It'll cost you much less and look a hundred times better." I did, he did, and it did. Which suggests another option:
4) Think of this as a new story - a totally new take on an existing project - and treat the old one as raw material. In other words, you use the idea, setting, characters etc. as no less, but also no more important than any other material that's in your imagination and life and notebooks. And then you think up a new story which won't have the failings of the old one (though of course it may prove to have others: such is life!), plan it and write it, drawing on as much of that material as the new story wants and nothing else. It'll be quicker than your first go at this project, because of course so much is already decided and the raw data has composted down. But the big difference is that you're letting the new, whole concept of this project drive your decisions about which words and characters and scenes get onto the page. I'd even suggest that when the new story does need some of the old story's words, you don't copy-and-paste, but copy-type them, for reasons I explored here.
AND if you're horrified by the inefficiency of copy-typing in a world which has invented drag-and-drop, and, more generally, you're rebelling against abandoning a whole lot of work and starting again, then I'd suggest - respectfully - that you haven't quite grasped the role that efficiency plays in creative work. Creative work is inherently wasteful, but that doesn't mean throwing aside time or money will make your work better (I'm a great believer in not messing around when you're working: in having a to-do list and sticking to it.) It's just that sometimes what seems efficient in the crudest sense is actually very inefficient. Reducing the number of new words you must write to the minimum isn't nearly as efficient, because it's not as effective, as making the most of your capacity to conceive and grow a story which actually works.
You know the trick of stealing a square of chocolate, invisibly, from a bar? Which is a tasty way of explaining how I recently cut nearly 10% of a novel, without changing a single thing about story - plot, character-in-action, dialogue, description - which actually mattered. The effect was like taking off a veil and earmuffs and plunging back into the story: everything was exactly the same, just infinitely more vivid. So, what got cut? Or, rather, what particular things got interrogated fiercely about how necessary they were, or weren't?
More speech tags than you need, where you could just used physical action and proper layout to keep the reader straight. Which isn't to say that a well-placed he said in the middle of a line of dialogue, though not necessary in strict fact, doesn't sometimes shape the rhythm better. It may also provide just the right pause-of-thinking for the significance - the drama of character-in-action - to flower in the reader's consciousness. Your decision.
More varieties of thought tag than you need. These are all part of what Janet Burroway, following John Gardner, calls "filtering", and though I don't think that's the best name for it, it is an absolutely crucial concept, so do follow that link to the best explanation I know, by Leslie Leigh, and then come back here. And once you understand what filtering is, what might you do about it? We, the computer generation should be thankful: I did, one by one, a search for seemed, wondered, realised, remembered and thought - you'll have your own particular equivalents - and considered each one carefully. Yes, about 70% of them went, like filleting out the veins of fat in a piece of meat. But 30% of them stayed. Why?
Explaining the mechanical links. Get in late and get out early, say the thriller writers. Bus journeys, bullock-cart-harnessing, arrivals, routes ... You'd be surprised how un-bothered readers are by how your MC got home from the far side of Hong Kong (or Mars) at three in the morning: or, indeed, by how she got there in the first place. (Although you probably need to know, because we'll intuit if it's simply impossible, even if we don't stop to work it out.) More broadly, fiction is narrative, not just a series of juxtaposed scenes. You don't always want to end on the Eastenders' ringing doof-doof-doof (the writer's equivalent being *-*-*) after the last dramatic line of the scene. We don't need to get characters on and off an open stage, as Shakespeare does, but the stage blackout, the film-maker's jump-cut, can become a cheap high. Besides, sometimes part of making the story and setting and characters-in-action fully alive is to get us moving through their world: the hammered tin on that bullock harness is sharp, and in the really cold weather your fingers freeze to it. Don't assume, in other words, that helicoptering us straight into the crisis moment and out again is the best way to keep us involved.
Explaining what's about to happen. I love a bit of foreshadowing, as my post on the opening of Dick Francis's Straight shows: as a reader I want to sense the storyteller's hand. It's all about explicitly making the promise, as Pixar's Andrew Stanton puts it, that this story will be worth my time. But it needs rationing, and handling: is your Tell that the picnic was (will be, for the reader) a disaster, before you Show us, actually a fantastic promise of excitements to come, as Dick Francis's is? Or is it a bit of scaffolding you should take down: throat-clearing or note-making of your own to get yourself into the scene? Or is it simply a plot-spoiler?
