Tag Archives: plot

Why do authors need an editor?

Phil: A few weeks ago, I enjoyed some delicious home-made custard creams while listening to author Mike Gayle and his editor Nick Sayers courtesy of Kenilworth books.

With 15 books to his name, it was interesting to hear Mike explain what working with an editor entails, and why it is important. Despite being an editor myself, I’d never really understood the role played by someone with the same job title in fiction.

It turns out that the editor plays a big role in shaping and sharpening up the book. They read through and provide the fresh pair of eyes unavailable to a writer too close, and to invested in, the story.

The editor continually challenges the author. Do the characters work? Are there too many of them? Does the plot flag partway through? Does the thing even make sense?

All this after the publisher has shown enough interest in the manuscript to assign someone’s time to work on it.

Mike had worked with several editors in the past and credited all of them with improving his work. I can see how this relationship is important but also how easily it could break down if the suggestions were at odds with the original creative vision.

There’s a special skill in being the editor and managing a potentially fractious author. I did take the chance to ask exactly how things worked out if they disagreed. Sadly, neither would admit to an all-out fight (they both came across as really nice people) but I can imagine some egos getting in the way.  It must be especially frustrating being an editor if the writer keeps ignoring the advice offered.

For team NolanParker, I think we provide at least some of the editor services to each other. You’ll have read in past blog posts how we’ve disagreed with each other over plot points. It’s not always an easy situation, but we respect each other’s opinion enough to be able to get over this each time. After all, we both want our books to be the best they can.

 

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Step away from the epic – think local

Phil: On my recent sojourn to the Isle of Man, my car radio was tuned in to Manx FM and my first purchase was a pile of local newspapers.

I like a world where all the stories are local. For example, while the national news was banging on about Brexit, the lead story on the local radio was about a children’s play area whose opening had been delayed. Another big story is a flume at a local swimming pool that won’t fit together.

You might laugh, but this stuff matters. Big politics is very remote to most of us. For the most part, we don’t really see Westminster having a direct effect on our lives.

The local play area being shut – well what do you do with the kids during the summer holidays? The same question you can ask about the flume.

Now translate this to your reading.

I bet most of your favourite books centre on one or two characters lives. Plot twists are personal, because that’s what we relate to as humans.

OK, sci-fi often grapples with galaxy-wide stories spanning aeons, but those do tend to be the preserve of a small number of very enthusiastic readers. Good luck to them, but I find that stuff achingly dull.

No, the essence of good writing seems to be inventing a small world and keeping your plot within it. If you need further proof, look at the tiny areas covered by popular soap operas, a few streets, a square, or memorably, a motel. Look closely at these little worlds and all human life can be found.

As it is. I bet the delayed flume could form the basis for one of our books…

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Right book, wrong time?

Phil: Why do we like a particular book?

I’m wondering because I’ve just abandoned Sheila O’Flanagan’s How will I know?

I didn’t even make it to the end of the first chapter. Something about the writing style jarred with me. There’s a lot of description of the main characters day, and to be honest I just got bored.

It must just be me though, as this is (according to the cover) and bestseller.

My thinking is that were I lying on a sun lounger I’d have stuck with it and probably if not enjoyed it, at least passed time pleasantly. As it is, I need to be grabbed by the story fast. There’s too much going on in my head to plough through a book which doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

This happens all the time of course. If you want a book published, you have to be lucky. The right person has to read your pitch at the right time. If they want vampire books, it’s no good pitching historical romantic fiction. But if they want the new Price and Prejudice, the best book about a blood-sucker in the world won’t get anywhere.

OK, putting your book out everywhere increases the chance of a hit, but there’s still luck involved – which I say to make everyone feel better. How do we know the slush pile that Harry Potter came out of didn’t have another boy wizard further down? And wouldn’t that be annoying?

And imagine the editor reading How will I know? had been in the same frame of mind I am at the moment. They would have been shouting, “Stop describing the contents of your kitchen cupboard!” instead of “Fire up the printing presses, we’ve got a hit on our hands!”

Not every book suits every taste every time. That’s what we keep telling ourselves. That and people who don’t like our books are idiots…

 

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You gotta fight for your right to story!

