What Your Inner Critic Doesn't Want You To Know

WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Ten: Building at Novel-Scale

Welcome back! In this post we're going to start thinking about the move which to many beginners seems horribly daunting: going from thinking at scene-size, chapter-size, story-scale, to a full-scale novel. But don't be scared: each post in my Write Your First Novel is a series of short prompts and exercises which are designed to lead, step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. It doesn't assume you already know the technical vocabulary that writers use, and the full series to date is collected together here.

One more thing before we start. Everything on This Itch of Writing is free; I don't monetise it through advertising or clicks or affiliations or anything else, but simply put it out under a Creative Commons Licence (and if you'd like to re-use any anything on This Itch of Writing, please check that link for how the Licence works). But, for the first time I'm going to ask that if you find the series useful, you pay it forward by donating to the UK National Emergencies Trust Corona Virus Appeal, to Unicef, or to your local foodbank or other charity working to help cope with this unprecedented crisis.

Today's Check-in

So, yes, it's been a while - but if in the gap you've been seized by the doubt demons about whether it's all worth it, or whether you can do this, then you're certainly not alone. Writing anything creative is a kind of nailing your colours to the mast: you have something to make, to say, to express, and you are claiming the space and time to do that. So you're implicitly asserting that this story (and by extension you) are entitled to that space; and by asserting all this you make yourself vulnerable to an inner or outer voice saying that you and the writing are not worth it. That's scary for those parts of you which want to protect you from such dangers.

We usually label those protectors as the Inner Critic, because their efforts to stop you making yourself vulnerable usually take the form of explaining what is Bad about this project, or your decision to embark on it, or about you-as-a-writer in general. If you've managed to still those voices, or shout them down, or stop your ears to them, the Inner Critic may find other disguises. The best way to deal with them is to recognise that they are trying to help - thank them, reassure them that if things go wrong you will still cope, and get on with it.

Completely different, I should say, is one's Inner Editor. That is the absolutely necessary part of your brain - the left-brain, if you like that shorthand - which looks at what you've written, reads it "like a reader", and tries to make it work better for that reader. None of us could get on without an Inner Editor: the only question is when to let it come in to do that work, and when your creative engines - your right-brain in shorthand - will work better and more freely without that controlling oversight.

Today's Writing

From Part Nine you should have a revised Alex-and-Bobbie scene built on your decisions about point-of-view and first-or-third person. From Part Eight you should have a snapshot, an x-ray, of the bones of the scene, and some notes giving a slightly fuzzier sense of the scenes each side.

I call this kind of thing imagining-on-paper, because that's what it is: you're drawing out of your mind a story, setting, characters and actions, and beginning to think about how you might tell this story. Other people call this kind of thing "planning" but I tend not to, because it makes it sound dry and rigid but also a bit scary: what if you "fail" to fulfil the plan? And if you do fulfil it, tick all those boxes, cross off all those stages, what happens along the way to the freewheeling creative joy of word-spinning which is why you got into writing in the first place?

So today we're doing more imagining-on-paper - but one more thing before we start. We're educated to pounce on answers, sort things out, and feel a failure if we don't make things organised and orderly, then finish. Imagining is hard work because you're spinning something out of nothing, (they've proved it by measuring how much more blood-sugar your brain uses when it's working); the fact that it feels hard doesn't mean you're doing it wrong. It can also be difficult to see where you're going and keep the faith; sometimes all you can promise yourself is that you will stick at it. Having said that, sometimes physical movement can break the impasse, so it can really help to stop, put one particular problem in your pocket, and go for a walk.

1) Look at your set of three scenes: notes about Sc.One, a worked-out and revised Sc.Two - your main Alex-and-Bobbie scene - and a vaguish sense of Sc.Three.

If you didn't do it in Part Eight, sort your notes for Sc.One out, and imagine just enough of what happens to write down a highly provisional three-sentence summary. (If you've realised that your scenes are centred on Bobbie - it's really their story - then where I've written Alex, read Bobbie.) 

  1. where your Alex-character starts physically, mentally and emotionally, including what they want.
  2. what Alex does to achieve what they want, and what happens (obstacles, Alex coping, etc.) - again, physically, and emotionally.
  3. what the situation is at the end, also - yes, you've guessed it - physically, mentally and emotionally.

Now do the same for Scene Three.

With both, don't feel tied to your earlier notes: if you realise that other things would be better, that just shows your storytelling brain is working well. And don't forget that you are not setting out a Five Year Plan and if the Soviet Union starves it'll be you off to the Gulag. What you're doing here is using your pencil to focus and draw out the work of your imagination.

2) Beginning, Middle-muddle and End. Someone said that writing a novel is easy: it's just beginning, muddle and end - but then, so is life. Whether you're telling the birth-life-death story of a real human in three volumes, or a novel-length story of the six-week holiday from hell, or a short story of the mad half hour it took you to rescue and free the pigeon who flew into your bedroom window, we are storied creatures. Beginning-middle-end is our fundamental way of making sense of it all - and that includes James Joyce taking 629 pages, in my paperback Ulysses, to tell the story of a single day. So the simplest form for a story is those three stages and writers have borrowed from the theatre to call them acts.

