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Building Blocks of Historical Fiction no 2 – Suspicion versus Suspense #HistFic

FAMsf Cornelis TroostOften writers think that in order to convey mystery, or to keep the reader in suspense, they must withhold information. A typical example is that someone (mystery man) kills/kidnaps a mystery person on page one. In practice, this is just annoying. Much better is to give the maximum amount of detail. Name the character, give us a detailed description, tell us exactly who they are and who the other person is that they are interacting with. That way, we might actually care about the victim, and also care about the man who is perpetrating the crime.

Suspicion: What we don’t want is the reader to think, ‘Who are these people? What the heck is going on? And can I be bothered to find out? I’m suspicious as to whether this author is going to give me a good story.

Suspense: Instead we want them to think, ‘Mr Smith is an interesting character. I wonder why he hates Mrs Jones so much? What has Mrs Jones ever done to him to make him feel this way? If I read on I might find out. I trust this author to tell me everything I need to know for a satisfying story.

Tension is created in a reader when they’re not sure what will happen in a story — and the best way to make tension is to make it between characters of opposing personalities or goals. If your characters are unknown or ‘mysterious’ then instead of gaining tension, the tension is lost. A reader will also lose interest because lack of specificity conveys the idea that what they are reading does not matter to the author enough to give details, or that the author themselves does not know.

Cut the vagueness and mystery from your prose, but keep it in the specifics of your plot. Don’t use ambiguous sentences. Aim for specific concrete details that bring clarity and help the reader visualize your scene. And as historical fiction writers we have a wealth of detail that can be used which will anchor our story in its era. If you pay attention to these details, your reader will also pay attention. If it matters to you; it will matter to them.

Anything that is vague weakens your writing. Here is an example with as much vagueness as I can inject.

Vague:

It was about an hour ago that Mr Greaves had gone away, so Miss Allcott was trying to open the door, but when she pulled the handle it seemed to be stuck. Maybe someone had locked it at some time after she came in. She thought she’d better look through the keyhole, but she couldn’t see anything because apparently the key was somehow still in the other side.

Now I’ve made it more specific:

After Mr Greaves had been gone an hour, Miss Allcott tried to open the door, but when she pulled the handle it was stuck. Someone must have locked it after she came in. She looked through the keyhole, but could see nothing, for the key was still in the other side.

The bare facts, nice and clean without the vagueness. But it lacks period detail.

With more period detail, including the emotions of the character:

The odious Mr Greaves had gone an hour ago, and in that time Miss Allcott had unpacked all her valises, put away her new bombazine riding habit, and was getting hungry. She reached out a lace-gloved hand to the doorknob, and pulled. The door creaked but did not budge, so she twisted the handle again and put both hands to the task, leaning back with the full weight of her five-foot two frame. She frowned. Someone must have locked it after she came in. She hitched up her tight-fitting skirt and bent down to peer into the keyhole. Dark, with a mere glimmer of light on metal. How dare he! The key was still in the lock.

The more specific the detail, the more interested we are in the event.

Did you ask more questions about the third version of events? Did you start to ask why? Did you want to edit it for me? The more specificity, the more curiosity in the reader. I encourage you to add to this fictional scene with more detail, and begin to make it come to life. What do you think might be going on? Do feel free to improvise!

So, make sure your reader is treated to suspense, rather than suspicion.

You might like Building Blocks of Historical Fiction no 1 – Balance

Picture Credit — Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco – engraving by Cornelis Troost

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Historical Fiction – The Ending is in the Beginning

King art-carving-close-up-189528How many of you have found a book has been ruined by its ending? Me too.

Turns out that in fact we are hard-wired to wait for that pay-off, that final few moments of the story when it gives us its meaning. Here’s what a scientific experiment told us about endings:

The Peak-end Rule

The peak–end rule was proposed by Barbara Fredrickson and Daniel Kahneman. This model dictates that an event is not judged not by the entirety of an experience, (in our case a novel) but by remembered moments (or snapshots) which dominate the actual value of an experience. Fredrickson and Kahneman’s theory was that these snapshots are formed by

a) the most intense moment of an experience and

b)even more often the feeling experienced at the end. (From our point of view; the climax and the ending).

