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Time, place culture: Getting the setting right in your novel

Time, Place, Culture: Getting the Setting Right in Your Novel

This is another blog post based on a comment in a Facebook group (I seem to be getting into a habit, don’t I?). This was a conversation about editing.

One author commented that there are several changes she’d like to make to her debut novel, a historical romance published in 2017. Apparently, her research for her next novel has highlighted some inaccuracies in that first novel.

It should come as no surprise for you to know I’ve read the novel in question. It probably also won’t come as any great surprise to know that I found several inaccuracies in the setting.

The overall editing and proofreading in this novel was as good as I expect from a major Christian publisher.

The problem was with an element of editing that falls somewhere between developmental and line editing (both of which I addressed in a recent post).

Editing for Fact

Authors often make unintentional factual errors. I’ve found these fall into three main categories:

Time:

Using anachronisms, words which are too modern for the time setting of the novel.

Place:

Getting physical or geographical details wrong.

Culture:

Getting cultural details wrong e.g. a British character using an American English term in a time setting where s/he would have been unlikely to have known the American term (or vice versa).

Here are a few examples:

Danish (as a breakfast food):

Danish pastries were developed in Denmark in the 1850s. They spread to the United States during World War One, but it’s not clear when they were first introduced to England. My experience is that while the modern commuter might eat a Danish pastry for breakfast (or a pain au chocolate), breakfast at home in the 1880’s was more likely to be some form of cooked protein (bacon, eggs, kippers).

Entree (as part of a meal):

The entree is the main meal in modern USA, but the entree is the a small dish served before the main meal in England (and other Commonwealth countries). It took me a while to work out why the characters kept eating entrees, but never got to the main meal.

Marketing:

In Victorian England, marketing was the daily activity of going to the market to buy fresh produce to eat, not an activity undertaken by companies to sell products.

Schelp:

Schelp is an American English word derived from Middle High German via Yiddish. It dates from the early twentieth century, so an English woman in the 1880’s is unlikely to use the word.

Yard:

A unit of measure in British English, not a term used to refer to part of a property (the English have gardens, not yards).

These aren’t major mistakes.

None of them affected the believability of the plot (although I have read books where the factual errors did ruin the plot for me).

Also, using the correct English term (e.g. entree) may confuse American readers where the term has a different meaning in the USA. It is a balancing act.

But mistakes such as marketing and schlep brought me out of Victorian England and took me to twenty-first century America. And anything that draws the reader out of the story is a bad thing. We read to be drawn into the fictive dream, not thrown out of it.

This was brought home again by the story I was reading this evening, set in England in 1940. It’s a setting many of us know through such classics CS Lewis’s Narnia stories. So why did the English characters hide in a closet? We’ve all heard of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. So why did the American author feel the need to change “wardrobe” to “closet”?

How can authors stop this happening?

The best way to stop these kinds of errors is to be an expert in the time and place you are writing about. But that’s not always possible—we can’t all dedicate years to studying a specific period in history. And readers don’t want endless contemporary women’s fiction offerings about the challenge of balancing home, work, and family, and still trying to find room for hobbies and faith in the modern world.

Readers want variety.

Which means writers have to write more than what they know.

Which means research.

The research is rarely the problem. Authors research, and find out so many fabulous details that the challenge becomes what to leave out, not what to put in.

The real problem comes when the author adds information they haven’t researched. It’s an old problem: we don’t know what we don’t know. So we use a word that’s wrong for the time setting or location without realising it.

How do we avoid errors in our setting?

We need to find people who have knowledge of the areas we’re not personally familiar with:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Culture

With the novel that prompted this post, the answer would have been to find a beta reader or freelance editor who knows British English (perhaps someone who is English or has lived in England), and who knows something of the geography and history. I’ve read novels where the main character saw Oxford while traveling from London Heathrow to Bath. Nope. Not unless your driver is taking you for a ride, literally and figuratively.

Different novels will require beta readers or editors with different backgrounds and different knowledge. For example, an author writing about Native Americans or people of colour would benefit from finding an early reader with the appropriate racial or cultural background.

An author writing for a traditional publisher might think they don’t need to hire an editor or find beta readers with specialist knowledge. Won’t their publisher do that for them? First, obvious errors will affect your chances of gaining a publishing contract.

Even if you do get a contract, an increasing number of traditional publishers are outsourcing their editing. This means authors may or may not be assigned an editor with knowledge of the time, place, or culture of their novel. And many editors don’t undertake fact checking—research is the author’s job.

It’s your job as the author to get your facts right.

Authors, what steps do you take to prevent factual errors in your novels?

Can I Use Miracles in My Novel?

Dear Editor: Can I Use Miracles in My Novel?

I’m a Christian. I believe in miracles (although I understand not all Christians do, as I discussed in this post).

But that doesn’t mean that we can fill our fiction with miracles:

If you find yourself whipping up a coincidence or a miracle after the bleakest moment, chances are you’ve employed deus ex machina … some unexpected and improbable incident to bring victory or success. [This is] frowned upon in modern literature.

– Angela Hunt, The Plot Skeleton

In How Not to Write a Novel, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark say a novelist’s job is harder than God’s: God can use miracles. We can’t. Even if they really happened.

Orson Scott Card puts it like this:

Believability in fiction doesn’t come from the facts—what actually happened. It comes from the readers’ sense of what is plausible—what is likely to happen … “But it really happened like that” is no defence in fiction.

– Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint, Chapter Three

But that isn’t to say we can’t use miracles. We can. But we need to establish up a world where miracles happen (which is related to genre). We need to set up our miracles with appropriate foreshadowing (but not telegraphing). And have to place our miracles at the right point in the story.

