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

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Does Poor Word Choice Kill a Story?

How often do you think about how your sentences are structured? How much thought do you put into using the right words? How effective do you want those words to be?
Often, poor word choice – instead of helping support the story you are trying to tell – can weaken the story and lead to ‘telling’. In some cases it can kill a story dead.
So what is considered poor word choice?
Word choice refers to the right words for the right meaning and the right effect, and the example below uses the wrong words and incorrect sentence structure, so it doesn’t do a great job of conveying much:
‘John ran to the end of the road, saw the crowd, who were moving towards the main building with everyone inside, so he grabbed his gun...’
By using the right word choice, however, the sentences become stronger, the intended meaning has relevance and the overall story will be that little bit stronger, for instance:
‘John ran to the end of the road and saw the angry, bloodied crowd moving towards the main building. He grabbed his gun, knew innocent people were trapped inside. Somehow he had to distract the deadly horde...’
This version is much stronger – it used stronger, descriptive words to convey meaning, but also the words are structured properly within the sentence. The right word choice can lift the story from the page so that the reader reacts to it and it stimulates their imagination.
Poor word choice, on the other hand, doesn’t stimulate the reader, so any reaction to the narrative is lost.
It’s important the reader understands the meaning you are trying to convey, otherwise the whole effect could fall flat, or you could end up conveying the wrong thing entirely, just by poor word choice.
One way to avoid that is to ensure the reader gets the right amount of information and detail so that they can picture the story in their mind. You don’t have to overcomplicate sentences and make them flowery, but they need to be clear and unambiguous and they need to get the point across.
Here’s another example of poor word choice. In the example below, it describes a woman who is depressed and unhappy and how she deals with her feelings:
‘She had wanted to retreat into what she understood most, the kind that eased her mind and soothed her, the kind that was built around the silence she always felt’.
You can see that the word choices are uninspiring and bland and do nothing to evoke the scene. So many writers still write like this, but this really isn’t fiction writing. It’s lazy writing.
The revised version is better:
‘Sometimes she had wanted to retreat into the comfort she understood, the kind that eased her troubled mind and soothed her worries, the wondrous kind built around the soliloquy of silence’.
Better word choice makes quite a difference. The reader’s mind can jump into the scene and they will automatically paint their own picture and include their own details – this is the reader’s imagination at work. Write the right words and the reader will do the rest for you.
Words such as ‘soothed’, ‘wondrous’ and ‘soliloquy’ in this scene stimulate the reader; they provoke a reaction, whereas before, the unedited version didn’t really incite much.
This is another example:
‘The ground beneath Xavier’s feet vibrated. The air smelled burnt and despite the darkness, the sky around them flashed like a lightning storm’.
Again, the choice of words doesn’t do a lot for the narrative, but in the revised version, certain catalyst words change the overall feel of it, so that the reader gets more information, for example:
‘The ground beneath Xavier’s feet vibrated in constant upheaval. The air grew thick with a strange burnt smell. Despite the murky darkness, the sky around them flashed with incessant spite like a demonic lightning storm’.
This version gives the reader more information, the word choice is better; it provokes a reaction and helps the reader imagine the scene.
Some writers pour over their sentences with methodical detail. Others just write and hope for the best. Authors like Hemingway and James Joyce often agonised over the choice of words. They completely understood how important the right words were in fiction and the difference they made to the meaning, understanding and texture of a story.
The right word choice:

  • Gets the point across
  • Gives meaning
  • Strengthens scenes
  • Provides the right detail for the reader, stimulates their imagination
  • Adds extra layers to the scene

The wrong word choice may not kill a story completely, but it really doesn’t help it either. Small details are important. Extra detail is important. The right words make a difference.
The wrong words don’t.

Next week: How to avoid the novel slump

Saturday, 11 July 2015

How to Create a Convincing Good Guy - Part 3

In this final part about how to write a convincing good guy, we’ll look at some of the other interesting components that go towards creating an interesting main character, and a convincing one at that.
As writers, we have to find ways of drawing the reader into the story and getting them to like, understand and follow the good guy right to the end of the story. We have to make the good guys as real as possible, so that they are not only believable in what they do, but people want would like to be.
Give the Good Guy a Weakness
As mentioned before, good guys are not perfect; they come with all sorts of flaws, foibles and weaknesses. But why give them weaknesses?
Weakness is one of the things that make them human, and it’s these things that readers completely understand. Weaknesses endear the reader to your main character like no other facet, because we all have weaknesses. No one is perfect.
Weakness also brings out strength in the most amazing ways.  In other words, whatever the good guy’s weakness, exploit it at every key moments, make him or her suffer. Suffering makes the reader empathise. Empathy evokes the responsiveness of emotions, and readers love to see the good guy overcoming their weakness to become stronger.
Make them Change
The thing about good guys is that they have the ability to change and learn something about themselves or the world around them (whereas an antagonist, the bad guy, won’t want to). The main character won’t be the same at the end of the story as he or she was at the beginning. That’s because the story happened to affect change; their experiences help them. Again this is something that readers identify with – life itself is a learning curve, after all. 
The protagonist might change steadily over the course of the story or he or she will change rather suddenly, perhaps because of dramatic or traumatic event or incident. We all change, hopefully for the better.
Give them a Heroic Moment (or two)
We all love a hero. We also like those people who do something extraordinary. Readers are no different – they want to see the good guy do something extraordinary or heroic. The affinity it creates brings the reader closer to your main character, because we all want to see human nature at its very best. Whatever that awesome moment is – maybe beating the odds or finally standing up to a bully or perhaps saving a puppy from a river – the selfless in others makes us smile, it makes us feel good.
There are plenty of ingredients that writers shouldn’t ignore when they create their good guys. Effective good guys should create a sense of affinity, immediacy and emotional connection with readers, and to do that means incorporating so many facets.
Universally recognised good guy traits:-
They retain a sense of positivity even when the situation seems so dire.
They care about others, even strangers.
They follow their moral code.
They are determined.
They change and become a better person.
They will learn a valuable lesson.
They will do anything to protect those they love most.
They will turn weaknesses into strengths.
They will do extraordinary things.
They will make sacrifices.
They succeed against all the odds.
You can see from this list that there are so many factors that make a good guy, so many things that make him or her memorable, things that the reader likes about your main character, things that make them care. A well written good guy helps the reader see themselves in that character.
Above all, make your good guys as real as possible – they are ordinary people doing something extraordinary. That’s their journey.
Next week: Can poor word choice kill a story?

