Four Ways to Launch a Scene

There is a helpful article in the October issue of The Florida Writer with the above title.  It was written by Jordan Rosenfeld.  Her website says that, “Jordan holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a B.A. in Liberal Studies from the Hutchins School.  She is a former resident of Petaluma, California . . . who is an author, editor and freelance writer.”  She has written three suspense novels, five writing guides and has appeared in: The Atlantic, GOOD, New York Times, New York Magazine, San Francisco Chronicle, Scientific American, Writer’s Digest, and many more.

Jordan Rosenfeld

She said: “Any story or novel is, in essence, a series of scenes strung together like beads on a wire, with a narrative summary adding texture and colour in between.  You want to start each scene by asking yourself the following questions:

  • Where are my characters in the plot?  Where did I leave them in the last scene and what are they doing now?
  • What is the most important piece of information that needs to be revealed in this scene?
  • What is my protagonist’s goal for this scene?
  • How will that goal be achieved or thwarted?

Character Launches

“It is generally a good idea to get your characters on the page sooner rather than later. . . . If your character isn’t present by the second paragraph of any given scene, you’re in danger of losing the reader. . . . A scene feels purposeful when you give the character that stars in it an intention, or goal to pursue. . . . Scene intentions ought to be intricately tied to the plot, i.e., your character’s goal – and the unfolding of that goal through actions, discoveries, and explorations your character undertakes that drive the story continually forward.

Action Launches

“Many writers believe that they must explain every bit of action that is going on right from the start of a scene, but narrative summary defeats action. . . . Keep in mind the key elements of action: time and momentum. . . . The key to creating strong momentum is to start an action without explaining anything. . . . Here’s how to create an action launch:

  • Get straight to the action
  • Hook the reader with big or surprising actions
  • Be sure that the action is true to your character
  • Act first, think later.  ‘Elizabeth slapped the prince.  When his face turned pink, horror filled her.  What have I done? she thought’

Narrative Launches

“Writers often try to include a narrative summary, such as descriptions of the history of a place or the backstory of characters, right at the launch of a scene, believing that the reader will not be patient enough to allow actions and dialogue to tell the story. . . . When delivered in large doses, narrative summary is a distraction and an interruption.  Yet a scene launch is one of the  easiest places to use a judicious amount of narrative summary . . . so long as you don’t hold the reader captive too long.  Take the opening of an early scene in Gina Frangello’s novel Every Kind of Wanting:  ‘You think you know our story, Nick, but that would imply that I was capable of honesty.  You think our stories are some joint thing, a common narrative on which we, the co-conspirator would agree, but you don’t know anything yet.’  This is almost entirely narrative summary . . . However, we do get the sense of a complicated tale about to unfold, one with secrets and lies – the best kind of story.  Narrative launches should be reserved for the following occasions:

  • When a narrative summary can save time
  • When information needs to be conveyed before an action
  • When a character’s thoughts or intentions cannot be revealed in action

Setting Launches

“Sometimes setting details – like a jungle on fire,or moonlight sparkling on a lake – are so important to plot or character development that visual setting must be included in launch of a scene. . . . Here’s how to create an effective scenic launch:

  • Use specific visual details
  • Allow scenery to set the scene
  • Use scenery to reflect a character’s feelings
  • Show the impact of the setting on the character”

Review: Midnight’s Children

Having finished the books I brought with me to Sicily, I went to the local bookstore which has a small selection of English language books, but I found nothing that intrigued me.  Looking on the bookshelves in the house, where guests occasionally leave books, I found Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  Mitigating against reading it were its length (647 pages), and its author (I’ve read The Satanic Verses and admired it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it).  The main factor in favour of reading it is that it is twice the winner of the Booker of Bookers: the best Booker Prize winner in the last 25 years and 40 years.

