manuscript, self publishing, Writer's Block, Writing Tips

Writer’s Block and How to Reconnect with the Muse

Writers Block

 

Let’s begin with the one thing you had always suspected but were too scared to accept: There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block

 

It’s a masterfully crafted excuse by some definitely talented writer who was also a good salesman, because not only did he convince himself that he was suffering from some legit creative problem he got the whole world to sign up too.

 

Yes, we all have blank page blues, we all have ‘off’ days, but by giving it a name and a very negative one at that, we want to wallow in it a little more. It justifies prolonged rest. And that’s what most writers are seeking – a long period of rest.

 

“Hey, not fair! I really can’t get anything written.”

I am not trivializing your problem. You have hit a wall; you are having a bad day at the end of a bad week; you don’t feel enthused enough to get back to work. Yes it happens, and it happens to everyone not just writers.

 

The good part is Writer’s Block should be anticipated (it’s natural) and it can be prevented. Let us look at some simple yet effective preventive measures

 

  1. Your story should excite you first.

Most writers focus on what’s hot in the market.  They think from the reader’s point of view and make conjectures about what they will love. The end result is an idea that you are enthusiastic about only because you think the market will be enthusiastic about it. And somewhere around page 110 you will hit a wall, because it’s not the story you wanted to write. Of course, you will call it Writer’s block.

Well no one can predict what the next flavour of choice will be. However, you can rest assured it will not be about a boy wizard or a billionaire abuser. The next big thing will obviously not be the current big thing, or maybe it will. No good will come from trying to predict people’s choices.

Think of it like this: If my story doesn’t excite me, it’s hardly going to excite anyone else.

 

  1. Write regularly

Writers who write everyday also have bad days when nothing seems to flow. After 10 days of writing, if the 11th, 12th and 13th days are unproductive you will feel bad but you are less likely to label it as something as monstrous as Writer’s Block.

If, however, you are not a regular writer and write 3 days a week, then 3 days of no output will feel like one week of no output and soon you will be making a bigger deal of this slump than it is.

 

  1. Writing time is for writing ONLY

You must set aside regular writing time, even if it’s only an hour a day. And, do nothing but write during that hour. Writers often set aside only 30 minutes a day and then use it for plotting, research, etc. This creates an illusion of a long gap in writing and before you know it, it feels like, well, Writer’s Block.

Also sticking to a schedule instils discipline and encourages creativity. Most importantly, you can now have a word count target and get that book finished.

 

  1. Feedback shouldn’t set you back

Writers often have an annoying need for approval and they pretty much go about showing their unfinished work to anyone they can.

Don’t.

It’s counterproductive.

First, your book isn’t complete. Objective evaluation of unfinished work is tricky business even for professionals, have mercy on your unsuspecting aunt.

Secondly, and this brings us to the Writer’s Block, iterations and revisions on existing pages based on multiple feedback from different sources leads to the sense of stagnation. If you have reworked your first 30 pages and actually written 60 pages only to shrink it down to 30, you will feel like you haven’t progressed, and you really haven’t. 10 days after seeking feedback and 30 pages later you are not on page 60, you are still on page 30. Don’t edit and don’t seek feedback till the first draft is done.

Third, your first 30 pages will change more than the rest of your book so sending it out before the first draft is complete is purposeless.

TIP: There will be some small amount of editing that you will absolutely need to get done as you go along, try to do it on the weekend when you haven’t scheduled a writing time.

 

  1. The 60 day first draft

I have observed a pattern and it has so few deviations that it should be a rule. Any first draft that is not completed within two months of writing the first word is never completed.

The first draft must be ready within 60 days.

Think about it, if you have 8 weeks and you are writing only 5 days a week, you have 40 days in which you can finish between 40,000 to 80,000 words.

This isn’t some crazy talk about mathematics and interpolation. Think of it as a relaxed NaNoWriMo with 2 months instead of 1 and a target of 40k to 80k instead of 50k.

 

Unless you have the first draft down in 8 weeks, you will lose interest. Those brilliant plot points will seem riddled with holes, and perhaps they are, but now’s not the time for editing, now’s the time for writing.

The well rounded characters in your story will appear to be rough around the edges and the arcs you saw playing out so well will now seem silly and formulaic. Time is not the healer in fiction, get the first draft done in 60 days and then beat the crap out of it till you get a book worthy of putting your name on.

 

Now supposing you somehow find yourself inside the writer’s block, precautionary measures will not help. Let’s look at some ways to move out of the Writer’s Block

 

  1. Shut out your inner critic

Most are in this writing rut because they feel the story isn’t good enough, the characters are lousy, the writing is juvenile. And maybe that’s all true but your aim right now is to get out of this spot and you can do that ONLY if you shut out the critic in you.

Give free reign to the creative part in you and work doggedly to get out of the rut. It’s similar to getting your car tyre out of a ditch, you will have to accelerate, maybe give it a push or do whatever it takes, because you know once you are out of the ditch it’s smooth sailing again.

There’s no point criticizing your driving skills or your vision or your level of alertness, FIRST GET OUT.

 

  1. Write a short story

Sometimes you are in a generic writer’s block, it’s got nothing to do with your book but rather your lack of practice in writing. You haven’t written in a long while and suddenly that complicated storyline seems undoable.

Start small.

Write an unrelated short story or write the back story of one of your characters.

Once the writing machine in you has warmed up, get down to the book again

 

  1. Do the unfamiliar

If you type your novel, then use a desktop instead of your laptop or simply use a pencil and paper to write the next few pages. This is new and changes the way your mind responds to the task at hand.

OR

Draw a picture (no matter how crude) of the next scene, the one you are stuck with. This is storyboarding and you suddenly get drawn into the picture and can get started on writing. Many screenwriters use this technique.

OR

Start by describing the setting of your next scene, get elaborate. Keep the action to the minimum. You will turn it around once you edit. This will help you get out of a bad scene and who knows, once your draft is done you may not even need the scene anymore.

OR

Change your office. If you work from home, go to a cafe. If you work from a cafe, change to another one. Drink tea instead of coffee while writing.

OR

Change the time slot for writing. Write in the wee hours of the morning or in the afternoon, change your time.

