Drama drama drama…
As I research and plot my next novel, while I’ve landed on a broad theme, I still need to find the drama or conflict to bring it to life, move it along and give it power. Are the stakes high enough yet for my main characters? Not yet. These second novels can be challenging…
I have mixed feelings about research. On the one hand it can be dull because it’s not actual writing and can take discipline, but on the other hand it’s learning and it’s creative because I don’t know what exciting things it will bring to my story.
Research can also be a fearful process. Will I find the story hook I need? Will it give me the dramatic plot points I’m seeking? Will it fit with the story I have in my head? Or will it take me down rabbit holes? This depends, of course, on how much of your story exists in your head, and whether you’re a pantser or plotter.
There’s the danger too that research can become a procrastination point, as it has with me lately. Here are my best tips on how to research effectively and efficiently:
- Explore – First and foremost, research is about exploration. Perhaps you’re just looking for details that will make your story realistic like setting and costume, but maybe you’re looking for plot points and characters. Let your curiosity loose and see where it takes you.
- Read – Scour stories, articles, and other pieces you find on the internet. Devour books (fiction and non-fiction). Trawl through diaries and old newspapers. Investigate journals. Go where you need to go. Become a magpie.
- Watch films, documentaries, TV – Visual research such as watching films, documentaries or TV programs can be a rich source for writers. They can be emotive and give you pictures of things that might have been challenging to imagine. Use them as enrichment and to add authenticity.
- Conduct interviews – Talk to people. Is there an expert who could help you? Is there someone you’d like to use as a character? Were there people who experienced the kind of event you’re writing about? Most people are willing to help out so find your courage and ask. All they can say is no.
- Travel – My next story is going to require me to travel overseas during a particular event that will be the culmination of my novel. I also need to be there to see whose pathways I will cross and where that will lead me. I know one author who needed French WWII collaborator stories for her story so she went to a rural town there, sat in a cafe, told people what she was after and gradually locals came to her to talk. Travel can add colour, character and plot points. Create the opportunity for synchronicity to happen.
- Take organised notes – I use a physical book or sheets of paper to write up the details of each piece I research, then I highlight key information with a pen and rewrite it in a more meaningful way. For my first novel being published next year, I wrote up must-have points in sequential order because that’s how my story was organised. I ended up with 3 pages of notes that I used as a checklist. For any details, I had the longer notes. Also, I do separate notes for ideas that emerge during the process.
- Trust – With my last two novels I’ve had clear ideas of how the stories were going to work, meaning that while my research filled in gaps, I didn’t need it for plot points. With my current story I’m somewhat in the dark so I’m relying a lot more on what emerges during this process. Whether you’re a panster or plotter, trust that your research will give you what you need.
- Background only – Whatever you find through your research, your novel is fiction, not a lecture. Your research should inspire and inform you and provide authenticity where needed. It should never dictate your story or characters. Let it sink in to your mind and fall into the background.
- When to stop – Stop when you have enough critical information and can start writing your story. You could research forever, which can become an excuse for procrastination. Just dive in. You can always do research along the way to fill in specific details.
There can be great value in paying a professional to help you develop your manuscript and writing skills. But it’s not cheap and there can be pitfalls resulting in wasted money and blows to your confidence.
Here are some tips to help you work out whether hiring one or more of these experts might be worthwhile, and if so, how to choose the right person for you and your work. Remember, if you going pay someone to help improve your work, they will find things wrong with it. So finding the right person at the right stage of drafting is crucial.
I’ve used two editors for my manuscript (which recently attracted a publisher) along with a mentor. I’ve also had a manuscript assessment done. Two of these processes were great learning experiences, one was a disaster and the other was poor value for money.
What do mentors, editors and manuscript assessors do?
Engaging a mentor is a medium-priced avenue of paid support that sounds great—hiring an experienced author you respect who understands the ups and downs of the writing process to provide you with detailed one-on-one coaching.
But being a published author doesn’t automatically qualify someone as a good mentor. A good mentor sees this work as part of their profession, not just as easy money.
I went through a writer’s centre and engaged a mentor under agreed written terms, which included assessing 3-4 chapters at a time because I wanted guidance as I redrafted so as not to repeat mistakes. The mentor quickly reneged on those, saying they preferred to look at whole manuscripts only. Also, their comments revealed that they didn’t understand my genre and had made many incorrect assumptions. When I questioned them about their feedback in a genuinely inquisitive way, they became defensive. Nothing positive came from this expensive experience for me.
