Robert Phillips – On Getting and Giving Good Crit

Robert Phillips was the first member of the CSFG Novel Critique Group to put his novel up for review this year.

Afterward, I asked Bob to comment on his experience, both in receivng critques and what it means for his novel, and about critiquing the next couple of novels thrown to the lions.

This is what he had to say…

Hi Chris

The main thing that impressed me about getting my book critted is the volume of comments I received, both verbally and in written form (over 20 pages).

It has given me plenty to digest. However, I have decided to set 2088 aside until later in the year, while I get on with other projects.

The main thing that struck me, as a result of the crits, is that my main character is somewhat dated.

When I created him over 20 years ago, he was probably born about 1970, and went into suspended animated circa 2000.

Clearly, I’m going to have to advance his timelines by about 20 years, which means refashioning the character to some extent.

Of the 2½ fantasy novels that I’ve reviewed so far, the main things that strike me is that they’re all well written, but the authors seem to have a mania for inflicting grievous bodily harm on their heroes/heroines.

Does this mean the authors secretly hate their main characters and would like to destroy them?

Cheers
Bob

Writing update for May

Well, I’ve been madly reworking the last half of Prophecy of Power: Werewolf, my epic fantasy, in the hope that Angry Robot will ask for the full manuscript some time in the next month or two.

I’m not planning any major changes, but I think the tension needs to escalate more, particularly in the last four or five chapters.

With a few minor structural changes – basically having most of the main characters come together at the end, I should be able to achieve that.

As it is, two of them don’t really do much, but if I could bring them together, elevate the angst and have it all culminate in a final fight scene, it should work much better.

I’ve got about six or eight thousand words to do it in. Fingers crossed.

How do you write?

Talk to any writer, and each will have a different process for writing – more so with longer works.

My preference is to do a complete pass and then give it a break – doesn’t matter whether I’m doing a first draft, final polish, character pass, or whatever. I find that if I start but stop halfway through, it’s hard to go back later on, and the longer I leave it, the harder it gets.

What’s more, I find the more I focus on the one story, the more I want to return to it, and that seems to translate into a bigger, better, and more effective effort.

For me, that’s when the magic starts. Ideas, thoughts, and story twists come almost unbidden. Problems resolve in directions I didn’t see coming. The story ‘flows’.

What’s your process? How does writing work for you?

How I wrote a novel in 60 days!

One of the most common questions/problems I come across, and one that I find is a problem for myself too, is how to find enough time for writing.

Back in my student days I had all the time I needed to write, but rarely took advantage of it.

Fast forward a few (cough cough) years and there’s far too many demands on my life to allow me the luxury of writing when I want to – job, family, social life, house/yard work etc.

So how did I manage to write the complete draft of a novel in under two months (November/December) – about 90,000 words, with so much else going on in my life?

Well, here’s how it happened.

  1. I did Nanowrimo (and decided to do it to write a new novel, just just to finish).
  2. I kept the pace up afterward and finished what I started.
  3. I told my wife I was doing Nanowrimo, and asked for a little slack.
  4. I got up half an hour early and wrote before work.
  5. I wrote after work whenever I could.
  6. I wrote on weekends when the opportunity presented itself.
  7. I aimed for an average of 1667 words a day, but wrote more if I could in order to make up for the times I couldn’t.
  8. I still did everything else I normally would.

Essentially, I stopped wasting time and used whatever spare time I had for writing.

  • I got up when the alarm when off instead of lazing in bed.
  • If I wanted to watch a show on TV, I recorded it and watched it when I’d got ahead (as a small reward) or when I was too wiped out to write.
  • If I had to do housework or yardwork, I tried to get through it faster.
  • If I had to run the kids to sports training, I took the laptop or a notepad.
  • I did simple things like turning the computer on when I got home so that when I had a spare ten minutes I could write a couple of hundred words.

And the funny thing is, the more I did it, the easier it got.

I started thinking about the story all the time – planning ahead in spare moments so that when I sat back down again I was ready (and keen) to write the next scene or chapter.

I didn’t go back to ‘fix’ things. Just soldiered on, making notes of things I wanted to change later.

As often as not I didn’t have a clue what I was going to write next – but when the time came, I wrote anyway. Apparently, Muses are overrated.

It was a little tough at the beginning – there was a certain amount of discipline I had to develop. Inspriation only took me so far.

After that I relied on discipline, and from there it all changed.

Find out more about novel structure.

When planning goes to… something starting with S.

I prefer writing to planning. I just want to get on with it. Sometimes, even stating what goes in the Beginning, Middle and End is too much effort.

However, to write something more complex than a single POV story I’ve got to plan out the storylines and how they fit together, otherwise I’ll stick with one or maybe two.

