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Anatomy of A Novel: Part 11: Unpacking It

My love of writing has grown from my love of reading, and like many writers, I write the kind of books I would love to read. In my early years of writing, I enjoyed several novels by Bernard Cornwell, and took some valuable writing advice from his website.

To paraphrase, he said that when you want to understand how something is made, you take it apart, and so it is with novels. Pick a novel you love, one that you wish you had written because it resonates deeply with you long after you’ve finished reading it. And then unpack it.

I’m not talking about the way we did back in English literature classes at school or university, but in the way a writer needs to. The story, the structure, the way characters get themselves into situations and why, and how long it takes them to get through the path of obstacles you have created for them.

This is the eleventh in this series of blog-posts about writing a novel, and what I’ve written in the previous ten all have relevance, but this is where the fruits of those come together in a loose mesh which can be tugged, stretched and made to fit by doing some research and a bit of juggling. The best way to analyse your own novel is by comparing it to novels that you wish you had written. What is their secret? How did those authors manage to hit all the right buttons in exactly the right places? Unpack it and see.

I have always loved the movies, and long before I started buying books on writing, I bought books on how movie structure worked. Many of my favourite books on writing are still the ones about screenplay structure, and much of what I now think of as my checklists and story patterns for writing my novels come from reading those books.

I always have: a three-act structure (Screenwriting for the 21st Century by Pat Silver-Lasky); a hero’s journey (The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler); a sequence of sequences (Screenwriting: the Sequence Approach by Paul Joseph Gulino); and a beat sheet (Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder). From these I have, over the years, devised my own basic structure, and now that I’m struggling with the ratios and proportions of my latest novel, it’s Blake Snyder’s beat sheet that I’m using to analyse (and hopefully fix) the problems I’ve encountered.

Following Bernard Cornwell’s advice to new writers, spend some of your precious writing time unpacking three or four novels you’ve loved and wish that you’d written. Try to use works from different authors, all of whom have written in the genre you love to read and are writing in.

Re-read each novel carefully, notebook in hand. Read like a critical writer, not like a loving reader. How long does it take to reach the catalyst or inciting incident? How long does the hero debate before making the decision to take action? At what point do the Bad Guys start to turn even nastier? Is there a significant Midpoint which either foreshadows the outcome or gives the reader the exact mirror-image of what the ending will be? Which scenes are written in full, and which are summarized to move the action along at a faster pace? How long is the third act, or finale?

Knowing the novel because you’ve already read it at least once, pinpoint exactly when and where each tiny slice of foreshadowing takes place. A master craftsman plants various ideas and hints throughout the entire novel, in such a way that the reader sees the fruition of those seeds as being the perfect denouement and not as a nasty, unrelated, out-of-left-field surprise. Master storytellers also weave an undercurrent of tension throughout, which we glimpse at appropriate moments – a ticking clock, a war or revolution taking place in the background, and so on. Make notes on how they do it.

Another thing to make notes about is how subtle the love scenes are. My current favourite love scene is in one of the Amelia Peabody books by Elizabeth Peters: The Falcon at the Portal. It is 60% of the way through the text, and is exactly three sentences long. Because Peters has built the tension so well between the two characters up to that point, she needs only three sentences.

The first is the start of the girl’s run across the room towards him, the second is their moment of meeting halfway, and the third is later when they are curled up together in bed and he wipes away one of her tears of happiness.

Who needs more than that? No one needs more if the path to get there has been planted properly. Satisfaction all round.

Now let’s get to the horrid part of this exercise: the cringe moments when you compare these notes to your own work-in-progress. Take comfort here from the fact that your work is still actually “in progress” and it’s not finished until you’ve finished working on it. Take more comfort from knowing that those famous novels had a team of editors and beta-readers all making suggestions to the author and helping to hone the final product long before you read it.

How far into the novel is your inciting incident? How long does your hero take to make the decision to go on the journey? How wordy and purply is your love scene?

