Tag Archive | plot

Life is Like A Novel. . . Sometimes

I’ve been doing a fair bit of research into novel structure lately, while trying to get my life on track and back into some kind of routine. However, not much in my life seems to be running according to plan, despite my best intentions. Exasperated, at one point I silently declared that my life was like a bad novel because everything kept going wrong.

And then I realised that this did not denote a bad novel, but an interesting one, full of drama, missed opportunities and plot changes which constantly evolve, thus motivating the characters to do something they might not have intended to do before.

(The only trouble with this plot is that it’s too indistinct and I have no idea where it’s all going to end up before the – I hope! – happy ending. Maybe this is how pantsers work?)

While it can be distressing to have too much drama in one’s actual life, this is the best thing for characters in novels. No one likes to read a novel about a character who has all his ducks in a row and his life perfectly planned, because that’s just too boring to read about. It’s fine to start a novel like this, but within a few pages there needs to be a catalyst that changes everything and throws all his plans into disarray, making him run constantly through the rest of the book, making new plans, troubleshooting, and generally trying to catch his breath before the next onslaught of plot points.

As writers, we have to capture the reader’s interest from the start, and then hold onto it while we fling them along the roller-coaster of the protagonist’s life, making then root and cheer with the highs, commiserate with the lows, and worry about the dangers.

All things considered, my life is not as dramatic and topsy-turvy as the lives I map out for the characters in my novels, but thinking about this did help me to put my own problems in perspective and give me a bit of distance from them.

It also gave me the motivation I needed to start thinking about my current WIP and what I’m going to throw at my characters in the New Year when I finally get time to carry on writing.

What about you? Does your life read like a bad novel? Or like an exciting one?

Anatomy of A Novel: Part 4: Outline


Drawing up the outline of what will be my next novel is one of the most exciting events in my writing process. This is because my outline is a mini version of the novel, the blueprint that keeps that novel on track from day one of writing until the bitter end, and it is the closest reflection of what that finished product will be like.

It also changes constantly throughout the writing process.

My outline is a seething mass of notes, colours and page references, an animated beast living on my computer where it is fed daily with the most up-to-date ideas, notes and questions, and it doesn’t rest until I push the button to publish the completed novel.

I know that many writers hate the idea of an outline because they believe that it stunts creativity and ties the author to a dull plan, rather like a prison sentence. I can understand why they feel that, but I prefer to think of my outline as a road map.

If you plan a road trip between two cities, it makes sense to research all the possible stops along the way, print out some maps and have a rough itinerary with an end date, notes about where to buy petrol, and a few ideas about the places you’d like to visit.

For me, a really good road trip is not a race to see how fast you can get to the next city, but a meandering adventure in which you explore many places along the way, stopping unexpectedly in small towns you might never have heard of but which beg further investigation because they look interesting. Likewise there will be places you thought sounded good on paper, but on reaching them, you decide to move along and see what else the road offers.

Before I became a writer, I used to think that a novel was just a very long short story; an extended version of a single idea, a single goal, a single concept. But a novel gets boring if it’s nothing more than an over-lengthy short story. When you read a book which bores you and you can’t quite put your finger on why, it’s usually because nothing new happens in the emotional development of the characters. They may reach their goals but it takes them so long to do so, that the reader is bored by the end and no longer invested in the story.

The secret is to have the characters’ goals constantly changing along the way. This is not to say that the characters are unable to make up their minds, but rather that circumstances around them keep interfering, blurring their focus, and forcing them to adapt to new problems.

For a good story, the goals of each character have to be buffeted by the machinations of the plot, and the emotional reactions of those characters to the plot make them constantly re-think their original goals. Just as they settle into a new path, the next plot development shifts those goalposts again, and they have to adjust once more.

And so on. The combination of external plot conflicts and characters whose motivations keep changing to form new goals, is what makes the reader want to keep turning those pages until it all comes together in the end with all the characters emerging older, wiser and hopefully better off than when they started.

Yes, it’s that simple. But also very complicated, which is why someone like me needs to have a proper outline before she can start to write the novel.

So how do I do this? My first step is to copy and paste my one-page synopsis into a new blank document, embolden all the major plot points – the places where external plot conflicts have a knock-on effect for one or more characters. Then I write a few lines beneath each plot point about the effect it has on the characters concerned. How do they react emotionally? How do their motivations change? How does this affect the evolution of the previous goal? Are there any new developments to insert into the story, either at this point or later on?

Once I’ve done this, I modify the document into an outline, and I start looking for possible cliff-hangers and high notes on which to end the chapters. Each chapter is given a number, and the name of the character from whose point-of-view the action is to be seen. When it all makes sense and reads like a mini novel, I’m ready to start writing.