 

Change the scenery, refresh your mind, do the unfamiliar.

 

Now let’s look at some instances of the writer running into a plot wall. Your plot and story has stopped and therefore so has your writing. These are plot problems that appear like writing plateaus. Let’s see how to get out of them.

  1. Get back to the drawing board

Sometimes, though not often, you will find yourself in a corner. Be warned, it’s not the so called writer’s block it is much more problematic: You have written yourself into a corner.

This is complicated since the only way t get out of the corner is by retracing your steps. In other words, undoing all that you did from the point where the story still has alternatives.

Did your hero just sleep with the heroine’s best friend? There is no way to bring him back from there and unite him with the heroine without expanding the story arc or you will end up making him look like a jerk.

This isn’t writer’s block, it’s a plot problem and you need to be open and flexible about going back to the drawing board.

 

2. Introduce a big change

Introduce a new character, but tie him to the story and create a sub-plot that excites. It should help the main plot. Mainly, your sub-plot must help you make your way out of the rut.

Alternatively, think of killing off a character. This will get you ideating about who will be killed. How? Why? What will it mean for the story?

Ask “what if X dies or is killed.”

Or change the setting completely. New settings will bring about new problems. Exploit them.

 

A writer’s imagination is a powerful thing…sometimes it fools the writer into giving up. Writer’s block is not in your head, it is in fact nowhere. It’s just a few bad writing days followed by a few more bad writing days, nothing that can’t be handled. Writers are made of sterner stuff.

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

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The Basics of a Bad Novel : Writing

Part III – Writing

10 problems in Writing Fiction

This is the conclusion of our discussion on FRUSTRATING NOVELS, novels that could have been good but missed the mark. In the previous posts, we have drilled down problems of plotting and mercilessly evaluated the role and necessity of characters.

Let’s now turn our attention to the final big contributor to writing a bad novel, the Writing itself.

 

Just to be clear, by flawed writing I do not mean elements of style and prose or the mechanics of grammar. I am not comparing one piece of writing with another, not lamenting wrong word usage, not talking about making sentences better, paragraphs tighter, or any such thing. I am referring to writing that is fundamentally wrong, writing that is neither ideally structured nor clearly purposeful.

The common problems are many but we will restrict ourselves to look at the 10 most dominant flaws

 

  1. Unnecessary descriptions

Books aren’t visual like movies and hence descriptions are very important, but the length and placement of this description is the key to good reading. Too much description or description in the middle of action takes away from the flow of the story.

A lot of writers depend on lengthy descriptions to amp up the word count because they feel their novel isn’t thick enough. I am yet to come across a buyer who picks up a book tries to figure out its weight and says, “Aah, heavy; must be good!”

If your book is too short you can explore characters or make sub-plots meatier. You could even introduce a few characters or sub-plots, tying them intrinsically to the story of course, but you cannot pad up your book with excess description.

Other writers aren’t chasing word count they are merely obsessed about descriptions. Everything has to be described and detailed; they would describe a chess board, one square at a time if they could. Readers pick up on these obsessed writers and in most cases, skip descriptions the moment they come to it.

Describing easily identifiable things is another problem. Some writers will describe Times Square or the London Bridge as if they were places in Middle Earth and no one’s heard of or seen them. This serves no purpose but to irritate the hell out of your reader. Even if your reader hasn’t heard of or seen Times Square, there is no reason to tell him about it unless something significant is going to happen there and an understanding of the environment is necessary.

 

  1. Description of attire

Description of each and every character and their clothes every time they enter a scene is also unnecessary; if done should be minimal.

Alice entered the office and set down her favourite umbrella, the one with the brown and yellow polka dots. Then she proceeded to take off her overcoat revealing a purple top paired with white trousers. The white trousers had been washed too many times as they were fading into a cream colored shabbiness. The purple top however was new, probably picked out of an end-of-season sale at one of the big fashion houses. It looked smart and fitted her form well.

80 words, but to what end?

Now imagine Alice enters 10 times in the course of the book and in each entry you describe her clothes, purse or some such thing in great detail. Now imagine doing that for all of the 10-12 characters you have and their various entries. There you go, your book is straight up by 10,000 words.

40 unnecessary pages!

 

 

  1. Weather reports

This covers more than just weather reports. Every chapter begins with an introduction to the setting: the location, the weather, the sounds, the smells.

You can rest assured that you have lost your reader, he has either finally abandoned your book or has jumped right into the third paragraph (Oh, I hope you have finished with it by the third paragraph!)

If you want to paint a picture of how cold London gets in November, you can keep adding a line here, a line there to remind the reader of the environment. You can however, do it only so many times.

Also weather and environmental descriptions need not be direct and boring.

He bobbed up and down on his toes to keep himself warm [A visual]

The icy cold wind attacked his exposed neck and he shivered from head to toe. It was cold. [A description]

 

 

  1. Let’s shake hands

Some authors describe mundane activities with the greatest of detail.

He approached the reception.

The receptionist looked up from her crossword

“Good morning, I am Clive Roberts.”

“Good morning Mr. Roberts. What can I do for you?”

I am here to see Miss David”

“Let me check?”

She calls up a number.

He taps on the desk while admiring the lobby [insert lengthy description of swanky lobby].

She tells the person on the other end about Mr. Roberts.

She nods to something.

She asks Mr. Roberts to follow her.

She escorts him to a [insert lengthy description] meeting room.

After some time Miss David enters.

He holds out his hand.

She takes his outstretched hand and shakes it in a warm yet professional manner.

And then the meeting starts.

Yay! What fun!

 

Get to the point. Get to the point where the action starts.

 

  1. Did I tell you about…?

Repeating information is another tool that authors use to sometimes to remind readers, sometimes to just give a character something to say, and sometimes to just fill some pages.

A tells B about C.

B tells D what A told him about C.

And the chain continues.

Some authors think repeating info is about reminding the reader. It works to an extent, and is also allowed to an extent, but it’s a tightrope walk. If you keep repeating information you encourage the reader to jump a few paragraphs here and there. The reader knows that you’ll remind him if he’s missed something important.

