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Step 2 ???, Step 3 Profit

I was drifting through Twitter, as so often, when I came across this series of tweets by @quartzen. Text copied below for ease of reading.

 

I feel like modern writing advice is like…

  1. Just get a complete first draft down on paper, it’s okay if it’s awful, terrible, and the worst!
  2. ???
  3. Once you have a polished draft that’s as good as you can make it, look to beta readers, editing, and eventual publication!

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It’s exactly like those “how to draw” things for kids where the first step is a couple of circles, maybe with a crosshair for facial features, the next step is “add some detail” (ie actually draw the thing perfectly), now you’ve got a great example of what you were trying to draw

Word.

Part of the reason Step 2 is usually missing is that it’s hard to give advice that applies to everyone. Some authors throw down a skeleton plot in their first draft that needs fleshing out; some people create well-developed worlds and characters first off, but have to go back and insert a skeleton to give their wobbling mass some story-bones. Some people go through multiple completed drafts; others find out what they’re doing while writing a much-revised first half of a first draft. (I’m that person. Generally speaking I loop over and over my first half to get everything in place, and then once I have that sorted it’s a straight trot to the end and I very rarely have to make significant changes to the second half.)

Also, each author changes with each book–you may find that Project X starts with a plot but Y is entirely character driven. Step 2 will be different not only for every author but for every author’s every MS.

All that said there’s a few broader points that we can apply: not to give specifics but to give a bit more shape to what Step 2 looks like.

2.i Work out what’s missing from your draft

Look at what you’ve got. Is it a well developed plot, populated with two-dimensional characters just doing what the story needs? Is it a lot of enjoyable interactions between well developed characters, but which wanders from place to place without a driving story? Have you gone big on the descriptions and low on the action, or vice versa? Are all the pieces there on the page, but it hasn’t come to life? Or is it a mass of inconsistent ideas glued together with willpower and fast typing?

Working out what’s missing from your story is not entirely easy because if you knew you’d have put it in already. It takes practice to identify these things. Unfortunately you really can’t assume a crit partner will do this bit for you–they’d have to be very good, omnipatient, and possessed of unlimited time. You really need to learn this yourself, which means being analytical, not too enamoured of your own work, and ready to kill your darlings.

So how to find your lacunae? Here are a bunch of general questions to consider:

Are my characters consistent?

It’s very common in a first draft for the heroine to start out motivated to avenge her brother’s death/terrified of public speaking/passionate about establishing her cupcake business, and then the author basically forgets about that, or switches that bit of motivation on and off depending on the requirements of the scene. It’s fine if your plot/character diverges from initial ideas, that’s what drafts are for, but you need to notice, go back, and tidy those up so your characters are consistent within their own messy humanity. If your characters’ behaviour is based on the exigencies of the plot from moment to moment, they won’t work as people.

And yes, this goes for minor characters too, especially villains. If your villain’s sole motivation is wanting to make the hero/ine unhappy, you need a damn good reason why, unless they are to be Darth Plotfunction.

Do I have a functioning skeleton for my book?

Writing a synopsis can be quite a useful way to work this out. If, for example, you discover that you didn’t mention the entire third of the book that they spend on a tropical island, that’s a sign to cut or rewrite. If you can’t unpick your own story to write a clear synopsis, are you sure the reader will be able to? Did you have to change anything about the story (eg massively expanding a plot element you gloss over in the MS) to make it work as a synopsis? Does that tell you something?

Does the plot carry through? Where does the drama peak? Do we reach a resolution, rather than just an ending? Has something changed in the world, characters, or reader’s ideas? Does ‘The End’ feel natural and inevitable? (If it’s in a series, have you made the reader feel satisfied with this book while still giving her a reason to grab the next?)

Where are my big emotional/story pivots?

The moment one or both MCs realises they’re in lust or love, the moment of betrayal, the moment of despair. Have I fleshed these out enough? If my hero has been a jerk, is there payback? Is the mystery resolved, the villain caught, the lie exposed? Have I given those sufficient space for impact? (Or, if I’m doing some smartarse playing about with off-page-resolution, does it work?)

Can I remove any scaffolding?

