Fantastical Worlds and How to Write Them

YA author and Academy alumna Holly Race gives us her top tips on creating a believable world for your fantasy novel

Writing is hard enough at the best of times, isn’t it? You have to forge characters, hammer out a plot, painstakingly etch out tens of thousands of words. And when you’ve done that, you’ve got to edit them all, often many times over.

Every genre has its specific challenges, but my preferred poison is fantasy. Creating an entirely new world, subject to its own rules, laws and history, can be incredibly intimidating. It’s one of the reasons why it took me nearly a decade to finish Midnight’s Twins, a YA fantasy set between our world and the dream world.

From the start, I knew that I wanted the dream world to be a magical alternate universe; one where unicorns grazed in Richmond Park, where subconscious fears would take tangible form; and where being killed in our nightmares would mean dying in the real world too.

But I knew I’d have to do a lot more world-building if my dream world, Annwn, was going to feel believable. I spent long nights poring over my favourite fantasy books, trying to work out how the authors made their worlds feel rich, relatable and unique. It took me ages to figure out that I shouldn’t be trying to create my world independently of the rest of my book. The best fantasy stories – just like non-fantasy – have plots and characters that are interwoven with their worlds. You couldn’t have one without the other two; they work together like a Rubik’s cube – sometimes you need to shift a line of red to make all the blue come together.

Here’s a few tips that I picked up in those ten years. If you’re stuck on your fantasy, I hope you’ll find them helpful!

Make your world recognisable

We all want our stories to be original, but it’s easy to forget that relatability is just as important. Without that, a reader won’t be able to sink into the story. Look at almost any fantasy novel and you will see that there’s always at least one recognisable element. Philip Pullman hangs the world of His Dark Materials off ideas of faith, souls and redemption. Jordan Ifueko’s Raybearer is inspired by West African mythology, while Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire series is based on Malaysian folklore. Perhaps there’s a particular story you’re passionate about – one that could give you the bones of a plot or a world to flesh out with your voice. A Throne of Swans by Katharine and Elizabeth Corr is based on Swan Lake, for example, while Dangerous Remedy by Kat Dunn is a retelling of Les Miserables. Maybe you’re more interested in a particular historical period, as in A Song of Ice and Fire.

With Midnight’s Twins, I turned to my childhood love of Arthurian and Celtic folklore and my teenage interest in The Faerie Queene. Suddenly my world had a millennia-old history, a hook that readers would instantly recognise, and a vocabulary borrowed from Old Welsh.

Don’t be afraid to mine your own interests for material for your world building. It won’t make your work feel derivative. Instead, it will give readers something satisfying and recognisable to cling onto.

Approach story problems from a different angle

Plot, character and world are – or should be – intertwined with each other. When you’ve got the balance between them right, you shouldn’t be able to pull on one thread without unravelling the other two (yes, this does make editing very tricky indeed – a game of constantly moving parts!)

My favourite example of this is a very short book called Clockwork by Philip Pullman. It’s set in a dark, steampunk world, following three storylines: a king who will do anything to keep his ailing son alive; a clockmaker’s apprentice who is out of time to create his masterpiece; and a warm-hearted barmaid who will give anything to keep a dying boy alive. As the title suggests, each of these storylines is a cog in a beautifully engineered story machine, although it isn’t until the final scenes that we start to understand just how cleverly interconnected those mechanisms are. I would highly recommend reading it, if you haven’t.

How does knowing this make world-building easier? Well, it means that if you get stuck on one element of your story, it can often help to look at another element instead. If you feel more confident with your characters, then use them as the way into your world. For example, in Bex Hogan’s Viper, the heroine Marianne has been brought up believing that she is heir to a great pirating legacy. Most of the main cast of the novel are pirates as well. It stands to reason, then, that the world of Viper is largely maritime. Thus, Marianne’s father is the leader of a pirating force that terrorises the seas surrounding an archipelago. There would be no point in Marianne being heir to a force that oversees a tiny, insignificant ocean. In creating a watery world where control of the seas means control of an empire, Bex has effectively raised the stakes for Marianne to their highest point.

Similarly, when I realised that my ‘villain’ wasn’t quite working, I stopped thinking about the character and turned to the dream world. What was the worst thing that could happen to that world? Bingo – I had my villain’s master plan.

Write the story first, not the world

Sometimes it’s tempting to dive head-first into your new world and try to work out every detail before you start to write. Some writers might find that exciting. Some might find it overwhelming. I vary between the two, depending on my mood. But I’ve always done my best world-building when I’ve been focused on writing the book. 

Like any theoretical structure, unless you’re a master engineer it’s difficult to know for sure that something’s going to work until you actually make it. You might think that you’ve got a brilliant, fantasy solution for something in your world, but you may find that when you actually come to write it, it doesn’t really work. My dream world is powered by imagination, and at first I designed three different kinds of ‘inspyre’, as it is known. When I was writing it, though, it became clear that having three distinct types was far too confusing! It was a bitter pill to swallow because I had spent quite some time working out the purposes of the different inspyres, and even longer picking out names from an Old Welsh lexicon. But in streamlining the world, the story became a lot easier to follow.

Try to resist the temptation to figure out every detail of your world before you start writing. As much as anything, it’s easy to use world-building as a form of procrastination – it may feel as though you’re ‘writing’, but you’re not really! Go in with some ideas, of course, but be willing to troubleshoot on the fly.

Resist the urge to show us everything

This is less of a problem in adult or high fantasy, where longer word counts are the norm and a slower pace is expected, but in YA fantasy where a quicker pace is demanded, it’s impossible to show all the facets of a richly conceived world in a maximum of 100,000 words. That may seem like a lot of words when you’ve only got 10,000 in the bag, but it’s nothing when it comes to fantasy! At one point Midnight’s Twins ballooned to 140,000 words because I wanted to show as much of Annwn as possible – it was very painful cutting nearly a third of the novel!

Try to restrict yourself to only showing the parts of the world that your characters need to encounter for the plot. Don’t be tempted to take them on a superficial journey just to show off your world, either. That doesn’t mean that you can’t hint at a wider world in passing conversations or comments – those moments are always a delight to read because they reassure the reader that you know your world inside-out. You can always explore it more in a sequel – or leave it to your readers’ imaginations. It’s the literary equivalent of showing a little ankle.

Check your cogs are working

Once you have your first draft, do what all the books and blogs and writing coaches tell you to and put it away for a few weeks. When you re-read it, make sure to pay attention to the world when you make your notes and start to edit. It can be really easy to forget about this element because most of the time it’s in the background – it’s part of the scenery by its very nature.

