Saturday, 29 August 2015

Tricks to Use to Pace Your Novel


When it comes to pacing a novel, plenty of writers are unsure how to achieve it, especially when we think of pace to mean the speed of something. But of course, in reality the actual pace of the novel never changes, but rather the perception of pace does, and that’s what writers want to achieve.

Pace isn’t just about the rate at which the story is told, it’s also a clever way of blending action, emotion, atmosphere and tension. The way to accomplish that is to choose the right words for the right scene. Writers also use the affectionately named 'elastic band' method - if you stretch an elastic band, it becomes taut and tense, but if you slacken it, it becomes relaxed and soft. This is how narrative should be, so the important elements of the story – crisis points, action scenes and conflict scenes – are tautened, and the pace alters to reflect that. This means the writing accelerates. Softer, reflective scenes or gentle emotional or romantic scenes represent a slower pace (and a slackened elastic band) and so the writing is more descriptive and full with flourishes, which decelerates the speed of the narrative and alters the perception of pace.

So what tricks can writers use to increase or decrease pace?

Use the Right Words in the Right Places

Since it is the perception of pace you are changing, then one of the best ways to do that is to use the right words in the right places. Every scene will be different, so consider the kinds of words that would best serve the pace – short, staccato words, particularly verbs like shunt, shove, snap, rip etc., shorten the entire sentence structure, therefore shortening the time it takes the reader to read it – it gives the perception of increasing pace.

These word structures are very good for quickening the pace for action scenes or when you want to push the narrative that little bit more.

The same is true if you want to slow the pace. Longer, rounded words trick the reader into thinking the story has slowed down – and that’s because the chosen words are designed to lengthen the reading time, thus giving rise to the idea the pace has slowed.
These word structures are great for decreasing the pace and allowing the reader to take a breather and reflect; great for descriptive scenes, emotional scenes, love scenes etc.
One word of warning here - keep away from adjectives in your sentence structures; they don’t help the narrative and they certainly don’t help the pace.
Compare these two examples:
John hit the button on the elevator panel, spun round to face the assailant. He snapped a closed fist hard into the stranger’s face.The impact rocked the man’s head and he stumbled back…
This example clearly sets a pace by using words such as hit, spun, snapped, hard and rocked. It takes next to no time to read these paragraphs. The brevity of the words fools the reader into thinking the momentum has increased.
John pressed the button the elevator panel and waited. He noticed a skewed reflection in the chrome plate, knew someone was standing just a few feet away from him; just visible over his shoulder. He took in a controlling breath and turned around to face the stranger, but to his relief, it was Jeff, his work buddy, who had crept up behind him…
In this second example, the pace is neither slowed nor quickened. The pace remains even, thanks to longer words such as pressed, skewed, reflection, visible, and controlling.
The right words in the right places make all the difference.
Lengthen or Shorten sentences and paragraphs.
This is another one writers use to fool the reader. Using shorter sentences or paragraphs tends to quicken the pace, while using longer paragraphs with more description and detail obviously decreases pace.
Again, the same principal applies as using the right words.
Lengthen or Shorten Chapters
The same rule applies. Shorter chapters fool the reader into thinking things are moving along quickly, while longer chapters tend to make the reader think the pace has decreased.
Use of Dialogue
Even dialogue can help give the impression things are either moving quickly or slowing down. That’s because it words exactly the same way as using the right word structures. In other words, short, snappy dialogue helps to quicken the pace, especially when combined with short, tight action scenes.
Conversely, you can also slow things down a little with use of longer sections of dialogue between characters.
Jump Scenes
This one is less well known, but still another way to alter pace and speed things up.
The writer jumps to new scenes – in other words, going from one scene to another in a short space of time gives the impression that things are moving quickly. That doesn’t mean you can do this all through the novel, because too much use has the opposite effect - it confuses or disorientates the reader.
Jump to different scenes only when the pace dictates, especially if you are pushing the story forward with two or three key characters.
Another trick – this one slows the pace – is to concentrate for a short while on your main character, with emotions or inner dialogue and description based around them and their thoughts. This slows things down a little and allows for more reflective scenes.
To summarise:

  • Use the right words in the right places to increase or decrease pace.
  • Lengthen or shorten paragraphs to increase or decrease pace.
  • Lengthen or Shorten Chapters increase or decrease pace.
  • Use dialogue increase or decrease pace.
  • Jump scenes to spee3d things up.
  • Use more description and detail to slow things down.
  • Use emotions and inner dialogue with your main characters to slow the pace.
Remember that different pacing helps with atmosphere, tension, emotions and conflict. Nothing stays at the same pace; life moves at varying speeds, and as writers we have to fool the reader into thinking the pace of the novel is always changing.

