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 am writing a new book

When I venture out from my lovely purple writing room and go into the big wide world to do authorly type events, it’s quite common to be asked how I approach writing a novel. It’s something other writers are often particularly interested in. We tend to view each other’s methods like a weirdly judgmental anthropologist meeting a new culture – we’re interested, fascinated even, but ultimately convinced that all these strange alien ways of doing things are Very Wrong. Anyway, here’s a snapshot of how I do the writing thing…

I’m currently around about 15000 words into the first draft of my new book. For those of you who don’t routinely count the words in every novel you read, a finished commercial fiction novel is likely to be somewhere in the 80-100,000 word region, so I’ve still got a long way to go.

And here’s something I very rarely hear writer-chums say about this early stage of a first draft: It’s truly horrible. I hate it.

There is no one right way to write a novel, but my approach goes something like this:

  1. Have an idea.
  2. Make lots of notes and convince self that idea is good.
  3. Start writing book (completely ignoring all those notes).
  4. Watch as idea slowly grows and develops in weird, unexpected and uncontrolled directions.
  5. Spend period from around 2000 words to around 70000 words hating the whole idea and deciding it’s too random and amorphous and will never form a nice coherent whole.
  6. Abandon whole idea.
  7. Cry.
  8. Reread idea so far, work out which bits are salvageable, write lots of new bits, edit all the bits with a viciousness that in any other context would be something of a worry.
  9. Submit book.

From stages 4 to 7 hating the book is normal – at least it is for me – but stages 4 to 7 are still essential because they’re the way that my brain gets to stage 8 where the book actually gets written. And I can’t do it the alternate way where you plan the whole book in detail before you start writing, and thus avoid the feeling that the story is an uncontrolled amorphous blob. If I do that then I basically have no interest in writing the book because I already know everything that happens.

So what I have to come up with are novel-writing coping strategies and plans to get myself, and my poor innocent unsuspecting book, through stages 4-7. The first of these coping strategies is nicked from the very wise and awesome Julie Cohen and is simply this:

write-crap

That’s the whiteboard next to my desk this very morning, and it’s a reminder that it’s fine for what I’m writing to be awful at the moment. In fact it’s essential. It’s part of how I write. The book will be bad before it’s good. And that’s ok.

The second thing I always tell myself is this: ‘If you’re at less than 65,000 words it should still be getting more complicated.’ This is because I tend to try to wrap things up too simply and write too neatly from A to B – that’s part of the reason planning too much doesn’t suit me; I end up writing the most direct and efficient route from plot point 1 to plot point 2 which isn’t necessarily great storytelling. The blob of the book should still be getting messier and more amorphous. However h0rrible that feels, it’s right and good and essential.

And finally, I remember that I always feel like this. I’m a writer who routinely ditches tens of thousands of words from draft manuscripts and adds new scenes at the final edit stage. That’s just how I work, and it’s always horrendous in the midst of the ‘writing crap’ phase. But if I keep going and write enough crap, then I get to edit, and, again unlike a lot of writers, I do very much like to edit. So, must get bad words down so that I can make them better later. You can’t edit a blank page.

So there you go, a little snapshot of this particular writer’s mind. Other writers will do it differently, probably more sensibly, and that’s fine. There is, after all, no one right way to write a novel.

If you are a writer and you’d like help finding your personal right way to write a novel, then take a look here for details of upcoming courses. There are still places on the Spring Writing Retreat where you get the benefit of not just one writing tutor’s approach but two, as I’ll be co-tutoring with the much more organised Janet Gover.

And if you’d like to get a book that’s in its shiny, polished, (hopefully) non-crap stage, then there are some here.

In which I think about Theme

Yesterday I was reminded, via a twitter conversation with the very awesome Joanna Cannon, of an exercise from a Julie Cohen writing course Joanna and I attended years ago. The exercise was simply this: ‘Tell me what your novel is about in one word.’ To which the response is inevitably, ‘Well, er, there’s sort of this woman.. and she meets this… well actually, no, but sort of and then….’ And which point Julie makes her special displeased face and repeats, ‘In one word.’ And the student goes, ‘Errrr…’ which is at least one word, but isn’t terribly descriptive of what the book is about.

