Tag Archive | Amelia Peabody

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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Just a Dash of Serious…

One of the reviews I received on Amazon for my first novel The Epidaurus Inheritance ended with the line: “This might be to the taste of those who like their adventures more Hallmark channel than cable, which is perfectly fine, but this just didn’t ring true to me.” At first I was hurt by this, until I realised that the reviewer had a good point. I had obviously categorised my book in the wrong genre.

My novels are not serious. I write ditzy heroines who step in a bit too deep and have to sink or swim. There is always a macho flawed hero who reluctantly helps out the heroine against his better judgement, or against hers. And yes, as I have said on my website: I do like happy endings. I enjoy writing something that is far-fetched but I’m not the next Dan Brown. I don’t like violence – neither in real life nor on my screen (be it Kindle or TV), so I suppose I am a Hallmark kind of a gal.

I have a close friend who, after reading that first novel of mine, introduced me to the works of Mary Stewart. I was delighted to find a writer who not only wrote the kind of stuff that I love to read, but the kind of stuff that I love to write as well. Bearing in mind the negative review I had received on Amazon I went back to my book’s product page and re-worded my blurb so as to leave a prospective reader in no doubt that my book is “a light holiday read with a mixture of adventure, mystery and romance, written in the genre pioneered by Mary Stewart – Romantic Suspense.”

A year or so later, the same friend who had introduced me to the Mary Stewart books (let’s call her L) lent me an Amelia Peabody book, written by the wonderful Elizabeth Peters. I have since worked my way through almost the entire series – some of them twice. I just love that family of Edwardian Egyptologists! They get into scrapes between the pyramids, discovering both ancient mummies and fresh corpses, all against the backdrop of the First World War and the days before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb.

My own novels always feature a South African woman travelling in exotic places, and stumbling across some crime or mystery to solve; a sort of fish-out-of-water story in which she has to rely on her South African wits to stay ahead of the Bad Guy. The latest of these is slightly different in that this protagonist has already settled in Australia but discovers some unfinished family history and has to return to South Africa to solve it, bringing with her an Australian who is now the fish out of water. I have been getting good feedback from beta readers on this WIP, but one of those came as a bit of a shock.

My friend L didn’t finish reading it because the South African situation depressed her too much. I was disappointed at first, and then I realised that I was actually disappointed in me, not in her. At first she avoided telling me until finally we thrashed it out last week. (Okay, maybe I bullied her just a little bit. Sorry, L!) The main reason for L’s dislike of my novel was a lot more useful to me than the nice things she had said about my characters.

I have realised three things from this:

One: I am a bad friend and shouldn’t bully people. I had strayed from the straight and narrow path!

Two: I had strayed from my writing path too. I don’t like serious writing. I never have, never will, and I should probably not have tried to bring more depth to my novel than the bare essential backstory I usually include. L, besides getting me onto reading both Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters, is herself a writer of fantasy and sci-fi which is the ultimate in escapist reading. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not implying that L’s stuff is light and fluffy. Far from it. It’s a lot more complicated than anything I write.

Personally I don’t read sci-fi because I struggle to understand the technological bits, and my version of fantasy seems to be a genre or two removed from the accepted definition of that word. The Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters books that I have read so far are neither fantasy nor sci-fi, but both writers have penned far-fetched adventures; escapist stuff which is definitely my cup of tea.

Heavy South African literature is not. There are plenty of excellent South African writers who are brilliant at that type of stuff, but I am clearly not in their bracket and nor do I want to be.

Three: I should just stick to what I’m good at: light-hearted, frivolous romantic stuff with a bit of a mystery to solve and some interesting places to explore along the way. I need to return to my MS with a keen critical eye and examine just how heavy and depressing the text is. It’s good to have a bit of gravitas, but how much is too much? So far, my readers seem to enjoy the light-hearted adventures of The Epidaurus Inheritance and Benicio’s Bequest and so do I. That’s why they read them and that’s why I write them. However, the light-hearted stuff often needs to contrast against a darker background. So that’s what I’m going to be looking at in my eighth draft. I don’t want to lose the South African flavour, but perhaps it needs to be added with a lighter touch. After all, to my overseas readers, South Africa is a foreign, exotic place.

Like many South Africans, I find myself bogged down in our day-to-day struggle against crime, corruption, unemployment and poverty. My friend L isn’t the only one who wants her reading to take her away from it. All my life I have enjoyed reading books that take me elsewhere.

I guess the word “elsewhere” is the key. I don’t want to go to other planets or battle scientific things I don’t understand. Neither do I want to meet supernatural, paranormal beings whose worlds I don’t believe in, but I do want to go somewhere slightly exotic on this planet and have adventures that I wouldn’t normally have in my own life, but which could be believable if the world was a kinder, more romantic place.

I’m not averse to killing off a character or two along the way of course, but most of the time they have been written in purely for that purpose and the odd shocking death moves the story along, cranks up the tension and helps to increase the reader’s belief in the serious evil of the Bad Guy.

What I’m saying is that I like far-fetched stuff, with just a dash of serious. The question is: how much is a dash?

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