Phil: Last week, we explained that neither of us (OK, mostly me) always get our own way when writing.

After the post, the discussion continued. I finished the first draft of the scene I was working on thinking it had been suitably adjusted to take into account my friend’s suggestions.

Apparently not. Or at least she fired back a few more. To be honest, I could see where she was coming from. The feedback made me ponder some aspects and we bashed a few e-mails back and forth. The details aren’t yet sorted out, but we both feel that fundamentally, the scene does what we need at that point in the story.

This might not sound fun, but I feel it’s an important part of our writing.

If you work on your own, the first useful feedback you’ll get will be from an editor. They will challenge you on plot points and the way the story runs. Then it’s up to you to fix things.

We don’t have this. For a plotline to appear in the book, it gets beaten around a bit. Some sections get more of the thrashing than others but the important part is we challenge each other, make each other think AND help with those thoughts. “I’m not sure about THIS, but what if we did THAT.” is a common phrase. We both present problems and solutions. Eventually, even we can’t tell who wrote each scene, which is how it should be.

Two heads are definitely better than one.

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Get the facts right

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Candice: If you had been sat near Phil and I in Costa Coffee in Henley in Arden on Monday you might have wondered what was going on.  We’d had a disjointed meet up as it was – the first coffee house we’d gone to informed us that they were closing in an hour.  Ah, we thought, as I am on a drive to use local places, not chains, bang goes that idea.

So a quick cuppa in there and then down to the Costa, which was full of people with laptops (or having loud conversations with HMRC which is another story).  After an hour of writing, plus some coffee and cookie-fueled help, we passed our laptops over to see what each other had written.

I’d been focusing on the earlier story in the book.  My job recently has been to go back and check on what we have written: facts, continuity, stuff like that.  Phil has been very focused on one pivotal scene mid-book which pushes us towards the big finish.

Having read Phil’s scene there was one thing I wasn’t sure about. Would it actually happen like that?  I quizzed him.  He explained his thoughts.  But I still sat there going – ‘so what?’.

I know this is fiction but I don’t want something to be so glaring that it makes someone step out of the book and then lose their ability to suspend disbelief.  Saoirse Ronan had done that for me the other week as she chatted on Graham Norton about ‘Mary – Queen of Scots’.  A scene in the film shows Mary and Queen Elizabeth meeting – something that didn’t happen in real life.  I assume the writer wanted to bring out things that had been conveyed in their letters and this was the easiest way to do it on film.  However, when I watched the film yesterday I sat there at that point in the film thinking to myself  ‘this didn’t happen.’  It ruined to ending of a good film for me.

So for ten minutes, I pushed him on his logic, asking why the characters were doing what they were doing.  The man behind us in his business suit was doing his level best to pretend he was concentrating on his laptop but when we mentioned Councillor I’m sure he twitched.

We got there in the end, but I’m sure Phil wondered why I’d got such a bee in my bonnet. Well, its got to make sense.  Else its just going to annoy me and the readers – that’s why.

Phil: This story illustrates why we can write as a team so well.

I tend to let the story flow when writing the first draft, but having presented the words to my mate and been quizzed about the direction I was taking, we beat the idea about a bit. Eventually, I managed to work out where the story should be going in reasonable detail.

Having a sounding board is really useful and we’re pretty good at fulfilling this role for each other. It helps that we can both take a bit of criticism without flouncing off in a huff. It certainly saves time because we don’t need the re-writes you have to go through when working on your own when realising bits of the story don’t hang together.

 

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Having the faith to put yourself in the book

Phil: Last week, I wrote that I felt the need for a nice, readable story and thanks to my local library had picked up A Brush With Death by Ali Carter.

I’m pleased to say it ticked the boxes perfectly. A pleasant read with a reasonably easy to follow plot that fitted my day. Doing a little digging, apparently this fits into the “Cozy Crime” genre. Think Miss Marple with a little less bite.

The plot is simple enough, Lord of the Manor dies, the police decide it’s murder and artist Susie Mahl solves the crime. I guessed whodunit pretty early in the book, but this didn’t spoil things – in fact I wanted to see if I was right. I was, although the method I had settled on wasn’t quite correct.