Imagine this little set of three scenes together making up your Beginning: your Act One. Now you've got two possible things to try: 

Either 2.i) Given where Alex is starting, where might they end up at the end of Act Three? Where will they have got to, physically, mentally and emotionally? Make some notes. What sort of End does that feel like? Not necessarily an overtly happy ending or an explicitly tragic one, or even a satisfying one: different writers and different readers vary wildly how much they want those. What virtually all readers want is some kind of resolution at the end; a sense of rightness about where the journey has led them. What would feel right about where Alex's journey story ends up?

Having pinned that down, think backwards: what sort of middle-muddle might lead to this outcome. What might Alex be trying to achieve (which isn't necessarily what they do achieve), what sort of things might get in the way, how will they cope with those things, and what might that mean for how they think and feel? Jot down some notes, and think of that as your Act Two, leading into Act Three.

Or 2.ii) If you find it hard at this stage to leapfrog your mind over the unknown middle to imagine where Alex might end up, think instead about the Act Two that the scenes you've worked on so far might be leading to. What sort of middle-muddle, physical, mental and emotional, might they get into? Again, what might they be trying to achieve, and what might happen as they act to achieve it? What or who might get in the way, and how will Alex cope with it? Will what they're trying for change? Will what they think or feel change?  

Having pinned that down a bit, have a go at imagining onwards, to think about Act Three: are the possibilities for where Alex might end up any clearer now? See if you can feel some kind of resolution for Alex, showing out there in the fog. Make some notes.

One more thought: I sometimes teach an exercise where we sketch a scene, and I then ask the group to imagine first that this is the opening of a novel and what comes after it; then that it's the ending of a novel, and what came before it; then that it's the "midpoint": the middle of Act Two. I wouldn't be surprised if some of you reading this have realised by now that this "beginning" Alex/Bobbie act is not, actually Act One. Again - that's great: it shows your story-structure sense is in good working order. And if so - what does that mean for what the other acts might be?

3) If your brain's had enough, you might want to postpone this last bit till tomorrow, but it's very much the same kind of thinking, so I'm putting it here for now.

The key thing to understand is that story-structure is fractal. We've already seen how you can build a nice little Act One out of a beginning-scene, a middle-scene and an end-scene, each of which has the same internal beginning-middle-end structure. So now, try expressing each of your Act Two and Act Three in three sentences each: in other words, as three scenes. You now have the bones of a nine-scene story.

If you're a total glutton for punishment - seriously, for now, only if you enjoy this kind of thinking or find it difficult-but-fruitful - then you could try breaking each of those newly imagined scenes into an internal beginning-middle-end structure. You would then have twenty-seven chunks of story. Can you begin to see where this could take you, in the direction of a full-scale novel? 

Finally, if over the next few days you get a moment, do go to your bookshelves and grab some handfuls of novels: some you know well, some you don't. Have a look at the blurb (US Eng = cover copy) on the back (which is why this exercise doesn't work nearly so well at the online-retailer-who-must-not-be-named, where there's much more space and blurbs are much slacker). Does the structure have a familiar feel? For any book you know well, how far does it take you? For ones you don't know, does it get your story-brain intrigued? Could you guess what an x-ray of the act-structure might look like? 

See you next time!


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Barbara Murray

Thank you Emma - this is perfect timing for me as I am literally struggling this morning with the whole fractal thing of scene building into act building into novel building. But this is a great help and shows me the way through it.

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Barbara. I think even for people who don't naturally do their imagining-on-paper in this form, it can be a really good way of un-daunting oneself, whether you're building up from one act, or breaking an overall story into smaller more manageable chunks.

Christine Robinson

Emma, I just listened to the Historical Fiction Genre panel on Jericho Writers. I know readers eyes glaze over reading historical details...However, In my story I have to identify times and places to set the scene. The third act involves the year anniversary of the Berlin Wall that was constructed in August 1961. And I'm identifying a hospital in East Berlin, Charite on the eastern border, and a tunnel, Senioren (Senior Citizens) Tunnel, the place it was started in West Berlin, and ends in East Berlin. Without these markers, the reader would be lost. In this context do you think it would be acceptable and keep the reader informed?

Also in the story there are historical facts named as part of my grandfather's life as a famous trumpeter in the US, and his history in Germany. Most of this backstory is in dialogue with the main character (in third person as me), her sweetheart, a Jewish doctor, and her Jewi hating grandmother. I did get rid of the foreign words (German) and that was brought up in the panel discussion. I enjoyed the panel discussion and the different ideas presented. I follow Jerichos Writers, and now following your blog. 📚Christine

Emma Darwin

Christine - oh, of course the reader needs to know that kind of thing. The reader's eyes only glaze over if you're lobbing the detail at them as detail. If we get it from how the characters necessarily talk about it, as part of how they act, then it's just part of the story.

You might find this post useful, though it's about description in general, not explicitly geography. But the basic ideas - using a character's perceptions, sneaking info in in a sentence which is apparently about something else, and so on - are the same. https://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2012/06/how-would-you-describe-it.html

And this, which is some questions to stress-test the details you've put in, might be useful too:


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