Does your Midpoint actually happen exactly at the 50% mark or does the first half of the novel seem to take forever? (Take heart, people – this is always MY big problem area!) Which scenes need pruning, and which can be reduced to summaries instead of slowing the pace?

Are your moments of foreshadowing clunky brick-on-the-foot moments that give the game away? Go back to your outline and see if you can drop hints in a more subtle, sparing way. You want readers to be pleasantly surprised by the ending, not able to foretell it before they get there. You want them to say afterwards that it all worked out perfectly in the end. Remember that, if the first page sells the novel, the last page sells the next novel…

With the notes you have made of how other authors make their novels work, and with the help of your outline, timeline and character sketches – all of which you made before you started yours – you will be able to find the right places to tweak and twist your work so that it all happens where it should, and in a much more satisfying way.

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Anatomy of A Novel: Part 10: Writer’s Block

I don’t generally suffer from writer’s block. I suffer from writer-not-having-enough-time-to-get-it-all-down. Which, I suppose, is a kind of writer’s block in itself because I’m not writing what I want to write at the moment. But that’s another story…

Why don’t I suffer from traditional Writer’s Block? Maybe it’s because I’ve always been one of those writers who carries a notebook.

My notebook isn’t just for those Eureka moments when I dream up an original “what if” idea for a new novel. It’s for all sorts of bits and pieces that land in my brain from out of the blue somewhere. These can be prompted by everyday things I see around me, spurred on by my wild and crazy imagination, or they can be notes-to-self about something that might be fun to research on Google later, or just interesting quotes or book titles I hear.

Not all of my ideas lead to the germination of a new novel. They could just as easily be unrelated dead-ends, or seeds that might later find their way into a novel. They might suggest something else that will land in a current work-in-progress, or in a completely different work. When I’m in the middle of writing a novel, many of the snippets I scribble in my notebook are ideas or thoughts about my current draft. These come to me when I’m nowhere near my laptop.

For the more technologically minded, there is probably a notes app on your phone that most people would use to make a shopping list. I use mine as a second notebook if my handbag is out of reach and my phone is in my pocket, but I’m old-fashioned enough to prefer the action of actually writing in longhand with a pen.

Novels happen when interesting characters go beyond their comfort zones, on strange journeys, and collide with bizarre obstacles, forcing them to act on their natural instincts.

Writers follow the same path. We too must go beyond our comfort zones, on new journeys where we will collide with obstacles we haven’t yet researched, and we will have to use our creative instincts to solve the puzzles. Writers have the advantage over characters because a notebook can help us to decipher and work around the obstacles.

What if you find yourself blocked in spite of a notebook (or phone) full of ideas?

Try changing your time of writing each day. If you habitually write in the morning, try writing late afternoon or at lunchtime instead. Buy a rhyming dictionary and make up some silly poetry, just to stretch your writing brain in a new direction. Enter short story competitions that are worlds away from the type of stuff you usually write. I have penned some truly dire attempts at science fiction, but they helped me to find a path through to other works.

Diversion is a good thing. If nothing else works for you, then take a break from writing and let other interests stimulate your imagination. Do some cooking, gardening, painting or woodwork. Hike up a nearby mountain to smell some flowers and look at the view. Anything that requires physical labour can put your subconscious mind on the back-burner and let it stew out some ideas. Keep that notebook handy just in case…

The thing to remember about writer’s block is that it’s never permanent. It can be worrying, but only if you let it get bigger than it is. Don’t let it do that. Remember that you are bigger than the block in front of you. Of course you will write again, and probably in floods of words, to the point where you will find it hard to believe that you were once so blocked.

If you are thinking of joining NaNoWriMo in November this year, October is the month to get your ideas flowing, draft an outline and give those characters some motivation. Good luck!

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 9: Scene & Summary

Writing a novel can be a long process, and sometimes we writers can’t tell how the pace is going because we are too close to it. As much as I love having an outline from which to work, the important thing to remember is that it is – at best – a flat, two dimensional map of where the novel is going, and what the most important points in the plot are.

