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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self publishing, Self-publishing

4 Assumptions that Help Authors Fail

 

Writing

10 years ago, only one book out of every ten would succeed. And by succeed, I don’t mean bestseller. These books would earn out the advance for the author and probably get in a little more on the royalty, they would earn the publisher a small profit (yeah, not the kind of profit traditional publishing bashers say publishers make), but good enough to commission another book by the author. Occasionally, one of these “success stories” would break out and become a bestselling A-Lister. All in all, 7 or 8 out of every 10 published authors would fail. Today, with the ubiquitous self-publishing model, the number is higher it’s probably 97 or 98 out of hundred.

Yes. Only 2 or 3 out of every hundred novelists will see success. Not Patterson kind of success but “I can quit my day job” kind of success.

 

I am considering for this post , four lines of thought that lead to failure.

These assumptions have nothing to do with the art or craft of writing.  Insipid writing, silly plot, cardboard characters are rarely the only reason for failure. If they were, then quite a few of today’s best-selling authors would be working nights at the local diner. Every year there is at least one crappy book that becomes an overnight success, we have all read those books and wondered, “What the hell!”

Failing as a novelist goes beyond writing a bad book. Way beyond. It is more about not having the attitude of a career writer. I am not talking about “gut feeling” and “outlook” or other sappy stuff, I am talking about tangibles.

Here’s why you fail as a novelist, it’s because you ASSUME:

  1. I don’t need brand-building

Readers buy authors. There are fans of Dan Brown, and Mark Giminez, I am yet to come across a fan of Random House. Publishers will market your book, but they can’t market you without you stepping in.

So what is brand building for an author?

A. You establish credibility by writing more and more books. This is the best and most sustainable way of brand building. You deliver on your brand promise, every time. Agatha Christie’s brand promise was “an ingenious plot” and she delivered on that. Every time.

What’s your promise?

When a reader picks up your book, what can he be sure of getting?

B. This is more roundabout but quicker than the previous option. It works well for some genres. If you are writing police procedures, then a blog on CSI or forensic pathology will establish your knowledge and peg you as a writer who is serious about research. It builds your credibility, it builds your brand. It’s more work, but the dividends are rich.

Conventional and cautious wisdom will tell you that brands are not easy to build and only top selling authors have brand value. A closer look will reveal the opposite: only authors who have a brand value become top selling authors. Look at any bestselling author today and you will find a brand, a promise that keeps readers coming back for more.

Think of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Harlan Coben , Sophie Kinsella, each one has made a small promise to the reader, and they are going to keep it.

 

  1. I am a star, I don’t need to engage with my fans

If you do manage to get to the point where you have more than one fan who is not a friend or a family member or someone you donated a kidney to, rejoice.

Very few authors get fans. Crazed devotees who will (for whatever reasons) wait eagerly for the next book and buy it the first chance they get are rare to come by. If you reach there, hang on to it and don’t let go.

Let’s get to a simple example: Pottermore.

This Harry Potter companion site is for fans and J K Rowling adds free content to it every so often, a Thanksgiving gift of 1500 words here, a Christmas bonanza of a back story there and we are all glued. This, mind you, for an insanely popular series that needs no hard selling.

If J K Rowling needs to continuously engage with fans, you need to do it too.

You need to make it easy for a fan to know more about you, your next project, and your writing plans. You need to have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, the whole shebang. This is not just brand building, it’s brand engagement.

A word of caution: Engagement is not about selling.

One of the easiest ways to become a failed novelist is to write one book and then beat it into the heads of all around you. The only message some authors share is about their book and how it’s on sale or it’s free today or it’s at a never before price of 99 cents. It’s not doughnuts, the “Hot Now” sign does not work.

Using social media with the sole aim of brazenly promoting your book is not engagement, it’s harassment. Sharing interesting things is the key, share solid pieces written by others on Facebook, Google+, and other sites. Create some value for your fans.

True, it seems for the most part to be a time-waster, but it’s not. It yields good results. Most importantly, it tells your loyal reader that you care enough to be around.

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  1. I can always go back to my day job

Imagine you start out on your career as a lawyer, banker, teacher, whatever, and go about it with this thought in your mind: “I can always go back to my parent’s basement.”

No one does that. Yet a majority of aspiring authors create these elaborate safety nets and then don’t even take the plunge. This is the kind that secretly hopes they can slink away into the night if their book is a dud.

You want to be a writer, then burn bridges.

Go all in. You don’t have to give up your day job but put yourself out there. Don’t shy away from working doggedly at that goal, no matter the smirks and eye-rolls. Behave like someone who is in it for the long run, not someone who is embarrassed by the possibility of failure.

