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.

Charlotte Duckworth: The essential guide to author websites

With the new year fully underway, now is the perfect time to get your author website up and running and make the most of your online presence. If you think how much of life is lived online these days, it seems strange that some authors still don’t have their own websites. I know that many authors abhor technology, but your website really doesn’t need to be an insurmountable tech mountain!

As a novelist who also happens to be a website designer (!), I’m clearly biased, but I really do believe that it’s worth investing in your own website. Here’s why…

The benefits

  • ‘A website makes it real’ – it shows readers that you take your writing seriously and that you are in it for the long haul
  • It’s the only place online you have complete control over your profile
  • It’s a place to house all your books together in one spot, making it easy for readers to discover more about you and your writing
  • It’s the easiest way to build an author mailing list
  • It provides a convenient place to house all the contact details for your publisher, agent, film agent etc, meaning that if important people want to get in touch, they can do so easily
  • And on that note it offers an easy way for your readers to get in touch and tell you they love your books!
  • It’s great for press, as it means they can easily find your official bio and headshot when writing pieces about you
  • It’s the best way to offer ‘behind the scenes’ and additional information about your events and news

The options

When it comes to building a website, you have a few options:

  • DIY – if you have the time, the tenacity and enjoy a bit of tech, then it’s pretty simple these days to build your own site. I would highly recommend Squarespace, the platform I design on – it has a beautifully simple drag-and-drop content management system with some amazing templates, plus it’s super secure and really good value for money too.
  • Do a build-your-own-website course – there are plenty of these around and I’m actually planning to launch my own author-specific course later this year (so if this might be of interest, do sign up to my mailing list to be the first to hear when it launches!).
  • Hire a web designer. This is the most straightforward and (hopefully) stress-free option but obviously requires more budget. However, paying a designer to build your site is also a one-off business expense, and you may consider it worth investing in a professional site that can grow with you if you’re planning to develop a long-term career as an author.

What to include

Hopefully, I’ve persuaded you that 2020 is the year that you’re finally going to get your author website sorted! But if you’re wondering what exactly you need to put on your author site, then allow me to enlighten you:

  • A mailing list sign-up form: I feel strongly that all authors should start building their mailing lists as soon as possible. Your mailing list is the only data you ‘own’ and more important than your social media platforms; their algorithms can and do change. Make sure there’s a clear sign up form on every page of your site, asking visitors to join your list. It’s also worth considering an incentive (after all, don’t we all get too many emails these days?) such as a free short story, to encourage visitors to sign up.
  • Links to buy your books: It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many authors don’t link to retailers from their websites so that visitors can easily and quickly purchase their books! Ask your publisher which retailers they recommend you link to, and make sure these links are very clear on the page by, for example, using buttons to draw attention to them.
  • Your author biography: It’s also a good idea to write it in the third person, so that journalists and bloggers can easily copy and paste it.
  • A contact form: It’s lovely to receive emails from readers, but you don’t want to put your personal email address on your website. Instead, add a contact form, which protects your privacy and will filter out any spam.
  • Professional contact details: And on that note – don’t forget to include links to your agent, publisher, publicist and any other professional contacts that people searching for you might need.
  • Links to your social media pages: Another thing authors often forget – make sure you put links to all your active social media links on your author website. I say ‘active’ because there’s really little point in linking to a dusty old Twitter account that hasn’t been updated in years. If it’s not something you use regularly, take it off.
  • Testimonials / press reviews: Your author website is obviously the perfect place to collate any your author reviews, blurbs, newspaper/magazine/blogger reviews and interviews you’ve done. You can confine these all to one dedicated page, or sprinkle them throughout the site to break up the other pages.
  • Details of any upcoming events: Not all writers do events, but if you do, make sure they’re listed clearly on your site, with links to how readers can book tickets if necessary. And remember to remove them once they’ve passed – a website with out-of-date event listings doesn’t give a great impression.
  • Reading group questions: It’s also worth adding any Book Club material you might have prepared with your publisher to your website, so that readers can find it easily.

What about blogs?

I get asked a lot of questions about blogs, and whether or not authors should have them. And I always say the same thing: they are excellent, but only if you make a commitment to them.

