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.

 

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.

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.

‘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

Four reasons your POV isn’t working

It’s one of the first decisions you need to make when starting a novel (or a short story or screenplay or pretty much all writing in fact): who is telling this story, and how are they choosing to do so?

This week at Bloomsbury House, our Writing A Novel students have been learning about point of view. First person, second or third; past or present or a combination thereof – finding the perfect voice can do wonders for your narrative.

But if something doesn’t feel right as you start putting the words down on the page, here are some of the reasons your chosen POV might not be working for you.

Your first person narrator doesn’t know enough… Or they know too much

Writing in the first person can be a real gift – done well, it can quickly bring your reader close, make your action feel more immediate. But it can prove tricky in terms of plot because we can only know what your narrator knows; while this can add intrigue and layers to the reading experience, you may also find yourself constantly having to invent ways for them to overhear or see things that move the story along.

At the opposite end of the scale, a first person narrator can sometimes know too much for your plot to feel believable. If your main character is withholding information from the reader that will provide a twist at the end, think carefully about the mechanics of this. Of course deliberate misdirection can work brilliantly (do we even need to mention The Murder of Roger Ackroyd here?), but this suggests an interaction, a dialogue between narrator and reader. You can do this by playing with form – the diary sections of Gone Girl are another oft-used example – but if your novel features a more traditional first person narrative then there should be a good reason that a relevant fact doesn’t surface in their inner monologue until the point at which it serves you best. It can feel like a cheat, for example, if your main character spends an entire novel watching a murder investigation and only acknowledges to themselves right at the end that they’ve held a vital clue all along.

Your third person narrative is keeping you at arm’s length

A third person narrative can give you a lot of freedom. If you choose an omniscient narrator you can decide to move from character to character, even to impart information that none of them have; whilst even a close third person narrative can offer a cooler, more balanced perspective than being inside that character’s head. But it can also be limiting in certain stories.

Sometimes we need to have a closeness to our protagonist(s) in order to fully experience the things that are happening to them, and in the third person, you may find yourself resorting to that much-feared writing sin of telling your reader what your character is feeling and thinking. Consider this: Brian thought that Miranda was an idiot, especially since that time she had broken his favourite mug in the kitchen on the same day that he had stepped in a puddle on the way to work. He thought about what an awful day that had been. It becomes laborious to read; distancing for a reader. Instead, novelists from Jane Austen to Stephen King have made excellent use of free indirect style to bring their narrative to life. Miranda was an idiot. What about that time she had broken his favourite mug? That had been an awful day; his trousers still wet from the puddle he had stepped in on the way to work. The content is essentially the same and yet it subtly positions us, the reader, in a different way.

Your past tense is… not so tense

While writing in the past tense offers you a great level of control as a writer, if you’re also using the first person, it can make it harder to add suspense. Because how to make us wonder if things will turn out alright when the narrator is patently here to tell the tale? The third person can offer better grounds for toying with your reader here, giving you all the power. But it can work in the first person too – if you have that relationship between narrator and reader mentioned above. Is your narrator holding back what happened from us? Or do we know from the outset where they are now, and the drive of the narrative is therefore in finding out how that came to be?

Something to consider with any story is the question: why should we care? Why will we read on? Is it to watch events unfold, or to simply enjoy being in the company of an irresistible narrator? Is it because we can’t stop, because we need to know what happens next? Knowing this when you set out will help you work out at an early stage whether the POV you have chosen is going to help you achieve that goal.

The voice you’re using is great – but it doesn’t belong to the character you’re writing

Sometimes everything can be great in the thing you’re writing – you love the prose, you can tell the pace is there, exposition is no problem – but somehow it just still feels… wrong. If you’re writing in the first person, take a step back and consider your narrator. Think about who they are, where they’ve come from, what they’ve been through. Is the voice you’ve given them built up from that? Does everything that gives it depth – their vocabulary, their speech patterns, the unique way they think about and look at the world – come from it? If the answer is no – if the voice came first and their story is something you’re figuring out along the way, or if your plot has shifted and changed the longer you’ve been working on it, it could be time to revisit who this narrator is. Character questionnaires and other short exercises can be a great way to do this; on Writing A Novel, we often recommend students attempt writing a letter to themselves, the author, from their protagonists. Get to know your character again and you may find your POV slipping back into place.

Five Tips For Writing A Powerful Short Story by Shelley Weiner

5s53 piece 799

This post is written by acclaimed novelist and Academy favourite, Shelley Weiner. This is not her. This is a person unsure of the power of their short fiction.

It is a commonly held fallacy that short stories are somehow easier to write than novels – and certainly they’re, well, shorter. But that’s about it. A perfect piece of short fiction is as hard to achieve as a finely wrought item of jewellery. It demands precision, supreme control, and a good strong tale at its heart.

Here, to get you started, are five essential tips:

  1. Know every character in your story. What does each one of them want? What will they do in order to get it?

  2. Be ruthless. Make something happen to your main character that will put him or her to the test. This will help your reader to care about the outcome, which is vital.

  3. Make your opening as close as possible to the ending. Constricting the time frame can strengthen your tale.

  4. Write your story as though it’s a letter to a friend who shares your sensibilities – and your sense of humour. It’s a trick to make your story more engaging and to help with the flow.

  5. Every word counts; every sentence should advance the story. Don’t waste a single comma or distract your reader’s attention with an ill-conceived metaphor or an irrelevant piece of purple prose.

Shelley Weiner

 

Shelley Weiner is the tutor on our week-long course, The Five Day Short Story.