Friday, 9 May 2008

Friday Coffee: Crystal Tips*

I love the way we use these coffee morning posts to share advice, thoughts and ideas about writing. It’s great that someone takes the initiative to think of a topic – sometimes broad, sometimes focused – and then structures a post so we can all contribute something on that subject. I learn a lot from the coffee morning comments.

Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to do it slightly differently for once. And as I get to make the rules this time, I’m going to suggest a small change, for one week only. We’re going to focus on Crystal Tips – the ones that help us change perplexity into clarity.

You see, one of the things that interests me about writing novels is that it’s such a multi-faceted process, and everyone approaches it in their own way (probably because people are complex too). There are books out there with titles like Seven Steps To Successful Novel-Writing, which frankly I don’t believe, because I just don’t think there is a formula that anyone can follow to become a published novelist. Some people need to plan extensively before they write a word, others start with an idea and see where the writing takes them. Some people write descriptive passages first, others begin with dialogue. At the revision stage, some people need to work harder on structure than content, while for others it’s the other way around.

So my suggestion for today is that we each share a tip that has been particularly useful in clarifying something for us at a certain point in our writing. And let’s try to steer away from the obvious, shall we? I’m sure we’ve all been helped by tips like ‘just get on with it,’ 'show don't tell,' ‘let yourself write rubbish in the first draft,’ ‘use all five senses,’ and ‘write to give your reader a good experience,’ but that’s not what I’m after today. Try to think of something that some other Novel Racers might not have come across. (There are so many of us, all at such different stages, that you’re unlikely to come up with something that nobody has heard of – but I don’t think that matters, because revision is important too.)

Your tip might have come from a writing course or teacher, or from a how-to book, or it might be something you thought of yourself, or adapted. Mine is in the latter category. It was inspired by James Scott Bell in his book 'Plot and Structure', where he sets out a method for analysing the plots of novels in detail by describing each scene on an index card. He says: "For each scene, write the following information on a card: the setting; point-of-view character; a two-line scene summary; scene type (action, reaction, set-up, deepening etc). Does the end of the scene make you want to read on? Why or why not?" Bell suggests doing this with six different novels from your chosen genre, and claims this will "improve your plotting exponentially". I did one and a bit before I decided I’d got the idea and was bored with the process, but it definitely was worth doing as it helped me understand the structure of novels – and some of what was possible – in a way I hadn’t before.

But then I had a ‘eureka’ moment, a few months ago, struggling with the fifth draft of my current WIP. It occurred to me that I could do a plot analysis on my own novel, tailored to the difficulties I was trying to overcome. For example, I didn’t need to record the POV of each scene, because my novel is from a single POV. But I decided it would be useful to record setting, characters, summary, and type. Then I added in the quality of the scene’s ending (mostly using the highly scientific scale of ‘ok,’ ‘fine,’ ‘good,’ and ‘ace’, with a few other comments e.g. ‘bit naff, nothingy’ and ‘not cliffhanger, but short scene and got out quick’). I also added a score for the scene’s ‘memorability’ (with a score of 1 for completely unmemorable to 10 for very very memorable). And finally I added a yes/no section for ‘offscreen action,’ because I knew I had been guilty in the past of making key scenes happen out of sight of the reader.

Then I used this system to analyse the structure of my novel, using index cards as Bell suggested. It was very useful. I found out that three scenes only scored 4 for memorability (so definitely needed either cutting or rewriting) and a further 17 scored 5 (so needed a good revise to try to bring them up to 6). I also worked out that offscreen action was no longer a problem. I identified weak endings that could be strengthened. I also realised that too many scenes were set in one place, and that I could improve the reader’s experience by moving some of these to other settings.

And then I wanted to know more, so I went through the book again, checking whether the action scenes were ‘funeral’ or ‘domestic’ (because I wasn’t at all sure I’d got the balance right between the two) and identifying the dominant emotion of each character in each scene (so I could make sure each person's actions, reactions and dialogue reflected their main emotion, and that any description reflected the main emotion of my POV character). Here’s an example of one of my index cards.

