Update on the Book

So my book is progressing at a reasonable pace, and I’m learning a lot as I go.

The first thing I learned is my dialogue format wasn’t great: too much “I said” and “she said”. I read a few pages of books which handle dialogue well and saw they used them much more sparingly than me, so I made some edits. Fortunately this was an easy fix, so no big deal.

The second thing I learned – which I ought to have known before – is “show, don’t tell”. I was doing too much explaining rather than letting the reader infer what is happening from the actions and speech of the characters. Again this was an easy fix, simply a matter of deleting the unnecessary sentences where I have explained what has just taken place.

The third thing I learned was to do with word count and structure. When I started this project I assumed writing a book was simply a matter of banging out 80-90k words to tell some sort of story. I was making splendid progress and the words were falling off my keyboard onto the screen, and I made it as far as 65k words. I was nearly done! It’ll be in people’s stockings for Christmas! Then I stopped and engaged my brain a little.

I’m an engineer and perhaps because of that any project I undertake I do in a very structured manner. I use the word “structure” a lot in my day-job, and I’m not referring to I-beams, concrete, and rebar. If I’m asked to do a job I look at what needs doing, why, by whom, and in what order. I put that together into what is called a Work Breakdown Structure which helps me organise the whole job in my mind. At the beginning it is a rough outline and as I get more information and the picture becomes clearer I start filling in the gaps. I start to see how one part will link to another and what I need to do to make that happen. With the structure in place I can concentrate on one small area for a while without losing focus on the overall project. If anyone wonders why I always seem to have so much time on my hands it is because I work fast and efficiently, skills acquired through being naturally bone idle and workshy. I can work fast and efficiently because I invest time and effort up front into making sure the work is properly structured before it begins. If everyone could do this I’d never have got a job, let alone a career.

So I realised at 65k words that my story needed a structure. I had the unstructured story in my head but that doesn’t mean it will translate well to paper. Any story has what I will call “Key Events”: two people meet, somebody dies, a vital piece of information is revealed, somebody switches sides, the killer is identified. It is vitally important that these key events take place at regular intervals: you can’t have the reader waiting for half the book for the first one and then the next three come along in the following chapter. The book needs to “balance”, as I call it. The first Key Event has to come early on to keep the reader interested, and the last must come very near the end (obviously). I don’t think there is any rule as to where the rest must fall, but they need to be spread out somehow and not clustered. And that’s where I went wrong in my first draft: too much was happening close together.

The other area where structure plays an important role is in character development. You need to spend enough time on this so that reader is invested in the characters, otherwise he simply won’t care when one of them turns out to be Prince Harry’s lovechild. But you also don’t want to go far and leave the reader wondering when the hell something interesting is going to happen to all these people he by now knows very well. I doubt there is a hard and fast rule on this, but the right balance needs to be struck in the context of the overall book length and the frequency of the Key Events.

It was all getting rather complicated, and so I did what all good engineers do: I made a spreadsheet. I have a list of the key events and the place at which they appear in the story in terms of percentage of overall word count. Actually I have three figures, assuming total word counts of 80k, 85k, and 90k. I have each scene listed and their corresponding word counts and so whenever I write anything I can see where each Key Event is falling in the book and whether the space between them is too large or small. Using this method I keep an overall eye on how the book is balanced, and it tells me where I need to expand a scene or cut some words out.

I’m already struggling to keep under my maximum word count of 90k and so I need to be very disciplined in what I am including: anything that isn’t directly relevant to the story, and some things that are relevant but unimportant, are being chopped out already. However, it is easier just to get as many scenes written as possible in the early stages and cut when required later, I think. I am already finding that exercising this discipline on the word count is making the writing better, which is why I am reluctant to exceed the maximum.