Miracles and Genre

I mentioned this draft blog post in my recent newsletter (if you don’t subscribe already, you can sign up on the right). One subscriber responded with a question: Does the presence of a miracle affect the genre labelling?

I believe it does. We’re more likely to expect miracles or supernatural events in genres such as fantasy or paranormal romance. But even in fantasy, the miracles or supernatural events must occur within the rules of the story. The author has to foreshadow or “plant” the possibility of a miracle or supernatural event.

We’re less likely to get miracles in romance, women’s fiction, mysteries, thrillers—or science fiction. As Arthur C Clarke says:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

That’s not to say you can’t have a miracle in a women’s fiction novel—especially if that novel is aimed at the Christian market. But the miracle still needs to be planted, and to fall at the right place in the story.

However, I suspect this is coming at the question from the wrong angle. We shouldn’t be writing a book, then trying to work out the genre labelling. That means we’re not going to have a clear picture of our target reader or reader expectations as we (as happened with the novel I discussed a couple of weeks ago).

Instead, we should know our genre before we begin writing, so we can meet reader expectations, and foreshadow any miracles or coincidences.

Foreshadowing Miracles

Sol Stein talks about “planting” as a key to creating a credible series of actions:

Planting means preparing the ground for something that comes later, usually to make the later action credible. Planting is necessary when a later action might seem unconvincing to the reader.

– Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, Chapter 15

This is related to the principle of Chekov’s Gun (click here to read more). Essentially, it means that any miracles need to be appropriately foreshadowed. They can’t appear out of nowhere—especially not if they are climax-solving miracles.

Miracles and Structure

We can’t just put miracles anywhere in our story. The worst place is at the climax:

deus ex machina, the god in the machine, comes down for the rescue. These devices fool no one. They exist for the author’s convenience because he can’t figure out a credible way of rescuing the protagonist.

– Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, Chapter 15

Instead, use a miracle early in the story to get the plot in motion. Pixar (the film studio) put it like this:

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Michael Kurland agrees, and also recommends limiting the number of coincidences in a story:

We’re all entitled to one whizz-bang coincidence that either starts our story or turns it into a new and unexpected direction … More than one “yeah, right” in the same story, and the reader will probably put the book down and use his or her precious time for something else.

WriterMag

An added bonus of using a miracle to get your character into trouble is that you could use a variation of that same miracle to get them out of trouble.

One Final Thought

Even as Christians, sometimes we ignore the minor miracles. We either don’t notice them, or we write them off as luck or coincidence.

I’ll give you an example. One book I’m editing on has a woman driving alone on a mountain road when her tyre bursts. Her car spins, and stops inches from the edge of the cliff, and she survives. She is then helped by a man who turns into a major character.

This didn’t strike me as a miracle, because something similar happened to me when I was at university. I was driving myself, my sister, and three friends to go skiing for the weekend. We left home at about four in the morning, and it was still dark as we approached the mountains. The others had fallen asleep when I hit black ice. The car skidded, turned, and we ended up on the verge at the side of the road. Another few feet, and we would have gone over. The others woke up, I counted us all lucky, and drove on.

Now I suspect (realise?) that was a miracle. I was a Christian at the time (although my parents weren’t), and I know one of the people in the car with me was from a Christian family. In hindsight, I’m sure his parents would have been praying for safe travels for us.

This kind of miracle doesn’t need a lot of setup, because I suspect anyone who has been driving for any period of time (especially in a country with mountains) will have a similar story. The accident that didn’t happen. The accident that should have killed them, but didn’t. Accidents happen (or don’t happen) all the time, to Christians and non-Christians, but even as Christians we rarely acknowledge that our narrow escapes are miracles.

To summarise:

Yes, you can have miracles (and coincidences, and plain old good luck) in your novel. But follow the rules:

  • Plant your miracles
  • Use your miracles in the middle
  • Use your miracles sparingly
  • Don’t use your miracle to solve the main plot problem

Do you use miracles in your fiction? How do you make them realistic?

Can My Characters Have Secrets?

Can My Characters Have Secrets? (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

Today I’m talking about secrets.

I was recently browsing through Facebook when an interesting question caught my eye. An author was asking if characters can keep secrets from the reader.

There are two parts to this question. The first is this: Can a character have a secret?

Yes. A character with a secret is a good character:

Any character with a credible, interesting secret has a good chance of coming alive.

– Sol Stein, Solutions for Novelists: Secrets of a Master Editor, Chapter Five

That is especially true if the character is one of the main characters, a point of view character. We want the character to have secrets. And we want to know those secrets, because that’s how we get to know the character:

Bonding with characters is achieved through intimacy … the greatest intimacy is achieved when we are privy to the thoughts and feelings of the characters. When we get to go inside their heads.

– James Scott Bell, Revision and Self-Editing for Publication, Chapter Two

But that leads us to the second part of the question: Can the point of view character hold secrets back from the reader?

Yes, but then you’re placing an artificial barrier between the reader and your character. If we were truly inside their heads, we’d know their secrets. Withholding secrets prevents intimacy. And point of view is all about intimacy.

Are you prepared to trade secrets for intimacy?

Let’s use some examples.

I’ve recently read the Criss Cross trilogy by CC Warrens. The three novels are all in first person, from the point of view of Holly, a tramatised twenty-eight-year-old photographer living as close to off the grid as anyone can live in modern New York. Holly has intimacy issues. So it works that Holly keeps secrets from those around her … and from the reader.

We find out more about Holly as the stories progress, as she begins to face her fears, make friends, and trust others with her secrets. That’s why she’s keeping secrets from the reader (and from her newfound friends). It’s a protection mechanism. She can’t cope with remembering how she’s been “hurt”.

Holly’s secrets drive the tension which drive the novels forward. And that’s what makes this a brilliant series.