 

One of the clear signs of cold feet I see is with authors writing one book. They wait for it to be a success and then and only then they brew that coffee and sit down for the next novel. There are many examples of authors who have written just one book, don’t let that fool you. The more books you write the greater the chances of someone coming across one of them, the more books you write, the more seriousness you show. As a bonus, your writing improves by leaps and bounds.

 

  1. I know it all

I am appalled every year by the number of people who think, they know all there is to know. They criticize writing courses, they ridicule writer groups (OK, I will grant that one) and they feel, they have arrived in every which way. They brush away every piece of writing insight as either a fluke or utter nonsense. They have it all figured out.

Look at successful professionals in any field, they hone their craft, continuously. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find authors who actively improve their skills. The problem lies in thinking writing to be creative, hence unteachable. It is a creative field, but with a majority of the work that is craft, not art. Constructing sentences is craft, using one word instead of another is also craft, these are things that are technical and can be learnt and improved upon.

I have even come across writers who have quit reading. They cite reasons like “the quality of published work is so poor”, or that “I would rather spend that time writing (but they rarely do),” or the ever popular “reading destroys my creative thinking I want to be free from suggestion.”

The “Know it all” manifests itself in more devastating forms like,

A. I Can Do it All

I write my books, I edit them, I proofread, I design the cover, I market my books, and yes you guessed it ….I am the only one who reads my books.

Writing and editing aren’t as similar as you’d think, the skills are very different. Besides, you should never self-edit. Make no mistake hard-selling and constant promoting aren’t skills most writers are born with. It’s two different personalities and most often needs two different people. Get help, professional help. It’s your career and your dreams at stake, nothing less than perfect will do.

B. I am Always Right.

These authors have created the literary equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes: you don’t see it! That’s because you are stupid.

They abuse critics, lash out at reviewers, and pretty much talk down to everyone they can. There was a recent (late 2014) case on Goodreads where a reader posted a 1 star review and the author went on a bloody tirade about how stupid she was to have missed the point. He wove conspiracy theories about how she was out to harm him and all that he stood for. It was a crusade really, and frankly quite (unintentionally) entertaining. All the poor girl had said was she found the book wordy and that it went around in circles without saying much. The author responded with more than 2000 words of defence!

 

The good news is that these are assumptions, and therefore all you have to do is not make them. Also rarely does a novelist have all four problems, hence it’s easily doable.

 

Here’s to success, Happy Writing!

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self publishing

The 8 Rules of Writing Short Fiction

 

In my last post on the short (story) road to the novel, I exhorted you to give the short story a try. I am a glutton for short stories and I guess my encouragement was a little coloured by my appetite. It hardly seems fair to nudge you on to a path without a map, so let me introduce you to Kurt Vonnegut and his eight rules for writing a short story.

Kurt Vonnegut (1922 -2007) is known to most as the author of the cult classic Slaughterhouse Five, his contribution to short stories is often eclipsed by the success of his work in the long form. Having written more than 120 short stories, he distilled his experience into 8 simple rules.

 

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

 

This is critical in fiction of any form, more so for the short story. 500 to 600 page novels have become the order of the day and sadly I can easily think of how those books could have been at least 50 pages shorter.  Don’t waste the reader’s time.

 

 

  1. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

 

It’s so true in the reality shows on TV today. All you need is one person who hooks you, and have you noticed how quickly you lose interest or forget to TiVo the same show once that contestant is no longer part of the proceedings. It’s true of fiction too. Authors love the creative halo but the truth is there are only so many plots, what hooks the reader is the character to root for.

 

  1. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

 

The most common problem and tell-tale sign of amateur writing is ‘characters galore’ who serve no purpose. In a short story it is suicide.

 

  1. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

 

This is the golden rule of screenwriting and is extremely important for fiction of any form, especially the short story.

 

  1. Start as close to the end as possible.

 

The closer you start to the main event the better the tension. Also short stories often cannot accommodate major story or character arcs.

 

  1. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

 

Sometimes as a writer you just want your sweet heroine to escape unscathed or that the innocent kid is able to outrun the wolf, but that’s death for fiction. Remember, every threat that is neutralised also neutralises the tension in your story and you must quickly find a new threat.

 

  1. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

 

Not everyone loves a happily ever after, not everyone enjoys the thrills of a manhunt or finds stimulation in analysing a crime. Don’t mix genres or add stock characters and events to get more people to like your writing.

 

 

  1. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

 

That’s pretty detailed advice and I am not very sure that it’s a good idea, but hey, it’s a road map, take a detour if you don’t like where it leads.