Next week: How many storylines can a novel have?

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Problems with Multiple Viewpoints


There are a lot of writers out there that have still not got to grips with multiple POVs and are therefore still making avoidable errors such as switching POVs mid scene and having every character in the novel have a viewpoint. It might seem that multiple POVs are complicated, or they present the writer with all sorts of complications because of dealing with many characters, but that isn’t really the case.

They are not complicated to deal with, if you know what you’re doing. It’s how well the writer approaches multiple viewpoints that matters.

POV errors happen – and keep happening – because writers are not taking the time to learn about them and understand how they work. Fiction writing isn’t just about writing a story and self-publishing it on Amazon. Writing is complex. That means all the elements that go into writing are also just as complex.

One of the faults when dealing with multiple viewpoints in a novel is the inability for the writer differentiate between characters clearly enough, because having lots of characters and therefore writing from more than one POV can be distracting and sometimes confusing for the reader, as well as the writer. It goes without saying that the main character always has the strongest viewpoint.

Readers tend to like as few character viewpoints as possible – it simply makes it easier to follow the story that way – so when presented with lots more character viewpoints, they have to concentrate and focus harder to stay with the story. This is why writers should handle multiple POVs correctly and carefully by using few rather than many.

Another problem is that the writer wrongly assumes that he or she has to write from the POV of every character in the novel in order to tell the story. This simply isn’t the case. Not every character is important enough to warrant his or her own POV. Instead, by concentrating on the main characters, and a few key secondary characters, the writer can focus the story properly, on the characters that matter.

Writers also have a tendency to switch from one character to another every other scene, or within scenes. You have to remember that when you are in a character's point of view, the reader is also in that character’s point of view, so every time you change that viewpoint, the reader changes with it. The constant switching can leave the reader confused as to whose story it actually is and eventually they will give up reading it.

Also, if the writer is often flicking between characters, he or she hasn’t thought about who the best character is to carry the scene or tell that part of the story. That means the focus of the story is lacking.

There is also a tendency with multiple POVs that the writer doesn’t pay attention to the story arc, so characters and scenes end up meandering without any cohesion. That makes it hard for the reader to understand what is happening with the core of the story.

Avoid the Problems

Writing multiple points of view is all about how you create them, how you write them, and how you switch from one to another in order for them to be effective and easy to follow for the reader.

Firstly, determine if your story needs multiple POVs. If it’s the kind of story that can benefit from multiple POVs, then by all means work with it, however, if the story is better as one or two perspectives at most, then carefully consider the pros and cons of each one before you start writing.

You need to decide whose POV best carries each scene, because it’s wise to remember that not every chapter (or every other scene) will be from a different character each time. That’s just overkill, and it shows a lack of understanding of fiction writing.

You have to decide which character is best for that part of the story. If it really needs another character perspective, then make the switch, but think about it carefully and ask the following questions:-

  • Does switching impart necessary information?
  • Does it show and build characterisation?
  • Does it move the story forward and expand the story?

If switching achieves these, then change POV. Do not switch character point of view because you think it’s another character’s turn to take the spotlight. If you read your favourite authors, you will notice that multiple viewpoints don’t expand beyond the main core characters. That means it’s far easier for the author to control, and easier for the reader to follow.

Careful and strategic switching between certain characters helps strengthen the story (rather than weaken it), because it helps the reader understand characters better, it helps them feel more involved with the story and that’s because the story will be told from different perspectives for the reader.

Change POVs the Right Way

Never switch POVs mid-scene. Doing so shows the reader, editor or publisher that the writer doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing. Ignore this advice at your peril.

If you must switch POV, wait for a new scene or chapter to do so. This helps the reader keep track of characters and their perspectives.