What happens when the writing of that plot doesn’t work as well in practice as it does in theory? Sometimes a particular section of my current draft which may have worked well in the outline, doesn’t ring true in the actual writing. If I can’t solve it immediately, I highlight that section on my outline, leave it and move on to the next plot point, which often shows me the way back to solving the previous problem.

If it doesn’t, then maybe the sequence of events is in the wrong order. Some writers do their outline on a series of cards – one scene per card – so the cards can be re-arranged if the order isn’t working. Personally, I don’t like using cards. I find it easier to cut and paste on my outline instead, but if cards work for you, then by all means use them.

Here’s a thought: if something is difficult or boring to write, then maybe it shouldn’t be in the book because it may be boring or difficult to read. It’s that simple: if there’s a boring bit I can’t write, then maybe it’s not meant to be written. Maybe the idea behind that scene or sequence needs to be reworked in another way.

So back I go to my original one-page synopsis and examine where that problem scene fits in the greater story. What happens before it? What happens after it? Is there a better way to get from one point to the next? Remember that every character has a desire, and has to overcome obstacles to get what he or she wants. If the obstacle isn’t big enough then the writer must either raise the stakes and make it big enough to count, or wipe it off the slate and get on with the story.

The writer must choose between scene and summary. Not every step of the story needs to be written as a scene; some can be summarized to move the reader forward to the next interesting bit. Ask yourself: What am I trying to say in this ill-fitting scene? Where is it supposed to lead to? If there is a better way to reveal what’s in it, then why is this scene even in the book?

If a lacklustre scene serves a definite purpose, then that purpose might be better presented in the form of a summary. Perhaps the characters need to go on a journey for a reason, but unless there’s something significant that the reader needs to witness along the way, or if the tension is heightened by the fact that they are being followed, then we don’t need to see every step of the journey, especially if it’s going to hold up the action and bore the reader. Rather end the chapter as the characters leave one place, and start the next chapter as they check into the hotel or arrive in the city where the next bit of action will happen.

While writing Benicio’s Bequest, I had a complicated sequence of events in which my two main characters travelled back and forth across the same section of Italy several times. By highlighting the problem areas in my outline, I was able to rework the sequence with one less travel hop, and turn one of them into a car chase, thus tightening the action and putting them in the right place in time for the final push to the finale.

Most plots need moments of quiet time to let the characters (and the readers) take a breath. In a romance this is often when the characters get to know each other better, but don’t linger there too long. Keep them on their feet and dancing through the plot, because that’s how it stays interesting. Plenty of time for them to get to know each other properly once they’ve saved the world!

It all comes down to a balance between pace and progression. Those writers who advise you to “leave out the boring bits” usually have a good grasp on how to keep an audience engaged. Keep the pace moving, while constantly advancing the plot.

What do you do with those lovingly-crafted scenes that don’t advance the plot, but that you’ve written so well and can’t bear to lose? Here’s my solution: I cut and paste them into a folder called the Dumping File. I tell myself that they are not wasted, and sometimes I even get to use bits of them in another part of the novel. I haven’t killed them, because they’re still there on my computer.

These deleted scenes form part of each novel’s backstory, and my own writing journey. Even though the reader doesn’t need them, I’ve still got them, kept all safe and cosy and protected. The dumping file for each of my novels is quite large – between 15 and 30% of the size of the finished novel – yet every bit of them turned out to be completely unnecessary.

Don’t waste the reader’s time with this unwanted waffle. They won’t thank you for it, and they might decide not to buy your next novel…

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 8: Musical Soundtracks

While this may seem like an odd topic in a series about writing a novel, I feel very strongly about the music I listen to while writing. I’m not musical myself, and can’t play any instrument, but I do love to listen. Especially when I’m writing.

When writing, it’s important that I listen to music without vocals, so that other people’s lyrics don’t interfere with the words in my own head. The human voice is a beautiful instrument in itself, and it seems a pity to exclude it from the stuff I listen to, so I’ll always include vocal music if the lyrics are in a language I don’t understand. Fortunately, I’m no good at languages other than English, so there is a wide range of music available to me.