Those bits that were a trudge to write but we had to get the characters from A to B while informing the reader of Z: do I need them? Can I cut them/replace with a single, ‘Three weeks later…’ line? My editor at Samhain once flagged up a lengthy bit of dialogue with the comment “This feels like you’re explaining the plot to yourself”, which still stings because hoo boy was she right. Write that scene/conversation by all means, if it helps. Then cut it.

Are all the plot elements relevant and resolved?

Don’t leave loaded Chekov’s guns lying around. If you put in eg the hateful stepfather’s threat to take over the family business, use it or lose it. Do not be in love with your amusing sassy neighbour if he has no actual plot role. Same with sequel-bait siblings/friends in romance. Make them earn their place.

How much worldbuilding have you done vs how much you need?

Historical novels and SFF might need a lot more than contemporaries, but that isn’t a licence either for 500 pages of plotless scene setting, or for an assumption that everyone is deeply familiar with your small American town as detailed over the previous 18 books.

***

Then, if writing genre especially, ask yourself what kind of book it is. I am not being simplistic here. I edited for years at Mills & Boon, I read slush pile by the metre, and I can’t tell you how many romance novels forgot to include the romance. No, really.

Sample questions for a romance writer. Adapt for your genre.

How prominent is the romance in my story?

Is that as prominent as it needs to be given the setting/secondary plot? If it’s a romantic suspense, you can’t do 10% romance and 90% suspense, but 10% suspense and 90% romance isn’t really going to fly either. Have I concentrated too much on other non-vital stuff, eg, the house renovation plotline, and thus ignored the romance between the hero and his two gay dolphin shifter lovers for chapters at a time?*

*a real book, I swear to you

Are there enough love scenes of appropriate heat for your story?

May be UST for 80% of the book and then a kiss, may be non stop fisting, but either way is it right for what you’re trying to do?

If it’s a sexy romance (not erotica), does each sex scene advance the plot/characterisation in some way?

Can you cut any of the sex scenes without losing something important? If yes, either do so or make them work for their inclusion.

Is there internal conflict (problems within the relationship)? Is there external conflict (problems not to do with the relationship)? Do both have enough time to develop and be resolved?

You don’t need both internal and external conflict, but if you lack one, the other needs to be bloody good. If you can’t identify any conflict, what is driving your story, and what will give the reader any inducement to carry on reading? (If your answer is ‘they’ll just want to hang out with my characters being happy’, you’re either a spectacularly talented writer or, er, wrong.)

How have you paced the story?

It might be that you want a whirlwind romance focused entirely on the couple in bed, it might be you’re doing a slow-burn with a big cast where they don’t even meet till half way through, but either way we need to see the story develop steadily, enough to give us a plausible development of love, overcoming of conflict, and satisfying resolution, without longueurs or rushing.

***

If you’ve asked yourself all that you should have at least a pretty good idea of your story’s weaknesses, inadequacies, self-indulgences, and cheats that will allow you to move to step 2.ii.

2.ii Fill in the holes, shore up the structure, prune the growths.

Your second draft should be focusing on fixing the problems you’ve identified and marshalling your story elements into better shape. This might be small shifts of focus, or cutting the secondary plot with the amusingly camp neighbour’s dog, or giving the hero a new background and motivation, or replacing the MCs with two totally different characters (yep, been there). It might be a brief tidy of an existing MS, or a total rewrite from the ground up.

This is the part nobody can advise you on or, rather, the part for which there is infinite advice out there but you’ll need to go looking for what you specifically need–whether that’s advice on worldbuilding, pacing, characterisation, suspense plotting, or using sex scenes to build character.

In the end, you can only fix something when you have an idea of what’s wrong with it. So that’s Step 2, as best as I can advise you, except for:

2.iii Go to 2.i

Yup, sorry. Do it again. Reread your second draft for bits where the plot falls apart, bits where the characterisation isn’t singing, bits you want to skip because boring, bits you did a Note to Self on and then forgot about. Don’t stop looking at the structure until you feel that you know what you’re trying to do, and feel reasonably certain that you’ve done it.