Every character in the novel does not need a POV. Just concentrate on the most important characters; those who can help tell the story. Think of a movie – it’s told through from the perspectives of two or three characters at most.

Your novel is no different. So don’t overcomplicate things.

Next week: Tricks to use to pace your novel

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Where Exactly Should You Start Your Story?


The beginning isn’t necessarily the beginning.
That might sound crazy, but there is a lot of sense in it. It means that authors don’t actually start their stories at the beginning. If anything, they start them part way through – what would normally be chapter three.
The advice sounds contrary, but it actually isn’t. It means don’t start the story at the beginning, i.e. don’t spend time writing several pages of introduction to your characters and the background and the set up, way before you get to the core of the story. Start it at the core.
In reality, the beginning would probably be chapter three or four, when things usually start get interesting in the story – but that’s where the story actually begins.
Every writer wants to make an impact with their novel or short story, and that impact starts at the opening paragraph. There is no shortage of advice on how to make that impact – starting with a bang or an important turning point – but often the writer has to decide exactly at what point in the evolution of the story it should actually begin.
Many writers make the common error of writing too much narrative and exposition at the start of the story. There is always an urge to tell the reader absolutely everything about the story from the very first page, in the belief that doing so is the only way to give the reader all the information required to understand the story. It’s the same if you have written a prologue – they also have a tendency to kill any interest with the reader, because they are one huge info dump. All this stuff will slow down pace and bore reader to death.
The opposite works far more effectively – do away with prologues and lots of narrative explaining things. Start where it needs to start. There is plenty of time to introduce your main character and show the reader the story set up once the story has shot from the starting blocks and gained momentum.
The old adage is right – less is more. Trim the fat and keep things lean. In other words, drop all the stuff you think the reader needs to know in favour of the stuff the reader absolutely must know.
It’s what they don’t know that keeps them turning the page, after all.
Compare these two examples of story openings:
He had shot and killed his own son. Blown his brains out.
The memories and images would not go away. They remained scrawled against the inside of Xavier Koslov’s skull like constant, piercing reminders of what he had done.
He had destroyed the most precious thing to him and forgiveness seemed as far away as redemption, and yet it had had brought him to this moment, to the gates of Berlin...
Does the opening immediately set the scene? Yes, because we learn immediately the character has killed his son. Does it grab the reader’s attention? It grabs the attention in way that lures the reader in to wondering why he shot his son. What impact does it make? It’s an emotional and shocking impact because the story starts in the right place - it starts at a pivotal moment, it starts where it needs to start; at an interesting moment in the character’s life.  
Now compare it with this kind of opening, which is not uncommon, especially with new authors:
Xavier Koslov peered into a piece of broken mirror and gauged his reflection. For the first time in over twenty years, he had shaved his bushy beard, desperate to rid himself of the man he once was. Now a trim, chiselled face stared back at him. His frame was much leaner, too.  As a member of the Partisans, they had covered the forests on foot, pushing through dense woodland for many hours at a time, day after day on the march through Poland and as a result he had become fitter than he’d ever been in his life, though he retained his broad, muscular shoulders...
Unlike the first example, this one makes the mistake of starting with irrelevant narrative, thus lessening any impact and the chance to grab the reader. It’s a mini info dump of exposition and is sure to bore the reader after a while.
If you have a story and you are not sure where to start, it’s wise to start at the turning point in your character’s journey, instead of writing three or four pages introducing said character before any of the action actually starts.
Imagine the reader is a passerby on the street and something has just happened – the idea is to immediately make the reader get involved, to wonder what’s happening and not to miss any really good bits, instead of them simply walking by and ignoring the scene because they’re just not interested. Make them want to be caught up in the action.
That’s why you have to create an impact; you have to start at a turning point or defining moment in your character’s life, which is key to the entire story. Don’t info dump, just get straight into the story.
And remember, the beginning isn’t necessarily the beginning. Examine your novel

