This post is a bit late, but hey, better late than never. As I may have mentioned before, my book Girl Having A Ball was shortlisted for Romantic Comedy of the Year in the 2017 RoNA awards. I was delighted with this. The RoNAs are run by the UK Romantic Novelists Association and are a pretty big deal. They’re the UK equivalent of the RITAs. Also on the shortlist were some well known authors – Cathy Bramley, Penny Parkes, Ali McNamara and Joanna Bolouri. Here we are (minus Joanna, who was poorly) looking all glamorous.
I rocked up at the fancy venue unfashionably early, so I got to take a picture of it before it was jam packed with glamour. Once people started arriving, I was too busy chatting take many more photos.
I’m always surprised at RNA events how many people there are to say hello to and how genuinely warm and friendly everyone is. Even people who are in competition with each other are friends – I chatted to my fellow shortlistees and liked them. It always takes the sting out of losing, if you like the person who won!
A number of my friends were also shortlisted, in different categories, so the excitement factor was running high.
I didn’t win my category (Penny Parkes won, with her excellenet, Out of Practice). But my mates Janet Gover (Epic Romance Category, with Little Girl Lost) and Kate Johnson (Paranormal and Speculative Fiction Category, with Max Seventeen) both won awards. After the official event finished, there was a mass trip out for pizza to celebrate.
I had a totally amazing time at the RoNAs. I might even go again next year.
The results will be announced on the 13th of March, so there’s over a month to wait to find out what happens. The other people on the shortlist are Cathy Bramley, Joanna Bolouri, Ali McNamara and Penny Parkes – all of whom write fantastic books. It’s an honour to be in their company.
If you have read Girl Having A Ball, I’d be super grateful if you could leave a review. The number of reviews a book has really makes a difference to how well it sells. I know I read reviews before I buy anything, I guess everyone else does the same.
Did you do NaNoWriMo? Did you hit your target? Brilliant! Well done.
I’ve never done NaNoWriMo. My kids are still small and disappearing into my room to write for hours on end seems a terribly indulgent thing to do right now. I take the slow and steady plod approach because it fits well with my life. Either way seems to work. The important thing is getting the writing done.
Anyway, the point is, you’ve written a whole novel. Take some time out to celebrate – not many people make it this far. Go out. Watch telly. Remind your friends you exist. Woo hoo!
The next thing to do… is ignore it for a few weeks. This gives you a bit of distance. You can combine that with more celebrating, if you like (I would). Once you’ve got past THAT, then you need to edit.
Your first draft might be a little rough. Don’t panic. It’s allowed to be. The purpose of the first draft was to get words down on a page. Once you have words, you can edit them. You can’t edit a blank page.
First fix structure. If you didn’t do any plotting at the start (some don’t), now is the time to deal with it. Go through the novel and make a list of scenes. Put them on Post-It notes or index cards, if you like. I make a list on a couple of sheets of A4. Do what works for you.
Look at it from a story arc point of view. Are the scenes in the right order? Do things happen logically? Does the tension rise throughout Act 2? Can you increase the tension by moving a scene from here to there? Do two characters sound exactly the same – can you combine them? Move stuff around and see if it works.
Now do the same for the character arc. Make sure the way your character changes as the story progresses is also logical. Hopefully, it will be.
Cut out the deadwood. A long time ago, an editor told me that a scene has to do at least three things in order to justify keeping it. One of those was ‘tickle the senses’. Working on the assumption that ALL scenes should be doing that to some extent, let’s see what else a scene can do to earn its keep.
Introduce a new character
Introduce a new setting
Change setting (transitions of time or place)
Set a mood
Show a new facet or a change in a character
Reveal something key to plot
Establish motivation for something that comes later
Heighten mood or build suspense
Provide comic relief or humour
Move the action forward (internal or external arc)
Basically, if it isn’t relevant to your plot, the scene has to go.
What if your scenes don’t do three things? See if you have combine a couple of scenes or tweak it a bit until it does. You need to be fairly brutal with this. If you can take the scene out and not leave a hole in the overall story, then it has no place in your book. Around half of the books that I critique are well written, but suffer from a surfeit of irrelevant scenes. Often, once these books have been ‘tightened up’ they go on to find publishing contracts.
