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Archive for the tag “novelists”

Tricky choices for authors

otterThere are so many choices for an author to make when embarking on a novel. What time period? What setting? What structure? What genre? What characters? What events? How true should it be to real history? What is the time frame? What is it all really about?

Many of these need to be answered before even starting out. No wonder so many potential novelists are put off at the first hurdle.

And as soon as you’ve made those decisions, (assuming you haven’t given up in despair,) another wave of questions immediately comes hurtling towards you.

How are you going to tell the story? Whose point of view? First or third person? What tone? What voice? Where should it start? What is going to kick the whole thing off? Where is it going to end? How are you going to layer in the clues to make that ending satisfactory? And, horror of horrors, what are you going to put in the middle?

Obviously there are even more choices to be made further down the line, about style, dialogue, punctuation, action versus exposition, amount of description, and what actual words to use, but for now I am going to focus briefly on the question of what to put in the middle. Or, as it is more commonly called, the plot.

Plots are tricky things to get right. But when they work, they engross readers in your make-believe world so effectively that they keep turning the pages, even at chapter endings, and finish up by feeling that their lives have been enhanced in some way, and best of all, eager to start reading your next book.

There are lots of things that can go wrong with a plot. The basic premise might be too weak. The concept may lack believability. The story might be too yawn-makingly obvious. The inherent conflict set up by the opening may not be sufficiently escalated. Readers also lose interest when crucial bits of information are missing, key scenes avoided, or if there is too much repetition. On the other hand there may be too many red herrings, inconsistencies or loose ends. As Chekhov said: ‘One must not put a loaded rifle on stage if no-one is thinking of firing it.’ The ending should not appear random or insubstantial, or, as so often seems to happen nowadays, to have been plonked in by the author just to get the whole damn thing over with. In my view, the very best endings grow out of the story, giving the reader what they want, but not quite in the way they expected.

There is no magic formula for a great plot, and no quick fixes for a bad one. It is the individual decisions that writers make that are the key to success. So take time to ask yourself if your story is genuinely interesting. Are your characters’ quests worth pursuing?

 If the answer is yes, then I reckon you are well on the way to a bestseller!

 

 

Helen Carey’s latest novel LONDON CALLING is now out in paperback.

All her books are available from good booksellers, or on line.

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It’s all one big magic trick

magic bookI was delighted to see that 22 year old Megan Knowles-Bacon has just become the first female officer of the Magic Circle.

I have recently developed an interest in magic myself. Not in performing it, I hasten to say, but in watching it and in analysing its techniques. My curiosity was initially sparked by being given free tickets to a couple of fabulous magic shows in Las Vegas a couple of years ago. Inspired by those shows, I decided to include a little bit of magic in my latest novel, London Calling, (yes, I hope I will soon be announcing a publication date!)

Earlier this year we went to see Derren Brown. We were blown away by his illusions, mind trickery and sleight of hand. We’ve also recently seen the excellent magician Ian Keable, (thank you, Ian, for the helpful tips,) and last week we went to a show by Morgan and West (don’t miss them if they are on in your area).

All these shows are completely different. But they all struck a chord with me as a novelist. This initially puzzled me. But now I understand why.

It has taken me a while to realise that a novel is, in itself, a little bit of magic. A good novelist is creating an illusion, something from nothing, something that doesn’t exist but which seems (hopefully) incredibly real to the reader. With structural trickery, and linguistic sleight of hand, we pull our readers into our web of benign deceit. We employ ruses, clues, secrets, bluff and misdirection (or Miss Direction as the young character in my book calls it!) Like magicians we pull the wool over our readers eyes, hypnotising them into believing that they are not just looking at words on a page, but are miraculously entering a whole new dimension, peopled by characters they almost (if all goes well) think really exist, and experiencing emotions that we have apparently conjured from nowhere.

When it comes down to it, writing fiction is one big confidence trick. And whether it is successful or not depends on the extent to which the author can convince the reader that the illusionary world they have created is not only worth entering but also worth believing in.

Derren Brown is so supremely confident in his techniques and the power he creates over his audiences that he is able convince them that he is dealing with the supernatural, mind-reading or talking to the dead, even while he is explaining that it is all trickery. (See his book Tricks of the Mind.)

Some novelists use a similar technique, employing an authorial voice to address the reader directly, while simultaneously ensuring that the reader engages with the characters they are discussing. Others rely on the illusion of watching characters act out their story. Others draw their readers into their characters heads by telling the story in the first person. The methods vary, but the overall trickery doesn’t. Perhaps what I’m really saying is that novelists ought to be admitted to the Magic Circle!

