JWSTB: Part 2 – the saggy middle

Another last Thursday, time for ‘Just Write the Sodding Book’ (my very sensibly named advice for writers series) part 2.

The saggy middle is the death of many a good novel idea. We start with an awesome concept and, if we’re lucky, a clear idea of where the story is ultimately heading, and then somewhere in the middle the lovely, crisp, focused words we’re writing turn to into a sludgey, mess of boredom and unnecessary subplots. This, lovely reader, is what writers refer to as the saggy middle.

In my experience, both as a writer and writing tutor, most early drafts have a saggy section somewhere. And they are nearly always fixable. Here’s just a taster of the ways to fix, or avoid, a saggy middle in your manuscript:

1. Stuff has to happen

Have your characters stopped doing stuff? Have they retreated to a coffee shop/ballroom/spaceship/base camp (well I don’t know what your book is about) and sat down to have a jolly good think about how they feel?

If so, that might be your problem. Try to make sure your characters show the reader who they are and how they feel by what they do. So make them do stuff, not just think about stuff. Which brings me neatly to point number two…

2. Show don’t tell

A good old writing tutor cliché and a subject for a whole JWTSB post in itself one day. But look at your writing to see if it feels as though events are unfolding in front of the reader. Is your reader experiencing the stuff that happens alongside your characters, or is it being relayed after the event one step removed? The more the reader feels like they are alongside your characters experiencing what they experience, the less saggy your story will feel.

3. Have you gone wide, instead of deep?

‘Go deeper, not wider’ is one of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received and something I still mutter to myself regularly when I’m revising a manuscript and trying to resist the urge to bolt on extra whistles and bells. Unfortunately I can’t actually remember who told me it – it might have been Sue Moorcroft – and Sue is certainly very wise, so I’m happy to give her the credit for this one.

The idea of going deeper rather than wider, essentially means – try to focus on your main character(s)’ emotional journey and make that as real and immediate as you can, rather than throwing more and more external stuff at your story. When we feel like a manuscript is flagging it’s very natural to add another subplot, or a big dramatic external event. And sometimes, that will help. But more often what helps even more, is really drilling down into the central character(s)’ emotional situation. One really common problem in early drafts is a character who has a huge emotional event – a bereavement, a long-held secret revealed, a rejection by a loved one – but there’s no emotional punch for the reader. The emotional pain of the event doesn’t play out on the page.

‘But, wise Alison,’ I hear you say, ‘you just said characters shouldn’t just sit and emote.’ And you’re right I did say that. You still want to aim to show us the emotional depth of an event by what your characters do in reaction. If they do something that shows their emotion, that should have the effect of sparking off further plot developments in reaction to whatever it was they did. And this makes more stuff happen, further shoring up the saggy parts of the novel, with action that is rooted in the emotional journey of your main characters. Hence many many birds killed with one little stone.

And here endeth today’s lesson. For more information on my courses, manuscript critique service, and mentoring for writers take a look here. And if you’ve got a topic you’d like to see covered in a JWTSB post, then let me know in the comments.

JWTSB: Part 1 – there are no rules

JWTSB is the abbreviated version of my single favourite piece of writing advice – ‘Just write the sodding book.’ I’ve essentially built a career as a writing tutor on that gem of wisdom and happily spend weekends shouting it at poor innocent developing writers. When they start to look a tad jaded I do occasionally mix things up with a jaunty cry of ‘Stuff has to happen’ or ‘Editing is fun!’ But, fundamentally, ‘just write the sodding book’ sums up most of what I tell new writers about how to write a novel. You can spend a lot of time and energy building your social media platform and attending writing conferences, and it will all be for nothing if you omit to attach bum to chair, fingers to keyboard, and get the damn thing written.

That doesn’t mean that writers, at any stage of their career, can’t benefit from courses and advice and critique. That’s all part of developing your skills and honing your craft. So this is my new monthly* writing advice column. Please feel welcome to add your requests for topics you’d like to see covered down in the comments. I’ve already had requests for avoiding the dreaded info-dump, writing a synopsis, handling dialogue and how to make nice guy heroes super-sexy. Please do add your requests to the list.

