Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Author Helpdesk. Part 1. The Plot

Author Helpdesk

We all need a bit of assistance now and again. Customer Service platforms thrive on our various dilemmas and questions. But where do authors go for short, snappy tips? 

Author Helpdesk is my small attempt to address this conundrum and talk about the things that crop up again and again when I'm editing fiction. So, let's start at the beginning ... 

What's the Story?

As we all know, story is crucial to any novel, and the fundamental story — that is, the plot — is what forms the unifying thread that essentially holds any book together, unites characters and subplots, and keeps the reader where the author wants them ... engrossed in their book. So, getting it right is vital to the success of your novel.

What's the Problem?

In my experience, many writers, particularly new ones, struggle with the following:

  • Overcomplicating the story
  • Concentrating on issues, or themes, at the expense of story — literally losing the plot!
  • Writing too much
  • Drafting a series before they've completed the first instalment

Overload Questions

Admittedly, seeing the bigger picture is easier when you're not immersed in the project, but if you suspect that your book might be suffering from any or several of the above problems, then try asking yourself:

  • Are you perhaps trying to do too much within the confines of one book? A lengthy tome might indicate this is the case.
  • Has the basic story disappeared beneath a plethora of weighty issues? Does your book deal very visibly with topics such as bullying, sexism, social injustice, and so on, rather than what your characters are up to?
  • Does your novel vastly exceed 100k words? If it's not fantasy, then consider that most commercial fiction is shorter than, or around, this extent.
  • How many stories are you actually trying to write? Do you perhaps have enough material for more than one novel?

Then what?

Narrow this down further. Can you answer these questions about your book?
  • What's your book about? 
  • What happens in it? Is there a clear narrative objective?
  • Who does the story happen to? Is there a clearly defined main protagonist?
  • Is your story actually on the page, or is it still in your head?
  • Most importantly, why should someone keep reading it?
Clearly, there are many other questions one could ask about a novel, but these are just a few starting points when thinking about your plot and whether you have conveyed it satisfactorily.

Stating the obvious?

When we read works by other authors, we subconsciously think about what works and/or what doesn't within those stories. So, we know all this stuff, right? 

And yet, an inadvertent obfuscation of plot is something that I come across regularly when editing fiction of all types, and across different genres aimed at miscellaneous target audiences, as authors allow their creative enthusiasm to lead them astray. 

So, when trying to reply to any of the above questions, a complicated and lengthy response should probably alert you to a potential problem with your basic plot.

What can you do?

Stand back. Take a breath. Be critical, albeit constructively and dispassionately. 

Consider if there are there things that are perhaps getting in the way of your storytelling, or rendering it less effective, such as tangential subplots or peripheral characters. Have you forced a story into a theme, rather than allowing a theme to emerge organically from your plot?

Remember ...

Editors and publishers will forgive the odd missing comma or incorrect tense, but they won't forgive weaknesses in the chain of events that happen in the book, or in the underlying elements that drive the narrative action. So, make sure that you focus on your story in the first instance. 

And failing that, consider the words of Neil Gaiman: 'Write down everything that happens in the story, and then in your second draft make it look like you knew what you were doing all along.'

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Welcome to my blogging world

Joining the Blogosphere

Finally, after years of penning blogs for other people, I've decided to join the throng and create my own space in which to witter.

I'm not entirely sure what I will write about, nor how often I might feel the urge to scribble and post.

My topic might be work-related, or it might not. It may well be a combination of life and work, given that for a freelance, domestic upheaval or interruptions can definitely impact professional endeavours. As for work–life balance … well, after eleven years of freelancing, it's improving, but there are still phases of total mayhem, usually denoted by an increase in my caffeine consumption and the laundry piling up.

Where do Authors fit in?

But what remains constant when things go slightly awry? How do I manage to stick my head back into a text when everything else is falling apart? Is it the encroaching deadline? Admittedly, that can certainly motivate me into action, but not always.

Actually, it would have to be my authors or a few choice publishing contacts with whom I have worked for a while.

In the midst of the most seemingly insurmountable stress, be they professional or domestic, I'm sure I could be forgiven for finding the demands of my clients a little irksome. And yet, time and again, just when things appear to have nowhere to go but down, several clients, who have since become friends — some of whom I have even met in person! – have a tendency to keep me sane.

They make me laugh with deliberately ridiculous requests via email; get in touch just to see how I am or to bemoan their lack of creative output; invite me for a long overdue coffee and cake outing; detail their own domestic catastrophes with self-deprecating humour; and promise me (yet again) that their text is on its way (you know who you are).

Whoever they are, whatever their reason for getting in touch, they nearly always instill me with a little bit more energy to plough through the chaos beyond my desk and refocus my attention.

Books are the thing

So, armed with another bucketful of coffee and the prospect of a few really interesting books to work on in the coming months, things are more or less ticking over, providing a welcome distraction from the sometimes unwanted and inconvenient hiccups of real life.

Inspiration, please

And as I sit at my desk, gazing at the drizzle-obscured view of Edinburgh Castle across the Forth, and ponder what to write in my first blog, should you have any particular requests or topics you would like me to cover, on all things editorial or vaguely of that ilk, just let me know.