A full copy edit includes an experienced editor looking at your entire manuscript and considering structure, voice, point of view, character and style. They present their findings in a report, but also do a line edit, checking each word through track changes. This is the most expensive of the three processes and theoretically the most thorough, although I’ve found that editors’ attention wanes the further they progress into your manuscript.
It’s most important when choosing this option to be certain that your manuscript is at the right stage. Too early and you won’t get value for money because your draft is underdeveloped and not yet ready. This is what happened to me and I feel the editor should have warned me. Too advanced and all the editor will be left with is nit-picking, which can be bad for confidence.
During my second-to-last draft, I engaged a different editor to look at the first third of my novel line by line because by this stage I was most interested in improving my style as opposed to dealing with structural or other big picture issues. I then applied what I learned to the rest of my manuscript, which lifted my writing considerably.
This is a 10-12 page report that looks at the same issues as an editor but without the additional line edit. Often, the assessor will also ask you to submit a synopsis, publisher letter, author bio and pitch for comment, which can be very useful. This is by far the cheapest, and I think the best value option.
I went through an agency to get my manuscript assessment done. I was thrilled that they matched me with an assessor who was obviously across my genre, thorough, professional and concise. Quality, not quantity, was what this assessment was about.
Guidelines for choosing writing support:
- Do your research to find the right person for you and your manuscript. What’s their experience, do they understand your genre, are they interested in your manuscript, are they over committed, are you a good personality fit, will they talk through their thoughts with you or write them down? Ask other writers for recommendations and interview each candidate. You can even test them out with a chapter of your work (many will agree to this)
- Set agreed terms in writing so there’s no confusion. This might include stating the aims of your partnership, how much of your work they’ll review and within what timeframe, the price and what level of comment they’ll provide (high level overview and/or detailed word for word)
- Any feedback must be constructive, aimed at supporting and bettering your work, not pulling it (or you) down. You want to come out more empowered and your work stronger
- The person you engage must allow you to retain control of your work rather than forcing their personal preferences on you. A good teacher will help you find what it is you really mean to say
- They also need to be confident in themselves, welcoming questions without feeling threatened
- Whoever you hire, they must be professionally interested in your work and not just your money.
‘I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.’ Confucius
Recently I went from having no publishing offers to having to decide between two – I know, the irony! This is for a novel I wrote in two very different versions, and after deciding that the first one was best, going on to rewrite it many times.
My writing pathway to finding a publisher
My process over more than ten years included the following steps:
- Redrafting my manuscript over again
- Engaging editors for the first and part of the second-to-last major redrafts
- Paying a mentor (a costly and negative experience)
- Reading countless writing books and doing my best to apply the learning
- Undertaking many writing-related courses in person and online, including on poetry, book publishing and creativity
- Submitting my manuscript, garnering interest but being rejected many times
- Nearly giving up a few times, before picking myself up off the floor and starting over
- Taking on the feedback for two advanced drafts from my long-suffering writing group.
It’s often said that a writer’s first two novels are their learner books and that the third is publishable. Alternatively, people talk about writers needing to practice their craft for ten years before reaching a publishable standard. For me, redrafting the same story in various forms was how I progressed my craft. I didn’t want to let go of my story, focusing instead on improving it ad nauseam. And so ten years passed by…
Until finally, it paid off. (Although I’m well aware that having found a publisher, I haven’t achieved publishing success yet. But that’s a whole other journey.)
It was nothing! (Lies)
It would be easy to look back and say that it was worth it, or even that it was fun or easy. Ten years – nothing! But the truth is that like all writing, it was both wondrous and torturous, easy and impossible. For years there was rejection after rejection, no promise of publication (ever!) and no guarantee of any return for my hours of toil, the income I forewent or the money I spent on my book.
And yet writing and creating was and remains the only thing that makes me feel professionally fulfilled. I actually become restless and irritable if I don’t write creatively.
Key things I did to find a publisher
After I announced the two offers on a Facebook writing group, a couple of writing colleagues contacted me to ask how I found a publisher? Some had achieved agent interest, which after a time had waned.
While I’m no expert, I answered them because writers need the camaraderie of others to help pick them up when they’re feeling uncertain. These are the key things I told them. They’re simple and probably obvious, but nonetheless powerful, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves:
- Always be open to improving your craft and never be complacent or arrogant – Too often authors become attached to their work. Get some distance and reevaulate after a break. Kill your darlings etc.