Next week: Problems with multiple viewpoints

Saturday, 8 August 2015

10 Reasons Why Stories Fail


Why do some stories fail while others seem to do well? What sets them apart, what makes them so special? Why do agents and publishers not choose your story?
Stories fail for numerous reasons, and they are usually the result of collective causes rather than just one specific reason, so here’s a list of 10 of the most common reasons why stories fail or are rejected by agents, editors and publishers:
The Story is Rubbish
Patently, the number one reason a story fails with readers, or it is rejected by agents or publishers, is because the story is just rubbish. No writer likes to hear that, but the truth is that some stories are just dire, even if the writers don’t realise it. Some writers can write, some writers can’t. And if you can’t, then the result will be awful, the story will be rubbish.
To remedy this, the writer has to learn to write to a standard that is acceptable and publishable. And if self-publishing, where there are no quality controls, the need for quality writing is even more important.
Learn to recognise bad writing and improve upon it.
The Author is Terrible at Writing
Every writer assumes they are good at writing, but the reality is that not everyone is actually good at writing. Everyone can write, but it takes much more to be a writer, therefore, the quality of writing required for a successful story doesn’t happen overnight, and isn’t something a writer can pick up after a week of writing.
Quality writing takes years.
Haven’t got the time to learn to write well? Then you’re not a writer.
The Story is Telling, Not Showing
This is very common with any story, and in particular it’s common with new writers who have not understood the concept of showing rather than telling.  So instead of taking the time to describe to the reader and draw them in by getting them to use their imaginations, it means they have left out that descriptive element and they end up telling the story like it’s a grocery list.
Show those important scenes. Show the agents, publishers and editors you can write.
The Story is Full of Grammatical Errors
Surprisingly, plenty of writers assume they are brilliant at writing and insist they don’t make any mistakes, and if they do, then stick their heads in the sand and ignore them, but the truth is that all writers make mistakes. No one is immune. The difference here is that most writers – experienced ones – will edit their work thoroughly, correct the errors and polish their prose to almost perfection before sending it to a publishing house or agent, or before self-publishing.
Grammatical mistakes come in all manner of ways – not just the obvious spelling and punctuation mistakes. They also cover use of adverbs, adjectives, sentences structures and layout, terrible dialogue, continuity errors and so on.
Every story you write should be as error free and as perfect as you can make it. Your first draft is never the finished product. Edit, edit and edit again.
The story has no structure
A story without structure isn’t really a story. It’s a conglomeration of random, unrelated things happening to some characters and none of it makes much sense.
Plenty of would be authors fail to structure the story properly, forgetting that the beginning should jump straight into the action and introduce the characters, the middle should relay the story, conflict, themes and subplots, while the ending should be exciting and satisfying.
The Author Hasn’t Learned the Craft
If the writer hasn’t learned the craft, it shows in their writing, because the result is just so awful. Self-publishing is packed with authors who haven’t made the effort to learn this craft.
Writing is an art form, it takes a few years to become proficient, and it takes longer to become brilliant at it. The advice here is simple: take the time to learn how to write. Just because you want to write a novel doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any good at it.
Authors Won't Follow Instructions/Advice
What would this have to do with a story failing?
It’s vital that any writer learns how to follow instructions from others, whether it’s information or advice from literary agents, publishers, editors or beta readers. The ability to do so shows a willingness to learn and expand your skill. But if you can’t or won’t follow advice or guidelines given by professionals, it means you’ll face many rejections. Your endeavours will be failures and you will never learn.
Authors Won't Learn From Their Mistakes
This is on the same par as the above reason of not following advice, because writers who don't or won't learn from their mistakes, or accept constructive feedback in order to improve their skills, will ultimately fail.
Why?  Because if you don’t learn from that mistake, you will repeat the same mistakes over and over.
No one is perfect – we all make mistakes. When we do, we learn not to do them again and that means we improve. So recognise your errors, or if they are pointed out by editors or agents, then strive to correct them.
Arrogance/Ignorance
This is the worst kind of writer.
These writers assume their work is brilliant and they are the best writer around, they are overconfident about their work; they know everything there is to know about writing, except to know that this equates to an instant fail.
If you are seeking the traditional route to being published, it’s wise to know that agents and publishers detest arrogance as much as ignorance and they may reject you if they feel they cannot work with someone who already knows it all and can’t follow their advice.
Writer’s should never be obstinate or have the ‘I can write how I like’ attitude.  By all means write how you like, but make sure you write something that is worth reading, is well-written, enjoyable and satisfying for the reader, and more importantly, it makes them want to read more of your stories.
Absence of Creativity or Imagination
There are plenty of stories that lack creativity or imagination. Often writers plunder other stories for their ideas, instead of coming up with their own ideas. Many stories often lack the creative essence that make them so entertaining or gripping to read. That’s because some authors can’t be bothered with the creative process. They just write what they think is good and then self-publish it in the belief they have created a best seller.
Creativity is the life force of any art form. It’s what makes writers write. Imagination is the fuel that drives that creativity. Together they help writers create the fantastical, the incredible, the brilliant stories we love to read.
Without it, there’s nothing.
Those are some of the most common reasons why stories might fail with readers, agents, editors and publishers. So to succeed, pay attention to advice, learn from your mistakes; don’t be ignorant of your weaknesses as a writer, or arrogant enough to think you’re the best novelist around. Take the time to learn all you can about the craft, that way you’ll failure becomes success.