The other thing I need to keep an eye on is the mood flow of the book. There are several Key Events and scenes connecting them, and a reader needs to be given a breather every now and again. Some scenes may be harrowing and intense, but he will need some which are more relaxed between them. A good story will manage the emotions so they rise and fall like a roller-coaster, and not have the first half depicting savage hand-to-hand combat with an alien species with no letup, and the second half somebody who has escaped the fighting lying on the beach with his girlfriend talking about relationships: the intensity and emotions need to ebb and flow. The spreadsheet helps with this to some degree, too. It also helps me to decide how the book will be divided into chapters, and which scene goes in which chapter.

I say all this because I have not got the faintest idea how anyone else structures their writings and what tools they use. Scrivener has a built-in storyboard function which looks good, but I just found it easier to use an Excel spreadsheet to create something similar to the Work Breakdown Structures I compile in my day-job. It will be interesting to see if this works for me, particularly if in years to come whole documentaries are being shown on television about how the great T. B. Newman structures his masterpieces. I can hope.

I have also had some useful feedback on what I have written so far. I am sending completed scenes to a friend of mine who is probably not completely objective but is certainly somebody who would be considered in the core target readership, and the information she is giving me is invaluable. The first thing she pointed out was that I’d blabbed out the whole story in the opening pages, giving the reader little incentive to carry on. These kind of errors could cost me a yacht. She’s also highlighted the bits that don’t make sense, are confusing, add nothing, or seem incomplete. So far everything has been easily fixable, which is encouraging. She thinks the writing is okay, the characters believable, the descriptions relatable, and the story sound enough. Whether the rest of the world agrees remains to be seen, but as I say, it is encouraging.

Finally, it appears to be a lot more work than I first envisaged but my motivation is still running in the high nineties, percentage wise.  I hope to get it in front of an editor by mid-year, but we’ll see.

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16 thoughts on “Update on the Book

  1. Observations, if I may:

    ‘The first thing I learned is my dialogue format wasn’t great: too much “I said” and “she said”.’ Hmmm, yes, but it still works and avoids clangers like “he intoned” or “she suggested.” In short, no one cares about a lot of he or she saids, though most written two people conversations can get away with — like a tennis match — to some degree allowing the reader to work out the alternating speaker without continually naming who speaks.

    ‘The second thing I learned – which I ought to have known before – is “show, don’t tell”.’ Yes, to a point, but novels aren’t plays or films or TV shows. Sometimes you have to tell the reader what is in someone’s mind or describe a scene or situation that you cannot show. If you look at the opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.“ It would taken too long to show how it is universally acknowledged. It had to be written that way.

    ‘The third thing I learned was to do with word count and structure. When I started this project I assumed writing a book was simply a matter of banging out 80-90k words to tell some sort of story.’ Okay… A story is a story: the best jokes are short and to the point and some of the wordiest books are tediously boring. So it is a matter of the right length to tell the tale you want to tell. I wouldn’t fixate on length (though some purchasers may think slimness of volume is not value for money, but a best-seller like ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ wasn’t that many words, however I accept perhaps writing about a gull flying could never use many words. ‘Animal Farm’ by the way checks in at less than 30,000 words)

    ‘I can see where each Key Event is falling in the book ‘ Good plan, as most novels have to have peaks and troughs. If you see it as a three act play you have the set-up, crisis, and resolution (or as my father told me years ago the oldest story is boy meets girls, boy loses girl, boy finds girl) you have a good guide. Usually the story has light and shade — a friend of mine who wrote for television successfully had his comedy shows having moments of sheer pathos and even disaster among the laughs. Nothing continues, if you like, on an even keel. You mention that when you say ‘A good story will manage the emotions so they rise and fall like a roller-coaster.’ True, dat.

    One more thing: a TV producer called John Yorke has written a book called ‘Into the woods’ in which he basically outlines the five-act structure but also, importantly, says a story’s main character has to get ‘lost’ in something so deep they are (almost) helpless. The woods then is a metaphor for being on one’s own. The best stories are, for me, ones in which the main character has to arrive at some self-rescue or realisation either by brain, brawn or both to move on. In other words, they can’t just be a victim of circumstance; they have to do something themselves.

    As always good luck with the writing and yes, you have to finish it.