 

  1. The round table

This is the worst of all. It doesn’t necessarily use a round table but a bunch of characters essentially get together and recap information. In Chapter 1, A learns something and then in chapter 2, B learns something and so on. In chapter 6 A to E come together and recap all that they have learnt. Now they are all on the same page. You forget the reader was always on the same page, he knew all about this even when you didn’t recap it for him.

A more atrocious form of this is character exposition through discussions. People sit around (happens a lot in YA novels) and keep discussing other people. Six girls meet at a McDonald’s and discuss Andy and his friend Jake and that girl Sheena who’s always looking at Andy and then there’s Miranda who is always being stalked by Jake.

This fun round table assumes that the information shared is going to tell the readers more about the six girls and Andy and party. It’s a boring dump of information that stops the plot. It’s like a tea break in your story.

 

  1. The Wire-frame writing

A wire-frame acts as a placeholder and many writers who get a little too caught up with what’s-hot-now tend to use it liberally. Insert romantic scene here, insert car chase there, is how the plot is written. A lot of elements are put in because they need to be there. Or so the writer thinks.

While certain genres do have reasonable expectations like some cat-and-mouse in a thriller, some lovemaking in a romance, these motifs are part of the larger plot. They don’t add together to make up the plot. Having such a formulaic and free plot often leads to episodic writing. The individual pieces are often written separately and then inserted into the story.

Your novel reads like a newspaper, a lot of good writing, a lot of variety, but nothing binds it. Correcting this is easier said than done.

 

  1. The Full Precis

On the other extreme end of padded writing is the precis. This is basically plot points based writing: first this happens then this happens.

There are two types of precis that crop up every so often. The first one is the full precis: the entire novel has been more or less written as a narrative summary with maybe 8 to 10 scenes fleshed out.

The events do not happen or unfold for the reader. Then a few important scenes are suddenly happening in real time, unfolding before the reader’s eyes.

This kind of summarizing happens when the writer jots down plot points and then elaborates them one at a time, often forgetting that the elaboration should be in scenes and not merely a more detailed narration. Reading your novel has suddenly become a boring task, like listening to a basketball game commentary on the radio. It’s just not the real thing!

Fortunately, this can be easily overcome by changing the summarized parts of the novel to scenes and events.  Unfortunately, it is very laborious and often leads to a complete change in the story.

I am not suggesting your entire novel be written in scenes. There is a place for summarizing in fiction and it is a tool that should be used, only not as often as you use the scene. How to make seamless scenes is a topic that calls for an elaborate discussion for some other day.

 

  1. The Partial Precis

This narrative summarizing doesn’t pervade the whole book but a few important scenes and plot points are summarized.  This happens because the author doesn’t like writing particular scenes and rushes through them.

Mystery and thriller writers often find it difficult to handle scenes of courtship or romance and rush through them, while many romance writers tend to jump over scenes of actual fighting and give a quick summary instead.

If a scene is important then it has to be shown and detailed. If it is an unimportant scene it needs to be summarized and done away with. Consider the example in “Let’s shake hands” above, the entire scene at the lobby has to be summarized in two or three sentences, no detailing needed. The meeting is the important scene and it should be shown, in detail.

If you don’t know how to write a terrifying scene, learn it. You cannot deprive your reader of critical scenes for want of your own skills. A romance writer will rarely write a suspense scene like a thriller writer and a thriller writer will rarely match up to a romance writer in writing a courtship scene, but an OK scene is better than a fantastic summary.

Summarizing important scenes is like a roller coaster ride where you keep your eyes shut the whole time, the net result is that you know you have been on the roller coaster but you haven’t really experienced it. That’s exactly what the reader feels.

 

  1. Filler Scenes that look like filler scenes

Your novel will have filler scenes.

Gasp!

Yeah it will, and it must. Filler scenes are basically scenes of low intensity or low tension after scenes of high tension and they serve an important function: pacing.

You cannot have a lot of back-to-back high-tension or high-stakes scenes because they prevent your reader from absorbing the full impact of the high-tension scenes. Have you noticed how some readers get up for a glass of water or a short break once they finish a high-intensity scene, that’s because they want to savor it, they want to let it sink in.

If you don’t provide that break, they will find it for themselves.

A common ailment in FRUSTRATING NOVELS is that the Writer is often bored by these pacing scenes and is longing to jump to the next juicy turn in the plot. In jumping to the ‘next big event’ the writer does a shabby job of the pacing scene. This shoddy work on the pacing scene makes it clear to the reader that the scene is not important and your pacing scene (often called the sequel) is reduced to being a mere filler. And any self-respecting reader will jump over a filler scene the moment he figures it out.

You just killed the pace of your story.

 

These 10 flaws are extremely common and most are easy to avoid. These aren’t small mistakes, these are flaws that will take over your writing and destroy your book. Search them out and remove them.

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Basics of a Bad Novel : Plot

The Basics of a Bad Novel

 

Part II – Plot

In our discussion on FRUSTRATING NOVELS, we have taken a long and hard look at characters (Click HERE). We have identified one big contributor to writing a bad novel, it’s time to look at the next one:  Plot.

I am not talking about small problems in plot points that even the most seasoned of writers face from time to time. J K Rowling admits to plotting issues in The Goblet of Fire, this despite having plotted the entire 7 books before she started.  Plotting issues are fine, but when plots and sub-plots are fundamentally flawed, little can be done to save the book. It is important to keep checking every now and again to see if your book has unwittingly wandered into the murky waters of flawed plots.

Let me clarify, by flawed plots I do not mean plots that don’t have logic or are unrealistic or unbelievable. I am talking about  plots that are plain wrong in structure and approach. These errors in plotting can be extremely difficult to rectify once your novel has started. Unfortunately, most of these plotting errors stem from a wrong understanding of important writing advice offered in writing courses.

I am breaking it down to 4 major flaws, the first of which is about the three wrong plot structures and the other 3 talk about generic plot issues

  1. The Main Plot Structure

If your main plot structure or the main action is marred by some flaws, it is almost impossible to correct that.  There are 3 types of plots that spell disaster.

