Friday, 27 September 2013

Spinning Plates

Does your life feel like a well-planned series of events, or more like a sort of organised chaos? Mine definitely tends towards the latter! In my working, writing and home life, I feel like someone spinning an endless collection of plates. There I am now, hurriedly running around giving each a nudge, to stop it slowing down and smashing on the ground.

Part of the problem is a lack of priorities. In my job, I have to manage several development projects at once, all for different people, which means that they each think theirs is the most important. Outside of work, should I spend time on my book, or writing blog posts or networking on social media or attending to SCBWI tasks? And where do my family fit into all this?

I was talking this week to an author who’s under contract, and they were saying that they live with the fear that it will all turn out to be a terrible mistake, that their editor is suddenly going to ring them and say “Sorry – we thought you could write this book, but we were wrong.” And I could empathise with that, because I constantly feel like I’m about to make the one mistake that will bring the whole dinner service crashing down.

Maybe this is just the way it feels to be an adult? There was a musical in the 1960s called Stop the World - I Want to Get Off, and I’ve always thought the title was a great metaphor for the way my life seems to spin around, with little respite from the blur of tasks and responsibilities.

Perhaps the answer to this anxiety and stress is to make my life less complicated. There have been a few blog posts recently (specifically this one) that have been encouraging authors to cut back and concentrate on their core activity – writing fiction. But that’s not so easy if you also have a full time job, etc. I really enjoy the activity of blogging and I’m not sure how I would feel if I left it behind.

Currently, I’m averaging one new book a year. Perhaps if I gave up blogging and some of my other activities, I could boost that to a book and a half, maybe two? But there’s still no guarantee that those books would get published, and my online presence would virtually disappear. Is it better to have a couple of books a year that only get read by a handful of people, or one book and a hundred blog posts (here and on Words & Pictures) that would attract a much wider audience?

I don’t have an answer to this conundrum, because answering it requires me to address the broader question: “What do I really want to achieve from my life?” And that’s a deeper meaning-of-life type problem that I probably need another twenty or thirty years to answer. So for now, I guess I’ll just keep on spinning those plates and trying to do a bit of everything.

Nick.

Friday, 20 September 2013

No-one Ever Really Dies

I've blogged about story franchises before, but they've been very much on my mind again this week. As I'm sure you've seen, J.K. Rowling is undertaking some franchise extension of her own, by screenwriting a Newt Scamander movie for Warner Bros. Although there's technically already a book version of this, it sounds like the film will be significantly different, and it's interesting to speculate that Rowling - who, let's remember has already made a ton of cash from book sales - sees movies as the real money-spinner.

Anyway, to wander back to the point, I watched two of the big summer franchise movies this week (I'm not going to name them to minimise spoilers) and in both of them, a major character dies at the climax of the story, thus motivating the protagonist to battle with and defeat the antagonist at the final showdown. But in both films it was blindingly clear to me:
  1. That they were going to resurrect the fallen character before the end of the movie
  2. How they were going to do it
And lo and behold, that was exactly what happened. I should note that my thirteen-year-old daughter was slightly behind me in predicting the outcome, but she still guessed the details before the resurrection scene occurred. Which means that even those in the films' core demographic aren't fooled by such a plot twist.

So, what to make of this bit of apparently lazy screenwriting within two actually pretty good films? Well, I think it demonstrates a major weakness of the story franchise model - it's the characters that audiences get attached to, not the plot. So in order to keep stoking the fire and rolling out new product, those characters must be present in each new adventure. As a result, the element of surprise is lost and with it, crucially, the jeopardy that comes from not knowing who will be alive at the end of the story.

This isn't a new problem - we've all known for fifty years that James Bond could never die. But at least every other character was up for grabs (see Skyfall for proof of that). If you look at a big ensemble movie like Avengers Assemble though, you could pretty much predict that all of the superhero characters were going to make it through, because they each had their own films to go back to. And the only key character they did kill off is being resurrected less than a year later in the SHIELD TV series.

For all this, however, there's something weirdly addictive about these story franchises, as each installment digs deeper and deeper into a fictional world. And the writers do manage to fill them with tension and excitement, despite the artificial limitations of the form. But overall, perhaps this is a moment to feel glad that you're writing children's books and not screenplays for blockbuster movies. And if you want to follow that thought into action, why not kill off your favourite character in a horrible way and never, ever bring them back to life? That'll show everyone you mean business!