Keep a folder for these scenes that you’ve cut. You will probably find a lovely turn of phrase or a snippet of description that you can use elsewhere.
Once you’ve done the ‘big picture’ editing, you should end up with only relevant scenes. Have another look at it and check if anything else needs to be moved around or added.
Edit for consistency. Read through the story as it is now. It might be very different to your original draft (or it might not). Catch typing errors as you go. Note down when you need to add or change things so that the story makes sense. Go through your notes and make changes. If your character has suddenly changed their name, go through and fix it. If there’s a huge hole in the plot, work out how to fill it in. If you need to plant a clue in chapter three in order to make something less like a coincidence in chapter seventeen, go do it. Often all that is required is a sentence or two.
By the end of this stage, your book should read coherently, with no extra flabby bits.
Edit for language. Is your writing as good at the sentence level as it can be? It is worth bearing in mind what you are trying to achieve. I write genre fiction, where the hand of the author has to be invisible, so that there is nothing in between the page and the images in the reader’s mind. An easy read can be very difficult to write. On the other hand, if you’re writing literary fiction, your writing needs to transcend the mundane. People are looking for brilliance. The perfect description, the right word. No killing your darlings here. A difficult read can also be difficult to write.
A really good way to make sure your writing flows the way you want it to, is to read it out loud. You might feel like an idiot doing this, but it works wonders for catching clunky sentences.
Use beta readers. Once all this is done, it’s time to send the book to a beta reader. This is a reader whom you trust to give you honest feedback. You’re looking for things like ‘this bit doesn’t make sense’ or ‘where did X character disappear to?’ or even ‘this bit is really boring’. It will feel harsh, because you thought your book was done to perfection. Stick with it. Let the feedback sink in for a few days, then go sort it out. You’ll know when they’re right.
A word of caution with beta readers. When you and your beta readers are all just starting out, it’s better to have two or three people read your draft. If more than one person identifies a problem with a section (even if they highlight different problems), then that section needs to be changed. Some people will tell you exactly what to change – take advice, but remember that ultimately it’s your book and only make changes that feel right to you.
If you get feedback from a professional editor/book doctor/ published novelist, pay extra attention to their comments. They will have seen a lot of books and will be able to spot the mistakes all beginners make.
Now, you’re nearly done. Read it through one more time to check for typos and syntax errors. Better still, bribe someone else to do it. By now you’ll be sick to death of this book. The idea of reading it again will make you feel ill. It’s not the book you started out with. It’s a terrible mangled wreck of your beautiful idea. But… your beta readers like it and you know in your heart that it’s the best it can be. It’s probably ready to send out to agents or publishers.
While you’re waiting to hear back, you can start work on your next book.
Last week, I was asked to give a talk to a group of counselling trainees at my local FE college about creative writing and academic writing. The contact came through my local writing group, The Beverley Chapter. I was suggested to the FE college because I once belonged to the world of academia and still do a lot of technical writing and, as you know, I write fiction.
The brief I was given was fairly vague and I found myself standing in front of a group of 26 adult students, with an hour to fill. So I started off by outlining who I was – someone who had always wanted to write fiction, but was encouraged to do something more ‘practical’ so that I could get a job when I grew up; Biochemistry degree and microbiology PhD from Oxford; short-lived post-doc career; the move into information science and intellectual property, ending up with my current job of IP officer for a university. In parallel, a second career as a romance novelist. After that, I ran out of steam a bit.
Luckily, they asked questions. Here are a few topics we covered:
Parallels between structuring a novel and structuring an academic essay:
Both have a beginning, a middle and an end. In academic writing it is an introduction, an argument (or, in case of science papers, a experimental section) and a conclusion. We discussed how a novel is essentially an illustration of an argument. The argument is the theme. Good will triumph over evil, the end doesn’t (or does) justify the means, love conquers all adversity – these are all themes which are exemplified in stories. You use characters to explore the theme.
Why use creative writing in academic writing:
I told a story about how I learned a load of stuff as an undergraduate. I was good at learning stuff and passing exams, so I did it. I even found it interesting from time to time. But I didn’t appreciate why it was important until my fourth year.