***

This may all seem massive and daunting. It shouldn’t be. If you regularly read books and think about them, you already know what it looks like when a book is badly paced, has too much description, lacks conflict, has inconsistent characterisation etc. The hard bit is taking off your Proud Creator blinkers and/or the filter of knowing what you were trying to do, as opposed to what you actually achieved, and applying that critical insight to your own work. But that’s also a vital step in your evolution as a writer. Go to it, and good luck.

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KJ Charles was an editor and book fixer for long enough to get a handle on Step 2 and is now a romance writer and 2018 RITA nominee. Her most recent release is Unfit to Print.

How Books Start: the intersection of research and inspiration in historical romance

Think of England coverI’m frequently asked how I come up with ideas for a book and it’s always virtually impossible to answer except ‘the weird bubbling of the subconscious’. But I’ve just had a lovely example of research leading to inspiration, which I shall share here for what it’s worth.

I decided it was time to write the prequel/origin story of two minor characters from a previous book—Patricia Merton and Fenella Carruth from my Edwardian pulp romance Think of England. Pat is established there as an excellent shot which suggested a country house shooting party would be a great setting. Also I love country house books, sue me. I took a vague glance at some Best Places To Kill Birds website and randomly plonked the country house in Shropshire, as a starting point.

At this point I had no idea of my plotline or conflict, but I had my characters (Pat, who is a shot; Fen, who is a flibbertigibbet) and an English country house. It’s a start.

So: shooting parties. I checked in with an etiquette/manners book. These are super useful, although obviously you have to remember they were guides to what people should do, which made it very likely they are lecturing against what people actually did. Loads of these are scanned online. I took a look at Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, by A Member of the Aristocracy (1888). This informed me that

…although some few ladies possessing great strength of nerve have taken up shooting as an amusement and pastime and acquit themselves surprisingly well in this manly sport, yet ladies in general are not inclined for so dangerous a game, and find entertainment in strictly feminine pursuits, while even those intrepid ladies who have learnt how to use their little gun would never be permitted to make one or two of a big shooting party even were they so inclined.

Can someone go back through time and punch this guy in the face for me? Thank you. It does, however, emphasise some useful attitudes in what I already know will be an opposites-attract romance (on the surface at least).

This manual is set a decade before my book, so I checked in with the 1916 revised edition and the advice was the same, except that now ladies are apparently more likely to come and watch the men shoot things. That gives me some solid social shape around how people will react to Pat shooting, and how big the party will be (small, and clearly she’s a good friend of the host/ess).

Let’s find out more about shooting parties!

There are large shooting parties and small shooting parties, shooting parties to which royalty is invited and shooting parties restricted to intimate friends or relations, but in either case the period is the same, three days’ shooting.

These were called ‘Saturday-to-Monday parties’ because ‘weekend’ was a vulgarity. More importantly, they are no damn use for getting a couple together. Three lousy days! This was the case because it was people bolting up from London for a bit of bird-slaughter, which is fine if you’re in convenient railway/motorcar distance, but what about further afield? So I delved further and lo:

In Scotland, an invitation to shoot often means a visit of three weeks. … guests come and go without intermission; as one leaves another arrives. Certain houses or castles are much gayer than others; to some very few ladies are asked, the majority of the guests being gentlemen — probably the hostess and two ladies and eight men — in others, the numbers are more equal; in others, the party sometimes consists entirely of men with a host and no hostess. Ladies generally ask their most intimate friends to Scotland rather than acquaintances, as they are left to themselves the whole of the day, dinner being often postponed until nine o’clock, on account of the late return of the sportsmen.

WELL NOW. A three-week stay. Ladies left to themselves. Relaxed and intimate settings. Small groups, good for handling a cast. Plus a geographically different setting, also, which is likely to be much more isolated than a London-accessible weekend (sorry, I am vulgar) retreat. Somewhere so hard to get to that you need to stay for three weeks to be worth it. And what do we know about isolated country houses in Edwardian pulp?

You get bodies in the library, that’s what. Isolated Edwardian country houses have murderers like the rest of us have mice (as PG Wodehouse nearly said).

And now I have: A remote house where a murder is just bound to be committed. A practical countrywoman who breaks general convention by shooting. And a fashionable one who doesn’t. But why is frivolous Fenella attending a dedicated shooting party in remote parts? Whose intimate friend is she?

