Novel Writing – Editing and The Ripple Effect

Another of my weekly updates on the progress of my debut crime novel, Safe Hands, about an ageing safe cracker forced out of retirement for the sake of his dying wife and a son that hates his guts.

Last week was all about getting my productivity back on track but the theme for this week has been trying to keep the story itself on the rails.

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The Ripple Effect

My second draft continues to take shape and a huge part of that has been the structural overhaul I’ve been pushing ahead with. It’s all about the ripple effect for me this week. What do I mean by that? Read on . . .

I finished the new chapter between Mickey and his estranged son, but also spent a lot of time editing other chapters and continuing to refine the structure of the book.  Well, for anyone that’s used Scrivener to write their books, you’ll know one of its biggest strengths is giving you the ability to easily drag chapters and scenes around to change the order of things and generally play with the structure of your story. But what you don’t tend to think about are the repercussions involved.

Great Scott, Marty!

Honestly, I feel like I’m involved in a remake of Back To The Future or Twelve Monkeys – thinking about how one change to an event in the past will ripple down through time changing everything in the present. And it isn’t just in terms of practical things, like keeping an eye out for when characters refer to an event that may now not be happening for several chapters – or actually happened two chapters earlier – but also maintaining the emotional consistency of your characters. For example, in my novel, Mickey loses someone close to him. Originally this happened very early in the story and had an effect on how Mickey behaved and felt in the subsequent chapters.

After analyzing my structure, I realized this event would have more impact later on in the book – but now all the chapters in between need to be tweaked to reflect that change in Mickey’s emotional state. It’s complicated, thought intensive work but I know my story will be better because if it. This is just one of the reasons that many authors plan their stories meticulously before starting to write a novel. In the most recent episode of The Joined Up Writing Podcast, I chatted to Thriller author, Rachel Amphlett about her writing process. She, like me, describes herself as a ‘Plotser’ (actually, I always preferred ‘Planster’, but you get the idea). Either way, when I start work on my next novel, I think I need to put a little more emphasis on planning and structure.

That was the week that was . . .

So, it’s been a busy week as I’ve tried to wrestle the book into some kind of shape. It’s getting there, slowly but surely. I was 30 minutes off my 3 hour target again this week, making it two weeks in a row I’ve failed to make the grade. Note for this week: MUST TRY HARDER.

Meanwhile  my writing buddy, Maria Smith, has been achieving her goals despite doing her best to sabotage her own plans! Head over to First Draft Cafe to see what I mean. 

What about your writing? How do you approach structural changes in your story? Do you use Scrivener in the same way? Maybe you do all of the grunt work before you even get started? What sort of issues have you faced during the editing phase? I’d love to hear about it, so let me know in the comments or drop me a line on Twitter @MrKelly2u.

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Novel Writing – Fail to plan . . .

Last week I talked about the work I’ve begun on redrafting the beginning of my novel, ‘Safe Hands’ – focusing specifically on my opening chapter and prologue. This week, the ‘plan’ was to complete the structural work on the novel – by discarding the current end section and working out how and where to add a new minor character I feel the narrative now needs.

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The more observant of you will notice I’ve placed the word ‘plan’ in quotation marks, because the fact of the matter is, other than the scant few sentences I devoted to it in last week’s post, I failed to really outline what I intended to do and – more importantly – I failed to schedule in the time to actually make it happen. And as we all know . . .

Fail to plan, plan to fail

I won’t bore you with all the reasons/excuses – but the lack of progress has really brought everything into sharp focus for me and made me realise I have to get back into the habit of planning my week ahead and specifically scheduling in my writing time. Like many of you, I’ve got a very busy day job, this podcast, my family and everything else to fit in and the fact is . . . if I don’t plan when when I’m going to sit down to work on the novel then it simply won’t happen. So this week has been a wake up call and after a chat with my writing buddy, Maria Smith over at First Draft Cafe, we’ve both made a pact to get our shit together and make ourselves more accountable. That accountability will be two-fold. We will be accountable to each other – a forfeit system of having to get the coffees in and other sanctions is currently being formulated – but also through our blog posts. In other words, I’ll share with you what I want to achieve on a weekly basis and I’ll be brutally honest if and when it doesn’t work out. Deal? Will you prod me and spur me on through thick and thin?

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This week’s plan

So . . . this week, the novel work will be as follows. I want to do six slots over the course of the week and spend a minimum of 30 minutes on the novel each time. I know – it probably doesn’t sound a lot to some of you, but it’s 3 hours over the course of the week and I’m hoping that making it a daily habit will get me back into the swing of things and on some days that half an hour will become an hour or more. Think of it as me warming up, doing my stretches.