I chose to take a module called Genetics and Disease. One of the textbooks contained testimonials. The first one I read was about the CFTR protein and its gene – which is linked to cystic fibrosis. This chapter had a section written by someone whose sister died of cystic fibrosis. The contributor talked about their grief of losing their sister, about how, if she had lived longer, she could have benefited from drugs that could have improved her quality of life, and about how the contributor herself felt about the fact that she was carrying a defective copy of the gene that she could pass on to her children. This testimony moved me to tears. Suddenly, this module which was about genes and proteins and metabolic systems had meaning. It affected real people. This was important.
People are interested in people. Give case studies, where possible. It’s all about human interest. As novelists, we know this. People read to see what happens to the characters. In academic writing, there is less room for characters, but if you can find somewhere, get them in. Give the work a human context.
Does passive writing have a place:
Yes, I believe it does. Nothing we write is ever truly objective, but writing in the passive voice forces us to frame things in a more objective way. Most report writing is done in an objective way, but I know that in my own reports, my word choices are affected by how I feel about an invention. The facts remain the same, but at some point my opinion comes into it, sometimes without my noticing. If I describe something as say, ‘eye-catching’ it conveys a different impression to if I described it as ‘flamboyant’.
This lead onto a side discussion about opinions and their place in formal documents. There are times when you are required to give a professional opinion. This can be in the form of a recommendation. It is important that the reader is told that this is an opinion and not a fact. The facts that were used to arrive at the opinion need to be clearly listed in the text before. The introduction – argument- conclusion format lends itself well to this.
We discussed the flailing around stage in the middle of documents. I talked about the dreaded saggy middle that all novelists face. We talked about the thread of the narrative and how real life has events all over the place – some relevant to the plot, some not – and how, as a novelist, I have to work out which events drive the plot forward. If they’re not relevant to the plot, I have to leave them out.
This lead to a very interesting discussion about the counselling process where you know where you started and you know where you ended up, but you’re trying to work out the narrative of how you got from one place to the other – which events were relevant, which events were background noise.
Towards the end someone asked me why I write romance (because from my background, it would seem I’d choose sci fi). Here’s my answer:
It’s about people falling in love. Why would you not want to write about it? People are endlessly complex. I write about people and how they change. The change happens to involve falling in love.
Besides, that first kiss feeling is wonderful and I live it again and again through my characters.
But, as they rightly pointed out, you’d expect me to read a lot of sci fi. I did when I was younger. Also fantasy and crime. I still do read those, but nowadays I read a lot of more romance and women’s fiction. I have a theory that this fits better into the way I read post-kids. I no longer have the luxury of diving into a book and staying there for 3 hours until I’m too hungry to carry on. I read in 5 to 10 minute bursts. I also have a shockingly bad memory (mumnesia, it’s really a thing). A romance novel is mainly about an emotional arc, which is easier to pick up and put down.
I read A Game of Thrones recently (only the first one, I’ll get to the next in time). DH and I discussed it later. I went on and on about the relationships and the emotional arcs of the characters. He asked me what I thought of the politics … tumbleweed. I’d been too invested in the character conflicts to really pay attention to the subtleties of the politics. I got the broad brush stuff (you can’t miss it), but the subtle power games… nope.
I love reading thrillers (not horror – I’m squeamish). Again, I will plug into the emotional tension and feel the characters’ fear in my short bursts of reading. Give me something where the character emotions are secondary to the beautiful descriptions and I’ll probably put it down after two chapters.
This being a counselling group, we also talked about how I wasn’t allowed to read romance novels as a young teen, in case it gave me ‘ideas’. I was supposed to focus on studying. I grew up in Sri Lanka, where this was normal. I negotiated with my mother and read ONE Sweet Dreams romance. One. In the end, I decided to write my own. I still have my old typescripts – they’re badly faded and the edges have almost melted from being handled by hot little hands, but you can still read the notes my school friends scribbled in the margins. Reader feedback. It’s a wonderful thing.