Explaining what is happening. As real-life characters-in-action we think - make sense, remember, understand, analyse, worry, look ahead - while also acting, but that doesn't mean that it should necessarily go in the narrative. If your narrator or your viewpoint character mentally comments/explains/worries about everything as we go along, it can enfeeble the forward drive of character-in-action. On the other hand, understanding is part of what makes us then act, and fiction is not drama: it's the pre-eminent way for humans to get under the skin and inside the head of other people. So don't, please, shy away from entering your character's consciousness and conveying their thinking to the reader, nor from letting your storyteller explain things sometimes. Just think hard about when you should, and how to do it. We're talking psychic distance again, in other words.
Explaining what has happened. Just as my poetry student realised what so many poets know - that all her draft poems were improved by having the last two lines cut - so with stories. You can have a highly dramatic scene, but how much of the mental and emotional fall-out, run-out, follow through, should we have? How much does the MC need to work out - or do we need to see being worked out? Thinking really does matter, especially the sudden, epiphanic, reversally-type understanding that will drive the next part of the plot. But, as with thinking/understanding mid-scene, if every time we've survived a crisis we then have its origins and implications for the future thought through and explained - handed to the reader on a plate - it has an enfeebling effect on the narrative drive. In other words, if plotting is all about playing Fortunately-Unfortunately, then don't, every time, make it a game of Fortunately-Unfortunately-ButSorted.
And you know what I realised as I was working? All these points can be grouped together as "too much explaining": explaining slightly more than the typical reader needs. So, when you do your Search, and say, "Does the story need this?" what you're really saying is "Does the reader need this?" In need I would include not simply mere plot-mechanics, but also emotional, affective needs to live in the story, and the need for the sound and rhythms of the words to work on us as much as the sense. In my case, I found I do about 10% more explaining than I - as my own representative reader - actually need. Pass me the paring knife...
I've blogged before about how critiquing works best if there's a good fit between critiquer and critiquee, but it still amazes me how many aspiring writers think that positive comments - even those on their own work - are useless.
The praise on the outside of a praise sandwich is far more than mere sugar to make the filling more palatable - though side-stepping natural, human defensive deafness or resistance is one of its functions. Yes, a vague "this is wonderful" is no more useful a critique than a vague "this is shit", though it hurts less. And yes, if you've got 20 sums right, and 5 wrong and so only got a B+, concentrating on what's wrong with the wrong ones is probably the way to an A- next time. Mind you, it's concentrating on how many you got right - holding on to the fact that you're worth it - which is most likely to give you the energy that it's worth putting in the work.
But there's something far more important at stake. No creative worker ever knows quite how something will come out, or why it comes out how it comes out. And, by definition, none of us can know how our work will seem to someone else. So discussing what does work in someone's piece is just as valuable, much of the time, as discussing what doesn't work: a mirror should show you both how gorgeous your dress is (no need to change it) and the thread hanging down from the hem ("Mu-um!"). Without that mirror, the artist may genuinely not see either thing. Positive critques aren't "blowing smoke up your skirt" or "bullshit" or whatever pejorative term you fancy: they're feedback about the reader's experience of your work.
Why wouldn't you want feedback on what works and ideas as to why, so you can do it again? Working on a piece of writing is just as much (actually, far, far more) about trying to affect the reader in the way you want to affect them, as it is about trying not affect the reader in wrong way. So a feeder-back who only tells you negative things - even if those things are quite useful - is only telling you half the story. So why do they do it?
1) You've asked people not to "waste time" on telling you what works. Yes, lots of fluffy comments about how lovely it is don't get you much further, and yes, when I've had a rejection, being told "But they said it's really well written" doesn't comfort me much because of course it's well written: that's my job! But reading practical, specific details of what works (as well as what doesn't) for that reader in your writing is never a waste of time.
2) They genuinely can only identify and explain negative aspects of your work - which probably means anyone's work including their own. This is all to do with how they're wired (parents and teachers have a lot to answer for), but still, they're only 50% useful, as opposed to the 100% useful that other readers might be. By all means make use of what they say, but (as when listening to anyone's story of their break-up or sacking) remember that it's always only half the story.
3) They're being deliberately nasty in withholding positive things that they could usefully say, but choose not to. In which case, their motives for giving feedback are clearly selfish, or actively malicious and they're not a person you want in your life - specially not your writing life.