Next week: Where exactly to begin your story?

Saturday, 1 August 2015

How to Avoid the Novel Slump – Part 2


In Part 1, we looked at the main reasons why writers tend to hit a slump halfway through writing their novels, and some of the ways to avoid this common problem, but more importantly, we looked at how writers can avoid these same problems.
The main thing is that all serious writers should aim to prepare and plan.
There are, however, times that even with the best preparation and planning, it becomes very difficult to move forward with writing the novel. It happens, there are no real answers to why, but if and when it does happen, writers can take practical steps to get the novel moving again.
Take a break - One of the easiest things to do is to take a break from the novel and go and do something else for a few days. Sometimes a break from intense focus is what makes us focus better.  It’s a well-known fact that people work more efficiently with regular breaks. Any break – even if just for a day or two - lets your mind breathe, process and refocus.  You can then go back to the novel with new impetus and ideas.
Sometimes we focus too much on something that our brains find it difficult to process anything, so creativity and imagination comes to a halt. A break from it usually does the trick.
Read the last few Chapters - Some writers like to re-read the last couple of chapters of their novel to kick-start their creativity again. This is not to be confused with one of the reasons why the novel may suffer a slump in the first place – when the writer keeps going back and meddling with previous chapters (which can screw up proceeding chapters) – because the idea here is to merely read what you’ve written, to get a feel of where the story is. No meddling, tweaking or editing is allowed at this stage.
A read through might also help you pinpoint areas why the story is sagging or where the story is not working– it suddenly becomes visible with a simple read through.
Read a Book - Go and read a similar genre novel to yours. Sometimes just reading other authors gives us an inspiration boost, it motivates us and gets us all fired up again to tackle the novel.
Another creative way to approach this is to imagine your novel is a movie. It sounds strange, but it’s an interesting exercise. Which scenes would it show, how would it play? How would it show the story, the characters, themes and the conflicts?
Re-imagining your novel in this way can help to stimulate ideas and stir creativity. Not only that, it can help you visualise it. This actually helps some writers who find it slightly more difficult to convey what they want in a novel, and this kind of exercise provides the right kind of inspiration and motivation.
Of course, those are a few practical ways to the slump, but there is no better option that to prepare and plan your novel before you embark on it. You wouldn’t take a long road trip without knowing where you are going, would you? The same is true for your novel. Plan where it is going, who is involved, what it’s about and where it will end.
Remember to plot, characterise and prepare a chapter outline before you start, because with those simple foundations in place, you can then follow the checklist below to ensure that your next novel won’t sag halfway through:-

Checklist:

  • Plan the story – whose story is it? Who else is involved? What are the character’s key motivations?
  • Outline your chapters – the more detail, the better.
  • Think about possible subplots and how they might affect the story and your characters.
  • Always have themes in mind and weave them into the story.
  • What’s the end goal – how will the story end? What does your main character want to achieve?
  • Is it the right genre for you?  If it isn’t, then your writing will reflect this. Stick to genres you enjoy.
  • Take time out when it’s needed
  • Do a read through of the last couple of chapters
  • Read others books. Get inspired!

Remember the old adage; fail to plan means you’ll plan to fail, and that’s one of the biggest reasons many novels fail to get anywhere.