A. The TRUST ME plot

This is the literary equivalent of walking into a room with no lights.  The author tells you to trust him and see where the story leads. It is often supported by good writing and just about intriguing enough to keep you hooked, but nothing makes sense. The author promises you with a “just a little further” or an “almost there.” Somewhere around page 75, some connection appears. A small thread of reason and logic finally appears to bind everything together. While it might sound like you are a master writer who wove magic and suddenly made things fit together, it isn’t really exciting for the reader. Most readers who have abandoned your book before page 50 will probably tell a dozen others that they couldn’t figure out what it was about. And NO, that’s not high praise.

The TRUST ME plot stems from the misinterpretation of a very important piece of writing advice: Your plot must not be obvious.

The above piece of plotting wisdom means that the action happening in the open should not have obvious reasons alone. There has to be hidden agendas and not-so-obvious things happening just under the skin of the story. While the focus of The Goblet of Fire was the tournament, there was something else of an agenda going on just a little away from our eyes.

In Mario Puzo’s timeless classic, The Godfather, when Carlo beats up Connie yet again, we feel he is just being the abusive husband he is, but there is more to the act.

It’s fantastic plotting. Unfortunately, all stories cannot have that. Fortunately, all stories don’t need to.

Your plot must not be obvious, but it doesn’t need to be a jigsaw puzzle.

 

B. The ROAD TRIP plot

There is no way I can call this plot anything but plain laziness. And, I have seen far too many manuscripts that have this plot.

A ROAD TRIP plot is just that, a road trip. It is not literally a road trip (sometimes it is), it is a journey. This journey redefines characters and gives them a better idea of who they are. The reader gets to share in on the character’s journey of self-realization.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

The writer is basically too lazy to come up with a story. A simple plot that has a goal at its end is good enough, but that would be too much work now, wouldn’t it.

There are many novels that have a ROAD TRIP plot and have succeeded. Don’t be misled into thinking you can get away with it. It requires phenomenal writing and tight editing to keep readers turning the pages.

It is the misinterpretation, and I believe, a deliberate misinterpretation of a fantastic piece of writing advice: The journey of a character is the story.

It is. A characters journey is in many ways the most important part of the plot, but it is not the plot.

Harry Potter is a clever and resourceful boy who is intelligent and quick to pick up new skills. He is very brave and has great integrity. He values his friendships and has equally devoted friends. Even in the face of great personal tragedy he does not take to the path of wrongdoing and is righteous till the very end.

Remove Voldemort and the above would have been the plot of the Harry Potter series, all 7 of them put together. No one wants to know about a character’s development in isolation. In the absence of a plot, character development and arc means very little.

 

C. The BEEN THERE plot

This is the mother of all obvious plots. The back cover of these books often have the words, “As time races” or “Will they be able to stop it in time” or “As the clock ticks away,  XYZ must make choices that will put his life in grave danger.”

Yup, BEEN THERE!

While it is not really bad structure, it will take a really good writer to pull off an obvious plot like that. These plots are so repetitive and predictable that readers have little to care about. “A nuclear device is stolen and has to be retrieved before it falls into the wrong hands, will ABC manage to do it?” – are you seriously telling me you would have written the book if the Hero (ABC) doesn’t manage to save the world by the end of the novel? Of course he will save the world, and then head over to the bar across the street to share a drink with James Bond and Superman.

It is the misinterpretation of another important piece of writing advice: The stakes must be high and there must be urgency.

Yes, your plot needs urgency. Yes, the stakes need to be high. However, high stakes and urgency are not all about saving the world from a ticking bomb.

To be fair, this often appears in romance novels too. Will X be able to win over Y before Y marries Z.

Again, examples of successful and brilliant novels that have used these plots abound, you need to be able to pull it off. Having an obvious point puts that much more pressure on your characters and your writing.

 

  1. Perspective

 

Perspective is just another fancy way of saying viewpoint or point of view. I deliberately named this as perspective and not POV to avoid any confusion with the structural elements of a point of view and how they apply to a scene or an entire novel.

Looking at plot from a POV perspective is important. It is important that you ask and know : Whose story is it?

A plot obviously involves more than one character, and the story appears differently to different characters, but there has to be a central character whose story we are telling.

 

Consider Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy

 

The first part (Batman Begins) is told from the perspective of Bruce Wayne. It is Bruce Wayne’s story. How Bruce Wayne loses his parents, gets disillusioned with the law and order system, goes off in search of something and returns as Batman to finally save the city that had taken everything away from him is the story.

It is Bruce Wayne’s story.

There are other characters, strong ones too, but it is not Falcone’s story or the Scarecrow’s story, it’s not Rachel’s story or Gordon’s story. It is Bruce Wayne’s story.

Each of the characters have an arc, each of them develop over the time and space of the story, but it is not their story. It is Bruce Wayne’s story.

Having told Bruce Wayne’s story in the first part, the second part (The Dark Knight) very astutely ignores Bruce Wayne. Once your main lead has done something (save Gotham) it is boring to talk about how he does it again. What we get is the Joker’s story of how he gets Batman out in the open and tries to win the fight for the soul of Gotham. Batman is a reactive character here, he is trying to catch the Joker, but the story belongs to the Joker. It’s the Joker’s story of how he gets the mob on his side and wages war against Gordon and Batman. The Joker does not win in the end, but it is still the Joker’s story.

 

Whose story are you telling?

A novel must have only one main plot and it can only be from one person’s perspective.

 

  1. Sub-plots for the heck of it

 

We spoke of how supporting characters must support the story and not the protagonist . Well, the easiest way for them to do that would be via a solid sub-plot that connects to the main story. Unfortunately, The over-importance attached to characters has killed the plot. Readers however, care for the story first and characters later.

 

Imagine I tell you a story about my mischievous 1 year old son who puts things into the pockets of my overcoat. It’s maybe worth a smile but nothing earth-shattering. The tired co-worker in the hope that I will stop telling obvious stories, says, “Kids do that, you know.” It’s a useless sub-plot to add more depth to the character that is my son.

 

Now if I were to tell you: I was held up by a mugger on my way to work. As I put my hand in my coat inside pocket to take out my wallet, what should I find there? A deodorant can my little one must have put in. I sprayed the mugger in the eyes and ran. The bastard will smell of lilies all day.

