If you need to nail your novel, Roz Morris can help! In her latest book, and this podcast, she explores plot in detail to help you sort yours out.
In the intro, I talk about the rebranding, retitling and recovering of my first 3 books; how brilliant IndieRecon was and a little about London Book Fair and the latest reports of dire earnings for authors in the UK. Some cool things to check out: Amazon Kindle Textbook Creator now includes video and audio; GetBookReport.com is a great new ‘plugin’ for KDP and is free to check out for 30 days; Goodreads has started with audio samples on the site, showing the growing awareness of audio; indie author Mark Dawson gets amazing coverage in Forbes for his fantastic success and I compare this to the latest AuthorSay report from AgentHunter where many authors wouldn’t try going indie despite being unhappy with their publishing deals.
This podcast episode is sponsored by 99 Designs, where you can get all kinds of designs for your author business including book covers, merchandising, branding and business cards, illustrations and artwork and much more. You can get a Powerpack upgrade which gives your project more chance of getting noticed by going to: 99Designs.com/joanna
Roz Morris is the bestselling author of over a dozen novels as a ghostwriter and has also written My Memories of a Future Life and Lifeform 3 under her own name. She has a series of books for writers under the Nail Your Novel brand, and the latest is Writing Plots with Drama, Depth and Heart.
- What is plot anyway? How does it differ to story? Character vs plot and how your preference will shape the story. How many plots are there really? Story is the struggle – why do these events even matter? On pantsers vs plotters and why structure really is important – however you write.
- On genre expectations and plot aspects for blending genre. On sub plots and point of view.
- The 4 Cs of a good plot: Curiosity, coherence, crescendo and change. How to keep characters and plots going across a series.
- On theme and how it can enrich a plot. The book is about more than just the story but you need to be disciplined about how you use it. Things still have to happen! On back story and how to use it in the best way.
- Conflict and making life difficult for characters. How to make sure your ending is satisfying.
- Roz explains her plotting process, the beat sheet and more. We also discuss the difficulties of book titles.
Transcription of interview with Roz Morris
Joanna: Hi everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I’m here with Roz Morris. Hi, Roz.
Roz: Hi, Joanna.
Joanna: Welcome back on the show. Is this number three?
Roz: It might be three, it might even be four.
Joanna: That is pretty exciting and I’ll explain why in a minute. But just a little introduction if you missed the earlier episodes. Roz is the best-selling author of over a dozen novels as a ghost-writer and has also written “My Memories of A Future Life” and “Life Form Three” under her own name. She has a series of books for writers under the “Nail Your Novel” brand and the latest is “Writing Plots With Drama, Depth, and Heart”. The reason Roz is back on the show is the interview we did on characters which was the last “Nail Your Novel” book was very popular. People loved it and Roz writes brilliant books but also great books for authors. So, Roz.
Joanna: Amazing. So we last talked episode 156 which was over a year ago now.
Give us a bit of an update on you because you do lots and lots of stuff. A bit of an update on you and what you’re up to creatively apart from these “Nail Your Novel” books.
Roz: Well, I’ve been doing all sorts of things. The most significant is I’ve begun teaching creative writing master classes for the Guardian Newspaper in London and that’s great fun. Very demanding. Something else that I find really rewarding about it is that I think I’m one of the only indie authors to be teaching writing craft for them.
Roz: So that’s a step forward for us all. But indie authors are being recognized as people who write quality books.
Joanna: That is. Well done for doing that, and the Guardian, if people don’t know in the U.S., is a bastion of cultural kind of literary writing. So, yeah, that is a big coup.
Roz: I’ve also been doing a radio show with a book seller so that’s very interesting. Every week, it’s on a local radio station in Surrey, but you can pick it up on the internet so it’s just internet radio. We talk every week about some aspect of writing and publishing. What else have I been doing? I’m teaching this year in various exotic locations, actually. Well, they’re exotic to me because I don’t travel very much. I just did a master class in Zurich and I’m doing one in Venice. I think there’s still a few spaces on that if people are interested. So it’s a day-long workshop. What else am I doing?
Joanna: Writing a novel, I believe.