It seems to me that this system could be usefully adapted by other writers at various stages in their novel-writing process. It certainly made things much clearer for me as I worked on my fifth draft, so I’m glad to be able to offer it here as a Crystal Tip.

And now I want to read yours! Remember, it can be on anything: lifelike characterisation, realistic dialogue, differentiating characters' voices, effective description, structure, beginnings, endings… so much to choose from. Off you go!

*This post is dedicated to JJ *waves*


JJ said...

Ha ha ha. Zinnia, *waves back* thank you. I LOVE your Crystal Tip. I shall be chuckling all day.

I think it's only fitting to get in here first today (or will someone beat me to it while I'm typing?)

Your Crystal Tip is exactly what I've been trying to do in the planning stage. I wanted to know all that stuff about shape and action and reaction before I started writing.

I shall be back later, after I've done my chores, with my own Crystal Tip.

*still chuckling*

liz fenwick said...

A great post Zinnia and I will give your technique a try after the weekend. We are about to head for the beach.....

For me recently it was when i was at the I had not given my character a voice. Then I paniced that the plot was too pat. When Julie Cohen said to me that all stories have been told - what 's new is what you bring to it. I realized that I had held myself back from the emotion of my writing thereby denying the reader and my characters something very important. I am very good at being neutral but in writing women's fiction this isn't a good skill - emotion and lots of it are needed. So my tip of the moment is letting more of me through into the writing - not letting fear (there you go BE) rule the page.

I know it's not as concrete as your tip which is much more useful but I think to us newbies it is something we hold back on....

I look forward to reading everyone else's tips :-)

Fiona said...

For me, I can only think from where I am now - editing a first draft. All the tips I read are therefore about revision.

I like visual cues because of my dyslexia and I love your cards, Zinnia. I do something similar but all the cards have to be different colours as do my chapters.

Okay, tip: Read Margaret Graham's column in Writers Forum. Each month a reader sends in a page of m/s which, to my novice eye, always looks perfect and then she fattens it out, works at it, polishes it until it's so much better.

I am going to try to treat each of my chapters as a short story but with a cliff hanger (or as near as damn it) ending. I am now more scared of editing than I was of writing 100k but perhaps I'll overcome that too? PS Liz, don't know why I put down that I'm starting a new novel. I think I thought that I could do that at the same time as editing. Foolish.

Caroline said...

I am rushing *waves hello*

My tip, which is working well so far, is that I always end my writing morning with 'more inside of me'.

I end knowing excatly where I will start the next morning and jot it down on a piece of paper. So I stop myself (usually at around 1500 words) and I then allow myself to think a little over the day.

It's really working ... so far.


Leatherdykeuk said...

Ah! My tip is similar to Caroline's. Before writing for the day I jot down headings of what i want to include. With luck I can write 200-500 words on any one heading and at the end I write one or two for the next day.

ABLS Chapter 25
* Julie opens her portal to discover who the woman is
contacts the woman's mother
* The woman (Rebecca Weston) works for Mensign, who are investigating the disappearance of their corporate mole, Steven Lowry
* It was they who turned over Pennie's flat

Fridays are editing days. I have a full print of Dead Line on my desk and a partial print of ABLS for the Dicken's Challenge.

NoviceNovelist said...

Thanks Zinnia - this is a really thoughful one. My crystal tip is not earth shattering but it has helped me clarify a problem I was haivng without noticing it until someone pointed it out to me.

I would neglect one of my key charcters and not follow through with their story right through to the bitter end. I wasn't asking the question did this character get to where they needed to? I was doing this for the main character but subtly neglecting others. And I've come to see that it is the subtle aspects of character journey that encourages me to go deeper.

I love the idea that you imagine a character up a tree and every time they try and scramble down you throw rocks at them and force them to scurry back up again - until eventually you let them down but they may be a bit battered and bruised. But you let them end their journey - for better or worse.

