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.

Got a fictional world to build? Start here

Whether you’re already working on a novel or have decided to give fiction a try during this period of staying at home, you’ll probably be familiar with the concept of worldbuilding. From Westeros to Wuthering Heights, our best fiction paints us a picture so vivid that we’re transported to a world we can almost walk around in. A world with a fully realised geography, its own specific sights, sounds and smells; an infrastructure we can see and understand and characters who are shaped by that world and in turn engage with it.

If you’re taking your imagination for a stretch this weekend, whether your novel is fantasy epic, children’s adventure, historical romp or dystopian thriller, here are some essential questions to ask yourself about your world:

How does it look?

  • What can I see from my main character’s window? What are the predominant colours? What does the skyline look like?
  • And from the end of their street? Is there a street?
  • And from a plane/drone/broomstick/dragon flying overhead?
  • What can I hear? Smell?
  • What’s the weather like? How much does it change during the year (are there years?)?
  • Might I see any wildlife if I took a walk around?
  • If I went to the nearest city, what would I see on the streets? What might be advertised to me? What might I be sold?
  • What about people – how many people will I see? What will they be wearing? Will I hear more than one language being spoken? Will people greet me? How?

How do people live?

  • Let’s step back inside our character’s home – how many rooms are there? What are they for? How are they furnished/decorated?
  • How does that compare to the homes of the people around them?
  • How big is the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in this world? What percentage of society sit at either end of that scale?
  • What do people do for work? What’s the most common industry in the nearest town/city?
  • And what do they do for fun?
  • Are holidays a thing for some/all of the people who live here? And if so, where do they go? Do people know much about the wider world beyond this place – are they interested? Afraid? Hostile?
  • Do they have pets? What kinds?
  • Is there religion? More than one? Where do people go to worship?
  • What about history – do people know much about how their civilisation formed? Are they interested? Are there statues, history books, public holidays?
  • Turning to technology – what’s the most advanced item your character owns? What about the richest person they know? What level of technology do people use in their daily life?
  • How do they stay in touch with friends?
  • If I had dinner with strangers here, what might we talk about? What topics would we avoid?

How do things work?

  • Who is in charge here? How are they chosen/elected? What powers do they have?
  • How long has that been the case? Do people like the system or do they hope for change?
  • How do people get around? What’s the most common mode of transport – does it change depending on who you are?
  • What natural resources are nearby, and how are they used?
  • Is there crime? How is it punished? By whom?
  • Are people educated? Where does that happen, and who is responsible? Is education something that’s respected? Is it available to all or a few? What might I learn if I went and sat in the nearest school for a day?
  • What’s the currency? Are there banks?
  • Where does food come from? Where is it sold? What would I eat if I wanted a real treat? Can I buy alcohol? Where?
  • What other trade happens in this society? Are things sold and bought from far away, or is this place self-sufficient?
  • Is there a sense of culture – a value placed in art? Who makes it? What kind of stories do people want and how do they consume them?

How to keep writing while we stay at home

As the end of the first week of UK lockdown approaches, we’re all trying to adjust to a new, unusual way of life. And while it might seem like the perfect situation to get some writing done, for many of us it’ll actually prove quite hard. We’ve got some tips for you if you’re struggling to get the words down – whether it’s a novel you’ve been working on for a while or you just fancy trying something creative to keep yourself busy.

Start small

If you’re anything like me, it’s probably taking a superhuman level of effort to concentrate on anything at the moment. Whether it’s because you’re adjusting to the routine of working from home, or have taken on childcare and homeschooling since schools closed, or you’re just struggling to stop refreshing news sites’ live updates and your Twitter feed, there’s all kinds of demands on our attention at the moment. Even when you do sit down to write, it might be difficult to stop other thoughts crowding in. So be realistic. Go easy on yourself. Setting a target for your day or week (a word count you’d like to hit, say, or a chapter you’d like to write) may add some much-needed structure – but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet it. Aim for small bursts – half an hour first thing or after dinner, or a quick, no-thinking-allowed hundred words jotted down each time you have a coffee. It’s probably not realistic for most of us to aim for thousands of words each day at the moment, so don’t set yourself up to fail.

Try using prompts

With so much else going on, it’s usually the getting started that’s the hardest part – it’s not easy to switch your brain into writing mode at the best of times, let alone now. But using a prompt just to get the words – any words! – flowing can help, and once you’re in the swing of it, you can always swap back to a project of your own. We post prompts on our Instagram each week so you can use one of those, or join in with one of the daily writing clubs that are running at the moment – we particularly like Laura Dockrill’s

Find a space

As we settle in for several weeks of staying home, personal space is obviously at a premium – and you might be sharing yours with more people (and pets!) than you usually would. If you’re used to writing while you’re out and about – we know there are lots of coffee shop writers among you! – then this is probably going to be a bit of an adjustment. If you can make a little space for yourself to sit down and write (even if it’s one particular corner of your kitchen table) then do. A bit of routine can go a long way, even if it’s using the same mug, the same playlist or the same ten minutes in the morning when that spot of the table catches the sun.