In brief, Kahneman and Frederickson proved this by doing some experiments. In a 1993 study titled “When More Pain Is Preferred to Less: Adding a Better End”, participants were subjected to two different versions of a single unpleasant experience. The first version had subjects plunge their hand in freezing water for 60 seconds. The second trial had subjects submerge the other hand in 14 °C water for 60 seconds, but then keep their hand submerged for an additional 30 seconds, during which the temperature was raised to 15 °C.

Subjects were then offered the option of which of these trials to repeat.

Subjects were more willing to repeat the second trial, despite a longer exposure to uncomfortable temperatures, because of its ‘happy ending’. Kahneman’s theory: “subjects chose the long trial simply because they liked the memory of it better than the alternative”, in other words the ending where the temperature was more comfortable, was remembered. From this we can see that the ending is what lets us make sense, or meaning from the story. (For more info on Peak-End Theory go here)

So, how do we make an ending memorable?

For me, one of the first criteria is resonance. The novel has to feel as though it means something, and that it hasn’t just stopped randomly in the middle of events. Series writers often have trouble with this as their book does need to stop in the middle of a plot. Resonance can be achieved by using the key theme and image for a book, and for a series, this image can overarch the series.

Resonance can also be achieved by examining the opening pages of the novel and looking for the promises implicit in them. Many historical novels use their settings and the history to place the story in a greater context at the end. Often the reader knows what happens next, and most readers have great imaginations which can be needled into action by an apt image. For an ending, the image of a character standing at the executioner’s block is usually better than the one describing the execution in graphic detail. Particularly in tragic endings, we can let the reader do the work for us, as with great events, they know what comes next.

In the picture at the top of this post, the moment just before the crown is placed on the head is the poignant one. It would be much less so if the crown were already on the head.

Endings shouldn’t be too neat or they will feel contrived. A reader likes to be left with food for thought, so that the book continues to grow in the mind. This makes for memorable fiction. An understated ending is often better than one which is over-dramatic. Even a small thing can have resonance – your novel builds to this single moment funnelling everything towards it. So make it an image or a sentence or a paragraph to remember. Also try to give it some movement, something upon which the reader can travel out of the book, so that the reader can segue away naturally.

Here’s one of my favourite endings:

‘She stared intently up at the low ridge of hills ahead where rumour had it that the Communists camped out, as if she could keep him safe by sheer force of will alone. She sent out a ripple of her own.

The train growled to a start.’

– Kate Furnivall, The Russian Concubine

It works because it shows an intense emotion. It also has forward movement. The train is taking us out of the world of the book. We are also hopeful that the Lydia sending out her will to Chang An Lo will enable him to survive. As for the ripples – earlier, Lydia says that  ‘Everyone who touched your life sent  a ripple effect through you, and all the ripples interconnected.’

Have you a favourite ending to a book?

My latest History Post – The Problem of Letters for a Historical Novelist is on The History Girls Blog

Want more on writing? Try my posts on the sins of Historical Fiction:

Historical Fiction – deadly sin no 7 – mistaking it for a genre

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10 tips for Editing Historical Fiction no.8 ‘Suddenly’

300px-Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fogIt must be a month ago that I started thinking about writing a blog post on the difficulties of writing about sudden events, which was something highlighted by Hilary Mantel in her Reith Lectures. In the meantime I’ve been on holiday in walking in Wales, and with historical fiction writers Carol McGrath and Jenny Barden in the Mani peninsula in Greece.

The thoughts about ‘suddenly’ have come and gone in that time, but I realised that in my own writing I tend to use a change of viewpoint to denote that something is about to happen. In fiction, a sudden event can feel unbelievable if it just pops up without warning, and the result is that it often makes the reader laugh – very much like someone jumping out of a tree and shouting ‘boo!’

So the sudden event needs to be foreshadowed in some way. Often sudden events are heralded by a noise: a bang at the door, the sound of musket fire, the cries of an angry mob. Sudden events in the middle of a scene are harder to manage, than at the beginning or end of a scene where white space can help isolate and give impact to the incident.

But one of the effective ways to do this is to shift viewpoint. Here’s an example;

‘William gave a sudden lurch forward and pushed her into the water.’

Now remove the ‘sudden’ and foreshadow it with a change of viewpoint.

Bird’s Eye View

The cry of a gull caught her attention. She looked up. Their two figures would be like dots, she realised, two dark smudges on the edge of the rolling green, where the white line of the cliff cut into the blue of the sea. The gull swooped, hoping for food.