Next week: 10 reasons why stories fail

Saturday, 25 July 2015

How to Avoid the Novel Slump – Part 1


Has your novel sagged in the middle? Stuck half way and just can’t seem to move on?
You’re not on your own. At some stage during the novel writing process, every writer goes through what’s known as a novel slump. This usually occurs mid way through the novel – since that is where the majority of the story knits together – and there are several things that can happen to make the story stutter or grind to a halt.
There are lots of reasons why this happens, but in order to avoid hitting that novel slump, writers should become aware of the signs that things are not going according to plan, so they can take steps to overcome them or avoid them altogether.
Reasons for the Slump
One of the most obvious reasons a novel might begin to sag is that the narrative simply runs out of steam. All the freshness at the beginning of story has dried up and the ideas have vanished. When the narrative stutters, it’s usually a sign that the writer hasn’t planned ahead. This is also true if the writer isn’t sure what should happen next in the story or what direction it should take. Sometimes a sense of weariness sets in, where the initial sparkle and inspiration is lost and therefore it seems pointless to continue.
Writers also become bored with the story and they give up halfway through because of lack of inspiration – ideas are lacking and therefore interest in the story and the creativity to do it is dampened. This is also a symptom that the story itself isn’t working, whether that is down the characters not being right, the story not correctly planned out or that it’s the wrong subject matter entirely (write about genres you like and relate to, not what is currently in favour).
This also occurs when the writer has neglected to write down exactly what the story is about and why.
Another reason is that the writer has somehow created a tangled mess or the story has become overcomplicated, which happens when there are no controls on plot and subplot threads and the writer wanders off on a tangent. Then they realize too late that it’s all gone a bit wrong.
Sometimes the writer finds out at the halfway point that the story isn’t going in the right direction and they are not sure how to approach the problem – this often leads to the novel being dumped.
How many writers have a pile of unfinished novels collecting dust in a drawer somewhere?
Writers also fall into a slump because they tend to look back through the chapters they’ve written and start meddling by adding things, removing things and so on. This can be counterproductive, especially if the novel is only half done, because the novel doesn’t truly move forward as it should – any creative momentum is lost.  It’s better to complete the initial draft, then go back to edit properly afterward.
Instead of concentrating on one writing project at a time, many writers get an idea for another novel and start writing that, so the initial novel falls to the wayside and the writer cannot be bothered with it. There are plenty of writers out there that do this.
Problems like these tend to zap a writer’s motivation, and the moment that happens, apathy sets in and the writer tends to give up and do something else because they’ve lost all interest in the novel. Does that sound like you?
So how do you avoid these pitfalls? What is the one factor that could eradicate all these problems?
Well, the answer is good old fashioned planning.
Ways to Avoid the Slump
If you are undertaking something as in-depth and as complicated as a novel, then a lot of thought, preparation and planning is absolutely essential.
Plot - write down the plot – what the story is about, who it involves and what the outcome will be. It should be thorough. The reason it should be thorough is because it always acts as the reference point.
Characters - have a detailed background for the main characters – what is their story, why are they involved? Will they have a subplot? How will they affect the other characters? Which ones will cause the most conflict? The more information you have about your characters, the easier it will be to construct scenes around them.  Not only that but you can refer back to them at any time.
Chapter Outline - plan ahead with an outline or chapter breakdown of what the story might entail, the directions it might go and the kind of sub-plots and themes it might explore. This doesn’t have to be precise, exact or as thorough (unless of course you happen to love planning everything in detail), but as long as you have a guide to work with, any bumps in the road can usually be traversed.
Why do this? Because it allows the writer to overcome these common problems by virtue of having a chapter guide, which acts a prompt to stimulate ideas and keep the writer on the right track as far as the momentum of the story goes, because the aim of the story is to get from the beginning to the end, which means it is always moving forward.
A rough guide means the writer doesn’t have to sit staring at a blank screen while ideas for the next scene have seemingly been sucked into a black hole. Instead, a guide should inspire scenes. If anything it will at least keep you on the right course to move the story forward, even if ideas are few.
There are plenty of writers who insist they don’t do any planning.  That’s fine - by all means write by the seat of your pants – but you will come unstuck.
In Part 2 we’ll look at more ways that writers can avoid falling into that halfway slump with their novels and some practical ways around it, should it happen.

Next week: How to Avoid the Novel Slump Part 2