Roz: I am writing a novel, yes, and that’s the thing I wanted to get to last because it’s the thing that, it’s what it’s all about. I’m writing a novel book that really matters to me. So it’s another novel that’ll be literally a bit strange. But another thing I really, really love is story. Story is the real heart of writing for me and that is why I wrote the plot book, actually. Because I wanted to really understand what a plot is and how we can write good plots no matter what genre we write.
Joanna: Yeah, and well that’s a good point because that first, well you have a bigger “Nail Your Novel” book and then the book on character. Now as a, this is ridiculous obviously, but you know the literary fictions write character-based book and genre-based writers write plot-based books.
What truth is there in that and what is plot, anyway?
Roz: Well, at its simplest level plot is what happens. Just what happens. Story is what you do with it because you can have events in a particular order, you don’t have to tell them in the order they happened. You could have flashbacks, you could start in the middle, go back, then go forward to the last half of the book, and all sorts of things like that. So story, story is understanding how to put your plot events in an order that is going to be most compelling and most interesting.
Joanna: Yep. If it’s what happened, and I know I’m trying to be quite specific here, if it’s what’s happened in a physical sense, so what you’re talking about doesn’t include the interior life of the character for example.
Roz: Well it’s good that you mentioned that because this then comes down to questions of genre because you can treat an event in loads of different ways. So if you have a manager who could treat that in an internalized way, so a character who is exploring the effects of a murder, or the murder of someone they know it may not matter at all that the murder is ever solved. Or if the murder is ever caught.
On the other hand if you’re writing a more sort of cozy mystery it will matter that the murderer is caught and it will be by the imaginations of the particular characters who held the world together. Cozy mystery is very, the tone of it is very important. So you’ve got one event but it can be treated in a number of different ways.
What you said about internalizing characters, that’s just the focus that you have. So your focus as a writer will be the things you’re interested in. If you’re most interested in the characters, their minds, their emotions, and their individual and very peculiar dilemmas then you probably have a literary bent. If you’re more interested in solving lots of puzzles in the events and more of those external kind of events then you’re more towards genre. Now just because you’re interested in one doesn’t mean you can’t be interested in the other. So we all are on a spectrum, an individual spectrum of how much of each we like to include.
Joanna: Which is interesting. Then again, on you know just the basic definition of plots you know there’s various books which are the seven plots that there are, or the three plots that everything is, or the hero’s journey.
Are there a certain number of plots that we deal with in books?
Roz: Well, they’re probably certain scenarios that are always guaranteed to cause trouble. At it’s most simple a story is about a struggle and this is a mistake I see in a lot of manuscripts I edit. That somebody will present a sequence of events but what they have missed out is why it was worth telling it. It was worth telling because the things that happened made difficulties for people and the story is the struggle. It’s not the events, it’s the struggle.
So you could say that there’s really only one plot and it’s a struggle. You just look for struggle in lots of different guises and lots of different situations so there is common situations. This is where you probably get to analyzing those three different plots or seven different plots. You have types of things like revenge, a search, a need for redemption, or a need to solve a puzzle. Those are very general human situations and they’re all quite emotional but they’re all about difficulties. Then you might mix the difficulties together so if you want to thicken your plot a bit you might add something like someone who wants revenge or someone who falls in love with the wrong person. These are all things you can mix together to enrich your plot.
But also the concept of the hero’s journey which is quite a common kind of plot and it’s actually, it’s actually very useful to think in those terms. There are a lot of stories that you could analyze in those terms and all it is is that a character leaves their ordinary life or is pushed out of their ordinary life and they enter a world of increasing challenges and difficulties. There are various steps in that Joseph Campbell described the hero’s journey or the monomyth which was for him what all stories boiled down to. He described a series of stages. So you had the Belly of the Whale and this looks familiar to-
Joanna: The Dark Night of the Soul.
Roz: All of that, yes, and they’re all stages that are useful to have, that stories have in common. It’s helpful to know about these things because they can suggest things you should do with your plots. Ways that you could make difficulties greater for the characters. You don’t have to include the more literal following a hero’s journey, some of them may be completely irrelevant such as confronting a monster or returning victorious. But it’s an idea of increasing challenges and also another very important point is that there needs to be change. So you need to feel that whatever has happened during the course of the story it won’t all fall down again and be as it was before.