Without warning, Wiiliam lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Magnifying Lens View

Alice saw the change in his eyes, the way the irises opened out into round circles. A wave of uncertainty. He blinked once.

Without warning, William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Far Distance View

Mrs Rogers shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun. Two figures stood on the edge of the cliff. A man and a woman; the man was hatless; the woman’s skirts billowed in the wind. They arrested her attention because they weren’t looking out to sea, but at each other.

Without warning the man lurched forward and pushed the woman into the water.

Far Past View

She had the impression of standing on the back of an ancient animal. She almost expected to feel it breathe. Time slowed. He was looking at her with a strange, amused expression.

Without warning, he lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Far Future View

A pause. Years later she would wonder why she hadn’t felt an ounce of warning.

That one minute her feet were on solid ground, the next; William lurched forward and pushed her into the water.

Of course these are extremely crude examples, without any novel to give them context, but the principle of shifting the viewpoint seems to de-stabilize the reader and make the sudden event feel more natural. The important thing is to provide a context, so the sudden event flows naturally from the preceding text, although still remaining sudden. Try it, and see if it works for you.

But – Character Reaction is Key

The sudden event need not be explained, but the character reaction must be short, quick, visceral. It is this that makes the event seem sudden and brings the reader along with you. Try using strong verbs which contain a sense of movement, and aim for clarity and precision.

A rush of air.

Her back slapped into something hard.  A shock of cold sucked the air from her lungs. Her feet thrashed in the heavy dark until her head broke water, eyes stinging, into the cries of the gulls. Through the blur of salt, she tilted her head up to squint against the sun. Where was he?

The cliffs were empty.

Notice also the amount of white space around the sudden event.

The picture for this post is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar Friedrich. 

You might like these posts too:  No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads No 5 Foreshadowing No 6 Status No 7 Detail

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Historical Fiction: Ten Editing Tools. No 5 – Foreshadowing

Peter_Graham_-_Wandering_Shadows_-_Google_Art_Project
Peter Graham – Wandering Shadows

As a historical fiction writer, I often want to include major events in history, and usually these are the ‘real’ history that inspired the book. By ‘major’, I don’t necessarily mean big battles, (though the Battle of Worcester forms at least one set piece for me) but they are usually pivotal points of changes in history or changes in character, or preferably both. One of the main pivots in my book Pleasing Mr Pepys is when Mrs Pepys discovers her husband in flagrante with her own lady’s maid, Deb Willet, on his knee. The foreshadowing in this case took the form of Mrs Pepys’s suspicions – her careful examining of her husband’s clothes for Deb’s hairs, and her bribing of the kitchenmaid to spy on Deb’s chamber.

So when editing, one of the things I do is to look for the big scenes, particularly the real events of history, and see if I can foreshadow them more. What I’m aiming for is a build of tension that will lead the reader, as if up a mountain slope, to the pinnacle of tension – by which time, the scene istelf arrives and is all the more satisfying for its release. I usually have about eight pivotal scenes in my books, but only the later few will be deeply foreshadowed, because the early ones are at the beginning of the character’s transformation and so don’t need as much development.

If you have a character that needs to show particular bravery in a late scene in your novel, you can foreshadow by making your character cowardly earlier on. This sets up tension, as the reader wonders whether the character will crumble under pressure. Opposites are a great way of stretching the character arc. For example it is much better to start with an overbearing character and make them humble by the end, than to start with a self-effacing person and make them humble by the end. The bigger the psychological distance travelled by your protagonist, the more impact it will have. Fear in the reader is a good thing, but you must then have at least one scene where the change is foreshadowed – where the character steels him/herself to be more courageous. Often this can be done with an object – ‘he looked at his father’s medals, glinting in the drawer, and knew he could not let him down’. (More on this in my next post).

Avoiding Blatant Premonitions

Every now and then I read books with sentences like, ‘Little did she know, all that was about to change,’ or ‘What I didn’t know then, was that it was the biggest mistake of my life’. These sentences always make me wince.  Especially the ‘little did she know’. They are so blatantly manipulative and only really work well in books which are supposed to be funny, or tongue-in-cheek.