There are a couple of areas where the book stands out.

First, we learn a great deal about the English upper classes. If I ever find myself called to stay for the weekend at a great country house, I will have a better understanding of the protocol thanks to this book. We learn that all houses tend to run to a timetable, and once you know this, you can plan your trips snooping around. Stick to the rules, including not marrying anyone beneath your station, and everyone will get along swimmingly.

My main fascination was with the lead character, Susie Mahl, herself. She’s an artist who has found painting dog portraits to be a lucrative job. Handily, it sees her invited to many country seats for the weekend, you need to get to know the pooch to render them in paint. Apparently, this pays enough to buy a house in Sussex and a lot of very expensive luxury underwear. This detail is covered repeatedly.

Why? Because art follows life. It turns out that Ali Carter paints pet portraits and likes luxury underwear.

The most unusual aspect of Susie though is that she is a fairly strict catholic. At one point she goes to mass and also hints at disproval of divorce. Religion plays very little part in British novels, in fact I can’t think of a character who has expressed any interest in this direction. OK, we have Bother Cadfael and Father Brown, but they are monk and priest respectivly – it’s a massive part of their character. What I mean is we rarely see religion being part of a “normal” person’s life in this way.

It’s odd that this should leap out at me. In America and many other parts of the world, religion is a massive part of many people’s lives. You very much wear it on your sleeve. Politically, following the right flavour of God can be more important in the decisions a voter makes than a candidates policies or behaviour. Despite this, I don’t reacall many modern day American novels showing the impact of belief on their character.

My guess is that this is another area where author and character cross over. The interview I linked to above mentions a post-accident pilgrimage, but never explicitly mentions this being a religious one. That’s simply not how we do stuff in Britian. The Church of England is as inoffensive as possible and rarely do we have the zealots found in other branches of faith.

Ultimatly, “Write what you know” is an oft trotted out maxim, and one Ali Carter appears to have taken to heart, with interesting results. Susie Mahl is a stand-out character and will easily carry the three-novel deal Ms Carter has landed. She’d probably make a good TV drama too, something for the Sunday evening wind-down slot on BBC 1. However, I wonder if her faith will make the transition to the screen?

 

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Boozing our way through the difficult third novel

Phil: Book 3 is proving tricky. We need our main character to go through a significant change during the story and it’s all going to be quite emotional.  To this end, we’ve not involved her much in the comedy strand, which has progressed quite nicely without her.

The trouble with this is, that we now need to work out her path through the book, and try not to make it either miserable, or unrealistic. There will be no lightbulb moments that aren’t the result of a bit of personal growth. Readers are not to think, “where did that come from?” when Big Moments happen.

So, we meet up in Ikea’s cafe. Not our normal place of “work” but someone needed storage boxes, and it’s not a long way out for me. In fact, on the way I managed to find an interesting shop and was involved in a chat about 3D printers when the “I’m in the cafe” text arrived instructing me to attend.

I had had the foresight to arrive by bus and so when choosing lunchtime supplies, realised that a little alcohol to grease the creative brain cells wasn’t out of the question. To whit, I grabbed a can of Cider Apple and some meatball based food. 0.1% ABV – no slouch me, a couple of these and I’d be outside shouting at pigeons!

After a bit of chat, we felt that it was time to move on. Most of Coventry had decided to bring their children in for the day to add a flourish to the end of the school holidays. That meant the normally tranquil restaurant was transformed into a scene of mayhem, not conducive to producing great works of literature.

Next stop – a pub. We do good work in pubs, but of course, you must have a drink.

My first thought had been tea, but when Miss Prim and Proper ordered lemonade, I changed my order to a shandy.

And it worked. We both feel this book is hard going. There are loads of scenes written, but the love story, apparently so easy on initial inspection, has turned out to be more complicated than we thought.

After an hour or so of debate and pondering, we are pretty certain we’ve nailed it. Some of the work we’ve done needs to be moved in the timeline, a few bits go in the bin. No matter, the plotlines are basically mapped out and they seem to make sense. Candice has written the bare bones of a pivotal scene and sent it to me for added comedy and fiddling.

We are on our way! Now, where did that traffic cone come from?

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