Joanna: Something has to change. It’s so funny, in reading your book and in talking to you now, obviously I’ve prepared questions for this but as we’ve done before you realize how much, your book is incredibly dense with information.
A lot of writers listening will have read so many books on plot and the question still comes up, “Can’t I just write a story without thinking of all this stuff?” You know, “Can I not just write without a structure?”
Roz: Well, I had a really interesting question in my Zurich course. Somebody put his hand up at the back when I’d been bombarded all day with stuff about theories of structure and three-act structure which is basically just where you put your twists. He said, “How did Shakespeare manage without knowing all of this?” Now the thing is good writers already have an innate sense, all of the theories that we learn about writing are drawn from the things we naturally notice, that we like about stories. Then the things that we learn that fill in our blind spots.
So yes, there could well come a point where you kind of absorbed enough to find that most of it is innate. But you’ll probably think you’re pantsing, but actually you’re probably noting the structure points in your head. You’re probably looking for struggle quite naturally. You’re probably thinking in incremental terms, thinking, “How do I create change? How do I create a permanent change so that by the end of the story people think ah, that really is the end?”
Joanna: I mean I’m on my 10th fiction, 11th fiction project now. Which is exciting. I think it’s my sixth full-length novel now and I have gone back again to look at plot and story-structure once again revisiting this stuff because I think it makes you stronger. So I really encourage people listening, this stuff you learn over and over again, don’t you? You keep learning this stuff over and over again.
Roz: You do, and you learn also by the different ways people explain it to you. So one person’s explanation might highlight one aspect, another person’s explanation might make you think, “Oh, I’d never realized that but that makes perfect sense.” So it reinforces what you know.
Joanna: You have to think about it. So let’s just get more specific. Let’s just keep it simple and it’s a crime novel. Scene opens, a dead body, main plot is we have to find the killer, it’s a “who-done-it” basically. So that’s a basic story. So the idea of cross-genre, I mean that is a very obvious genre novel with an easy to understand story arch.
When we’ve got cross-genre novels, how do we put those together as such?
Roz: Well genre is all about meeting your reader’s expectations. So people who want a crime novel will go looking for a crime novel and you’ve got to make sure that whatever you do it satisfies certain points. If they think they’re reading a crime novel and you actually deliver something that isn’t they’ll just be dissatisfied and so it’s about meeting expectations. Now there are certain kinds of genres that blend together really well. So romance goes well with almost anything. You can get thrillers to work very well with crime because not all crime novels are thrillers.
Certain things blend really well. Where it can be a problem is where you pick, you try to put together genres that don’t blend together well because they actually, their characteristics irritate the reader. So if you’ve got contemporary fiction, mostly readers of contemporary fiction like a world they can slip into very easily and not have to learn about. If you then put it with historical or science fiction or fantasy what you’ve done is give those readers something they’re just irritated by. But people do do this very successfully and the trick to crush on a novel is identify one genre that’s going to be your primary genre and begin in that, so a contemporary novel. Then if you want to introduce something like somebody going back in time, Barbara Erskine does this in “The Lady of Hay” which is-
Joanna: I know it, one of my favorite books.
Roz: But what she does is she introduces the historical part in terms that won’t irritate the readers of contemporary fiction. So they don’t suddenly think, “Oh, she’s suddenly gone off into a completely different kind of novel and I don’t like this kind of detail.” So that’s how she handles it. Now you do get writers who deliberately adopt different styles for hopping about between time-lines. Like David Mitchell in “Cloud Atlas” but then the reader has to be more willing to go along with that and it’s likely he irritated more people than he pleased.
Roz: But then again his novel was in a genre that allowed him to do that, so make sure the reader is prepared for what you’re going to do.
Joanna: A cross-genre novel is different to having subplots within the novel, right?
Can you explain the difference between a plot and a subplot?
Roz: Well really it’s a question of emphasis. Your main plot will be the things that are of major significance, major importance. Subplots tend to be there to support the main plot. They can highlight certain ideas so that it seems as though their themes work, and they can give minor characters something to do that’s interesting while we have a breather from the major plot.
