From Story to Novel

typewriter

M.L. Davis has a great post on learning to write short stories from the perspective of someone more used to novels.

This post is about the other side of that. I’m more familiar with writing short stories (even like this tiny boye), and had to learn a few things before I managed my first novel.

Giving Characters Space

The main thing was finding the right approach to planning for me.

The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.

Novels are big. Readers will be hanging out with the characters for a much longer time, and plots become more multilayered and sprawling.

Different approaches to planning work for different people. You need to find your own balance, giving yourself enough structure to keep things on track while also giving the characters space to develop and use their own initiative.

Ultimately, the plot is what the characters do. When you’re working with words by the tens of thousands, and with many more plot points than in a short story, it will become more glaringly cruddy if the characters are shallow puppets with the plot imposed on them. And more gripping if characters take control for themselves.

Life Doesn’t Have Chapters

This is another shift in mindset that helped me. In early novel attempts, my chapters were too strictly episodic. One plot sequence happened, then jolt into this one, jolt to the next, and so on, each a bit too compartmentalized. They didn’t connect smoothly.

Chapters and scenes are very important for the writer and readers. A satisfying story will have its rises and falls, building tension and resolutions, driving action and reflection in well-paced balance. After a battle scene it may be good to have a steadier chapter with more reflection, dealing with the aftermath. So, as writers, we start on a new chapter with that in the back of our minds.

As far as the characters are concerned, their life is a continuous stream. Not a set of episodes. They, the ones doing the plot, continue acting in line with their motives just as before. Unless this is metafiction, none of them see Chapter 14 flash in the sky when the other side surrenders. They only know the battle is won, they’re knackered, and people are dead and injured – and act accordingly.

Deeper Worldbuilding

As Coffee Stars Books said:

I like to start with worldbuilding before character and plot because I think it influences both of those things a lot. I tend to find that my plot is very character driven, and in turn my characters are formed from their own experiences and upbringing and the world around them.

Particularly for something like fantasy, you need to know more about the setting, culture, and magic and technology. If you add magic to a world, that should have logical impacts throughout society, down to shaping the lives of your characters. Writing a novel gives you a chance to get into much more detail with all these things than a shorter form allows. It’ll be fun!

Of course, excess exposition will be one thing to edit out later on – it’s okay to know more than you include.

One Step at a Time

A novel is a lot of words. A number like ‘90,000’ can be disconcerting. Set a non-scary target – mine was 500 words – and try to do that every day. If you can write 500 words, you can keep on doing that until it all adds up.

Some days will be easy, in which case it’s fine to keep going past the target. Others will be hard, in which case embrace the trash – bad writing is what editing’s for.

If a whole section is a struggle, keep at it. Forget about phrasing everything nicely, and be open to the characters veering off your plan. At some point you will know what’s going on again, and any tricky editing that needs doing is future-you’s problem.

Whenever you finish a day’s write, a chapter, a section, you’re achieving something. The end goal is the sum of all those steps along the way, so take heart in your progress.

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An Eye For Fictional Accuracy

antique-blank-blur-269825

Oran’s critical review of Jim Murphy’s Christadora got me thinking about the type of accuracy that works in details in fiction.

In trying to place things in a specific sense of place and time, for example, he tells you things you don’t need: “Mateo parked his car 100 metres away” as opposed to “Mateo parked his car nearby”. If you wanted an example of accuracy and not specificity “Mateo parked his car a few streets away”. It’s a kind of detail I would naturally track which is why the specificity of 100 metres is weird. This might seem innocuous but when the book has these details I don’t need, I am pulled out of the story. And it happens quite a bit. Here is another example: POV character is coming home from work with pizza and she finds out her kid is in hospital because they were bitten by a dog. This is verbatim what she does:

“… put her pizzas down on a handsome, high-backed wooden bench in the lobby, pulled out her cell phone …”

This is exactly the kind of information I don’t want. Like I want to know what happened to the kid. She can put the pizzas down, sure, but with the detail she seems unpanicked, unhurried, wanting to gently place her delicious steaming pizzas on this handsome, high-backed wooden bench before at last pulling her mobile out and dialling her partner.

Murphy has a journalist’s background. He has a well-honed eye for accurate details, but what works in journalism isn’t what works in fiction.

The aim for details in fiction isn’t to be factual. It’s to be true to life.

