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.

In praise of… Natasha Solomons

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any writer in possession of a wish to get better at writering must also be in want of some awesome writers to read. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that in order to get good at writing you need to read a lot. But it’s also completely true. Unfortunately, it can also be equally true that the more immersed in writing as a craft you become the harder it is to disengage writer-brain and just fall in love with a story. There are some writers whose books reliably creep past my inner editor and make me love reading again, and so I thought a little blog feature celebrating those people might be a very lovely thing to do.

So the first author I want to sing the praises of is… Natasha Solomons. I bought Natasha Solomons’ first novel Mr Rosenblum’s List when it first came out but for reasons of massive To Read pile I didn’t sit down to read it for years after I bought it. And it was a treat. It’s amusing and easy to read, which sounds like damning with faint praise, but easy to read is often really hard to write. It can take a huge amount of effort to make something look truly effortless.

The joy of leaving Mr Rosenblum’s List languishing on the To Read pile for so long was that by the time I got to it Solomons had another two (and now three, soon to be four) books out. I ration my reading of Natasha Solomons’ books. I could devour them all, one after another, over a single long weekend, but instead I make myself wait until a moment when I really need to lose myself in something beautiful. And then I pick out the next one from the To Read pile.

And she always pulls me into the story. Her books tend to focus on family and relationships, often examining how one difference in character, or one decision, or one sacrifice can echo through the years of a character’s life. She writes characters and places beautifully. But it’s not the themes or the story, or the characters, or the settings, that so reliably pulls me in to her writing. It’s the writing itself.

In On Writing Stephen King quotes Amy Tan as noting that nobody ever asks commercial fiction writers about the language. It’s a question that’s reserved for the Rushdies and the Amises of the literary world. But language matters in all fiction. Language can create a tense, jittery dystopia or a warm, inviting world. Language can be made to work really had to show the reader what is happening on the surface and what is hidden underneath. And Solomons uses language exquisitely – her prose wraps around you and pulls you into the world she’s creating. You can touch the stonework and smell the flowers. You can hear the different rhythms of speech between two brothers grown together and then separated by education and experience. I’m in love with her writing.

Read this author to: get swept away by the writing

Start with: The Novel in the Viola (or The Song Collector or any of them really. They’re all great).

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 muse on musical muses

You might have been following Elaina James’ very lovely blog series for Mslexia about her dream of becoming a lyricist. Of course you might not. If not, I suggest you jolly well go over there and read it now. I can wait.

*taps fingers impatiently*

Ah, sod it. I can’t wait. You’ll just have to catch up. Anyway, in celebration of the final installment of that blog series Elaina has asked a whole host of writers, bloggers and innocent passersby to join her in a blog-based celebration of all things writerly and musical – talking about how music has inspired and influenced our writing. And I enthusiastically agreed to join in because a) Elaina is lovely and b) I wasn’t 100% listening to the question.

Which leaves me with a problem, because, to be honest, I’ve never really been a music person. I mean I don’t dislike music. It can be perfectly pleasant. Few things take the edge of a silence more satisfactorily. But in those student conversations about a specific riff in an album track by Harpsichord Gibbon I was always the one just sitting quietly thinking about cake. I’ve never really understood listening to music as an activity in itself; music, for me, is essentially a background to doing something else.

So initially I didn’t think I’d be able to say anything about music as an inspiration for writing, but when I thought about it a bit more I realised that music definitely does impinge on what and how I write. Sometimes it can be a lyric that gets stuck in my head and becomes a sort of anthem for a particular character or storyline. Sweet Nothing I’ve mentioned before is a romance story about romance. It’s about playing around with the idea that there’s one true soulmate out there for any of us, and with the idea that romance and attraction are reliable ways of finding that person. And when I think about that notion I can’t help but think about Tim Minchin’s awesome song about love and romance* ‘If I didn’t have you.’

At the moment I’m writing a book that’s partly set in the 1970s and 80s, and I’ve made a little playlist of Bowie, Kate Bush and Stock, Aitken & Waterman to take the edge off the writing time silence. And that’s really helpful – not because I’m inspired by any one particular song or lyric, but because the music of a time instantly brings to mind the fashion, decor, and news of the time as well.

So that’s me and music and writing for you. There’s a rundown of wh else is participating on Elaina’s own blog. I heartily encourage you to go take a look.

 

*Not actually about love and romance. Actually about maths which is appropriate for Sweet Nothing too.

