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 – 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.

My Debut Novel, ‘Safe Hands’ – The Story So Far

I have mentioned my debut novel from time to time on this blog, but it’s been a while so in preparation for my upcoming weekly updates, I thought it might be an idea to bring you up to speed with what it is and where I am.

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“Cracking a safe doesn’t mean dynamite. No oxecetyline torch. And definitely no fucking stethoscope. It’s laying your hands on cold steel, feeling the tingle in your fingertips, caressing out each part of the combination.” – MICKEY BLAKE, SAFE HANDS.

Told in first person, ‘Safe Hands’ is a crime novel about an ageing safe-cracker, Mickey Blake.  For the sake of his dying wife and a son that hates his guts, Mickey is forced out of retirement to rob a run down casino in Skegness. Between Chinese and Russian gangsters and a crooked undercover cop . . . it’s going to be a tough week.

How it came together . . .

What began as a short story, has wound up being a messy first draft of over a hundred thousand words, with a few too many plot complications, an under-used character or two and some obvious structural issues. The good news is the rewrite is underway and I’m beginning to see the wood for the trees. Using Scrivener has meant that I can easily move around my scenes and chapters and anything I ‘throw away’ can be saved for another project or re-used somewhere else in the book.

I completed the first draft back in the spring of 2017. Since then, I’ve transferred my chapters onto index cards. Yes, it’s a little ‘old school’ and I could do this digitally in Scrivener, but I wanted to employ techniques learned from my experience in scriptwriting and doing it the old fashioned way has necessitated a much deeper analysis of my story. Structural issues became obvious and the inconsistency of my antagonist stood out as something that needed to be resolved. On that last point, I decided to write a character monologue from the perspective of my antagonist. It was a rambling couple of thousand words but left me in no doubt as to who my character was and what he really wants. It also created at least one new plot development that will definitely improve the story.

This week . . .

This week I’ve written a new scene between Mickey and his wife and have re-written a number of later scenes in the book. The plan for the coming week will be to introduce a new sub-plot that arose from the character work I’ve been doing with my antagonist.

I’ll report back on my progress next week, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear how you’re progressing with your own WIP. At what stage of the process are you? Have you discovered new techniques? Perhaps you are struggling and would like some help? In this week’s episode of The Joined Up Writing Podcast, ex-policeman and now writer, Matt Johnson has lots of help and inspiration for new writers.

As always, I’d love to hear from you, so do leave a comment below.

8 Great Podcasts for 2017

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Podcasts – what are they?

Podcasts are episodic, usually themed, audio content that you can listen to on the web or subscribe to using iTunes or on your smartphone. They’re almost always free and come in a variety of styles from Audio Drama, How-To Shows and Lifestyle, to Science, Comedy, Music, Current Affairs and True Crime.

Anyone who knows me, reads the blog or follows me on Twitter will probably have noticed my passion for podcasts. I even co-host one with Leah Osbourne – The Joined-Up Writing Podcast, where we interview succesful authors, editors, agents, screenwriters and anyone connected with reading or writing good books.

The range of choice and the quality of this relatively new medium (the birth of the iPod was when things really got going) continues to grow. I seem to find another great new show almost on a weekly basis, but here are my latest recommendations.

8 Great Podcasts . . .

Writing Shows

The Worried Writer – author, Sarah Painter is the self-confessed ‘Worried Writer’ who hosts this monthly show which usually includes interviews with other writers who give the background behind their work and process and offer advice on dealing with the dreaded Self-Doubt.

The Creative Penn – if you are a budding indie writer, chances are you are already familiar with independent publishing poster girl, Joanna Penn and if you aren’t, you should be. Joanna podcasts on a weekly basis and her archive and blog posts offer a wealth of advice and inspiration for independent authors everywhere.

Audio Drama

LifeAfter – a very new 10 part tech thriller that follows Ross, a low level FBI employee who is trying to deal with the death of his wife using a social media platform as a form of digital resurrection. Of course, all is not as it seems. It’s full of twists and turns and I was lucky enough to interview the show’s writer, Mac Rogers for a recent episode of The Joined-Up Writing podcast.

Homecoming – a star-studded cast includes David Schwimmer and Oscar Isaac and everything about this psychological thriller oozes class. The script, acting and excellent sound design help to tell a story about an experimental therapy treatment for traumatised soldiers. This really does show what can be done with the medium and I can’t wait for Season Two.

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My latest binge – Crimetown

True Crime

Crimetown – my current addiction and a superb example of how podcasts can handle true crime stories. Told through interviews with ex-criminals, government officials, police officers and an expertly crafted script, Crimetown is a serialised story of one of the biggest organised crime families in America – in the small city of Providence. Make sure you start at episode one and get ready to binge.