  2. “These kind of errors could cost me a yacht.”

    That one’s going in my repetoire

  3. Watcher makes a good point. Even as good a writer as Kingsley Amis sometimes leaves you wondering who said what. So the odd “he said’ and “she replied” can do good service.

    P.S. Try not to use “good” in three sentences in a row.

  4. Dearieme: don’t be harsh with yourself on such a good point.

    We all overuse one or two words too much, and one of mine is ‘thing.’ Probably laziness on my part, but I know I resort to using ‘thing’ too much. Once you know your weakness you can spot it early doors before it becomes, er, you know, a thing.

  5. I dunno if anyone else as mentioned these, but you could find these books useful:

    Story Engineering: Character Development, Story Concept, Scene Construction by Larry Brooks

    and

    Story Physics: Harnessing The Underlying Forces Of Storytelling by Larry Brooks

    Both of which I’ve found very good for structural organisation, and I thought the ‘engineering’ aspect might appeal to you.

  6. The ‘he said she said’ things are called dialogue tags. They are very important and too many writers stuff them up with unnecessary exaggeration. I primarily use ‘said’ for mine and I have had a number of readers compliment me on my use of them.

    The writer who was the best exponent of dialogue tags in my opinion was Elmore Leonard. He just can’t be beat. Peruse a couple of his books to get an idea of how a master does it.

    I struggle to understand how you can fix a ‘show and don’t tell’ problem by merely eliminating unnecessary passages, particularly after 65K words. Rewriting would also be required and a good deal of it.

    “These kind of errors could cost me a yacht.”

    I admire your determination to aim high, but in reality you’ll be very fortunate if you get a rowboat. Just sayin.

  7. ‘The first thing I learned is my dialogue format wasn’t great: too much “I said” and “she said”.’ Hmmm, yes, but it still works and avoids clangers like “he intoned” or “she suggested.” In short, no one cares about a lot of he or she saids, though most written two people conversations can get away with — like a tennis match — to some degree allowing the reader to work out the alternating speaker without continually naming who speaks.

    Yeah, I am using them, but more sparingly than before. And I am generally sticking to “said” and “replied” rather than pretentious alternatives.

    Sometimes you have to tell the reader what is in someone’s mind or describe a scene or situation that you cannot show.

    Agreed: I need to tell quite a lot, but before I was showing and telling.

    I wouldn’t fixate on length

    I’m trying not to, but I think it’s a good idea to aim for a window rather than jut leave it open. As I say, I’ve already cut out some stuff which in hindsight is unnecessary.

    The best stories are, for me, ones in which the main character has to arrive at some self-rescue or realisation either by brain, brawn or both to move on. In other words, they can’t just be a victim of circumstance; they have to do something themselves.

    I’m hoping to do that. 😉

  8. We all overuse one or two words too much, and one of mine is ‘thing.

    I have already noticed myself doing that with a few words. Fortunately there is a tool on Scrivener which gives you the number of times you’ve used each word.

  9. Both of which I’ve found very good for structural organisation, and I thought the ‘engineering’ aspect might appeal to you.

    Ooh, thanks for those, I’ve never heard of them before! I’ll check them out.

  10. The ‘he said she said’ things are called dialogue tags. They are very important and too many writers stuff them up with unnecessary exaggeration. I primarily use ‘said’ for mine and I have had a number of readers compliment me on my use of them.

    Yup, I think that’s the way to go. Use them, but use them sparingly, and keep them simple so they pass by unnoticed.

    I struggle to understand how you can fix a ‘show and don’t tell’ problem by merely eliminating unnecessary passages, particularly after 65K words. Rewriting would also be required and a good deal of it.

    Most of it is dialogue, and I was letting the character speak and then explaining something afterwards. In many instances what I was explaining could easily have been inferred by what the character had just said, so I got rid of them.

    I admire your determination to aim high, but in reality you’ll be very fortunate if you get a rowboat. Just sayin.

    I’ll be chuffed if it’s just an oar.

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