As I write my first draft, I have two MS Word documents open on my computer the whole time – the outline to refer to, and the manuscript I am writing. As I follow the basic points listed on the outline for each chapter, I make a note of what page each chapter starts on, and how many pages each chapter is. In the manuscript itself, I always start each chapter on a new page, using the “Page break before” facility.

The outline grows as the novel grows, because on it I make daily notes about the text, such as new ideas or questions that I feel the characters might need to ask themselves. I also keep a general tally of my word count and the dates on which I finish each draft.

The most exciting thing about an outline is that it remains a living, breathing, evolving animal with its own way of telling the story. Despite working this out as far as possible before I start the actual writing of the novel, it will constantly change, so my outline is never printed out. The length of each chapter can adjust daily, so the number of pages in each chapter is adjusted on the outline as I work. This means that, at any time when I need to insert a new idea into the text I can pinpoint almost the exact page I need within a certain chapter, without having to scroll through more than three or four pages.

As the drafts mount up I get adventurous with highlighting on the outline. Bits that need to be researched, expanded or fixed are highlighted in red. I keep track of flashbacks or historical sections in different time frames by highlighting those chapter headings in the outline in either blue or green. If I have more than one point-of-view character, each has their chapter headings on the outline highlighted in a different colour too.

As I write drafts, every second draft consists of a light read-through, in which I make only slight adjustments to small things, and add more notes to the outline (in red) about what needs work in the following draft.

Some writers give each chapter a new document, but that would be too confusing for me. I like to have a sense of the whole thing at all times, and my outline and way of working allow me to do that.

I know every writer is different, but this is what works for me. If you are a writer, what works best for you? If you’re a reader, what is your opinion? I’d be interested to hear.

Dredging Up the Dreaded Trunk Novels of the Past

We all have them, it seems. All writers have Trunk Novels – those first few novels that were lovingly, earnestly written in the hope of landing an agent, a publisher and eventually, book-world domination. Only they never quite made it. They might have been toted around various agents and publishers, were probably read by the writer’s nearest and dearest (usually under duress) and finally relegated to the old tin trunk beneath the bed or in the attic, never to be read again.

In the olden days of typewriters these would have been actual paper manuscripts. Over-long, heavy volumes either bound with brads, rubber bands or slipped between the covers of a thick lever-arch file. When excavated by the writer some years later (or his next-of-kin some decades later) these yellowed pages covered with brown spots and blurred typewritten sentences would conjure up romantic fantasies of undiscovered brilliance and success anew.

In the modern age these trunk novels are more likely to be old files on the computer’s drive. In some case they will have been deleted or lost when the writer bought a new computer, but the sentimental writers among us transfer them along with the newer writing for old times’ sake. An unread reminder of what once fired us up.

The sad truth is that all trunk novels – old style and new – are usually mundane, excessively detailed, badly-written, boring stories that are laden with backstory that is of no interest to anyone apart from the author, and are likely to send the reader nowhere but to sleep. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – all writers need them.

Trunk novels belong in the trunk for a reason. They are the practice runs, never to be witnessed by the public.

Think of a world-renowned concert pianist practising scales: people are not going to pay to listen to a concert pianist practise those scales, but if he doesn’t practise them, the audience won’t come to listen to the work that he plays really well. And he plays his concert work well because of those hours he’s spent practising his scales. But this doesn’t mean that we need to hear them.

The theory with writing is that you cannot call yourself a writer until you have written a million words. And then some. But this doesn’t mean that that the world has to read them. It does, however, mean that we need to write those million words in earnest, believing in them and hoping for them, expecting success and acknowledgement from our peers. When it doesn’t happen, we retreat into our caves, throw our magnum opus into a bottomless pit (or trunk) and resolve never to let the world see us bleed again.

Or not. Those who are cowed and take up something different may find their happiness in another direction, but those of us who are meant to write will keep at it, despite the odds. We all benefit from a little encouragement. And trunk novels are no different.

A trunk novel is the first step taken by the baby, the early banging of notes on the family piano, and the finger-painted daubs that we stick on our fridges long before our children show any no signs of developing into a modern Van Gogh or Picasso. The trunk novel represents the test papers from old school exams written in our teens – back when we tried hard but perhaps failed to impress. They are the school essays and projects that a kind teacher marked with the words “Shows promise” or the report card that gave us marks for effort, with the words “Continues to improve but must work harder.”