But it’s a lesson that’s stayed with me. I still try to think about what the book I’m working on is about IN ONE WORD, and I generally manage to work it out. The Christmas Kisses series are all about Identity in one way or another.  Sweet Nothing is about Romance, which might sound obvious because it’s a romantic-comedy, but I don’t just mean that the book is a romance; I mean that’s it actually about Romance. It’s about whether romance is the same as love, and whether you can have one without the other, and what romance actually is or should be. Midsummer Dreams is about Fear. It’s about fear of being alone, fear of letting people down, fear of taking a risk, fear of trying to be a better person, and the way that all of those fears can paralyze people and whether/how they can be overcome.

And I think that knowing that is really useful. It’s invaluable when you come to edit and revise a book. Knowing what your story’s theme is, gives you a point around which to focus your character arcs and plots and sub-plots. If you have a thread that feels disjointed from the whole you can ask yourself how it relates to that theme, and if it doesn’t, you might well have discovered the source of your problem.

But for me, a theme isn’t something that I consciously choose. It’s something that emerges from the process of writing the book. My current novel-in-progress has been my current novel-in-progress for about three years. There are reasons that it’s taken so long, and they are twofold. Firstly, the book isn’t a rom-com, and I’d just started writing it just before I signed my first contract with Choc Lit. Having signed a contract for a rom-com the onus was on me to write something else in the same genre, and so over the three years that this book has been on the go, I’ve also written another full-length novel and three novellas. That’s really bound to slow your progress a little bit.

The second reason the novel-in-progress has been in progress for so long was that I did a stupid stupid thing. I decided what it was about (in one word) before I started. And I got it wrong. Cue two and a half years of trying to bend a story to a theme that wasn’t right. When I eventually stepped back and realised, ‘Oh this isn’t about loss. It’s about parenthood’ I also realised that I now knew how to finish the book. I ssuddenly saw the point of a character that my heart was telling me to keep, but had nothing to do with the theme I thought was writing about. I saw how the sub-plots could be strengthened and linked back to my main character’s arc. The novel that’s been about two months off being finished for about a year and a half, might now genuinely be about two months off being finished.

And there you go – those are my thoughts on ‘theme.’ It’s definitely helpful to know what yours is, but I think it’s something you discover rather than something you consciously invent.

So here endeth the lesson. If you like me wittering about about How To Do Writing then you might be interested in the workshops I have coming up where I will be helping people sort out their novels-in-progress in all manner of interesting and creative ways.

In which a year has passed and I muse on how it takes a village and all that guff

So this time next week I shall be in Telford getting ready for my fourth RNA Conference. That realisation made me also realise that it is now 1 whole year since I signed my first ever publishing contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing, followed later in the year with a second contact for Holly’s Christmas Kiss.

Sweet Nothing

Holly's Christmas Kiss

One year on from such great excitement seems like as good a time as any to get a bit melancholy, raise a glass of something suspiciously green-looking, and have a bit of a think about the process of getting from ‘Hey guys, I’m going to write a novel!’ to actually having a novel out there in the world, where unsuspecting strangers, some of whom aren’t even friends of your mum, might read it.

And the conclusion of that little think would be this: it takes a village to make a novel. Not an actual village. It’s not compulsory for budding novelists to move to Little Middlewitch and start helping out with the church flowers. I’m talking about one of those metaphorical villages that exist only for the purposes of slightly laboured and clichéd metaphor. The Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village takes in many helpful souls. There are the tutors and workshop leaders whose ideas I’ve cribbed and developed. There are the critique readers. There are the supportive wine-supplying friends who tolerate the fact that most of my gossip is about made up people. There’s the actual publisher who decided to invest their time and money in my work, and then there’s the editor, copy-editor, proofreader, cover designer and blurb writer. And then once the book is out there’s the audiobook people, and the pr dudes, and the book reviewers and bloggers who’ve featured me or my books on their site.

So it’s one whole year since I signed the contract with Choc Lit to publish Sweet Nothing. It’s six years since I first decided I wanted to write a romantic comedy, and decided that I wanted to base it on what I consider to be the ultimate rom-com from stage, book or screen. And the end result is a story that owes everything to my random set of pre-occupations: love and how it’s not the same as romance, how clever people can do stupid things, how knowing stuff is brilliant, tequila is dangerous, and M&S party food is the highest form of food. All of that stuff is part of me, but none of it would be out there in a vaguely readable form without the rest of the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village.

So please all raise your glasses. Wait. I didn’t mention that you needed glasses, did I? Ok. Those of you who are already glass-ready, give everyone else a second to pour themselves a tiny drinkette. Right, so please raise your glasses and let’s make a toast, to everyone in the Sweet Nothing Metaphorical Village. Cheers, and thank-you all.