Details should be chosen for particular interest, such as narrative relevance or significance to character. If a detail is noted in fiction it’s marked out as something with implications – which is why it’s distracting to specify the exact distance of the car, and why describing the bench in detail right there suggests the character isn’t that worried about her kid. The reader’s mind is being pointed in an irrelevant direction.

It might be factual for the car to be 100m away or the bench to be high-backed. But in the story, this use of detail isn’t true to life. Good description is active, it bounces off everything else. It’s not just there, it does something: implying importance, imbuing subtext, portraying character, reinforcing points of the setting or themes. An unnecessary or ham-fisted detail cuts against the grain of the scene, distracting readers.

As far as a realistic character is concerned, the car is ‘nearby’ and the pizzas are ‘thrown on a bench as she pulls out her phone, hands shaking’. Now, if Mateo were parking his car for a heist or assassination, having a specific distance planned might work. And if the character with the pizzas was supposed to be cold or even abusive, implying a sedate response to their kid being in hospital could be powerful, striking a disturbing note.

Does this specific detail matter? Would it change something if this were different? What does it imply? Does it fit the tone, the character, the scene? What will the reader want to know right now?

No Set Reading List

LOTR

I was finishing a re-read of The Lord of the Rings recently, just as a bit of DiscourseTM started up about whether or not it’s totally obligatory to read LOTR and anyone who hasn’t is a bad person who must be banned from fantasy.

Mild exaggeration. But you can guess which side of the debate I come down on.

From the reader’s perspective, it’s very simple. People are allowed to read or not read anything they like, gatekeeping is dumb, and there’s no reason to care if people are ‘true fans’ or not.

From the writer’s perspective, the idea that certain books are obligatory if you want to write certain genres seems like a growth on the face of a more sensible idea, which is that you should have read a reasonable range of the genre. You need to know what the well-trodden ground is, to both draw inspiration and avoid clichés. But extending that to ‘fantasy writers must read LOTR’ is a mistake.

One of the chief reasons people will give is ‘this book is particularly influential, it shaped the genre for decades to come.’ Well, if that’s the case, isn’t it fine to draw lessons from all those other books influenced by it? Of course someone writing medieval epic fantasy could use knowing about what’s already been done with elves and orcs and stuff – but they can get that from the works influenced by LOTR, as they can from the thing itself. Just because Tolkien introduced something doesn’t mean he’s the guy everyone has to go back to for it. Extreme comparison, but doctors today aren’t learning about arteries from Galen.

There are loads of books in every genre. Recommending specific works for certain things is fine (here’s me doing it), but the idea that someone has to follow your reading list to have authority in the subject just… sounds lame when I say it like that, right? What objective grounds is there to make that specific work essential reading – if influence, we can read the things it influenced; if something else, is this really objective or an opinion, or cultural bias?

Also, subgenres. Why does a fantasy writer have to read LOTR if they’re actually doing a steampunk heist story?

Even if they are writing a medieval fantasy with po-tay-toes and pointy-eared archers, let’s face it: no book is perfect. For all its influence and worldbuilding and epicness, LOTR is not the platonic ideal fantasy novel. The pacing is nuts. It has more named horses than women. Tom Bombadil. Not everyone is going to enjoy it, and fantasy writers are no different. The same applies to all genres and their ‘must-reads’.

In university I had literal reading lists with classics and works I’d never heard of. There is value in reading things considered significant and things you wouldn’t think to try. Sure, there might be value in taking a recommendation, in trying LOTR or whatever else. But this doesn’t mean you have to read specific works some person yells about to be a real fan or a good writer.

Slice and Dice

editing stuff

In my latest round of editing I focused on chopping out anything calling for cutting.

Here are some of the things I’ve noted deserving of the axe. If you’re looking to make your work in progress a lean mean reading machine, it might to helpful to have an eye-out for:

Scenes that can be told, not shown

In On Writing, Stephen King wrote about his wife’s critique of the main character’s back story in the early Bag of Bones:

There was also a two or three page section about Mike’s community-service work in the year after his wife dies[.] Tabby didn’t like the community-service stuff.

“Who cares?’ she asked me. […]

“He has to do something in all that time, doesn’t he?”

