Week 6: Editing and Moving On
It can be helpful to create a bit of distance between you and your writing. Time is probably the best thing but, when you don't have that, then a change of place can help. Sometimes being somewhere that doesn't have your own things around you can be helpful, eg a library, cafe, train journey. I find there's a point where I have to print out my writing so that I can really see it properly and I will always notice lots of things I want to revise when I do this. Reading aloud can also be helpful in showing where your sentences are clunky or unclear, where there are repetitions.
The big things: voice, point of view, tense, structure.
If you're not sure you've got this right, the questions to ask yourself are, whose story is this? Why does it have to be told and from where? But it's also important to find a way of telling the story that works for you. Some writers are at their best working with first person narration. Some writers only like to write in the present tense. Some will enjoy jumping over large stretches of time and some will find they can do everything best in a fictional day. Not that we should always stick to one thing or stay where we feel safe but you will probably find that some ways of doing things give you freedom and a sense of your own voice whereas others feel restrictive or unexciting. It's worth experimenting to see where your strengths lie.
What to cut? Anything that doesn't need to be there! This might include:
- information we don't need at this particular moment
- something you have already said or implied (avoid trying to make the same point in different words, to make sure the reader gets it, but try to be bold or even audacious).
- something that your reader can work out for him/herself. As readers we want to have the pleasure of doing some of the work. We want to be involved. If it feels as though you're explaining something to your reader, there's probably a better way of doing it (the old advice: show don't tell)
- clutter that distracts or interferes with rhythm and intensity.
- lead-ins and round-ups to chapters, sections or paragraphs that we often write because we're finding out for ourselves what's happening but which the reader may not need. You will often find, when you look at a draft, that you've got a great opening sentence in the second or third paragraph, that there's a thrilling place to end just a bit before you actually ended it.
- unnecessary adverbs and adjectives
- metaphors or images that distract rather than clarify.
What to develop? All the things your reader wants to know more about!
- find moments where you can go in and add a layer or two of detail about a character. It might be a memory or a thought. If your character is listening to music, what is it? If your character eats a biscuit, what kind would it be?
- in a novel we would expect to see arrows here and there pointing toward other parts of the novel. If your draft feels a bit thin or 'one-note', it might be because these arrows are missing. Look at ways you can keep a sense of the whole novel present in one scene
- don't be afraid to linger and tell us what we need to know. If you are giving information that takes us further, deeper, we'll be happy to stay there.
- atmosphere and sense of place.
- rhythm and pacing. You're in control of how quickly, how slowly we move through the narrative. It's up to you to create tension, to create moments of quiet or stillness.
- Get in the habit of getting the layout right. If you're not sure, pick some novels from your shelves and have a look.
- Do a read-through looking just at your paragraphs. Does each paragraph make sense as a unit? Do we feel a sense of movement as we go from one to the next? You can make a dramatic difference to the pacing and unfolding of your novel just by organising it more effectively. The same thing applies to sentences. Make sure every idea or action has the space it needs.
- On the whole, the most powerful word in a sentence is the last one. You can add a kick to a sentence simply by rearranging the words so that the strongest word is the one before the full stop (or by breaking a up a sentence and creating two new ones so you can do this twice). This applies to the final sentence in a paragraph and the final paragraph in a chapter.
- You can use paragraph or line breaks to create tension and shifts in mood, allowing you sometimes to use fewer words. For example, if you have 'suddenly' buried in the middle of a page-long paragraph full of long, descriptive sentences, the thing that happens probably won't feel very sudden. On the other hand, by starting a new paragraph just at the right moment and with the right words, you can probably create that sense of suddenness without needing 'suddenly.'
It can be hard to keep the momentum going so work out what it is that will keep you going, whether that's a regular writing routine, deadlines, being part of a writing community.
If you get stuck on one section of the novel, maybe put that bit aside and work on another bit. You might come back later and find that the solution is obvious now. If your approach is entirely linear, try not to let the weight of what you have so far prevent you from moving forward. It can be helpful to jump ahead to later scenes – even if they're just vague sketches – to have something to work back from or towards.