Do you have a distracted writer in your life?

decisionsThere’s nothing worse than indecision. It is debilitating, frustrating and exhausting. All those ‘Should I/shouldn’t I’s, ‘But what if’s, ‘Which’s, ‘When’s and ‘How’s cause our little brains to work overtime, jumping from one option to another like demented fleas.

And those demented fleas are especially active at night, about 4 o’clock in the morning in my experience.

For any normal person that is bad enough, everyone has decisions to make, things to worry about. That is a fact of life. But it seems to me that writers have even more than most.

Not only do they have the usual day to day issues, like ‘Should I take Fido to the vet or will the bramble wound heal on its own?’, ‘Has Little Johnny got in with a bad set?’, ‘How can I get out of this awful job?’ or, (for the lucky few,) ‘Shall we join Mr and Mrs Moneybags on their yacht in Barbados at Christmas or would the Seychelles be nicer?’ Those are enough to keep anyone awake at night. But writers, especially novelists, also have another whole layer of decisions and anxieties to cope with, ranging from ‘Is this the right word?’, ‘Shouldn’t that be a semi colon?’, through ‘Is this scene (the one I’ve just spent two days writing) really necessary?’, ‘How much back story do I need?’ to ‘Oh no, I think I’ve lost track of the main theme,’ or ‘Should I just give up and get a job as a dog groomer?’ and so on and on and on …

Sometimes those decisions are easy to make and sometimes they niggle away for days (and nights) waiting for a flash of clarity, which normally comes just as you’re negotiating a contra-flow on the M4, or just as you are falling asleep with no pen or notebook on your bedside table.

And then, eventually, when all those decisions are made, new ones pop up, like what publisher, what cover, what promotion, what kind of launch party, will anyone buy it.

I’m not complaining. Far from it. Being a writer is a wonderful thing. But it’s not the stress free, soft option that some non-writers imagine.

All I can say is that if you are a writer then be sure to give yourself a complete break from time to time, and then go back and make those choices. Don’t give in to indecision. Work it out as best you can and press on. You can promise yourself time to improve it a few months later when you are doing your first edit. And don’t feel guilty for neglecting your friends and family – explain what’s going on, if necessary direct them to this article!

And if you are a non-writer with a writing friend, relation or partner, then be patient. Exhaustion, distraction, forgetfulness and grumpiness are normal, the writer in your life still loves you and they will rejoin you soon, but just now they have an awful lot on their mind.

Why do people write novels?

chicken motivationBy any standard writing a novel is a long hard grind. Despite popular opinion, very few novelists ever hit the real mega buck level (many don’t hit any buck level at all). But yet judging from the plethora of wannabe novelists on Twitter and Facebook, it appears that almost everyone nowadays is an aspiring author. So why do so many people do it?

I often ask the students on my writing courses what their motivation is. And here are some of the answers: ‘I want to make sense of the world, to explore my emotions, something awful happened to me and I want to write about it, because I love using language, it’s something to fill the time, I love books, I want to inform people about something, create another world, explore an issue, I’m bursting with a story to tell, my family is so funny I want to write about it, I see it as a kind of therapy, I want to share my knowledge, I want fame and fortune, I want to create something that lives on, a legacy,’ and so on.

These are all perfectly legitimate reasons for having a go at writing a novel. They do not, however form a good basis for writing a successful novel.

Let’s see what what the same students look for in a novel.

‘That feeling of getting completely immersed in a good story, I look for a clever plot, an escape, I love getting to know new characters, I want to laugh, I want to explore different worlds, to live other people’s lives, being be emotionally engaged, I want to be entertained.’

So I think we can see there is a bit of a mismatch. The word entertain, for example, rarely appears in the first list and yet always appears in the second list. This doesn’t matter at all if the writer realises that the hilarious exploits of their family are unlikely to bring them fame and fortune. But it does matter if that’s what they are aiming at. They are pretty much doomed to disappointment.

On the whole, people read books because they want to be entertained. Now, some people are entertained by dismal accounts of other people’s private misfortunes, some people even like being lectured to about obscure issues, but what most people really want is a book that grips them from beginning to end, about a subject that they find interesting and peopled with engaging and believable characters.

So if you are on the brink of starting to ‘write a novel’, stop for a moment and ask yourself what your motivation is. Then ask yourself what is the outcome you hope for. If you are going to aim for the fame and fortune option, then you are going to have to study your craft very carefully and prepare to write a lot of novels during the learning process. If, on the other hand, this is a one-off for your own pleasure or to amuse your family, then fine, just go for it.

In either case, knowing what you are up to will help you do it better. And I wish you the very best of luck with it!

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