I’ve always enjoyed listening to classical music, so naturally this is the best for my writing. I have a few favourite CDs (who am I kidding – I have loads of favourites!) and piano music is my first choice every time. I grew up listening to piano music because both my father and my sister played, and my mother could sometimes be cajoled into playing as well. She was a far better player than she thought she was.

My father’s baby grand sat in the lounge in the centre of our house, so when someone played, it was audible everywhere. With the bay windows open, you could hear it across the garden too. My father’s music of choice was mainly jazz, and many of his favourites have become my favourites now. My sister’s playing was more classical – Chopin, Beethoven, Liszt – because she studied music and her playing was noticeably finer and easy to listen to.

While much of my CD collection today consists of classical piano, a close second is classical guitar. Back in my high school years, television started in South Africa and for the first time I was exposed to the beauty of this gorgeous instrument. I saw programmes on Julian Bream and, closer to home, Tessa Ziegler and Dave Hewitt. I bought a classical guitar and tried to learn to play like them, but oh, how hard it was! Much better to listen and appreciate those who truly could play.

Around that time, my father used to make movies, and he had many movie soundtracks in his record collection. I remember buying the double LP of the music from Star Wars, and being quite surprised that it was so heavily classical. That now famous score by John Williams was even more epic than the movie, and I realised for the first time just how perfectly a full orchestral soundtrack can add to the feel of a film. Much later, I saw how I too could add to the book in my head by underscoring it with richer, more classical music.

Long before I started writing, back in the days when I lived in Johannesburg, I had three radios in my flat, all tuned to Classic FM. As I walked from one room to another, the music followed me so I never missed a note. When I enjoyed a piece I had never heard before, I listened to the announcer afterwards, wrote down the names of the composer and the music, and looked for it on CD the next time I was in Musica or Look & Listen. Thus I built up my collection.

Once I left Johannesburg, I couldn’t hear that radio station any more (long before the days of live-streaming, of course!) so my CD collection was my comfort in a city where the local radio stations didn’t play music I enjoyed. My home was small so one device playing a CD in the main room could be heard all over the cottage.

Listening to classical music has always relaxed me, reminding me of those lazy Sunday afternoons as a child, piano music forever in the background. When I began to write, I found that music formed a natural, harmonious background. My first attempt at writing was a novel based on my family’s history, so maybe the musical connection to the family piano was relevant on that level too.

As time went on and I wrote other novels, I tried to find music appropriate to the themes of each book. I discovered the Putumayo series when writing my novel set in Greece. Hours and hours were spent listening to Putumayo’s Greece: A Musical Odyssey. I had no idea what they were singing about, but I loved hearing it, and it helped my own words to flow.

Similarly, when I wrote my novel set in Italy, I had plenty to choose from, including loads of opera, plus the wonderful vocal instruments of Andrea Bocelli and Amaury Vassili.

My most recent novel is set in two different times and places. The contemporary thread is set in modern-day Australia, where both the main characters play the piano in a small jazz bar.

Piano music again – gosh, imagine that!

The historical thread was a little more complicated. This is set in 1960s South Africa, mostly up in the mountains of the Drakensberg. Originally this section was set in Peru, and while I had some beautiful music from South America, I found it impossible to write convincingly about a place I hadn’t been to, so I moved the location to Africa.

There is no shortage of African music in my collection, but the two characters in that part of the novel have a poignant story that is dogged by separation and loss, so the music in my head had to match. The sad classical music I chose was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. This is a long-time favourite and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I own no less than seven different copies of that haunting second movement.

My current WIP is set in post-war Britain in 1955, so once again I get to hear my father’s big band jazz favourites from that era. However, there is an older storyline as well, and I’m still searching through my collection to find something that best suits the words in my head.

Writers and readers out there, do you enjoy listening to music as you write or read? If so, what puts you in the right mood?