But this is the exception.

What’s more common is that an untold secret robs the story of tension. For example, I once read a novel where a young woman moves from Ireland to the United States. She’s hiding from something or someone, but we don’t know who or what. All we know is that she has a secret which has sent her into hiding.

Hint: if you don’t want the evildoers to find you, don’t leave a paper trail wider than the Amazon. Between the passport, the airline tickets, the marriage licence, the gym membership, the library membership (all in her own name), there was never any doubt the evildoer would find her.

Anyway, the story goes on and on with references to this secret and how horrible it will be if the unknown evildoer finds her. Every mention of the unknown secret made it bigger and bigger, until I’m thinking this woman must have some ginormous secret. Maybe she’s the secret love child of two ultra-famous people. Maybe she’s got the US nuclear launch codes tattoed on her back. Maybe she’s the only person who knows who committed the crime of the century.

I didn’t know what her secret was, but it was obviously big and unique. Something that had never happened to anyone else in all of human history, or in any novel previously published.

But no. It turned out she’d fallen pregnant after being raped, and was forced to give up the baby. That actually made a lot of sense given her actions in the novel (e.g. joining the gym to get rid of the baby fat, and her fear of her marriage-of-convenience husband). But it was a complete letdown as a plot point, because it felt anticlimactic. Unfortunately, women being raped, falling pregnant, and not keeping their babies is all too common, both in real life and in fiction.

I’m convinced it would have been a stronger story if we’d known her secret from page one. Then we could have empathised with her situation, cheered as she achieved small victories on the road to normal. And there still would have been plenty of tension: would she allow herself to recover? Could she learn to trust men again? Could she fall in love with her marriage-of-convenience husband? Would she tell him her secret?

Keeping the secret turned the climax into an anticlimax.

Readers allow the narrator to withhold the ending, as long as he tells us at each stage in the story all that the character knew at that point in time … [not] hold back information until the end of the story … The author who does this usually thinks she’s increasing the suspense. In fact, she’s weakening the suspense by decreasing the readers’ involvement with and trust in the narrator.

– Orson Scott Card, Characters & Viewpoint, Chapter 16

Sharing the secret with the reader is a great way to enhance the conflict and add to the tension.

The other characters don’t need to know the point of view character’s secrets. But the reader does.

A good recent example of this is Shadows of Hope by Georgiana Daniels. The main character, Marissa, is infertile but works in a pregnancy crisis centre. One of her clients is pregnant to Marissa’s husband—except only the reader knows this (well, Kaitlyn obviously knows she’s pregnant to Colin, but Kaitlyn doesn’t even know Colin is married, let alone who he is married to).

Marissa, Kaitlyn, and Colin are all point of view characters. We know what they know, and we also know the secrets they don’t know. This tension keeps the story moving forward as we wait for the inevitable dust-up when everyone discovers what we already know. The story would have no power or tension if it was told entirely from Marissa’s point of view (or Kaitlyn’s, or Colin’s).

The secrets drove the story.

And the result was I could feel and empathise with both Marissa and Kaitlyn. (Colin? Not so much.) Marissa knew her marriage was in trouble, but infertility isn’t an easy problem with a quick fix like, say, a root canal. Kaitlyn believed Colin loved her, and that he’d man up and marry her as soon as he found out she was pregnant. As a reader, I knew that wasn’t going to happen, because I knew about Marissa. But Kaitlyn didn’t know, and that enhanced the suspense.

So can a character keep secrets from the reader?

Yes.

But keeping secrets comes at a price—intimacy, empathy, tension, and conflict.

Is having your character keep their secret worth the price?

Why You Need to Hire the Right Editor

Case Study: Why You Need to Hire the Right Editor

I recently saw a comment in one of the Facebook groups I’m a member of. A fiction author was asking about editing standards in relation to her recently released first novel.

As it happened, I was in the middle of reading her book when I saw the Facebook comment. I’d bought it after she mentioned it in her regular email (yes, email newsletters do sell books). I hadn’t read much before I realised it was a typical self-published novel, in that the author had rushed to market, and skipped several levels of editing (I discussed the levels of editing in last week’s post).

She’s not a bad writer. In fact, she’s a very good writer. She’s been writing non-fiction for a long time. She has non-fiction books published, as well as hundreds of blog posts and newsletters. As a result, her writing is succinct and understandable, with no major grammar or punctuation glitches. That’s more than I can say for many first-time self-published authors.

I understand the author has a MFA in (I think) creative writing. That shows. Her plot and structure are solid. There are goals. There is conflict. There are strong characters, with plenty of faults. This definitely isn’t the work of someone who decides to write and publish a novel on a whim, to tick an item off their bucket list.

But my experience of MFA and similar programmes (my limited experience, mostly based on the blog posts and books I’ve read by people who say they are MFA graduates) is that they focus on literary fiction. But this author is writing genre fiction. It’s different. Just as fiction is different from non-fiction.

Based on what the novel, it’s obvious that neither the author nor her editor are regular readers of fiction in general, or the specific genre she’s writing.

In other words, the author didn’t hire the right editor for this project. Why do I say that?

Most fiction is edited to the standards set in the Chicago Manual of Style (the style manual I’m most familiar with). The other major style guide is AP (Associated Press), which is the accepted manual for journalism and a lot of non-fiction. I suspect this author (and/or her editor) has used AP.

The grammar and style in this novel is correct for non-fiction, but not consistent with what I usually see in fiction.

For example, fiction rarely uses parentheses. I’d say “never”, but I can remember one of the last thousand books I read used parentheses (no, I can’t remember which one). As you can see, I use parentheses all the time in blog posts and non-fiction. But novels do not use parentheses.