The people in the group were all very lovely and said it was different and interesting talk. I hope it was. It was certainly a very interesting experience for me. The people I usually talk to are writers who are more interested in the how than the why. It was interesting to be made to think about why I write what I write. I still come to the same answer. People are so fascinating. Why wouldn’t you want to explore them more?
I’ve found out that the links to the Beverley Guardian website no longer work (the paper has closed down). So I’m reproducing my articles here.
Point of view
Last time I wrote about character. Inextricably linked to character is point of view. In the context of writing fiction, it helps to remember that the phrase ‘point of view’ has two meanings. One is the position from which things are being observed; the other is an attitude or way of considering matters.
The first of these is fairly obvious – whose eyes are you seeing the story through?
In a first person narrative (where the main character is ‘I’), the reader is seeing the world through the eyes of a character, usually the protagonist. You can only see, hear, feel what they can. It’s like one of those video games where you can look down and see your character’s hands, but you have no idea what their face looks like. First person narratives are brilliant for getting deep into the feelings of the characters. It’s very immediate and immersive. There’s a reason most young adult novels are written in the first person.
The difficulty with a first person narrative is showing the reader things that are not directly said or done or felt by the main character. If, for example, your main character just told their mother some bad news. How do they know how their mother felt? They can infer from the fact that she gritted her teeth and threw a cushion at the cat that she’s angry, but they can’t actually know, because they (and therefore the reader) can’t see inside their mother’s head.
If you’re writing in the first person, take extra care when the character describes themselves. If a character says “I flexed my well-honed pectorals” – you need to ask yourself what sort of person thinks of themselves like that. If your character is a shy gardener, he wouldn’t think about his muscles – apart from if they hurt. If, on the other hand, the character is a gym-addict, then naming muscle groups and flexing them could come naturally.
Writing in the second person (where the main character is ‘you’) is uncomfortable to read for longer works, but can work well in short stories. Like the first person, it’s immersive and visceral.
The third person narrative style (where the main character is ‘he’ or ‘she’) is very popular. You pick a character and follow them around. You can take the reader deep into the feelings and motivations of your characters. Or you can keep it slightly shallower. Personally, I prefer the deep third, but it doesn’t suit everyone. A third person narrative gives you a bit more freedom with description than a first person narrative, but you still need to keep to things that your point of view character can actually see and feel. For example, if they’re on the telephone, they still can’t see the person at the other end of the line nodding in agreement.
The omniscient point of view, where the narrator knows everyone’s thoughts and feelings, is rarely used in modern fiction. The main difficulty with this is that reader does not stay with one character long enough to identify with them, which makes it harder to care about the characters. On the other hand, Virginia Woolf uses it masterfully in Mrs Dalloway. If you can write like Virginia Woolf, you don’t need to be reading this column.
The other meaning of ‘point of view’ is to do with the way your character views the world. Your character’s beliefs and mood will colour how they see things. Two different characters will view the same object differently. For example, if you’re describing an old house – an imaginative child might see a spooky haunted mansion while their property developer father might see a fabulous investment. Even the same character could see the same things differently depending on their mood. A meal that a happy person would describe as delicious could taste like sawdust to the same person if they’d just had their heart broken. If you want a lovely illustration of this, watch Despicable Me 2, where Gru walks down the street twice – when he’s happy, he joins in with the street musicians and plays with the kids, when he’s sad, he glowers and stomps his way along. When describing settings or even action, think about how your character is feeling. Allowing your character’s mood to influence the description can help add depth and resonance to your writing.
While it’s entirely possible to write the entire book from the point of view of only one character, there is no reason why you can’t have more than one viewpoint in a story. In fact, using different point of view characters is a great way to increase the conflict – your reader can know why character X is doing something, while character Y has no idea.
Some writers like to keep entire chapters in one point of view, others will change narrators in successive scenes. There are no rules on how often to change point of view (or not), apart from making sure that you always take the reader with you when you make the transition. The reader should never have to go back and check whose head they’re in. Changing point of view suddenly mid-scene should be done with care, or the reader may feel that the writer is ‘head hopping’. Some readers (myself included) can’t stand head hopping , while others barely notice it.
Point of view can be difficult to master, especially if you’re writing in the third person, but getting it right will make your book a much more satisfying read.