Five Years Down the Road

Five years ago yesterday, I began constructing my own website. At the time, I had been thinking about this for more than half a year. As a novelist with one eBook self-published on Amazon in December 2011, the next logical step was to get my name “out there” by creating some sort of author platform.

Six months before, I had discussed this with my three trusty writing buddies. We all had full-time jobs and we were all writing novels or novellas, so none of us had much spare time available. I suggested that together we start some kind of blog to give us a little exposure on the World Wide Web. If each of us wrote a post once a month, then together the site would have a new post once a week. We decided that this was manageable.

Thus, Scribbling Scribes was born in February 2012.

Within the next few months I decided that I needed my own website as well. We had begun Scribbling Scribes on Weebly, and the process was simple, so that was the platform I chose for my website. I launched the eBook version of my novella on Amazon on June 8, 2012, and began building my website on Weebly the very next day. Less than two weeks later, my website went live, on June 21.

I had great fun constructing all the pages – my bio, my favourite books about writing, the blurbs of my two books (including links to their product pages on Amazon), other links to my Goodreads and Amazon author pages, and a gallery with some of the photos used as inspiration during the writing of those books. I also constructed a contact form so that visitors to my website could get in touch with me. And they have. I’ve had messages from far and wide, friends both new and old.

Before the launch of my third book a few months later, I started a blog on the same website, to keep readers informed of my writing progress.

Two years on, we moved Scribbling Scribes to WordPress, and within three months I had migrated my blog to WordPress as well, but I kept the archive on my website. I also started a second blog about working in the theatre industry, but since leaving that industry two years ago I don’t often post on it any more.

So how has my writing career progressed in the five years since I started my website? Feast and famine, it must be admitted. The fourth novel took ages to write and was finally uploaded as an eBook exactly a year ago today. My excuse is that I was distracted by moving house twice in South Africa, before the giant move from there to Australia, where it has taken me a while to find my feet.

My fifth novel is half-written; the second half slipped into the background of my life while I was trying to get a job, and it has stayed there while I juggle two of them, one of which is a writing job.

All in all, I’m happy with where I am in life at the moment, but I do wish things would move a bit faster because I seem to be growing older. (How did that happen?!) However, I refuse to stand still and wait. I am trying to wring as much as I can out of life in general.

When my new boss found out my age (he’s twenty years older than I am), he told me I was a spring chicken and had at least another thirty years of work ahead of me. I wonder if that means he intends to keep me employed there for all of them…

Those who follow this blog regularly will know that I regard every experience in life as research for future novels, so let’s just say that I’m doing an awful lot of research at the moment!

Life as a Shopgirl and Pen-for-Hire

My circumstances have finally changed. In the last month I have gone from being unemployed and fairly desperate, to being partially employed in two places. Ah, the relief!

Since October last year I have been volunteering for an organisation which helps the needy. I work in their shop three afternoons a week, sorting, pricing and selling donated goods. I enjoy it and I have made some good friends while getting some much needed retail experience. Some of the volunteers have also worked in a nearby fresh food shop, and one of them told me to apply there, because the owners always seemed to need people. I did, and I was taken on for three days a week. I have now been gainfully employed there for two weeks, and yesterday I received my first payment. Yay!

So what’s it like being employed again after all this time? It feels fantastic. Rude jokes about Shopgirls and Checkout Chicks don’t touch me – it’s great to have a job!

In my last blog-post I wrote a little about my new internet writing experience. Having completed the first month’s contract, I can honestly say that it’s been fun too. Here’s how that all happened:

I applied to an internet writing site about six months ago. This is a site which supplies daily content to its various clients around the world. They have writers on their books from America, Canada, the UK and Australia. At the time, they didn’t have any vacancies for writers in Australia, but in January that changed. They asked me for a sample piece, which I wrote and sent to them. They liked it enough to put me on their waiting list until they had a contract. I was told that this typically takes three to four months.

I forgot about it in the Greater Job Search, but in April they offered me a contract for 10 short articles, to be delivered at intervals until the end of that month. Payment is always at the end of the following month, so I would only be paid for these at the end of May. I agreed.