So I now do a simple charcter 'chart' for each of them to make sure that thay all reach the end of their personal journey. It has also forced me to look closer at why a character is in a story? Are they the foil? the nemisis? etc etc and then make sure I take this to its natural conclusion.

Anonymous said...

This is a superb topic and one which I'm very interested in both as a contributor and a subscriber. I'm a wannabe writer you see.

I agree with you Zinnia, that "how to" writing books are not always as useful as they claim to be. I think they are probably a case of pleasing some of the people some of the time. That's certainly been my experience. The only thing you can say for sure is that such a book worked for at least one person - the author.

Having said that, I do believe that a good writing methodology can help. I say methodology as opposed to formula. A methodology is (loosely) a set of well-defined activities, disciplines, artefacts and techniques. It is up to each individual writer as to how they combine those things. The methodology simply ensures that you don't leave anything important out. It also helps to plan and schedule your work more reliably.

My crystal tip is remarkably similar to yours but with one fundamental difference, which should become apparent. I have been extensively using storyboarding techniques for over a year now, on all of my writing projects. I can't sing its praises enough! I suppose I nicked the idea from the film industry (probably watching those "making of..." extras you get on DVDs). You simply make a box to summarise and record attributes for each scene. To manipulate the plot, you simply edit these boxes and move them around on the screen. You can also have arrows and things where scenes and characters have relationships to each other). The storyboards essentially provide a high-level top-down view on the actual story.

It can be tricky getting the granularity right. Not enough boards - one per chapter is nowhere near enough, as I discovered - and they don't clarify enough. Too many boards and you get lost in the detail - again defeating their purpose. I think the trick is to have a clear definition of what a "scene" actually is. For me, it's something like: A distinctly significant event, description, interaction or location.

I guess storyboards are a bit like electronic versions of your index cards. I would love to show an example but I don't think you can attach pictures to comments.

Slightly off-topic, but I was very intrigued when you said that your novel is all from a single POV. How can this be achieved? Surely the main character is not present in every single scene? You're not the only person who has hinted the "single POV" novels have markets and genres. I just don't get it though. There must be something I'm not seeing.

This is great. Keep 'em coming!

Jenny said...
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ChrisH said...

A very interesting and useful discussion topic, Zinnia. I think the 'How To' books are fine if you find one that resonates with your way of thinking. Much as I enjoyed the power of Robert Mckee's 'Story' seminar I found some of his 'breaking the story into beats' methods a bit laborious. However, and I cannot thank Liz Fenwick enough for recommending it, it was Donald Maass's 'Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook' that led to might light bulb moment. In a passage about creating conflict Maass suggests that what readers need in a memorable character, is a protaganist whose conflicts they desperately want to try to resolve - it's a variation, I know, of the put 'em in a hole (or up a tree!) and throw rocks at 'em. The difference this time, for me, is that I suddenly found it easier to put myself in the role of the reader - if I found myself thinking that I didn't give a stuff what was about to happen to my protaganist in a particular scene, I rewrote it to give her more of a dilemma. This does require some persistence - it's too easy to think a scene will do because you can't be bothered to make it count - and I can't pretend I've got it all right but it did help my rewrite enormously.

Kate said...

Great topic, Zinnia. Sorry I haven't been around much lately, was planning away after abandoning the last novel, so am now back in the race with a brand new idea - the most carefully planned I've ever tried, so it'll be interesting to see how it goes.

Mine is a simplification of something McKee writes about: reversal. Basically, I work on the idea that EVERY scene must involve some kind of positive or negative change i.e. a character goes from happy to sad, victorious to losing, alive to dead (!), nervous to confident or whatever. It's a mirror in miniature of what a novel should do, anyway, i.e. there's no story without conflict and change. If you're tough with yourself, you realise that any scene where nothing changes for your central character(s) doesn't really need to be there. Think of it as a positive/negative charge and that each scene will take you to the opposite pole. It can be a tiny change, of course, but without it, a scene might have nothing except some pretty description or smart dialogue, and isn't progressing the story...

I'm interested whether this just applies to commercial fiction, though. I suspect it can apply to literary but perhaps the changes can be smaller.