Having a breather from the major plot can be very useful because sometimes you get to a point where you’ve got the reader really on the edge of their seat and then you cut away to something else. They’re still curious about it, but you prolong the delicious tension of it longer. Also you can add changes of emotion so that if your main plot is very serious and very intense you can have a subplot that’s a bit lighter and that just adds a welcome balance and lets the reader breathe a bit.
Joanna: Shakespeare did that a lot, right?
Roz: Absolutely. Yes, and he would have subplots that seemed to have the same kind of forces at work. So jealousy in the main plot will be echoed by jealousy in the subplot but it’s not quite so intense. So that just gives you a sense of realism. Sometimes though people think they always need a subplot, you don’t always need a subplot. There are plenty of folks and plenty of novels that don’t have subplots at all.
Joanna: Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher”. One character just going through a sequence. I don’t think there’s much of a subplot in a Lee Child novel.
Roz: Well it would have been more difficult anyway with first person because unless the character has two things going on there just may not be room. You might clutter it if you have them doing too many other things. But if you felt the need for changes of pace or you felt there were things that you wanted to do to make the book seem more real you could add subplots going on. So the character’s family doing something while the main character goes and finds the murderer.
Joanna: Yeah, well that’s a good point. So point of view can constrain your plot ideas.
Roz: First person is actually very limited in a lot of ways. It’s very good because it can make you very connected to the characters even if they’re quite nasty. If you see from their point of view and you’ve only got their point of view then it does draw you in a lot. On the other hand there are lots of imaginations you have to go through sometimes to show things that give the reader extra information.
Joanna: I haven’t written from a first person point of view. So you know, “I did this,” and, “I did that,” I suppose. That is an interesting point. I haven’t really thought about that. Thrillers are normally the third person type of, you jump around, jump from place to place and head to head type of stuff.
Roz: Well there’s one very good reason for that and it’s really you have to feel the danger to the characters is real and you know very well if you’re first person that, “Oh, this is going to carry on after their death. They’re not going to die.”
Joanna: So when you actually think about these conventions they are quite obvious if you know your genres. So you know if you, obviously we would assume that people writing in a genre would read heavily in that genre and I, you know I consider literary fiction a genre as well. So you know people have to read in that and understand how the conventions work.
So in the book you have the four C’s of a good plot. Maybe you could tell us about that?
Roz: Yes, okay. They are curiosity, crescendo, coherence, and change.
So curiosity is fairly self-evident actually, you just want the reader to be curious all the time. You do not want to let go of a curiosity scene. Always got to have something that feels like it’s bubbling along. There’s another bit to know and another bit to know. Crescendo, you have to feel like everything is increasing intensity. That the characters are getting into more trouble, that the events matter a bit more, and these may be tiny, tiny steps but you just need to create this feeling of movement towards something more important all the time.
Coherence, now good plots, indeed good stories seem to have a sense that everything belongs together. When you put it down at the end you feel like you’ve seen a whole pattern in some way and that makes a book seem very elegant and well-crafted. So that’s where themes can be useful because you can have your main character’s enacting say some form of jealousy and your sub-character, sub-characters doing something similar but it seems to belong together. So this coherence is very important.
Another point about coherence is if you plant events or characters in the early part of the book the more you can tie everything together then the more satisfying it will seem to be. So that’s where you might have an ending where you will bring back something or a character and the reader will think, “It was there all along.” That is so satisfying. This is all about, this all comes down to the idea of coherence.
Try and make the plot as coherent as possible. The final point was change. As I said at the beginning you have to feel that something irrevocable has happened and that a lot of change has been gone through by the characters. By the end it can’t be undone. That makes you feel like it was a satisfying journey and all plots no matter what style you’re writing, what genre you’re writing, they will have these characteristics. Unless you’re deliberately trying to do something that is anti-plot and in that case it probably is still useful to know about those things because you’d want to avoid them.
Joanna: You know, that’s really handy. When you talk about coherence it’s funny, the first thing that springs to mind is Game of Thrones which has kind of lost coherence in the books after kind of book three, book four. It’s become quite difficult to keep that and I wonder if you have any tips around, obviously George R. R. Martin is a genius and all of that, but do you have any tips for the kind of multi-book series plot for the things that you’ve talked about there? I mean, you know because the curiosity for example would have to, you have to keep some hooks for the longer term and the coherence, very difficult to do over lots and lots of books.