For the Welcome To Earth novel I’m in the middle of, I’ve got five Points Of View, and I developed them all pretty thoroughly.

The problem is, once I start writing a story, it almost always takes an entirely fresh turn from anything I’d planned. Sometimes lots of turns.

That can be good. I love finding out what happens as I write it.

But that doesn’t work with multiple storylines that need to interconnect.

Problem is, I never planned this story as a novel. I planned it as a pilot television script, and that’s how I originally wrote it.

And that’s why it all fell apart – it wasn’t suited to becoming a novel, but I thought it would be. I didn’t do any more planning to flesh it out.

And so there it was – forty-five pages of outline in script form, ready to be drawn from, and it wasn’t filled with enough detail.

The big divergence happened when I added an entirely new beginning, changing it from sets of two sequences to three (ie, three for the Beginning, Middle A, Middle B, and the End).

That means I now have to find and develop three entirely new sequences spread out over the entire novel – about 30-40,000 words.

Obviously, I got ‘writers block’. Or, in this case, ‘what the heck do I do with this mess now?’.

The only way I can see to fix it is to shift the main plot to a sub-plot and bring forward the story I’d intended for the sequel, and overlap them. Two storylines, one story. There simply isn’t enough happening in the original script to fill an entire novel.

If only I’d seen that before I began and reworked the outline/script.

The question now is, will it work? Is it even what I really want to do?

I guess I’ll find out.

If you liked this post, you might like my post on creating a writing/editing plan for your novel.

The silly thing about Theme

The silly thing about theme is that most people don’t understand it, giving you a kickarse opportunity to put your story on a better footing than most.

Ever seen a movie where there’s lots of special effects but little else? How about the book where the story seems to go nowhere and takes forever to let you know? What of the otherwise entertaining story you enjoyed, but never seemed to get around to recommending?

They’re the sorts of stories people tend to forget as soon as they put the book down (or walk out of the cinema).

Why?

Because the story isn’t saying anything worthwhile.

And that’s what theme is – it’s a statement about something.

It’s not a word like Love or Sacrifice or Hope or Despair. They’re feelings! Its not a concept either, or even a metaphor. They may be strong elements of your theme, but they’re not all of it.

Your theme is one side of a debate – its what your story is saying about a given topic.

Here’s how to figure out your theme.

Make a statement about the topic your story is exploring (or could be exploring). For example. “The brain is the sexiest part of the body.” Perhaps its a story about a genius.

Your theme argues for or against that statement. Its that simple. If it doesn’t fit, keep working on it – or change your story to fit. Either way, your theme is in there, you just have to find it.

A theme provides a story with additional meaning that gives value to the plot. It also has to be subtle – try to force it on your readers and they’ll throw your book across the room. They’re not reading to hear you preach. Well, not normally.

On the subject of preaching: “God is great!” There’s a strong statement. Use it if it fits, but your story must demonstrate exactly why the statement is true or false. Illustrate your point with such finess that your readers don’t even realise you’re telling them something important.

“All men are bastards.” Sure, if that’s what’s important to you, but prove it – or prove there’s at least one good man out there.

“Life is cheap.” Again, that’s fine. Just show me just how cheap it is – or show me the true cost of treating it cheaply.

Make a decision

Why is it so hard to complete a novel and get it on bookshelves?

It’s not really all that difficult if you stand back and look at it objectively.

  • You write, the word add up, and eventually there’s enough words to call it all a novel.
  • You rework it, get some feedback, fix it further, add a final coat of polish and send it away.

Its a process. Its simple. Repeat it often enough and you’ll eventually hit gold.

Why then do so many people get bogged down?

The fact is, it takes time – a sustained effort over a long period – to complete a novel, and then it takes a whole lot more time and effort to get it published.

Any sort of sustained effort is difficult because real life inevitably throws road blocks at you.

So how do you keep the enthusiasm up?

Make a decision.

“Yeah, I did that, but…”

No! Make a decision. A real decision! The kind of decision that goes like: “I’m going to do this no matter what!”. Not the “I’m going to write a novel” kind, because that’s giving yourself leeway to ‘always be writing a novel’. As Yoda says, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

The moment you commit to it however, it becomes easy.

Real life stops throwing road blocks in your way because you can see them for what they really are: speed bumps. They may slow you down a bit, but they can’t stop you any more.

Once you’ve made the decision, there isn’t a speed bump out there big enough to stop you. You’re going to get a novel on the shelves no matter what!

Don’t take the piss out of success

Recently I was talking with a bunch of writers about editing and structure, and I used Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight as an example to illustrate a point I was making.

The moment I mentioned the book the room erupted into derision. I can understand that: Twilight’s certainly not for everyone.

