Tag Archives: plot structure

Nice Surprises

Yesterday, the results of the 2013 Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair were announced. I already knew I wasn’t one of the winners, but what I didn’t know was that the judges had decreed that I, along with 9 other writers, had produced work of a high enough standard to be considered longlistees.

Sulu say 'whut?' Image: ratemydrawings.com

Sulu say ‘whut?’
Image: ratemydrawings.com

This was a real surprise, and rather a comfort in the face of, once again, missing out on the top rank of ‘winner.’ I came in exactly the same position last time around (in 2012’s competition, the results of which were announced in 2013), with the same book (albeit a vastly different and entirely reworked version); if I decide to enter this competition again, I think the universe may be telling me: ‘Choose a different book.’

It’s wonderful to know that I am a strong enough writer to make a longlist two years in a row – sweetly, my husband did the maths and worked out that I was in the top 7.2% of entries, which was very cool to hear – but what I want to take from this experience is a lesson about what my writing is missing, what it needs to improve on, in order to be good enough to make it.

Over the past eighteen months or so, I’ve learned that I can put together reasonably good sentences, and that I can write on demand and under pressure. I’ve learned that I can hit deadlines, and that I have a reasonable amount of self-motivation. I’ve discovered a love for short stories and flash fiction, and I’ve ‘met’ some talented fellow writers who seem to think my stories – at least, some of them – have a little merit. I’ve found that I respond well to prompts, and that I am capable of turning an idea into a fully-fledged novel.

But where am I falling down?

 

Image: vecto.rs

Image: vecto.rs

One of my main issues is, I think, with plotting. Taken as a series of scenes, I think my writing works fine, but overall, as a completed novel, I’m not so sure. I think I manage to come up with good seeds for a story, good ideas which form the basis of whatever I’m working on, but the act of fleshing them out seems to drown them. My plots either aren’t strong enough, or the conflict isn’t sufficiently dangerous, or the antagonist not adequately evil. It’s hard to write a story which you believe in, one which you love, the sort of story you’d like to read, while at the same time thinking about marketability and originality and whether your characters are unique, your baddies not ‘stock’, your protagonist not a walking bundle of stereotypes. Sometimes, a plot you adore won’t find a home with an agent or publisher because they know what you don’t – the shape of the market, the fact that ten thousand other books are already out there on just the same topic, readers’ needs won’t be met by your work – and it’s hard to be told that something you’ve worked on just doesn’t have a place in the landscape of publishing. I know I struggle with plotting, and I guess the only way to overcome it is to practice – and to read as widely as I can.

Another thing I need to work on is pacing. Yesterday, I finished my paper edits of ‘Emmeline’, and – while I’m still happy with the direction the story took – it does feel like the ending is rushed. Also, while I’ve managed to remove a substantial total from my wordcount, I think I am still being too wordy in non-critical places, and not wordy enough in others. The middle third of the book, which I had thought was all right on my first round of edits, actually is a bit longer than it needs to be. The thought of changing it substantially is making my brain melt, but it’s going to have to happen. As well as this, I know my pacing issues centre on the final ‘act’ of my novel, when everything comes together and the final showdown takes place. My Grand Conflict ends up falling flat, because it’s all squashed into one or two chapters. This is a problem. However, knowing you do it and finding a way to fix it are two entirely separate things.

Something else I learned about myself while doing the edits for ‘Emmeline’ was my tendency to use redundancies, like ‘her stomach yowled with hunger‘, or ‘his eyes flashed in anger,’ or – my personal fave – ‘he stared at her with a mixture of anger and fear on his face‘. Of course a stomach yowls with hunger – what else would cause it to do that? And naturally a person, when staring, does it with his or her face. It would be hard to do it with any other body part. So, why did I include the words ‘on his face’? Poor writing, that’s why. I haven’t yet read over ‘Tider’, so I’m not sure whether errors like that cropped up in that book, too, but it’s likely they did. I also tend to repeat myself, whether on a micro- or macro-level; repeated words within paragraphs (sometimes, within a pair of sentences!) are not unknown in my work, and larger repetitions – plot devices, sentence structure, conversations between characters – are also no stranger to me. Somehow, I do this without noticing when I’m drafting, so it’s important to be aware of it when it comes time to edit.