Stranglers – another gripping series that tells that fascinating (but often grizzly) story behind one of America’s most infamous serial killers, The Boston Strangler. Again, start at episode one to follow the story from the beginning and perhaps don’t listen to this one before bedtime, unless you like nightmares.

Science

Science Vs – a fascinating Pop Science show, that tackles topics like Hypnosis, Fracking and even The G-Spot! It never dumbs down, but keeps a light touch in its mission to ‘sift through the facts, so you don’t have to’.

Cinema

You Must Remember This – detailed research and a haunting soundtrack make this an interesting trip down memory lane, focusing specifically on the first century of Hollywood. Each episode tells a different story from Tinseltown’s sometimes glamourous, often mysterious and always entertaining past. Covering everything from the McCarthy Witch Hunts to Buster Keaton and Bruce Lee, this podcast is a must for film fans.

That’s it. For now . . .

I could go on and on and on and you can always check out my post from 2015 for a few more ideas. I’m always on the look out for new recommendations, so drop me a line in the comments to let me know what your latest listening pleasures are. Happy listening!

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.

NaNoWriMo – Why Everyone Should Try Writing a Novel in a month.

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This is the story of how I surprised myself by writing 50,000 words of a novel in less than 30 days, and why I think everyone with even a passing interest in creative writing should give it a try at least once.

I fell in love with writing as a child and even though it’s always been an on-off relationship, with life, work and family often coming between us, you never forget your first love and I always knew we would be reunited again some day.

Although I’ve always kept up a long-distance correspondance by writing lots of songs and the very occasional blog, it’s fair to say it has been quite a few years since I really set my mind to writing anything substantial.

That all changed a few weeks ago when I felt the old desire return, initially with a few short story ideas, and then I stumbled across something called NaNoWriMo and knew the timing was perfect to start from scratch on my failed novel – last abandoned a number of years ago with a wordcount of over 35,000. For the unitiated, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month and takes place every November. To take part in NaNoWriMo you need only commit to the idea of writing 50,000 words of your first draft before the end of November. The use of the word ‘only’ being slightly misleading in this instance, as the reality means writing an average of 1667 words EVERY SINGLE DAY for thirty days.

I have a busy day job, a family and I’m a member of a cover band so time is not something I have an abundance of, but never one to shy away from a challenge I approached the task with as much gusto as possible. Whilst I wasn’t particularly confident of being able to reach the full target, I simply treated it as an excuse to get as many words written as possible, to get back in to the habit of writing every day and to kick-start my attempt to write a novel.

I passed the 50,000 mark on November 24th with 6 days to spare and it felt great. Not only because I had reached an arbitrary goal set by NaNoWriMo, but because I had re-engaged with writing again and found my passion for creating characters and worlds for them to exist in. I also found that I still hadn’t reached the end of my story, but having come so far I know I will keep going until I reach the conclusion.

Everyone works differently but for me I think there were a few factors that contributed to my success.

Write every day

Firstly, even on the days where I barely had half an hour to spare I wrote something, anything as long as I made a tiny dent on my wordcount. I think the most pathetic daily wordcount was around the 500 word mark, but it still meant that I wouldn’t have a little zero next to that date and that my novel was just that little bit closer to being finished.

Turn off the inner editor

Ok, so I know that it has become a writing cliche, but that’s for a reason. I realised that when it comes to the first draft, all that really matters is getting to the end of the story – just getting it all out. That means not stopping to finesse phrasing or grammar and not letting a little thing like a gaping plot hole slow you up either. For me, this meant skipping an entire chapter early on because although I knew the character had to get from point A to point B, I had no idea how he would get there and didn’t have the time to sit around waiting for inspiration. I simply jumped to the next scene and motored on – that will need taking care of when I begin draft 2 and the editing process.

Have fun

Again, seems obvious, but if you are not going to try to have fun when doing something as silly as trying to write 50,000 words in a month, then don’t bother attempting it at all. I found that the more I kept writing, the more life my characters took on until some scenes of the book just flowed – seemingly with very little input from me. Hours just flew by and all the time I was creating a story across lots of pages that didn’t exist before November 1st.

Before I started NaNoWriMo, my best case scenario was perhaps reaching 20-25,000 words before December and I would still be very satisfied with that. And that’s the best thing about trying something like this – whether you reach 5,000 or 50,000 words, you will have produced something tangible that wasn’t there before. You will have got back in touch with that wild side of your imagination that seems to become harder to reach as we grow older and more self-conscious, and you never know – you may even end up with a finished novel that you can release in to the world to entertain and inspire others.

So, in short, I will definitely be signing up for NaNoWrimo next year – who’s with me?

You can check out my NaNoWrimo profile here, which includes a synopsis and excerpt from my novel ‘Let Sleeping Gods Lie’.

I would love to hear from others that have found other ways to kick start their creative writing projects or have other NaNoWriMo experiences to share. What’s your story?

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