Blogs are a brilliant way of bringing fresh eyes to your website, and are also great for your SEO (search engine optimisation), as Google prioritises websites that are updated regularly.

But for blogging to truly pay off, it needs to be done regularly and consistently, and be treated as seriously as all your other writing projects. This means spending time to really research the art of blogging, including what subject matter is going to be most beneficial to your audience, how long the posts should be, how to format them so that they are as useful as possible, making effective use of images and making sure you use keywords effectively in the copy and in your blog titles.

Blogging is a huge industry, so if you do decide to launch a blog, you’ll find lots of great advice online about making the most of yours. My biggest tip with blogging is to find a schedule that works for you (whether that’s daily, once a week, or bi-monthly) and be consistent. It’s easy to run out of steam after your initial enthusiasm wears off, so make a commitment and stick to it!So that’s it; my essential guide to author websites. You really don’t have to spend a fortune, or an age, but setting aside a day or two to professionalise yourself online is really worthwhile, and most authors are so proud once their websites are up and running. It’s great to see all your hard work showcased in one place. Don’t forget too, that your author website is a legitimate business expense!

If you have any questions about setting up your author site, then I’m happy to help! I also blog regularly about all-things-author-websites, sharing my top tips and advice, and you find all my latest posts here.

And if you’re a debut novelist, do download my free 30-page ebook, The Debut Author’s Survival Guide, which will hopefully answer all your questions about the most exciting (and terrifying) year of your writing life!

Good luck!

 

Charlotte Duckworth is a 2017 graduate of our Writing a Novel course, and is the author of psychological suspense novels The Rival, Unfollow Me and the upcoming The Perfect Father, all published by Quercus. She also runs her own web design studio here, specialising in beautiful Squarespace websites for authors. You can chat to her about books, snacks and avoiding her WIP on Twitter @charduck.

‘Tis(n’t) the season: How to get any writing done this Christmas

Long dark nights and plenty of snacks: by rights, Christmas should be the perfect opportunity to get words on the page. But in practice, it’s easy for December to fly by in a blur of mince pies and endless Love Actually reruns, and it’s not unusual to find yourself wondering where all that lovely writing time you’d planned has disappeared to.

Here are a couple of tried-and-tested ways to get the season to work for you, whatever you’re up to.

Try a cloud-based app – or go analogue with a notebook and pen

If the next couple of weeks are looking a bit jammed for you – whether with parties, family commitments or a job that gets extra busy at this time of the year – it can be hard to find a decent window to be alone with your laptop. Instead, try and get creative with the places and ways in which you write. I’m a recent convert to working on Google Docs, because it means I can open and edit my manuscript on my iPad on the train to work, on my phone when I’m stuck in a queue, and on my laptop when I finally do get enough time to sit down and write for longer. There are plenty of apps available that allow you to do this, so finding one you like working with on your devices can make it far easier to get a couple of hundred words down when you get a quiet moment (sneak your phone into the kitchen with you when you go to check on the turkey, or hide your tablet behind a sofa cushion ready for when everyone else has a snooze in the afternoon).

Of course, you don’t need fancy technology to make writing a more portable pastime. Grab yourself a nice notebook and try writing by hand if it’s not something you usually do. You’ll be surprised at how much it’s possible to jot down in the space of a bus ride once you’re headed home with your Christmas shopping.

Don’t make it a chore

While it’s good to have targets, sitting down to write because you feel you should is one of the quickest ways to kill your creativity. This can be even harder if you’ve got feelings of should coming from other directions, too: I should be spending time with loved ones or I should be mulling my own wine and making my own wrapping paper or I should be watching as many trashy Christmas films as Netflix can offer me. When there are so many demands on your time, make sure writing is something you’re excited about, not something you’re forcing yourself to do. If that means that some days you write out of order – skipping to a crucial scene you’ve been planning for ages or cycling back to fill in some backstory about a character you’ve become more interested in – then that’s okay. If it means that some days you don’t work on the manuscript at all, but fill in a character questionnaire or sketch out a chapter outline instead, that’s okay too. It all counts. And if it means you work on something entirely different to what you were planning, well… don’t tell anyone I said this, but that’s fine too. Treat yourself and try and have fun with whatever you’re writing – you can always come back to the trickier thing you were stuck on when January rolls around, and you’ll probably feel re-energised and ready for it.