Mix it up

As humans, we’re not really cut out for uncertainty. And at the moment certainty is one thing we’re all lacking; we don’t know how long these measures might be in place, or what the next few weeks might bring. It’s entirely normal to feel anxious about that. When it comes to your writing, though, try and see this unprecedented situation as a chance to experiment. With everything else straying so far from the norm, maybe now’s the time to try writing outside your usual genre. Maybe now’s the time to take a closer look at that idea you’ve been secretly harbouring but have always dismissed as too hard or too different or not commercial enough. Uncertainty is your friend: write something for the sheer pleasure of it, without caring when or whether you might show it to the outside world.

Oh – and it’s fine if you want to write about a city in lockdown

No matter how many snarky tweets tell you otherwise. For some people, writing will be an escape from what’s going on in the world right now – for others it’s an outlet to try and make sense of the things they’re seeing and feeling. Both approaches are perfectly reasonable and to be embraced. Yes, sure, agents are probably going to have a wave of post-apocalyptic and pandemic-themed submissions coming their way but these are extremely unusual times. Write whatever you want. Seriously.

Hannah Tovey: My Journey to Publication

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to the publication journey, no foolproof plan to help you get your novel on the shelves. For me, it was five months of rejections, one very hefty re-write, one offer, a long wait, then another offer. It was almost eleven months from when I signed up with my agent to the time I signed my two-book deal with Little, Brown. There were lots of tears, many tantrums, but always hope. This is the story of my publication process, in all its messy glory. 

When I signed with my (first) agent in July 2018, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I naively thought that getting an agent would be the hard bit, and that a lovely, perfectly packaged publishing deal would be waiting for me just around the corner. The manuscript was immediately sent out to a select group of editors; it took three weeks to get my first response, and by the end of August, I was three rejections down. I have never been good with rejection (is anyone?) but those three emails felt like a punch in the gut.

“I really enjoyed this, but I didn’t connect with the character.”

“Of course, my views are entirely subjective and I’m sure you’ll find an editor who feels differently.”

“I thought there was something really interesting about it, but it’s not quite the right project for me.”

More rejections came flooding in. After number twelve, I asked my agent to send me everything and I forced myself to read them all. Whilst they were mostly unified in their criticism, many had taken the time to offer positive and constructive feedback. In hindsight, I realise I should have listened to my inner voice at that point, because it was telling me that something about the manuscript wasn’t right and that I should make changes. But I was so obsessed with getting a publication deal that I lost sight of what mattered: the words. It took me until December of that year, a whole five months after securing an agent, and a total of 23 rejections later, to finally listen to that voice. I asked my agent to put a pause on submissions, and I did a massive re-write.

I printed off every rejection email I had, highlighting all the positive comments, as well as the negative ones, and made a long list of action points for the new draft. Then I went on holiday and tried my very best not to think about it. When I got back home, I got to work; I went back to basics and tried to forget about the publishing deal, instead focusing on writing the best book I could write.

I sent the new manuscript to my agent in March 2019, and a couple of weeks later, I had an offer. I didn’t take it, I wanted to wait. We sent the manuscript out to more editors. A month passed, then another. Then, in May, a day after my agent emailed several editors to note that we would need final offers by the end of the week, I received this email:

“Just to let you know that I got up at 4:30am to finish this today, having started yesterday pm. I absolutely LOVE it – so fresh and current and just gorgeous in every way – and I’m going to be taking it to acquisitions today.”

I was at a work event, and I was too frightened to tell any of my colleagues what was happening, so I took myself off to a quiet corner, cried, re-applied my mascara, then tried to carry on with my day. 

True to their word, the manuscript was taken to acquisitions that day, and less than 48 hours later, a two-book deal was on the table. A week of negotiations passed before I had confirmation of the advance and pay-out structure. That was Friday 24th May 2019, a little over ten months since signing with my agent. 

So, what have I learnt? Above all, that everyone’s publication journey is different. Mine was long and painful and ridden with anxiety, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Nothing good in life comes easy; it was always going to be a challenge because getting my book on the shelves is all I’ve ever wanted in my life. Like me, a dear writer friend of mine secured an agent within a week of submissions, but unlike me, they then spent a year perfecting the novel before it was submitted to any editors. I know how challenging those twelve months were for them, but it was worth it, because when the manuscript was finally ready to send it, they had multiple offers from publishers in both UK and America within a matter of days. 

Don’t lose sight of what matters – the words on the page. Trust your gut. Seek advice; it’s so easy as a debut author to get overwhelmed with the publication process, and I am so grateful to have had the support and friendship of my Faber Academy classmates during that time. Being able to have such open and honest conversations with them about the challenges I was facing was invaluable. So be open to feedback. Don’t take no for an answer. Knock down all the doors. It’s worth it, I promise. 

Copyright // Photography by Krishanthi 2019

 

Hannah’s debut novel, The Education of Ivy Edwards, is out May 7th 2020. Hannah is represented by the Madeleine Milburn Agency. She is a graduate of our Writing A Novel course.

You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, or visit her website.