In terms of the specifics . . .

  1. I will complete the structural overhaul – specifically removing all of the chapters that will now not make sense in the current draft.
  2. Based on the critique received from my writing group on the opening chapter, I will complete the edit of Chapter One.
  3. I will write a brand new chapter, containing the minor character I feel is now needed to flesh out the back story of my antagonist, but to also add more tension and conflict to the main narrative.

My writing goals are only one part of an overhaul of the way I divide and plan my free time. Outside of the scope of this blog is the work I’ve been doing over at Joined Up Writing Podcast – including my recent interview with author, William Shaw – not to mention my day job and other committments. However, I’ll continue to audit how much time I have and try to focus on what’s important. What are your Time Management and Productivity tips? Share them in the comments or tweet me @MrKelly2u

Novel Writing – Opening Chapters and Prologues

This is the latest of my weekly updates on the redrafting of what will be my debut novel, ‘Safe Hands’. You can find the story so far in this previous post.

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The beginning of your book is the start of a journey

This week was all about revising my opening chapter. Like many of you reading this, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether my book now starts in the right place. During the messy first draft, it’s best not to dwell on it too much, and it’s certainly not worth worrying about. However, as I push my draft on towards completion, it’s now something that needs to be addressed.

In addition to the dreaded FIRST CHAPTER CONUNDRUM, I’ve also toyed with the idea of a prologue. I know, I know, it’s a dirty word in some literary circles. I may be deluding myself, but to my mind, what I currently have isn’t actually a prologue. It’s a single tone-setting paragraph, with no historical context and will have a single word title: OPENING. And that is literally what it is . . . an opening to the book, an a description of the opening of a vault. What it does do, is give the reader an immediate sense of tone and a practical description of what my protagonist, Mickey Blake, can do – namely, crack a safe with only his bare hands and an acute sense of touch.

I made more revisions to the first chapter too, adding in a reference to a phone call that Mickey has just concluded as the novel begins. It sets the context for how he feels in the opening scene, but as the reader is left in the dark as to the specifics of the conversation, it raises a question and, I hope, provides the first ‘hook’ of the story.

I wanted to start the story in media res – come in late, get out early as the adage goes – and I think beginning the story with Mickey’s first meeting of potential antagonist, Parker, is a good way to do it.

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Dialogue scenes should be realistic

After making the revisions, I took the piece to Phoenix Writers, the critique group I belong to, and got lots of useful feedback – particularly on the dialogue in my scene. It was clear that it’s currently a little too testosterone-fueled and needs to be paced better. In places it suffers from ‘ping-pong’ syndrome, with characters simply delivering one complete monologue after another, with few interruptions or pauses. I should know better. In my own ‘Big Screen Writing’ workshop, I advise ‘break it up’. Real conversations are fragmented and often nothing more than a series of interruptions – especially when there is conflict in a scene. Armed with the invaluable feedback of the group, I will be redrafting the chapter this week.

Dialogue tweaks aside, however, the group seemed satisfied with where I’ve chosen to start the story and they loved the OPENING section, so it seems I can at least put that issue to bed for the time being.

In addition to redrafting the beginning of the first chapter, this week I’ll be adding in some additional narrative elements brought about by my structural work. A new minor character and scene will be added and the current end section of the novel will be almost entirely discarded! Stay tuned.

What about you? Where do you stand on the whole ‘Prologue/No Prologue’ debate? Are you confident your story begins in the right place? Have any tips you want to share? Drop me a line in the comments below – I’d love to hear how you’re doing.

While you’re here, you might also want to check out the latest bonus episode of Joined Up Writing, the weekly writing podcast I host. This week, Matt Johnson talks about authenticity in Crime Fiction.

Stuck on your WIP? Skip to the end . . .

Stuck on your WIP? Things getting a little like wading through treacle? My advice? Skip to the end! That’s exactly what I’ve been doing after a long spell of procrastination and self-doubt.

Last time I gave you any kind of update, I was still in the honeymoon period of writing my second novel. 25,000 words in. The beginning of the relationship, when everything is exciting and new. Almost a year later, and I’m closing in on 90,000 words, and as we all know, with so much water under the bridge, you have to work a bit harder to keep the magic alive.

Loose-fitting pants . . .