Pay attention to whether the elements you were proud of are really working or whether they’re extraneous to the action. Ask yourself whether you needed to take us to that new setting or whether you only took us there because it’s really cool – if you realise it’s the latter, don’t necessarily cut it! Think instead about whether there’s a way of integrating that setting more into the scene – can you make whatever’s happening integral to that particular place? In the sequel to Midnight’s Twins, I wanted to show more of the dream world, so I made my character uncover something that had wider implications, necessitating a ‘tour’ of the country. In The Hunger Games, we only ever hear about the other districts. In Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins is able to show us the districts through the victory tour – and gives it a deeper purpose by showing the start of the unrest in Panem.

That’s it! Those are my top five tips if you’re stuck on your fantasy novel. Fantasy can be a really tough genre to write, but when you get the world, character and plot working in unison, it’s also one of the most satisfying. Good luck in your quests, and may all your plot dragons be friendly!

Holly Race is now a full-time writer, but she used to work in TV and film script development, for companies like Red Planet Pictures, Aardman Animations and Working Title. She is a graduate of our Writing a Novel course, and Midnight’s Twins is her debut novel and the first in a trilogy. Holly lives in Cambridge with her husband and daughter. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, trying not to kill plants, and travelling to far off places at short notice.

Midnight’s Twins is published by Hot Key Books and is available in paperback and ebook now. 

How to Overcome the Imposter Syndrome Gremlin

Author Nicola Jackson and life coach Teresa Wilson, co-writers of Seven Creative Gremlins, reveal how to get past that nagging feeling that you’re not good enough

So, you’re ready to begin your novel. You’ve got an idea that you’re really excited about and you’re starting to think about getting your thoughts down on paper. There’s no harm in having a go, right? And you don’t actually have to tell anyone you’re doing it. What could possibly go wrong?

Right on cue, up stomps your Imposter Syndrome Gremlin, bellowing, ‘Write something? You? HA! Are you kidding me? You’re not a writer!’

We all have Creative Gremlins – pesky internal critics that seek to derail our writing journey. In our book, Seven Creative Gremlins, we’ve identified the main offenders that can prevent writers from starting, sticking with or finishing a creative project. 

Imposter Syndrome Gremlin is usually the first to crop up and often targets new writers; those who have been eyeing up a creative pursuit for many years but haven’t yet had the courage to do anything about it. Such writers, being inexperienced, are very vulnerable to this Gremlin’s harshly negative schtick. 

The Imposter Syndrome Gremlin can be so hurtful and so convincing that, after hearing its merciless judgement, many aspiring writers immediately put their creative projects away for good, mortified that they ever had the audacity to think they could be a writer in the first place.

But, then again, Imposter is an equal opportunities beast. It’ll target experienced writers, too, pointing out, ‘Sure, you managed to fool them before, but this time everyone’s going to realise that you don’t belong. Yeah, start that writing project but, just so you know, you’re wasting your time. In fact, you know what? Stop embarrassing yourself by trying to be a writer because everyone knows you’re a fake.’

Brutal. 

WHY THE IMPOSTER SYNDROME GREMLIN IS SO PERSUASIVE

Okay, now we’re aware that, just as we embark on a piece of writing, this Gremlin is likely to turn up and declare that we’re simply not up to the challenge. But why are we so eager to believe it? 

The short answer is, not believing you could be a writer may be connected to some limiting beliefs, stories from the past you’ve been carrying around unchallenged for years. There are two parts to this. The first is what you believe a writer to be. The second is what you believe yourself to be.

WHAT IS A WRITER, ANYWAY?

What do you picture when you think of a writer? Someone accomplished and at the top of their game, recognised and respected by the literary press? Someone making huge amounts of money from their work? Or perhaps you picture the starving artist, passionately and single-mindedly toiling over their art, but with a terrible personal life and a deepening alcohol problem? Whatever you imagine a writer to be, if you don’t fit the description it will be difficult for you to call yourself a writer. 

We prefer the OED’s definition of a writer: ‘A person who has written something or who writes in a particular way.’ Now, listen, we get it. Calling yourself a writer can feel very exposing so we’re not telling you to have it embossed on a T-shirt, get it put on your passport or announce it to strangers as your calling in life (unless you want to, in which case go for it). But what we are saying is that you could experiment with thinking of yourself as a writer – i.e. someone who writes. Because the truth is, you cannot wait to ‘feel like a writer’ before you begin. It is the beginning to write that turns you into a writer.

WHO AM I, ANYWAY?

If, when you think about writing, you start to feel anxious or uncomfortable, it might be that the action conflicts with the story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are. In your past, you may have developed a belief about yourself, others, or the world that clashes with the notion, ‘I am a writer.’ This means that, when you start to think it, you activate an earlier, contradictory thought and it makes you feel bad. The earlier thought could be something like ‘I’m not an imaginative person.’ Or ‘If I express myself, people will laugh.’ Or ‘I shouldn’t show off.’ Or ‘People from backgrounds like mine don’t do things like that.’ 

As our brains like to use the least amount of energy possible – and discomfort means expending energy – they prefer running old ‘maps of the world’ rather than investing the effort in creating new ones, meaning many of us are already primed not to believe we are writers or artists

GETTING PAST THE IMPOSTER SYNDROME GREMLIN

The important thing to realise is that everyone suffers from the Imposter Syndrome Gremlin at one stage or another, no matter how experienced they are. The trick isn’t to be such a ‘great’ writer that you never feel like an imposter (impossible). The trick is to expect the Imposter Syndrome Gremlin to turn up and to know how to tackle it when it does.  

Here are some things to try next time Imposter comes knocking.

Pay attention

Notice what is coming up for you when you think about starting your writing project. Tune in more closely to what you feel in your body. Physiological reactions are clues to what’s going on in your mind. If you feel tense or anxious, that’s fine. You’ve identified the Gremlin. You’re on the right track. Changing your limiting beliefs is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, but starting to become more aware of them can be a powerful first step.

Act as if

Does it serve you to hold the belief, ‘I am not a writer’? Does it help you create? If not, then switch the thought and act ‘as if’, even if you don’t believe the new thought yet. Every time you do something even slightly creative and then catch yourself feeling a sense of defeatism or disapproval, just switch your mindset and tell yourself, ‘I am a writer!’ You don’t have to believe it immediately, but just get used to countering your Gremlin as this will help you to understand that its voice is not your voice. 

Journal 

Pouring out a stream of consciousness onto the page, without censoring or judgement, is an incredible resource for anyone who wants to clear some space in their brains for the good stuff to appear. By developing the habit of regular journalling we strengthen our connection to our creativity and begin to reclaim the artist inside us. 

Eventually, once you notice this Gremlin popping up like clockwork every time to start to write, you can learn not to listen to its pointless negativity. You’ll understand that being a creative person does not require anyone’s permission. All it requires is action. After all, the only way to be a writer is to write.

This is an abridged excerpt from the book Seven Creative Gremlins: Write your way through doubt and fear to claim your creative life by Nicola Jackson and Teresa Wilson. 