- Believe in your story (or let it go and move on) – If you don’t, who else will? Believe in it to your core
- Believe in your abilities – Again, if you don’t, no one else will. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things. Writing is an art, but it’s technical and involves a lot of craft
- Find your publisher fit, only going where you’re wanted – Whether that’s a large publisher, an independent one, or a small one. What’s their speciality, do they love your kind of work and genre, what are their values? Alignment is key. Publishing is business but it’s also a relationship
- Get philosophical (or zen, or something similar) – While I’d got to a point where I believed – paradoxically and blindly – that I’d find a publisher, I honestly didn’t care anymore. I knew in my gut that my story was good and that was enough, so I sent it out and let go. Me and my story were ready and, amazingly, the world responded
- Above all, persevere! As Churchill said, never give in. When you’re ready, dust yourself off and continue. Logically, you must to get there, in the end.
Are you ready to be published?
‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou
New Book, New Process
You learned how to write your first novel. Now you have to learn how to write your second. This is an old but true adage. If you want each successive book to be good or better than the last, challenge yourself to grow. Throw out the rules and remain open.
‘Each time you write something, part of you grows. You’re training your artistic muscles to find your voice.’
You’ll probably need new skills if you want to be true to the new theme and characters. These might include learning how to write different characters, changing point of view, writing in another tense, changing your style or using different techniques such as alternating chapters or bending timelines, conducting deep research, visiting new places or interviewing people. Whatever your story requires.
‘When you combine something to say with the skill to say it properly, then you’ve got a good writer.’
First Drafts Are Rubbish
Don’t let perfectionism hold you back. Remember, you probably worked on your first book for ages, editing and honing it until it was fit for publication. Perhaps you’ve forgotten how woeful your first draft was. Don’t expect that just because you’ve completed one novel, the next will come out equally polished. You’ll need to go through the same torturous, creative process of redrafting over again until your true and best story emerges.
‘The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time unlike, say, brain surgery.’
Fear of failure can be debilitating. This is especially the case if you enjoyed some success with your first book. Don’t expect the same kind of story to emerge. Don’t expect success. Or failure. This story is different, so let it emerge and grow organically. Trust and believe in yourself. Authenticity will get you through.
‘Don’t wait for the world to believe in you. Believe in yourself first. It’s faster and more efficient.’
Stick With It
Give your new work a chance. I know so many people with abandoned second books because they didn’t meet their own or others’ demands. Ignore doubting or prescriptive voices and write for the sake of it. You’ve planted a seed, now nurture it. Get back to good writing habits. Do, don’t overthink.
‘A writer’s only responsibility is to his art.’
Know You’re Not Alone
Plenty of writers struggle with the second novel. It’s a part of the writing life. Know that others have faced this challenge and worked their way through it. You can too.
‘Every writer I know has trouble writing.’
While all fiction and creative non-fiction requires strong characters with something to say, my next novel, a strained family saga, is especially character driven. I’m reading The Art of Character by David Corbett to extend and deepen my abilities, and (in theory), liberate my creativity. What are you doing to improve your work?
‘Life is like riding a bicycle.
To keep your balance you must keep moving.’
Real life as inspiration
I’ve begun writing a novel sparked by events surrounding a real-life family funeral. Not mine, but my partner’s. In writing the opening scene, I asked him a series of questions about his family, which he happily answered. Then he went quiet before blurting out, ‘Hang on. That’s my family you’re talking about.’
Yet I can’t help myself. The funeral story is so profound – so guttural – that it gets to the core of family at its best and most bewildering. Good fiction is real life condensed and heightened.
Writers are magpies
The truth is that in fiction, every character written and every plot point created is based on people we know and have observed, and the things that have happened to them or others. It is also about us and our own experiences. Tim Winton once said that every character in his stories is based on himself. With our unique perceptions and beliefs, writers are our fictional worlds’ filters and interpreters.
As writers, it’s out job to pick the eyes out of our own and other people’s experiences, pay careful attention to the news, listen like a hawk to conversations both direct and overheard, and pool these things, adding further drama with our imagination along a thematic line. Then hey presto, we hopefully have a novel people will want to read, with characters and a story line readers can relate to and be moved or horrified by.
Writing about family members
That said, the number one rule is do not write about your family. Yet these are the stories that perhaps get us most riled, that we can relate to best and that go deepest of all.
Is this exploitation?
Yes it is. But what else do writers do if not exploit? Characters need to behave in realistic and believable ways or they risk being a shallow cliche. They must be authentic with genuine human quirk, faults and loveable traits.
