Building a Story House

under construction signage on laptop keyboard
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There are many analogies for writing a book. I always liken it to building a house.

A house needs strong foundations. For a writer our foundation is our plot. It has to be solid enough to support a story from the beginning to the end.

A building needs a well-built structure to stand on the foundations – the walls and the roof.  This sustains the building, protecting it from the elements and hostile invaders. A book needs a carefully planned structure too. A writer needs to think about whether the book will be divided into various parts or whether it will rely solely on chapters, will there be a prologue and an epilogue, who will tell the story and will it be in the first person or third person.

The house builder needs to give careful thought to where the doors and windows are placed for maximum effect, the doors need to give easy access to and from the dwelling, the windows might focus on a wonderful view or concentrate on bringing lots of light into the rooms within. For writers, our doors and windows are the opening of a story, the highpoints that drive the narrative forward, the unexpected plot twists that surprise and delight readers and finally the ending.

To make a house a home, it needs subdividing into rooms that work individually but also as a whole with the rest of the house. In writing, our rooms are our scenes. Every scene should have a purpose, if possible more than one. If they don’t then they are merely padding and have no place in the finished book.

Once a builder has all the basics in place they can start to decorate by adding colour to the walls and coverings to the floors followed by the furniture.

story house 1For a writer they can only start to decorate and add the furniture once the plot is nailed down and the structure is complete. That’s when the editing starts. Imagine having to emulsion a mansion, room by room, day after day until the whole building is complete. That’s how editing a novel should be. At first it seems like a massive task, a never-ending task, but sure enough once you start working through the chapters, as a builder would work through the various rooms, you start to see progress.

 

And, just as with a building, once one edit is finished it is time to start the next. A builder would add skirting boards and cornices. We do another run through to make our words flow even better than they did before and then another and another.

Once a building is finished there is usually a long snagging list – little imperfections that have been overlooked. Writers need snagging lists too. A read through as a reader rather than as an editor can highlight these, a section where the pace sags, an inconsistency regarding names, a lack of tension. This is where our beta readers come into their own.

story house 2

Once a building’s snagging list has been resolved it’s time for the builder to hand over the keys to the new owners who proudly move in and hang pictures on the walls and curtains at the windows.

Writers too can enjoy these moments. The final polishing of a manuscript is always immensely satisfying, the writing equivalent of plumping the cushions on the sofa.

Building a house is a long-term project as is writing a book.

So, the next time you embark on a new book picture yourself digging the foundations of your new story house. When the going gets tough, as it always does for home builders and writers alike, picture where you will be when the work has been completed.

Trust the process and trust yourself. In a year or maybe less you will be standing inside your beautiful creation, plumping the cushions ready to put your story house on the market for sale.

Happy writing!

 

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Pointing The Way

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Whatever type of book you are writing it is always better not to signpost the action too much. By that I mean, do not make it obvious what is about to happen. If you do, why would a reader bother to read on? After all, they already know what is going to happen.

Dead End Signpost

With so much competition for the attention of readers, you need to make them sit up and take notice, to wonder and speculate. If you do that, they will want to read on to see if they were right.

If they were right they will feel pleased with themselves for guessing, if they were wrong they may love you all the more because you challenged them and did not do as they expected.

Dropping breadcrumbs to lead a reader in a particular direction, even if it ultimately proves false, is acceptable. Lighting the way with flashing neon signs is not. It is about as subtle as a brick through a window and never works. Suddenly the writer is stepping forward, making themselves visible to the reader, and that is never a good thing.

Neon arrows

Taking the TV series Britannia as an example, let me illustrate what I mean. In episode eight one of the main characters Aulus takes it upon himself to talk to a lowly scribe, bringing said scribe front and centre of the action and encouraging him to talk about his family.

I did not recall seeing hide nor hair of said scribe in episodes one to seven, yet suddenly here he is being thrust into the forefront of the viewers’ attention. It was ham fisted to say the least. Immediately, my spidey senses told me that said scribe was going to meet a sticky end and we were only being allowed to get to know him a little so that we would know of him and “care” when he died.