There are many more Gremlins to look out for, from persuasive Procrastinator to haranguing Hyper-Critical, from terrorising Tyrant to snooty Too-Cool-For-School. Want to find out which Gremlin is derailing your writing journey and how to get past it? Take this one minute quiz

Find Nicola and Teresa at www.theunstoppableauthor.com. 

Book Haunting

by Rachel Morris

Has there ever been a book that has taken so long to be written?

For years the idea of it haunted me like the flicker of a shadow, a repeated, bittersweet realisation that there was something inside me I needed to say – if only I knew what it was.  So vague was this sensation – although also piercingly painful – that I didn’t even know what I was trying to write. Was it fiction or non-fiction, a novel, a short story, even a poem?  I had had two novels published (a long time previously) but they were relatively straightforward.  With them I knew from the start what I was writing.  Nothing had prepared me for being haunted by such a shadow of a feeling. 

And so I decided to forget about that slippery, indefinable something and to write instead a book about museums.  Museums are my day job so why shouldn’t I write about them?  

But although museums are full of solid things, they are also remarkably slippery to pin down, and the more I tried to do so the more they resisted me.  Until one day the book began to write itself and then I knew what it was that I wanted to say.  It was this, that just as museums are about making meaningful patterns out of the chaos of the universe, so – when it comes to our pasts, to our memories and the things that we inherit – we are all museum-makers, all seeking to make sense of our histories.  This was the slippery scent of something that had haunted me for years.  It was the mystery of my childhood, saying, Please write me.  

From this I learnt the first rule (for me) of storytelling. Never tell a book what to do.  The more you boss it around and tell it that it is this and this and this, the more it will resist you and the more formulaic it will become.  The book knows what it wants to be. Write from the heart and let the book take over.

That first realisation drove the first draft of the book.  Now at least I knew what I was writing – part memoir, part history, a quest, a detective story, an elegy to a lost past. There followed the most painful part of this process – the twenty-three agents to whom I sent that first draft, every one of whom sent it back with a ‘no’ – although about a third of them were helpful ‘no’s’ – enlarging on why it didn’t work, even regretting that they couldn’t publish it. 

I made myself read it again and found myself agreeing with them. It was indeed muddled, overblown, incoherent. Where to go from here?  With hindsight I did the best thing possible.  I signed up for a creative writing class – in fact to be exact a one-week writing course at the Faber Academy, led by Julia Blackburn.  

Julia used to give us a writing task and about seven minutes in which to do it.  Inevitably you spent the first two minutes in a panic before an idea came to you. From this process I learnt to trust my subconscious.  More particularly I learnt my second rule of storytelling: to keep it simple, keep it truthful and be prepared to edit. It’s amazing how much better writing can be when you take things out, not put them in.  That was the best money I ever spent.

After that I took a year and rewrote the book again.  But now I had a problem.   It is hard to enough to get an agent to read a book once; it was all but impossible to find anyone who would read a second version.  I had sent the book out too soon and had scuppered my chances.

Somehow  I came up with the solution which was to send it out to one of the new independent publishers that are springing up across the UK.  They, unlike the big publishers, will (at least sometimes) look at your work even if you don’t have an agent.  The first one I sent my book to was September Publishing. Hannah Macdonald is the publisher there. She snapped up my book within three days. 

And so I thought – of course I did – that the book was more or less finished.  I soon learnt how wrong I was.  Working with Hannah and Charlotte Cole, September’s editor, the book was edited from top to bottom; from the big questions, such as the narrative arc, down to the specific details of paragraphs and sentences.  This was the third thing I learnt, that there is a lifetime’s worth of skill and craft in the simple act of using words to tell a story.

The book is called The Museum Makers and it was published on 27 August with endorsements from Julia Blackburn and Dina Nayeri.  (Thank you, Julia and Dina.)  

Every book has its own journey to publication and some are long and some are short. Sometimes I wake in the night and think, If I’d known how long it would take would I ever have written this book?  And then I think, Well yes, of course I would, without a moment’s hesitation, just as – no doubt – I will write the next one that comes along to haunt me.

A director of the museum-making company Metaphor, Rachel Morris has been part of the creation, design and delivery of some of the most exciting displays, renovations and museums of the last few decades. Rachel is also the author of two novels. She was a student on our Five Days to Write a Life course. 

The Museum Makers is published by September Publishing and out now.

Q&A with S J Watson

In the latest in our series of Q&As over on Twitter, we were joined by bestselling superstar and Academy alumnus S J Watson. We celebrated the publication of his third novel, Final Cut, and had a good old natter about writing and the inspiration behind the book.

FA: Alright, let’s get started! Hi @SJ_Watson and huge congratulations on the publication of #FinalCut! Are you having a good publication day so far?

SJW: I’m having a great day, yes! Such a weird day – it’s a bit like having your birthday, Christmas day and your driving test all on the same day. But good!

FA: This is such a perfect description… Let’s start by talking about #FinalCut – can you tell us a bit about the story?

SJW: Yep! Final Cut sees a documentary film maker go to a remote seaside town to make her new film, which she intends to be an investigation of ordinary life, using footage shot by the people who live there. But, she learns of a girl, Daisy, who took her own life some years previously, and another who disappeared around the same time. Some of the villagers seem to think something went on, and might still be going on now. Alex gets sucked into the story and starts to notice some disturbing elements in the films people are sending in…

FA: Such a *brilliant* pitch. I know this is often a bit of a tricky one to pinpoint but do you know where the idea for it started?

SJW: A number of things came together for this one, rather than it being a ‘lightbulb’ moment. I was thinking about documentaries, and in particular true-crime docs, and how they’re often more unbelievable than fiction….That tied in with my thoughts about the modern-day urge to document and record everything, on Instagram, Twitter etc which led me to the film Life in a Day which came out a few years ago and consisted of footage sent in by people from all over the world. I then started thinking about other documentaries, and watched an amazing one called ‘Three Salons at the Seaside’. Then there were some photographers that did some work on voyeurism and surveillance. I made a short video about all these different things.

FA: It’s always so interesting hearing about those elements start layering themselves in… we’ve had a couple of questions about the writing process for the book. What’s your writing routine like, and has it changed between first, second and third novels?

SJW: Great question! It has changed, yes. I’ve become more of a planner with each book. #beforeigotosleep was pretty much unplanned, and I did a lot of work in the edit. #secondlife was kind of half and half and now with #finalcut I planned it in quite a lot of detail. As for my day-to-day routine, I work better in the mornings, so I try to get my creative work done then, and the afternoon is for admin etc. I aim for 1000 words a day when I’m writing; when I’m editing, things are much more fluid and it can really vary. I used to work every day, but that was EXTREMELY UNHELPFUL and I now allow myself a weekend. And the new thing with #finalcut was that I started doing street photography. I would write for a few hours, then take photos for a while. Each thing seemed to feed the other (if you’re interested, you can see my photographs on my Instagram page).