4) They have a macho delusion - again, probably about themselves as much as others - that positive things are fluffy nonsense, and if there's no pain, there's no gain.
But can any of us actually swear that we know precisely what we do well and how well we do it? The more developed a writer is, the more they're aware that they can't read their writing as others do, and only with feedback can they be sure they're working on the reader as they wish to. So one could argue - I am arguing - that it's a form of arrogance in itself, to say that precise, positive feedback is useless: such writers are so sure that they know their strengths that they don't need them pointed out. But they're wrong, because no writer can know all their strengths.
And what's more, all teachers know that the weakest students of all are the ones who haven't yet learnt that they're bad. So, if that pain in the bum on your favourite forum is busy declaring that they don't need positive feedback, or busy declaring, as they put the boot in, that you're fluffy and un-serious for objecting to their offensive comments, you can safely assume that a) they don't know how writing works and b) they don't know how people work. In which case, their feedback isn't worth two seconds of your time.
Beat this, as the opening for a thriller:
I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me.
I've given micro-attention to a short piece of prose before, in An Education in Writing. And I've talked before, in Running With Wolf Hall, about what's going on when you read a whole book that sets you alight. And then the other day I wanted to have a think about how to build thrillers, and for the first time in many years I plucked a Dick Francis off my shelf, and read it. And another, and another, and another, in three days. (This one is Straight, since you ask.) I find them that addictive, although of course when you read a such a writer back to back, you do start to be more aware of the skeleton they share than the individuality which Francis tries to bring to those skeletons. Which of course was the point of my reading: to find what it is which they all have in common.
But, actually, that opening line is an education in writing in itself. Most particularly, it's an education in Telling, in the technical sense. This is information, not an evocation to draw us into a particular place and atmosphere. New writers so often believe that the only way to engage the reader is to admit us to the inside of someone's emotional life, but we can't yet care about the character, and you could argue that it's three sentences of total plot spoiler. And yet it's highly effective. So, how and why?
1) Francis always writes with a character as an internal narrator: his main character is both the main actor in the story and the teller of the story. This bit is very much the character as narrator, but a narrator with an urgent story to tell. He is, implicitly, saying, "Listen! Something terrifying happened to me!"
2) It's far-out in psychic distance, informing us neutrally about certain facts, not evoking them through a subjective consciousness. But the nouns - life, gadgets, enemies, horses, mistress - are potent ones, and so are the only two verbs - inherited, killed - so things are vivid: it's Showing, in the sense of being things which easily come alive in our minds.
3) Those potent words act like sweets, luring us in to want to know more. There's all the difference in the world between this, and what I see a lot of in writing which is hoping to "intrigue" by withholding information. The latter doesn't intrigue, all it does is frustrate the reader, especially at the beginning of the book where we don't have much invested in the main character. Why should we bother to read on, when you're not giving us anything which makes us want to find out more?
4) The words lure us in, but they don't give much away except that the narrator did, actually, survive. (But then we knew that, because he's telling the story.) They rub up together, creating friction and, above all, the instability that is crucial at the beginning of a story: this combination of things is not going to stay peacefully the same for a moment.
5) It doesn't just make us expect the physical action of gadgets and horses: the image of inheriting your brother's life and mistress is ready-packed with emotional instability. (So are horses, for some of us.) There's a story here ... One of the things Francis is so good at is creating an emotional arc which forms and resolves in among and through the thriller arc. It's not the most sophisticated analysis of love and sexual relationships you've ever read, any more than the moral universe of his work has the profound complexity of George Eliot, but both are always there, there's just enough moral and emotional complexity (he's good on friendship, too) to keep the likes of me happy, and they always work together.
6) The voice of the narrative - essentially the same in all Francis's books - is there from the start. We know where we are: direct, practical, adrenalin-inducing, and feeling rather more (brother-life-mistress) than he's ever going to give away in detail.
7) The rhythm and balance of the sentences is spot on. Although it reads completely naturally - no one would call this fancy prose - in fact it conforms to some of the most classic rhetorical forms by exploiting our pattern-making human brains: building in threes (three is the fewest number that makes a patter), with the repetition making the things that are different stand out. Short phrase, longer phrase, we expect the third to be longer still: "I inherited ... Inherited ... ... ... I inherited ... and it nearly killed me." Bang.