“I guess so,’ Tabby said, “but you don’t have to bore me with it, do you?” […]

I cut down Mike’s charitable contributions and community functions from two pages to two paragraphs.

‘Show don’t tell’ is a useful pointer, but don’t go overboard. Just because an event or bit of backstory needs to happen doesn’t mean it needs to happen as a blow-by-blow account. Is it particularly interesting in its own right, or is it only a thing that needs to be mentioned somehow?

Exposition – worldbuilding, magic systems

It’s easy to bog things down with lore about the world you’re excited to have made, and the details of the magic system you worry readers won’t understand.

It’s a novel, not a textbook. I know what my continents are called and the migration patterns of the world’s humanoid species through them, but who cares? It’s completely irrelevant to a story taking place in one city thousands/millions of years later. It’s okay to know more than you include – not every detail is interesting, relevant, or necessary.

In the case of magic systems, lectures about how it works can be a sign of lack of trust in the reader. It should be fairly clear what the rules are from seeing it used. And metaphysical rambling about the underlying mechanism is only needed to the extent it ties into plot, theme, the culture, and character.

If characters are discussing something not because they would, but because ‘the reader must know’, that’s a red flag. Imagine writing a story where two characters, born in London in 1990, talk about what a phone is and how it works.

Choreographing

I.e., belaboring exactly how characters are positioned and moving.

It’s good to use gestures to show emotions rather than telling them, and dialogue is better when it’s not bodiless voices in a void. But over-egging the pudding on that score adds pointless clauses here and there which slow things down, and add up over the course of the work.

For example, I had a line where a character ‘opened the door, stepping back to let him in.’ In context, that’s too much choreography for such an intuitive action. It’s not as though she was a paranoid character whose door had special bolts, or a criminal trying to push an illicit item under the bed with her foot at the same time. So I cut the phrase down, to having her simply: ‘let him in.’

This isn’t a script for an animation or a brief for an artist – unless the fine detail of position and movement matters for something, let readers fill in the gaps intuitively.

Overstating

Repeating information at various points in the text, past the point needed to make it memorable, or past the point where anyone cares.

Excess small talk

When writing dialogue for the first time I try to let the characters speak for themselves, with a loose idea of where it’s heading. Once in the zone, their voices take charge, coming up with in-character comments I hadn’t planned that can significantly change what was going to happen.

But that leaves behind lines of dross that, while perhaps realistic to actual conversation, are boring to read, confusing, not that valuable for showing personality, and don’t lead anywhere. Cut.

A few other tips:

  • Listen to the inner critic. When writing a first draft, try to ignore it and Embrace the Trash. When editing, it’s time to let it in. When the first-draft-mode voice whispers justifications for keeping something, listen to the other whisper still saying, ‘nah it’s crap’.
  • Keep the original separate, so you feel less worried about losing something and later realising you need it.
  • Cut-paste in another document to sort through large edits, so you can fiddle around without getting lost in the whole manuscript. This makes it easier to do things like stripping a chapter down to 50 words and inserting them six chapters ahead.
  • Use chapter summaries. Short chapter summaries can help you recognise where something is complete fluff.

 

Convincing Fictional Species

Map of Gethen

In a post on characterization Connie Jasperson said: ‘If the author introduces an elf to me, I want to believe in that elf. I want to see him/her as if they are real throughout the entire story.’

Along that line I was very impressed by Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’, which features a unique alien species with great characterization.

Writing convincing fictional beings can be hard to pull off. That book is a great example I’d recommend reading – but for now, I have a few thoughts on what Le Guin did well.

Not humans in costume

A species with unique biology or abilities ought to have that play into their psychology and society a little – otherwise they’re just humans in costume. Think about the possible consequences of their traits.

Le Guin’s Gethenians are neither-gendered except for brief periods of ‘kemmer’, completely changing their perspective on gender and introducing Taoist ideas on (non)duality. Some of them see the human protagonist as a pervert in permanent kemmer, like the lesser animals.

Suppose a species has venomous claws: are their children warned not to poison humans, because it’s literally deadly to them (NO TIMMY, EVEN IF THEY’RE SUPER ANNOYING!)? Does the venom have any other uses, legitimate or otherwise?

If a species has a different approach to parenting, how is their society structured following on from that? If they lay countless eggs, a few hatch, and the fledglings are raised in common by society rather than within families, that should produce some major differences to daily life and how they view things.