Kate.Kingsley said...


Just a quickie for me, as I'm dashing to get the train to London as the hubby is working there for a few weeks so I'm visiting.

But my Crystal tip had to be the time I realised that the reader is not a complete idiot, and you can actually leave some gaps for them to fill in, such as when someone is going somewhere, it is not necessary to write out their entire journey, just have them appear at their destination in the next scene , magic!

(Now if only my journey today could be as easy as that ~ I'll be hitting Kings Cross right in the middle of the friday evening rush hour {cry})

Have a great (and sunny!) weekend, NRs! :)

Rowan Coleman said...

Hello every one - wow Zinnia was a great topic! And I am so impressed with your attention to detail and planning. That kind of analysis would kill my writing dead, so its not for me but I can see it would really work for others. I am with Caroline in that I always write a few lines about what I want to write the following day, also when I'm stuck I go for a walk and visualise my book as a movie (maybe that's because of my dyslexia, and like Fiona I need visual stimulous) but generally after acheiving a sense of direction and basic plotting I go into writing free fall and my crystal tips moment is when suddenly the light bulbs goes ping and I see the way to draw the threads of the story together to make a whole. For example yesterday during writing I realised exactly WHY one character was so angry with another when really she did have that much of a reason to be. It was very exciting - like finding out a secret.

SpiralSkies said...

Brilliant Coffee post, Zinnia. I'm going to adopt the points on cards system during my re-write to make sure I know what's happening; might help to strim out the fluff.

My peronsal 'tip' is to write a diary entry for a week for each character - ie if I'm sitting in a traffic jam, I write what I think Rajni or Kat or Laura would scribble down about it.

Really gets you inside their head, a bit like method acting.

Might be making me schizophrenic too, of course...


Great post. Can not offer anything to share appropo crystal moments except perhaps to say that for me I have to be very clear exactly who my character is, what they look like, eat, how they dress, what they enjoy doing or not before I can really write about them.

Calistro said...

Brilliant post Zinnia, very thought provoking and something I might have to do if I'm ever asked to re-read novel #1 again (quite frankly I can't bare the thought at the moment!). crystal tips (I thought that was a kid's programme in the 70s?)

1) Conflict comes from a character having to make a decision between two of more equally compelling choices. I think I read that on Liz Fenwick's blog but it was a real lightbulb moment. Before that I thought conflict was just something horrible happening or an obstacle to overcome.

2) You can jump from scene to scene and setting to setting without showing the characters getting there. i.e. cutting all 'journeys' will really help speed up the pace (unless something memorable and important happens during the journey)

3) I try and end my writing day in the middle of a scene. That way I'm not blocked when I come back to my novel the next day and can just continue.

4) I always read back over the last couple of hundred words I wrote and tweak them before I start writing again. That way I get back into the story AND do a bit of editing en route.

That's it I think!

B.E. Sanderson said...

Great post this morning, Zinnia.

Tips of the moment from me:

While you're writing keep this thought in mind: Everything you write has to drive the story forward in some way. If it doesn't, then it probably doesn't need to be there. (If you're like me and don't edit during first draft, you can snip it out later.)

Another is not to let fear dictate what you write or how you write it - or even how you query it. (Thanks for the nod, Liz.)

A final tip is one I got from the Manuscript Mavens blog (I don't remember when). Don't get stuck in the editing cycle. At some point, you have to let your manuscript stand on its own two feet. This means, don't use your critique partners or beta readers as a way to stay in the safer editing stage. People will always have suggestions for tweaking your work, but at some point you have to know when enough is enough, and step off into the fray.

I loved reading everybody's tips. Thanks racers! =o)

JJ said...

I'm still chuckling...

Kate has exactly the same crystal tip as I was going to write. Robert McKee's Story breaks down structure into beats, scenes and structure. The idea that beats are a change in behaviour; that the character acts or reacts as a result of the writing. I think this is the basis of keeping the emotional momentum going and having the audience care what's happening to the characters.

