On Jettisoning 40,000 words and Quotes from Famous Writers

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It was horrible, but there was nothing else for it.

I have just had to jettison about 40,000 words of my latest. I had hoped to be in the last stages of publishing it next month; now with the re-writing, it is going to be delayed by six months at least.

I wasn’t happy with it. I thought it was fairly good, but not good enough. If a writer thinks that about his/her work, then given that most readers are going to be far more critical, it is a  fairly bad sign.

I have never thrown out so many words before. I think I jettisoned 25,000 words for The Villainous Viscount and 15,000 for Where Worlds Meet and maybe an average of 10,000 for the others. But come to think of it, there’s some comfort in the fact that I did write about four drafts of That Scoundrel Émile Dubois.

I was always dubious about the scene that led on to all the others that I had to jettison. Ah yes, it was funny, if I say so myself; but it didn’t lead in the right direction. I should have analysed the problems I was having at that point, instead of wading on, getting into worse difficulties with the plot mechanisms. I think you often know the exact point at which you went wrong .

In this one, it was approximately halfway through the book. In another words, I fell a victim to that dreaded ‘sagging middle’. That is notoriously the most difficult part to write, and it caught me in a quagmire of flabbiness.   I should have pondered on that writing advice about ‘Writing from the Middle’ by James Scott Bell which I read a year or so back.

I have images of Stonehenge in this post because this latest work (late indeed!) does feature thhe magical influence of Stonehenge, and also, a ring which is fasionened from those famous stones.

And on learning from experience, here are some useful bits of advice from well known writers.

“ In order to write about life first you must live it.” – Ernest Hemingway

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” ― Terry Pratchett

“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”  Louis L’Amour

“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”— Stephen King

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” — Franz Kafka

There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt” ~ Erma Bombeck, Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing From America’s Favorite Humorist

“There’s nothing on Earth like really nailing the last line of a big book. You have 200 pages to tickle their fancy, and seven words to break their heart.” ~ Alex de Campi

“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.”  ― Octavia E. Butler

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov

‘Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile. ‘ –  John Irving.

My thanks to these websites from which I have made use of the quotes.

https://getfreewrite.com/blogs/writing-success/writing-tips-from-famous-writers

https://holidappy.com/quotes/Quotes-By-Writers-About-Writing

https://www.inc.com/glenn-leibowitz/50-quotes-from-famous-authors-that-will-inspire-yo.html

https://writingcooperative.com/18-motivational-quotes-to-bring-out-the-writer-in-you-ea3e61c93734

 

 

 

Review of Jordan Rosenfeld’s ‘How to Write a Page Turner’

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I have just finished reading Jordan Rosenfeld’s ‘How to Write a Page Turner’. I thought the advice in it was invaluable.

Not only that, but it is detailed; too many ‘how to’ books for writers are not sufficiently specific. You might be told to ‘infuse the pages with tension’ and to ‘keep raising the conflict’ besides, ‘creating memorable characters’ , but the writers might just as well say ‘be talented’ ‘write with flair’ or some such thing.

This advice is also concise. There is no waffling and rambling. You are told exactly what to do and how to do it.

The author’s main argument is this: what is needed to create a page turner is tension, tension all the time. We are often told that tension and conflict are what drive a plot forward, but in fact, conflict is arguably another aspect of tension.

The author breaks down the specific forms of tension into four elements, danger, conflict, uncertainty and withholding. She describes how these can be utilised, and in further chapters goes on to discuss in detail tension with characters, plot tension, and tension in exposition.

In the part on plotting, there is an especially helpful bit on a plotting device that may well prove priceless for people like me, who generally start out without any but the vaguest plot in mind.

Ms Rosenfeld divides the sections of a book into various ‘Energetic Markers.
Firstly, there is the Set Up: that is, your character’s ordinary world. This is closely followed – usually, within approximately 30 pages –by the Inciting Incident, namely, some sort of threat to the order of that character’s ordinary world. About a quarter of the way through comes the Point of No Return, that is, when your character becomes inextricably caught up in a course of action or events from which there is no returning to the old status quo. In due course, the Dark Night and the Triumph follow.

The latter is when your protagonist takes on the antagonist, be that antagonist an arch evil dictator or a series of impersonal conventions. This does not necessarily lead to a happy ending, but should be some sort of moral triumph.

(This interests me, as Nineteen Eighty Four, in the final confrontation between O’Brien and Winston Smith, far from there being any sort of moral triumph for the forces of good, they are in the person of Smith completely destroyed; he not only betrays Julia, but he comes to love Big Brother. The reader is left with a sense of complete despair).