Avoids homogeneity

When making a species unlike humanity it’s easy to make all Vulcans copies of Spock, all elves Legolas, and so on. Unless the species has a hive-mind, they shouldn’t all have identical beliefs, personalities, and responses to situations. Just because they have features in common which distinguish them from humans doesn’t mean that those are their only features.

Le Guin gives the Gethenians their own personalities, and the two nations shown in the book have distinct cultures. Fictional beings won’t be convincing if they’re only different from humans. They also have to be individuals different from each other – with all the usual points about strong characterization – to really hold attention.

Relates to the environment

Gethen is a winter world without flying animals, so it makes some sense that the inhabitants have their codes of hospitality (since, what if you’re the one out in a blizzard?) and struggle with the concept of flying vehicles. Given the difficulty of travel, they’re more patient with long journeys than the human ambassador.

Consider some physical and cultural traits that could relate logically to where they live. What industries, housing, clothing, combat styles, etc, make sense for them and there? Consider the resources, the climate, the landscape, and how the species will handle that area – and if they go somewhere else, how they may react to the different environment.

Good Writing and Woke Realism

drinking in bar
incredibly unrealistic

V.E. Schwab recently posted about it being bad to use a female character solely to show a male character being sad when she dies – with uncharitable, over-sensitive responses from some male writers.

I’ve seen a bit of this sort of thing lately – people, usually guys, complaining about (in their view) unreasonable hoops of wokeness for stories to jump through. They’ll say things like, ‘Just write what’s good for the story! Whether or not it passes the Bechdel Test!’

This is a theme I touched on a bit in my diversity post, but people are wrong on the internet so let’s go deeper.

Personally, I think that if a long enough story doesn’t, for example, pass the Bechdel test (two named women talking about something other than a man) this is bad writing, whether you’re aiming for wokeness or not. Why? Because reality passes the test. Go outside sometime. It’s not a difficult hoop to pass through.

What makes good writing? There’s a lot of possible answers there, but one widely accepted one is good characters. And widely accepted components of good characters include complexity: psychological realism.

So, is it realistic for two women, with enough prominence in the story to have names, to never talk to each other about something other than a man? No. Going back to Schwab’s point, is it realistic for someone to be upset about the loss of <generic female figure>? No, people are upset at losing real people. If you want the reader to feel something when a character dies, they can’t just be a prop.

There’s also the issue that violence against women has a context. As Schwab says, it’s not forbidden to ever include this in a plot – but if it’s a cheap go-to where the woman could be swapped for a lamp this (a) isn’t woke, and also (b) is lazy and unimaginative, so be a better writer and consider a wider range of inciting incidents even if you don’t care about wokeness.

On the one hand, it’s woke for your female characters to be meaningfully developed. On the other hand, your characters should be meaningfully developed, you wally!

These sorts of topics are often straightforward extensions of basic writing tips. So why should they feel like awkward hoops sjw’s are trying to make you jump through? Perhaps they feel like that because they counter an unacknowledged bias.

If someone is used to not developing female characters particularly well, it might feel an odd, arbitrary demand to have someone say something like, ‘maybe two of them can have a conversation? About something other than him?’ But a writer who balks at this will have male characters doing the equivalent all the time, without having to think about it. When we’re invited to think about something it can feel unnatural – when really it only means we aren’t used to considering it.

Wouldn’t it be weird if none of the male characters ever spoke about anything other than a woman? Wouldn’t it be weird if there was a pattern of stories using the death of a man with no distinct characteristics as a prop for the female lead’s response? Writers should be imaginative enough to take a step back from the immediate dismay of feeling criticised, ask themselves these sorts of questions, and learn from how people and life actually are to improve their craft.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as unreasonable demands. There are a few people out there who got mad because Freddy Mercury died in Bohemian Rhapsody (‘another gay character killed off!’) even though it’s a biopic and he, um, died in real life. But if you feel a suggestion is unreasonable, and gets in the way of just telling the damn story, maybe it’s worth taking a step back and wondering if you’re missing something.

Book Reviews (9)

Books 9

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

Danny, a misfit with a desperate need for Wi-Fi and phone signal, joins his estranged, successful cousin Howie in turning a castle into a hotel. As they navigate their difficult relationship and the castle’s surprises, the convict narrator’s story within the story unfolds.