Premonitions and dreams are another obvious form of foreshadowing. Actually, I have used both, but with extreme caution! (in Pepys’s Diary he reports that Mrs Pepys and Deb go to a fortune teller, so I couldn’t resist using it.) But – bear in mind the character’s intelligence and personality. Would they really take notice of the premonition, or would they dismiss it? Deb and Mrs Pepys have really different reactions to what they are told. Describe the premonition in an interesting way – hairs standing up at the back of the neck, tingling spine and clenching of stomachs are all clichés.

Foreshadowing is often a question of mood. This is something else I look for as I’m editing. A sense of instability can be conveyed through setting, rickety houses, a blur of rain, slippery cobbles that make it hard to stand upright. Weather has long been used for this purpose, but beware of making it stormy in angry scenes, rainy at funerals etc. The still millpond could be a better backdrop for an angry scene and reflect back the deeper things unsaid.

Do let me know books you think use foreshadowing really well, so I can pass them on as recommendations to my students.

You might also like in this series:

No 1 Light  No 2 Truth  No 3 Sound  No 4 Threads

More on foreshadowing? Read this great post from NowNovel here

Picture from Wiki Commons

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Historical Fiction – Ten Editing Tools. No 1 – Light

 

Light Petrus_van_Schendel_Market_by_candlelight
Petrus van Schendel ‘Market by Candlelight’

The power of place and atmosphere is what drove me to first pick up my pen and try to write something set in the past. A useful editing tool to enliven your novel is to go through the draft and examine the quality of the light. Before the advent of artificial illumination, the lack of easy light can be a powerful indicator of mood and tone, and emphasise the period in which you are writing.

To our forbears the hot, dense sky of summer was an enormous contrast to the tingling sharpness of a frosty December.

Dawn has its own paricular colour, from pale amber in soot-smoked London to the transparent quasi-mauve of a morning in the desert.

Imagine the light filtering through heavy Victorian lace curtains, or slicing through the cracks of seventeenth century shutters.

People gather around the glimmer of a fire, or avoid the darkness of unlit streets. A night, rooms are pooled in gold from candles or lanterns, and are thick with gloom in the dark corners.

Specific locations have unique auras in terms of light. Conquered cities lie under a yellow pall, the sun dulled by dust or smoke. In the distance an army approaches, seen only by the quick flash of sun on shield.

The sea throws off light in innumerable ways – a sparkle over luminous turquoise, or thrashing foam over shining scales. Reflections from water move in exquisite and unusual forms.

Light Sauer_river_near_Esch-sur-Sûre_7;_reflection_of_sunlight_in_water
Reflection of Light on a River

The English weather is notoriously changeable, and can easily be contrasted with the harsh flat light of the unchanging heat of (for example) Cairo.

I used to work in the theatre, where correct lighting could transform a scene from the ordinary to the extraordinary, and I have never forgotten that lesson. The more specific the lighting, the better. ‘Night fell’ tells me nothing, but how much more threatening is; ‘the ball of the sun collapsed under the line of the mountains, turning them briefly to jagged peaks, before the dark closed around us like a hand.’

In the painting below, the long shadows of the approach of evening and the darkness of the sea emphasise how long this woman has been waiting.

 

Light Alma Tadema alma02
Expectation by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

And of course light is a symbol, one of the most common allegories of good and evil. So use your chiaroscuro to paint the moral complexities of the novel as well as the setting.

You can read my post on Lighting in the Seventeenth Century here

A post on 36 adjectives describing light here

Seven Deadly Sins of Historical Fiction here

Pictures from wiki commons

 

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Historical Fiction – Deadly Sin no 4 – Lost or Glossary?

Like most historical novelists, I’ve stomacher 3spent stomacher 1730 -1750much of my research time immersed in the everyday life of an earlier century, and my vocabulary has expanded. It has expanded to include words that most people have never heard of. As a novelist, this was brought home to me, when I had one character stab another character ‘in the stomacher’.

Of course my editor knocked off the ‘er’ on the end, thinking it was a misprint, and I meant stomach. It wasn’t a misprint – that was actually what I meant. A ‘stomacher’ is a decorative triangular panel, usually separate from, but designed to fit within, a woman’s 17th or 18th century bodice. It is worn to fill the space between the front edges of a woman’s open gown, and was often the most decorative part of the dress. Here are some beautiful examples with embroidered flowers.