Well. One of the defining features of Edwardian high society was that agricultural revenues had plummeted for the big landowners. Which is why so many of them needed to marry American/industrialist money. So if this country house is owned by an aristo living the high life on dwindling revenues, and given Fen is established in Think of England as a wealthy daughter of industry…

Fen is engaged to the shooting party’s host. Who, as we have already established, is Pat’s good friend. Oops.

And there we are. A bit of reading around the subject pointed me to the right setting; the right setting then suggested both a chewy romantic conflict and the plotline against which it will be played out. I can’t guarantee how the book will turn out of course, so you can point and laugh at this blog post once I’ve written the thing and it turns out to be a secret baby story set on top of St Paul’s. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for the source of book ideas, well, this is one. Good luck with yours.

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If you need an Edwardian country house romance right now, may I suggest Think of England. Pat and Fen’s book will be out when I’ve written it. 

The Writer Brain and how (if, why) it works

Writers frequently get asked by aspiring writers how we come up with stuff. Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along? Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen? Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds? (Some thoughts at the end, if you care.)

The only real answer is: it depends. There is no one answer, no right way. Writer to writer, book to book, sometimes even page to page, it depends. Write the way that suits you, whether you plot according to a rulebook or start every day with no idea what will happen, and that will be the best way for you to do it.

However, a thing recently happened in my head that I found interesting, so I present it here.

I’m currently writing a book called Spectred Isle which will be the first of my new Green Men series. English-set alt-1920s historical paranormal romance, and I am having more fun than is probably legal. The basic concept for Green Men:

April 1923. The Great War is over, the Twenties are roaring, the Bright Young Things hold ever more extravagant parties. It seems as though the world has changed for good. But some far older forces are still at work, and some wars never end.

Unknown to most, an occult war was fought alongside the trenches, the fallout from which has done possibly permanent damage to the fabric of reality. Strange, chaotic forces are easier to summon now, and the protections against them are very fragile indeed.

The Green Men series follows a motley band of aristocratic arcanists, jobbing ghost-hunters, and walking military-occult experiments, as they try to protect the country, prevent a devastating attack on London, and find love while they’re at it.

So. I had my usual sort of synopsis for Spectred Isle, which is to say it follows this pattern:

1) Detailed introduction, characters, setup
2) Fully worked-out beginning of the romance
3) Introduce the Big Problem. Get the characters into a terrible mess
4) IMPORTANT PLOT STUFF OF SOME KIND KJ FILL IN LATER
5) Fully visualised dramatic ending that is apparently impossible to reach from Stage 3

I do Stage 4 pretty much every time, even when I think I haven’t. Stage 4 is the point where I run to my writer forum wailing about how useless I am, and usually end up stuck there for a week. When I was at Stage 4 on Flight of Magpies I ended up writing a complete 60K novel, Think of England, as displacement activity. I hate Stage 4.

The set-up of Spectred Isle is that posh arcanist Randolph and disgraced archaeologist Saul are stuck in a very tricky magical sort of trap (Stage 3). The next part I knew in detail was the ending sequence (Stage 5). But a massive section was missing: how they get out of the trap, how they get into and out of a subsequent situation that needs to happen, and how I could not only get them to the ending but give Saul any role in it whatsoever, let alone the pivotal role I had visualised for him. (It’s a magical showdown. He isn’t magic. Well done, KJ, useful as ever.)

Anyway, after a futile week mostly spent grumbling on Twitter I went to make a cup of tea and the answer came to me in a single, instant brain-dump. You know when Keanu says “I know kung fu!” in The Matrix? Like that, but with a full quarter of my book. I’m not in any way exaggerating this: I stood in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil and the entire missing plot section turned up in my head at once, as though I’d always known it and had just briefly forgotten. It was, I have to say, pretty cool.

Here’s the thing, though.