When I read this passage in his book I almost said outloud 'Ohhhhhh!'

Graeme K Talboys said...

Having a background in theatre, I tend to rehearse a scene in my head before I commit to paper. I need to know the space in four dimensions, walk the characters through, listen to their dialogue, keep them doing it until it works. Sometimes it is magic on a first run through. Other times I need to work at it. And other times I reject a scene as having no function in taking the novel forward. That gives me a scene by scene framework which is easy to group into acts and then balance as a whole. I would that anyone interested in structure looks at how plays are put together, and how plays are realised on stage.

The detail comes from visual prompts. For an earlier novel set in Sussex, I walked the settings and sketched the buildings, filling in the gaps with old photos (it was set in the 1880s). I also made use of the local museum collections (it helped that I actually worked there, but they are superb places for research). My two sources for detail at the moment are photographs and the memories of my aunts (who lived in London during WWII). Book research gives us accurate detail, but memories give us the things that stick and photos allow us to let our eyes wander over background detail and wonder about what is happening just out of shot.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post. When I started to write my novel I spent a fortune on "how to" books, began a creative writing course and sat studying different methods of writing for a long time. Now I have adapted my own. I know what I want to write about and I have a synopsis or a rough plan to follow. Recently I have changed the plot a smidge after being advised to but the advice was well received and I am now in the process of figuring out an alternative story line. Your tips are so helpful. Some of the books I bought were particularly useful, however others just confused the issue and made my idea of writing a novel rather dilettante. I think I will continue using my rough plot details which are next to me on the desk and take on board some of the crystal tips which have been suggested here today.

CJ xx

Debs said...

Great post Zinnia.

I aim to write 1,000 words per day and then start the following day by editing the previous days work.

I've also been helped greatly by Donald Maas and I think my problem is mainly with my characters and so my crystal tip is to build a cast for contrast and also to build complex character relationships by combining roles.

At the end of a novel I write out a flash card for each chapter to help me check on who was doing what and when they were doing it.

Clare Sudbery said...

For once I've read the existing comments before writing anything, so wanted to answer this first:

"all from a single POV. How can this be achieved? Surely the main character is not present in every single scene?"

There are tons of examples in literature, film, etc. The key point is that you are telling one person's story. You are taking the reader on a journey through that person's life. Therefore, of course they have to be present in every scene. It's all about what happens to them. So when other characters do stuff elsewhere, the POV character only knows about it in terms of how it is revealed to them, and thus so does the reader. It can make a book very powerful, as the reader is wedded to the experiences and emotions of jut one person, and feels / discovers everything just as the character does. If you violate that by moving away to action the POV character didn't directly experience, you distance the reader from that experience and therefore dilute the power of the book (as well as making it harder for the reader to suspend their disbelief, by reminding them it is just a story).

If you think abut it, you will have read / seen many examples of single-POV writing. One of these, perhaps, for instance? Life of Pi, Vernon God Little, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Wizard of Oz (forgive me if I've remembered wrong, but I'm pretty sure these are all examples).

Blimey. That took up more sdpace than I intended. I'll start another comment for my Crystal Tip.

Wizard of Oz, Life of Pi, Vernon God Little, Hitchhiker's Guide,

Clare Sudbery said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clare Sudbery said...

It's weird. Normally I love plans and techniques and formulas. I like rules, To-Do lists, and having a scheme to follow. I read Robert McKee's Story whilst writing my last book, thought it was brilliant, and used his techniques a lot. For instance, I split my book into three acts, and thought a lot about what Kate mentioned: I made sure there was conflict and change in each scene, sequence and act - as well as over the novel as whole.

But I also got lost in a quagmire of analysis, getting so bogged down in planning and pulling things apart that I ended up with 100,000 words of notes before I even started writing. It confused me, and the novel suffered as a result.

