Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Where writers go wrong

Last year I read most of a book by Sol Stein, called Solutions for Novelists. I read it rather randomly, skipping back and forth between the chapters, but one chapter in particular struck me enough to make quite a few notes, and so I'm including and edited version of these here, since they're helpful for many writers, I think. They relate mostly to a chapter entitled, Where writers go wrong. I've laid them out here as bullet points, just to keep them a bit more readable.
  • Try summarizing the book in one page [that's easier, I'd say, that Blake Snyder's one-sentence approach - Blake Snyder of Save the Cat fame]
  • Break the draft down into scenes [Stein recommends doing this before the draft is written, unlike some of the others I've read recently who opt for just writing and then pulling it together. Both methods work. However he also quotes both Malamud and Fowles on page 142/3 who talk about writing the first draft to find out what the novel is about. See comments from them at the end of this post.]
  • Then check if the order of the scenes is right for full emotional experience for the reader.
  • Stick with one protagonist - two or more means the writer hasn't worked out whose story it is. [Although, that said, there are some books with more than one protagonist that work perfectly well.]
In the rewrite of your draft keep an eye out for: 
  • Sentences that are out of order [this also applies to phrases within sentences]
  • Authorial asides [I noted one of these in the chapter I was writing at the time in The MumbersonsGrimhilda! had a number of them because it's part of the style.]
  • Adjectives that aren't necessary. [And of course adverbs, which, by the way, are still essential in their place.]
  • Things that only the author can know...these have to go if you're focused on your protagonist's story.
  • Unimportant. or too early, appearances by minor characters. [Just finished reading UnderMajorDomo Minor, by Patrick de Witt. He ignores this advice by interrupting the main story to write about minor characters in a way that's irrelevant to the main events.]
  • Descriptions of the way a piece of dialogue is said [he whispered] are often better before the dialogue.
  • Be clear to the reader as to who the protagonist is.
  • Didactic stuff that isn't part of the actual story [don't think The Mumbersons or Grimhilda! are guilty of this.]
  • Delete words that soften the pace. And cliches - find fresh ways of saying things.
  • Too many antagonists? [Note how I originally had trouble with dwarves as well as witches as antagonists in The Mumbersons, until finally one of the two had to go.]
  • 'Beats' - those little bits of 'business' that characters do within a dialogue scene. They need to be relevant, and give the scene actual action not just pretend action. [I remember the awful 'business' in the popular Christian apologetics book The Case for Christ where Lee Strobel broke up long conversations with real people, by always having them crossing their legs, or standing up to make coffee.]
  • Don't bring in backstory late in the book [Amazingly that's exactly what a novelist who was also supposed to be an editor did - terrible muddle of a book - the book is The Accident, by Chris Pavone.]
  • 'Point of view of the person is most affected by what is happening.' In other words it's not necessarily always the POV of the protagonist, though it helps to keep them in focus. In The Mumbersons, Olivia gets some POV too, because she's an identifying character. POV doesn't mean seeing it from their perspective necessarily, but focusing on what's happening to them without interrupting it with another character's POV.
  • Avoid cartoonish cliche characters; the sort that often appear in TV series, especially US ones. {Note how there's often the 'funny' character, the geek, the wacky secretary and so on in crime series: they're always unbelievable to me.]
  • An antagonist can be given his or her due by the writer seeing both the protagonist and the antagonist as equal antagonists. Interesting thought.
  • Pets can humanize a character. [Snyder is strong on this idea: the title of the book Save the Cat applies to the hero doing something that puts him onside with the audience - rescuing a cat, for instance. Even the most unpleasant ‘heroes’ need this kind of moment to make the audience have some empathy with them, and of course antagonists often have animals accompanying them.]
  • Be careful with names that have similarities, or use the same initial letter, or even how you feel about a character...though perhaps this isn't so applicable in a kid's book where fun names are more usable. J K Rowling is as good as Dickens when it comes to naming her characters.
  • Phone conversations shouldn't be used often.
  • Trim down any fat in a tense scene - in terms of detail that's not relevant enough.
  • 'We know' - means the reader already knows this and doesn't have to be told again - or rather doesn't want to be told again. This is different to a stage play where audiences have to listen and can miss things, and may need them repeated.
  • Be particular about details - the three-wheeled car [in The Mumbersons] can actually have its brand name, for instance. [Not being good with cars, this was something I had to research for that book!]
  • Omens are good...
  • Characters do the same things too often: he smiled, she shook her head, etc. [In one book I read in the last couple of years, characters kept showing their 'incisors'. Really? This seems to me a difficult thing for them to do.]
  • Don't throwaway an important event, such as the finding of a body.
  • Confrontations, not discussions.
  • If action seems confusing then work out things in sequence - like those picture boards they use in making action movies.
  • Make sure the action word is doable...you can't sprint across the average office.
  • In a realistic novel don't do melodrama. Keep it sensible to real life. 
  • Make sure the readers know who is who...name the characters as you go. Too many books leave the reader in the dark as to who is talking.     
Bernard Malamud notes: First drafts are for learning what your novel or story is about. Revision is working with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to re-form it. D H Lawrence did seven or eight drafts of The Rainbow. The first draft of a book is the most uncertain - where you need guts, the ability to accept the imperfect until it is better. Revision is one of the true pleasures of writing.

John Fowles (who wrote The Collector in a month) says: During the revision period I try to keep a sort of discipline. I make myself revise whether I feel like it or not; in some ways, the more disinclined and dyspeptic one feels, the better - one is harsher with oneself. All the best cutting is done when one is sick of writing.  

     
     
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