8) It's living proof of the fact that it is not incorrect to have a comma before an "and". In English punctuation, it would have been incorrect to have a comma (an "Oxford comma") after "horses", although American punctuation loves Oxford commas. But the comma before "and it nearly killed me" is very properly separating off that final clause. It's not compulsory, since both clauses are quite short and it wouldn't be confusing to have them run straight on. But the slight lift that the comma gives after "I inherited my brother's life" is crucial, reinforcing the repetition of the Inherited phrase, and then going in for the kill. As I was discussing in Don't Plot, Just Play Fortunately-Unfortunately, it's the sort of sentence that asks for an EastEnders-style drum after it - doof, doof, doof - which says "Wow! That was a surprise! And now what's going to happen?"
9) If you read the book (or most of his others) you'll find that the last paragraph captures and evokes the first and, again, the repetition evokes what has changed: if you want to know what's going on with that, you could read John Yorke's Into the Woods.
And after that lot, what are you waiting for?
I am now galloping over Mrs Dalloway, re-typing it entirely from the start, a good method, I believe, as thus one works with a wet brush over the whole, and joins parts separately composed and gone dry.
That's Virginia Woolf, in her diary, and I should imagine not a few readers of this post are thinking, "Imagine re-typing a whole manuscript! Such drudgery! Thank goodness the technology's moved on since then!" But Woolf obviously thought it was worth it - and several other authors did too. "She would re-type the whole, cutting as she went," says Jane Aiken Hodge's biography of Georgette Heyer (who published two books in a year, more than once, and knew a thing or two about working efficiently). Mary Stewart, too, reckoned to type out four drafts.
What's more, several how-to-write books suggest getting inside another writer's voice, sensibility, voice and tone by writing out some poems or some pages of their words - maybe even longhand. Yes, really: copy them out, the way art students used to copy great paintings, brushstroke by brushstroke, as a way to study all the decisions and gestures that the great artist made.
It sounds inefficient, but then in creative work the best way to work is often the apparently inefficient. To copy something out it has to go through your brain a bit (which shows, in reverse, when typesetters set the common word or phrase they're expecting, instead of Shakespeare or Joyce's actual, odd, coinage, and thereby give the scholarly editors of the future a whole lot of fun and career opportunities). By actually writing the words, you'll experience the connotations and denotations, the sound and rhythm, of that writer's work more than you ever will with reading it silently, and more slowly, too: more even, perhaps, than you will by reading it aloud, though that too is something I'd recommend strongly.
Many of us prefer, too, to edit our own work as hard copy: the intuitive marking-and-scribbling of a pen is part of it (quicker than faffing with a keyboard, plus you can see your thought-process). But more important is how the typing-up of the marked-up copy is a natural way to review your decisions: again, it feels less efficient, but actually it's more efficient. (Track changes has the latter advantage, but lacks the physicality of the pen.) And in the days when I wrote whole novels in longhand, the copy-typing-up process was very important: I got a fast, reading-like overview of the whole thing but, even better, the words I'd already written in Draft One, and the new ones I was working in to create Draft Two, had the same status in that overview.
More recently, I've been re-building a novel with a complete new plot. To have a really good, strong narrative drive and shape, with everyone's arcs of change arc-ing properly, in planning, writing and revising I've treated it as a new project, not a new version carved and glued out of the old one. However, every now and again the new novel tells me it needs things from the old text: flashbacks or a scrap of description which are still exactly right for the new version. I have the old version up on the other screen, and I can pull those bits across.
But copy-and-paste is still a danger: it's quick, and it seems to fit into the place that's asked for it, but does it? Does it really? If you couldn't copy-and-paste, are you sure that the words you came up with this time would be just the same? You can't be, and yet new words might not be as good, even if they fitted better. And, frankly, I'm dying to get This Bloody Novel right. So I have forced myself to copy-type anything I want to use.
And it's worked: even when I thought I'd want that chunk unchanged, I find myself tweaking it and editing it as I go, or even realising I don't want it after all. And I know I'm right to go to this trouble because with one important chunk, I forgot my new rule and dragged it across from the old draft. It's a good piece of writing, though I say it myself, and I tried to tweak it, I tried to edit it, I tested each phrase and it seemed to be fine. And yet ... it just didn't sit right.So I forced myself (and it really was forcing: it felt such a stupid bit of work to make myself do) to cut it, and I copy-typed it in all over again.