There were also a lot of colons and semi-colons in the novel. They were all used correctly. But I can’t remember ever seeing a colon in a traditionally published novel, and I only rarely see semi-colons. That’s a small example, but it shows neither this author nor her editor truly understand fiction.

Those were the two potential issues I noticed first.

I wasn’t looking for errors—even though I’m a freelance editor, I try to ignore editing issues when I’m reading for pleasure (or reading a review copy).

But then I read the Facebook post about the novel having errors, and I started noticing more errors (no, I didn’t keep count). I found sentences with missing words (which a copyeditor or proofreader should have picked up).

I found sentences which weren’t bad, but which could be stronger.

A line editor or copyeditor would have commented on those sentences. A developmental editor would have let the weak writing pass, on the assumption those sentences would be worked over later by the line editor. A proofreader would have let the weak writing pass because proofreading is about checking the final copy for correctness, not for making changes to the text.

There are also developmental issues that need to be addressed.

The biggest was genre. As I said, I bought the book based on a promotion in her non-fiction newsletter. The newsletter advertised the novel as clean romance. “Clean romance” means a general market romance novel with no overt sexual content—similar to the Harlequin Mills & Boon Sweet Romance category romance novels. There is no sex, but there are also no overt Christian or other faith-based elements.

Yet this novel has clear Christian elements to it , in that the hero has recently become a Christian and is determined to turn his life around. That’s great … in a Christian romance. It’s going to annoy readers looking for clean romance (many of whom are looking in the clean romance category specifically because they don’t want a faith-based plot).

So it was Christian romance rather than clean romance.

But it didn’t entirely read like a romance. The beginning read like women’s fiction with romantic elements, in that the first few chapters were just the heroine. A romance would typically introduce the hero early in the book. Then we got introduced to the boy next door, the heroine’s childhood sweetheart. I figured he was the hero … but he wasn’t. The hero was the other guy (the new Christian).

This isn’t good. Romance readers want to know which characters to like and to follow. Introducing the Other Man before the Hero confused the issue, and meant I wasn’t sure which guy to like and which guy to loathe.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad book. But it could have been better.

This book illustrates why it’s important to hire editors who don’t just understand the mechanics of grammar and punctuation, but also understand the genre you’re writing, and the reader expectations of that genre.

I suspect this author used the same editor she uses for her non-fiction books. But her novel illustrates the importance of not just hiring a solid editor, but hiring the right editor for this book.

The right editor isn’t just an editor. The right editor is a teacher and a coach, someone who will gently point out the mistakes and improve the novel on a macro level, not just make it right at the micro level. The right editor for this project needs to understand more than the rules of punctuation and grammar. The right editor needs to understand fiction in general, and the specific genre.

The right editor understands the genre of this book.

Which might mean hiring different editors for different books.

What do you think? Do you write in more than one genre? Do you hire different editors for different books?

 

Dear Editor | Did My Editor Do Their Job Properly?

Dear Editor | Did My Editor Do Their Job Properly?

I recently saw a comment in one of the Facebook groups I’m a member of. A fiction author was asking about editing standards, in relation to her recently released first novel. She said her editor picked up 50 to 60 mistakes in her 55,000-word novel, but the author had since found at least twelve errors the editor didn’t pick up, including mistakes like missing words.

That concerns me.

I’m not concerned that the editor apparently missed twelve mistakes. Twelve mistakes in a 55,000-word novel means the novel is 99.98% error-free.

I’d be happy with that.

I’m concerned because I don’t think the author understood the editing process enough to know that an editor who picks up less than 60 errors in a 55,000-word novel might not be an editor—at least, not in the way this author was thinking of editing. I’d expect to pick up this number of mistakes in a manuscript assessment. It’s possible this editor thought she was the developmental editor, not the copyeditor. If so, grammatical errors and missing words weren’t her job.

It’s possible the editor was claiming to be a copyeditor. If so, the author should have known from the low number of mistakes that the editor hadn’t done a thorough job.

(Although she should have been able to tell this from the sample edit. Always get a sample edit, even if you have to pay for it. If you’d like to request a free sample edit from me, contact me via the contact form on my About page.)

For example, I’ve recently completed a copyedit of a 40,000-word manuscript where I had over 2,300 queries or suggested changes. Most were small changes—remove a space here, add a comma there. Sometimes it takes two changes to correct one mistake.

My later proofread of the same manuscript had 300 suggestions, many of which related to the changes I’d suggested in the copyedit, but some where things I’d missed the first time around (often because I was focussing on another problem in that sentence or paragraph).

And that was a light edit—this is the author’s tenth published book, and her first six were with a major traditional publisher. She knows how to write. She’s been edited before. She expects this level of editing.

Dear author, if you only hired one editor, and she found less than 60 mistakes, then she missed things. A lot of things.

Let’s Talk About Editing

There are several different types of editing. A book from a traditional publisher will go through at least three rounds of editing, and several rounds of proofreading. Different editors use different terms, but here are the basic levels of editing:

Structural Editing

A high-level analysis of the plot, structure, characters, genre, and theme. The feedback is delivered in the form of an editorial letter, highlighting strengths and pinpointing areas the author needs to work on. Some authors use alpha readers or beta readers or critique partners for structural editing: you edit mine, and I’ll edit yours. The main point is that the editor (or critique partner) can go through the whole manuscript in one or two sittings, to get the big picture.

Developmental Editing

The editor works through the manuscript using Track Changes, commenting on big-picture issues like plot, characterisation, point of view, and showing vs. telling. This delivers similar feedback to the Structural Edit, except the author can see exactly where the problem is. The Structural Edit might say there is a problem with point of view. The Developmental Edit highlights each and every time there is a point of view violation. Some authors will use a critique group for this level of editing, swapping one or two chapters on a regular (e.g. weekly) basis.