In which I become a little bit hermity

Ahoy dear blog readers and welcome. I say welcome. What I actually mean this week is more along the lines of ‘The key’s under the mat. Let yourself in,’ because despite appearances to the contrary I am not here. I am actually writing this three days ago, because this week (by which I mean the week you are currently really in as you read this, which from my time-travelling blogger point of view is actually next week) I am officially a hermit.

There are reasons for the hermitage, and happily they don’t involve the concealment of any sort of embarrassing facial growth. Indeed, if I were possessed of a facial growth I would probably be posting pictures of it and asking for your best internet-informed medical opinions on how to proceed. Actually going to the doctor is so terribly time-consuming don’t you find? Anyway, the hermitage is for reasons of writerlyness. Not reasons that involve a deep yearning in my soul to retreat into a quiet and reflective artistic space and commune with my muse. That would not be practical. That last time I saw my muse he was sitting on the kitchen floor weeping and eating Philadelphia with his finger directly from the tub. He’s a terrible muse. I’m thinking of returning him to the seller – that is, I suppose, just what you get for buying a secondhand muse on ebay.

Anyway, the writerly hermitage is being undertaken for reasons of simple pressing need to just get the next book written already. There is a point in the gestation of most books where the writer decides the idea is awful, the writing completed so far is unmitigatedly terrible, the plot is unbelievable, and there is no imaginable way to fix these problems. Generally speaking, at this point, the writer will also believe that this is absolutely the first time that they’ve felt like this, and that it is definitely not ‘just a phase.’ I am in that ‘phase’ (well I say phase, it’s really really not a phase this time…) at the moment.

When I talk to other writers who are in that phase (because, obviously, when it happens to other people it is just a phase), I tell them, quite bossily, to stop being a moaning-minny and jolly well buck up and carry on writing. This is harsh but entirely good advice. I know it’s good advice because it’s been given to me by other much wiser and cleverer writers. And this week (also known from my current point of view as next week) is when I put that into practice. I’ve created myself a little writing retreat at home. Engineer Boy has been banished.* Groceries have been pre-ordered. All the good telly has been set to record. This blog post was written some time in the past. I have absolutely no excuse not to get my bum on my chair, my fingers on my keyboard and bang out some words. My target is 25,000 words in 5 days, which is ambitious but doable. That will get me to well over 60,000 words of novel which is probably about two-thirds of the whole. Hopefully that will be enough to get me past this hump and onto the home straight. Wish me luck.

* Not actually banished. Just on a course to learn to be a Better Engineer Boy.

In which I suggest some ways in which you can help a struggling writer

When’s the last time you did something to help the struggling author in your life? I’m assuming you all have one. If you’re not sure whether there’s a struggling author in your social circle just look out for the person wearing pyjamas in the middle of the day. The one who doesn’t look like they’ve washed their hair yet this week, and who prods you lightly when you talk to them because they’re not used to the voices they hear coming out of a real physical person. If you’ve got someone like that in your life, chances are you’ve got yourself a writer. Or possibly just a crazy person. Either way, I imagine you will be very keen to help such a person out. And helpfully, I have some easy suggestions as to how you might do that.

1. If your writer is of the published variety, just buy the book. If they’re not published, please try to desist from asking them when the book comes out. They may find dwelling on the subject disheartening and you may find the bit where they growl at you and try to rend their pyjamas a wee bit socially awkward.

2. Once you’ve bought the book, things can go one of two ways. Either you will like the book, in which case tell your writer you liked it. They will get embarrassed and socially inept, but they will appreciate it. If you really really don’t like the book, lie. Seriously, lying is fine. You’re talking to somebody who makes stuff up for a living. The lines between reality and fantasy are already pretty fluid.

3. If you really actually did like the book, write it an Amazon review. I know. It’s time consuming and you have to try and think of something to write, other than, ‘Yeah. It was good. There were words and stuff,’ but the reality is that Amazon is the all-encompassing big brother of book sales these days, and good reviews sell books, and selling books is what allows your pet writer to buy new pyjamas and proper non-supermarket-brand hobnobs. These things are like fresh hay and a lovely nosebag to the struggling writer. They will make your writer happy.

And that’s how you look after a struggling author. Indeedy. Yes.

So, just hypothetically if any of you were thinking you fancied buying a book, Much Ado About Sweet Nothing is still just 99p until the end of January. Totes bargainissimo.