Structure in Novel Writing, James Scott Bell’s ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ and a Certain Way to a Unique Writing Voice – Joy.

 

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I am sure there is a lot of happiness mixed up with the anxiety, in this elopment…

I read something the other day that made me think (unaccustomed exercise: new pathways created, and all that).

It was actually in an intriguing book about how useful the novel (excuse that Freudian slip) approach of ‘writing a book from the middle’ is, in giving a clear, effortless structure. This is, in fact, a book full of a good advice on structure for every sort of writer. It can be applied by those who begin writing with only the vaguest plan –(I am one of those, in good company with Stephen King) – for those who plan their novels like a military campaign, and for those who are in  between.

In fact, I would recommend this book, which explains how if you have the strong core at the centre of a book (a bit like Pilates for wordsmiths, I suppose) then the rest of it can hold up.

It’s ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ by James Scott Bell Compendium Press (2014).

The author quotes various massively successful novels which have, for all their superficially rambling, epic nature, that ‘Magical Midpoint Moment’ that gives structure and coherence to the whole. This, he suggests, applies to films as well as novels of all genres.  He quotes ‘Gone With The Wind’ and ‘Casablanca’ as two perennially successful examples of stories with a watertight core. He quotes ‘The Hunger Games’ as another example (I am still meaning to read that, though I have seen the film).

This intrigued me. I was interested enough to pick up some of my favourite novels – Margaret Attwood’s ‘Bodily Harm’ and Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ were two – and in fact, the conflict that lies at the base of both plots is indeed at the centre of the novels.

I have gone into both in depth elsewhere, so no need to repeat myself in detail about that conflict here. But briefly: –

In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ there is a discussion between the heroine’s parents about the rumoured fickleness of her preferred, stimulating, but supposedly dead lover and the dogged devotion of her still living cousin, whom she finds dull. This really, is the core of the novel. Which one will bring her long term happiness (if either)?

In ‘Bodily Harm’ we have this: ‘Paul smiles: a kindly, threatening smile. “I like you,” he says. “I guess I’m trying to tell you not to get too mixed up in local politics.”’ And there it is, the core:r Rennie is a journalist who writes superficial ‘lifestyle’ magazine articles, who, after some devastating real life experiences, decides to ‘escape from it all’ on a working holiday in a little known Carribean island; here she gets drawn into local politics willy nilly.

I  couldn’t resist looking at one of my own novels, my first,  ‘That Scoundrel Ėmile Dubois’ to check the middle. Sure enough, there at about the centre, we have the anti hero taking his bride Sophie to their newly rented house after the wedding ceremony.

There, waiting to greet her, along with other staff members, are their new butler and housekeeper Mr and Mrs Kit. It just so happens that they are former associates of his in his old career as the highwayman Monsieur Giles. Ėmile is an incorrigible scoundrel yet – in fact, potentially a far worse one, for he has been possibly infected with the vampire virus – and Sophie sees that she will live in a household (with the exception of Agnes, her maid) run by his former disreputable cronies whose first loyalties are to him. She is uneasy about that, without knowing why…

…But, she doesn’t run off. She’s too besotted; besides, she knows underneath that she is going to stay and fight to bring out the best in the rascal.

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I was – of course – pleased to find the story has a strong core, in fact, done unconsciously. Perhaps, the unconscious sometimes tidies up those issues which the conscious neglects?

I am not saying that novel doesn’t arguably have other faults in its composition. Some find the plot too complex, for instance.

Anyway,  that was a novel I particularly loved writing. I have loved the actual writing part of all my novels (I have whinged often enough about how I hate the editing), but that one – it was, to quote a silly pop song, ‘like flying without wings’. It was a joy ride in the best sense.

And that brings me on to a point the author of ‘Write Your Novel From the Middle’ makes: ‘When an author is joyous in the telling, it pulses through the words…Because when you’re joyful in the writing, the writing is fresher and fuller. Fuller of what? Of you. and that translates to the page and becomes that thing called Voice.’

And isn’t a distinctive voice what makes a novel stand out?

Now, I would love to write like Margaret Attwood. I am going to repeat that: I would love to write like Margaret Attwood! But I  never will  write like Margaret Attwood.  I can only  write as the best Lucinda Elliot possible, and the only way to do that is to write what I love.

What happens to people who write what they don’t love is illustrated all too clearly in the case of the writer Patrick Hamilton.

The contrast between the wonderful vigour of his early works, such as the trilogy ‘Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky’ and the tragic comic grandeur of his vision in his masterpieces, ‘Hangover Square’ and ‘The Slaves of Solitude’ and the sour impression left by last work, ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’ is painfully obvious.

Hamilton had lost, not only his faith in people and the progress of history, had not only descended into alcoholism and bouts of depression, but also his joy in writing.

It is not that he wrote about some very unpleasant people in ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’; becasue he always wrote about mainly unpleasant people.  However, before his last novels, he portrayed their absurdities, snobberies,  bigotories and impossible behaviour so humorously that one was left with a sense of being uplifted. Not only that: in his earlier books, there is always what he called ‘the country dance’ where the reader is truly inspired, and sees – along with the admirable character who is always there at the core of the novel  – that life has its joyful side.