FA: That’s so interesting. Also, I love your photos on Instagram – I didn’t realise that was part of the process (you’re REALLY good at it!). Okay, we’ve just had another #FinalCut question pop in from @Jamesfan2: is the novel set in a fictional town?

SJW: Thank you! It’s really great having a creative outlet that isn’t my day job. And thank you @jamesfan2 for the question! Yes, it’s set in Blackwood Bay, which is entirely fictional… BUT heavily influenced/based on Robin Hood’s Bay, which is a beautiful village near Whitby. I decided to change the name and fictionalise it because some pretty terrible things happen in Blackwood Bay, and some pretty bad people live there.

FA: Haha I’m sure the people of Robin Hood’s Bay will be grateful! Okay, a qu now from our own lovely @JoannaBriscoe, who says: ‘I’d like to ask about the mental strength it must have taken to follow up a global bestseller’. How did you go about starting #SecondLife?

SJW: Actually, to be serious for a moment – it was kind of difficult. You have to write the first draft as if no one is going to read it, which suddenly became very hard to do. So I had to learn how to shut those voices out. It was tough, but, as I reminded myself, as problems go, ‘following up a global bestseller’ is quite a nice one to have!

FA: That is such a nice way of looking at it as yes, it must have been incredibly tough to shut that all out. Let’s skip back to before Before I Go to Sleep for a second: is there anything about the writing process you know now that you wish you’d known then?

SJW: Yes…

1. It’s OK to take a break
2. The answer isn’t going to reveal itself by staring at the screen
3. You’re not a morning person, but set that alarm because being half-asleep sometimes helps
4. Done is better than perfect
5. Head down, driving as fast as you can is one way to get there. But occasionally taking a look at the signposts will probably get you there quicker
6.
@ScrivenerApp is amazing
7. There’s more to life than books you know (but not much more)
8. Poetry is your friend

FA: These are GREAT. #3 is so true (and #2 is something I really need to hear right now). Ah, here’s an interesting one from @shauneley: ‘As photography played an integral part to this book, would you give another creative medium a go to influence and help future ones?’

SJW: GO FOR A WALK (it helps…). Thanks @shauneley – I think I’m going to stick with the photography. I really love it, and I think it helps with writing. My theory is that with writing I’m using a story to try to create an image in the reader’s head whereas with photography I’m trying to use an image to create a story in the viewer’s head. So they sort of complement each other. Also, I can’t draw or paint, I can’t play the guitar due to an injury, no one wants to hear me sing…

FA: I’ll remember that… And I love that idea of how those two mediums complement each other. That’s all we’ve got time for! Thank you so much @SJ_Watson for such brilliant, generous answers. And now is the perfect time for me to remind everyone that #FinalCut is out now… 

SJW: Thank YOU for having me! And thanks everyone who sent in their questions.

S J Watson’s first novel, Before I Go To Sleep, became a phenomenal international success and has now sold over 6,000,000 copies worldwide. It won the Crime Writers’ Association Award for Best Debut Novel and the Galaxy National Book Award for Crime Thriller of the Year and has been translated into more than 40 languages. His second novel, Second Life, a psychological thriller, was published to acclaim in 2015, and his third, Final Cut, was published earlier this month.

Final Cut is published by Transworld and is available now in hardbook, audio or ebook. You can find S J Watson on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Keep going: how to power through a draft

You’ve got your novel idea. You’ve named the characters, you’ve figured out some or all of what’s going to happen to them, you’ve nailed your first line. You’ve put in the hours and, slowly but surely, your book is starting to emerge. It’s all plain sailing from here, right?

Probably not, friends. Hardly ever, in fact (although we live in hope). It’s incredibly common for writers to stall in the middle of their first draft, whether it’s their first book or their fifteenth. If that’s you – if you’re having a crisis of confidence in the story or finding the words just aren’t coming and you don’t know why – don’t panic. Here are some tips which might help:

Revisit your plan

You might have meticulously plotted your novel out or perhaps set off with at least the main story beats clearly mapped in your head. You felt confident that the story arc was set, that everything was in place. But now you come to write it, you’re stuck. It’s hard work. Getting from point C to point D on the plan is not the easy task you’d expected. Don’t worry – this is really normal. You’ve spent some time with your characters by now, and so your understanding of them has probably changed. Suddenly the thing you need them to do feels… wrong. It doesn’t work with the picture of them that’s still developing in your head. Instead of trying to force your way through, go back to the drawing board. Are there little changes you need to make to the plot to make everything fit together in a different way? 

And if you didn’t set out with a plan, now could be the time to think about making one. Getting started with an exciting new idea with no real plot in mind is thrilling and a great way to immerse yourself in the world of the story, but it’s also easy to lose your way. Giving yourself permission to plan ahead for the next bit might help you find that enthusiasm again and get you back on track.

Revisit your characters

On the flip side, it could be that the plot’s all technically working fine but you’re struggling to get the words down because you don’t know your characters well enough yet. This could be on a practical level – you need to uncover their backstory to understand why they’re going to do or say the things you want them to – or something deeper; you’re still figuring out what it’s like to be inside that character’s head, how they see the world around them (and, if you’re writing in the first person, what they sound like). This is all part of the process and something that will happen naturally as you continue on writing and editing. But if you feel like it’s really holding you back, maybe now’s the time to pause and do some exercises to build up those character profiles in your head. Richard Skinner often gets his Writing a Novel students to write a letter from their main character to themselves, or you can use character questionnaires as an easy of deepening your understanding of each person in your story (we’ve got one of those here, in fact).

Set a target

There’s no one-size-fits-all way to go about this. Think about your daily routine and the other demands on your time and be realistic: is a set amount of writing time the best thing to aim for, or a number of words? Would a weekly or monthly target be better than a daily one so that you can be more flexible with how you reach it? Or would a stricter set of goals be more helpful for you?

If you started the process with a target in mind, think about how that might be affecting things now – are you disheartened because you keep missing it? Under-motivated because you feel like you could be doing more? Change things up and keep a record for extra accountability (we’re not saying you have to use a star chart, but, you know, consider giving yourself a star chart).

Look at your routine

On a related note, now might also be time to reevaluate your routine. Do you have one? Is it helping? For some people, having a particular time of day (or day of the week) set aside as writing time is really helpful. It can make it easy for your brain to switch into story mode, particularly if you’re sitting down to write in the same place every day. If that’s not something you’re currently doing, think about the ways in which you could find a bit more structure, signalling to yourself that this is book time and that you’ll be closing the door on the rest of the world during it.