Find a friend

If you’re determined to really make the holidays count and get lots of writing done, find someone else who is too. Whether it’s a friend you can keep in touch with via text or meet up with in person (country pub with a roaring fire, anyone?), or a writing group you share a WhatsApp group with, or even friendly like-minded writers on Twitter, there’s nothing like feeling part of something to keep your focus on the page. Why not suggest word-sprints – where you all write uninterrupted for a set amount of time (15 or 20 or 30 minutes or whatever you have) and then report back on how you got on. Feeling accountable for your day’s output – even if it’s just a quick text to say ‘Hooray, 1000 words in between naps today!’ – is a great way to motivate yourself even after the third tub of Quality Street.

Remember you don’t have to be writing to be working

Whatever the time of year, it’s important to remind yourself that much of the writing process happens away from your manuscript – and some of that is really crucial stuff. It’s the thinking time and the moments when your mind wanders just enough to let ideas sneak up on you (as Stephen King calls it, the boys in the basement). It’s the plotting and wondering and listening. Listening to the world around you, to how people speak, how they react, how they think, will make you a better writer, but Christmas is an especially good time to also step back from the technicalities of the craft and listen to what engages the people around you when it comes to stories. What are the films they choose to watch on their days off, what are the books they’ve asked for? And what about you – what do you find yourself reaching for when you have an hour or two to yourself? Whether it’s a novel you’ve been saving for ages or that entire afternoon of Christmas films, regularly losing yourself in a story is frankly just good practice for any writer. Use this time to fill up your creative well, to remember what inspires and excites you about fiction.  Because that’s something that’s really worth celebrating.

Five reasons your plot might be stalling – and how to kick-start it again

Our Writing a Novel students have been tackling the subject of Plot vs Story this week, getting to grips with the selection and ordering of events within their novel and how best both can serve them. It’s something we’ve been talking about in the office too, especially as I started a new project for NaNoWriMo this month, which then fell down at the 20,000 word mark – not-so-coincidentally the point at which my outline also ended. I’ve experimented a lot with plotting and planning over the past few years, trying to figure out what works best for me (too detailed an outline and I lose interest; not enough of one and clearly I falter at the first hurdle).

But whether you’re a planner or a pantser, there are all kinds of ways in which your plot can go off the rails when you’re working on a first draft. Here are five of the most common.

You’re lacking connection

Plot is all about causality – it’s the why to your story’s who, what, when and where. How does this scene you’re showing us affect what comes next – and how was it related to what came before? These moments of connection, the feeling of pieces falling into place, are the driving force of a novel. So if everything happening in yours feels too disparate, too random, it can end up being boring for a reader, giving them no sense of something to follow. 

This doesn’t mean every novel must consist of a chain of tightly connected, dramatic events – twist followed by bomb disposal followed by marriage proposal and another twist for good measure. Yes, action often leads plot, but change occurring in a smaller, more internal sense is just as valid an engine in a more character-led novel. Having said that, even in a novel where not much is externally happening, you still need to be thinking of the why. Why is this happening to these characters at this moment – and why is important for us to see? 

You’ve got it all going on

At the other end of the scale, it’s easy to overcrowd your plot; to load it up with scenes and moments and key events to interest your reader. While this can have a propulsive effect, it can quickly become overwhelming. Giving us too many potential paths and connections, too many ways in which the novel could branch off (Why is that character doing that? Is this significant? What happened back in 1964 and why does that character keep mentioning it? Whose hat is that?) is confusing – instead of having no sense of something to follow, we start to wonder which thread we’re supposed to be most engaged with. 

Try going back to the drawing board – this could be a whiteboard and markers, or a roll of wallpaper and post-it notes, or (my new personal favourite) a good old Excel spreadsheet. Write down each of the key plot points in the novel, colour-coding them so you can see whether it’s to do with the main storyline or a sub-plot. You can further colour-code to show whether it’s a turning point – something dramatically important – or a quieter moment (and if you’ve got multiple narrators or viewpoints, chuck in a marker for those too). Looking at the beats in the bare bones of your structure like that, do they seem well-balanced? Or do they cluster together? Do any of them seem repetitive or unnecessary when viewed with the rest?  