I’ve realised that the Beverley Guardian website has disappeared, so I’m reposting my columns here.
People like to know about other people, that’s why we watch soaps and listen to gossip. Even news stories are more memorable if they have a human interest angle to them. All good stories are about people. The best stories involve people being changed by what happens to them.
The character arc is the description of what happens inside a character over the course of the story. The character’s emotional journey, if you like. This is what stops your story from being a list of events and gives it a purpose.
Do you need an emotional arc to a story? If you’re writing character driven fiction, then yes, it’s essential. If you’re writing action thrillers, then you might be able to get away without, but really, even then, having an inner journey still helps. Jurassic Park (the first movie, not the book) is an action film about rampaging dinosaurs, but the real story is Sam Neill’s character learning to care about those two kids.
So how do you get a character arc? Character arcs are all about change. The most common and arguably the most satisfying sort is the positive change, where the character has a flaw or a misapprehension around which they have formed their world view and, through the story, this changes so that they are a happier person at the end. It is possible to go the other way, of course. Breaking Bad is a fabulous negative arc.
First of all, get to know your character. Figure out what their story problem is. Perhaps your hero tries to do everything himself because he doesn’t trust other people not to let him down. Or has no self confidence. Or needs to prove he can see a project to completion. Find what their emotional problem is. This is how they are at the start. Now work out where they need to be, emotionally, by the end of the story.
People are naturally resistant to change. No one switches from one state to another suddenly, so avoid having your character have a massive change of heart at the last minute. The character’s journey from one state to the other has to happen in stages; several small changes that eventually add up to a major change in outlook by the end.
The trick is to get the external conflict (the big events that happen in the plot) to mirror the internal conflict (the emotional change). On the face of it, this sounds difficult to achieve, but it’s really not that hard. Firstly, if you’ve done your homework and got to know your characters, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how they will react to the major plot events. Even if your story is about a librarian fighting against invading Martians, every event will elicit a variety of emotional reactions in your Librarian. Focus on the reactions that are relevant to their emotional arc. Add some small reflection of their emotional state alongside the major plot points.
If you’re the sort of person who writes into the mist without planning, don’t worry. Just adjust the focus in the scenes when you come to edit the first draft.
Another approach is to use the emotional conflict to generate the smaller plot points. For instance, if we back to our example of the hero who needs to learn to trust others; He’ll start of trying to do things by himself because other people would only let him down. At some point he’ll have to trust someone with something small. They don’t let him down. He’s surprised – maybe there’s hope for other people yet!
The next time he needs to trust someone, he’s a little less reluctant. It works out again. He unbends a bit more. Then things go wrong (they always get worse before they get better) and someone lets him down. He thinks he was right all along. He can’t trust other people. Other people are unreliable. Except, he knows that’s not always true. Just before the end, he needs to take a leap of faith – which he takes because everything that’s happened to him so far in the story has changed who he is. By the end of the book, he’s got over the worst of his inability to trust people. He won’t have flipped over to being totally trusting, but he’ll be at least on his way there. Put in events to show all those points and suddenly your plot will start falling into place.
The better the internal and external conflicts mirror each other, the more satisfying the story is to read.
Not all of the characters in the book need to change, of course. In a lot of novels, the only person who really changes is the protagonist. Because I write romance, my books have emotional arcs from the two main characters. They must both change in order to be happy. Sometimes, a major secondary character will have an emotional arc too. Generally speaking, lesser characters can go through a book without changing significantly. If you find that one of your secondary characters is displaying a more interesting character arc than your protagonist, then perhaps it’s time to consider that character as the lead in a later book.
So how do you know the character has changed? Well, they can stop and think about it – but that’s not very believable. Far better to show the change through what they say and do. Was there are scene somewhere near the start that highlighted their problem? Write a scene towards the end that echoes the opening, but shows how different the character’s responses are.
Working out your characters’ internal struggles can really help pull a story together and makes for a more satisfying, emotionally resonant ending.
I’ve just found out that the Beverley Guardian website has disappeared (as has the Beverley Guardian newspaper), which means my columns on creative writing have also gone, so I’m reproducing them here.