This time I've had a bit of a backlash and am avoiding all techniques, rules and tips. Partly because I ended up using them all as procrastinatory excuses in my last book. But partly because I have so little time now, and my number one priority is to get a first draft - no matter how rough or rubbish - done before my baby is born. And most of these tips would (right now) slow me down and get in the way of that. So although I'm reading them and thinking 'Yes, I can see the point of that, that sounds good,' I'm also reacting against them and thinking, 'No no, I don't want to do any of that at this stage, I just want to write!'

So, um. How do I get from there to a crystal tip of my own?

How about this: I always write very-short (ideally one line, less than the width of a page) scene summaries and keep them in a separate file, listed in chapter order. Even with my current not-following-any-rules WIP, I am doing this. I also give each scene a number. That way, I can look at my "Scenes and Chapters" doc and see the shape of my book at a glance. I can be reminded of what happens when. As soon as I finish a scene, I stick a summary in this separate doc (apart from anything else, my memory is rubbbish and I might forget what I've written otherwise).

I can also, normally between 1st and 2nd drafts, use it to create a timeline, and work out what happens on what date, what day of the week etc (I pick a real year and work out the date for every scene).

But also, the fact that each scene has a unique number, means that I can rearrange scenes but still be able to identify them and refer to them in my notes, rather than calling them "chapter 5" and then getting all muddled when chapter five ends up as chapter seven. In my finished versions, the scenes are never numbered sequentially, even though they started out as such.

In my version of the ms, each scene is preceded by its scene number. On my hard disk, the ms always retains scene numbers. One of the very last jobs I do before sending an ms to an agent or editor or whatever, is to remove the scene numbers.

It also means you can delete scenes without buggering up the numbering scheme. If you split a scene in two, just call the new halves, for instance, 12a and 12b.

Sorry, this was a very procedural tip, and probably won't suit a lot of people - or you'll already be doing something similar. But before I invented this way of doing things, I used to get myself in an awful pickle. Constantly having to rename things and getting confused by old notes referring to scenes which had since been moved to a different chapter.

When I get to the editing phase and have finished my 1st draft, I'll come back in here and start using some of these wonderful tips!

Helen Shearer said...

Hi, all,
I'm writing on my lunch break, dinner time for most of you. I don't remember exactly when I read or heard this little nugget of wisdom -I'm quite certain I wasn't brilliant enough to think of it myself- but it has made all the difference for me. I'm always afraid that even though my writing might be funny, the characters interesting and the dialogue snappy, if the plot isn't cracking along, who the hell is going to want to read it? Somewhere I got the idea that every single scene should have some sort of conflict. It doesn't have to be an overt battle scene or a screaming blowout. It can be something as simple as a wringing of hands or unspoken sexual tension or a character, all dressed up, sitting by the window and repeatedly looking at the clock. As long as the reader knows that the character's insides are churning, even just a little bit, it makes the read more compelling. Of course, I am a big fan of the screaming blowout as well.
I also try to leave the reader slightly unsatisfied at the end of every chapter. Then at the beginning of the next chapter I move on to something unrelated and gradually work my way back to the previous chapter's end by the end of the current one. So, what left you wanting more in chapter one doesn't get addressed again until the beginning of chapter three, by which time there's something else from the end of chapter two driving you bonkers as well. It's cruel, it's vicious, but it seems to make my few trusted readers want to keep on reading. Hopefully it will do the same for potential agents when I finish it.

L-Plate Author said...

Hi Guys, hope every one is well.

I'm like Zinnia, I have to plan beginning, middle, end, then put into rough chapter order. I have to know where I am going but if characters start to wander off plot, I let them. It's amazing how characters take on a life of their own and show me where to go.

I also use the what if technique. A well worn tip, I know, but when I am planning I just free write 'what if'. I will free write for a few evenings, not looking at anything I have written. Then I allow myself one read through and THEN I leave it for a week. I don't allow myself to do any writing, I usually read a book, and by the time I get back to the work, all those ideas that were there originally have grown, all the loose ends have been magically tied and I'm nearly there. THEN I leave it for another week and then I start to write. I love the not writing bit, when my mind does all the work for me when I'm not at my desk.

Have a good week x

Lazy Perfectionista said...