Getting to Know You: The Ultimate Character Questionnaire

Last week, we were thrilled to welcome our new cohort of Writing a Novel students, who are beginning their six month course with us. One of the first things they’ll be looking at in the coming weeks is character. Where do characters come from and what makes a good one? How can you build a character who lives and breathes on the page; who isn’t just an agent for your plot but a realistic, compelling personality for a reader to spend hundreds of pages with?

Character questionnaires are one of my favourite ways to procrastinate when I’m about to start writing a new novel and, unlike some of my others (baby name generators on the internet, Google Street View-ing possible locations, making writing playlists on Spotify), it’s actually a crucial part of the process for me. 

With that in mind, here’s a really intense one – just for you. 

First, head inwards

As Richard Skinner, Director of our Fiction Programme, says, when it comes to creating a character, ‘one ruse is to start from the “outside in”’. You can begin by listing the simplest biographical details of your character – age, date and place of birth, occupation. Their height, their distinguishing features. But as you explore the further details that come from these basic facts – their daily routine, their personal relationships, their views – your character will take on a new dimension. 

So:

  • What’s their star sign? Do they care?
  • Did they vote in the last election? Who for?
  • What’s their most visited website?
  • What do they eat for breakfast?
  • What would they choose for their last meal?
  • What is the one thing that can happen in the morning to make your character’s day? And what’s the one thing that can ruin it?
  • What do they buy/do if they want to treat themselves at the end of a hard day?
  • What’s their favourite song? Film? Book?
  • Who is the first person they would call if they received good news? And what about if the news was bad?
  • Who was the last person they had an argument with? What was it about?
  • Who are they most jealous of? 
  • Who would they list as their ‘In Case of Emergency’ contact?

Now look back

When explaining object relations theory, the tutor on our Getting Into Character course, psychotherapist Arabel Charlaff, describes an internal relational map that we all develop as a child in order to navigate the world and how we understand it; how to behave and what to expect from others around us. This internal map and the ‘objects’ we base our relationships on – a supportive mother, or an unreliable friend, for example – will depend entirely on our early experiences and will not always reflect the world as we actually find it. 

No matter where your character is in their life when your novel opens – or how much of their backstory you intend to share with the reader – it’s important that you understand how their experiences before this point have shaped them as a person.  

  • What is your character’s earliest memory?
  • What was their favourite toy as a child?
  • Who was their hero when they were young? And who is it now?
  • If your character was asked to describe their family life in three words, what would they choose?
  • Who was their best friend as a child? Did that change?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone had let them down?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone had protected them from harm?
  • When is the first time they can remember feeling that someone was proud of them?
  • Who was their first romantic love?
  • When looking for a partner, would they say they have a type? What is it?
  • Which adult relationship do they most admire? Why?

It’s all in the doing

All of this is good knowledge to have about the character you’re building, but the next step is to think about how you impart this to your reader. You know them pretty well now, but copy-and-pasting your answers to the above isn’t going to make for much of a novel – so now it’s time to consider how these facets of their personality affect the way they think and behave, and how your reader can get to know them that way. As Richard Skinner says, ‘what your characters do in your story is far more revealing than what they say’. It’s much more useful for your plot as well.

Time to play a game of ‘What Would Your Character Do?’…

  • Your character finds a fifty pound note on the floor outside a train station. What do they do with it?
  • They’re the first person on the scene of an accident; how do they react?
  • They witness someone shoplifting in a major supermarket – do they take action?
  • They overhear gossip about someone they work with; gossip which could have potentially negative consequences for that colleague – and possibly positive ones for themselves. Do they make use of it?
  • They’re overlooked for a promotion – how do they react?
  • Their significant other admits to having feelings for someone else; what’s the first thing they do?
  • They wake up to discover that for some reason – trains cancelled because of snow; a flood in the office; a power-cut across the city – they can’t go to work or run the errands they’d planned today. What do they do with their unexpected day off?
  • They help a witch or wizard in trouble and are granted a single wish in return. What would they choose?
  • The same witch has an alternative offer: your character has the chance to experience a single day from their past again. Which day would they pick?

Let desire drive – and head for change

Our helpful magical friend has brought us to an important point: desire. Or, as Richard puts it, ‘the difference between what a character has and what they want. ’Think about what motivates your character, what you’d describe as their goals.  While you can use outside forces to drive your plot – the things that happen to your character – the things they want will always form the most compelling engine for a narrative, especially if it’s difficult for them to achieve that goal. 

  • When your character was a child, what did they say they wanted to be when they grew up?
  • What is the best present they’ve ever received?
  • What is their darkest secret? The one they’d most hate someone to find out? 
  • Would they rather be rich or happy – and what does either term mean to them?
  • What is their worst nightmare?
  • If they won a million pounds, what’s the first thing they’d do with the money?
  • And if they won a hundred?
  • Where in the world would they live if they had no commitments and an unlimited budget? 
  • Where do they see themselves in one year? Five? Ten?
  • If you asked them today what the most important thing in their life is, what would they say? Would the answer have been different if you’d asked them a year ago?

Beginning your novel, you should know who your character is, and how that relates to who they have been. You should understand what drives them and why they behave the way they do. The important thing to consider now is who they will be when you leave them – because that’s really the most interesting journey to take your reader on.