10 ways to get to know your character
As a mentor for the RNA new writer’s scheme, I critique a lot of manuscripts. Of these the hardest ones to fix are the ones where the writer hasn’t properly got under the skin of their character. You don’t need to LIKE you characters, but you do need to know them. What makes them tick? What is it about them that sets them apart from the others?
A sure way of telling whether your characters are two dimensional is if you’ve told the reader what they did, but haven’t given them any idea of why they did it. Realistic people have reasons for doing things and emotional reactions to what happens. Make sure you know what your character is thinking.
Different people have different ways of getting to know their characters. I’ve suggested some common ones below. I’m not suggesting you do all of these – just try one of two until you find what works for you.
Complete a character profile. You can find templates from these on the internet. You start off with their name, their date of birth, their religious beliefs etc and keep going until you get to the good stuff like ‘what are they most afraid of?’ or ‘if your character could only save on thing/person from a fire, what/who would that be’.
Visualise them. This is fun to do. Close your eyes. Do not fall asleep. Picture your character. Got it? Now put them in a street, walking towards their front door. Open the front door. What do they see? Spend a few minutes watching them and then write down a description of what they saw.
Interview your character. This is a variation of the first suggestion, but has the advantage of letting you hear the character speak. Best to not do this out loud, unless you have a very understanding family. Just saying.
Make a list of what they carry. No, seriously. Take a look in their pockets, their briefcase, their hand bag. What’s in there? WHY is it in there?
Write yourself into their heads. This is my preferred method. I start with only a vague idea of what the character is like – I don’t mean what the character looks like, I don’t worry about this too much, eye colour, hair colour, age and anything relevant to the plot is enough, the reader can (and will) flesh out the rest for themselves. I often have to write several scenes with my main characters walking around doing things and talking to people before I get a real feel for what they are like. Then, at some point, the magic happens and you can hear them in your mind. They have a genuine voice and a way of speaking that it unique to them. Once you reach this point, you’re good to go.
Work out their character arc. I could write a whole column about character arcs (in fact, I probably will). Your main character should have changed in some way by the end of the story. Use this to get to know your character. Is your hero a scarecrow who considers himself stupid, but after coming up with a few clever ways to help save his friend, actually realises that he has a brain after all? Use this arc to work out what he would be like at the start (a bit dopey and unwilling to express an opinion?). Think about how he might show his changed state by the end (confident, perhaps?).
Use horoscopes. Do you know your character’s star sign (if you don’t, make it up)? How would a Scorpio respond to losing their job? Or to finding a wallet full of money? What would happen if they met a Libra?
Work out their backstory first. If a little girl lost her mother and her father remarried immediately – how would she feel? What fears and resentments would she harbour when she grew up? How would that affect her interactions with people outside her family?
Ask why they have the traits they have. Why does your hero hate lawyers? Why is your heroine a compulsive gambler? What made them the way they are?
Okay, I’ll have to whisper this one. Gather round. Shh. Steal a character. Don’t lift it wholesale, just take a part of them and then adapt. Bridget Jones is really Lizzie Bennet in disguise. Christian in 50 shades of Grey is really Edward from Twilight without the fangs. Take your vision of a favourite character, then remove bits and embellish other bits until they become someone new. I hesitate to suggest using real people in fiction because it’s inevitably messy. That’s not to say that you can’t take a single character trait from someone real and give it to one of your characters. Once you’ve assimilated that trait into the character, the original source should be unrecognisable.
Writers often talk about their characters ‘taking over’. This is when you think the characters should be doing something, but it doesn’t feel right. You write the scene, rewrite it and still something jars. Then you give up and let the characters do their own thing, watch what they do and write it down. When this happens, it’s the best feeling in the world.
This is another article written for the now-defunct Beverley Guardian, recreated here for your delectation and delight.
Conflict is the thing that powers your story. Your protagonist has a problem, they are trying to fix it, but there are things in the way, so they can’t solve their problem as easily as they’d hoped. So what are they going to do now? This tension, the wanting to know what happens next, is what keeps the reader turning the paged. The source of that tension is conflict.
