Five for writers: How do you make your story unputdownable, (other than putting superglue on the cover)

my lovely books on writing – the ones not on my Kindle.

I confess. I am procrastinating.  I justify this procrastinating activity as I am studying writing technique rather than randomly surfing the internet (see my post A list: My top ten for 2013). But of course it means I am not doing what I should be doing, namely working through my novel for the final time before sending to ‘THE AGENT’, who has taken on such significance, I can only think of her in capitals. She did say, in our latest correspondence, to take as long as I needed, but I don’t think she meant forever.

Anyway, as I have been doing some reading, I thought I would share a little tip that I have found immensely useful, both when planning a novel and when editing.

It is courtesy of Adam Sexton’s; ‘Master Class in Fiction Writing’, which you can get a copy of on Amazon.

So, to make your novel unputdownable you start with a central character and need.

For example:

odysseus Odysseus needs to return home.

Jane Eyre needs Mr Rochester.

Juliet needs Romeo.

Bridget Jones needs Daniel Cleaver.

These characters needs are concrete in that they are able to be experienced via the senses. These needs are also dramatic. Dramatic means they are performable.

cyclops_poster We can see Odysseus steering his ship towards home and feel his frustration as his ship is driven  backwards, when his sailors release the north, south and east winds, thinking the bag contains gold.  We are there with him, desperate for him to slay the Cyclops so he can return to his beautiful wife on  the island of Ithaca. We are willing him on and we are desperate to find out if he gets there.We couldn’t  possibly put the book down without knowing.We must know.

Abstract/ general needs are not performable, therefore not dramatic and therefore not likely to keep your reader turning pages.

For example:

The need to be loved.
The need to survive.
The need for revenge.

We cannot invest in a character, nor care about their fate, if their need is vague,unobtainable, undramatic.

The story arises from making these abstract needs specific and concrete:

For example, how might you ‘show’ the need to be loved? By stalking someone. By proposing to them on live television. By making their dinner every night and listening to them rant about their day, without interrupting. By taking an overdose. These are all dramatic, concrete manifestations of the vague concept ‘to be loved’.

So, now you have your character and their need, the rest is easy (I jest). All you’ve got to do is make sure they don’t get what they need. In fact, you should make sure the need becomes more and more difficult to obtain (it took Odysseus ten years), even seemingly impossible, until the very end, where they either get what they needed; Jane marries Mr Rochester, Odysseus returns home. Or, they don’t – Romeo is dead and Juliet kills herself (OK, well she gets what she needs, but not in the way she intended). Or, the character realises that what they thought they needed, they didn’t after all; Bridget thought she needed Daniel, but realises in the end it was Mark she really loved.

These obstacles to achievement are the conflicts that drive your story. If the character lacks need, or if this need is easily satisfied, there is no conflict. No conflict = no story.conflict

In real life, of course, we have many needs, often competing, but in fiction this would create a diffuse and complex story, one unlikely to entice the reader to keep turning pages. Fiction illuminates one need and in doing so, illuminates all need (the abstract). I may not need Romeo, but I do need to be love and be loved. I may not be miles away from home, but my daughter is and I feel that homesickness to be with her.

What makes a book unputdownable is a great character with a dramatic need that becomes increasingly difficult to obtain. Easy really?!

Questions to ask about your story:

1) What concrete need does your character/s have?

2) What/ who is going to stand in their way? (this could be themselves, like religious belief, or fear of failure, or another character, or situation etc)

In my novel, In-between Us, there are two central characters.

Madeleine needs to keep her husband.
Rebecca needs Madeleine’s husband (uh, oh).

What gets in Madeleine’s way (apart from Rebecca) is the fact she is dying and the subsequent feeling of guilt that arises for ruining her husband’s future.

What gets in Rebecca’s way (apart from Madeleine) is her conscience, which increasingly niggles at her as she becomes embroiled in the lives of her married lover and his wife.

Whether both these characters will get what they need (which seems unlikely considering they both need the same thing), is hopefully what will keep the reader reading until the end, and more importantly (for me, right now) THE AGENT loving the book and making me an offer of representation.

This blog post is done. I ought to return to what I should be doing (editing), but I haven’t checked FB for ages (nearly 30 minutes), and who knows what earth shattering statuses and cat pictures I may have missed.

As always, comments and general chit-chat welcome.

On Women: Why don’t men wear dresses?

One thing that angers me more than anything else is when I hear people claim that nowadays women have equality with men – I also wonder what planet they live on because it can’t be earth.

men are from mars

This viewpoint isn’t confined to just men, if anything I think women are the worse culprits. However, if the record sales of ‘Fifty shades of Grey’ are anything to go by, it seems women deep down don’t want equality at all – and that is even scarier.

But two stories in the news over Christmas, firmly place women’s issues back into the spotlight. That of the Pakistani teenager shot in the head for speaking out about the right to an education, and the tragic case of the 23 year old woman raped in Delhi and left to die on the roadside, while passersby ignored her friend’s pleas for help and the police argued for thirty minutes about whose responsibility she was.

These stories are shocking, but that is not why they have made the headlines. How many women are raped each day, week, year in India, but whose stories don’t make the news because they are poor, or to ashamed to report it (and lack the confidence a university education gives)? How many girls are denied an education, through violence (who weren’t writing a blog for the BBC)?

It would be nice to think that at least we women in the UK are equal – but the recent allegations that have come to light at the BBC reveal that women are still regarded as second class, a bit of eye candy and not to be taken seriously. Wage inequality persists, despite the fact women are now graduating university with better degrees than men, and

‘the sanction detection rate* for violence against the person was 44.5%, and for rape 29.9%, the 2010/2011 Home Office statistics show.’

Any woman who makes a stand against this inequality is either assumed to be a lesbian, or frigid, and any woman that, despite the feministhurdles of upbringing and expectation, excels in a given field, is accused of being a man in drag. To be feminine, one must be obedient and non competitive – says who?

How can it be that 50% of the world’s population are still treated as second class citizens? What are we teaching our daughters that they think the way to happiness is snagging a rich husband? Why do I hear women say, I could never work for a female boss, as if sex was a deciding factor in our leadership skills.

blue eyesImagine for a moment, if we divided the world population by eye colour and all those with blue eyes were told they were better than everybody else – what would the impact of that be on those without blue eyes? Would the non blue-eyed people accept they were less clever, important, rational etc than the blue-eyed people, or would they rightly assert that eye colour has nothing to do with how good someone is at driving, or map reading, or cooking, or managing others.

Being male or female (or somewhere between) is a biological difference, like eye colour. Unfortunately we have attached to this thegender stereotypes concept of gender. Gender is a set of expectations about how we must conduct ourselves, based on whether we are born girl or boy. Gender stereotypes limit both males and females. Have you seen how boring the menswear section is?

To claim feminism is ‘so last century’ – is at best short sighted and at worse, a sinister way of keeping 50% of the world beholden to the other 50%.

“I believe that the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” Hillary Clinton

Blue eyes or brown eyes – what does it matter?

What do you think? Are women less than men? Is feminism dead? Is the UK equal? All comments, as long as they are not abusive, will be published. The floor is yours.

*These are defined as the percentage of crimes for which someone is charged, summonsed, and receives a caution or other formal sanction.

A list: My top ten for 2013

  1. Get an agent
  2. Get a publisher
  3. Fast twice a week
  4. Meditate regularly
  5. Enjoy the moment (live in the present)
  6. Worry less (see no. 5)
  7. Read more books
  8. Write more (instead of procrastinating on the internet)
  9. Keep blogging
  10. Accept change is part of being alive and embrace it

What’s your top ten for 2013? Please share.