However, it did break out of its genre and go global in a big way, selling millions of copies and spawning some very successful movies. The Twilight books provided everything a growing author needs – enough money to quit their day job. The rest, of course, is cream.

If you want that kind of success, why dump on it?

The point I was trying to make was that if you don’t hit all the plot points that your readers are subconsciously expecting, they’re going to walk away with the feeling that ‘something just didn’t work’.

They probably couldn’t tell you why, but they’ll know it regardless. What’s more, they’re not going to recommend a book that ‘didn’t work’ for them. Your book, in this case.

Stephanie Meyer did everything right in Twilight – she hit all the right plot points and made her readers care – very deeply – about her protaganist, and finished it off with a very satisfying ending.

That doesn’t mean your story needs sparkly vampires, but when an author sells millions of copies and smashes through genre boundaries, it’s a good bet they’re doing something right.

Take note, even if its not a story for you. Study what works and emulate it.

Create a writing/editing plan for your novel!

Here’s a few steps that might help you in drafting and editing your novel.

1. What’s it about? Write one sentence describing your story in 25 words or less.

Yes. 25 words or less.

Rework the story to reflect this sentence, or change the sentence to reflect the story.

I’ve seen several publishers asking for this sentence in their submission requirements.

2. What’s the theme?

This is the point of your novel, and arguably the most important aspect of it. It’s what you’re trying to say – one side of an argument.

Without a theme your story’s just explosions and pretty sunsets. Pointless.

The theme itself is a statement. For example: “Behind every good man is a greater women.” Your story is the argument supporting either the positive or the negative side of that statement.

Think of your story as one side of the debate.

3. Separate the Threat from the Conflict.

Conflict is immediate, while the threat is the potential. Work out the difference in your story.

4. Need Vs Want.

What does your character(s) want? What are they actively pursuing? This is an external goal.

What does your character need? This will be something internal, something they aren’t likely to be aware of – a lesson to be learned, perhaps. The moral of the story.

For example, a high school student wants to be part of the ‘in’ crowd, when what they really need is to be happy with themself first.

Getting what they need will affect how they see what they want, while getting what they want before getting what they need won’t fulfill them.

What they want drives them. What they need completes them.

Getting what they need may make what they want even more worthwhile or it may render it totally obsolete. They may even have to sacrifice what they want entirely if it gives them what they need.

When they get what they need they can finally see what they want in its true light.

5. Identify the main plot points and transitions – beginning, middle, end, inciting incident, midpoint, etc.

If you don’t know what these are, and there’s lots more that I haven’t listed, I’ll be writing another post (or several) in the future covering them. For the moment though, I’ve drawn a diagram.

  • Do they work to best effect?
  • Can they be made to work better?

6. Chapter outline – write a brief sentence describing each chapter.

This will help you identify weak chapters or chapters that do nothing for the story.

You need to justify each chapter’s existence. Each sentence should:

  • State what the chapter’s trying to convey
  • Show how the chapter moves the story along.

7. Write a Cause and Effect. “Because of this, this happens. Because this happens…”

Start big, Ie:

  1. Beginning: Bella moves to Forks – meets Edward.
  2. Middle A: She’s attracted to him – discovers he’s a vampire which is part of the attraction.
  3. Middle B: They hook up – she becomes involved in the ‘vampire world’.
  4. End: Bad vampires come after Bella – Edward and family try to protect her.

Each cause has an effect, which leads to the next cause. It’s a logical progression. If you can’t find the logical progresssion, your story has a problem.

Once you’ve got the big steps down, break them into smaller steps.

Your breakdown for the beginning might be two or three pages long (although it can be much less or more). And like the big steps, it needs a logical progression. Find it.

Everything outside the cause and effect must be essential to moving the story forward in some other way.

8. Identify the big structural changes you need to make.

For example: ‘the ending isn’t satisfying enough – must rewrite to ensure the main character struggles more to achieve their goals’.

Like the example, write a list of big points that need fixing. Make these changes before going on. There’s no point in polishing text if big swathes of it might be cut or largely altered.

9. Identify the smaller but important changes you need to make.

For example:

  • Make outer space/ocean/sword/city/weather more of an influential ‘player’ in the story
  • Make the main character more sympathetic
  • Make the antagonist appear nice at first [misdirection].

Write a list of things that need to be done, and make the changes before going on.

10. Edit the words.

Only after you’re happy with the overall structure should you start playing with words, sentences and paragraphs.

Do a complete pass from beginning to end, and once you move onto the next chapter, don’t go back until the next full pass. It’s too easy to get bogged down in the process of polishing something to imperfection. Set some sort of goal and stick to it.