Hiding your characters’ origins
What I plan to do is to change my characters – merging them, exaggerating them, or reimagining them depending on what my plot requires and how my characters guide me. As for the story, I plan to combine fact with fiction, disguising actual events and adding drama.
I will be that literary magpie writers so often refer to. I’m not writing memoir. Rather I’m creating something new while being informed by everything I know.
A price to pay?
I understand there may be a price to pay for what I’m doing.
Is it worth it? You’ll need to ask yourself before going down this track. Truman Capote famously stopped writing after he published a scathing book based on the rich and famous people he hung around with only, to his surprise, to be shunned by them.
Yet writers must. Perhaps I won’t publish my current novel, but right now it needs to get out. The characters are almost dragging me along by the hair, which means it’s something I have to do. Until I’ve completed it, nothing else will come.
An aside: On not being written about
In closing, I recall a 1960s American movie about an author who moved to a town to write about suburbia and its occupants. Townsfolk were outraged by their characterisation in his novel. Yet the greatest insult by far was not to have been written about at all.
So you’re beginning a new novel. A flurry of ideas fills your head. It’s exciting. You consider them all, dismiss most, others you put in the maybe category, but some stick. You build on them, but you worry if anything is going to result. Is your idea gripping enough to fill an entire novel, will the story peter out, do you care enough to finish it, are you capable? You’re compelled to go on.
Now that you have an embryo of an idea, and perhaps one or two characters who reach out to you, there’s a decision to be made over point of view (POV).
1st person: ‘I’
Traditionally one point of view allowing intimacy – the reader seeing the entire story world through one character. But there are more options – multiple first person point of views, sequential multiple viewpoints (e.g. alternate chapters with told from more than on ‘I’), separate multiple viewpoints that are seemingly disparate but come together in the end. So many possibilities!
2nd person: ‘You’
This POV be powerful and immediate, but not easy to pull off. Usually these stories are also told in the present tense. One memorable Australian novel, The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous (Nikki Gemmell), is told from this point of view. I still remember that voice.
3rd person: ‘S/he’
Limited – Told from one character’s point of view at a time. But you can have more than one main character in separate sections, eventually bringing them together. It’s similar to 1stperson but can feel more distant. This is the most commonly used POV in modern fiction.
Omniscient – Told from multiple characters’ points of view, dipping in and out of their heads as though taking a birds eye view. A more limited omniscient POV exists where the reader is in one character’s head at a time rather than skipping around or taking an overall perspective. Generally, omniscient is so popular these days. But it can be done well.
Some things to ponder, bearing in mind that point of view is the narrator, who is the reader’s eyes and ears:
- Who’s story is this?
Is it one person’s story? Is it two people’s? Or is it multiple characters’ story?
- Whose head, and how many heads, do I want the reader to be in?
One character’s and close (1stperson). One character’s, close and immediate (2ndperson). Two character’s (1stor 3rdperson limited) or everyone’s (3rdperson omniscient).
- What am I trying to achieve?
If you want to manipulate the reader say with an unreliable narrator, then 1stperson is for you. If you want to sound like a fairy tale, use 3rdperson omniscient. If you want something in between, consider 3rdperson limited.
- How immediate do I want the story to feel?
In order of immediacy: 2nd person, 1st person then 3rd (limited, limited omniscient and omniscient).
- How much do I want the reader to know?
If you want the reader to know only what one character sees consider the 1stperson POV, but 3rd person limited can also be used though with less range. If you want them to see the entire picture, then use 3rd person omniscient (but perhaps limited).
- How close, or distant, do I want the reader to be to the main character/s?
1st person creates greater intimacy i.e. the reader is the 1stperson narrator. 3rd person limited can be more distant but offers considerable closeness too. 2nd perron is in your face close. Dropping in and out of different character’s heads in 3rdperson omniscient gives you immense freedom but requires technical competency.
- How much versatility do I want?
1st person lets you only have one point of view i.e. one voice. They’d wanna be someone your reader can relate to and wants to spend an entire novel with. I know I’ve got sick of main characters and stopped reading well into a story.
- How important is backstory and world building?
This can be easier to convey in 3rdperson omniscient. That said, these should always be written as the story requires in small sections (never more than two paragraphs is my general rule).
Ask yourself the above questions and experiment. Write a page or two from two or three POVs and see what feels/reads best. You’ll soon know what suits your story, even if by realising out what DOESN’T work.
Rules are meant to be broken. Buck the trend of character and plot dominance. Bend language, challenge structure, change points of view, turn narrative on its head: create and be original.