My crystal tip is how I solve most of my problems with plotting. If I know vaguely what has to happen and who to, but not why, I have a free writing session in character as the main people involved in the scene. This can be a diary entry, transcript of a phone call, email to a friend or whatever suits the character best. It's basically a description of their perception of what happened (which may be different to the actual events from an omniscient point of view), but it really helps me with motivation and has got me back on track many times.

Cathy said...

Hello everyone. Sorry for recent absences, I've had to put the writing to one side for a while to concentrate on studying and family stuff.

I don't think I have a crystal tip, which is probably why I'm currently struggling a little, so I'm going to go back slowly over all your tips and see which resonate most with me.

Thanks to you guys, I may even get plotting and structure sussed soon!

A. Writer said...

Hi all!

I haven't really got any tips. But I've loved reading everyone elses.

One thing I do to get to know my characters better is I interview them. I pretend I'm writing for a magazine or newspaper and I ask my character questions about their job, lifestyle, ambitions... anything really. And I answer my questions truthfully as that character. I surprise myself with my answers sometimes.

Thank you all for your tips! I might just print them out!

KeVin K. said...

Fantastic topic and a lot of terrific tips.

I didn't know they made a storyboard computer program. I use pages of graph paper, sticky notes, index cards, backs of receipts, thumb tacks and a corkboard. (My son, an aspiring game designer, skips the corkboard and covers one wall of his apartment with tacked-up notes.)

I know Sue Grafton uses index cards to organize her novels because her detective uses that technique to organize her notes on the case.

Zinnia, as I recall you're one of the few brave souls who's actually read one of my novels. I think we discussed the fact that I write each subplot -- each viewpoint character's narrative thread -- as a separate story and then weave them together to form the novel during the last phase of writing. I also use a rolling revision method, making changes on the fly. (As in: If I'm writing a scene on page 136 and realize it needs to be properly set up -- as opposed to dumping 200 words of background explanation on the reader -- I stop mid-scene and go back to pages 26, 42, 89, and 101 to plant the clues and information needed to prepare the reader then go back and finish the scene.) As a result I don't have a separate editing stage per se. When I've finished weaving my threads, I usually type "the end," print, and mail.

My crystal tip came from an editor who rejected a story of mine. I love clever sentences and his advice to me was that if I noticed a sentence -- or more importantly, if I was particularly pleased with a sentence -- cut it. Because a clever sentence reminds the reader she is reading. You want her to be living the story, not admiring your prose.

wordtryst said...

There was a dream sequence in my first novel. I loved that scene. I thought I had done it rather well - the symbolism, the imagery... Imagine my consternation when the editor suggested removing the dream scene altogether, as well as a couple others.

I did it. Didn't really want to, but then it dawned on me that she was right. No matter how 'cute' the scenes might have been, how well written, if they don't advance the story then they should go.

Now that I'm doing the final (I hope) draft of novel two, I'm more ruthless about cutting. I believe the book is better for it.

Another tip relates to conflict, as several people have mentioned. I've learnt not to shy away from it as I do in real life, but to welcome it in the story. Conflict drives the plot.

Lane said...

What great responses! So good that I read them yesterday and didn't comment. Oops.

I don't have a technical tip but I do use what Dorothea Brande called 'the artistic coma' for visualizing a scene. It also helps when stuck as to what should happen next. Basically it's 10 -15 minutes of laying back (not asleep!) and letting ideas flow. Simple, effective and energizing.

I've also starting writing out my 2nd draft on A5 sheets (and trying to work out how to print them like that) so that it actually resembles a book. I like to see how 'page turning' the story is. At the moment, not very much at all so will be digesting all these great Crystal Tips.
Thanks Zinnia!

Clare Sudbery said...

I'd love to know what you and JJ are chuckling about so much Zinnia, btw...

Clare Sudbery said...

"I usually type "the end," print, and mail."

I'm intrigued by this. How do you know that it all hangs together well if you don't go back and read the whole thing from start to finish? What if you did read it back (after a break of a few weeks to get some distance) and found some bits didn't quite work? Wouldn't you regret having sent it out without giving yourself a chance to perfect it? A bit like shipping a piece of software without testing it...