This type of work has been a new experience for me. It’s a challenge that I’ve enjoyed, and it’s helped me to flex my long-dormant writing brain, which is always a good feeling. Basically, I have to find news from certain suburbs where their client has branches, write a set number of words about it, including at least one of their specified keywords. I spend a lot of time scouring the internet looking for what sometimes seems impossible, and then construct a short piece about it. Each one takes me about two days to find the news, and half a day to write the piece. When it’s done I start on the next.

After I had sent off the first few, they offered me an extra four because another of their Australian writers had a temporary problem. I took it on, probably against my better judgement because (as we all know) I am not a fast writer.

It was a bit nerve-wracking, but the good news is that I managed to deliver my full fourteen articles on time, and now I have another fourteen articles to deliver in May. And money at the end of it.

My poor novel is still a work-in-progress, but now that the Job Search is out of my head, I am open to ideas again. My notebook goes everywhere with me, because researching life is also researching for my writing.

At this stage I’m not sure what the future holds for me in Australia, but it’s certainly looking a whole lot better than it did just a month ago. I’m writing, I’m earning, and I’m happy!

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 7: When Life Gets in the Way

One of the greatest joys in my life is to be able to sit down and work on my current novel. I like nothing more than to have an empty day stretching ahead of me, plenty of tea and a few tasty snacks to nibble. I love to huddle over my computer with two cats nudging each other out of the way for lap space, and my head in another world for hours on end as I take my characters ever closer to the final page’s sail into the sunset. Sheer bliss!

Unfortunately, reality intrudes. Life gets in the way for all of us, and while that’s not a bad thing, it can be frustrating when you’re trying to keep track of a tenuous work-in-progress.

This is one of the reasons why I like to have my novel’s working outline constantly close at hand. Even if I haven’t written anything in weeks, all I need at the start of a long-overdue writing session is a few minutes to glance over the outline and read my notes about which piece of it I worked on last time, then I’m back in the hot seat, fired up and ready to go.

Sadly, that hasn’t happened for a while now.

Before April started, I signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo, in a determined attempt to add to the word count of my as-yet-unfinished first draft. All I had to do was find time to write about 1000 words a day. Halfway through the month, I had to reduce my target to 700 words a day, but I have still failed. We all have our excuses, and here are mine:

First, the job I supposedly got back in March was snatched from me at the eleventh hour. I still don’t know what happened, but it seems to have been a combination of bureaucracy and a faulty message system. Suffice it to say that I had to start all over again from scratch, looking for a new job. Disheartening to say the least!

Second, a writing contract that I applied for back in January came up at last. Ten small articles online, but it’s quite fun and a good chance to stretch my writing muscles in new ways. (Plus there’s a little bit of money to be made, which is very welcome.) So instead of writing anything else, I have spent the last two weeks searching for material for the client’s business, and each article I write takes me about a day longer than it should. I will get faster, so they keep telling me…

Third, in answer to my ever-lengthening quest for a job, I have been given the chance to prove myself in a busy fresh food store, with a few casual shifts per week to bring in some much-needed money. I trained today and will start officially tomorrow.

Suddenly life has got in the way of writing. I’m very grateful that at last I can start to get my life back on track and move forward. But where does this leave me, writing-wise?

No need to panic. I’ve got this sorted. I’m going to carry on as before. I’m adaptable. I’m a writer, after all. It will just take me a little longer.

While I can’t always stay glued to the computer, that doesn’t mean I have to stop thinking about my story, its characters and their situation. I will always remain open to new bits of research that serendipitously drop into my lap from time to time. I believe in synchronicity with writing. Whether we attract things to us, or they find us by chance is not important here. What is important is that odd ideas pop into the heads of writers all the time, particularly when injected with the stimulation from a new work environment.

My blog-writing and my newsletter-writing have been halted as well as my novel-writing, but I’ll get back on track just as soon as I can sort out and adapt to my new schedule. And I’m sure my writing will be the richer for it in the long run.

Bear with me. I will return…