It can be helpful to do some writing exercises and free-writing away from your novel, for example taking your characters and putting them in scenes that aren't in your novel to see what happens. You'll often find that you get some new material or learn something new that will end up in the novel.
If you struggle with self-doubt (and I think we all do), try to fake a bit of confidence sometimes just to keep yourself going.If you feel you don't have anything to say on a particular day, then perhaps that's a day to focus on reading and filling up again (and not feeling guilty about it).
Week 5: Time and Structure
What shape is your novel? How are you using time in the way you shape it?
2. Take the story of Cinderella. What are the main stages of the story? How could you tell it differently using time and point of view in different ways? What would be the effect of doing this on the nature of the story itself?
Try doing the same exercise with other well-known stories.
The Five-Act Structure
1. Exposition: introduces elements and inciting incident.
2. Rising action: sets up the climax, deepens the plot and complications.
3. Climax: mid-point or turning point
4. Falling action: plot points are resolved
Is it helpful to think of your story in this way? What are the advantages and disadvantages of applying a structure like this to your novel?
THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS: WHY WE TELL STORIES, Christopher Booker (Bloomsbury Continuum)
ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL, E. M. Forster (Penguin Classics). The Plot: on the difference between plot and story.
POETICS, Aristotle (Penguin Classics)
THE ART OF FICTION, David Lodge (Penguin): a collection of short essays on aspects of fiction. One is on Narrative Structure but other essays also relate to the topic.
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE, Charles Baxter (Graywolf Press): the essay on Stillness relates to time and silence.
ON WRITING, Eudora Welty (Modern Library), the essay Some Notes on Time.
A summary of THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS by Christopher Booker
Stages of the plot:
Call and anticipation.
Dream: some successes and the illusion of invincibility.
Frustration: confrontation and loss of illusion of invincibility.
Nightmare: where hope seems lost.
The seven plots:
1. Overcoming the monster
Dracula, Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf
2. Voyage and return
Odysseus, The Hobbit
Leaving one world to face another, encountering dangers, returning transformed.
3. Rags to Riches
The call: protagonist pulled out into the world, some successes but without wisdom or experience. Then central crisis -villain or rival - final ordeal, success and then reward.
Cinderella, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre.
4. The Quest
The protagonist sets out to find someone or something, buried treasure. Similar to overcoming monster. Popular in science fiction and fantasy.
Misunderstandings, dark, tangled mess darkness to light and redemption.
Shakespeare’s comedies, Jane Austen’s novels, Bridget Jones’ Diary.
A protagonist who may be morally corrupt, ambiguous or may have dreams that cannot be realised. The protagonist is not able to succeed and find redemption.
Similar to tragedy but with the possibility of a lesson learned and redemption.
A Christmas Carol.
Does your novel fit neatly into one of the categories above or does it combine two or more?
Do you learn anything new about your novel from thinking about it like this?
Do you know how your novel starts? What happens if you start at a different point in time?
Are you writing your novel in a linear way, chronologically? What happens if you write in a major scene that happens later in the story – perhaps the climax – and you try working back from there, rather than always pushing forwards?
Further exercises you could try:
1. Take a chapter or scene you've written (or write a new one or take something from your Cinderella exercise above) and see how many layers of time are there, including memories and any references to past, future or simultaneous events you've included. See how many more you can add without overwhelming the scene or losing sight of what's happening. Do you learn anything more about the scene by doing this? Would you keep any of the new material?
2. Write chapter headings for your novel on bits of paper or postcards and put them in order. Then shuffle them and see how you would tell the same story using the new chapter order (or use the main events if you don't have chapters yet).
Week 4: whose story?
Voice and point of view
Imaginative Literature is about listening to a voice. The point is the voice is unlike any other you have heard and it is speaking directly to you, communing with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way.
THE WRITER’S VOICE, Al Alvarez (Bloomsbury, 2006).
What is ‘voice’ in a novel and where does it come from?
Who is telling the story of your novel and why does this story need to be told? When is the story being told (in relation to the events) and from where? How might different decisions here affect the 'voice' of the novel?