Sometimes, the stomacher would be filled by a ‘busk.’ (Editor: do I mean ‘bust’? Me – no, I do mean ‘busk’.)

250px-Alexander_Roslin_031 1753
18th Century portrait by Roslin, showing stomacher

A busk is a wooden, bone or leather panel designed to keep the stomacher stiff and flat. Busks were used right up until the Victorian era, and were often decorative, with carved or incised decoration. They were also used within the stays, depending on the era. Yes, ‘stays.’  They are a sort of corset.

I know all these words. They are really familiar to me, but my poor reader? If they don’t read much historical fiction, they are probably baffled.

Which brings me to deadly sin no 4.  Period words should be clear either from the context, or you should consider including a glossary. When someone punched my character in the ‘stomacher’, although it was clear to me what was happening, the editor was right. Most people would have thought it an error or misprint. Which left me with the option of explaining that the stomacher, with fitted busk, would have protected the wearer.  Again, not a very neat option, if you are having to explain what words mean. It holds up the action, and becomes more like a lecture than fiction. I did the sensible thing and cut it. Actually, I re-wrote the whole scene.

It is good to use historical words occasionally to give a flavour – e.g  ‘she climbed into the brougham, and the driver set the horses going.’ In this example the context makes the meaning clear. The same caveat applies to words of another, or earlier culture (e.g. Ancient India, Medieval Byzantium). If you want to use a foreign word for effect, then look for those words where the meaning is blindingly obvious, or provide a glossary.

The glossary itself should only be the words the reader can’t fathom for himself. The shorter the better – a long glossary can really put the reader off reading the book, as they know they might have to stop the story to tern to the end to look things up.

busk

Left: Carved decorative busks. Worn close to the heart, these were often carved with symbols of love, or told a story of a life or journey.

Brougham – A brougham was a light, four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage built in the 19th century.

You might also like:

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama

Deadly Sin 2  – Purple Prose

Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

I recommend: Carla Nayland’s post on Archaic Terminology in Historical Fiction

Picture Links:

18th century Rococo era

V and A Museum Collection

 

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Historical Fiction – Deadly Sin 3 – Stuck in the Past

Lorna Doone

Excess Verbiage

When I was growing up I read classic fiction such as Dickens, The Brontes, Dumas, and Blackmore. These were my formative influences, and nuances of their language still make their way into my books. This is both an advantage, and a disadvantage. On the one hand, I’m hugely grateful for the vocabulary I have which mostly came from reading these books. The trouble is – only some of this vocabulary is still in use today, and much of it is outdated. I sometimes find myself using over-complicated or archaic words when a simpler one would be clearer.

Obvious archaisms such as ‘forsooth’ are easily avoided, but subtler ones often slip through the net. I’ve noticed in some historical novels, characters tend to ‘regard’ each other.

‘She regarded him with an icy stare.’

The word ‘regard’ for look, is very rarely used these days. A few of these old-fashioned words can give flavour, but too many and the prose becomes weighed down and stodgy.

Here is John Ridd from Lorna Doone, talking about a prank from his school days:

‘This is the manner of a “winkey,” which I here set down, lest child of mine, or grandchild, dare to make one on my premises; if he does, I shall know the mark at once, and score it well upon him. The scholar obtains, by prayer or price, a handful of saltpetre, and then with the knife wherewith he should rather be trying to mend his pens, what does he do but scoop a hole where the desk is some three inches thick. This hole should be left with the middle exalted, and the circumference dug more deeply. Then let him fill it with saltpetre, all save a little space in the midst, where the boss of the wood is. Upon that boss (and it will be the better if a splinter of timber rise upward) he sticks the end of his candle of tallow, or “rat’s tail,” as we called it, kindled and burning smoothly. Anon, as he reads by that light his lesson, lifting his eyes now and then it may be, the fire of candle lays hold of the petre with a spluttering noise and a leaping. Then should the pupil seize his pen, and, regardless of the nib, stir bravely, and he will see a glow as of burning mountains, and a rich smoke, and sparks going merrily; nor will it cease, if he stir wisely, and there be a good store of petre, until the wood is devoured through, like the sinking of a well-shaft. Now well may it go with the head of a boy intent upon his primer, who betides to sit thereunder! But, above all things, have good care to exercise this art before the master strides up to his desk, in the early gray of the morning.’