First Edition

The story, written in 1981, deals with the recent colonial past of the Indian subcontinent, its independence and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan.  The narrator is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight, the precise moment of India’s independence, and who is telling the story to his future wife, Padma.  Saleem is born with a huge, dripping nose with exceptional olfactory powers, such that he is able to read thoughts and identify intentions.  He learns that all the children born at the moment of independence are gifted with extraordinary powers, and he forms a Midnight Children’s Conference to try to influence events, including political developments and subcontinental wars.    In particular, allegorical style is used to critique the governance of Indira Gandhi during the ‘Emergency’ period.  Mrs Gandhi brought a suit against Rushdie, not for his slating of her administration, but for a single sentence criticising her family relationships; this sentence has been removed from current editions.  As well as the Conference, the tale involves Saleem’s extended family: mother, father, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his infant son.  The style of the book is magical realism, not conforming to any particular genre, it is factual, comical, suspenseful, magical, surreal, historical and mythic.

In his introduction to the 2006 edition, Rushdie says, “In the West, people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”  Though I have traveled to India three times, and know something of its history and culture, I read the book primarily as a fantasy, which is a shame: I feel I have missed an important dimension of the book.  It must be said that Salman Rushdie is an extraordinary story-teller: he has great imagination and invention, and sometimes I felt that he has invented himself into a corner – how can he get out of this one?- only to read a clever, smooth and sensible transition out.  His command of language is breath-taking, leaving one with the clearest possible image of what is happening.  Occasionally, though, I felt left out by his use of Hindi (or other native) words and expressions which are undoubtedly appropriate.  There were also times when I felt that his excursions into descriptive fantasy were too lengthy, and yet, long as it is, I wanted to read on.

So, for me Midnight’s Children is a literary masterpiece, and there is much to learn from Rushdie’s skill as a writer and a story-teller.  But did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, having missed too much of it,

Ten Steps to an Unputdownable Book

A group of seven bookworms called New Novel offers three packages to help fledgling novelists with the novel-writing process.  Their packages involve the use of the Internet, email, and, in the case of their best package, telephone.  Their aim is to provide both direction and motivation.  I have no experience of their packages, but I thought their Ten Steps make sense.  I have inserted my comments after each step, and I have quoted Now Novel where indicated.

Step 1: Promise revelation in your story premise.

This one is important. It involves presenting the theme of the novel on the first page in a way that is implied by the opening action.  It’s not necessary to say: “This book is about . . .”  Rather, what happens on the first page tells the reader what to expect, captures her attention and motivates her to keep on reading.

Step 2: Make each chapter beginning and ending tantalizing.

Like the first page, the beginning of each chapter should tantalize the reader to continue.  At the end of the chapter, there should be a situation in suspense to keep the reader’s interest.

Step 3: Master novel writing basics: narration and description.

I would add ‘and dialogue’.

Step 4: Make your characters great company.

Even if some of your characters aren’t people you’d want to spend time with, they should be interesting enough to arouse our curiosity.

Step 5: Mix seriousness with humour.

Good point

Step 6: Help the reader see place in your story.

Having an interesting place in the story that seems real and in which the characters live naturally makes a story both more credible and more captivating

Step 7: Write wish, wonder and surprise into your novel.

Readers tend to wish for something in a novel – for example that a heroine would get married.  Wonder is something extraordinary which occurs.  We always enjoy nice surprises.

Step 8: Keep the story moving with suspense and tension.

Amen.

Step 9: Make dialogue natural but interesting.

One way to keep it interesting is to keep it brief and a trifle ambiguous: did he really mean this or possibly that?  Remove any words which don’t convey meaning.  And keep control of the flow.

Now Novel says: “Showing characters’ personalities through the kind of language they use as well as how much or little they speak.  Writing dialogue that makes the reader feel like they’re eavesdropping. Characters should sometimes say things to each other that they wouldn’t  dream of saying in front of other people.”

Step 10: Know your audience.

Now Novel says: “Besides mastering novel writing basics such as writing good description and narration, make sure you know your audience whenever you start writing a novel. When you invent story ideas, ask:

  • Who would the typical reader of this story be?
  • What similar well-known books would they love?

Writing the book you’ve always wanted to read and writing to a specific imaginary reader whose tastes and interests you can anticipate will help you to craft an unputdownable book that ticks all of the ideal reader’s boxes.”

Review: The Kurdish Bike

I bought this book for two reasons: it won the gold medal for the best regional fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, 2017 (I like to know what other indie authors are doing well); at because its setting in Kurdistan (which is part of Iraq, Iran and Turkey) interested me.