Point of View (and consciousness)
Types of point of view:
Second person (more common in short stories than novels but BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG CITY by Jay McInerney is a famous example)
Third person omniscient
Third person limited (or ‘close third’)
There are also rare cases of first person plural, for example THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides.
1. Where does the consciousness of your novel lie? What does this mean in terms of point of view and how would your novel be different if you used a different point of view?
2. How can you use point of view to different effects, such as creating suspense and mystery? Eg an 'unreliable' first person narration (AMERICAN PSYCHO, Brett Easton Ellis, THE LITTLE STRANGER, Sarah Waters) or multiple viewpoints to give versions of an event (THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Wilkie Collins) or to create ambiguity (THE TURN OF THE SCREW, Henry James).
Suggested reading: CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE NOVEL, David Lodge (Penguin, 2003); HOW FICTION WORKS, James Wood (Vintage, 2009); READING LIKE A WRITER, Francine Prose (Union Books, 2012).
Exercises from the session:
Here are some letters to a problem page.
What do you learn about the writers from the way they express themselves?
What would you need or like to know in order to understand the situation better?
1. Twelve years ago I left my first wife for the woman who is now my wife. We had two children, a girl of 14 and a boy of 9. It was a very difficult time for everyone. Unlike her brother, my daughter never accepted her stepmother, who has gone out of her way to make the relationship work. Now my daughter is getting married and appears to be settling a few scores. She has refused any financial contribution from me and she has asked her stepfather, a man she has known for about four years, to give her away. Worst of all, although she has invited me and her two young half-brothers to the wedding, my wife hasn’t been invited.
I am deeply hurt and upset – and have a good mind to stay away. My daughter’s mother says she is entitled to do as she chooses. My wife is very upset but she thinks that our children and I should go to the wedding.
2. Last year I moved to a new town and became with the woman who lives in the flat above mine. She went out of her way to be kind and welcoming. However, she has begun to take what I consider to be an unhealthy interest in my life. She appears in the stairwell every time I go in or out to quiz me and see what I’m doing, particularly when I bring someone home other than my partner. She complains about my music – though I don’t play it particularly loudly – and the other morning I’m sure I caught her looking through my bins (she said that she was just putting back some rubbish that had spilled out). She pressures me into doing odd jobs for her, always saying that there is something wrong with her back, even though I’ve seen her come home from the shops with heavy bags and she seems fine. The jobs don’t seem urgent but she is put out if I tell her I’m busy. I lwas excited about moving here and making a new start but I’ve begun to feel oppressed in my own home.
3 . I love my current partner very much and she declares the same feelings for me. However, the legacy of her last relationship with her married boss continues to assert itself. He is unable to accept that his relationship with my partner is over and pesters her at work, asks for dates and rings her at home. Much of this is accompanied by explicit flirting, with which my partner sadly colludes – ‘to keep the peace’ by placating him. I urge my partner to break off her intimate conversations with him but so far she has not done this. Am I being unreasonable by being so annoyed, threatened even, by what is going on? Or should I just put up with it and hope that it will go away?
What we find is that, however well-intentioned, honest and 'reliable' we mean to be, we are all unreliable narrators bringing our own experience, prejudices, blind spots etc to a situation. The reader (or listener) naturally starts to look for clues to understand the other points of view using information given away unconsciously and what is left unsaid.
1. Using one of the scenarios above or a scene from your novel in progress, write from the point of view of another character. How does it change and what happens? Even just as an exercise, this can give you information and a new perspective on events and character.
Further exercises to try:
2. Experiment with ways of showing us another point of view without stepping outside your chosen point of view. Dialogue is the most obvious way but you could use letters, WhatsApp messages etc....
This can be a useful way of telegraphing information to the reader that your character might not grasp or even notice. It can be a way of giving perspective on your main characters (is the narrator of problem 2 above paranoid or genuinely harassed? We may need someone else's help here) Try writing a conversation where we learn something from another character that the character whose point of view it is wouldn't necessarily tell us.
3. Write a letter from your character to a problem page. How would they express their predicament? Think about the language they would use, how they would describe the other characters, what they might leave out. This is similar to last week's exercise of just listening in on your characters as they speak but, in this case they're communicating with intent and putting their case to the reader.