Where you’ve ended up doesn’t fit with where you started out

No matter how meticulous a planner you are, novels have a way of surprising you as you write. The better you get to know your characters, the keener the sense you have of how they would react in certain situations, and that alone can change the plot you thought you had all nailed down. And if you set off without any of that in the first place, well, all the more mysterious the journey and its destination. 

The thing is, often the end of a story is what must inform its beginning. The two need to feel linked, as if the place we leave our characters was in some way inevitable from the moment we met them. And sometimes (most of the time!) as a writer it’s not possible to have that until you’ve walked the story the whole way through for the first (even, let’s be honest, the third) time. It’s only then that you can really look back and see where pieces need to be moved or added to pull the picture into place. If you’re halfway through and already feeling like you’ve drifted off course, don’t panic. Make notes if you can see where things might need to change in what you’ve already written, but don’t feel like you have to go back and start unpicking it all immediately (though of course it’s also fine to do that if that’s how you work best). Sometimes you need to get it all on the page before you can truly see where the plot lies. FYI, I’m pretty sure Eliot was confirming his pantser status when he came up with that whole thing about the end being where we start from. 

It’s all a matter of time

Sometimes the pieces are all technically in the right place – it’s the gaps between them that are causing the problem. Setting those key beats too far apart can see you lose momentum, but not having enough quiet space in between can mean you don’t allow yourself room for the characters to develop and breathe before the plot carries them on. 

Choosing the time frame covered by your novel is not a simple matter of saying ‘It starts on this date and ends on this one’ but also of deciding how much of that you want to set down on the page. Will you be relating events in as close to real time as you can, letting us live every moment (brave, but it can work!)? Or are we joining our characters at certain important days or weeks within a longer time period, perhaps even to the extent that that spacing and placement of those moments informs the novel’s structure (as in One Day or The Time Traveller’s Wife)? If you’re struggling to see why your plot is lagging or bunching up, think carefully about the time period you’ve chosen – was there a specific reason you wanted to set it over the course of an hour or a week or a summer or a decade? Do you still need to? And would there be anything to gain from switching up the chronology – would that exciting event that happens near the end actually make a brilliant prologue?

The plot itself is all good – but it needs a better agent

Even if you feel you’ve got the unfolding of your story exactly right – things in the right order, the pieces balanced and leading logically to one another – your plot might still feel lacking. In that case, it could be worth considering going back and looking at the way in which you’re setting out this story – might it be better told with two narrators, two different chains of events (or the same chain divided between them to show us conflicting versions)? Or is there another time strand to include which might shed light on or recast your current plot in a different and more interesting way? Sometimes shifting perspective rather than rearranging the elements of your story itself can pull things more tightly into place, or open up a path between your beginning and end that you hadn’t realised was there. And somehow, those always seem to turn out to be the perfect ones.

Darren O’Sullivan: The Three Steps of a First Draft

As an author who is lucky enough to do the odd panel, I get asked a lot of questions about how I got started. I completely understand why. Only four years ago I was a student at the Faber Academy, and Colette McBeth was answering the exact same question (in fact, I may have been the person to ask it). I was mesmerised by what she said, fascinated by her journey, and as I sat in the audience, listening to how she believed a first draft shouldn’t be perfect, I let myself dream of the day I would have my own story to tell.

Now I’m working on my sixth novel after being picked up by HQ two years ago.

The journey from then to now hasn’t been plain sailing: there have been a lot of rejections, tons of despair, and with my debut, Our Little Secret, I had to cut the best part of 70,000 words to rework it, even after an initial cull and rewrite. I literally have twice as many binned words as in the actual finished novel! It may sound pretty traumatic to have to throw away so much work, but in fact it’s been a blessing in disguise – and the most important learning curve for my writing process.

Now, when I begin a first draft, I go through three stages.

1: Ask What if?

Before I write a single word, I work on who the story is about and I get to know them. After a week or so, I have a good idea of who the character at the heart of the book is – but at that point I don’t think about the hook or the twist or even what’s going to happen (or what has happened) to them. Instead I ask, What if?  I throw situations at my characters; I drop them at the deep end of that situation and see how they react. A lot of the time the character begins to do things and say things I wouldn’t have considered.