Sure enough Lucius tries to murder Aulus later on in the same episode. Having stabbed the sleeping form in Aulus’s bed with such gusto he would be unlikely to wake ever again, Lucius is fairly confident that he has done the deed until of course Aulus steps from the shadows and it is the poor scribe who has met an untimely death. [As a scribe he was probably turning in his grave to have had his own ending written so poorly].

That is how not to do it.

Face Palm

If the scribe had appeared in earlier episodes, if only fleetingly, with one or two lines to mark his presence and his role, we as viewers would have been less clued up to his fate and may actually have cared a little more.

I have the same complaint to make about animals in storylines who are there solely to meet an untimely death to show the readers/viewers how dastardly a particular character is.

It is rule 101 in the Lazy Writers’ Handbook and should be avoided at all costs. It’s been done to death, if you’ll pardon the pun.

So next time you need to dispose of a convenient body, as it were, give them a little bit of life before death and if you need to show the readers that a character is capable of doing bad things, stretch your creative muscles a little and show us this in an imaginative way.

Anything less is writing by numbers and we should all strive to be better than that.

[I have given Britannia a bit of a kicking in the last two blogs – I should just say that I did actually find the show entertaining although not always for the right reasons 😊 which just added to the fun. It is all rather gloriously bonkers and for that reason alone, I was quite pleased to discover they have been given a second series].

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

 

 

 

The Runaway Character

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Have you ever worked on a story and found a character off to stage left keeps insistently pushing their way forwards, stealing the limelight in every scene in which they feature and generally making a nuisance of themselves to such an extent that you have to start taking more notice of them?

runaway

This has happened to me on a number of occasions. As a writer we are soon faced with two choices, we can either learn to love the impudent rascals and give them the space they need to breathe or we can take them out of the story completely.

If we leave them in we are often rewarded with a richer story with more depth and colour than would otherwise have been the case.

Fans of Gossip Girl may be surprised to learn that the character of Chuck Bass was only meant to be an occasional and minor player in the teen soap but ended up being one of the central characters and the show was all the better and more entertaining for it.

We do however need to be careful that we do not end up creating a monster who even though you have built their part up is still going to ape the limelight and make the hero/heroine seem dull in comparison.

Overshadowed
Bored by Jose courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/6yqaro https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

This came to my mind recently when watching Britannia on TV. The character of Divis – a demon-possessed outcast – steals every scene he appears in. Clearly having a ball with the role was actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas. Wonderful as he was to watch, I cannot have been alone in being ever so slightly bored whenever he was not on the screen, surely not what the writers or producers intended.

[Incidentally, when the second best thing about the show is the song chosen as the theme tune you know a show has issues. In case you are wondering the tune in question is Hurdy Gurdy Man by Donovan played over psychedelic titles – it shouldn’t work on any level but is an absolute triumph. Gold star to whoever was brave enough to suggest it in the first place].

But let’s get back to our runaway characters. It can be an exciting and challenging time when one of your characters threatens to go off piste and run away with the whole thing. As writers we are entering uncharted territory, unsure of our destination and sometimes, often, that is where the magic happens. Enjoy the ride but remember you are ultimately in control. It is enormous fun to follow this character wherever they want to go but it must never be to the detriment of the story you are trying to tell.

Fast car

A runaway character can be a blessing and a curse. Use them well and the outcome can be glorious. Use them badly and you may end up with an indulgent mess.

crash
Crash by Cha Gia Jose courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/4Toeoj https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

As you hang on to the coattails of a runaway character you need to keep asking yourself the same question – is the story better because of this? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, then perhaps you are simply telling the wrong story.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

Third Man Through The Door

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The Third Man Through The Door concept is taken from film makers. In the most literal interpretation the third man (or woman) came through the door after the hero or heroine and the sidekick.

Third Person concept
Three O by Kwanie courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/nWtFM https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Often they were there to bolster the ego of the first two characters and make them look good, sometimes even sacrificing themselves so the hero and sidekick could save the day.

Since reading about this concept many years ago I have always been surprised by just how many stories feature the third man – or person to be gender neutral. Once you are aware of their existence and the reason for their being in the story, you notice them more and more – films, tv and books all feature third people.