There is detailed advice about how to maintain that tension at each of these points. Obviously, however, with regard to keeping up a reader’s interest, the most important part is the beginning. If people are going to stop reading, it is usually in the first quarter of the book (here, I think I can claim a record; at least two people stopped reading halfway through That Scoundrel Émile Dubois when I thought that I had really ramped the excitement up, with vampirism and time warps raining down.)

Ms Rosenfeld provides some important hints about retaining reader interest early in the novel. She points out that here, to keep your readers’ attention, you must have as much excitement as you can. You must make the character sympathetic, not by giving a lot of detail about past trauma, etc – but by putting him or her in a situation where there is tension from the start, due to unhappiness, some sort of imminent threat, external or internal, and perhaps due to some unspecified past event that has brought about this state of unease or threat.

She describes how large chunks of back story, an excess of exposition, or an unexplained or not sufficiently relevant inciting incident can lose readers’ attention in those first, crucial pages up to the ‘call to change’ in the inciting incident.
There are also some excellent hints about style and the use of imagery to create gripping word pictures.

Another interesting aspect of Rosenfeld’s approach is her recommendation that rather than thinking in terms of plot development – apart from through those ‘Energetic Markers’ that is – the writer should think in terms of individual scenes, each of which must have its own goal and arc of tension, the combination of which create the plot structure.

My main criticism of this book is that I didn’t understand why the author made reference to, but chose to use almost nothing in the way of example from classic, brilliant writers ike Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood and Stephen King.

Instead, she quoted extensively from a range of less distinguished authors. Some were excellent, but unfortunately, some, far from making me want to turn the page, made me want to stop reading on the spot.

It may have been that I was in a particularly cranky mindset when I read this. Still, in the extracts I came across sentences without subjects or verbs. As Ms. Rosenfeld shows from her advice that she has an expert knowledge of grammatical rules, I think there must be a general understanding that in YA fantasy these can be abandoned for effect.

There were also fantasy worlds apparently based vaguely on European feudalism that even from the extracts sounded economically impossible with such a small economic surplus (unless they maintained their oversized courts largely through magic). There was an astonishing historical anachronism in a serious historical novel that made me snort into my tea.

Many of the characters seemed to be flaccidly self-indulgent and self pitying (I hope these were the tension creating flaws that they needed to overcome). Finally, a large number of the names were (seemingly unintentionally) ludicrous.

As these are best selling books, my objections are obviously a minority viewpoint. A couple of the books sounded so interesting that I may well get round to reading them myself.

Overall, then, I would recommend reading this book for the excellent advice about tension, and only skimming through the extracts.

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…

Originality and Breaking the Rules in Writing

grey outcastWhen I first started writing, it was in the days before the internet. The aspiring writer had to seek out and buy a ‘How To’ book, or borrow it from the library.

The first of these that I read contained this helpful piece of advice from the male author, very successful, but you might say, ‘one of the old school’. I have never forgotten his words, either: ‘If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about your dog, or your wife.’ Seriously, in that order.

But I digress…

For many years now, for excellent writing advice, you can go online and in a few keystrokes, locate many websites full of suggestions and guidance for aspiring and already published (self and traditional) writers about the technical issues of writing and the latest market trends in publishing.

It invaluable to have so many sources giving varied advice regarding such key matters as the issues surrounding the need to have a clearly defined protagonist, point of view, how to create believable and interesting characters, the perils of having a Mary Sue or Marty Stu main character, and all the rest of it.

220px-Renoir23If one is interested in following market trends in publishing, and the latest rumoured top hates of agents, then one can find all sorts of discussions about those.

Writing from the second person point of view is, I think, the only one that strikes a chord with me.

It seems that the current pet hates among literary agents and publishers also include a prologue, a story starting with the main character starting awake from a dream which indicates psychic communication, plus – bizarrely – large blocks of italics. I must say that I consider that last to be unreasonable, as it is a convention that letters etc should be depicted in italics. If we have a long letter in the story, are we then supposed not to put it in italic form?

And finally on these hates of agents and publishers, it seems that they hate brackets, too.

And that isn’t even starting on the ways they hate various themes, ie, hate children’s stories about discovering hidden treasure in a sinister secret passage in a castle (rather strange: I never met a child under nine who didn’t emjoy a story about that).

Rinaldo looking poshQuite honestly, it does seem to be getting to the point where agents should state what they don’t hate, rather than what they do, because it would surely be briefer.