Line Editing

Once the overall plot and characters work, the line editor gets to work. The Line Edit again uses Track Changes, and focuses on how the writing can be improved to deliver more emotion, more power. This includes things like cutting cliches, repetition, and telling, and reworking sentences and paragraphs to show the story the best way possible.

Copyediting

This is what most people think of as “editing”. It’s going through the manuscript (again using Track Changes) to focus on the spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It may also pick up or correct issues that either weren’t picked up during line editing, or have been introduced during revision. Some authors call this stage “proofreading” and work with a small group of nitpicky beta readers.

Proofreading

We finally get to proofreading. By this point, the novel should have been through several different paid and unpaid editors, beta readers, and/or critique partners. But there are always gremlins who sneak in, and that’s the proofreader’s job: to find and eliminate those last remaining gremlins. Ideally, the proofreader hasn’t read the book before, which means they have fresh eyes and will read the words on the page, not the words they remember being on the page last time.

Remember …

A good editor won’t just edit. They’ll tell why they are suggesting each change, and cite rules where applicable (e.g. . A good editor is a teacher and a coach as well as an editor. This is especially true for structural, developmental, and line editors. If you’re not getting that feedback, maybe it’s time to consider a different approach.

So did your editor do her job properly? I suspect not. But I can’t say for certain, because I don’t know what type of editing you hired her for. And that’s on the author.

Five Myths Non-Writers Believe

Five Myths Non-Writers Believe

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer. But you weren’t always a writer. Once upon a time you were a reader and—perhaps—an aspiring writer.

Like me.

I’ve always been a reader. A bookworm, if you like. And like many readers, I also wanted to be a writer. Specifically, a novelist. I won two school writing competitions in high school and even went on a creative writing camp, but the endless essays of high school and university didn’t leave much time for personal reading or writing.

I didn’t know much about the publishing industry.

Okay. I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry.

I started reading for pleasure again when I got a job, but not writing: I already spent enough hours a day in front of a computer, writing client reports and our company newsletter. I had one colleague whose wife was writing a novel. I asked how it was progressing: he said she was still in the research phase, which was going to take her a year. I asked a few more times but stopped asking when I got a look that said she wasn’t making much progress (or not making as much as her husband thought she ought to be making).

I had another colleague who announced one day that he’d finished his novel. I asked when it was going to be published. Yes, I really thought it was that easy.

When I started researching the craft of writing and the business of publishing, I soon realised that many of my assumptions were incorrect. In particular, there were five myths I believed about writing:

  • Anyone can write a novel
  • Writing is a good way to earn some extra cash
  • Running spell check is enough editing
  • Getting a novel published is easy
  • Writers write. The publisher does the rest

Are you laughing yet? Or do some of my naïve ideas sound eerily familiar? I’ve since discovered my ideas were misguided. But I’ve also discovered there is an element of truth in some of them.

Anyone can write a novel

This is both wrong and right. Anyone can type 80,000 words and call it a novel. Slapping a cover on it and uploading to Amazon isn’t hard (it can’t be, given the quality of some of the novels on Amazon).

But writing a good novel is hard, and not just ‘anyone’ can do it. It takes patience, perseverance, and practice. And most people don’t make it.

Writing is an easy way to earn some extra cash

If you’re prepared to make money writing scam recipe books (using recipes copied from dodgy websites) or scam self-help books (using advice copied from wacko websites) or other scam books (using information copied from Wikipedia), then yes, writing can be an easy way to earn extra cash. Even better, hire someone on Fiverr to ghostwrite (or ghostcopy) the book for you.

But is that writing? It’s certainly not the writing dream so many people have. In reality, pursuing a career as a writer, especially a novelist, is going to cost you a lot of money before you earn anything from it. And most writers also have a day job to pay the bills.

Running spell check is enough editing

Once the manuscript is written, editing is just a matter of running spell check, followed by a quick read-through to make sure spell check hasn’t missed any your/you’re or their/there/they’re errors. That’s editing.

No, that’s running spell check. Editing goes into a lot more detail, and a good novel will have one gone through several stages of editing before it is published (not to mention being read and red-penned by critique partners and beta readers before it goes to the editor). And then it will be proofread—which is different again.

Getting a novel published is easy

Check out your local bookstore. Check out the publishers of those novels. Getting your novel published by one of those publishers isn’t easy. It’s a long way from easy.

But the advent of vanity publishers and self-publishing make it easy to find a publisher. Any vanity press will take your money, tell you you’ve written the next great American (or Australian or British or Canadian or New Zealand) novel, and for another $10,000 they’ll be able to put your novel in front of influential Hollywood producers (and take a first-class holiday in some swanky resort).

But self-publishing platforms such as Amazon, DrafttoDigital, iBooks, Kobo and Smashwords do provide newbie authors with a way of getting their novels published and printed and on sale. And it’s not difficult. But authors soon find that writing and publishing was the easy part . . .

Writers write. The publisher does the rest

This is the final myth, and is one that continues to drive new authors to traditional publishers. They don’t want to be involved in the publishing or the marketing. They want to write. Period. The problem with this myth is that all authors, no matter how they are published, all authors have to do more than write.

Even traditional publishers expect authors to contribute to their marketing efforts. At the very least, these will include a website (which the author pays for), social media profiles and regular updates (which the author undertakes herself, or pays someone else to manage), and attendance at certain industry events and conferences (which the author pays for). These efforts may or may not sell books.

Self-published authors have sole responsibility for marketing — there is no one else. They can just write, but then it’s likely no one will buy their books.

Myth or Truth?