As a writer, I’m a pantser not a planner but third people evolve naturally in my stories and I bet they do in yours, too.

We are aware of stories from our youngest age and although we do not generally analyse the roles characters play in them or break them down into their component pieces, we are taking this information in, story by story, by osmosis. We learn that tales often have characters in certain roles and once we recognise those roles, we see them again and again.

Three's company

The third person role is vital to most stories, even if they do not feature throughout the piece, their influence will still be felt. They sometimes do the heavy lifting necessary to make a back story work, they can ask the right questions at the right time, they can impart crucial character information about the hero/heroine and sidekick and, of course, they make your central characters look good.

They are never going to be the sexy one or the most intelligent one – those roles are strictly reserved for your hero/heroine. They are not going to be particularly funny – that role often belongs to the sidekick. They are usually decent and fair and can sometimes be the moral compass of a piece or at least be there to guide the hero/heroine back on to the right track should they waver – although that role sometimes falls to the wise elder. Their backstory can be hinted at but is rarely explored. They are not there to be the centre of attention. They are, as their name suggests, a way down the pecking order and destined to stand off to the side, helping the story along whenever required.

man in shadows

I now find myself trying to pick out the third man in every film or TV show I watch or book I read. I must warn you, however, third person spotting becomes addictive. Once you learn how to recognise them, you will see them everywhere and wonder how come you never noticed them before.

I love the third person. I find the character intriguing and delightful and as a writer they are endlessly helpful and useful.   I urge you to love them too.

When creating your characters we lavish so much time and attention on our main players, rightly so, but try not to overlook the third person. Sketch in their backstory with a few strokes of your pen, give them a life, a past and a future (if they are not destined to die heroically saving the hero and the sidekick, of course ;)). They do such good work for us as writers, they deserve to be more than cardboard cut outs.

Sometimes I like my third person so much they stop being my third person and start to gravitate more to the centre of the piece but more on that next time.

Happy writing!

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

 

Making a note…

Writers love notebooks, right? We have various designs and colours, some with pens, some without. Diaries and planners also feature widely in our collections. We are magpies when it comes to stationery – always searching out the latest, brightest designs.

coffee-flowers-notebook-work-desk-162584

But it doesn’t really matter what the notebook looks like. As a writer, what really matters is how you use it.

A few weeks ago we had a spell of snowy weather in the UK. The temperature dropped but felt colder still because of the wind chill factor. We do not often get snow as deep as the falls we did this year and whilst we are used to cold temperatures, the howling winds from Siberia were a new and unpleasant experience. I had forgotten how hard it is to walk through deep snow. I had forgotten the craving for carbs that takes over in cold conditions. I had forgotten the harsh sting of a biting wind and the ruby red glow of entering a warm house; the simple joy of consuming a mug of hot chocolate. All of these things have made their way into my notebooks now.

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At present, I don’t have a character I am planning to expose to similar weather conditions but when I do, I won’t have to rely on unreliable memory banks for the thoughts, feelings or sounds of winter.

When going somewhere new, I always try to carry a notebook with me. Whether I am visiting a far flung country or a local beauty spot, there will always be new things to see and experience, depending on the season and the time of day.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking only special things should be recorded in our notebooks. Simple pleasures have their place, too. Think of sitting on a beach in the summer and scrunching your bare toes into the sand or walking through a forest surrounded by falling leaves on an autumn day.

We enjoy these little moments and if we do, our characters should too.

You wouldn’t normally build a story around any of the things I have mentioned in this post but all of these things occur in our everyday lives and so should also make an appearance in our characters’ lives when appropriate. If we identify with the pleasure of eating an ice cream on a hot day, so will our readers. If we can put on the page the drama of a thunder storm, our readers will remember a similar storm. If we can record the beauty of watching the snow fall when we are warm and safe indoors and do not have to venture out, our readers will recall such a time as well.

Cornfields on a windy day, the smell of the sea, the beauty of an unfurling rose. These snapshots of everyday life will appeal to readers because they will be familiar to them. A few sprinkled across your novel will give it the ring of truth because you recorded them shortly after you experienced them and wrote them down both from the heart and with a memory of all the senses.