The solution–a pivotal event that gets them out of the trap, sets up the subsequent situation and gives Saul exactly the right role in the ending–was entirely based on stuff that was already in the MS. Not important plot-relevant stuff, either. Stuff that had no other purpose whatsoever. Stuff that I had written for no reason at all, just giving the characters things to talk about, which I had thought even while I wrote was padding and would probably need to be cut. A background problem to undermine a character’s apparent assurance. A minor character who was just there to give one of the MCs a bit of post-war survivor guilt. Fleshing-out text, grace notes, nothing I had a plan for, and all of which proved to be absolutely integral to the book’s structure.

I won’t have to rewrite or add anything in the earlier parts to make my just-thought-of solution to a full quarter of the plot work. It is all there, as if I had planned it from the start . But I didn’t.

So what I want to know is, did my subconscious pick up all the loose ends I was leaving, and play with them till they became something useful? Is that why I left all the loose ends, to give myself some rope? Or more scarily: did my subconscious put those specific details in there because on some level I already knew how the plot would go, even if I didn’t have a clue on a conscious level?

Answers on a postcard. I will say, I talked about this in my writer group and a lot of people reported experiencing similar jaw-slackening plot revelations. Maybe if you write enough stories, you train your writer brain to pick things up and use them. But don’t ask me how to do it, because if I could write Getting Your Subconscious To Do All The Hard Work On Your Plot, I’d price it at £9.99 and retire to the Seychelles on the proceeds.

All I know is, I’d like to thank my subconscious for its efforts. I couldn’t do it without you, scary unknown bit of my brain. Don’t even think about influencing how I spend the royalties.

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The questions above

Should you plot it all out first using those spreadsheets and index cards and lists of “beats” , or make it up as you go along?

Do exactly as suits you, which will probably change per book. I plot more than I did, but I have written a complete fully fleshed, even-knew-what-would-happen-at-stage-4 synopsis twice, and both times I couldn’t write the book. Dead on the page. I had to jettison the synopsis both times, recast, and start from scratch. (Both of these were contracted to publishers on the basis of the synopsis, and one was book 1 of a closely linked trilogy, so that was fun.) What I mean is, if you aren’t naturally inclined to work everything out from the start, don’t feel compelled to exhaust yourself trying.

Do you know from the start who the bad guys are and what’s going to happen?

I do, generally. Others don’t. Often you realise you need extra or different things as you go along. Sometimes bad characters turn good and vice versa, according to the needs of the story as it develops; I think that’s an excellent sign of a working story. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a kick. Raymond Chandler famously said “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” which is good advice (substitute woman, nb person, dragon, sword, soul-stealing magic pen etc to taste), and Lawrence Block has written multi-suspect locked-room-murder type books without knowing the culprit when he started. I think I would have an aneurysm if I tried that but YMMV.

Is the thing about “my characters take on a life of their own and they do what they want?” the pretentious tripe that it sounds?

Yes. What it means is, “my conception of the characters has developed and now is at odds with my original conception of the plot, and my writer brain is refusing to fit an apple into a banana-shaped hole”. This is surely amazing enough in itself without getting all twee about it.

Cottingley_Fairies_1

This is not, in fact, a picture of a writer and her characters.

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Watch this space for news on Spectred Isle. Next release is An Unnatural Vice, Book 2 of Sins of the Cities, publishing in June.

 

You’ll Never Believe This, But… Coincidence in life and fiction

I’m going through a coincidence phase. I can barely have a conversation these days without discovering that, eg, the other bored mum at a kid’s party used to live in Kenya and my aunt out there is her godmother. Or that, while our new lodger from Manchester only knows one person in London socially, that person used to be my landlady. Six degrees of separation? I’m running on a maximum of two.

This sort of thing is trivial, mildly amusing, perhaps a little freaky the fourth or fifth time it happens in a fortnight.

In a book, it would be rubbish. Once, OK. Twice, I’m tapping my fingers. Three times: there had better be an amazing plot thread to explain why it wasn’t coincidence at all. Otherwise I’m flinging the book away in disgust. Oh, you just happened to overhear a complete stranger talking revealingly about your brother’s girlfriend, including identifying details? Oh, you just happened to go into the toilet cubicle where some girl had written your husband’s phone number on the wall? Oh, you just happened to bump into the same guy at three huge events in a row, and then again in a completely different country, in the course of one summer? It won’t do. Cheap tricks. Lazy, poorly plotted rubbish.*

* All of these are actual coincidences that happened to me or people I know. (The toilet wall one was not me, thank you.)