This month though I’m starting by laying out my stall with the second piece of advice I want all my students to internalise, hold dear and understand. It’s beaten only by ‘just write the sodding book’ in the hierarchy of essential novel-writing advice. And it is simply this:

There are no rules

When it comes to writing a novel, there are no hard and fast rules. In my own writing I’ve been told with absolute certainty that you can’t have multiple points of view or multiple timelines in a novella; that you can’t start a novel with a character waking up; that you can’t start a novel with a dream; that you shouldn’t write first person; and that you shouldn’t write present tense. I’ve done all of those in books that were published, some of which went on to be award nominated.

There are things you can do that will make your novel more or less likely to find a traditional publisher, but taking creative risks doesn’t break any rules. For every ‘rule’ that says you can’t have too many point of view characters, there’s a Game of Thrones. For every declaration that boarding school books are out of fashion, there’s a Harry Potter. For every earnest edict that a novel can’t be to short or too long, there’s an Agatha Raisin or a Pillars of the Earth.

In novel writing it’s very rarely a hard and fast line of ‘you can’t do that.’ So it’s good to take advice, it’s good to understand the market you’re writing for, and then it’s up to you, the writer, to make whatever it is you’re trying to do work.

So that’s the ethos of these JWTSB advice posts – there are no rules. There is just the question of how on earth you’re going to make your crazy, unruly, disorganised mass of a half-formed novel into something that works.

For more advice for writers including courses and one-to-one critique and mentoring services click here.

*I mean I’m aiming for monthly. Last Thursday of the month, but y’know, it might just be sort of when I feel like it.

In which I think about Heathcliff and Isabella and what makes a hero

Is Heathcliff a romantic hero? He’s dark and brooding and he dominates Wuthering Heights even during the long sections where he’s not on the page. And wherever two or three romantic authors are gathered in one place, his romantic hero status is a topic that’s highly likely to come up for discussion. And it’s one where I’ve always been firmly on the ‘Hell, no!’ side of the argument.

Team Romantic-Heathcliff will argue, quite rightly, that he is horribly mistreated and ostracized as a child and his adult anger is firmly rooted in a childhood of neglect and abuse. They’ll point out that Cathy is just as much at fault for the horrendous omnishambles of their relationship as Heathcliff. They’ll point out that he always puts Cathy on a pedestal and idealizes her throughout the story. And they’ll be right. They’ll generally go a bit quiet when we get onto discussing the whole ‘digging up her corpse’ thing, which even for the most ardent Heathcliff fan is tricky to sell, but generally all the points above are entirely correct.

But.

But I still can’t see Heathcliff as a romantic, or heroic, figure. And it’s not because of how he treats Cathy. It’s because of how he treats everyone else, and specifically how he treats Isabella. Without over-spoilering either Wuthering Heights or The Heights, let me gently remind you that Cathy isn’t Heathcliff’s only romantic entanglement. He also gets involved with Isabella Linton – when I reread Wuthering Heights before starting writing on The Heights, Isabella was the character that most resonated with me. Heathcliff doesn’t love Isabella. He doesn’t care about her at all actually.

And I think you can judge people by how they treat those they’re not emotionally invested in. I am completely comfortable with judging people in real-life based on how they talk to waiters and shop assistants. And so far as Heathcliff is concerned Isabella’s physical and emotional wellbeing is about as important to him as that of a waitress who once handed him a coffee and was never seen again. And he treats her horrendously – he brutalizes her – which can’t be excused because she’s not the love of his life. Excusing Heathcliff’s treatment of Isabella by claiming that he treats Cathy better is in the same territory as defending a serial killer cos he was nice to his mum. I mean great for the mum and everything, but even she would probably have preferred the ‘not murdering’ option.

For me Isabella is the real heroine of Wuthering Heights and she’s a heroine for the #MeToo world we live in now. She’s the only character in the story who clearly recognises the abusive nature of her situation and takes definite steps to change it. If you come to Wuthering Heights looking for heroism, I don’t think Heathcliff has much to offer you. Isabella on the other hand is heroic. She tries to change her situation and she tries to protect her child. Whether she’s successful or not is something you’ll just have to read a book to find out…

 

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.

The Heights is available now in ebook from Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and Google Play, and in audiobook.