In which I wonder whether romantic fiction can be feminist

The same question has come up recently in three different conversations – is romantic fiction feminist?

So I’ve been thinking about just that, and I’ve concluded Yes. At least it definitely can be.

So that was good. All cleared up. Unfortunately clearing up tricky questions speedily does not make for good blogging, so I shall muse a bit on the topic anyway.

I think the idea that romantic fiction is somehow anti-feminist comes from the idea that romance is about a woman being rescued by a man, or a woman needing a man and a relationship to, in some way, complete her and make her a proper member of society. Now, neither of those things are in any way necessary or desirable features of romantic fiction. You can just as easily write ‘Man who feels incomplete without woman’ (although that would probably be merely different rather than actually better). I try to write ‘man and woman who deal with their own issues and then decide to be together’, although I try to do that with jokes and ideally at least one comedy sword fight.

I actually have a heroine in one of my books who ends up deciding that maybe the available man isn’t going to be the right ending for her (and I’m not telling you which book – if you don’t know you’ll just have to read them all to find out).

Of course, that’s just the content of the books, and fiction is much more than that. Fiction is a whole industry, and actually, ‘is the romantic fiction industry feminist?’ is a more difficult question. In some ways very obviously yes – it’s massively dominated by female authors and editors. I’m proud to be part of the Romantic Novelists’ Association which is a UK professional association for writers of romantic fiction. It’s predominantly female and you’d have to go a long way to meet a more forthright, intelligent, capable group of women.

But.

We do still work in an industry where ‘women’s fiction’ is a thing, distinct from proper mainstream fiction, and where female authors write ‘chick lit’ and male authors just write comedy. We also have a publishing industry where certain sorts of women are far more likely to feature in the stories we see published – young(ish), white, straight women. There would certainly seem to be room on bookshelves for a bit more diversity.

And in terms of content of books, can erotic romances centring around domination of a female partner be seen as feminist? Projecting the idea that physical or psychological domination of women is normal, or even an ideal, seems really worrying, but if you’re writing for predominantly female readers who enjoy reading a fantasy of giving up control, then surely those women have the right to their fantasy, and telling them that they’re not fantasising right is also worrying territory.

So, can romantic fiction be feminist? Yes. Definitely.

Is romantic fiction feminist? Well, yes, sometimes. It’s complicated.

I’m genuinely just thinking aloud (or at least on screen) now. Would be fascinated to hear more thoughts in the comments…

In which I think about the lack of recent blogging

I’ve been a bit lax about blogging lately. After resolving last week to get back into it, I find myself, this morning, staring at a blank screen devoid of blogging inspiration. And that’s been a problem a lot recently. There are plenty of subjects I could opine my little heart out about. Just yesterday I overheard someone talking about the refugee crisis, and saying ‘I’m not racist but…’ And yes he actually said that in real-life – it’s the sort of line I’d edit out of a book for being too cliched but she really really said it. Anyway, ‘I’m not racist but,’ he said, ‘what they have to understand is that they’ve got to earn our trust back. You know, after Paris and everything.’

Now I have Views on that statement. By golly do I have Views?* But I increasingly find myself weary of sharing those views on the interweb. One thing the internet does not lack is people who reckon stuff about things. Whether you like to be irritated and get into twitter fights with people you vehemently disagree with or whether you prefer to create a perfect little social media echo chamber of people who entirely agree with you, the internet offers a ready supply of opinion for you to be enraged or cosseted by.

So I could write you lovely blog posts about novel writing instead, but again, blogs about how to be a writer are not in short supply. There are blogs that will tell you how to write, edit, submit and promote your book. And, here’s my one piece of writing advice for this post, reading them can be interesting and lovely, and a fab way of meeting and interacting with other writers, but it’s also probably procrastination. Writing themed procrastination, which is the highest form of procrastination, but procrastination nonetheless.  There is no substitute for just writing the sodding book. Harsh, but true I’m afraid.

So that leaves me wondering what on earth to blog about on weeks when reckoning something about the news of the day fails to fill my heart with inspiration. And I’m genuinely wondering. Suggestions and ideas more than welcome in the comments… Otherwise I might have to abandon all pretense of coherent thought and just post pictures of baking. Mmmm… baking.

 

* They are about the ignorance of othering, and the general heartlessness and stupidity in mentally dividing the world into us and them, and grouping the them together based on race/religion/nationality.