But not everyone’s brain works best like that, and it could be that trying to stick to a regimented writing schedule is the thing that’s slowing you down. If that’s the case, think about how you could switch things up to re-energise yourself. Maybe stick with the time of day you like writing best, but take yourself to a different space. The pressure of the blank screen can feel overwhelming; would it help to switch to notebook and pen in the park for a bit?

Find the mood

Once you’ve started getting into the nitty-gritty of your story – the point where that perfect Shiny New Idea has started to grow plot complications and character hold-ups and sentences that just won’t do what you want them to do – you can lose sight of the things that made you fall in love with the idea in the first place. Pinterest is your friend! (Other moodboarding apps are available). Spend a day curating images, songs and objects which make you think about your characters and capture the mood you want in the novel. You can either stick them around your desk or just make a file on your laptop or phone; the goal is to have something you can dip into whenever you’re feeling frustrated with how it’s going or as if you’ve lost your way. You’re looking for an emotional connection; the things which trigger the feelings you had about the story when you first sat down to write it.

Celebrate

It’s very easy to feel daunted by the sheer size of a novel – which is why people often have a wobble around the 15,000–30,000 word mark. You’ve been working hard, the pages are filling up… and then you look at the wordcount on your screen and realise just how far there is to go. Like anything in life, it’s much easier to break that down into several, smaller tasks. Mark each milestone as you go, whether it’s every 10,000 words or every chapter or reaching the end of each of the three or five acts you’ve mapped out; whatever works for you. And celebrate when you reach them! There are authors who actually buy and wrap themselves little gifts for each milestone in their draft, but it could be anything: a day off, your favourite dinner, a film you’ve been dying to rent. Enjoy each of these stages instead of it becoming a race to the final line. It’s great to keep your eyes on the prize but the process becomes a lot more fun if you get actual prizes on the way there.

Reread old favourites

There are plenty of writers who won’t read fiction by anyone else when they’re in a middle of a draft. That’s okay but for others, there’s nothing like reading a really great book to spur you on to write yours. If you’re feeling really stuck in the middle of a draft, consider going back to books you’ve loved in the past. The kind of books that made you want to write in the first place. And remember: those books all started as difficult first drafts too, once upon a time. We promise.

 

Q&A with Holly Race

We always love chatting to our alumni and we were thrilled to welcome Holly Race back for one of our Twitter Q&As last month. Holly’s debut YA fantasy novel, Midnight’s Twins, had just been published and we talked about the inspiration behind it, the process behind planning a trilogy and how she uses her experience in script development when plotting her character arcs.

FA: Welcome, Holly! Thanks so much for joining us and congratulations on the publication of Midnight’s TwinsDo you want to start by telling us a bit about the book?

HR: Thanks! Midnight’s Twins is a YA fantasy set between our world and the dream world. 15-year-old Fern and her twin brother Ollie discover that there’s an army who protects dreamers from their nightmares – because if we die in our dreams, we die in real life too.

FA: It’s SUCH a great pitch… Where did the idea come from? And how long did it take you to write?

HR: I’ve always had very vivid dreams (& nightmares!) which made me wonder what would happen if those dreams were real in some way? If the dream world was an alternative reality we entered every time we went to sleep? Everything else stemmed from there. I had that idea about 10 years ago, so it’s taken a while to come to fruition! I spent a LONG time planning it, then my husband snapped at me to write the thing already & prompted me to apply for Faber Academy, & I haven’t looked back since.

FA: And we’re so happy you came to us! Ten years is an amazing amount of time to spend immersed in that world – the novel is the first in a trilogy, did you have the other books already planned out at that point?

HR: Me too! You guys & @JoannaBriscoe definitely gave me the confidence to get stuck in! I actually originally had it mapped out as a five part series, until I started taking it out to agents, who told me that this was maybe a bit… ambitious. They were right in the end (as usual!). 

I re-mapped it out as a trilogy as my agents were taking the book out to publishers, and it’s a lot stronger, even if some of the smaller threads I’d wanted to explore have had to be cut. Having said that, I’ve tweaked some things in the plans for books 2 & 3 over the last year. One character got a reprieve. Two more are getting the chop…

FA: I love that – ruthless! Actually that leads in well to another question we’ve had about the editing process for Midnight’s Twins… how much did the novel change? And are you someone who edits as they go or do you prefer to get everything on the page first?

HR: Having spent years planning the first novel, I ended up going off piste in the second chapter! Originally, Fern was going to be recruited into the knights directly, but when I was writing it made more sense for it to be Ollie who’s recruited instead. That had a huge impact not only on the plot for the first half of the book, but also on Fern’s emotional journey, because she spends a lot of time trying to prove herself, and believing that she doesn’t belong. Once I’d written that, though, I didn’t go back to re-plan. I decided to power through and get a very rough first draft, which worked well for me in the end. I accepted that I’d end up doing a lot of editing, but I definitely prefer to have words on the page as soon as possible, even if most of those words end up in the bin. 

It also helps to have been through that rather painstaking process already when your editor gives you notes, I think. My editor, who is *incredible*, turned up to our first meeting (before I’d even got a publication deal!) with reams of questions. Midnight’s Twins is now very different from the version that was sent out to publishers. It’s more ambitious, gallops through more plot and the relationships are more complex now. It’s a much better creature for having gone through a ruthless editing process.

FA: That’s so interesting – I think sometimes even the most meticulous of plotters will find the characters pulling them in another direction once they sit down to write! I love how important that emotional journey is to you too, and the relationship between Fern and Ollie – could you tell us a little bit about how you developed that, and do you have any advice for writers who are trying to get to know their characters better?

HR: I have an old system that I used to use when I was a theatre director (yonks and yonks ago!) and was tracking relationships and character arcs in scripts. It’s a bit difficult to describe on Twitter, but it involves making a sort of graph of my characters’ key ‘want’. I map how close or far they are from achieving their goal as the story progresses – ideally I’d end up with a nice variation of curves. If anyone wants to see in more detail how I do this, it’s on my Instagram stories (@holly_race) under ‘character arcs’. I use variations of this for mapping multiple characters, their relationships with each other and also what the reader wants for them. I find it easier that way to see where something is missing, or where they hit a boring plateau.

As for trying to get to know your characters better: there are a lot of brilliant resources online with questions you can ask your character, or ideas for scenes that you can write, and I think a lot of people do find those exercises very helpful. I am not one of those people! Personally, the only way I can get to know my characters is by writing the story – maybe it’s because I’m writing fantasy, but until I can get them into that world, I can’t truly anticipate how they’re going to react.

FA: Oh wow, that’s brilliant – you may well have just sorted out my Friday night plans for me, as I’m at this stage with my WIP at the moment! Okay, another question: Which books helped/inspired you while you were writing?