Now the sub-plot makes sense, because it’s a connected sub-plot. No matter how important your son is to you, his character arc is not important to the reader unless it connects to the main events.

 

To put it in the simplest of terms: create a sub plot that (at some point, preferably at the end) connects to the story and then assign a supporting character to it. Don’t create a sub-plot around a character.

 

  1. Flashbacks

A flashback is basically a scene interjection that works only marginally well in movies. In books, it works even less.

A flashback is an interruption in the flow, and any interruption will obviously diffuse the tension. What a writer needs to be aware of is the level of tension before the flashback starts and he has to somehow use the flashback to increase it. If there is no tension in the scene and you interject a flat flashback then you are basically talking about two back to back flat (no tension) scenes. On the other hand, if your scene has tension and is followed by a flat flashback then you just wasted a good scene.

 

Golden rule: A flashback inherently reduces tension, so it must contain action, information that increases tension.

 

Unfortunately writers use flashbacks for the worst of reasons. When things get too intense they use it to insert some calm back story or some useless information.  It is the misinterpretation of another important piece of writing advice: The story must flow in highs and lows, crests and troughs.

 

The advice means you cannot have consequent low tension scenes but you can have consequent high tension scenes. However, there is no novel that has only high tension scenes throughout, so clubbing many high tension scenes together could end in a sudden clump of low tension scenes and that’s death for a story.

 

Ever notice how some mystery novels fall flat after the murderer is identified, it is scene after scene of tying up loose ends. That’s scene after scene of low tension, you can’t wait to close the book shut.

Use a flashback if you must, use it to talk about things that have happened earlier and couldn’t be woven into the narrative flow in any other way. As far as maintaining the highs and lows and crests and troughs, there are better things than flashbacks to do that.

 

Plots are the lifeblood of stories, but they must be inconspicuous. A reader should revel in the flow of the plot but not be aware of the presence of a plot. The more attention you give to your plots the less it will come to your reader’s attention.

 

 

HAPPY WRITING!

 

 

 

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The Basics of a Bad Novel : Characters

Part I – Characters

There are great novels and awful novels, and then there are those that are in between. I call them FRUSTRATING.

They are frustrating because they could have so easily been so much more. They have major flaws and errors that are easy to spot and quick to correct, but no one bothered. These novels also often play with the established format and structure of the novel/genre and tacitly tell the reader, “You don’t matter, I write for myself.”

The bad novel or the frustrating novel is very common today because of the ease of publishing. In bypassing the publisher, the new author has also bypassed the editor. In this series of posts dedicated to the FRUSTRATING NOVEL, I am going to delve into three basic elements starting with CHARACTERS

The Basics of a Bad Novel

I am not going to get into the principal characters (protagonist, main lead, support lead, antagonist , etc) that is a discussion for another day and a much longer one at that. Let us concentrate on the 5 main problems pertaining to characters in such novels.

  1. Lingering on minor characters

Naming minor characters is not really bad, but if you start naming all characters and telling us a little something about each of them, you are putting the reader in a maze. Soon he will lose track of who’s important and who’s not. You are the God of your story, if you linger too long on a minor character your reader will assume the character is important.

Let’s take a simple example:

I live in an apartment building in Manhattan. It is a group of 170 odd apartments with top of the line security and a very polite security guard.

That’s a simple description of your apartment.

I live in an apartment building in Manhattan. It is a group of 170 odd apartments with top of the line security and a very polite security guard, Andy Brown. He prefers to call himself in 007 style, “Brown. Andy Brown.”

The focus of that information is now your security guard, not your apartment. I expect your security guard will be more than just a person you pass by on your way in and out, why else would you bother to tell me about him.

I live in an apartment building in Manhattan. It is a group of 170 odd apartments with top of the line security and a very polite security guard, Andy Brown. I acknowledged his pleasantries with a nod and a smile and stepped out onto a cold sidewalk.

I have named the minor character because I have many scenes of simple interactions, but I write in a way to indicate clearly to my reader that stepping out of home is the event, running into Andy Brown isn’t.

A lot of writers do worse. They add a posse of characters to make the setting more realistic. Andy Brown is only the night security guard, Billy Green is the daytime security guard. Then there’s Andre, the Mexican kid who delivers flowers for the foyer and Kim Hau, the super-smart Asian girl who delivers groceries to your doorstep, she is doing this to save up for college by the way. These authors argue that this is exactly how it’s in real life.

Well, fiction isn’t real life. It shouldn’t be.

Minor characters are rarely fun for the writer, literally never for the reader.

  1. Characters from the back story

James Bond’s grandfather was a pharmacist. So what!

In building the back-story of principal characters, writers often create family trees and a slew of minor characters that bind their hero’s life story together. As arduous as that task is, it must always remain in the background. Like a backdrop it should complete the picture but never be the focus.

Every character must have a back story, what does it really mean?

It simply means that your novel is set in a finite space of time but your characters have existed before and after your novel.

If your novel is about a whirlwind romance between Tom and Betty from 1979 to 1982, you have to be clear in your head as to what they were doing before 1979. Many of those events and incidents would have added up to make them the way they were in 1979.  The important thing is: it should be in your head, not necessarily on the page. The character’s action could well be a direct or indirect result of the back story but if you have to keep visiting the back story for every trait or reaction and in the process produce an ensemble of blink-and-you-miss-it characters, you will dissipate the tension and cause the reader’s mind to wander. No author wants that.

Let’s again take an example

The hero has grit. He comes from a long line of renowned hunters who have stared death in the face and defeated the most ferocious of beasts. How do you highlight this lineage to give more depth to your character?