The author is Alesa Lightbourne, who, according to the biography included in her book “has been an English professor and teacher in six countries, lived on a sailboat, dined with Bedouins, and written for Fortune 50 companies.  She lives close to Monterey Bay in California where she loves to boogie board and ride a bicycle.”

Alesa Lightbourne

The Kurdish Bike is the fictional story of Theresa Turner’s experiences as a freelance English teacher working at a remote, but somewhat prestigious school on a hill top in a remote part of Kurdistan.  The school has strict regulation of teachers and students, very tight security – wealthy people’s children attend – and some odd characters teaching and working there.  Theresa obtains a bicycle, as her only means of exploration of the external world; in a nearby village, she meets Bezma a single woman of about 30 and her mother Ara, who is both wise and sour.  Bezma falls in love with Hevar, an egotistical, testosterone-fueled hunk of a man.  There is much to-ing and fro’-ing about the marriage, which eventually does take place.  Meanwhile, Theresa’s stateside finances fall apart owing to the existence of a spend-thrift ex-husband.  The schools manager, Madame, tempts Teresa to stay on for another year, in spite of some emotionally-disturbed management and teaching staff.  The students are, by and large, the only truly likable characters.  There are issues with FGM, which apparently runs at 95% in Kurdistan.  There are two suicides and one murder: plenty of stuff happens.

The Kurdish Bike gives a startlingly real picture of life, culture and the settings of Kurdistan: generally not a place to visit willingly, but the local characters, while extremely drawn in some cases are nonetheless real and captivating.  The story is generally well written.

My main concern is the last couple of chapters of the novel: they seem hurriedly written without supporting events.  One gets the feeling ‘there! everything’s sorted!’  Whereas, there are several crises building up in parallel, and are only resolved in the author’s afterword.  For example, Theresa seems to be thrown a lifeline by the Kurdish government when her contract with the school is cancelled.  This seems implausible since there was little groundwork laid for it.

The tone in the novel, written in the first person, shifts considerably from beginning to end.  It starts out being tentative and defensively emotional.  Toward the end, it becomes cocky, hip and aggressively emotional.  This is more an observation than a criticism; one wonders whether it was consciously intentional, because, to some extent, it is a natural transition for the main character.

One final comment about characters: none of them, with the notable exceptions of Pat, a fellow teacher, and Seema, a female student, are without major flaws, such that you wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of them.  The male characters are irredeemable idiots, a reflection, perhaps of Theresa’s attitude towards men, given the choice she made in a husband.

I think that The Kurdish Bike is a good read, and it’s hard to put down.  It is certainly thought-provoking about a very foreign culture.

The Urge to Write

My wife called my attention to Elena Ferrante’s weekly column in The Guardian.  (That tells you something about our respective political leanings: she, being more liberal, is a frequent visitor to The Guardian, while I read The Telegraph.)

Elena Ferrante is one of my wife’s favourite writers; she, too, is Italian and has written the Neapolitan Novels, a four-volume work about two perceptive and intelligent girls from Naples.  The real identity of Elena Ferrante – a pseudonym – has been the subject of intense debate and speculation.

In her column on May 12, Ms Ferrante wrote: “If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write. Don’t trust those who say: I’m telling you for your own good, don’t waste time on that. The art of discouraging with kind words is among the most widely practised. Nor should you believe those who say: you’re young, you lack experience, wait. We shouldn’t put off writing until we’ve lived enough, read sufficiently, have a desk of our own in a room of our own with a garden overlooking the sea, have been through intense experiences, live in a stimulating city, retreat to a mountain hut, have had children, have traveled extensively.

“Publishing, yes: that can certainly be put off; in fact, one can decide not to publish at all. But writing should in no case be postponed to an “after”. When writing is our way of being in the world, it continuously asserts itself over the countless other aspects of life: love, study, a job. It insists even when there’s no paper and pen or anything, because we’re worshipers of the written word and our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down. Writing, in short, is always there, urgent, and distances even the people we love, even our children who ask us to play.