Where would we be if all those parents, teachers and mentors had smacked the child for its unsteady steps, shouted down his first discordant notes on the piano, or torn up her daubs instead of attaching them to the fridge? We’d be lost, and probably useless at everything else too by now, because we would no longer believe in ourselves.

A writer I know who does pottery once said that she was not afraid to display her slightly uneven ceramic bowls and vases in her house, so why shouldn’t we self-publish our written art and give it to family and friends as gifts? A valid point indeed about self-publishing.

The problem with worldwide e-book self-publishing is that it may be akin to putting our uneven ceramics or our children’s fridge art in a national gallery alongside the Picassos and Van Goghs. This would naturally invite ridicule, since the first attempts will always be poorer than the later work which is done when the writer has honed his craft. If you want your work out there, you must be ready to swim against the strong currents of life and be able to dodge the sharks.

People have asked me why I don’t put my early works – my trunk novels – on Amazon too. My answer is because those works are not ready. They never were. They were the practice runs, the early daubs not to be exhibited in the gallery. Not meant for ridicule and certainly not ready to be seen until they have been totally rewritten.

I have tried rewriting them before. Every now and then I get all fired up over doing this because I take a quick look at the first few chapters and decide that they’re not so bad.

Usually I get about seven chapters in and then give up because I get bored. And I know that if I get bored, my readers will be bored too. The task, it seems, is always insurmountable.

I started my first novel back in 2004 and dabbled with it over the next three years, then sent it out into the world to look for a publisher. While waiting for success and book-world domination on the basis of that novel I began the second. When the first was repeatedly rejected, I sent out the second and began rewriting the first. When the second was rejected I sent the newly rewritten first one out again and threw myself into rewriting the second…

You can see where this is going, right?

I must have clocked up close to a million words by the time I eventually, in 2009, enrolled in a creative writing course, determined to learn how to fix my unwanted novels. I started a new project for that writing course, and yes – I did learn a lot. I also learnt that some sow’s ears will never turn into silk purses no matter how much re-writing you do. At the end of 2009 I began a totally new novel in an exotic Greek setting with a plot that actually went somewhere and a handful of quirky characters who bit and scratched at each other and were not perfect.

Bingo! A million words done and I had found the secret. The first two novels were relegated to the trunk and my new Greek novel went out into the world to look for an agent and publisher while I began writing the fourth, set this time in another exotic location – Italy – and with an exciting plot about art forgery and kidnapping, with another bunch of quirky, obstinate and imperfect characters.

After eighteen months and a very encouraging rejection letter from Penguin (who took eleven of those months to read and reject it), I knew that my Greek novel was ready for the rest of the world so I uploaded it onto Amazon. It’s in the world wide gallery now, up against the Van Goghs and Picassos of the writing world, and most people don’t even know it’s there, but I’m proud of it and glad that I gave my first million words to my other unsung children first, so that this one could go to places that my first two would never see.

The following year my Italian novel went onto Amazon as well. It’s also there in the world wide gallery trying to keep its head above the water in a sea of Correggios and Titians (not to mention a few sharks as well) and it’s doing okay too. The novella I wrote for my creative writing course slipped silently into place between its two bigger siblings, and in a few months’ time I hope to have their Australian sibling swimming in the same ocean, fighting for its survival too.

I’m past the point where my books are only for friends and relatives to be nice about. I’m willing to take the risk, and so far the response has been good. I’m not ready to give up my day job yet, but I do love my interesting hobby and I feel confident that my books are bringing a measure of entertainment and fun into the lives of readers around the world, even if there are not many of them.

As far as my two trunk children are concerned, I would like to give them a chance as well, but not until they’ve both been totally rewritten. Back in April this year I started with the first one again – you can read my blog-post about it here.

This time I took a different approach. I ignored the 110 000 word text and went straight for the jugular in the chapter outline. It’s a lot easier to hack around at an 8-page outline than a 284-page manuscript! I also put each of my characters through a rigorous Myers-Briggs Personality Test to see exactly what characteristics they might be drawn to in others, and why the members of the historical family fight each other so much. I also discovered what the modern characters were likely to do under certain circumstances. Sometimes their choices surprised me, but I went with what they chose and it all added to the plot.

Exotic settings? Yes: London and Africa. Engaging, action-filled plot? Yes, I’ve shortened the timeline, increased the stakes and thrown in some nasty complications. Quirky characters riddled with flaws? Yes, and this time they are active, pissed off and bubbling with hidden agendas.

These guys are determined to leave their own mark on the world wide gallery, and can’t wait to romp with their siblings in the shark-infested ocean. But first I have to rewrite the whole thing, starting at page one…