But I am aware, and I am trying. So, I guess it’s just a case of doing it again, and again, and again, until I get it right.

Image: brandonvogt.com

Image: brandonvogt.com

Huge congratulations to all the authors who were shortlisted for this year’s Novel Fair, and to my fellow longlistees. The Novel Fair is a fantastic endeavour, and – year on year – it leads to book deals, the successful publication of some wonderful novels, and a lot of happy people. Novel Fair 2014’s closing date won’t be until October, so there’s plenty of time to get your magnum opus written. See you there?

Adventures in Drafting

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a writer, or a stenographer. More often than not, it doesn’t feel like I’m creating anything when I sit down at my keyboard; I just have a window into someone else’s life, and I’m recording it for posterity. It’s a strange, but slightly thrilling, sort of feeling. I’ve felt it before, but not for a while, now. I’ve missed it.

Image: officemuseum.com

Image: officemuseum.com

I am almost 69,000 words into draft 1 of ‘Tider’, and the grand dénouement is not far away. I have plotted, and replotted, and replotted the ending, adjusting every few days as my characters get lairy and unpredictable and start doing things their own way, as they are wont; still, though, they are surprising me by taking the initiative. ‘Step back, puny author,’ they seem to say. ‘We’ve got this.’ Then, I can only watch as they roundhouse kick their way out of every sort of structure and narrative I’d tried to put them in, and my careful planning falls down in a heap around my ears. Really, I don’t know why I bother.

I had reckoned I’d be finished ‘Tider’ about 4,000 words ago, but the story has kept going and there’s a little more that needs to be told yet. I thought I had dispatched a ‘baddie’ quite thoroughly, too, but they reappeared in yesterday’s writing, determined to have one final moment in the limelight. I thought my heroine had faced all the challenges she was to face, but another decided to show up just at the most inopportune moment. Seriously, at times, I feel like I’m wrangling a bunch of monkeys, and they all live inside my head.

How are ya!? Image: sodahead.com

How are ya!?
Image: sodahead.com

My husband got a little worried when I told him ‘Tider’ was refusing to cooperate; I guess he was imagining another 150,000-word beast was about to come spewing out of my fingers again. I hastily reassured him that wasn’t the case. I’m pretty close to the end of this draft. I haven’t reached it yet, but I hope – really hope – that today might be the day. I know there’s huge work left to do on this first draft (it has more holes than a dairy full of Swiss cheese, and it needs more expansion and explanation at the beginning), but I think it’ll be pretty solid by the time I get to type ‘The End’. I’m looking forward to that moment.

I had always imagined ‘Tider’ as a duology, or a trilogy even. Now, I’m hoping it will be a stand-alone novel. In one way, I feel sad that my original dreams for this story are no longer going to come true, but in another I know that the way I’ve written ‘Tider’ now is the way it should have been from the start. This version feels more true, and more satisfying, and I’m much happier with it. I’m finally figuring out that a story doesn’t have to exhaustively detail how every tiny thread pans out; there has to be a satisfactory end to the plot, of course, but a little bit of mystery is okay, too, as is a hint of what might happen to the characters once we’ve finished reading about them. A book isn’t supposed to be a chronicle of a family’s history, a begat-list running to the end of time – it’s supposed to be an episode in that history, a snapshot taken at a crucial moment, or a turning point, or a time of crisis. Once the characters have passed that point of testing, and they’ve come through the crucible in whatever way they can, then the story can end without a reader feeling like they’ve been cheated. I’m not talking about leaving a cliffhanger ending, or deliberately holding back on explaining a plot point for the sake of it – what I mean is, a book can have a ragged, messy, organic ending, a true-to-life ending, and it can be the absolute best note to leave the story on.

That’s what I think, at least.

I also love it (despite all my complaints) when characters come to life and start dictating what they’re going to do. Not only does it make you feel like a real writer, who has created a bunch of ‘real’ people – i.e. characters with their own minds, motivations and aspirations – but it’s also an amazing thing to watch your plot twist and turn upon itself in a way of its own choosing. Of course, I can decide to completely undo it in a subsequent draft, but I feel it’s good to give a story the freedom to develop as it goes. If it’s taking me by surprise, I hope it will take a reader by surprise, too.