This is, for me, one of the most important aspects of creating a story. Adding those immeasurably valuable two words to my thought process removed the crushing doubt and allowed me to have fun (well, as much fun as a person can have after cutting 70,000 words of course). In the What if lives endless possibility, unlimited creation, a universe of avenues to explore and new situations to develop. And it removed my super ego – because how can you be definitively right in a world with so much possibility?

And from that initial What if, I begin to write, building the scene and the world the character is in, until I hit a dead end. Then another What if usually kicks the story along. In my fourth book, Dark Corners, which is coming out in April 2020, I knew before I began to write that Neve Chambers had a secret she had been holding onto for over twenty years. But I didn’t know what it was. I knew she had moved away from where she grew up and lived in London, but I didn’t know why. I knew she had a challenging relationship with her father. But I didn’t know what had caused it. Then I asked the question. What if she had to go back to the village she fled when she was younger? What would happen? What if she hadn’t been back since the day she left, and what if the place she fled was so small, so wrapped up in its past, it hadn’t forgotten how she’d abandoned them in their time of need?

Once I had asked these questions, I wrote them down where I could see them, so I could reference them whenever I was building a scene.

2: Get it on the page

After the What if, the second part of my process is about getting the story down. I try to have an idea where I want to go, a few notes made in my journal, but it’s not essential. What is essential is to get it down on paper. I write breathlessly and my first drafts are scrappy. But that’s okay (thanks, Colette). Character motivations aren’t always clear, the plot will have holes everywhere. But at the start this doesn’t matter.

I aim to write the first draft in ten weeks. Some days I get to write from 9am until 3pm. Some days I have to write a bit in the morning, and then again once my little one is in bed for the night. But ten weeks is the target – it’s quite quick, I’m aware, but if you break that down, it’s just 1500 words a day, six days a week. All that matters is getting it down, getting it out of my head and asking the thousand What ifs along the way.

I lay out what I have on my office wall, using post-it notes to colour code the POV; plot points, as they are; and the questions I have yet to find the answer for. Then, the real work begins as I try to turn the messy, issue-riddled story into something a reader might enjoy. What I don’t do in this first draft process is get in my own way. I don’t stop when doubt tells me it’s shit. I don’t realise the plot is sticky and try to fix too soon. I focus on the only thing I can control at this point, which is the act of being at my laptop, putting down the words. Sure, a lot of the words won’t be the right ones but don’t they say, don’t get it right, just get it written?

3: Begin again, out loud

I often find it’s only once the first draft is done that I truly understand what I’m trying to say. For example, in my third book, Closer Than You Think, it wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I understood quite how close the killer was to the protagonist at all times. This detail wasn’t in my plan, and I didn’t know it was happening until the conclusion was wrapped up. Knowing this altered how I understood the story I was trying to tell, and consequently became a hugely powerful thread within the book.

So once the first draft is down, I begin again. I read the story out loud, a red pen in one hand, a green in the other. The red cuts the repetition and pointless words, the green is used to find the places where I can answer the questions I’ve posed for myself and add new details I can only see when I hear it spoken.

And once I’ve completed my three phases, I hand it in, to begin again with my What ifs once my editor has made their comments.

But there’s also the fourth – and most important – step.

4: Protect the love of writing

Writing a book, as we all know, is bloody hard. It’s a sometimes insurmountable summit and although I’ve condensed my process to a three step guide, there are dozens of side steps and backward steps. There is research and waking up in the middle of the night with ‘incredible’ ideas that turn out to make no sense once morning comes. There are sales figures and reviews and deadlines. It’s hard. But I make it a daily practice to remember my time before I was a published author, when I was sat at the Faber Academy, scribbling down every piece of information my tutor and other authors shared. I make it a daily practice to remember the reason I write. I didn’t want a six figure advance (in the beginning, I didn’t even know authors could get six figure advances!). All I wanted was to tell a story, finish it, and feel empowered to try and tell another. When no-one cared about my books, when I had no deadline, no reviews, no sales figures, I wrote because I loved it, and I protect that feeling every single day. And that, for me is the most important part of writing a book. I remind myself how much I adore writing. And that way, the 90,000 new words I need to produce in a new world I have dreamt up doesn’t seem so hard a mountain to climb.