Yes, there is an element of truth in each of these five myths. But more myth than truth. Oh, well. Back to the writing . . .

Writers, what myths have you heard that you now know aren’t true?

Readers, what do you believe about writers that might not be true?

An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post | Are you Writing Memoir, Fiction or Faction?

AuthorToolBoxBlogHop | Are You Writing Memoir, Fiction, or Faction?

Welcome to the first #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop of 2018!

The monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop is organised by Raimey Gallant, and has over 40 participating blogs. To find more posts, click here to check out the main page, click here to search #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or click here to find us on Pinterest.

Are you writing real-life stories?

I work with a range of authors as a freelance editor. Most are writing fiction, because that’s my specialty (specifically, Christian fiction). But I do have a few clients writing stories based on true life events. Sometimes these books are clearly non-fiction—memoir (I shared my top tips on writing memoir last week). Some are pure fiction. Others are a mixture of both.

How do you decide which is the most appropriate for your story? Memoir or fiction or something in between?

Memoir?

Memoir is the appropriate choice when the author is discussing good experiences (like a relationship that has had a positive effect on her life), and when the author is prepared to tell the truth.The whole truth. Including the ugly parts. Anything less is fiction, not memoir. And good memoir, like good fiction, is shown rather than told.

Soul Friend by Jo-Anne Berthelsen is an excellent example of memoir. It doesn’t tell all the events of jo-Anne’s life as an autobiography would. Instead, Soul Friend follows a theme in a way that changes the way the reader sees the world. In the case of Soul Friend, the memoir follows Jo-Anne’s journey with Joy, her spiritual mentor, which had me envying the relationship.

Or Fiction?

In contrast, Words by Ginny Yttrup is a novel about sexual abuse written by someone who has herself experienced abuse. Yttrup says she doesn’t use her own experiences in Words, but it’s clear she has used the memories and feelings from her own experiences, then adapted those to her fictional writing.

Words is typical of what readers expect in fiction: clear point of view, clear character goals, motivations, and conflicts, a three-act plot, and showing the story rather than telling. There is an excellent build-up of tension throughout the novel, and the writing is outstanding—emotive without being graphic.

Fiction based on real-life situations is the appropriate choice where the author is prepared to weave a story around the main events and themes, rather than feeling obliged to remain true to what actually happened. It may be easier to compartmentalise when writing fiction: these difficult events are happening to your character, not to you.

Choosing to write a story as fiction will mean creating characters rather than adapting real people. It will mean creating a plot that fits the expected three-act structure, rather than relying on what actually happened and when. But fiction still requires the author to go deep into the feelings of the situation—positive and negative. Especially the negative, because good fiction is about conflict, about things going wrong or things that shouldn’t have happened.

Or Something In Between?

Then there is the middle ground: writing a fictional account of a factual story. This is known as a non-fiction novel, or faction. One well-known example is Roots by Alex Haley, which details nine generations of his family’s history.

I’ve read many novels which take this faction approach. Some are writing about the experiences of people and events from long ago, perhaps from their own family history. Some are writing about events that are closer to home, about people they know e.g. friends or parents. And some are writing their own story in novel form.

I’ve read (and edited) non-fiction novels, both those based on the author’s own experiences, and those based on their family history. Some were written as pure fiction, others were written as faction. The stories which worked best had the following features:

The author was sufficiently distanced by time to be able to write about the people and events without personal bias.

This may be because the author is writing about other people (e.g. parents or other relations, or complete strangers) rather than about himself or herself. Authors who are writing about themselves often don’t pay enough attention to the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) of their lead characters—possibly because they didn’t have a personal goal at the time. This lack of GMC makes for a weak novel.

The author was prepared to be honest about the faults of the characters.

No one is perfect in real life, and no one likes reading about perfect fictional characters. This means the author needs to ensure the main characters has faults … even when that main character is based on the author. And they have to be real faults, not the kind we dredge up for job interviews (“People say my biggest fault is that I work too hard”).

The main character’s actions felt realistic.

The problem with creating an almost-perfect main character is that personal stories (fiction or faction) are almost always stories where something went wrong or where something bad happened. That’s good, because good fiction is about conflict, about things going wrong. Sometimes this leads to characters making decisions that are out of character … because that’s how it happened in real life. It’s not enough for that thing to have happened in real life. It also has to make sense in the context of the character the author has created (even when that character is based on the author or someone s/he knows).

The author was prepared to change what actually happened.

In fiction, the needs of the story are paramount. If cutting a scene, changing the timeline, or combining characters makes it a better story, the change is made. Even if that wasn’t how it happened in real life (because fiction has to feel realistic for the reader).

The author kept to one story.

I read one World War II novel that had a good first half, but then turned strange in the second half. When I read the author’s note, I found the first half had been based on the real-life events of one person, and the second half based on another. That’s why the second half seemed as though the heroine was acting out of character: because she was literally a different person.

But this can happen even if the author sticks to one character. Good fiction is like memoir: it focuses on one key theme or story question. A scene that doesn’t move the character closer to their goal has no place in the novel. Even if it’s the time you (aka your character) met the Queen. Stick to the story.

What is Right for Your Story?

So what is right for your story? Memoir, fiction, or faction? Only you can answer that question, but I hope these tips will help you decide.

Are you writing a real-life story? Is it memoir, fiction, or faction?

Writing Memoir

Writing Craft: Tips and Resources for Writing Memoir

I specialise in editing fiction, but I’ve recently had a few enquiries about memoir. I thought I’d share a few tips and resources on memoir today.

What is a Memoir?

Memoir is a non-fiction book about you, the author. It’s not your full life story—that would be an autobiography. And it’s not about someone else—that would be a biography.