The Victorians could get away with coincidence. More than that, they embraced it. When Jane Eyre leaves Mr Rochester and goes out into the night alone, she winds up, exhausted and starving, at the doorstep of some random house…which belongs to her long-lost relatives. Obviously. Of all the people in the entire country, she pitches up at the house of her hitherto-never-heard-of cousins, by sheer chance.  It’s not even like she has a big family. 

Is Bronte embarrassed about this? Has she seeded the text with references to Jane having family in the area to make it remotely plausible? Has she hell. This isn’t a plot device so clunky you can hear the gears scream, it’s meaningful fate

In Victorian literature, coincidence was the operation of Providence. If you swam out to save someone from a foundering ship, you’d better be braced to learn that they’re your long lost half brother, or that their father murdered your father, or that once the amnesia has passed they’ll turn out to know where the lost will has gone. In a Victorian novel, of course my lodger would know my ex-landlady. I’d probably have murdered the woman and buried her under the floorboards (don’t think I wasn’t tempted), and our new lodger would be the operation of Divine Justice hunting me down.

If you ask me, Victorian authors didn’t know how lucky they were. Fine, they had to do their quarter of a million words longhand, and if you wanted to change a character’s name the ‘search and replace’ process involved a day’s work, and their equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death was the maid chucking the manuscript on the fire, from which nobody’s IT genius nephew could save you. But at least if they wanted to join two plot strands, all they had to do was bang them together like a baby with a couple of plastic cups. These days most writers will spend ages trying to make these things look plausible, using backstory and judiciously seeding hints to show there’s a solid, evidence-based reason for it all.

I believe in evidence, not Providence. But it doesn’t make my writing life easier.

Do you think authors are entitled to play with coincidence, or does it ruin a book/show/film for you?

Cruel to be Kind: Don’t let your characters off too easily

‘If there isn’t any fighting, it’s not a proper story.’ – My four-year-old son.

During my romance-editing days, I read an MS that’s stuck with me for years, although not in a good way. The conflict-packed synopsis was much as follows. (I have removed/changed all identifying details, obviously, while reproducing the essence of the problem.)

Hero is a single dad with an important job. Someone is trying to sabotage his work / kill him. Heroine is a spy and dedicated career woman. Sparks fly, but she doesn’t want to settle down from her exciting life and he needs stability for his child. While she’s saving his life, can he change her mind about love?

Let’s take a look at the challenges facing our couple, and how they cope.

Is he the kind of alpha male who struggles with being protected by a woman?

No. He has no issues at all with this, being totally without gender politics issues, and a perfectly reasonable person who accepts her professional expertise.

He’s a single dad. He can’t have a relationship with someone who might get shot at any time, plus she has to win over his child.

She meets the child in ch 2. They love each other on sight. Heroine decides to abandon her career by ch 4, without difficulty. Turns out she didn’t like the job anyway.

Someone’s trying to kill the hero.

It was a hilarious misunderstanding. There was no threat to his life or safety.

Etc. The synopsis methodically set up a row of problems, which the narrative defused as soon as each came up. It was enragingly pointless. The author basically couldn’t bear to have bad things happen to the characters. Without which, there is no suspense at all, romantic or otherwise.

If there’s no stakes, there’s no story. If your characters are getting on fine, if the threat is ineffectual, if your characters’ problems fall away as soon as they appear, the reader can’t take any more than a passing mild enjoyment in their success. Your characters earn the readers’ commitment and support by what they have to face and overcome, or cope with, or even just survive. Every time you take away a character’s problem (rather than making them deal with it) you weaken your book.

And it is very easy to do, even when you don’t realise that’s what you’re doing. In my thriller Non-Stop Till Tokyo (coming out with Samhain next year), the heroine Kerry’s best friend Noriko has been attacked and left for dead by yakuza gangsters. She is in hospital with brain damage and can’t be moved, so the yakuza use threats to her as a lever against Kerry, thus forcing our heroine into an impossible position – a helpless lone young woman against a mob. (Although she’s not entirely helpless, of course…)

About 2/3 of the way through the first draft – and I am embarrassed to type this – you know what I did?