11. Finally, figure out when its ‘good enough’ and get it out into the world.

If you found this post helpful, subscribe to Fandelyon.com to receive more useful posts on the craft of writing.

The problem with editing…

The problem with spending hours editing a story is that at the end, you don’t really have much to show for it.

The word count might have changed a little, sentences and paragraphs irrevocably altered, even some chapters moved or removed, but from a distance it’s pretty much the same as it was before. The same story, at least – but hopefully better.

When you’re writing something new, there’s a growing word count you can point at and say ‘Ah-hah! That’s what I did today’. It adds up, too, swelling that sense of achievement.

With editing though – it’s malleable. Unless you’re making big, blatant changes, it can be really hard to tell the difference between the third and fourth layers of polish.

So, how do you get a sense of achievement, a clear indication you’re not on a never-ending treadmill?

Start with a plan. Work out what you want to do before you start, and stick to it.

First, review the story. Read it through, make notes, work out what you’re going to tackle and in what order, and decide how much you want to achieve each session.

Then, work your way through the story, stick to your plan, and at the end of it you’ll have edited the full draft.

Then, of course, repeat. Figure out what’s working, what’s not, and what could be better. Work out how to fix those things – and set to it, doing specifically that.

Repeat again as necessary, but try not to get into the habit of doing it over and over. Figure out exactly what you want to end up with, aim for it, and then get it out into the world when you’re done.

Game over. New project.

Editing – I’ve finished writing. What next?

In my previous post on editing, I covered a rule I wish I’d come across a long time ago: Don’t start editing until you’ve finished writing. But where does that leave you?It leaves you with a finished manuscript! Any day, that’s better than a half-written toy that has some bits you’ve managed to get ‘right’ and a whole swath of chapters you’re unlikely to get to for months, years or even decades.

So, lets assume you took my advice, added new words every chance you got, and you’ve just typed those magical words: ‘The End’.

What now? Well, it’s pretty simple really. Don’t start editing.

‘Doh!’ I hear you say. ‘Why not?’

Because you’re not ready to edit yet. You’re too close.

Instead, make notes on things you didn’t act on because you were busy writing. Create a big list of them in bullet point form. Include all the things you’re desperate to add or remove, concepts you want to introduce or changes that need to be made.

Throw in all the ideas you had or couldn’t find a means to put in, add anything that need to be changed for consistency, or whatever else that comes to mind.

Now, unless you’ve got a pressing need to present a polished manuscript to a publisher (like maybe you’ve landed a contract), put the novel away along with your notes and begin another one.

Yes, start another novel (not a sequel! You can’t sell a sequel until you sell the original, and if that never happens you’re wasting your time!). So, write a second novel – something entirely new, and finish it.

Why?

Two reasons. Firstly and most importantly, by putting it away for a while you’ll get distance from your first novel. You’ll be able to spot the flaws, the inconsistencies, the mistakes. You’ll also be fresh and ready to tackle it again.

The second reason is a little different – but just as valid. You’ll be less precious about it. Your masterwork will no longer the be-all and end-all of your novel writing endeavours. There’ll be a second novel waiting for your attention. And if you’re smart, a third one on the way.

So, where do you go from there?

Like I just mentioned, start writing a third book, but don’t fall into the trap of just writing new books. You need to finish the first one now.

While you’re working on number three, begin editing the first. Set a time limit and aim to have a complete redraft finished by the time you’re done writing the third novel.

Editing – first things first

What’s the first thing you need to know about editing? Don’t start editing until you’re finished writing.

Really!

I spent a couple of years writing my first novel – only to realise I never got past the first few chapters because I kept going back to play with them.

Occasionally I’d move on a little, but I always found myself going back and reworking/changing/playing with the text in the first few chapters: ‘getting it right’.

It wasn’t until I made a decision to FINISH IT that I actually got the first draft done. What’s more, I’ve heard this same advice from dozens of successful, published authors.

Finish it, first and foremost. Edit it second.

If you get a brand new idea you’re busting to get into an earlier chapter – make a note of it and FIX IT LATER – after you’ve completed the first draft.

You want to change something? – make a note of it and fix it in the rewrite!

Anything more complicated than a global search and replace – fix it later!

In case I’m not clear:

  • Write the first draft.
  • Edit the first draft.
  • In that order.

Don’t start editing until you’ve finished writing or you’ll spend weeks, months, years and even decades getting no further than the first few chapters.

Novel Writing Group

The first Tuesday of every month I attend the CSFG Novel Writing Group. We had a good time discussing our current projects and where they were at, and then moved onto the subject of structure.

Following on from that we watched the Tim Minear DVD: Breaking the Story, which is all about how to develop a story based around the characters and the emotional impact you need to generate to keep people interested in your story.

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