 

deckchairs

Notebooks used in this way will not carry the root and branch of a story but they will carry within them the kind of bonus material that will bring colour, texture and life to your work.

So remember, notebooks are not just for looking pretty on the desk or shelf, they are for writing in. Take them with you, get sand in them, have the fat raindrops of a summer storm spatter the pages, let them live as you live and they will reward you for many years to come.

white lies
White Lies by Ellie Holmes http://Author.to/EllieHolmes

 

Writing is meant to be fun

I have recently been reading Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Right to Write’. It is an excellent book and there is a lot to take from it. If you have never read it I strongly urge you to invest in a copy.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Right-Write-Invitation-Initiation-Paperback/dp/B0168SKCFK/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1515853357&sr=8-3&keywords=right+to+write

One of the things Julia reminded me of as I read her book is that writing is meant to be fun. Somewhere along the road from writer to published writer to authorpreneur I forgot the fun bit. Writing had become targets and deadlines, pressure and stress.

Rediscovering the joy in my writing is one of my resolutions for 2018.

Fun
Fun by Lotzman Katzman courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/dNjwvd https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I could not have reconnected with this fundamental piece of advice at a better time. Following the publication of one of my short stories in a women’s magazine towards the end of last year, the editor of another women’s magazine emailed me with a proposal – how would I feel about writing a three-part serial for her publication. She wanted a romantic mystery that ran to 3,500 words with a cliffhanger after 1,000 words (the first edition), a second cliffhanger after 2,000 (the second edition) and all tied up neatly in the final 1,500 (the third edition).

With the mantra that ‘writing is fun’ running through my mind, I set to work. What came out of it was Midnight at Moon Bay, the first part of which is published in Yours Magazine in the UK this week and is on sale now.

I thoroughly enjoyed writing Midnight and I hope, if you get the chance, you’ll enjoy reading it.

It’s the Hook not the Book

I promised an update on my recent submission to the literary agent I met at Winchester last summer. She emailed to say she would like a chat over the phone. We subsequently spoke for about 30 minutes. She did not want to take the novel I had submitted to her. She felt it did not hit all the beats of a crime novel and whilst she had enjoyed it and thought the pacing, structure, characterisation and plot were all great, it was not stand out enough to be a break out novel in commercial fiction.

She said if I wanted to write an out and out crime novel she was certain I could do it she just wasn’t sure I wanted to which was very perceptive of her. I love writing about relationships. I particularly like writing about relationships when people from very different walks of life meet and sparks fly. I do not want to shift my focus away from that to hit the beats of a narrower brief.

Narrow
Narrow by Claus Zurbig courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/SBBD51 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Whilst I was initially disappointed I quickly bounced back (you have to in this game!). Her words, however, got me thinking. In the trad world it is all about the hook and not the book. If the hook is strong enough that the marketing people can run with it you’re in and anything that does not hit that sweet spot is out, labelled as too much work. It’s all about the hook. A great hook can carry weaker writing across the line. That’s a fact of life in this modern world.

hook2
Hook by Jasleen Kaur courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/8zqogr https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Which leaves writers with a dilemma. It’s a choice artists have always had to make – do you chase the money or do you follow your love of your craft. It’s why Hollywood actors do one big picture for the studios and two independent films for themselves.

The competitive part of me wants to write the hell out of a crime novel now just to prove I can do it but crucially my heart wouldn’t really be in it. I write what I like and I wouldn’t want that to change that.

If you are lucky enough to write what you like and it also hits the sweet spot with the marketing people congratulations. You’ve hit the motherlode.

For the rest of us, I am pleased to say there is a silver lining to this tale. Indie publishing. Indie loves books that have hooks as much as trad publishing does but indie isn’t so narrow minded – cross genre, mash up or niche, indie welcomes them all and if you can devise a half decent marketing plan you might even find an audience as has been the case for me.

Indie gave me a home when no one else would and still does. Indie continues to cherish and reward me. Best of all, indie allows me to be myself and write what I want to write. Who can really ask for more?

book heart
Heart by Kate Ter Haar courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0 https://flic.kr/p/7AZpB6 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/