Saturday, 4 July 2015

How to Create a Convincing Good Guy – Part 2

In the second part of this series, we’ll take a look at importance of motives to the protagonist and the kind of aspects that makes a ‘good guy’ good.
Not only does the main character carry the story, he or she must move the story forward, and to do that you must establish motivation. There must be a reason the character is part of the story and why he or she acts or reacts to certain situations.
There are many possible motives for a protagonist, but let’s look at the most common ones found in novels, ones we universally recognise and understand:
Something to Lose
The main character has something or someone to lose, and the thought of losing someone close or something that means a lot to them is a dominant motivator. The fear of losing something forces the protagonist to behave in different and make certain choices, and they won’t care about consequences. If your child was in danger, for instance, you would move heaven and earth to protect them, no matter the risk.
This instinct should also exist within your main character – that they would do something that goes beyond what the reader expects is one of the things that makes a good guy ‘good’.
Secrets and Lies
Just like the antagonist, the protagonist may have secrets and may even lie at times to protect such secrets. That’s because they are not perfect. Like real people, they may have something to hide, a secret they don’t want anyone to discover, perhaps because they are protecting something or someone. It’s inevitably that they will lie to protect that secret, which the readers will be desperate to know, but they will also understand why the protagonist undertakes these actions.
A Past Incident
The protagonist’s past is a key component to who they are. Past incidents can shape what they do in the present. That could have been something like a betrayal by someone and the protagonist wants revenge, or maybe they discovered a family secret. Perhaps the main character witnessed something. Whatever it is, they are powerful motives for the good guy.
The Protagonist is a Target
For whatever reason, the main character is being pursued by someone – the antagonist usually – and this forces the story forward in interesting ways, because the motivation is survival. Not only that, it creates so much conflict because whatever the reason for being targeted, the good guy must not only survive, he or she must succeed in defeating the antagonist in return, which will keep the reader glued to the story to find out what happens next.
What are the Main Ingredients of a Good Guy?
They Have History
Everyone has a history, be it good, bad or indifferent. That means every protagonist should be affected in some way by their past; be it emotionally, physically or psychologically.
We all carry with us ‘life baggage’ and that’s also true for your good guy. He or she may be a little damaged in some way, but any weaknesses will help the reader identify with and relate to the character.
Their past may influence how they behave, so again it is important to remain consistent with the protagonist’s behaviour and actions to reflect this.
The Enable Empathy & Immediacy
The reader needs to connect with the good guy right from the outset. The reader needs to care about what happens to him or her, so your protagonist needs to be someone we can equate to, someone like us - an ordinary person thrown into extraordinary circumstances. That creates immediacy and empathy with the reader. It makes the reader want root for the good guy, to succeed and defeat the bad guy.
It should be said that the main character doesn’t even have to be likeable. Just relatable. Someone the reader understands, someone they connect to.
They Act Bravely
Every main character at some point will do something that is brave, daring, courageous or completely surprising. Readers love to see the hero overcome the impossible – especially an underdog.
Bravery endears the character to the reader – it creates a kind of ‘feel good’ feeling and makes them root for the protagonist.
They Have Moral Values
Unlike the antagonist, who may not have a moral code top speak of, the protagonist will have strong moral values.  That’s what makes him or her ‘the good guy’. In other words, they may believe strongly in being just and fair, or they might have a faith-based morality. Whatever their moral code, writers should always underscore this with how the character acts and reacts and to always be consistent with the character’s behaviour.
Having a strong moral code doesn’t mean the main character can look down at others from the moral high ground – no one is a saint. They just need to be believable and real and know right from wrong.
Readers will also the share the same ethical and moral outlook.
They are Not Perfect
No hero is perfect. We all have flaws. We all make mistakes. This is true of your good guy.  A main character that has flaws is a reflection of real people and so readers will easily identify with them, because they tend to see themselves in that character; their own flaws and faults.
Various Degrees of Conflict
Every story must have conflict, otherwise there is no story. And your good guy cannot exist without conflict.
Conflict comes in all manner of ways and be a multitude of things – conflict with the antagonist, conflict with authority, conflict with secondary characters, conflict within him/herself, conflict with the environment. Whichever one it is, the good guy has to face these seemingly never-ending obstacles and somehow overcome them as the denouement nears.
Readers love conflict – especially character conflict - it keeps them turning the page, so don’t neglect it.
Just like antagonists, your good guy should be complex and multifaceted and because of that, interesting and appealing to the reader.  In the last part, we’ll look at some other interesting components that make up a convincing good guy.

Next week: How to Create a Convincing Good Guy – Part 3