Do you have any tips for coherence in multi-book series?
Roz: It is very difficult to create a good story that will keep going over so long because you’ll have to be delivering situations that seem to be endings and resolutions and you’re only going to be able to come up with so many of those. The best examples are actually in the long-running and I think at the moment long-running American TV shows like Breaking Bad. Where they’ve got teams of writers who are really busting their gut to make sure that they deliver a good story. You end up with something that I think each series might amount to about 19 hours. But it’s a hell of a job to try and get enough good story and keep the surprises coming.
Of course, because the characters change a lot, they should change a lot throughout the course of the stories, there’s only so far you can take them. They really probably can’t go through very much more change. But this is why with some novel series what tended to happen was you would have characters who wouldn’t change very much. They couldn’t so that meant they had the longevity. James Bond, for instance. He’s affected by things that happen but he doesn’t really change very much. Things happen around him, he makes things change, so that would be one to have somebody who’s always going to be a center of it who won’t change very much and change everything else around them. But also, just don’t go on too long. If you feel that it doesn’t have any more life in it then it’s not really writing, you won’t really be writing good books any more.
Joanna: It’s fascinating. I’m thinking about another series and I think maybe it will be a trilogy. I think three books is as much as I can hold in my head in terms of a story. When you think my ARKANE series, I designed episodically as you said. Things happen, they solve new mysteries, so that’s okay. But in terms of a story-arch across multiple books three books to me seems like enough.
Roz: Well, each writer has their own limit as well. So three books is what you can keep in your head and what you can incrementally plot and keep the satisfying surprises coming and keep everything going. Then three books is your personal length.
It’s like marathons. Some people can run marathons, some people can run after marathons, and some people can only do a sprint.
Joanna: Or go for a walk.
Roz: It’s a question of personal stamina as well.
Joanna: The stamina thing is a big deal as a fiction writer. This is something I’ve learned. I know you’ve been doing it a lot longer than me, but it’s hard work, right? It’s really hard work.
Roz: There’s a lot of work that goes into getting it right. There’s the plotting, there’s making sure you’ve got the characters who have got the kind of mileage in them to take you all the way through the book, and making sure you’ve got an idea that you can make enough of without having to add loads of other stuff. You know? We’re talking about coherence. If everything seems to just belong together it just looks better. It looks like a more clever book and it’s more memorable. But if it’s something that a lot of novice writers do, they just heap in more and more and more ideas and they just end up in a mess.
Joanna: So talking about a mess, during Delirium in the London Psychic series, I got into the theme so much. The theme being madness, delirium. I got so much into the theme and the research around madness in London and the history of psychiatry that I kind of lost the plot.
So how and when do we use themes within a plot?
Roz: Well themes, as I said add to your coherence, they add to the sense that the book is about more than just the story. But you have to be quite disciplined about how you use it. One mistake that some writers make is they have a lot of scenes that are meant to illustrate the theme but they forget to have anything happen.
So you have to let the themes maybe suggest things but if you’re writing a book and you haven’t yet decided it’s theme don’t worry. Because what you might find is it emerges as you edit, as you start to see patterns. But really themes are patterns for the readers to notice. They’re not, it doesn’t matter so much if you haven’t noticed them. Now I know exactly what you mean about getting involved in research and your subject and going up a lot of blind alleyways. Did you find you were writing bits where nothing much was happening? How did you stop yourself? Or did you notice?
Joanna: Well, I cut out a lot. What ended up happening was like, “Goodness me, my character is talking a lot about her interpretation of what all of this means.” Which is not the role of the character. The character should not do a long soliloquy about madness.
Roz: Especially if that breaks the style of the rest of the book.
Joanna: Yeah, exactly. So I would just cut all of that out and then try to show don’t tell. Instead actually have a scene set in a location that might illustrate that point, for example.
Roz: Yeah, yeah. So you’ve got to try and make your fascinating study into actual scenes. Now if you use them to inspire what happens in the book that’s great. But you can go up blind alleyways. It’s like research. It’s like doing too much research. They are close cousins actually. You start reading around stuff and then you just get lost forever.