But it also seems to me, with all this talk and advice about writing styles and what agents and publishers find desirable, what is currently fashionable among readers, and all the rest of it, that something important is being neglected.

Originality in writing means breaking the rules.

Originality means thinking outside the box, and writing the story the way it flowed from your fingers during one of those wonderful times when the story seems to write itself.

We all are all – hopefully- inspired by great writers. To name just a few who have personally inspired me, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Alexander Pushkin, Turgenev, Elizabeth Gaskell, all the Bronte sisters, George Elliot,  Balzac, Zola, Joseph Conrad, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H G Wells, George Orwell, Irwin Shaw, Patrick Hamilton, Harlan Ellison, Susan Hill, Stephen King and Margaret Attwood…

Of course, that’s failing to mention of my many talented indie author associates. I’ll spare their blushes, but several have inspired me.

But the main thing is, we mustn’t write like those writers we admire.

We can hopefully learn many things from them about structure, plot, characters, and all the rest of it. To name just one instance, when I read Harlan Ellison’s ‘Repent Harlequin Said The Ticktockman’ at fourteen, I saw a demonstration of how writing about a dystopia doesn’t have to mean writing a story without absurdity. Absurdity and horror so often go hand in hand.

But finally, if we want to try and write something original, something memorable, we must strike out on our own, like youngsters breaking away from parental control. That is what the writers we admire did. Their writing would not stand out if they hadn’t. We don’t want to write a second rate version of what someone has already done.

That – and I know I have said it before – is why finally we should go with our instincts  about  writing, even if it sometimes means going against the flow.

Because – and again, I know I have said much the same in a previous post – we may shelve an idea we love, because it breaks some rule or other. And who knows but some other writer may not produce a book which becomes all the rage, and which breaks exactly those rules to which we kowtowed.

mrx%2BnecronomiconI’m not saying that it’s a good idea to send out manuscripts which, just for the sake of it, begin with a prologue in dream form, are written from the second person point of view, crammed full of italics and brackets, and feature treasure hidden in secret passages.

Well, come to think of it, maybe it is. It would be funny to see those agents and publishers’ faces…

Leaving that wonderful vision aside,  I do think if we keep too closely to the rules, we risk sacrificing our own individual style.

Book Titles: Choosing a Title and some Good, Bad, and Indifferent Titles from Classic Novels

mrx%2BnecronomiconTitles are always difficult to decide on. This is all the more of a challenge, as the conventional wisdom of innumerable writers websites says you have to have an outstanding one that will make your readers want to start reading at once: – not an easy task.

Well, I find them difficult, anyway. I was stumped as to what to call the Sophie de Courcy and Émile Dubois story, until I realised that I had the title in the text in the quote from Lord Dale in Émile’s days as a highwayman: – ‘You’re that scoundrel, Émile Dubois: i can tell by your eyes!’

I believe this is often true (having difficulty in finding a good title, I mean, and then finding it in a line in the story, not identifying highwaymen by their eyes). That’s handy, given the sickening number of times an author must edit, re-write, and edit again. You can read through looking for a possible title, and the great thing is, these days, it doesn’t have to be conventional; it can be a question, or a threat, as in Harlan Ellison’s classic dystopian fantasy, of which more below…

I am never sure how far titles influence me as a reader. I would say only occasionally when I was younger, and perhaps more often now. Covers often interested me more then. Perhaps I have become less visual? Hard to say, as then I had seen so much less of both than I have now.

I was pulled in by a several titles, though, even then. For instance, when I saw that one of the late Philip K Dick’s: ‘”Flow My Tears,” The Policeman Said’ that acted as a hook at once (I would dispute that his surname had a Freudian effect on me, though!) .41cypvh7jfl

‘”Repent Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison was another. I knew I’d have to read that or burst, though I was fourteen at the time, and cynical about almost everything.

The Philip K Dick novel disappointed me slightly, though I really think I ought to re-read it, as I would understand the many references better now, and at the end the meaning of the title, elusive throughout , was finally illuminated in a cathartic scene.

‘”Repent Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman’ is surely a work of genius. I gather that it has won classic status, and deservedly. I realised, when reading that, just how you can write a story with a serious political or anyway, ‘social’ message, and still make it entertaining.

For anyone reading this blog who hasn’t read that story, I would urge: please do, even if it’s the only piece of fantasy you ever read. It is horribly prescient. Written circa 1965, it prefigures our present day Culture of Hurry in a hideous but comical dystopia of a world governed by clocks. The very rhythm of the story is reminiscent of the ticking of a clock out of synch.