I killed Noriko. I went for the big dramatic scene of Kerry’s grief and swearing steely revenge etc, not noticing that I had just taken away one of the main pillars of the plot and there was now no reason for Kerry not to run away from the yakuza and the rest of her troubles. Unsurprisingly, my story’s tension and credibility melted like ice cream in a toddler’s hand. Once this was pointed out by a wiser head than mine, I resurrected Noriko, Kerry’s problems increased exponentially, and the tensions and rhythms of the story, and consequent reader involvement, fell right back into place.

Don’t take away your characters’ problems. They might thank you, but your reader won’t.

Giving purpose to your novel (Don’t shoot yourself with Chekhov’s gun)

“One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Anton Chekhov

Or, don’t introduce elements that serve no purpose in your story.  Purpose doesn’t necessarily mean serving the progress of the plot, or being involved in the dramatic climax. It means that what you put in must enhance the reader’s experience in some way – by developing the plot, directing the action, deepening character, creating powerful atmosphere.

This principle doesn’t just apply to a dramatic object like a gun (the heroine’s karate skills / the rickety bridge over the chasm / the serious contagious illness in the village). It applies to pretty much anything you choose to put in a prominent position.

Let’s take a practical example that’s less obviously plot-directing than a gun. Say you’ve decided your hero keeps tropical fish. Why is that?

Just because. (It sets the scene. Fish are pretty.)

Bad. Go to your room and don’t come out till you can play nicely. I do not want to read five pages of fish-related scene-setting if you then forget all about it and the rest of the book might as well be set in a shed.

 Basic character. (It shows my hero is kind of a geek.)

A bit better, though probably a slur against the fishkeeping population. You can use the fishkeeping to show us that he’s meticulous etc etc. Or you could have shown us that in a myriad of other ways and we wouldn’t have had to drag fish into it. I don’t sound excited yet, do I?

Basic plot set-up. (The love interest owns the cat shop next door to the hero’s fish shop. They meet after an unfortunate incident.)

Still not enough. If the only purpose of the fish shop is to introduce the protagonists, it’s a gimmick. You’re using the fish to start action, but not further it. You can do more!

Plot device/character in action.  (The hero is supposed to be flying out for a weekend in Paris with his new lover, but his fish-sitter has pulled out at the last minute. Does he go, knowing he’ll come back to tanks of dead fish, or stay, causing a ‘You care more about those fish than about me!’ scene?)

Here we go. Bring in the fish, use them. The fish might be a practical problem – the demands of fishkeeping impact on the hero’s time for his new relationship. It might be a way to reveal backstory/character – why does the hero prefer fish to people? The hero’s changing responses to the fish might show his character development throughout the book. Or it might operate on a more metaphorical level, so that we observe the hero trapped in a small world, going round in circles, just keeping on swimming without going anywhere. (I don’t know, it was your idea to make him a fishkeeper.)

Whichever way, the fishkeeping element should interact with plot and character to move the story on, or tell us more about the people, or ideally both.  If it doesn’t do any of those things, it’s just wallpaper: pretty but two-dimensional.

The Scene. (I wanted the hero and his lover talking on either side of a fishtank, looking at each other through the rippling water and shoals of fish, not quite seeing each other clearly.)

Chekhov’s gun doesn’t have to be part of an active developing plot strand. If the purpose of the tropical fish is to create a brilliant, memorable, well visualized scene, or if the aquarium setting broadens and deepens the reader’s feel for the characters and the characters’ understanding of each other, that’s the gun fired. The fish have achieved their point.

Chekhov’s AK-47. (Dead bodies are turning up with still-flapping tropical fish stuffed in their mouths. A brusque yet handsome cop must work with a reserved yet sexy fishkeeper to track down the Tropical Fish Killer before he strikes again.)

I swear to God I’ve read this.

As William Morris almost said, you should have nothing in your novel that you do not know to be useful. If you have an element in your story and don’t know what its purpose is, go back, find out what it’s for, and revise to work it in. If it doesn’t have any purpose, what’s the point?