A Happy New Year

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year!   2009 was rather a difficult year for many.

I almost forgot….many, many thanks to the guys at WordPress who have made this fantastic software available to all, without any charge whatsoever.  This year has been the year I discovered Web 2.0 and all the fascinating things it has to offer.


A Novel Writing Tip: Troublesome Dialogue

When revising troublesome dialogue, it’s sometimes easier, better and quicker to start afresh and let the conversation unfold in its own way.  In the past, I’ve spent some considerable hours wading through dialogue scenes, trying to adapt the speech to the context.  Constant revising doesn’t always help, but starting from scratch does.

The Novel Rewrite

I’m 23,000 words into the rewrite of a psychological thriller dealing with family secrets, a serious crime and a wealthy man with gangster connections. The writing’s going well, I think, but I’m finding elements of the revision hard going.  In particular, I’m finally having to address structural problems that I’ve generally tended to avoid up till now.

During a recent meeting with an editor, several points emerged:

  1. Readers might have difficulty identifying with the central character, as the character is never really developed in the present;
  2. A significant degree of confusion over two major male characters; 
  3. The central character makes certain assumptions without valid reason;
  4. Authorial voice interrupts viewpoint narratives on occasion;
  5. The central character needs to react to the rising danger in more realistic ways.

There were also promising aspects of the work.  



At present, I’m concentrating on:

  1. Building up more thorough images of significant characters;
  2. Increasing the information experienced through the senses, such as sounds, music, specific smells, etc;
  3. Delaying the central character’s rising paranoia until much later in the story;
  4. Holding back on some of the central character’s childhood memories, background information and back stories;
  5. Finding more sophisticated ways of dealing with memory throughout;
  6. Working in scenes rather than chapters;
  7. Spending several days at a time reworking the scenes before printing them out;
  8. Allowing the plot to unfold gradually;
  9. Making sure that each incident and plot development reveals something new.

Dreams in Fiction?

When I first started writing a novel, a psychological thriller, I relied heavily on italicized dreams because it seemed the right thing to do. Over the years, however, I’ve cut most of the dreams and concentrated on the central character in real time. As a member of a novelist group once said to me, “if you’re going to use dreams, then at least reveal something new in the dreams.”

Now, I’ve had to ditch that one important opening dream that acts as a kind of prologue to the action. At a recent meeting, an editor told me that opening dreams are clichés. The editor asked whether I would read a prologue in italics in someone else’s book and I replied that I probably wouldn’t. So I’ve had to get rid of the dream.


The rewrite of the novel seems to be going all right. I’m concentrating a lot more on all the senses and atmosphere.

I’m using a fantastic programme, Storybook, that enables users to plan and organize scenes. Storybook is an open source programme and doesn’t cost a penny (or cent).

Promising Editing Meeting

I met the editor yesterday and the meeting went well. I need to do some work on the central character, developing the character so the reader can better identify with them. Also, there is considerable confusion over two significant characters and a problem with authorial voice coming through and interrupting the viewpoint narrations. I will revise along the lines suggested and send the work back to the editor when it is completed.

The Problem of Back Story in Novel Writing

It’s the problem that won’t go away…. those sections where a writer shows an adult character looking back to childhood in a way that captures the immediacy of the recalled period. I can think of one reason why readers might not like back story: it interrupts the flow of the narrative. As an avid reader of crime/thrillers, I tend to feel bogged down and uncomfortable when faced with back story in novels. I prefer the rising tension, the story in the now. Mainly, I want to know what will happen next. I love the fear factor, the excitement.

And yet, sometimes in psychological drama, a character’s past has had such an effect on their present that there probably is no other way of bringing the conflict to life, other than by using relevant back story. Perhaps the word “relevant” is the key: a strict limit on back story to include only what’s needed in order to make the overall story work. A case of carefully considering the advantages and disadvantages of using back story and arriving at a decision.

For me, the issue remains somewhat puzzling and frustrating. I have about ten back stories in my first novel, a psychological thriller set in the countryside. These appear in the viewpoints of the two main characters. Additionally, the protagonist tends to recall events fairly often, including in the middle of highly tense moments. This interrupts the pace and spoils the build up of tension Clearly, many of the recollections need to go.

Removing all back story sections, however, may present new problems and lead to a situation where it is not entirely obvious why the scenes in the present have had such an impact on the viewpoint characters. I have found that attempts to deal with the issue through other means, such as dialogue, don’t always remedy the problem. Back story encompasses a certain level of immediacy that doesn’t always come out in dialogue, and the dialogue itself would demand a reason for its presence in the story.

Further, dialogue can easily become samey and all on the same level. Convincing dialogue is difficult to pull off. It requires distinct voicing and a clear sense of purpose, a sort of process of travelling from A to B to C without it resembling screen writing.

After looking carefully through the novel and making 82 pages of critical notes, I am considering keeping just three of the back stories told through the protagonist’s viewpoint.

Storybook: Open Source Programme for Writers

I suppose I’ve always been sceptical of novel writing software…after all, how can a programme possibly understand a story?

Of course, programmes don’t, and novel writing software generally concentrates on something else – organising the various elements of the novel.  Programmes like Storybook are actually similar to manually recording notes on pieces of card and placing the cards next to each other  – except the programmes are easier and have a lot more to offer.

Storybook is open source, meaning its free.  With Storybook, you can

  • Keep records of all scenes by date
  • Make notes on each location, character and theme
  • View the progress of  the novel in a number of ways
  • View various progress charts
  • Export programme generated reports to PDF, Rich Text and others.

I particularly like the strand feature.  This enables writers to attach a theme label to the scene in question.  People can link scene themes and include more than one theme per scene.  It’s fascinating to see the charts afterwards, the way one theme relates to another.   I tend to use the strand feature to include story questions and observations.  For instance,I have:

  • Dream, psychology
  • Life in the village
  • Central character’s marriage
  • Family background
  • Complex plot
  • Scene setting
  • Chill factor
  • Immediacy

The Novel: A Step Closer

I’m due to meet the editor in person next Thursday to talk about the editing report.

In the meantime, I’m revising the manuscript away from the main computer file in order to let the story tell itself.

In particular, I’m asking myself crucial questions about each section:

  • Is the section absolutely relevant to the story?
  • Does material in one viewpoint contradict material in another?
  • How can important background information be presented without the need for constant back story?