It is grotesquely comic, and highly tragic. It’s wonderfully constructed, though this is done with such mastery that it seems almost by the style that it was slapped together accidentally.

wuthering heightsOddly enough, I have never read a review on it, so these opinions are just ‘off the top of my head’.

But some other classic best sellers have, to say the least, lacklustre titles. It would seem that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance, nobody was that bothered about a title as a form of advertisement. A title seems to have been used as a means of summarising the book, rather than that of selling it.

Samuel Richardson’s’ Pamela’, anybody? Well, that does have the subtitle, ‘Or Virtue Rewarded’. I am sure that those who have borne with me through many blog posts know at once what my take on that is: ‘Moral and religious hypocrisy and toadying to your would-be rapist rewarded, more like!’

For sheer yawn inducing lack of allure, try the title of the today little known sequel: ‘Pamela in Her Exulted Condition’. Yes; and the story isn’t much more exciting.

Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ has a dull enough sub-title: ‘The History of a Young Lady’. Maybe that was to put off those readers with perverted tastes who might plough through six of the seven volumes for the pleasure of reading of the rape (which anyway, takes place offstage to maintain propriety).

Then there is Fanny Burney’s ‘Evelina’. That’s a nice name, and unusual, but not exactly a descriptive title. Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’ and ‘Joseph Andrews’ are even less likely to enthral: unlike Richardson and Burney’s, those don’t even have unusual names.

In fact, I have been guilty of calling a novel simply after the name of a main character myself – in ‘Ravensdale’. I liked title, as both the protagonist Reynaud and the antagonist Edmund share that surname, and it is the name of the earldom which Edmund covets; besides which, ravens are seen as birds of ill omen and they circle about at the climatic points of the story. Still, potential readers don’t know that.images

Another early novel is a favourite mine of the so-bad-it’s-good category ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini, Captain of Banditti’. That is probably a title that promises much blood and thunder in the original German. I don’t speak, or read any German, so I couldn’t say. In that English one, it sounds like a take off of some school story of the mid twentieth century: ‘Renny Reynolds, Captain of the First Eleven’, or some such.

Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is a name difficult to detach from its lurid reputation, but removed from that, it isn’t much of an advertisement for the excitement of that truly terrifying story.

Then we go on to the subtle, but sedate titles from Jane Austen: ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Mansfield Park’ etc.

‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Agnes Grey’ are again far from riveting titles; ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ are a bit more likely to stimulate interest.

thElizabeth Gaskell was another person who went in for sedate titles. ‘Mary Barton’, ‘Ruth’ and ‘North and South’ etc. ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ might be considered to be shockingly risqué for this most Christian of authors –except for the fact that ‘lovers’ had a completely respectable meaning in the mid nineteenth century UK…

Her one time editor Charles Dickens knew how to market writing – how to end his serial pieces for his magazine on a cliff hanger, and how to appeal to his audience – and yet, his titles were hardly of the sort likely to send rushing to buy a copy – ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘Domby and Son’, ‘Hard Times’ etc. For all that, he was of course, the most successful author of his age. He did seem be fascinated by bizarre surnames and of course, these often feature as titles, ie, ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’.

t2c-_carton_the_the_young_seamstress_before_going_to_the_guillotine_john_mclenanThen, at the beginning of the twentieth century, we have one of the most famous novels ever to be published in the UK – so famous that it is hard to detach the name from its reputation –’ Dracula’. That name is taken from the title of the sinister ‘Vlad the Impaler’ of fifteenth century Transylvania, Vlad Tepes. It seems that nearly until publication, Bram Stoker was going to call the book, ‘The Dead Un-Dead’.

Bland as many of those nineteenth century titles are, it is interesting how a slight alternation would make them either ludicrous or totally boring.

‘Balmy Valleys’ by Emily Bronte.

‘The Tenant of Mellow Meadow Bungalow’ by Anne Bronte.

‘A Saga of Two Suburbs’ by Charles Dickens.

‘Sylvia’s Acquaintances’ by Elizabeth Gaskell.

‘Flat 2B, Mansfield House, Mansfield Road’ by Jane Austen.

‘Humility and Open Mindedness’ by Jane Austen.

They do certainly lose an allure, so there must have been some thought given to those original titles, sedate or not…And on Dickens, how come I forgot last week to include the supremely dull virtuous hero of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Darnay as a Marty Stu hero from a classic novel, or, in my post of two weeks before, Lucie Manette as a classic example of the true  Mary Sue as heroine?