  • If your hero having grit has nothing to do with the plot, then let’s leave it out. If your story is about, say, your hero struggling to clear his SAT, then any reference to his hunter ancestors or an attempt to liken them killing a tiger to him killing the monster that is AP Trigonometry would be stretching it too far. Don’t try to connect what cannot be connected.
  • Get another character to refer to his ancestors but not in a matter-of-fact way, it should be done in a scene that directly connects to the information. For example, your hero is a  doctor working on a resection. You can liken his grit in ridding the body of a tumor to that of his ancestor who chased a man-eating tiger out of the village. Don’t just drop information; make it connect to the story.
  • Let the author/narrator refer to these ancestors multiple times throughout the book or the sub-plot but each time you refer there must be some additional information and it must connect to the scenes in which the references are made. Reinforce the back-story, make minor characters stand out.
  1. One minor character per event

This one is the worst of the lot. It is similar to point 1 where we talk about minor characters being given unnecessary importance, with one important difference. Minor characters aren’t given importance, but there are truckloads of them.

While the reader is not misled into assigning undue importance to a minor character, he is however, completely drowned by the overabundance of minor characters. Keep an eye out for this problem because it creeps up on you and takes over your novel in no time. In YA novels dealing with high school or college you will find this problem when the protagonist gets the lecture time-table from a student counselor, buys some old books from a senior year student, gets a pack of beer with a student from down the hall, goes stationery shopping with the dork roommate and runs into the pretty girl from the Economics class at the store.  You know these characters aren’t important and hence it’s all the more frustrating to keep hearing about more and more of them.

In my classes, I use an anecdote to drive home the (un)importance of minor characters. My late great-uncle was a very famous optometrist and would get about a dozen interns every year. Due to age or memory or plain rudeness, he would refer to them by number not by name. His defense: by the end of the year only 3 or 4 will remain, much better to just learn their names then.

That’s what readers want, that’s also what they do. They ignore characters till you say something that makes them sit up and look again at some character. Too many characters is like too much description, no one cares for it. At the very least, try to get a character to do more than one thing.

A writer must proactively search out minor characters and remove them. There’s a big benefit to removing excess minor characters, it often leads to deleting unnecessary minor scenes and makes your writing stronger.

  1. Passive supporting characters

Do not confuse supporting characters with minor characters. The protagonist’s friend whom he frequently turns to for advice is the supporting character, the guy who hands the friend a latte at the Starbucks is the minor character.

Drawing up supporting characters should be a post in itself, so let’s just look at the basics:

Supporting characters are not props.

Don’t take the qualifier “supporting” literally, most authors do. A supporting character is not just an agony aunt or a friend/mentor who spews life-lessons or smart-ass quips. A supporting character MUST support the story not the protagonist. It stands repeating: supporting characters must support the story.

Unlike minor characters, supporting characters need to do something other than run into  Mr. Protagonist.

Supporting characters need to have a life and at least one subplot of their own. The closer the subplot is to the main plot, the better it is. By closer I don’t mean his actions have to help the hero, but they must have a bearing on the main plot. Let’s say your protagonist is working hard to save money for a surgery his daughter needs. The supporting character, a friend who has so far been helping the hero do that, decides to take a road trip to reconcile with his mother but meets with an accident. The protagonist pays for his friend’s bills and ends up with no savings. There you go, there’s the problem, there’s the tension and a possibility of high drama.

  1. Series characters

You are not a candidate for this last problem unless you are writing a series. Series spread over 3 or more books tend to have many characters, some of whom will be quite important. You cannot however introduce a character much earlier just because he is important. Characters must serve the story here and now. If you look at the Harry Potter series you will realize how important this rule is. Remus and Sirius play very important roles in the third book and they are friends of Harry’s parents but there is no mention of them in previous books because they had nothing to do.

This is what is known as Chekhov’s Gun. It’s a plot device named after the great Russian playwright who said: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

This works equally well for characters and is probably the single most important rule. Don’t introduce a character unless he is doing something right now. Imagine your ten-year old self being introduced to your future wife. Is she important? Yes. Do you need to know about her now? No.

You can also consider Chekhov’s Gun from the opposite perspective: If you fire a gun in the second act, then show it in the first act.

It works, sometimes wonderfully too especially if you connect back the dots and go wow. When important things are presented innocuously to the reader, they delight the reader upon revelation. It’s a common ploy in mysteries.

A word of caution: Many authors and writing coaches take Chekhov’s Gun literally and think that if something is not actually part of the plot it should be out. Consequently, they think of Red Herrings in mystery stories to be a violation of the principle. It is not.

Chekhov said that everything introduced to the author must do what it must and soon. The red herring is supposed to mislead and it will do that. It is not extraneous to the plot, it is the plot.

Characters must serve a purpose, they must do something to the story. Fiction has no place for bystanders.

Happy Writing!

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manuscript, Self-publishing, Writing Tips

A Solid Start : The First 10 Pages of Your Novel

woman_browsing_books

How long does it take for you to know if you like a book?

More importantly, how long before you realize you don’t like it?

Years ago I attended a screenwriting workshop conducted by a national award winning screenwriter. The course was excellent and in many ways, eye-opening. One of the many things that have stayed with me from that 5 day workshop is the importance of the first 10 pages of your screenplay, the first 10 minutes of your film.

It applies equally to a book, the first 10 pages is your best ammo to get a reader glued.

The first 10 pages are the first 3000 – 3500 words of your novel and it is sometimes only halfway into your first chapter.

10 pages, that’s all you get.

Thankfully, that’s all you need. More on that later, let’s now look at the first 10 pages. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider the first 10 pages to be your first chapter.

Your first chapter is KEY. It represents the whole book. And if your first chapter doesn’t grab the reader, you may not get the benefit of being read.

Imagine a reader browsing a local bookstore:

Step 1: He heads to titles stacked under his favourite genre (thrillers, romance, etc)

Step 2: Starts reading the back cover of books (randomly or based on titles he likes)

Step 3: Opens the book to page 1 and starts reading a few pages

If you clear the first two rounds, that is you happen to write in a genre he likes and you have a good book description on the back cover, then you better have a power packed first 10 pages.

No one is going to read more than 10 pages in a casual browsing, in fact you’d be lucky if someone reads though 10 pages, it is usually within 3 – 4 pages that a book is discarded or rushed to the billing counter.

It’s not different in the virtual world. After the book description, the sample chapter decides it all.

10 pages, that’s all you get.

Now that you know the deal, let’s see how best you can use those 10 pages and what’s expected of you.