And yes, things did change. There was something in the physical act of my fingers operating in exactly the same way as they'd been operating in putting new words onto the screen, which reduced the existing words to the same status, to be words-in-process, not words that existed: not darlings, just fodder. Copy-typing, as Woolf says, makes the dry, already-set words back into wet, malleable paint like everything else your writing-brush is working over.
A writer friend has said that her book-length manuscript has arrived on the page with scarcely any chapters at all: should she put them in? Terry Pratchett doesn't, says another writer. A fellow workshopper was really bothered by how my novel (The Mathematics of Love, since you ask) had several parts to shape a bigger architecture, but not an equal number of chapters in each. One highly successful writer of light women's fiction doesn't put the chapters in till she's written the whole thing, because only then does she know where they should be. Whereas I plan in chapters right from the beginning, like a skyscraper lift-shaft, built round the crane, and round which all else is built, and Scrivener makes that easy. But it also makes the write-it-all-out-and-decide-later method easy.
So what's going on? The question of when (and if) you put a chapter break is really one about what chapters are for, in a novel. There is a rhythm and shape to our experience of a novel - as I was exploring here - and chapters are central to it. And to some extent most of these also apply to the bigger breaks into parts, and the smaller breaks - asterisked, or just double-line-spaced - within a chapter. So these are some of the ways that a break might help to shape that experience: some reasons for whether and where to put one:
1) the reader needs a break - a reason to turn the light off or stop and get up. If Poe's definition of a short story is one that the reader can read "as a sitting", then a long story - a novel - must be one which is too long to be read at a sitting. Though you could always take the book with you, to the bathroom ...
2) the reader needs a break, a pause, to absorb what's gone before, before they get embroiled in what's about to happen. This could either be what I've taken to calling a Quiet Pause - a moment of reflection and understanding of what the stuff you've just read might mean for what you'll read next. Or it could be a Loud Pause, where the scary implications of the last scene have a moment to flower into full Triffid-hood in your imagination.
3) the writer wants the reader to have sense that time passes or we change setting. It uses the reader's experience of reading-time, in a tiny way, to evoke a sense of time passing in the events in the story.
4) the writer wants to change point-of-view. Since I'm a great believer in and advocate of the moving point of view, you won't get me to agree that this is a good reason - if it's the only reason - to break a chapter. But I do recognise that not everyone is confident in handling a moving point of view, and if you want to play safe by your more narrow-minded editors and teachers, and do it this way, I wouldn't dream of stopping you.
5) the reader doesn't need a break - the last thing they want is a break - but the narrator is whisking them away nonetheless, to show them something else and so prolong agony of waiting to find out What Happened Next ... This is harder to make use of if you have an internal, character-narrator, since the reader's more likely to feel cheated by the character deliberately witholding what happened next, rather than the tension coming about quite naturally from the need to catch up with the action in what stage directions call "another part of the field". It also, on the whole, doesn't work to break a chapter and then have the action pick up again at exactly the same point and place: readers feel that as an artificial cranking-up of the tension - again, a bit of a cheat.
6) it's the end of the scene. Some novels (specially novels by those for whom film is the primary narrative form) essentially have one scene per chapter, like a train made of carriages. The chapter break is the draughty moment between the really big, real-time, full-show big moments of change and, that's also how the train bends round corners and curves up hills.
7) this moment has big significance: it's where the EastEnders drum-roll might come in. Like enjambment in poetry, the last few lines of a chapter gain extra importance as they linger in the air while we turn the page, and because of that, experienced readers tend to read a Loud Pause in even if the actual action isn't all that dramatic. The risk for the writer is that you get addicted to the drama of the drum-roll, and habitually jerk us away to the next scene, and the novel loses its sense of continuous narrative and becomes a collection of abrupt chunks. The quieter, more fluent narrative move out of one stage of the story to the next are harder to write, but sometimes much more effective because they take the reader where you want them to go. And anyway, we're not scriptwriters.
8) the writer needs to show the bigger architecture of the story: not so much "This is where the story pauses" as "This is where the story enters a new phase." This is just about the only time when having a chapter-break in the middle of a scene might make sense, and even be rather effective in exploiting the more experienced reader's awareness: if you want to mark, very clearly that this was the big moment of change.
And that's it. I can't think of any more reasons to put a break into a narrative, but maybe you can - and if so, do please put them in the comments.
Posted at 01:46 PM in Academic Creative Writing, Books and reading, Craft, Drama & Theatre, Genres, Point of view & narrators, Short Stories, Technique, THE DAY TRIP, THE MAP TABLE, The Mathematics of Love, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)
Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so on.