Conflict is caused by the gap between the expected outcome and the actual outcome. The bigger the gap, the better the conflict.
Imagine you’re chatting to a friend. You start telling them about how you had a problem with your phone line. The simple outcome would be that you got in touch with tech support, they fixed it. This is a pretty boring story. However, if you called tech support, they couldn’t/wouldn’t fix the problem, then you missed an important telephone call from the hospital, which means you missed an unexpected appointment to have some sort of pain relieving treatment and now you’re doomed to be in pain for weeks until another slot opens up. And your phone still isn’t fixed. So, you did X…and then Y… and then…
The second version is a much more interesting story. The gap between the simple outcome you’d hoped for and the hoops you had to jump through to achieve the outcome in reality is what makes the story worth listening to.
So, how do you achieve this in fiction? First, look at your protagonist’s main problem. What do they have to do to solve it? Pick one of those things and work out what would happen to make that step more difficult.
You could use another character as antagonist – A lot of stories have a baddie who provides the obstacles. Hero wants X, Antagonist will do anything to stop him from getting it. Or better still, they compete to get to X first and antagonist lays traps for the hero. This is the main conflict in many an action movie.
It is possible to have nature as the antagonist. It could be nature at her most malevolent – which is the staple of disaster movies. Or it could be more subtle: A man is stranded on Mars. He needs to survive until the next mission lands and he intends to survive on the potatoes he grows in poo. There’s a storm. His potatoes are destroyed, along with any hope of growing more. His chances are looking even worse now…
Add a ticking clock. The heroine must reach a certain goal before some terrible thing happens. This ticking clock could be anything from lightening striking a clock tower or the object of her affection getting married to the wrong person.
At the start of the story establish why it is important for the protagonist to achieve their goal, make it something that is important to them. Then, if possible, make the stakes even higher. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indy wants to get into the temple because he wants the sacred stones. He’s a tomb raider and it’s a challenge for him, but it’s not life and death. Soon after his adventure begins, he meets the villagers who tell him that their children are being stolen and taken into the mountain and he says he’ll help them. Suddenly the quest is more than about some nice artefacts. There are kids involved. And THEN his friends get caught up in it. Not only is it life and death… it’s now the life or death of people he cares about.
Individual scenes need conflict and tension too. Again, the conflict comes from the gap between expectation and what actually happens. If one of your scenes feels like it’s not working (chances are, you’ll know it’s not working even if you don’t know why), then look at the core point of the scene. Why is it there? What needs to happen in that scene to move the story along to the next beat? Work out what the protagonist of that scene wants and why they want it. Then figure out what’s stopping them getting it until the end of the scene. This is often called ‘goal, motivation, conflict’. A good scene will have all there embedded in it, so it will ‘feel’ right.
Conflict doesn’t always have to be big, explosive stuff. It can be subtle. Set up the expectation and subvert it. It can be as subtle as someone you’d expect to stop and say hello looking awkward and crossing the street to avoid you. Or a wife forgetting to kiss her husband goodbye one morning. It just needs to be something that indicates that everything isn’t as perfect as the protagonist would like.
These obstacles not only make it harder for the protagonist to reach their goal, they also give them the means to prove themselves. In order to keep going, they must find deep reserves of courage and perseverance. Avoid miraculous coincidences swooping in to their rescue and make then earn their story.
You need at least three points of great difficulty. Each challenge will be harder to overcome than the last until at the eve of overcoming the last challenge, the protagonist feels all is lost. In romance, we call it the ‘black moment’ or ‘all is lost’. This is often the point where the physical plot and the emotional plot come together and the protagonist finds that last thing they needed to change.
This ramping up to tension is reflected in the reader’s feelings. They keep reading because they want to know what happens and because, if you’ve done your job, they are living through the protagonist’s journey. When it all works out and the hero returns home triumphant, or the hero and heroine get to their happy ending, the reader can give a sigh and feel a sense of satisfaction. This endorphin rush (there is an actual reaction in the brain) is what makes the reader close the book and say ‘that was good’. This is what you’re aiming for.
This was the first article I wrote for the Beverley Guardian. Since their site has disappeared, I’m re-posting it here. If you have any other tips on how to make time to write, please let me know in the comments.