 

While examples of exceptions to these rules abound, they do provide a certain sense of direction. What’s really cool is that these rules can apply to fiction in the long form and even to screenplays.

If nothing else, these rules should be one less reason to put off writing.

 

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

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self publishing

Who needs Editing?

Does each and every writer need a book editor? Read more

Authors, Books, and More

We all do.

I am all for books. Be it published, self-published, eBooks, audio books, hardcover, paperback, series, stand-alones, anything goes. The only requisites are quality and professionalism.

While quality is a matter of taste and even perception, professionalism is a goal well within reach. Yet, lazily put together books that are not edited or even proofread are being published every day.

Therein lies the problem of self-published titles.

While not all self-published books lack basic editing, an overwhelming majority does and that makes it difficult for the rest.

It’s hard to believe that the need for editing is at all a question. Whether you are a self-published author seeking readers for your book or a writer seeking a traditional publisher or even a best-selling author, everyone benefits from an objective expert analysis.

Objective Expert Analysis being the operative words.

Objective :  Your wife, brother-in-law, or your best friend are…

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The Top 4 Reasons for Self Publishing

Self Publishing Tips for Authors

Authors, Books, and More

From its humble and dubious beginnings in 2005 to the poise and self assuredness of 2014, self-publishing has come a long way. It has matured, evolved and finally come into its own.

Today, trade publishers, elitists, or established authors do not look down upon self-publishing, it is the self-published author himself who does the disservice. Books with minimal editing or thought are rushed out faster than a school assignment to fill the virtual bookshelves. The vast majority of authors have no interest in feedback or improvement. They don’t need to anymore. Who’s going to stop them from publishing?

As we step into 2015, authors need to embrace self-publishing the way readers have. Readers discriminate between good and bad books not traditionally published and self-published ones; embracing quality without making excuses is the only way forward.

Let’s look at the top 4 Reasons for Self-publishing that are repeated ad nauseam by…

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The Short (Story) Road to the Novel

The short story, once in prominence not only as a commercially viable work but also as a separate art form no less than the novel, has all but vanished. The short story is an excellent training in storytelling – it is like a contained experiment. Even if it fails you have lost what? 6 – 10 pages of writing! Also it’s easier for someone to point out what went wrong in those 6 – 10 pages, what worked, what did not. Doing the same for a 200 page work is far more difficult. Maybe you lost interest on-third of the way into the novel, but plodded on and finally you come out with the verdict I don’t like it.

Maybe a simple adjustment at those points of sagging interest will lift your story from “I don’t like it” to “it was nice” or maybe even “I liked it.” It’s easy to do it in a short story.

A short story helps just like those short driving trips when you are learning to drive.

Ray Bradbury famously advised aspiring authors to start their writing journey with short stories instead of novels. Himself, a prolific writer of over 400 short stories, his main assertion was of course Plot Structure which is much easier to maintain in a short work and extremely easy to lose in a full length novel.

The simple plot structure of Beginning – Middle – End makes it easy to follow and provides a solid backbone to storytelling. The other major advantage of the short story is the POV.

The short story is too short for a change in point of view (POV) and thus you are saved from the indecision that plagues the novelist. Whose point of view should this sub-plot be from? Am I losing tension because of the shift in point of view?

Difficult questions you could easily do without.

Apart from being a training ground, the short story also acts as an extremely efficient means of not losing the ‘writing habit’. Ray Bradbury’s other important advice was to write one short story every week for at least a year. His point was it’s difficult to write 52 bad short stories. I for one totally agree.

I have a list of my favourite short stories it’s almost 250 now, Here’s a look at five from that list in no particular order and why I love them.

1. The Lottery Ticket by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is the master of the short story, known for drawing out the darker side of human emotions through his stories. The lottery ticket written more than a 100 years ago catches us in those moments of horrid selfishness, true today as they were then. It’s also a masterpiece in terms of building a story around a very small time frame.

2. The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant

The ending of “The Necklace” no longer holds the surprise that must have been one of the draws when it was first published, but the message is still as profound. The effort to show off and fit into a higher class or income group results in a miserable outcome. It’s a classic example of the story structure of Exposition-Climax-Denouement.

3. The Last Leaf by O Henry

The Gift of the Magi is his most famous work, but The Last Leaf remains etched in memory years later. The self-pitying Johnsy , the supportive Sue serving her friend, and the ambitious but unfortunate artist Behrman. Characters created over the space of less than 1500 words that refuse to leave you.

4. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe

A not so wise uncle had gifted me this book when I was seven, I thank him for it. This story will bring a smile to your face despite the macabre, a punishing of wrong and the burden of guilt expressed so succinctly in a matter of a few pages.