“The sense of guilt arrives afterwards, when we’re done. If it arises before that, if we can’t repress it – if, in other words, the responsibilities of affection prevail – well, maybe that’s a sign that writing doesn’t have sufficient power, that our vocation is fragile and that, fortunately (yes, fortunately), on the human plane we are better than artists, most of whom are so full of themselves, so egocentric.

“But be careful: we have to refrain from taking our barren, proud, cruel creative deliriums for a mark of quality. The yearning to give written form to the world isn’t a guarantee of good literature. Writing, even when we have a strong vocation, doesn’t necessarily produce memorable work.

“Oh, one can be successful, of course, transforming the fury of writing into a lucrative job. But one can never contain writing within a professional framework, complete with résumé, salary, bonuses. Success and the bit of prestige that comes with it prove nothing, especially if one’s literary ambitions are high. We remain dissatisfied and, successful or not, the writing will continue to remind us that it’s a tool with which one can extract much more than we have been able to. The exercise lasts obsessively, desperately, all our lives. And if others say to us, it’s enough now, you’ve given all you could give, we don’t trust that, we shouldn’t trust it. Until our last breath, we’ll torment ourselves with the suspicion that, just at the moment when we seem to have won, we have lost.”

Many of Ms Ferrante’s comments resonate with me.  When I started writing my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas, I wasn’t planning to write a novel.  I thought it would be interesting to write down a Sicilian romance, bits of which I dreamt.  But, I couldn’t stop.  It became a whole story that was crying to be told.  Since then, I have learned a great deal about the craft of writing, which is much more that having a lovely story and good English language skills.  (I’ve mentioned these skills in earlier posts.)  Suffice it to say that gaining skills does nothing to extinguish the longing to write – if anything, the longing becomes a craving,

Ms Ferrante says, “Our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down.”  How true!  I find myself lying in bed thinking about how to resolve a character’s particular dilemma, when, suddenly, a near perfect piece of language will come to mind, and my task, hours later, becomes the recreation of that piece.

Getting the “Beat” Right

I certainly didn’t know that a ‘beat’ is a brief bit of action which is included in dialog.  I thought it was a no-name, clever way of attributing some words or thoughts to a character without having to include ‘s/he said’.  For example:

John scowled.  “I don’t agree with that!”

Julia continued to peel the onions.  “I know you don’t, but in your heart, you know I’m right.”

In the April issue of The Florida Writer, Mary Ann de Stefano, the editor, gave a one-page lecture on the use of beats.

Mary Ann de Stefano

She said:  “The way you handle beats can enliven a scene when they reflect a character’s emotions and desires in fresh ways or dull your writing when they are used in a rote manner.” She suggested the following six tests of a writer’s use of beats:

  1. How often do you break up your dialogue with beats?  Do you sprinkle beats or lay them on with a heavy hand?  Too many beats can make dialogue unnecessarily busy, negatively affecting pacing, and overshadow the character’s speech.  On the other hand, no beats at all might make the reader feel she is experiencing disembodied voices floating in space.
  2. What is the effect of beat placements or long vs short beats?  A long beat could delay a character’s response and make her seem to hesitate without actually having to state that she was reluctant to answer.  Short beats or no beats can speed up a scene.
  3. Does the action beat come out of the character’s need – or the author’s?  If your character is going to get up out of her chair and move around the room, she needs to do it for reasons arising naturally from what is taking place in the scene, not merely because the author needs to break up the dialogue or attribute a piece of speech.
  4. Do you use the same beats repeatedly? Do your characters frequently pause, nod, shake their head, stare, shrug, glance, grin, smile, chuckle, laugh, wince, raise eyebrows, blink, tear up or sigh?  Please tell them to stop.  Any repetition in your work, unless carefully and consciously done well for effect, can be boring.
  5. Are your beats fresh?  Early drafts are often full of clichés, because pat phrases come to us easily.  Think of clichés as place markers, and root them out or replace them in revision.  Are your characters merely dialling phones, lighting cigarettes, inhaling or exhaling, looking out windows, or doing similar routine things that anyone could do anywhere?  Stale beats can sap the energy form your writing.
  6. Do your beats reveal character or advance your story?  Write beats that are specific to your characters and their circumstances.  Generic beats are missed opportunities.  A well-written beat is  meaningful.  It can betray a deception, convey an unspoken understanding, or reveal an emotion or character trait.  Beats can show us the scene’s setting, build tension, create suspense, or provide comic relief.  Put them to work.