Are you one of those people who says ‘I’d love to write a book one day, but I don’t have the time’? I have a day job and I have two small children. If I can find the time to write novels, so can you.
First, let’s break down the task. Most novels are about 70000 words long. That’s a lot of words. It would be almost impossible to write that in one day. You could dedicate a week to it and get it done, but we’ve already established that time is a limiting factor. So, let’s spread it over more days. 70K is 70 days of writing 1000 words a day. Or 140 days of 500 words a day. Or even 280 days writing 250 words a day. 250 words is easy, right? After all, I’ve written over a 100 just to get to this point. So you can write 250 words a day.
Now that we’ve agreed on 250 words, we need to find an hour or so to get those words down. The good news is that you can easily write more 250 words in an hour. The bad news is that you’ll probably have to write about 1500 words to make sure you have 250 usable ones.
So what next? Well, just make sure you do you 250 words every day. If you can’t manage every day, try four days a week. Any less than that, and you risk straying off and not finishing the book.
You don’t have an hour each day? Are you sure about that?
Here are ten ways how to make time:
1) Make writing a priority. When you say you don’t have time to write – you actually mean ‘I have other things I’d rather do with my time than write’. Making the mental shift to believe that writing is important is a major step towards finding more time.
2) Stop watching TV. I don’t mean stop watching it entirely. There are, after all, essentials – The Big Bang Theory and Dr Who for me. Everything else will have to wait until it comes out on DVD. If you have young children who distract you, wait until they’re watching something and use that time to write. You know you won’t be disturbed for 30 minutes. That’s gold dust.
3) Get up earlier. I’m told this works. I’ve never tried it because I have trouble with anything earlier than 6am. Early morning people also claim that creativity flows better early in the morning. They’re probably right. I’m never up early enough to find out.
4) Go to bed later. As above, but at the other end of the day. I do this. If you fall asleep, just delete all the bits that say fffow;elklrkje;lja before you start writing the next day.
5) Turn off the internet. Wait, wait. Calm down. Breathe. I don’t mean permanently. Just for an hour or so during you ‘writing time’. It’s amazing how much you can get done if you don’t have the excuse of ‘research’ or ‘just quickly checking my email’.
6) Make up an hour, fifteen minutes at a time. This is something I was taught by my old Physics teacher. He suggested that a full hour was hard to find, but four lots of fifteen minutes wasn’t. This is also a good way of getting pesky things that you have been putting off done. Set a timer for 15 minutes, then get that editing done.
7) Steal time from your social life. Get used to saying ‘I can’t come out tonight. I’m writing’. Back in the day (before I had kids), I used to have one day a week (usually Saturday night) when I didn’t write. This was mainly so that people didn’t think I had become a hermit.
8) Do your preparation beforehand. Not all writing time is spent writing. The bit that hits the page is only a small fraction of the work that goes on with writing. A lot of the plotting, character building, general day dreaming doesn’t require you to use your hands. Do it while you’re waiting for the kids to finish school, while you’re washing up or while you’re clearing frost off the car. Let ideas turn over and mulch down in your mind and, over time, lovely things will grow.
9) Put your phone on answerphone. Or, if you live attached to your mobile phone, turn it off or onto silent/ do not disturb. No, don’t get distracted and quickly check Twitter. Turn it off.
10) This one’s my dream – go on a writing retreat (cue inspirational music). Preferably somewhere hot, where someone else does the cooking, cleaning and washing up. Use it wisely so that you can pour out words like nobody’s business. I’ve never been on one, but I imagine them to be magical, life altering events.
One more bonus tip: Keep a stack of Post-Its nearby while you write. If you get an idea that won’t fit with what you’re doing right now, but would help in a different chapter/book, write it on a Post-It and get back to what you’re meant to be doing. That way you won’t forget it and you won’t get side tracked by it. Every so often have a 15 minute session sorting out the Post Its. A word of warning – try and make your notes comprehensible. My favourite random Post-It says ‘giving up on disasters waiting to happen’ on it. It was obviously a brilliant idea. I wish I could remember what it was.
Do you have a question about creative writing? Get in touch!