Rather than telling your full life story, memoir has a single theme. For example, Soul Friend by JoAnne Berthlesen focused on JoAnne’s relationship with her spiritual mentor. Eat Pray Love by Elizbeth Gilbert focused on her one-year journey around the world following her divorce.

The key with memoir is to pick that narrow focus, and stick to it.

Who are you Writing For?

How you write a memoir depends largely on who you are writing for. If you’re writing purely for your family, then you can write pretty much what you want and how you want. It’s your book, so you can write it for yourself and your family.

But if you want to publish your memoir for a wider audience, you’ll need to write it for your readers more than for yourself. This means identifying and understanding your target reader, and writing a memoir that will appeal to those readers.

How do you Write a Memoir?

Memoir is part of a genre known as narrative non-fiction. That means the writing follows the same kind of narrative structure and writing style as a novel. Good memoir:

  • Has a clear theme.
  • Follows a clear structure.
  • Includes conflict.
  • Is told from a single point of view.
  • Shows rather than tells the story.
  • Focuses on the emotion.
  • Starts in media res—in the middle of the thing.
  • Avoids unnecessary backstory.
  • Leaves out events and relationships that aren’t core to the main theme.

A memoir must also strive for truth and accuracy.

Memoir is not the place for mistruths or outright lies to make ourselves look better. It’s human nature to want to present ourselves in the best possible light, but our readers expect honesty. Even when it hurts.

And it can hurt. Many people who have been through difficult experiences write memoir because they have a desire to help others going through similar experiences. But you have to be in a healthy emotional state to write about difficult experiences such as abuse, cancer, depression, infertiity, or rape.

These things must be discussed in detail, with an emphasis on the feelings.

Memoir isn’t the place to gloss over the hard parts. Readers need and expect the truths of the pitfalls and failures as well as the successes. A memoir writer will need to go deep into their negative emotions. The more traumatic the events being discussed, the more difficult this will be. If this is you, you’ll need a strong support network to talk and pray you through the hard parts so you can be truthful and accurate for your future reader without taking yourself back to the dark place. To do anything less will be cheating your reader.

On the other hand, full truth and accuracy might be impossible. For example, you might recount a conversation between you and a friend or family member as you remember it. But the other person might remember it differently. Does that mean your account is wrong, or inaccurate? No, but it does mean you might face future problems with that person if they can’t see your point of view.

Who publishes memoir?

The sad truth is that most trade publishers aren’t interested in memoir unless they can see a lot of commercial potential. Unfortunately, this means trade publishers are only interested in memoirs written by people who are already household names through entertainment, political, sporting or workplace achievements (e.g. Oprah Winfrey, Hilary Clinton, or Tiger Woods), or through the development of an online platform (e.g. Ann Voskamp).

Sure, a vanity press will be more than happy to publish your memoir, but that’s because they see the commercial potential … the potential of getting you, the author, to pay them.

Check out my list of Christian fiction publishers—many of them also publish non-fiction.

Where Can I Find More Information?

Christian literary agent Rachelle Gardener has a list of recommended books for people looking to write memoir.

Reedsy have published an in-depth post: How to Write a Memoir: Top Tips from Bestselling Ghostwriters

Award-winning Australian author Cecily Thew Patterson has a free online course on writing memoir available from her website, The Red Lounge for Writers.

Cecily recommends memoir writers start by reading and working through the exercises in Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I agree. While Story Genius was written for novelists, the principles hold true for memoir as well.

Do you have any recommended resources for memoir writers? Or any questions? Let me know in the comments.
Six-Stage Structure

Plot and Structure: Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about Michael Hauge’s Six-Stage Structure since attending his all-day session at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference in August 2016. I did write a summary post (Identity, Essence, and God), but I didn’t cover the detail of his approach to writing novels and screenplays.

I couldn’t. Because it can’t be boiled down to a 600-word blog post. But over the last year I have come across some free and paid resources where Michael Hauge explains his approach to plot. So I’m going to share those instead of trying to cover everything myself.

Michael Hauge is best known as a screenwriting consultant, and his books do tend to focus on screenplays. But (as he argues), the essential elements of fiction are the same, whether the medium is novel or film or TV. And many writers would like to see their novels adapted into a film—it seems to me that we give ourselves the best chance of making that possible if we start by writing a novel that is structured like a film.

Yes, structure is the key.

A lot of writing instructors focus entirely on plot or structure. It’s not that they ignore character. It’s more that they place structure first. Plot then falls out of that, then character. But if you’ve tried to write a book like that, you’ve probably found it more difficult than it sounds. I think the reason is that it’s easy to explain structure: it’s a formula (and that’s not a bad thing). It’s engineering, and there is a right way to build a story.

Character is harder. Everyone is unique, and our characters also have to be unique. But trying to develop unique characters can’t be reduced to a formula. And that’s where Michael Hauge’s Six Stage Structure can help. (Click here to download a copy.)

Hauge’s methodology complements the work of many other leading writing teachers, e.g.

Here are a few key lessons from Michael Hauge:

  • Your role as a writer is to elicit emotion in the reader. That’s it.
  • The way you elicit emotion is by introducing conflict. Internal and external conflict is what engages your reader (or viewer) and gets them to care.
  • You can manipulate conflict using techniques such as a ticking close, or superior knowledge.
  • All stories are about a character who wants something, but something stands in their way. This must be a visible goal.
  • All characters have an emotional wound they are trying to overcome, and the best way to reveal the wound is through dialogue i.e. show, don’t tell.
  • Avoid multiple-hero stories.

For more information:

Film Courage Interview

Film Courage interviewed Michael in January 2017, and the 90-minute recording is available on YouTube. It’s their most-viewed interview of 2017, and I can see why.