Rules for Writing Fiction

On the Guardian website, February 20, 2010, there is an article, Ten Rules for Writing Fiction Parts 1 & 2, which caught my eye, mainly because of the writers who were offering their opinions.  In this post I’ve picked out some that haven’t been covered before in this blog, and with which I agree or disagree.

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze from the article

Is this a metaphor for writing fiction or for the opinions about it?

  • Hilary Mantel: “Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.”      I agree!
  • Michael Moorcock: “If possible have something going on while you have your characters delivering exposition or philosophising. This helps retain dramatic tension.” and “Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery)”   Good point.
  • Will Self: ” You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.”    I find this quite interesting; I had only feelings of pride for my first book when completed.  More recently, with my eighth, I do feel that sense of inadequacy.
  • Zacie Smith: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”     This is very similar to Will Self’s comment.
  • Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”    I did just this with my last two novels.   By the way, when one does this, one has to be connected to the Internet – contrary to the advice of several authors.
  • Sarah Waters: “Writing fiction is not “self-­expression” or “therapy”. Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects. I think of my novels as being something like fairground rides: my job is to strap the reader into their car at the start of chapter one, then trundle and whizz them through scenes and surprises, on a carefully planned route, and at a finely engineered pace.”     I like the analogy.
  • Jonathan Franzen: “Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.”    I think this is probably good advice.  Luckily the two novels I’ve written in the first person are distinctive.
  • Esther Freud: “Cut out the metaphors and similes. In my first book I promised myself I wouldn’t use any and I slipped up ­during a sunset in chapter 11. I still blush when I come across it.”   I don’t agree with this; I think that a whimsical, unexpected metaphor can be very enlightening.
  • Neil Gaiman: “Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.”  I thought it was jut my compulsive self: noticing a problem in an earlier chapter and immediately rushing to find and fix it.
  • P D James: “Increase your word power. Words are the raw material of our craft. The greater your vocabulary the more ­effective your writing. We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world. Respect it.”   I think this is an excellent point and it is contrary to some who encourage the use of common words or discourage the use of a thesaurus.

Internal Dialogue

“Internal Dialogue: the Greatest Tool for Gaining Reader Confidence” by Elizabeth Sims appeared in the June 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  Ms Sims introduces the article with  a discussion about how con artists work.  “The best con artists don’t begin by asking for your confidence – they give you theirs first.  Here’s my story. I want you, you especially to hear this.  The request for help comes later.  But before either compassion or greed can be exploited, the mark must feel something for the con artist.  When you think about it, what is fiction but one beautiful long con?  The reader – the mark – opens a book craving a good story, thirsting to be part of something special.   We, as writers, do everything possible to gain the trust of our  readers so we can entertain, shock, delight and amuse them all the way to the end.

“And the greatest tool for gaining reader confidence is internal dialogue.  Because when a character reveals his thoughts, he’s confiding in the audience.  I’m counting on you to understand me – and possibly even help me understand myself.   Suddenly readers are in the thick of it; they feel involved and invested.

“Internal  dialogue is the inner voice of a character, which is a metaphysical subject.  In most modern cultures – and, consequently, most  modern literature – there’s a dichotomy within the self: there’s an I and a me.”

(I, the objective pronoun which takes the action and me, the subjective pronoun to which the action is done)

Ms Sims goes on to say: “with internal dialogue, you can:

  • Establish your characters and their unique voices
  • Show the difference between what a character thinks versus what she says or does; this can fuel tragedy or comedy
  • Trace a character’s growth and development, or a character’s degeneration
  • Develop you plot
  • Reveal things below the surface: pain, secrets, hopes, fears . . .
  • Create and develop suspense.  Especially when the reader knows more that the character
  • Change the subject.  A character’s thoughts may drive your story in a new direction
  • Reveal a character’s opinions
  • Describe.  A character can look around and comment on his surroundings; he can observe and analyze
  • Develop and reveal character motivation.  Why are they doing what they’re doing?
  • Reflection.  Let your character think through a problem or process an event to whatever degree she is capable of. A character can be a tad less smart than the reader, thus permitting the reader to feel on top of things.
  • Adjust the pace.  Let your character pause and reflect.  It will slow things down and let the reader absorb what just happened.