HR: Ha! Nothing like trying to work out a character arc over a Friday night glass of wine! The main inspiration for Midnight’s Twins is an epic poem called The Faerie Queene, which I fell in love with at uni. It’s set in a gorgeous fantasy world and features horses, knights & battles. I think I’ve probably also been influenced a lot by books like His Dark Materials, The Hunger Games & The Sword in the Stone. Someone told me that the book reminded them of Buffy, too, which was the ultimate compliment as I binged on BTVS as a teen.

FA: Yep, that is *definitely* the ultimate compliment if you ask me! Okay, time for one more question before we let you go… or actually it’s a combination of two (sneaky). On Facebook, you’ve been asked: ‘I got to know Fern a lot in this first book. Will we get to know Ollie more in the next?’ We’ve also had a couple of people asking if you can give away any spoilers for Book 2 – so are there any secrets you can share with us?

HR: The story is still from Fern’s POV, but we definitely get to know Ollie better in book 2. We spend more time unravelling some of the insecurities that led to him acting the way he does in book 1, which I’m really excited about. As for the rest of book 2? Weeeeell… there’s a lot more romance & more at stake because the Big Bad is growing stronger, in this world and in the dream world. We’ve got an influx of new characters, including someone who had a cameo in book 1 (feel free to send me your guesses!)

FA: Exciting!!! And hopefully you’ll come back and chat to us again then. Thanks so much for all your answers, you’ve been brilliant – off I go to start mapping my arcs…

HR: Thank you so much for having me! Good luck!

Holly Race is now a full-time writer, but she used to work in TV and film script development, for companies like Red Planet Pictures, Aardman Animations and Working Title. She is a graduate of our Writing a Novel course, and Midnight’s Twins is her debut novel and the first in a trilogy. Holly lives in Cambridge with her husband and daughter. In her spare time, she enjoys baking, trying not to kill plants, and travelling to far off places at short notice.

 

Midnight’s Twins is published by Hot Key Books and is available in paperback and ebook now. 

Q&A with Joanna Briscoe

This week we were delighted to host brilliant Joanna Briscoe for the latest in our series of Twitter Q&As. Joanna popped by to celebrate the publication of her sixth novel and to answer questions about the writing process from some of our followers. Here’s how the conversation went:

FA: Alright, we’ve had some brilliant questions coming in, so let’s get started! Hi, Joanna! Thanks for joining us and congratulations on last week’s publication of The Seduction. Our first question from one of our Twitter followers: ‘What is your writing process and do you have a particular favourite place and time to write?’

JB:  Good question. I wish I had one, very disciplined process. I do hypothetically, but the reality can be messier…. I do try to get up, and get dressed and ready by half eight in the morning, and then – pre-lockdown – I’d go to the British Library to write. I try to put in a normal day there, but friends are usually there as well, and they’re vital to the process. A carrot to dangle in front of me after a proper session of work…. lunch, anyone? I just try to get on with it, counting hours or words.

FA: Lunch is a very important carrot! Okay, our second question via DM: ‘Where do your ideas come from?’

JB: Lunch, coffee, a sudden desire to visit the bookshop… plenty of carrots in my life! Well, for me, ideas are the one thing I don’t struggle over. Believe me, I struggle terribly with the execution of course, which is entirely normal #WritingIsHard. But so far, ideas just seem to land in my head. I have the next two or three novels’ worth of ideas. They can be very different in origin – a person, place, scene, situation. And from there, the process begins. 

FA: Our third question is one I’m sure lots of us (…me) would also like to know the answer to… ‘Do you experience writers block and if so, how do you deal with it?’

JB: I do experience bad days, certainly, where the process is like trying to wade through mud. But I refuse to believe in writers’ block. If you sit there for long enough, you will write something. I definitely think it’s more about perspiration than inspiration. Don’t wait for the muse. The muse will eventually find you. You have to push through the pain barrier and just keep going. No doubt about it. Treat writing as a job. As if there’s no choice and you have a boss standing over you.

FA: Great answer, thank you! Definitely going to be imagining my boss next to my desk from now on… Here’s another, not unrelated question: ‘Has lockdown influenced your writing? Has it made you think more about certain themes?’

JB: Lockdown is a funny mixed bag for writers, isn’t it? It’s so vast, tragic, extraordinary, what’s going on out there that lots of writers say it renders their work trivial. But we can’t all write about pandemics. It’s made me think about slower lives, nature, and the past… I’ve found I’ve both written more in lockdown, and found it hard to concentrate. But I do have pretty ideal conditions, i.e. no young children to school, and so I’m determined to get on with it.

FA: Yes, absolutely to all of that! Okay, a really great question just in from Instagram: ‘What is your advice when a writer discovers a fantastic opening scene and character but isn’t quite sure how to write the rest of the book…’

JB: Interesting. I’m a bit of a strict ‘Get on with it’ person, as my students will attest… So, I’d say, capture that fantastic scene and character as quickly as you can. And then be really disciplined about thinking about the rest. Don’t give up too soon. If it’s TERRIBLE, you  might want to give up and start something else, but odds are that all you need to do is really start thinking about the plot. I’d say that you should get down what you have – it sounds as though you’re inspired at that moment – and then start the brainstorming, making notes as you go. The other characters, the essential situation, the arc, plot, twists and turns, will come with time, but you have to open your mind. I write and I keep a Notes file simultaneously. So I get on with the prose, but I keep the plotting etc notes too.

FA: Great advice, thank you! Let’s have one last craft question before we move on to publication and The Seduction: ‘Do you have any advice for making sure your dialogue is natural?’

JB: Dialogue’s a big one, and of course we all want natural sounding dialogue – in most genres. My best advice is to write dialogue very very quickly first of all, no inverted commas, just a real go-with-the-flow session, then go back and edit. You will achieve more of a flow. I also think that reading your dialogue out loud is vital. There is more of a chance of picking up the stiff, unnatural sections then. DBC Pierre said ‘Dialogue is pace’, and I agree that we need it to speed our eye down the page. You can give people a verbal tic, I also often have people interrupting each other, not quite finishing the sentence, as long as the sense is there, because this happens so much in real life. Also, keep each person’s section of dialogue relatively short. Listen to strangers. Keep your ear in.

FA: ‘Dialogue is pace’ – I love that! Okay, this is an important one for a lot of writers: ‘Have you had many rejections during your writing career and how do you cope with these?’

JB: Rejections. Argh. The most common experience in a writer’s life – almost universal – and yet it feels so personal and terrible. Yes, I was lucky enough to get my first novel published, which was a huge moment of excitement, but after a lot of years of work. It was my THIRD novel that was rejected. It felt really terrible. I was in a real state about it, before I picked myself up and wrote Sleep With Me. And that one was a bestseller etc, so it just goes to show. I think sometimes, as long as you can find a way to stay strong, that writing in adversity can actually be inspiring. There’s an urgency and desperation that can fuel the work. I thought, I’ll show you. And I did! I also had an early version of another novel turned down, but that was quite right. I re-wrote and that helped and it was published.