5. The Rocking Horse Winner by D H Lawrence

A touching story of a child’s desire to change his life and become “lucky”, this one is one of the most evocative pieces of writing that’s there.

The short story is easy to modify or if entirely unsalvageable, easy to ignore and move on. Give it a try, you won’t regret it.

Happy Writing

Anirban S. Bose

5Stories is a monthly digital only magazine. Every issue features 5 stories across various genres. 5Stories aims to be at the forefront of storytelling, pushing the boundaries while exploring the best and the most exciting short stories. Only original, previously unpublished short stories appear on 5Stories. 5Stories facilitates connections between emerging writers and global readers at large. Welcome to a fascinating read!

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The 5 Things your 1st 3 chapters must have (Part 3, 4 and 5 of 5)

In our quest to understand what exactly the publisher is looking for in those first 3 chapters that are sought as a sample, we have already looked at:

  1. Within the first chapter we must have an introduction to one of the 3 main characters.

  2. Your first chapter must have the HOOK

The third thing on your list follows from the second

  1. The best writing in your book must be in those first three chapters

First, let me explain how this follows from the second point. As we have seen, the narrative HOOK is the dramatic action that “hooks” the reader’s attention and prods him to read on.

All dramatic action is embodied in threat. The more imminent the threat, the more dramatic the HOOK is.

All threats however, aren’t created equal. A person hanging from the Brooklyn bridge is not really under the same threat as your middle aged protagonist who has lost his job. What makes these threats equal or apparently equal, is the writing.

Your writing is the HOOK.

Second, and I am elaborating on this just to help you relax your raised eyebrow. When I say, the best writing in your book must be in those first three chapters, I do not mean that they have to be restricted to those chapters alone. If you can, have great writing throughout, but if you can’t, let those first three chapters be the best ones.

To not be “because I said so” about it, let me cite a practical application of this: Scribd notes that more than 30% of all reads on its subscription program is less than 10% of the book. That is, almost one out of every three readers set down a book after reading the first 20 – 40 pages!

THREE Chapters, that’s all you get to transform your tame threat into a raging question through your writing.

When we talk about your best writing, I do not mean you describe ‘the sun setting in a crimson haze beyond the barren and snow dusted pines’ Your writing has to make the threat and dire consequences that could follow more palpable. Which is why, at least for the first three chapters, the less ‘frilly’ your writing is, the tighter the threat.

  1. If your HOOK is not your biggest bind, then the main problem must occur within the first three chapters

The biggest bind or the main problem is the problem you want resolved at the end of your novel. Your climax must provide a satisfactory resolution to this main problem. The problem must be resolved one way or the other.

Nicholas Sparks in his most famous work, The Notebook, starts off with a HOOK that is also the main problem. It is a superbly understated HOOK and a perfect example of how the main problem in a story is also the HOOK in a romance novel.

There is always a moment right before I begin to read the story when my mind churns, and I wonder, will it happen today? I don’t know, for I never know beforehand and deep down it really doesn’t matter. It’s the possibility that keeps me going. And though you may call me a dreamer or a fool. I believe that anything is possible.”

A lot of novels however, do not start with the main problem. And that’s fine, as long as you proceed quickly to the hook. Remember the fictitious HOOK I had warned about? A HOOK that isn’t the main conflict can easily lose its way and become the fictitious HOOK.

  1. The first 3 chapters must show off your understanding of story structure

Of course story structure or narrative structure is critical to captivating the reader, what makes it most critical in the first three chapters is the fact that editors and discerning readers alike will rarely plod through a book that doesn’t care about story structure.

Narrative structure of SETUP-CONFLICT-RESOLUTION has always been under attack, not least for being ‘formulaic’. I don’t get the antagonism. No one’s suggesting that narrative structure is a creative formula. It isn’t; it is a structure formula. Once in a while you will come across a book good enough to make you ignore the structure, but by and large structure wins because at its heart is storytelling.

This 5th and concluding point is not only critical but also very rarely understood. Think back to any fairy tale that you read as a child. There is a setup, usually a disadvantaged beautiful girl who is being tormented, then the major conflict in reaching her goal, usually meeting the love of her life, and the final resolution. The simple words “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after” are such strong indicators of setup and resolution respectively that their mere mention evokes curiosity and satisfaction. Fairy tales satisfy the most discerning audience, children. It wouldn’t be stooping if we learnt a thing or two from them.

To bring it all together in a single sentence: the first three chapters should have completed the setup or at least taken it to an exciting place.

 To sum up

  1. Introduction to your principal character

  2. The Hook

  3. Fluid writing

  4. The principal Conflict

  5. The Setup

Happy Writing.

Anirban S. Bose

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