Joanna: But that’s part of the fun, you know I love research and you know my stories emerge from research rather than me deciding on something and then doing it that way. But another thing that people, my theme thing is similar to back-story, like people will info-dump back-story and I’ve noticed this. The book I’m writing now, “Deviance”, the next one, my first chapter is super-long and I’ve just info-dumped because I’m working out my own back-story and then I’ve got to remember to move it out of the first chapter somewhere else.
So what are some of the other issues with back-story and plot?
Roz: Well that’s the major issue with back-story that writers dump it in at the beginning and it’s as if to tell the fan how this appears to a reader. Just imagine somebody says I’m going to tell you what happened this morning but before I tell you that I’m going to tell you this and you’ve switched off immediately. Because you want to know about the interesting thing that happened this morning.
So with back-story you have to get the reader curious enough that they’ll welcome quite a lot of it. That usually happens after quite a long time. Again if you think of somebody you know you probably did not know much about their back-story until you’ve known them for quite a while. Even if they told you you probably didn’t listen until you got to know them quite well and there would have been a quiet sort of evening where you were sitting down and you said, “So, how did you end up with this man?” Or whatever, and will end up writing. Then the story is keenly paid attention to.
So that’s one point about back-story, you have to deploy it at a point where the reader is really curious. Another point about back-story is that a lot of writers invent really good back-story and then find they haven’t got anything for the characters to do during the actual story.
Joanna: Then tends to move the story backwards in time.
Roz: Yeah, because they probably started in the wrong place. What they had was all of these events and they didn’t realize they actually did have a really good story and they’d invented it quite naturally thinking, “Oh, well the character could have this happen and this happen.” So they either could, as you say, wind back time and start the story earlier or think about how to just move the events so that they happen while the reader is experiencing the characters’ lives.
So that’s something that I see a lot, really good events buried in back-story. All you need to do is have the courage to take them out and work out how to massage them into the actual front-story.
Joanna: Or write a novella about that character that is separate-
Roz: Oh, yes. Yes. They use this in that way, yes.
Joanna: I have another question about back-story with a series which is a bit of a nightmare. So again writing “Deviance” at the moment, there’s a character that appeared in book one and in book three I have to, if you read book one you’d know this character. But I need to reintroduce the character and describe a little bit about how they met the first time and what she was doing. She’s like a tattooed exotic dancer with this full-body octopus tattoo which is cool, but I need to explain that somehow and how that happened.
How much do we have to update on the previous books in a series?
Roz: Well, I think some writers just rely on the fact that the previous books are being read. They don’t bother. But the more kind way to do it is to find a way of getting it in and I used to have to do this because I wrote a series and I used to have to find a way always of getting in the back-story of how the characters have met and what they thought of each other.
So all I’d do is I would find a scene where they were involved in something exciting but there was something, as the reader’s being introduced to the character there’s something I could pick out that would say, “So and so did their typical thing, it was like this. So and so did their typical thing.” So that reintroduced the characters and then a little bit later when there was a bit of a lull I was able to say, “They had all met at this time and this happened and now they would forge together as a team,” and that sort of thing. So I found ways to slip it in but I made it appear new. It’s also so that people who were fans of the series would think, “Ah, yes. It’s nice to see that we’re being included again.”
Joanna: It’s a real balance because of course you know you want readers to join whatever and be able to read a book in entirety without knowing that stuff but equally you want to reward the readers who’ve stuck around with the kind of in joke type of thing, don’t you? You want to balance that.
Roz: Yes, and it does become increasingly difficult to find innovative ways to do that.
Joanna: You can’t even use the same sentence structure or the same wording because they may have just read the other book straight up before that.
Roz: I think they will accept it more if you’ve had an exciting bit and then the characters obviously have to have a bit of a lull where say they go back and regroup at headquarters. Then as they’re going back there you can slip it in and the reader doesn’t notice it so acutely.
Joanna: Okay. So we also hear, and these are massive topics that we can do a podcast on each, of course everyone will buy Roz’s book, but we hear about conflict. Now, you know I’m a thriller writer so conflict for me can be blowing stuff up and people fighting. But you know in your “Memories of A Future Life” for example if you’d have just blown something up in the middle that probably wouldn’t have been so allowed in the genre.