In his later novels, the portrayal of that decent person is weaker and weaker, and finally, in ‘Mr Stimpson and Mr Gorse’  it is actually lacking. He had forgotten that the normal reader wishes to be left with a feeling of having been ‘brought out of himself or herself’ as well as bieng wryly amused.

Had he, with his massive talent, only somehow kept in touch with that joy, he could have avoided that dying fall.

We must remember to write with joy. And that, by the way, is my true answer to a blog post I wrote maybe a year ago, about a novice writer friend of mine who was devastated by her first one star review (and I am still proud I did not say in reply ‘How nice to have only one of those: would you care to count how many I have?’ ).

One should ignore unfair criticism (just criticism with some basis for it is a different matter; we should take a lot of notice of that) and go on in revelling in the joy of writing. There will always be detractors, and anything that stands out must come under fire, but the best way to treat that is to keep on having joy in what you create.

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Getting From the Middle to the End of Your Story: The Main Characters’ Darkest Hours…

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YUK. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the sagging middle, and how I was fighting my way through that in my latest, the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’.

By the way, this one has the interim title: ‘Villains and Vampires’. However, as my last began with the words, ‘The Villainous Viscount’ I am not sure that this new title is sufficiently different. A potential reader, skim reading, might say; ‘The V….V…’ that rings a bell; I must have read that…’  So I’m in two minds.

I have written a bit more of that middle – but guess what: I wrote a pivotal part about which I wasn’t quite sure. Then this way led somehow to all the characters getting towards the end from the middle too quickly.

I didn’t feel that the main characters’ feelings of desperation during the darkest moments were sufficiently extended or bleak. It was more, ‘Oh dear. This is bad. Oh dear, THIS IS BAD! Oh, what’s that? Ah, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel yet…’

I felt that I was pulling too many irons out of the fire before they were red hot, or as if I had lit the fuse too soon. A couple of the sub plots seemed to fizzle out.

And that isn’t good enough. That’s second rate at best – probably third rate. The only writers who can only get away with writing a middle like that are ones with a massive fan base, most of whom are so addicted that they will somehow miss the unsatisfactory nature of that move to the resolution, and give a five star review to anything connected with that writer’s name – even reissued juvenelia.

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So, in that last display of fireworks, you want them all to go off so that the reader says at the end ‘Wow! Just – Wow!’ I hope I’m not normally given to fatuous observations (some might dispute that ) but while I hate that expression  ‘Wow’, that is exactly what I did say at the end of, for instance, Rebecca Lochlann’s ‘In the Moon of Asterion’, the concluding part of the Greek section of her ‘Child of the Erinyes’ series. The way everything came together was brilliant.

By the way, at the moment,the first novel from that series, ‘The Year God’s Daughter’  is permanently free on Amazon.here

That being so, all I could do was jettison those 15,000 words and go back. It made me feel quite dismal for a day or so, but still, I wrote ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’ three times.

I found the following information from this website very useful https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/19/evolving-your-story

…13 Downtime begins
The last section of the middle portion of the story begins with the downtime, which precedes the black moment. Your characters are coming to feel they have nothing left to hold on to. Detail these feelings.
14 Characters revise old or design new short-term goals
Your characters are going to make their next decisions out of sheer desperation. From this point on, they seem to lose much of their confidence – or, worse, they’re feeling a reckless sense of bravado that may have tragic consequences. What are their new goals and how do they plan to reach them?
15 The quest to reach the story goal continues, but instability abounds
Though your characters are ploughing ahead bravely, each step is taken with deep uncertainty. How does this action unfold?
16 The black moment begins
The worst possible failure has now come to pass. The short-term goals made in desperation are thwarted, and the stakes are raised to fever pitch as the worst of all possible conflicts is unveiled. Describe it in detail.
17 The characters react to the black moment
Characters react to this major conflict with a sense of finality. Never will there be a moment when the outcome is more in question than in this concluding section of the middle of the book.
The end…At the end of a book, all plots, subplots and conflicts are resolved. In the last few chapters, the characters are finally given a well-deserved break from their recent crisis.

On juvenilia – I am sure there will be no takers for anyone wanting to read my first satire, which I wrote in cartoon form aged nine?  Entitled ‘Wendy Goes To Town’ it was about an officious little girl who – surprise, surprise, went to town to stay with her aunt . She discovered that a gang of altruistic local villains from the local rough estate were stealing from the rich to give to the poor, and spied on them, using newly acquired detective skills acquired from a book. The story ended with Wendy driven off  by her proud parents, wearing a medal awarded by the local magistrate, who had given all the menaces to society six months…

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I remember that I had recently read a version of the  ‘Robin Hood’ legends, which had a great affect on me; any readers of this blog or my writing will know, of course, that it lingers still.   I hope I can write slightly better than I did at nine, though…

Mid Point Crisis in Novel Writing

grey outcastOh dear. It’s happened; I think I have come to the midpoint crisis in writing my latest.

This is the sequel to ‘That Scoundrel Émile Dubois’. I had already done the first quarter – about 40,000  before I broke off to write, ‘The Villainous Viscount Or the Curse of the Vennns’. As it combines and hopefully resolves many themes, it is epic length, about 120,000 words.