Were your novel set within living memory, in Britain, or the US, or somewhere else your potential readers know at first or at least second-hand, then you could write phrases like "Trafalgar Square Tube" or "Bridezilla" or "TV Evangelist", and they'll conjure up a full set of denotations and connotations which become part of your readers' experience of the novel. But for readers to feel the same density and complexity in life in 5th Century Athens or on the planet Zog, you can't rely on that existing knowledge: you're going to have to supply more of the cultural/physical hinterland. Another reason our books tend to be fat is that readers who want to spend time in another world want to buy into a full, substantial world: to sense that for each street the story takes them down, there's a whole village fanning out beyond it, for each moment in the chapel there's a whole history and geography of faith and heresy underpinning and overlying it that single prayer. Readers want to sense that every wardrobe or weapons store that's opened has twenty garments or guns in it, even if the only ones that matter are the right one the character fails to pick out because it belonged to their hated, abusive grandmother, and the wrong one they do pick out, which leads to disaster in thirty pages' time. But the reader doesn't know what those other eighteen will look like so, rather than do as cheap TV dramas do with their obviously empty suitcases, you're going to have to fill those cupboards.
Or are you? I'm reading Fahrenheit 451 at the moment, and it's startling what Ray Bradbury doesn't put in: what doesn't get explained, what doesn't get described, what actually isn't there at all. And yet I'm experiencing a vivid world; it's self-sufficient and convincing in how the characters struggle to operate in the only reality they know. If you asked me to free-write my experience of that world, it would be full of things Bradbury didn't put in it. (Which is probably why "the film of the book" - any book - always leaves fans of that book disappointed.) It's not coincidental that it's Bradbury who says, in Zen in the Art of Writing, "The artist learns what to leave out." Just because readers want to sense the presence of all those other streets and lives and faiths and garments and guns, doesn't mean that you should put them all in.
But Bradbury hasn't said, "The artist learns to leave everything out"; what we must learn is to know what the reader can and can't do without, in order to create the world for themselves. The art is in picking which glimpses you offer the reader of those other streets, that religion, those garments and guns. That almost certainly means you imagining or researching an awful lot more than ends up on the page, and then picking which bits of your material will have the best and strongest effect, while taking up the least space on the page. For more on how to pick the details that are evocative, without slowing up the story, click here. And finding the right kind of feedback and beta-readers is the way to grow the judgement of what to leave out, and the confidence to do it.
The other reason that all the imagining/researching too often ends up on the page, is that we too easily feel that any map smaller, and with fewer dimensions, than the world itself is imperfect (which it is, in strict logic: some things are left out). There's always another bit that could and "should" go in: another alleyway or heresy to write, another, subtly different garment which these people really did have ... That's perfectionism in the negative sense: the idea that if you don't create the perfect version, you've failed.
But all maps are selective: all mapmakers take decisions about what to include and how to show it. As important as learning what to leave out, is learning to forgive your (nearly) finished novel for all the things it's never going to include: for all the things it could have been, for all the roads you could have taken this project down and didn't, because you chose to go another way. Unless you're utterly incompetent and have no capacity at all to change how you write something, there will always be other ways you could write it. There is no such thing as a perfect novel in the absolute sense: there will always be avenues/heresies/weapons-stores you could write, which might be just as good, in a different way - but you've decided not to. So be it.
Posted at 02:41 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Craft, Creativity, Genres, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Religion, Research, Science, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, THE WORKBENCH, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
When things are quiet on here, I know a post about procrastination will liven it up, but things are pretty lively at the moment. However, I've come across a post about it on the splendid Wait But Why blog which is so good that I'm going to share the link, and my take on it too. But first, a thought or two about why you might find yourself procrastinating.
Sometimes you're unconsciously waiting until the work only needs to be just-good-enough. Sometimes your Inner Critic is in charge: in a bid to stop you writing he's found a dozen reasons for you Not Getting On With It, or declared that it's all been done already. Once you've learnt to ignore him he'll dress up as someone else to persuade you. Sometimes you've simply run out of fuel because of what else is going on in your life. But whatever the cause, you can sort it out or ignore it, get shot of the children or the day job, have the perfect snack and your favourite tea steaming gently in the sunlight (no, let's not have sunlight because then you'd have to go for a walk, no? Call it rain and cold, but no, the saucepan under the leak in the roof won't have filled up for another three hours) and .... still find it incredibly hard to jump into the water and start swimming.