“Internal dialogue typically takes three basic forms: first-person narration (I thought . . .), third-person narration (She thought . . .), and direct thought-speech (where the character seems to speak directly to the reader).  Then there’s the issue of tense. . . . You’ll find that the majority of internal dialogue is written in the present tense, no matter whether the rest of the work is in the past.  As to format, the only rule is to avoid quotation marks, single or double, as they’re associated with spoken aloud dialogue and can confuse the reader.  It used to be the convention to put inner thoughts in italics . . . Now the trend seems to be to keep everything in Roman text, the idea being that italics are intrusive and unnecessary.”

Ms Sims mentions several pitfalls to avoid:

  • Making a character’s inner voice into a wisecracker,  “Such a voice can be entertaining but only if used sparingly.”
  • Head hopping among various characters
  • ‘I thought to myself . . .’  “Who but oneself does one think to?”
  • Telling chunks of backstory by having a character remember it
  • Putting in anything that doesn’t serve the story

I think this makes clear the power of internal dialogue, but, like any other written vehicle it must be used in a balanced, appropriate way.  My personal preference is to write internal dialogue in the first-person present and to use italics, which I don’t think is confusing.

Ms Sims quotes the following passage from Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person, she thought, that I was ever really frank and honest with; at home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

I would write this as:

The encounter, though, had bruised her.  Gavin was the first person that I was ever really frank and honest with.   At home, there wasn’t much premium on frankness, and she’d never had a girlfriend she was really close to, not since she was fifteen.

The Florida Writer says: “Elizabeth Sims is the author of the Rita Farmer Mysteries and Goldie award-winning Lillian Byrd Crime Series.  She’s also a contributing editor at Writer’s Digest magazine, specialising in the art and craft of fiction.  Her instructional title, You’ve Got a Book in You: a Stress-Free Guide to Writing the Book of Your Dreams, has helped thousands of writers find their wings.

Elizabeth Sims

What Is a Novel?

When I first started writing, and someone asked me the question, “What is a novel?”, I would have replied, “A good story.”  But frequently, brief replies don’t really enlighten the questioner, and the more I write, the more I understand that a ‘good story’ is actually very complicated indeed – at least when it is written down, printed, publicised, sold to the general public, and liked by its readers well enough to earn its writer more than a trivial income.

So what does a ‘good story’ consist of?  There are a number of qualities of a ‘good story’, and while some may not be directly measurable, they are all, at least scrutinisable and subject to opinion:

  • The Plot:  A plan of what happens in the story.  Is it interesting?  Is it predictable or unpredictable?
  • The Characters:  The fictional people who populate the story.  Do they come alive?  Do we care about (like or despise) them?  Are they active or passive? Are their relationships to one another interesting?  Do the characters’ beginnings and end points support the Message?
  • The Setting:  The time(s) and place(s) in which the story takes place.  Is the particular setting of interest to the particular reader?  Is it easy to place oneself as the reader comfortably into the setting?
  • The Message:  What, in an overall sense, is the author trying to say to the reader? If nothing, do we care?  If something, is it clear?  Does it make us think?
  • The Tone:  The kind of emotion which is inherent in the language the author uses.  Is it sad? angry? melancholy?  matter-of fact?  Does the tone seem to support the Message?
  • The Narrator;  Who’s telling the story?  Is the choice of narrator supportive of the above five characteristics?
  • The Tense:  Is the story told in the present or the past tense?  Is the story supported by the choice of tense?
  • The Action:  Exactly what happens.  Is it credible?  Is it attention grabbing?  Is there too much or too little action?  Is the action relevant to the Message?

