Novel writing workshops
Wrestling with your novel
Here are some exercises to help you grapple with the unwieldy monster that is your unfinished novel, discover its strengths – and its weaker points – and bring it under control. For more ideas, and a clear way of approaching your work, you might consider investing £3 in A Novel in Nine Steps, the latest in our nifty new Mslexia Mini series. This one was developed by Jenny Newman, pioneering creative writing tutor and writer of The Writer’s Workbook (Arnold).
Workshop three – Basic arithmetic
Here are two suggestions that will help your reader focus on your leading character in the first few pages of your novel. The reader is easily confused in the early chapters and it’s your job to guide them carefully into your imaginative world.
1. Remove as many other people as possible from your early scenes, so that you are not distracting your reader’s attention away from where it needs to be. Avoid a work meeting if you can, or a big family gathering. Instead let us meet your hero or heroine interacting with just one other person to begin with, or actually alone.
If you really must put your protagonist with a lot of other people, delay their entrance for a few minutes, so that your reader can engage with their personality and state of mind before they plunge in. And introduce secondary characters very slowly, one at a time, taking care to characterise each very briefly in turn. Your reader will need to develop a mental image of everyone they meet in the pages of your novel, so it helps if you steer them in the direction you intend.
Try this to exercise to develop a literary shorthand for your secondary characters.
For each person, list the following:
- three one-word physical characteristics (e.g. broad, rumpled, ruddy)
- three one-word mental characteristics (e.g. harassed, careless, affectionate)
Use these words (and variations on them) one at a time, to develop vignettes that readers will easily recognise whenever a character recurs.
2. My second ‘subtraction’ exercise is even simpler. List all your characters’ names and change any that are in the least bit similar to one another. You’d be surprised how easily readers muddle up a Lindsey with a Linda, an Emma and an Enid. Also change any that readers may find difficult to pronounce in their heads, e.g. Myfanwe, Dymphna.
At the final stage of your editing process, read through your whole manuscript very quickly, noting down any recurrent images and themes. Is your lead character a pastry chef, a mechanic, a beekeeper? Does it rain constantly during your story? Is your lead character afraid of being attacked? Of course this basic information will already be there in your book, but can you expand on these lovely idiosyncrasies in the work by layering them throughout the novel? Is there a puff of flour when your pastry chef gets undressed? Is there cocoa powder under his nails? If it’s raining all the time, are there slug trails on the carpet? Moss growing on the door mat?
Go through your first 5,000 words seeing what tiny extra details you can add (without overdoing it!) that will strengthen and deepen these themes. Once you’ve submitted your 5,000 words, you can go through the entire manuscript delicately turning up the volume on these thematic aspects of your story.
If you’re planning an encounter between two people, sketch it out first as a scene in a play, stripped of everything except what the characters say.
Work with this ‘skeleton’, making sure the two voices are identifiably distinct from one another, just as your two characters are. So pay attention to their vocabulary, any idoims they use, the way they hesitate, apologise, bluster, structure sentences. Who listens and who interrupts? Who ploughs on with their own agenda, regardless of what the other person says? Who avoids talking about something, or abruptly changes the subject?
Real conversations rarely proceed in a logical straight line. They are full of digressions and nonsequitors. Though you don’t need to imitate real conversation exactly (that would be far too meandering and baggy on the page), it is important to give the impression of natural speech.
When you’ve created a piece of dialogue you’re happy with, that has a structure and a narrative trajectory, and that reads like two distinct people taking to one another, it’s time to cut it back to the bare bones.
First, remove every exchange that doesn’t contribute something to your reader’s understanding of either the characters’ personalities, their motivation, or the plot of the book. Greetings, for example, would be the first to go in this cull.
Second, consider which pieces of speech could be replaced by some kind of action – a hand gesture, perhaps, or a sigh; an irritated tapping of the foot. Remove the speech and add your actions as brief ‘stage directions’.
Third, think about how late in the conversation you dare enter. Do you need that preamble? Could you replace it with a brief description of what your characters are doing – and plunge in to the conversation just as it’s becoming heated? Again, cut the dialogue and add the scene-setting as ‘stage directions’.
Now it’s time to put some flesh on the bones and expand the conversation into a proper piece of fiction. If you’ve spent time making your two voices distinctive, you may be able to do away with some of the usual identifying ‘he said’ ‘she said’ furniture. Paring back the exchange back to key essentials means you minimise the need for rewriting, and wasting carefully-crafted snatches of description that are associated with bits of dialogue you end up cutting out.
Point of view is the lens through which readers see your world, and to welcome them in you need to decide who is telling your story. But what if just the one character’s view won’t do?
Readers relish shifts that yield fresh insights, as long as each viewpoint character is moved or changed by the plot. However, like changing motorway lanes, swapping viewpoints can be risky; jolting your reader out of a character’s head and hazarding loss of intensity.
Point of view is most easily swapped in the third person from chapter to chapter, though you can shift within a chapter or even a paragraph. You can also change between first-person narrators, as Michèle Roberts does in In The Red Kitchen; or from third to first, like Dickens in Bleak House. Whatever your choice method, the trick is to establish it then follow it with brio. Try this exercise to practice changing point of view with confidence…
Take a short section from the current draft of your novel involving at least two important characters and rewrite it (if necessary) in the third person. Swap viewpoints at least once, preferably at a key moment. Make sure your reader has something to gain from the shift, if only an extra insight. Finish by adding a fact that neither character could have known.
Debbie Taylor, Editorial Director of Mslexia