FA: That is really, really inspiring – thank you for sharing. You sure did show them! Okay, let’s talk about the new book! We’ve been asked via DM: ‘Which character did you most enjoy writing in The Seduction and why?’

JB: I liked writing about the charismatic, dangerous Dr Tamara Bywater, the shrink in the novel, as she was the most fascinating to invent and then flesh out. She’s so not what she appears; she pulls people to her. She’s so unlike me, I liked inventing someone very different.

FA: Yes, I can imagine that being great fun as a writer… On a related note, ‘The Seduction is such an addictive read – how do you keep a reader turning the pages?’

JB: I REALLY think a lot about keeping the reader turning the pages. I absolutely think it’s my duty not to bore them. One of my main rules is – if I’m slightly boring myself, i.e. there’s a section that causes faint heart sink, or which I skim over – then it goes. If I bore myself, then certainly readers will be bored. I also try to come up with the unexpected. I twist the obvious, and like to think about characters doing something different from the thing I’ve first invented. Shorter chapters help. And I set up lots of questions that need answers.

FA: Brilliant advice – I think that sense of faint heart sink is familiar to most of us… We all need to be ruthless with it! Okay, let’s have one more question before we let you go: ‘The press response to The Seduction has been amazing – how does it feel?’

JB: It’s been amazing. I’ve had so many reviews, a couple of stinkers among the good ones, but the main thing is to get coverage! It’s been exciting, and a bit nerve wracking. It’s thanks to
Philippa Cotton who did the whole campaign, and now Ella Harold has taken over. I’m grateful.

FA: It’s been really wonderful to see it making its way out in the world so brilliantly. All of us at the Academy are very proud!

Joanna Briscoe is the author of the novels Mothers and Other Lovers, which won the Betty Trask Award; SkinSleep With Me, which was published in eleven countries and adapted for ITV by Andrew Davies; You, which was published by Bloomsbury in the UK, USA and through Europe, and Touched, which was published by Arrow. She works as a literary critic for the Guardian and has written for all the major national newspapers. She broadcasts on Radio 4, and has taught for the Arvon Foundation, and for the Birkbeck and City MA degrees in Creative Writing. Joanna is one of the tutors on our flagship six-month Writing a Novel course. 

The Seduction is published by Bloomsbury and is available in hardback and ebook now. 

What are you writing for?

In these unprecedented times, many of us have found our relationship with writing has changed – whether in a practical sense, as we try to fit our wordcounts around the demands of new working or childcare arrangements, or in terms of our own needs, as we turn to fiction to understand and escape the world around us.

No matter where you are with a work-in-progress – about to begin the first page or finishing the fifteenth edit – there is always value in taking a step back and thinking about why you’re writing as well as how. Here are some things that are worth considering:

What am I writing?

It’s a deceptively simple question, and perhaps not one we can always answer at the start of a project. But different genres bring with them their own goals and expectations, and understanding where in the market your work might sit can help clarify what you should be writing towards. Ask yourself which other authors’ work you feel may be similar to yours. What do you admire about those texts? How can you learn from that and apply it to your own writing? And what do you want to add to the conversation?

Who do I imagine reading this?

In Stephen King’s On Writing, he talks about writing your first draft with ‘the door closed’; writing, in other words, entirely for yourself without the doubts and pressures of a perceived future audience. But at some point – and where that point comes varies from writer to writer – you do have to start thinking about who you might be writing for. Who is your dream reader? What kind of person do you imagine falling in love with this story? And how can you make it speak to them, connect with them?

How do I want that person to feel when they finish reading?

Having that ideal reader in mind may particularly help if you’re struggling through the later sections of a draft; if you feel you’ve lost your way with the story. You don’t have to be aiming for something huge or profound here – are you trying to entertain? To move? To surprise? To make someone laugh or rage or realise that they feel differently about a character than they did when they started out? The best writing can do all of those things and more – but if you can choose the single emotional note that’s most important for you to hit, the one you care about above all, it will help you stay on track.

What do I want from the process?

Finally, close that door again for a minute and think about your own reasons for beginning. So often we say ‘It’s a story I just had to tell’ – but can you dig a little deeper? What was it about these characters, this plot that excited you in the first place? And how can you keep that in sight as you put it down on the page? As writers, we are always learning – whether that’s facing a new technical challenge (can I write an entire novel in the second person? Can I pull off stream of consciousness here? Do these flashbacks work?) or evolving the kinds of stories we want to tell entirely. Maybe you just want to see if you can get to the end of a novel-length manuscript or if you can write a short story or a novella or a perfectly formed piece of flash fiction for the first time. Whatever your goals and aims for this writing time might be, try and keep hold of them – and always make sure you celebrate when you achieve them.

Is your idea a novel yet?

So. You’ve had that lightning strike, the first Eureka! moment. You picture a character, or a situation, and you think: there’s a story there. Maybe it’s the concept that comes to you first, something that feels exciting and innovative. It’s X meets Y, you think – doesn’t that sound amazing? Why hasn’t anyone written this yet?! 

You rush to get started… but then things stall. 

Before you try and wrangle that perfect idea onto the page, here are some key questions to ask yourself.

Does it have direction?

I have this one never-written novel which nudges its way back into my brain every so often – usually when I’m a third of the way into a draft of something else (the magical point when all good novel ideas reveal themselves as terrible, flawed troublemakers, surely best ditched for something shiny and new). I can see the elevator pitch so clearly, and every time I remember it, it turns my head. I start thinking it over again, maybe jot down notes. But then I remember why I didn’t keep running with it the last time it popped up – because there’s nowhere for it to go. It’s a fun concept, a good elevator pitch (an ‘Imagine if you could…’ type easy hook) but when I start thinking about a character and where that if would lead them, I hit a blank. It’s a starting point, something I know I’d have fun setting up, but there’s no and then… to come next, to drive the action, to take the story onwards. 

Narrative momentum comes from lots of things, but conflict is a key one. This can be minor or major, external or internal; it can be a protagonist at war with the forces of evil or one who’s too shy to tell their friend they’re in love with them. Introducing conflict is how you push your characters on and how you hold them back from their desired goal. Because for our story to flow, we need that spark of a starting point and we need to end up somewhere else, but the journey between those points isn’t necessarily linear. The route your novel takes may be meandering, it may be a rollercoaster, but it needs to move. That idea has to be your jump-off – it can’t be all there is. 

Does it have logic?

A simple one, this, but one that’s really worth thinking about now (*ominous voice* while there’s still time…). If you’re satisfied you have a sense of direction for your story, think about the steps involved to get you there. Even at this early stage, it’s sometimes possible to see that it won’t make sense for Character A to do X when they could just do Y, or that Character B can’t make that life-changing decision when you need them to, and thus the plot won’t support the weight required to get you from beginning to end.