Udemy Course

The interview references some work Michael Hauge did with Chris Vogler, integrating Hauge’s Story Structure with Vogler’s Hero’s Journey. This is available via Udemy. The full course includes over six hours of video. The full price is $175, but Udemy hold regular sales (I got it for $10). I suggest signing up for Udemy’s newsletter so you get notified when they hold a sale.

Writing Screenplays that Sell

Michael Hauge has several books. I’ve read Writing Screenplays That Sell, which I recommend. Hauge goes into a lot of detail about character development, theme, and structure, then moves into how to write and format a screenplay. This section is of less use to novelists but is still worth reading for the occasional relevant nugget. But the book is worth the price for the information in the first section.

You can read the introduction below:

Writing Backstory

Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story: #WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice?

There are many “rules” to writing good fiction. One of them is to keep backstory to the back of the story, to not use any backstory in the first fifty pages.

Is this a good writing tip, or more bad writing advice?

Don’t we need to introduce our characters to the reader at the beginning of the story? Don’t we need to give enough of their personal character history to enable the reader to understand what’s going on?

As with many pieces of writing advice, the answer is yes. And no. Or no, and yes, depending on which way you prefer to look at the issue.

What is Backstory?

Backstory is anything that happens before our story begins. The reader doesn’t need to know the character’s entire life history … although the author does. Yes, the reader needs to know some of the character’s personal history. The trick with writing great fiction is understanding what the reader needs to know, and when.

One of the first writing craft books I read was How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard MIttlemark. One of the quotes I copied was this:

Know what the chase is, and cut to it. Do not write hundreds of pages explaining… why the characters are living the way they are when the story begins, or what past events made the characters into people who would have that story.

I thought this was ridiculous. Surely no author would be so … so … stupid? So naive?

But by some strange quirk of fate, the very next novel I read had exactly this problem. I’m not going to embarrass the author by naming them, or telling you the title, or even the genre. I don’t remember much about the story. What I do remember is that whenever a new character was introduced, the author took the opportunity to share that character’s life story.

And the story of how their parents met and married.

And sometimes even the story of how their grandparents met and married, and how many children they had, and when, and where, and why, and …

And none of this information had any relevance to the story at hand. It was well written. It was interesting. But it was irrelevant to the present story (which is probably why I’ve forgotten the basics of the actual story).

Yes, some authors have a problem with backstory.

That’s not to say you can’t use backstory at the beginning of a novel.

You can introduce some backstory. In fact, you have to use introduce some backstory to give the reader an understanding of your main character’s goals and motivations, which influence their central internal and external conflicts. You may need to use backstory to give your reader a reason to care about your character.

But flip-flopping between the past and the present at the beginning of the story can leave you with a novel that confuses readers. Instead, ensure your opening chapter clarifies:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What does the main character want?
  • Why does s/he want that?
  • When is this story set?
  • Where is this story set?

And answer these questions in the present timeline of the story.

Lay out actions in sequential order. Don’t jump backward or forward in the story. If you do, you’ll interrupt the flow of time and disconcert your reader .
– Janalyn Voigt, via WordServeWaterCooler.com

In Media Res

The use of backstory often relates to a common writing issue: new writers often start their story in the wrong place. Novels should start in media res—in media res—in the middle of the thing.

Your novel itself begins “in the middle of the thing”—the “thing” being the story. What starts on page one is the second half of the story, where the plot kicks in.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 2

But characters don’t emerge fully formed on the page. They have personal histories, just like real people. They have likes and dislikes, just like real people. Some of that is directly relevant to the novel’s plot, and some is not. But without the backstory, there is no present story.

Your protagonist doesn’t start from “neutral”. He starts from a very particular place, with very particular, deeply held beliefs that your novel is going to force him to call into question.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 3

Your character has a backstory.

In fact, all your characters have their own backstory, and that backstory is what influences their lives in the present (or in whatever “present” your novel is set, whether that’s the past, the present, or the future).

As a writer, you need to know this backstory. You need to know what has formed your protagonist and antagonist into the characters you are writing. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron recommends you do write three story-specific backstory scenes. But these aren’t included in the final manuscript. The information in the scenes might be, but the scenes themselves are not.

Margie Lawson uses the illustration of a pane of glass. Imagine writing all your backstory on a large pane of glass, them dropping the glass so it smashes into slivers. Then pick up those slivers, one at a time, and insert them into your story.

A sliver at a time. Not the entire window. At the time when it best serves the story to reveal that information.

An Example of Good Backstory

I’ve recently read A Dangerous Legacy by Elizabeth Camden. Much of the first chapter is backstory, but it’s written well and integrated into the present scene (well, the novel’s present. It’s historical fiction). Here’s an example:

They lived on the fourth floor of a brownstone walk-up that had once been a prestigious building, but had fallen on hard times in recent decades. Much like her own family.

Just two sentences, but a lot of backstory. What do we learn?

  • The setting—where the point of view character lives (a brownstone walk-up in Greenwich Village, New York).
  • A brief description that hints rather than tells—once prestigious hints the building is in a state of disrepair without telling us about the peeling paint or the chipped bricks.
  • A sliver of backstory—her own family has fallen on hard times.
  • A hint at timing—the problem goes back decades.

Clever. Very clever.

It’s also shown in the voice of the character, not the voice of the author.

This paragraph illustrates that we can—and even should—use backstory in the beginning of the story. But we need to sliver it in, not dump it. The author could then have gone on to describe exactly how the family fell on hard times—and she does. But not here, because it’s not relevant to the story at this point.

So here are four tips for writing backstory:

  • Know the backstory of your main characters.
  • Know how their backstory contributes to the present story.
  • Include only what is relevant to the story.
  • Include backstory as slivers.

What tips or questions do you have about backstory?