  1. Move it.

The first 10 pages cannot be passive. It’s all about movement, all about action. I purposely added movement before action, because some writers take the word action literally and start off with an outlandish outburst or a crime or just crash a car for fun’s sake and then start their novel a mile from the action. Movement is action, don’t describe the weather or ramble about the “play of light and shadows filtering through autumn leaves”, you will have enough time to do it later (if you must).

If you must start with mundane description, let it lead somewhere. Look at Raymond Chandler’s starting lines for The Big Sleep

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

84 words into the book and you can’t wait to read it.

  1. Set the tone

The genre and tone of the novel must be clear to the reader from the start. This might appear formulaic but it works well.  Adventure novels start with action, romance and romantic comedies focus on introducing the main characters and the many (comical) problems in their life, thrillers and whodunits often start with a crime.

Consider any romance novel and see how it starts with the central problem and then immediately goes to the central character. Or think of private detective novels that start with a client coming to the detective’s door or a letter/call summoning the detective to a place where a crime has taken place or is about to take place. These are examples of genre familiarity, it’s a comforting warm blanket that ardent fans of the genre crave. You’d do good to provide it to them.

The tone must be set from the start.

Whatever the focus of your novel, must be the focus of your first chapter.

  1. Employ the Hook

OK, I have spoken enough about this.

The HOOK is the inciting incident close to the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention and prods him to read on. It must create urgency in the reader, the immediate need to know how this situation described plays out or is resolved.

Sometimes you know how it’s resolved but you want to know how it plays out. Consider Erich Segal’s master opening in his most popular work, Love Story:

“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?

That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.”

So you know the girl who loves the narrator dies, you want to know how it plays out.

The hook is usually the major problem or the major situation, in many cases however, the hook is just a minor problem that leads the hero or protagonist into his most important bind and that resolution forms the crux of your story.

Consider Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, the murder of curator Jacques Saunière sets in motion the events where the main problem is protecting the Holy Grail from falling into the wrong hands.

Not every story can start with a murder but it must start with something dramatic. Hooks in romance novels are particularly jarring if not done well. They often start with dramatic events like funerals and accidents that have nothing to do with the actual story.

The HOOK has to be closely connected to the story, it must be integral to the plot. Consider the starting lines of Beth Thompson’s romance novel, Ants on Peonies (Disclosure: I am the developmental editor for this book)

Ants on a Peony. That’s all my mother could think when she looked at my bandaged head, propped on several pillows and tethered by tubes to a square metal box that burped out numbers.

As I drifted in and out of consciousness, she imagined that my brain had been invaded by foreign entities that were blocking my ability to act or think normally. Glossy, black ants munching their way across the curled buds of June’s favorite flower.

Do ants help or hinder the peony? She’d heard arguments for both sides, but couldn’t remember the definitive answer.

“Given the precarious state you were in, I finally decided I was entitled to believe whatever I wanted,” she told me much later. “So, I chose the former.”

Even as she recounts this story 30 years on, there is a hum of incredulity in her voice as if she, a mere mortal, could get away with that kind of thinking – having her way with the Lord God’s ideas of righteousness and all.

She makes me shake my head, my mother. Maggie Scott, a remarkable woman living an unremarkable life. Not so different from many folks I know, except in one blinding, shield-your-eyes kind of way: She’s happy with her lot.

I suppose my life would have been easier if I’d bent to Divine Will – whatever the hell that is – more often. Not that knowing would have made much difference; godly things have inspired me less.

Less than a page into the book, you know the main character and how her life has shaped up, in another page you will know that this accident is the focus of her story.

A hook has to have clear connection to the story. Few things are as irritating as a forced hook.

  1. Introduce the Protagonist

You want the readers to care about the main character and his problems, the quicker he/she enters the scene the better. If you think it is not possible to have the protagonist enter within the first 10 pages, think again. Nine out of ten times, you will save yourself a convoluted storyline by starting it right and the only right start is with the protagonist.

Consider the brilliant opening of Double Indemnity:

I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers. It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in. You climbed some stone steps to the front door, so I parked the car and went up there. A servant poked her head out. “Is Mr. Nirdlinger in?”

Half a page! And you have a hook “this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers”, the main character is the narrator, you understand he is into selling insurance, and in another half a page you will be introduced to his selling acumen and the other principal character, Mrs. Nirdlinger.

If you haven’t read James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, grab a copy now. At less than 200 pages it is no frills storytelling at its best.

  1. Maintain Suspense

Long expositions on character or situations kill the tone. Keep it exciting and anticipative for your readers.

In the previous example of Erich Segal’s Love Story, the author doesn’t kill the suspense after telling you that the girl dies. He doesn’t say how she dies or how soon or what impact she had on his life. That’s the rest of the story, that’s for the reader to find out over the next 160 or so pages.

The first 10 pages of a novel must help readers get their bearings. Introduce your protagonist and maybe a couple of more characters, give them something to care or worry about, and  don’t allow the tension to let up.

10 pages, that’s all you need.

Happy Writing!

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literary agent, manuscript, Query Letter, Self-publishing, Synopsis

Top Tips for Submitting your Manuscript

Top Tips for Submitting your Manuscript : The 3 pillars of a good submission

You have spent months and maybe (though hopefully not) years writing and polishing that ‘perfect’ manuscript. You send it out and it gets rejected.  Considering the many (and most of them aren’t true) horror stories about publishers that are available on the internet, you pass off the rejection as “that was bound to happen”. You blame the out-of-sync publishing industry, old-fashioned bad practices or the presence of some sadist editor who loves tossing scripts into waste baskets, and you could be right. However, it is worthwhile to consider and look for lapses on the author’s side as well.

This involves 3 key elements that are part of your query/proposal. These 3 components will take some effort and thinking but they are critical to your success in getting a publishing deal, and it is not uncommon to hear of authors who get professional help for the 3 pillars of a good submission.

  1. The Query Letter

What is a query letter?

It’s your novel’s resume.