I love your advice about removing writing that is 'good' for its own sake, but in fact stands in the way of immersion in the story. As some famous writer (I can never remember who) once said: "Kill your darlings."

B said...

Kill your darlings - William Faulkner, according to google. For some reason I thought it was Virginia Woolfe! Ooops.

I think I will also print all the tips. They're not all useful right now, but I think they will all be useful in time.

I have been thinking and thinking and I haven't got any more tips. But I'm very grateful to Zinnia for the topic and everyone else for their input!

Lucy Diamond said...

Wow. What an amazing list of comments. Forget the novels, we should collaborate on a book of writing tips!
I like your idea of analysing everything scene by scene, Zinnia - I have never tried anything like that - definitely worth a go.
I don't have any big revelations, secrets or tips I'm afraid...but I do read everything out loud when I'm at the edit stage. Amazing how your eyes miss repetitions on the paper yet your ears pick them up. And it's brilliant to weed out any duff dialogue and check pacing. Sorry if I'm stating the bleedin' obvious!

JJ said...

Clare, I'm chuckling about the cartoon character Crystal Tips who I mentioned in my blog 20 April in connection with my hair! Zinnia has dedicated the NR coffee post to me because of that. I LOVE that Zinnia asked us all for our own crystal tips.

See, I'm terribly easily pleased.

Clare Sudbery said...

Aha! Yes, Crystal Tips and Alistair, I remember them well. I still have one of their books. She had great hair. And there's nothing wrong with being easily pleased! There's a lot to be said for it, in fact.

Flowerpot said...

Sorry been busy with american sister in law so my time is not my own right now! However, I go along with several others in that I need to know where I'm going with the plot but don't like to know in too much detail as that would kill it all. I always finish a scene but I always write a few lines for the next one - or few - so I know what comes next. And then there are more notes as I think about them that sit there.

KAREN said...

I've thoroughly enjoyed reading all your crystal tips - very helpful.

A lightbulb moment for me was reading the advice "think about your character's backstory - that's where you'll find your theme," which helped me enormously at the time.

Also, in Word I change the view to 'Reading Layout' when editing as it looks more like a book that way, and helps me spot errors I hadn't noticed before!

margaret said...

Hi Fiona

I'm pleased that you find my column in Writers' Forum helpful. Actually seeing text edited on the page beats all the instructions in the world. Good luck!

DK Leather said...

I for one loved Crystal Tips and Alistair, what lovely memories. However I'm afraid my 'answer' to this week's coffee morning (thanks Zinnia!) is hardly what one might call a tip for success; merely my own (if I dare to call it a) technique!

I'm afraid I'm still pretty new at this plotting and planning lark, since I haven't really attempted to write fiction for any kind of publishable work for some considerable years.

My two books are autobiographical, so I'm just 'free falling' i.e. enjoying writing/babbling them out at present.

One thing I have noticed though is I often think I've finished a piece, but end up going back to it frequently to edit it as I go along remembering more things; so I'm hoping that by the end of the book they'll have already taken enough shape to make the job easier.

Of course more likely I'll just have to wade through with a cleaver chopping huge chunks out... ah well.

However, not unlike the storyboard and index cards ideas, one thing I do to kick start me off again when I'm aimless, is to write a unorganised 'list' of things to include. One will invariably grab my attention and off I'll go again.

However slowly the lists transform themselves into chapter headings so that I end up having an outline plan for the book after not very long.

Is that a crystal tip? If in doubt, stream of consciousness jot down things you want to include, and watch as they settle into some kind of natural order! ~chuckles~

All sounds horribly unprofessional of me so far, doesn't it? Sorry!

~grins ruefully and waves~
DK x

Lisa said...

I found you through Liz Fenwick's blog and I am very glad I did. I have the same book and broke out the index cards over the weekend myself! I didn't get as detailed with the scene cards as you did though and now I think I will. Thanks!