Anyway. I have a lot to do today, so I’d best push on and get cracking. The sooner I get this draft done, the sooner I can get to redrafting it, and the sooner I can usher it out into the world. Maybe, one day, other people will even get to read it…

Wouldn't that be *wonderful*, Toto? Image: songbook1.wordpress.com

Wouldn’t that be *wonderful*, Toto?
Image: songbook1.wordpress.com

Tider Tuesday

Today, I’m beginning a monumental task. What better day to do it than a Tuesday, yes? Yes.

Today, I am beginning a rewrite of ‘Tider’. I’m sure y’all will remember me talking about this poor, long-neglected novel of mine, which I started last year and thought I’d finished in January of this year. You may also remember the near meltdown that engulfed me in the latter stages of said novel, and you may (or, probably, may not) have been wondering why I’ve been so quiet about it ever since.

Well. The reason is this.

Writing ‘Eldritch’ has given me a huge insight into the kind of writer I want to be. Writing ‘Eldritch’ has shown me that I really truly do love children’s books, and that while I love reading YA books, I’m not terribly good at writing them – at least, not at the moment. In the current version of ‘Tider’, my main character is in her mid-teens, and there’s a love interest, and she’s awkwardly finding out about her feelings for this love interest while simultaneously trying to save her family, and quite possibly the world, from destruction; I realise now that the love interest was superfluous – at least, as far as I’m concerned. The important thing about the story was the character, her family, and her love for them. In short, ‘Tider’ – in its current form – is a children’s book trying to be a YA book.

My original idea for ‘Tider’ involved my main character and her best friend going off on an adventure in an attempt to save the life of the best friend’s father, and unwittingly getting involved in a situation much bigger than either of them could have imagined, which leaves the fate of the world at stake. In the course of the book, the characters would be faced with hard choices, about their families and also about their friendship, and my MC and her own father would be set on a collision course due to his unwillingness to help them in their quest. For some reason, this became a story about a girl rebelling against her father and wanting to find out the truth about her mother, getting involved in a vigilante group and falling in love with one of its ringleaders, who then go on to try to take her father out of business (because his ‘business’ is illegal and immoral and wrong, something the MC gradually comes to see.) You might also remember that ‘Tider’ was far too long – somewhere in the region of 150,000 words, which is lunacy – and the time and effort that would be involved in taking it as it is and editing it down to a manageable size would, I feel, be better spent in ‘simply’ rewriting the book completely.

I’m being very calm about this, all things considered.

I look a bit like this guy, but that's irrelevant. Image: creepypasta.wikia.com

I look a bit like this guy, but that’s irrelevant.
Image: creepypasta.wikia.com

Over the past few days and weeks, the idea for ‘Tider’ Mk. II has been taking shape in my head. I think I have a first page, and a first chapter, and a revised structure – basically, the plot is the same but without some of the more complicated subplots and, of course, the romance element – and, really, all I’m doing is going back to my original plan for the book. In a way, I feel it’s been a long, painful, but necessary process.

I do wish, sort of, that I’d been able to come to this conclusion without all the stress and sweat and panic and hard work, but then, that’s what learning is all about, isn’t it?

Things I have learned from this process:

If you’re struggling – to the point of tears – with a book, then take a step back and reassess it. If it’s not working, it may not be anything you’re doing wrong. It may just be not working.

If you’re panicking about your book, and plot twists or ‘patches’ or ideas are coming to you at a crazy pace, and when you work them into your book and they fix something for a while but cause you bigger problems later on, don’t just leave them there. Go back over what you’ve done, and calmly, rationally unpick it, and see if there’s something better you can do.

If you’re not enjoying the writing – with the caveat that, of course, writing is work, and hard work, and should be challenging – then something may be slightly off-kilter. Again, take some time to think and reassess and, perhaps, take a complete break from what you’re doing for a while.

Do not set yourself minimum word limits every day. Do not force yourself to reach 5,000 words, or 6,000 words, or 7,000 words… every day, just write the amount of words you can write, and be happy with that.

If you’re really not getting anywhere with a project, start something else; come back to the first project when you’re ready.

So. Wish me luck? And, I hope, if you’re having trouble with a piece you’re working on, that you’ll take heart from my struggle and realise nothing is too difficult to overcome.

Right. I’m setting phasers to ‘Write’. See you all tomorrow!