And that last post of mine is where Tim Urban's two Wait But Why posts come in. In Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, he introduces the divided way a procrastinator's brain works and, like any writer, he's embodied the abstract stuff of psychology in psycho-geography and imagined creatures. There's the half of your brain which is the Rational Decision Maker, who wants to plough on through the Dark Woods of the hard work involved in writing (in our case) a book and reach the point where it's enjoyable and even exciting, and anyway the end is in sight. But the other half is the Instant Gratification Monkey, who can only see the horribly boring and unrewarding work under his nose. So Monkey wants to run away and play in the Dark Playground: that place full of email-checking, biscuit-eating, Facebook noodling, trivial research you'll need later, cheese-on-toast toasting, pencil-sharpening, checking out flights for your holiday in case the prices go up later, Wikipedia-link-following, email-checking, Twitter-twerking, coffee-making ...
Of course, the harder the task, the more Monkey wants to run away and play. The stuck plot, the baffling research, the 99,999 words still to go, the bad feedback, the book-trade's-imploding-it's-not-worth-it glooms on the Net ... all of these are like feeding Monkey e-numbers until he's hyperactive. It's only when you're close enough to your deadline that the Panic Monster appears, and terrifies Monkey into agreeing to stay with Rational Decision Maker as RDM hacks onwards, probably very hurriedly and carelessly and without enough time, now, to do a decent job.
Let's leave aside the question of how some people find it so difficult, even as adults, to shut the Monkey up, though I'd put a bit of money on it being something about fear, from perhaps young childhood, that anything you don't grab now will be lost. And let's leave aside the question of why you (okay, I) and anyone else with a very active Instant Gratification Monkey could have found themselves with a job which involves huge, single projects that take years to get from first idea to first sale. That's just what seems to have happened, and now you (okay, I) and anyone else all have to deal with it.
And then in his second post, Tim tackles How To Beat Procrastination. That's not just about practical ideas though he's got some good ones, such as ways to cut the vast, shapeless, impossible or (Monkey feels) impossibly long task down into possible-looking chunks. A house gets built brick by brick, as he says, which is delightfully similar to Ann Lamott's principle of Bird by Bird, and is why I keep word-by-word spreadsheets, on the stripey-sweater principle, to track my mounting wordcounts. And if the one-day-at-a-time is beginning to feel a bit 12-Step-Programme-ish, well, who said that procrastination isn't an addictive behaviour? After all, it's complete with the waste of time/money, the desire to change, the backsliding, the badly-done work, the lost job, the despair? Who said that you aren't going to have to replace the story you're living with - that the Monkey always gets to decide what you do - with another story? And who said that learning to change the story in practice might not take a while?
So Getting On With It is also about recognising the point where you can, and you must, choose to enter the Dark Woods of working, and not let Monkey drag you off into the Dark Playground. Only by staying in the Dark Woods and hacking your way onwards, will you get to the point where it starts to be self-propelling, and the end - the pleasure of having written - starts to feel achievable, the way that you can smell the sea before you see or hear it. And it's only by practising making that choice, over and over again (Monkey has a short memory) and often enough, that the connection gets made, brick by brick, somewhere deep inside you: you can choose not to be at the mercy of the Monkey. You can choose, today, now, to work.
It's a hardy perennial: what makes a book-length act of storytelling count as historical fiction? You'd be surprised at how many different answers there are. Whether a book is historical fiction also depends on whether you're asking as the writer, the reader or the seller of it. So I can't give you fixed answers (no change there, then): we're slithering about in very elemental ideas of space and time and people, here. (And there's a whole other post, some day, in the question of when historical fiction becomes creative life writing.) But here are some ways to think about the issues.
Fiction that uses History because it's distant from us
The Historical Novels Review, for understandable reasons, has tackled this issue, and Sarah Johnson's definition of Historical Fiction is a novel set fifty years ago or more, which the writer is writing from research, not direct knowledge. The Historical Novel Society, on the other hand, has an or where the HNR, implicitly, has an and: "... written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events."
I do think this is the only fundamental, inescapable definition: that it is a novel written about Then, as a world separate and different from Now. Of course, there is a sense in which all novels are historical: they're written "as if" these events are past. But I think there must be some sense of the writer setting out to exploring a time which is long gone, and therefore has a real sense of Otherness about it. Even if your project is to explore the eternal human things, the point is only made if everything else about your characters' lives is different from ours: contingent and particular to their time.