Nick.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Taking Stock

Apologies for another cookery pun (see my last post), but a week has passed, I’ve had another rejection and I haven’t written a single word of my difficult fourth draft. All of this would normally cause me great melancholy, and yet I feel vastly more confident about the book than I did a week ago. This counter-intuitive turn of events is partly due to getting some help from the excellent Jane McLoughlin and partly because I now know exactly what to fix in the novel and how to fix it.

What’s changed? Well, I got out my copy of Novel Metamorphosis (as mentioned last week) and forced myself to fill out the “Novel Inventory”. This is a chapter by chapter breakdown of both the outer and the inner action of the story, so you can see the plot and emotional arcs side by side. It also asks you questions about the conflict and climax of the story and helps you to identify what is strong and weak about your work in progress.

There are plenty of other tools similar to the Novel Inventory out there - the book mentions an alternative condensed spreadsheet view of the chapters and The Golden Egg Academy uses their own Book Map to guide authors. But despite knowing about these tools, I often avoid them (to my cost). Part of the reason is fear, the fear that I’ll discover something dreadfully wrong with my novel that requires me to completely rewrite it. The other aspect is the surprisingly large time investment required to compile the inventory, time that seems wasted when I‘ve set myself a tight timescale to produce another draft. I tend to just plunge in and then have an inevitable panic about a third of the way in when I realise I don’t know what I’m doing!

The objective of the Novel Inventory is to catalogue the book you’ve written, rather than the book you think you’ve written. I’m normally pretty good at keeping a whole novel in my head and identifying where I need to rewrite for added impact as I go along. However, I’ve realised that this rewriting has been predominantly plot-focused, so (thanks to the Novel Inventory) I’ve found quite a few sections of the book where the voice and emotional impact could be stronger. Once I’d identified this phenomenon, I discovered I could actually predict which scenes would be the most problematic as I went through, where before I wouldn’t even have known to look for the problem.

Finding out what we don’t know or don’t do well is an essential (albeit painful) part of growing as a writer. It’s why an external eye is so important when revising a manuscript and also why (I admit) it’s worth taking some time to plan and assess before you begin your revisions. Hopefully, next week, I will start laying down some words again!

If you want to use the Novel Inventory, I think you have to buy Darcy Pattison’s book, but her website does include tons of useful tips and information on manuscript revision.

Nick.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Getting in a Stew

I've started a fourth draft of my current novel this week, and it’s proving to be tough going. Some of that is psychological, I’m sure, because I keep saying “wow, this is difficult” to myself. But a lot of it is because I’d written a third draft that I was very happy with, and it feels like I’m pushing against that as I make further edits. So why change it at all? Well, a couple of my very knowledgeable critique group members have fed back, suggesting ways that the book could be a deeper experience for the reader, and this draft is about adding that depth. But it’s a tricky process.

Let me use a cooking metaphor to illustrate. When you’re making a stew, you put a lot of ingredients together with a little flavouring, and if the quality of the components are good, it’s not too hard to come up with something that’s very palatable. But how do you take that perfectly edible meal and make it into a dish so rich and flavoursome that every bite is a pleasure? The difference might only be the addition of a single ingredient or just a change in the ratio of the others. It sounds simple enough, but it’s also possible to make the thing completely inedible by, say, adding too much cayenne pepper.

I want my book to be a richer, more emotional experience for the reader, but I also fear over-seasoning. As my writing style has evolved, I’ve become ever more technically precise, moulding my sentences for maximum impact with minimum word count. But I have to accept that sometimes I can go too far, so this fourth draft is almost entirely about adding words, not taking them away. It’s been an uncomfortable realisation for me that I'm much better at editing through subtraction than addition, and I feel somewhat out of my comfort zone as a result.

In principle, I’m in favour of stepping outside your comfort zone once in a while, in practice ... well ... it’s a bit scary! I remember how I slaved over each scene originally, balancing the flow of action and dialogue, which makes shoehorning in something new without disrupting the rhythm a difficult process. It’s possible I may end up completely rewriting some of the scenes where the additions can’t be inserted cleanly, but I hope not (though that might be quicker than me agonising over it!) At least I have a deadline – I want to get this draft finished before the SCBWI Agents’ Party (3rd October) and I’d like to add no more than a thousand words to the book, if possible.

I have a very good book called Novel Metamorphosis by Darcy Pattison, which is specifically about the process of adding depth to an existing draft, and shall be consulting it in times of hair-tearing crisis. Apart from that, all I can do is write my way through to the end (and go easy on the cayenne pepper).

Nick.