In which I wonder about writing what you know

‘Write what you know’ is a common piece of writing advice. The modern interweb isn’t even really sure where it originates. It could be Mark Twain, but most quotable nuggets could, at least according to the internet. If it ain’t Shakespeare or the Bible it was probably Mark Twain. Other corners of the web think it was Hemingway. He definitely did say ‘Write the truest sentence that you know’ which includes many of the same words but is not, really, the same at all.

At face value the idea that you should ‘write what you know’ is silly. It would require all crime writers to engage in light serial killing, all sci-fi authors to actually build that damn time machine, and all rom-com writers to only ever settle down with a single partner for the gap between books, before throwing themselves headlong into yet another humourous love triangle when the next first draft starts.

But on another level the advice to ‘write what you know’ makes total sense. Your time-travelling sci-fi heroine might be doing plot stuff that’s way outside your own more pyjamas and sofa based lifestyle, but her shock, fear, determination and enthusiasm can be mined from the seams of those emotion inside your own experience. Maybe rather that ‘write what you know’ we could say ‘write what you know to be emotionally true.’ Which is less pithy but possibly more useful.

But even that is limiting. If you’ve never lost a partner or a child, does that mean you can’t you write the grief of a character who loses both? If you’ve only ever been in love with one person at a time, can you write the conflict of a character torn between two lovers? Well writers do, so I guess the answer clearly is, yes you can. You might not have lost a child, but you have experienced loss – grandparent, parent, friend, relationship, job – it would be an extraordinarily charmed life to never have lost something that mattered to you. So as a writer you try to distill those feelings and magnify and redraw them through the filter of the character you’ve created. ‘Write what you know to be emotionally true’ doesn’t have to be the precise emotion you’ve experienced – writing is an act of imagination twinned with empathy for the person you made up.

There are two more issues that spring to mind when I think about writing what you know: cultural sensitivity and what people will think you know when they read what you wrote. So…

Cultural sensitivity covers a whole universe of issues, but essentially comes down to the problem of one group of writers (or artists or directors) depicting a group they’re not part of, often in a way that screams of a lack of cultural knowledge or understanding. Given that publishing generally tends towards the white, the able-bodied, and the middle class, there is a problem here when those voices overtake and overwhelm all others, meaning that other experiences aren’t depicted at all, or are depicted in cringeworthy cliche. We’ve all read examples of an author writing outside of their own experience really badly – the male-authored heroines who spend weird amounts of time considering the perkiness of their boobs, the female-authored heroes with a tendency to notice what shoe designer the heroine is wearing before anything else, the white-authored black man who talks like a ‘My First Gangsta Rap’ how to book – those are the products of writers writing what they don’t know, and not recognising their own lack of knowledge.

Personally I don’t hold to the view that white, middle-class authors should only write white, middle-class characters. I think that adds to a boring homogeneity of output, and cultivates the sense that we are all intrinsically different rather than striving to find the truths that are universal. My advice to writers would be to remember that your character is an individual first. Being gay or straight or bi, or being able-bodied or disabled, or being black or white or asian or mixed race – those things all affect our experience of life. But alongside them we might also be stubborn or naive or brave or scared. People are individuals first – write what is true for that individual. (And also, if you’re white and middle class and you’ve managed to make it as a published author, remember that however hard it was, it’s probably harder for others, so don’t pull up the drawbridge behind you. Because, purely from a self-interested perspective, writers are readers too – and more varied, more diverse books makes for more interesting reading.)

My last little bit of this particular round of wittering on is about readers and what they will think you know from reading what you write. My next book, currently titled All That Was Lost, is out in September, and I’m nervous. I’m nervous because I know that there’s stuff in that book that some readers, the readers who know me a little bit but not that well, will think is autobiographical. The novel is about a young woman growing up in a northern seaside town in a chapel-going family. I grew up in a northern seaside town in a chapel-going family. My character, Pat, rebels against that experience in a fairly extreme way and we see that life through her eyes, which isn’t always a flattering point of view. I, on the other hand, had a very positive childhood. I loved the sense of belonging and community. So I’m writing what I know, but filtered through the point of view of a very individual character.