I have moved fairly smoothly through the next twelve thousand words, and now, I suddenly feel I am running out of steam.

Small wonder: I’m at approximately the mid point, and this is the point that so often causes much anguish. There are various pieces of advice available online.

Some of it is excellent, but I was a bit dismayed by the advice of one writer on these infamous mid point doldrums, basically, that you shouldn’t have them because you ought to have written a plan before you  started writing.

I never write out a detailed plan. I  know the beginning and the end, and I  roughly know which way the story will go, but not in detail. Whether that is necessarily a bad thing I don’t know. I tend to think that it is.

Each time I swear that next time I will write out a plan. Each time I forget. That must say something about unconscious resistance to that highly sensible idea…

I certainly agree that the challenge of keeping the tension building, the conflicts increasing, and holding the reader’s interest until the end are of course, vital – and  it is here that the novel cannot afford to be loosely structured.

Rinaldo looking poshOne writer even stated that she usually abandons books at the mid point, rather than before. I find that interesting, as if I’ve read that far, a ridiculous sort of feeling that I mustn’t in some way ‘waste’ the effort that has gone before keeps me going. If I’m going to stop reading, it will be somewhere in the first quarter.  I have, however, sometimes been guilty of stopping careful reading somewhere round this point, instead ‘skim reading’ either to a more interesting point, or if it doesn’t seem in my view to pick up again, to the end.

That is, of course, anyway a qualified success for the author, as I do want to know what happens in the end.

These ideas on avoiding the ‘sagging middle’ in a book by defining the turning point from this website are apposite:

http://www.writerstoauthors.com/story-structure-the-midpoint

‘What’s a midpoint?

A midpoint in the realm of story structure is the point where your character moves from reactionary to action. He makes the leap to start going after his problem instead of running from it.’

Rinaldo in pubThis information on the following link is a good reminder of the function of the middle of a novel:

http://www.aliciarasley.com/artmid.htm

‘Our openings and climaxes usually work pretty well because we know why we write them. The book’s opening has introduced the setting, the major characters, the themes, and the basic “problem” or premise of the plot. The climax brings all these elements together in an ending that explodes with released tension. But few of us know why we write the middle, except to join the beginning and the end.

But the middle is more than a transition from point C to point W. The important middle scenes develop conflict and explore the setting, characters, and theme, while moving the plot forward.

The plot purpose is the most obvious– the middle scenes present most of the events of the story, showing how each leads into the next. The cause-effect chain of the story events must be strongest here in the middle. At the end of the first few chapters, the protagonist has embarked on a journey, and every event marks an advance towards the destination. But we have to be ruthless here so that the journey isn’t a meandering one with too many blind alleys– every scene should be centered on an irrevocable event that changes the course of the plot.

The middle is the time of rising conflict, where the “on-the-brink” situation in the opening chapters gets more and more intense…

200px-Eugene_Onegin_01_(Kardovsky)Another fundamental purpose is to develop the characters, especially the protagonist(s), so that their motivations are understandable and their actions clearly further the plot. These middle scenes also hint at and then gradually reveal any hidden issues or secrets within the major characters.

This is also where we develop the relationships between the protagonist and others. Their interactions, of course, will cause many of the important events– the conflicts, the alliances, the rivalries– that move the plot along.

The middle also has the purpose of deepening the “world” of the novel. Here you can explore the setting and its effect on the characters and events, examine the protagonist’s relationship to the society, and develop the themes or values that drive the protagonist and the society.

Most important, perhaps, is the evolving of the problem or question which drives the plot. If you’re writing a mystery, the problem is “whodunnit?” The question in a romance is “Why do they come to love each other, and how does this change them?” The middle of the book assembles the “evidence” that will eventually solve the problem or answer the question.

Finally, of course, the middle builds towards the climax, setting up the elements necessary for resolutions of the conflicts and the central problem or question…

The middle sags when some of the above purposes are unfulfilled, or fulfilled in a dreary way, or fulfilled not simultaneously but one by one. Experienced readers can identify these single-purpose scenes…

The middle can, however, be deepened and strengthened by following this advice: Have three purposes at least for each scene. One should be “advance the external plot”. For the others, consider these:

Develop character.
Show character interaction.
Explore setting or culture and values.
Introduce new character or subplot.
Forward subplot.
Increase tension and suspense.
Increase reader identification.
Anticipate solution to problem.
Divert attention from solution (but still show it).
Show how character reacts to events or causes events.
Show event from new point of view.
Foreshadow some climactic event.
Flashback or tell some mysterious past event that has consequences now.
Reveal something the protagonist has kept hidden.
Reveal something crucial to protagonist and/or reader.
Advance or hinder protagonist’s “quest”.

Obviously you won’t usually pick out three of these purposes and deliberately insert them into a scene. Rather, realize that action, dialogue, narration, description, and internalization can all be used in the same scene to add greater depth.’

So, taking all this fine advice into account, I hope I will yet survive not having a detailed plan (returns, sourly, to the keyboard, glaring at it as if it were an enemy)…