And then, there are the variables which define how the story is told:

  • The Language:  At what educational level is the story pitched (toddler vs college grad)?
  • The Words:  Do the words convey an exact (vs approximate) meaning?  Are there cliches?  Are there too many or too few words?  Do they convey appropriate feelings as well as facts.
  • The Sentences:  Does the author use correct grammar and punctuaton?  Do the sentence structures facilitate understanding?   Are they readable without difficulty: not too complex; not too simple?
  • Realism vs Fantasy:  Is the author’s choice of realism vs fantasy supportive of the story overall.  If there are elements of fantasy, does the reader automatically suspend disbelief?
  • Dialogue vs Backstory vs Narrative:  Is there a balanced use of these techniques?  Does their use support the story?
  • Tension:  How much tension does the author build into the story?  Does it support the plot? is there too much or too little tension?

Perhaps there are some variables I’ve overlooked.  Please don’t hesitate to mention them.

Revising

‘Revise’ has a number of synonyms, including: improve, reconsider, update, rewrite, amend and modify.  With my current novel, having finished writing it, I am doing all this and perhaps a bit more.  It is a tedious process, but, to my surprise, I’m enjoying it, because, as I get closer to the end – I’m now about half way through – I’m feeling an increasing sense of pride in the output.

You may recall that in an earlier post, I said that I would print each chapter out in an unusual font and read it aloud, marking anything that jarred on my senses for later correction.  I have done that, and I would recommend it for any author before submitting his/her manuscript for final editing.  Before I started my reading aloud process, I had made a list of ‘lingering concerns’: issues which I felt had to be addressed.  For example, I thought that I had left the characters’ feelings to much to the reader to interpret: they needed to be clearer.

So, here is what my revising process included:

  • Restructuring:  My draft manuscript was 16 chapters long, each about 17 pages.  I thought it would be better to shorten the chapters, particularly because there is a lot that happens in the book.  I’m in the process of reducing the chapter length to about 10 pages, so there will be over 25 chapters.  I also wanted to have a title alluding to the content of each chapter, believing that this would add to reader interest and attention.  The hard part was deciding where to separate the chapters, because previously, I didn’t worry much about that.  As a compromise, I have some material which relates to the topic of a preceding or a following chapter an the beginning or the end of some chapters, but I decided that this was a better solution than having some chapters as short as 6 or 7 pages.
  • Voices: Apart from the narrator, there are two other anonymous, contrarian voices.  I did not want their identity to be obvious, so I have reduced their roles.  But, at the same time, I wanted to reinforce the relevance of these voices to the characters, because they are part of the theme.  I’ve been doing this by having the characters make oblique references to the voices.
  • Characters: I have sharpened the characters so as to make their personalities more unique by having them do or say unusual things which are still in keeping with their individuality.  There are also two minor characters which are too neglected in the original manuscript.  As I’ve mentioned above, clarity of the character’s feelings is essential.  I’ve had to add passages which define the character’s thoughts or actions which reveal feelings, or something about their body language.  I’ve tried to avoid writing ‘the character felt . . .’, but I will let the narrator clarify the character’s feelings without using the word ‘feeling’.
  • Theme:  There is a theme based on Nietzsche which has to do with the development of the individual.  I felt that this theme was well introduced but faded in the later parts.  So, I’m bringing in reminders.
  • Dialog: I have been told that I write good, believable dialog, but I know it can be unnecessarily long.  There is a lot of pruning going on.
  • Unnecessary wording: Like the previous point, I have been unmerciful in deleting text which does not contribute to the reader’s understanding.
  • Time line: The story takes place over a period of about 15 years, but I sensed it was becoming difficult to keep a strict time line in order.  I’m deleting all references to sequence or the passage of time, believing that these milestones tend to be a distraction for the reader.
  • Consistency: I’ve found that I called a restaurant ‘Poseidon’ in the early chapters and ‘Neptune’ in later chapters.  I confess to being hopeless at remembering the names of people and places.  Similarly, in one chapter a terrorist organisation was called Dhul Fikar (Sword of the Prophet) and Dhul Fakir later.  The first spelling is correct.
  • Clichés: When one is reading aloud, clichés tend to reverberate, and they can be re-written
  • Inadequate words: Similarly, an adjective or a verb or even a noun can sound and feel inadequate in best defining the character’s feeling, the situation, or the setting.  Thesaurus to the rescue!
  • Typos: I’ve read the original manuscript three or four times, but I’ve still found (a few) typos!