Will readers see that or will they assume that Pat is me and I am Pat? I don’t know. And ultimately I can’t control that. Once the book is done and published it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to readers. They get to draw their own conclusions about whether what I wrote was emotionally true, whether I’ve trampled all over someone else’s cultural experience, whether I sound like I know what I’m writing about. And some of them will assume that Pat is acting out a rebellion I wish I’d had. Which I can live with. And if some of those people give my parents a touch of side-eye because they’re wondering if Pat’s horrible, messed-up family life is based on my own, then very sincerely I am sorry mum, but, this time, I really did just make it up.

In which I think about Wuthering Heights (again)

Yesterday was publication day for The Heights, my first collaborative novel, co-written with Janet Gover. And in it’s honour I’m blogging for the second day in a row! I have definite strong intentions that in 2018 I will definitely blog at least once a week. But we all know that ain’t gonna happen, don’t we? So I’m taking the two in two days as a small victory for now.

Anyway, The Heights is an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, and is the third adaptation I’ve written so far, after Sweet Nothing and Midsummer Dreams.

Rereading Wuthering Heights when we were planning this novel was a strange experience – I wittered on a bit here about that. So why write a whole novel based on a book you have a love-hate relationship with?

Well largely because of that love-hate relationship. Wuthering Heights is a fascinating book. It’s not at all the book that we think it is in our shared popular imagination. It’s a book that’s encapsulated in many people’s minds by the image of Heathcliff and Cathy running towards each other across a misty, atmospheric moor. But that image doesn’t in any way sum up the book. Really that image doesn’t even sum up the Kate Bush song.

Wuthering Heights is about Heathcliff and Cathy. It’s also about passion. But I don’t think it’s about love, at least not in the sense that most stories that we’d describe as love stories are about love. If it is about love, it’s about love gone wrong, turned bad, turned in on itself. And it’s about families that go the same way. And about abuse, and the way that abuse ripples through generations.

And those generations form a whole chunk of Wuthering Heights that’s often forgotten. Cathy, the wild beautiful heroine, isn’t even in the second half of the book. That’s all about her child, and Heathcliff’s child, and Hindley’s child, and how the toxicity of their parents’ lives reverberates through the next generation.

Wuthering Heights is a big, unconfined, almost indefineable, beast of a novel. It ranges across time and across themes. In writing it Emily Bronte achieved a staggering feat of imagination. Her novel is almost infinitely open to interpretation. And maybe that’s what made us want to write The Heights – because when something is that unconstrained and open to exploration and reimagining, you need a whole novel’s worth of words to try to understand it.

Adapting an existing story forces you to identify the central theme and plot. Those become your touchstones, your pillars that can’t be messed about with. Very early on in the process Janet said to me, ‘This is a story about obsession.’ And that became our watchword, our obsession if you like, while we were writing. But it’s fascinating to think that another author could take the same ingredients – Wuthering Heights, Thatcher’s Britain, the miners’ strike – and write a wholly different book, simply by fixating on a different interpretation of what the story is about. If you set off on an adaptation of Wuthering Heights thinking ‘The story is about loss,’ or ‘this story is about abuse’, or ‘this story is about family,’ or ‘this story is about love,’ then you’d be just as right as we were when we landed on ‘obsession’ but your story would be quite quite different.

Emily Bronte’s genius is that her story manages to be about all those things.

The Heights is out now on kindle, iTunes, kobo and Google Play.

The Heights

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.’

In which it is publication day and I have a whole new name

It is a new year. A new day.* And I have a new book out under a whole new name. Which, frankly, is a lot of shiny newness to get one’s head around.

So let’s focus on the new book and the new name. And I’ll do that by telling you all a little story of the birth of that new book and new name…

Once upon a time, in a land far far away** the Romantic Novelists’ Association held a conference and I did get up at that conference and give a little talk on adapting classic literature into contemporary fiction.

Adaptation talk
Me talking. With PowerPoint. And excitable hand gestures.

After the talk I was chatting to Janet Gover who said, ‘I’d like to adapt Wuthering Heights but they’re all Northern and I can’t write Northern.’ (Because she is from Australia which is a really very long way South.) And I thought ‘Lawks!’ and also ‘Aha!’ Because I am from North Yorkshire which is very much more North than Australia. So we agreed we should write it together. We were only joking of course, but then we drank quite a lot of wine which made the whole thing seems like an absolutely marvelous idea.