Even if you’re not a natural plotter, taking a little time at this stage to consider and stress-test the sense of any crucial turning points in the story can save you the heartache of discovering, 20,000 words in, that Character A would never actually rent a canoe in the first place, thank you very much, and thus the whole premise has come crashing down. 

Does it have space?

Not the final frontier kind (although sure, why not).

As much as your idea needs to have enough plot to drive and sustain a novel, a lot of that legwork is also done by the characters. Ensuring you have complex, developed characters helps (why not give our ultimate character questionnaire a go for that) but you also need space within the story for the characters to undergo some kind of growth or change. This, as much as rising action and mid-point turns and all that important structural stuff, is what gives your novel the sense of a satisfying arc. Change is a bit of a nebulous term here, really – it could be big or small, tangible or more existential (learning to ride a dragon or learning to accept a mistake they’ve made), and it doesn’t even need to be positive – a character can happily be ‘worse’ by the end of the novel (serial killer origin story, anyone?). But it’s essential that the story allows room for your protagonist(s) to come out in some way different than they were when we met them. If you don’t see that in your idea at the moment, you’re setting yourself a difficult task: keeping a reader engaged by concept or hook alone, for the entirety of a novel, isn’t easy.

Does it have the potential to surprise?

This is important not just for a future reader but for you, the author, as you begin to write. If you’re starting with a What if? and you knew the answer the second the question popped into your head, you probably aren’t going to have all that much fun letting it play out over thousands of words and many writing hours.

That doesn’t mean you can’t know the answer immediately and stick to it, but there needs to be potential for the plot to go a different way, for you and the reader to wonder how the novel might turn out if you took one of those other possible paths. A reader may keep turning pages because they want to find out what happens next – and that should never be far from our minds – but it may help you to keep writing them if you’re aware that the ending wasn’t a foregone conclusion the moment you began, that the elements of the story are coming together in a way that you’re choosing, and that it’s all the stronger for it.

~

Don’t lose heart if you’re starting to realise that your initial spark doesn’t quite stretch to a novel yet. Some ideas need a bit longer on the backburner; keep them bubbling away there while you get on with other stuff and you’ll be surprised how often your subconscious finds that extra thing – that subplot or character or slightest of shifts – that mean you’ll hit the page running. Ideas are fragile things. Handle them with an informed and critical eye, but also with care; given time to breathe, they often turn into the thing you need all by themselves.

Five reasons you might need to rethink your structure

It’s a crucial part of your novel; the architecture that holds the whole thing up. There are theories and nifty diagrams and entire books written about the ways stories are structured – but how can you tell when yours is going wrong?

A secret: I’m not that big a fan or rigorous follower of the three-act or five-act structure. Don’t tell anyone. Many writers find it incredibly helpful to think about story in these terms, and it is absolutely something I come back to as I edit. But as someone who has sat down with a stack of post-it notes to plan several novels’ worth of inciting incidents, mid-points, crises and denouements, I know from bitter experience that it doesn’t work for me when it comes to writing the novel in the first place. I’m not a pantster by any stretch of the imagination either, and I do plan, but I need a bit more freedom within the form during a first draft. I lose interest if I start thinking about the building blocks of a novel too early on; I need to lose myself in the story first. 

But whether you’re a writer who knows all their beats going in or someone who writes first and asks questions later, there’s still every chance you’re going to need to take a second look at your structure at some point in the process. Here are some of the reasons why it might not be working for you.

You’re front-loading

We’re told time and again that a book needs to grab an agent’s/editor’s/reader’s attention as soon as possible, so it’s a normal impulse to put lots of exciting or interesting things in your early chapters. And while that might keep someone turning the pages, a novel that feels too top-heavy can also mean your audience doesn’t have time to connect to the characters or your writing, leaving them less invested – this is especially problematic if you’re then leading us into a quieter second half where our interest in events depends on us caring about what happens. We need that early, deeper engagement with the story – and that’s harder to achieve if there’s too much action to keep up with.

You’re saving the best… for too long

Conversely, it’s also very easy to spend the first half of your novel setting up all your thoughtfully drawn characters, your immaculately built world – meaning that you end up rolling out the actual plot, where things start happening in earnest, far later than you should be. Generally this will result in an overly-long manuscript or a novel with a really uneven pace: a slow-burn start followed by action-action-action without enough breathing room for those plot points to hit their mark. 

There are too many people trying to speak at once

Novels with multiple narrators are particularly tricky beasts to structure. You’ll need to figure out how you want to weight the narrative – do their storylines have equal importance, and are they given the same amount of page time? Is there a ‘main’ story and one/some smaller, secondary threads? – and make sure that these are well-balanced throughout in a way that serves your plot and pace best. One problem that’s particularly common here is an overcrowded opening, where you may feel the need to introduce the reader to all the narrators/threads as soon as possible. Resist this – you risk losing their interest if you skip about too much in those crucial opening chapters. Make sure you’re allowing time for your audience to get their bearings with a character/situation before you hit them with the next. But equally, make sure you’re returning to each of your narrators regularly enough that we don’t forget about or lose interest in them.

You’re getting lost in time

Similarly, if you’re making use of multiple time strands or employing flashbacks for some of your exposition, it’s easy to get yourself in a structural knot. Keep careful track of what each of your characters – and your reader – know if you’re showing us those people at different points in time, and think about where any reveals or turning points come in the novel – are they well spaced? Do they make sense to the story, particularly to its pace, there? If you’re working with a dual narrative of two entirely separate time periods, where the stories are interwoven but don’t cross over, again, ensure you’re giving the reader enough space to enjoy and engage with each, but without neglecting the other. 

The dreaded baggy middle

It’s a writer’s rite of passage to struggle with this one. You’ve nailed your arresting, intriguing opening; you know exactly how the novel reaches a climax and then heads into a satisfying resolution. It’s all the middle stuff that’s causing the problem. If you find that you have lots of chapters in the middle where your characters are drifting, or where you become bogged down in all the exposition you need to get them towards that rising action, then you might need to reconsider the subplots and character development you could be doing to make those connecting points more engaging.

 

The good news is that identifying any of these problems is half the battle. Sometimes you need to take a step back and consider the novel as a whole before gaps or overcrowded bits become obvious. You can do that with the aforementioned post-its or index cards (I like one per chapter, but you can also separate by character or plot strand) or by using software like Scrivener which has a brilliant storyboard function making it particularly easy to move chapters or scenes around. Sometimes it’s a process of trial and error, sometimes you have to move a whole load of blocks to find the one that’ll hold the rest up. When in doubt, think of these very wise words from a dear Faber favourite.