Points to remember:

  • Give enough reasons on your book’s resume (the query/proposal) for it to be liked. Talk about the things that are good, don’t highlight problem areas. If your book is too long/short or if it doesn’t fit into a particular genre, this is not the space for you to air your self-doubts.
  • You may think you are being clever, but don’t mix genres to show wider possibilities of readership. Calling your book a vampire-zombie-romance isn’t the glowing endorsement you think it is.
  • Query letters are about the book, make them about the book. Most publishers/editors have a far better understanding of the market than you do and will know about the viability of your book from reading about your book. Let them figure out the market, tell them about your book.
  • Don’t make claims or hand out marketing advice like “it appeals to all ages from 8 to 80” or “the war drama market has been waiting for this.” It is probably wrong and it puts off more people than it attracts.
  • It’s a business letter seeking representation or a publishing opportunity, keep the language formal. It has to be professionally written. Keep it concise and stick to the objective. For God’s sake, no smileys!
  • It goes without saying that like your resume it cannot have typos.
  • It cannot be too long, no more than one page.
  • The author biography should be 50 -70 words. Do not include unnecessary details like your hobbies, family history or personal struggles unless they relate directly to the book.
  • Distil the essence of your novel into two short sentences and remember to include it in the query as the starting point of the snapshot of your novel.
  • The synopsis of the novel should be a riveting 150 – 200 word story. It should be a small story, not a dry Cliffs Notes of your book. (More on that in point 2)
  • If you plan on writing follow up books mention it at the end of the query.
  • Make sure you mention the title of your work and the genre. If you are not 100% sure of the title mention that it is a working title but don’t call your work “untitled”.
  • Make sure you mention the word count of the manuscript.
  1. The Book Synopsis

This follows from point 1 above, it is the bulk of your query letter. If you are going the traditional publishing route, you will need a BRILLIANT book synopsis.

You won’t like this but you should ideally have around 4 – 6 versions of the synopsis ready.

  1. Start with this one: a chapter wise summary moving from event to event. Give each chapter one paragraph of 20 – 50 words at most. This will help you understand your story.
  2. Trim down A above to 300 – 400 words. This is your best chance to pitch.
  3. Trim it down further to less than 200 words or the “one page synopsis” that is the industry standard.

Make each of the three count.

Apart from these you could look at a synopsis that moves from the perspective of character rather than events.

Some simple points to remember

  • Write your synopsis in the present tense.
  • The synopsis should be as tight as possible but must cover the entire book, beginning middle and end.
  • The synopsis cannot be dry, it is a mini – novel. Keep it dramatic.

Here’s a look at the synopsis of Harlan Coben’s ‘Six Years”

Six years have passed since Jake Fisher watched Natalie, the love of his life, marry another man. Six years of hiding a broken heart by throwing himself into his career as a college professor. Six years of keeping his promise to leave Natalie alone, and six years of tortured dreams of her life with her new husband, Todd. But six years haven’t come close to extinguishing his feelings, and when Jake comes across Todd’s obituary, he can’t keep himself away from the funeral. There he gets the glimpse of Todd’s wife he’s hoping for . . . but she is not Natalie. Whoever the mourning widow is, she’s been married to Todd for more than a decade, and with that fact everything Jake thought he knew about the best time of his life—a time he has never gotten over—is turned completely inside out. As Jake searches for the truth, his picture-perfect memories of Natalie begin to unravel. Mutual friends of the couple either can’t be found or don’t remember Jake. No one has seen Natalie in years. Jake’s search for the woman who broke his heart—and who lied to him—soon puts his very life at risk as it dawns on him that the man he has become may be based on carefully constructed fiction.

It’s only 200 words and makes quite a compelling case for reading the book.

Once your query letter is done with 1 & 2 above, you need to focus on formatting your manuscript.

  1. Manuscript formatting

One of the leading reasons, and the worst one too, for rejections is Not sticking to the MS format guidelines.

What!!

Yes, it is silly maybe even unfair (not really) but it is one of the biggest stumbling blocks there is.

Why do I say it’s not really silly or unfair?

If you can format your resume and make sure its proper why can’t you do the same for your manuscript? Why should anyone consider a work that doesn’t meet basic format guidelines?

Editors get at least a dozen manuscripts and a couple of hundred queries a week, wouldn’t it be easier for them to just reject the sloppy ones. After all, if the writer doesn’t care about giving his manuscript the best chance, why should the editor?

Let’s see how we can avoid this easily avoidable stumbling block.

  1. Type your document.

No matter the high praise your teacher from third grade showered on your handwriting, don’t write your manuscript.

  1. Maintain double spacing between lines

It’s very easy to do in MS Word. Just select all text and click on the line spacing button

  1. Paragraph indentation is crucial

Each paragraph must start with a small indent. Don’t use the space bar, use the indent button in MS Word.

  1. If font size is not mentioned, it is always 12.

Anything smaller is difficult to read, while anything bigger takes up too much space.

  1. Use a single and Serif font throughout

It’s best to use Times New Roman, Cambria, Garamond, or Courier New. Do not use fancy fonts like Lucida or Helvetica or even sans-serif fonts like Arial and Calibri unless it’s specifically asked for or accepted.

  1. Use a white background.

This might seem “duh!”, but you’d be surprised as to how many romance writers think it is OK to have text on a pink background.

  1. The first page is the cover page.

Include your name and contact information at the top left of the first page and the word count at the top right. Centre the title in a large font in the middle of the page with author name below it. DO NOT start the story on that page.

  1. New chapters start on new pages

Though I agree no one’s going to throw your manuscript if this is the only formatting flaw, it is neater to have new chapters on new pages. If your submission is digital and not printed then you needn’t feel guilty about extra paper used.

  1. Use page numbers

Why wouldn’t you number the pages of your manuscript? You could also include a header with Title / Author alternating on pages.

  1. Left-justify your paragraphs.

Right margins should be “ragged” (which means you don’t justify the text on the right) and also there should be a 1 inch margin all the way around the text. This is neat for digital copies and essential for editing notes on a printed copy.

  1. For printed manuscripts

If your submission is a physical printout then make sure you use good quality plain white paper and print on only one side of each sheet. Also, unless asked for, do not bind, spiral bind or staple the manuscript.

These 3 pillars will give your manuscript a fighting chance and will go a long way in making you view yourself as a professional.

Happy Writing!

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