So we did it. And we finished it. And the lovely publishing people at Harper HQ thought it was a marvelous idea too. But they looked at us closely and noticed that there are two of us, and decreed that a new joint penname would be a jolly good idea too. So here it is –  a new book and a new name – inspired by an absolute classic of an old story:

The Heights

Two hundred years since Emily Brontë’s birth comes The Heights: a modern re-telling of Wuthering Heights set in 1980s Yorkshire.

The searchers took several hours to find the body, even though they knew roughly where to look. The whole hillside had collapsed, and there was water running off the moors and over the slick black rubble. The boy, they knew, was beyond their help.
This was a recovery, not a rescue.

A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.

Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.

A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.

 

So that’s The Heights. You can buy it right here for your kindle. Also available from iTunes, kobo, and Google Play. I’m super excited for people to read this book. Wuthering Heights is a book that still inspires fierce debate – is Heathcliff a hero? Is Cathy a heroine? Is the story a romance? The Heights is our interpretation – our version of Heathcliff and Cathy, and I can’t wait to see people discussing how our idea matches up with their own.

*A new Wednesday to be specific.

** Telford. It was near Telford.

In which I offer a shout out to a Girl in Trouble

My excellent writing chum Rhoda Baxter has a shiny new book out today. Here’s what it’s all about: Grown up tomboy Olivia doesn’t need a man to complete her. Judging by her absent father, men aren’t that reliable anyway. She’s got a successful career, good friends and can evict spiders from the bath herself, so she doesn’t need to settle down, thanks.
Walter’s ex is moving his daughter to America and Walter feels like he’s losing his family. When his friend-with-benefits, Olivia, discovers she’s pregnant by her douchebag ex, Walter sees the perfect chance to be part of a family with a woman he loves. But how can Walter persuade the most independent woman he’s ever met to accept his help, let alone his heart?
Girl In Trouble is the third book in the award nominated Smart Girls series by Rhoda Baxter. If you like charming heroes, alpha heroines and sparkling dialogue, you’ll love this series. Ideal for fans of Sarah Morgan, Lindsey Kelk or Meg Cabot’s Boy books. Buy now and meet your new favourite heroine today.

So obviously you should all run along and buy it. Off you go (and then come back and read the rest of my witterings).

*drums fingers*

*waits*

*Looks at a picture of Rhoda’s lovely cover to pass the time*


OK. Hopefully you’ve all done your buying and are back now for the wittering. Rhoda has thoughtfully handed out prompts to steer the book-celebratory blogging. Which is good. At the very least it should stop me from becoming distracted and talking about cheese. Mmmmmm cheese.

So here goes:

In Girl in Trouble the characters experience changes that they thing are bad, but turn out to be positive. Have you ever had a blessing in disguise?

Erm. Probably. *thinks hard*

It’s easy to think that probably change is bad. Favourite restaurants declaring a New Menu is always, absolutely and without exception bad. Pretty much all forms of political upheaval at the moment seem to tend towards the horrendous, horrible, terrible nightmare end of the spectrum. My favourite boots have a hole in – I am already pretty much 100% sure that whatever new boots I end up with will not be as good.

But current perfect favourite new boots were once the replacement for previous perfect favourite boots. Favourite burger place closing and being replaced by a plethora of trendy hipster* burger places, can lead to the perfection of the perfect burger in one’s own kitchen. And America electing an orange-skinned idiot show that…. No, sorry. On that one I’ve got nothing.

What is definitely true though is that change will happen. Old things break and fade away. Some of them we miss; some we’re delighted to see the back of. And that can be a useful thought to hold onto on days when everything just seems a bit too miserablist. This too shall pass, as a wise person once said.** And sometimes the really great things from the past come back and they’re better because you’ve had time to miss them. The Paddington movie, ballroom dancing on telly, actual left-wing politics – all things we might have thought we’d left behind, and all back retooled and reworked for the 21st Century. Now we just need to add simple burgers (bun, burger, slice of tomato, sad piece of lettuce, cheese, bacon maybe if you’re feeling fancy) to that list and life truly will be good again.

In the meantime, go read Girl in TroubleThere’s a good sausage.

 

*Trendiness has no place in relation to burgers. Some things exist beyond fashion. Having a trendy burger is like having a trendy roof. It just makes no sense to anyone attempting to claim any level of sanity.

** A wise Persian person apparently according to Wikipedia. Who knew?