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m a Plantser – I like to have a rough idea of where I’m going but don’t like to spend days and weeks planning every minute detail. These loose-fitting pants have served me well for the current novel (working title: Safe Hands) but, as usual, a couple of unexpected plot events took me by surprise and before I knew it, I’d created several loose ends and was tying myself up in knots. Although I had a vague idea of where I wanted to end up, with every new chapter, I felt I was drifting off course. My output slowed and eventually dried up completely. Anyone familiar with my posts will know that stopping to think for too long kills my momentum and gives rise to the dreaded Self-Doubt. So many times I forget to take my own advice – see Write or Die post from 2014.

Speaking of ‘Skip To The End’ – get to the point!

So, just at the moment I was ready to quit, I remembered my own advice and that of writing friends – WRITE THE ENDING FIRST. As my novel takes place over a week, building toward a heist that my protagonist and his cohorts have been planning, I decided to move directly to the day of the big job and just . . . WRITE. It was slow at first, but as I continued to raise the stakes, the words began to flow freely and without censure (a direct quote from writing friend Maria Smith) and I finally stopped worrying and clung to the fact that I’m writing a first draft. It’s meant to be terrible. The next stage will be editing and I can’t get to that stage unless I actually have something to edit.

The End is Nigh (honestly)

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because I had similar issues with my first novel (still consigned to First Draft Hell). But this is different. It’s a weird feeling. I know I’m tantalisingly close to finishing the first draft, but for once I feel calm and positive about the novel I know this ugly first draft will become. What about you? Do you have to wrestle with self-doubt on a daily basis – ‘of course we do,’ you reply, ‘we’re WRITERS!’ So how do you deal with it? What are your tips for pushing on through to the bitter end? How do you tackle all those plot complications you’ve created along the way? Or maybe you are a planner and merely scoff at all this talk of losing the plot? Let me know in the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter.

Finishing my First Draft – The End of The Beginning

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”          – Winston Churchill, 1942.

Let’s skip forward a few decades. Wednesday May 29th, 2015. The day I finally typed ‘The End’ on the manuscript of the first draft of my first novel.

Picture the scene: On typing the final letter of that final word, I printed out the last page, placing it carefully on top of the perfect stack of paper beside me. The early morning light shone through my window, illuminating the hallowed manuscript. I looked at the items on the desk – a cigarette, a single match with which to light it and a bottle of the finest champagne . . . wait a minute, I’m confusing my life with Paul Sheldon from ‘Misery’.

Here’s what really went down . . .

You may remember from an earlier post, I have been wading through the quagmire that was the climax of my novel, Let Sleeping Gods Lie. Months and then years slipped by as I fought to satisfactorily tie up all the loose ends I had created for myself, without losing faith in the entire story. Let’s just skip to the after-dinner coffee and say I failed to do that. I had a stark choice – ditch the whole thing mid sentence and put the 80,000 plus words on ice, plough on indefinitely or fudge a solution that’s somewhere between the two.

I always did have a sweet tooth . . . The Fudge

So . . . after taking counsel from a couple of writing buddies, I did ‘end’ the novel. Satisfactorily? No. The story has more holes than a mole-infested lawn. However, I did give a brief summary of what needs to happen and to whom so that the story reaches the original denouement I had in mind. It was nothing more than a few paragraphs, written synopsis-style, but it means my story is more or less complete. More importantly it means I can put that all important first novel behind me and move on to Book Two (more on that in a future post).

In a recent interview we did for Joined Up Writing Podcast, I asked author Daniel Ribot for his best advice to aspiring novelists. His words of wisdom were simple: Come up with 3 ideas for a book . . . . and write the worst one! His reasoning was based on bitter experience. The first novel you actually complete has a good chance of being terrible – or mediocre at best. I now realise that the best way to learn is to fail.

So what went wrong?

In essence, my outlining process was thinner than Victoria Beckham. I had a basic and incomplete chapter plan married to a dysfunctional seven-point plot outline, which gave birth to a wayward, unmanageable novel-child. I’ll quit this metaphor while I’m ahead.

Anyway. Despite that, I still love the premise of my story, along with the protagonist and villain(s) of the piece. There are loads of scenes and even whole chapters that I’m still really proud of and I’ve been writing long enough to know that nothing is wasted.

The End of The Beginning

So, my beginning has come to an end and it’s time to move on to the next phase of my novel writing journey – Book Two. I hope you will join me and follow the inevitable ups and downs, and I’ll be sure to keep you posted on the blog.

What have been your experiences with that difficult First Draft? What have you learned? I hope this post has given faith to those of you who have struggled and I wish you the best with your novels – be it the first, the second, the third . . . oh you get the idea.

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