A fascinating extract – but probably best not to try this ‘winkey’ trick at home! But I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s very wordy. There’s a tendency in historical fiction to add more words to try to make it sound more ‘historical.’ This has the effect of making the novel too dense. Simplicity allows the prose to breathe.

‘Yes please,’ said John.

Another hangover from classic fiction is the use of ‘said’ in this way: (again from Lorna Doone)

“Madam,” said Sir Ensor Doone—being born a gentleman, although a very bad one—”I crave pardon of you. My eyes are old, or I might have known. Now, if we have your husband prisoner, he shall go free without ransoms, because I have insulted you.”

“Sir,” said my mother, being suddenly taken away with sorrow, because of his gracious manner, “please to let me cry a bit.”

These days, it is common, and much neater, to have the subject before the verb – i.e ‘Sir Ensor Doone said’, ‘my mother said’. This makes the word ‘said’ less visible and puts the emphasis on the speaker, where it belongs. Having it after the speaker sounds like a school primer, or like a very old-fashioned novel. If you have read many Victorian (or earlier) novels, you may find you have unconsciously picked up this habit.

Picture and Excerpts from Lorna Doone from Project Gutenberg

Deadly Sin 1 – Melodrama is here, and 2 – Purple Prose is here

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No Quick Fix – The Inherent Complexity of a Good Novel

Recently I have noticed that there has been a tsunami of  ‘How to’ writing guides published, and that these are selling extremely well. In fact it is probably more profitable, and perhaps easier, to write a book about writing a novel than it is to write a successful novel.

In fact that must be so – because so many people are buying them. If writing a novel was easy they wouldn’t be turning to these books for help.

The titles are designed to make it sound easy:  Fix your Plot in Five Seconds Flat! Be a Billionaire Bestseller in 30 Days! Secrets of Fail-safe Story Structures!

wedding speech helpOf course these books are designed to make it sound easy, because that’s what every novelist wants – an easy way to do this thing called writing a novel.

But the reality is that good novels are complex, intricate, difficult things, and just like life, a formula is not necessarily what creates a great novel, particularly for historical novelists who have to juggle the reality of real historical events alongside any story structure. It is a slightly more thorny task  to suddenly ‘create’ a worthy antagonist if the real history does not provide one. We cannot turn real characters into easily categorized roles in our novels, so have to work hard to fit our stories easily into conventional models, turning instead to internal motivations to create opposing forces.

It is not true, however, to say that good story structure has to be thrown out of the window, and that none of these books on writing have anything to offer. On the contrary, I’m a big fan of books on writing. But reading the book is often not the same as editing something with multiple timelines, events that must take place on certain days, or characters who are known to be a certain way because of genuine evidence. Such a journey is more like negotiating a maze of corridors with light somewhere at the end of the tunnel, but not necessarily where you thought the exit was.

I would argue that good novels are complex, that they weave a number of interlocking themes, ideas and plots. When working on a novel the urge to get it finished by an easy solution can be overwhelming, but rather than looking for a ‘quick fix’ it is often better to sit with the complexities, let them simmer and brew, making your novel that much richer and subtler in the process. Anyone will find it easy to apply story structure to a novel after it is finished – to point out the mid-point, the hook etc etc. But the simple structures may have been a lot less easy to spot whilst the novel was in progress, and too often in desperation to see our novels finished, we want to fix them too early, before they have had a chance to breathe.

In order to sell books, it is argued, we must be more productive, to build our readership more quickly. This can induce a panic (and a vague sense of being bullied) to produce more and more books, but does not necessarily mean that the books are better. A readership is not built on bad books. I would argue that like wine, a good novel needs to be matured. A book like Shantaram or The Far Pavilions both at nearly 1000 pages long, (yes, 1000 pages!) surely cannot be produced quickly. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, a historical novel about the time of the building of cathedrals in England, took about 10 years to write, but has stayed popular with readers ever since.

For those of you who still would like a quick fix (I can’t convince you, can I?) then I heartily recommend ‘How not to write a novel’ by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark, which not only avoids telling you what to do, but shows you what NOT to do through a series of hilarious but cleverly-constructed ‘bad writing’ examples. When you are feeling like you need a quick fix, pick this up instead and sift through your novel for similar cringeworthy examples. Total gold.