Fiction that explores History as a process
One of the earliest critics of the genre, György Lukács, argues that it's "unarguable" that an historical novel must include real historical events and at least one real historical character (although he agrees with Rose Tremain that the main character must be fictional). I think that's very odd, but it's his Marxist conviction that what matters in human understanding is the processes by which society changes. It's also, arguably, a very "traditional male" view: that what counts as historical is the stuff that makes it on to the record - i.e. men's stuff. (The Commentary part of my PhD thesis explores all this further, and if you really want to, you can download it here.)
Historians study change change from one particular state to the next, so they can form general principles about how these things work. Fiction, on the other hand, "resists generalising", as Jane Smiley puts it in Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Novel. That makes trying to use fiction to explain your history book stuff a dangerous game. In real life we are less aware of the big changes that Historians will notice later, and more aware of the continuities of life in our own small compass. But this is also, perhaps, the place where the novel set in a recent time can work as an historical novel: when the project of the novel is to pinpoint a very clear moment, with the big, slow process of history as the flow of time only implied.
But if fiction is rooted in the particular and the individual, the moment we live in includes our experience of it being part of the flow of historical time: our sense of Then is part of our Now. That's why I don't actually think I write historical fiction at all: I write fiction about history, and I'm not alone in that. The parallel narrative is a dead giveaway, of course, but characters coping in a place and time of acute change is another. Just don't make them unconvincingly clairvoyant about the future.
Fiction that uses History as a setting for genre
The classic story-pleasures can be given extra flavour by being imported into another time and place. Historical Crime and Thriller does well at all ends of the literary-commercial spectrum. Historical Adventure is an easy sell because we all know that adventure was far more adventurous in an unwired, indeed unmapped, world. Historical Romance is the one that people are sniffiest about. There is a sense in too many readers, writers and reviewers that if it's swords, sandals and broken bones it's historical fiction, but if it's sewing, slippers and broken hearts it isn't, it's romantic fiction. Which wouldn't matter if people weren't so snobbish about romance as a genre, though in reality every genre has exactly the same ratio of rubbish (and un-historical rubbish at that) to good stuff. On the other hand I am - apparently - unquestionably an historical novelist, despite the fact that at the heart of most of my stories are characters falling in and out of love and bed and wedlock. Maybe it was the death by being shot through the liver at the siege of Badajoz, in The Mathematics of Love, which got me in.
On the other hand, under the broad umbrella of Women's Fiction, Historical Drama is very welcome indeed, as it's so rich in possibilities for one of fiction's most honourable functions: that of giving voice to the voiceless. And, as ever, once you get into literary fiction, all the boundaries of genre and plot begin to melt and run: Wolf Hall is discussed as fiction by many who would never say they read historical fiction, and it's also on some History degree reading lists, not because it's "true" in the historian's sense, but as an example of how all narrative needs to think of itself as an act of storytelling.
Fiction that uses a period of History as a character
For the writer, it's often the smell of a place and time that first hooks us, and then we look for a character and story to embody it. But a couple of years ago I heard a bookseller saying that the Second World War had only just "become historical fiction". In other words it was an era that, for the readers of fiction, had only now acquired its own personality, as a particular country has a personality that visitors seek. I assume this is because few are still alive who lived through 1939-46 as an adult. Readers' sense of the period is mediated through (grand)parents, school, non-fiction, documentaries, gift shops, music, re-enactments. That's what readies readers to buy our stories which are one step away from those "facts": a whole story which never actually happened.
The thing is, to sell a book you have to convey what the book will give the reader. The analogies between space and time always crop up when you're talking about this stuff. The past is a foreign country, as L P Hartley says: they do things differently there. Readers have to have acquired some sense of what that country is, before they will want to travel in it. "This book is set in a period which means nothing to you but I promise it's really interesting", is always going to be a tougher sell (believe me, I've tried) than "This book is set in Tudor/the WW1 Trenches/Napoleonic times", or one of the other periods which we're fed by school and films and national myth.
On the other hand, where you can draw on readers' existing tastes, but push beyond their edges, there's lots of potential. A Secret Alchemy's Wars of the Roses setting is every bit as glamorous and violent as Tudor times, but less well-trodden territory: that was part of what drew me to the period, and it did the same for readers.