The story of the castle is a good one in itself – the contrast between tech-addict Danny and luddite Howie speaking to our time, their awkward relationship rooted in the trauma Danny caused Howie in childhood, the blend of realist and bizarre. But that story is being told by Ray in a prison writing class, with Ray and teacher Holly’s lives also an interesting course of events, as the challenge of life within prison interferes with the class and we learn about her own state of affairs. It’s a good touch to have a bit of meta in the mix, as the two tales reflect and reach into each other.

The castle and prison narratives are both a strong mix of human drama and the strange, with intriguing characters at the helm. The meta element really adds something on multiple levels, without sliding into the head-scratching complexity or posturing that can come when things go in that direction, making the whole deeper than its two parts.

Really entertaining, thoughtful, and moving.

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: a Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason – Chapo Trap House

The book by the comedy/politics podcast Chapo Trap House.

Chapo offers a caustic, ironic, irreverent look at (mostly American) politics from a far-left perspective, saying that ‘you don’t have to side with the pear-shaped vampires of the right or the craven, lanyard-wearing wonks of contemporary liberalism.’

The comedy is a cathartic take-down of the centre and right for Extremely Online failsons, but under the irony are nuggets of insight.

[The liberal] process pits tepid reforms against a deranged and revanchist right wing with no such inclination toward consensus or incrementalism. […] Without an organized and popular Left, liberals end up negotiating themselves into oblivion, moving the country, inevitably, to the right.

The chapter on the world provides a quick Chapo-style riff off Howard Zinn or Chomsky, the chapters on libs and on cons are caricatures of both sides with satirical summaries of major administrations (The young and ready [Obama] threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and declared, “Let’s find some fucking consensus!”), the chapters on media and culture are entertaining satire. The chapter on work is a great broadside against capitalism, railing against the system of wage labour (‘no employer hires anyone unless they can extract more value from them than they have to pay out in wages and benefits’) and the financial system’s destructive gambling.

Even as a Chapo fan, I don’t think their brand of bitterness and irony can make a whole manifesto. What’s missing is a chapter on the left – with, dare I say it, a bit more hope, warmth, and sincerity.

There are a couple of paragraphs here and there that mention egalitarian ideals, a new order where ‘the productive forces of society aren’t spent on inventing new weapons of mass destruction and clever ways to brutalize dissidents but on ensuring that all people enjoy the fruits of their birthright.’ Okay, but this is pretty simplistic, and only speaking to the home team. Chapo is better at tearing down than building up.

A must-read laugh for fans of the show. This book isn’t aimed at convincing newcomers, but as the hosts say themselves: your politics shouldn’t come from their dumb comedy podcast anyway.

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

‘Bird by Bird’ doesn’t have much detail on the nuts-and-bolts technique of writing – point of view, showing vs telling, whether adverbs are all evil or not, etc. Its focus is on things like paying attention to life, staying at your desk and dealing with your neuroses until you can finish a shitty first draft, dealing with jealousy, perfectionism, and getting out of your own way.

Lamott is funny and honest, dismissing romantic ideals about writers and being published. This was a refreshing dose of warmth and sincerity after the Chapo book. Although there wasn’t much here that struck me as new insight, her points are still important and expressed with nice jokes and anecdotes.

If you’re struggling with doubts and distractions, read this – you’ll find it very helpful. If you’re looking for help with the gritty details of technique, try Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or David Jauss’s ‘On Writing Fiction’.

Broken Things – Lauren Oliver

Obsessed with the book ‘The Way into Lovelorn’, 12 year old children Mia, Brynn, and Owen killed their friend Summer, following a ritual from their fanfic sequel. That’s what the community believes, anyway. Five years on, their lives thrown off track by the murder, Mia and Brynn try to find out the truth.

Another great ‘story within a story’ thing, with extracts from ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ and their fanfic providing clues to what happened that day. The darker elements of Summer’s friendship with Mia and Brynn come to light, as her obsession with Lovelorn and troubling features of her personality unfold. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, shaped by the past as her life and death looms over them.

A brilliant depiction of difficult knotty relationships, the aftermath of tragedy, and darkness tangled up with affection and hope. The mystery has some nice twists and turns, casting suspicion while building to an intense conclusion, and I found that ending a good move.