 

Darren O’Sullivan is the author of three bestselling novels: Our Little Secret, Close Your Eyes and Closer Than You Think. His fourth novel, Dark Corners, will be published next April. He’s represented by the Madeleine Milburn Agency. Darren is a graduate of our Writing A Novel course.

You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, or visit his website

Applying for Writing A Novel? Here’s how to stand out from the crowd

As the end of the year approaches, we’re looking forward to January and the new term, when we’ll be welcoming the next set of students onto our six month Writing A Novel course. The course is now in its tenth year, having launched the careers of over a hundred authors, and we’re really proud of it. As applications start to come in, we asked our tutors to tell us what it is they’re hoping to see when they sit down to read through them – and what makes them want to offer someone a place in their class.

Our tutors on the daytime version of the course, Sabrina Broadbent and Shelley Weiner, are looking for originality and determination. Sabrina told us:

In the writing sample, I’m on the lookout for latent signs of that rare thing ‘an original voice’, which is hard to define yet unmistakeable when you read it. It often emerges out of risk, nonconformity and difference. Unusual dialogue is a good sign. Irreverence and wit also. With the letter, I’m usually thinking of what a good writing group needs – insight, humility, self awareness, commitment, a range of viewpoints and experiences.

Shelley agreed that the letter tells her a lot about how prepared an applicant might be for the challenges of the course:

The prose extract is important but, more than a piece of finely honed fiction, I look for freshness, a sense of urgency, an eye for the quirks and oddities in life. The letter should be articulate and coherent, expressing the potential student’s passion, realism and determination: passion for the crazy endeavour of long-form fiction, realism about the challenges involved, and determination to see it through.

 

Our tutors for the evening version of the course, Richard Kelly, Sarah May and Richard Skinner, are also looking for promise in both a potential student’s writing and their ability to contribute to the group. Richard Kelly told us:

What I love to find in an application is a sharp and original idea, some well-made sentences, and an overall sense of the writer’s readiness to share and exchange – which is the making of a great class.

 

Sarah May doesn’t expect an applicant to come with their novel fully-formed – it’s the raw material which matters most:

What am I looking for? Passion and potential in the writing sample. These outweigh polish and perfection every time. The covering letter needs to demonstrate commitment and an ability to work collaboratively.

 

 

And Richard Skinner, who created the course in 2009, agreed that polish isn’t everything – talent always shines through.

Of course we’re looking for good writing but, as long as a less polished piece has that certain something in it, that thing we’re all looking for but can’t name, then we’re interested.

 

 

Applications close for this iteration of the course on 31 December 2019. If you’re thinking about applying and want to know more, you can always drop us a line at academy@faber.co.uk or on 0207 927 3868.

#QUICKFIC 30/08/2019

Hello hello and welcome to the last days of summer. Faber Academy has a shiny new home and #QUICKFIC, our Flash Fiction competition, has shiny new bookshelves I can take photos on! It’s all very exciting.

Even more exciting (to me, personally) is the pieces that you’re going to produce. Alumni of #QUICKFIC, skip on down to the prompt at the bottom of the page. Newcomers, read on for the rules, regulations and requirements for this particular game:

  • You’re going to see a prompt on Friday morning at 9:50 am. Prompts can be anything, including but not limited to: Playlists, Wikipedia Articles, Quotes From Authors/Books/Taylor Swift Songs Because The New Album Is Great, Pictures and anything else I can come up with, so be prepared!
  • You then write a a short story of 250 words or less inspired by that prompt.
  • Paste your story into the body of an email, including a title and your word count, and send that email to academy@faber.co.uk by 2:50pm on the Friday afternoon.  Use the subject line #QUICKFIC 30/08/2019.
  • Once 3:30 pm hits, whip on over to this here blog or Twitter for the winners to be revealed.

Your winning author does, of course, receive a prize. This week we’ve got Louise Doughty’s brilliant new novel Platform Seven and, ahead of the release of her new novel Girl next week, Edna O’Brien’s August is a Wicked Month

 

On with the show! Here’s your prompt:

By entering Faber Academy’s flash fiction competition #QUICKFIC , you’re granting us non-exclusive worldwide permission to reprint your story on our website should you win.