So, what is conflict in the case of plot?
Roz: Well, conflict is basically just things that make like difficult for the characters at their sources. Remember at the beginning I said how the story is the struggle. I mean beginning to see immediately that any struggle could be part of the story. In fact-
Roz: The story is struggle. There are various, broad areas where we can look for conflict. So you’ve got the hero versus themselves so that might be a fear or something they have to avenge. You can have the hero versus society or the hero versus nature or the environment. Or the hero versus other characters.
All of these parts, these are all parts of any normal person’s life, they’re all surrounded by a mixture of these things and all of these factors can create difficulties for them that will add to the story. What writers often fail to do if they’re just starting out is explore different areas of conflict enough. So they might have their characters trying to hunt down a nuclear bomb but what they’ll forget is that the individuals in their team will all have different opinions about how to do things. Someone who might actually be working for a different government, and is there in secret and under cover.
All of these different agendas will complicate matters and make it far more difficult to just find the bomb they were looking for in the first place. So you have to look for ways in which you can keep the difficulty level going. And that’s one of the things also that keeps readers curious because they think, “Oh, but there’s this. Oh, but there’s this.” They can see it’s not going to be straight forward.
Joanna: That conflict can be obviously other people conflicts is one thing but the internal conflict is something that’s quite big as well, right, and can weave into back-story I suppose.
Roz: Yes, yes it can be. It can be back-story, it can be just personality as well. So if it was back-story it might be somebody who the main character couldn’t forgive but is forced to work with. If it was their own personality it could be a fear or it could be some coping mechanism that they have developed but that makes them very vulnerable in odd ways because they might hiding something very deep. But again that depends on the scope of your novel.
So you mentioned “My Memories of a Future Life” which is quite literally about a character who is trying to overcome an injury but before she can do that she has to unravel a lot about her past and this is why she does this thing with the hypnosis. But her struggles and her conflicts are more internal but she does also have people she’s fighting against because they’ve got different agendas from her, and they’re pushing her in directions that she’s very unhappy about. So there’s a lot of conflict in there.
Joanna: The other conflict I always like is the man versus nature kind of bigger conflict. I’d like to write something like that where it’s like Noah and the Flood, it’s like a man versus nature or God, whatever you want to call that type of story. Is that a good one? I mean there’s a lot of movies about that, isn’t there?
Roz: Yes, and it’s more difficult to make it work in prose. If you think of disaster movies, they are very cinematic and they can be so disorientating to read about in prose that it’s difficult to make work. However I’m reading a novel at the moment, I can’t remember the name of the author. It’s translated from German and it’s called “Night Work”. It’s about a man who wakes up and discovers everyone has vanished. Everything still works, electricity still works, and the phones all seem to be disconnected and there is not one other living soul. He becomes just pitted against this, I guess this really strange environment where all of humanity has gone.
Joanna: A rapture book, is it?
Roz: No, no. It’s a standalone novel. It’s really tense. Because you just don’t know what he’s going to do next. He is pitted against nature and also this force of loneliness. It’s a very strange book.
Joanna: So I also wanted to ask about endings because endings, I mean like I love Steven King for example but he’s well-known for getting some endings like really badly wrong. Like the one I really think of is Under the Dome which I won’t spoil for anyone but the ending you’re just like, “What? That’s ridiculous.” Whereas the rest of the book is really strong. The ending is like, “Oh, no. Wrong. Wrong choice mate.” But of course I would never criticize the master, Steven King.
But how do endings go wrong and how do we make sure the ending works and it’s satisfying to the reader?
Roz: Well, usually a story will have posed a question of some sort. So it will be, “Can this be found? Can this person recover? Can they get vengeance? Can they get to the end of their quest?” You’ve got to make sure that whatever questions you’ve set up are answered in some way.
Now there’s what I call the ending that belongs to the characters, and there’s also another way of looking at endings which is the ending that belongs to the reader which is more of a literary device. But the ending that belongs to the characters is did they solve all of the things? Can they go get onto their lives and have we seen everything settle, there’s new order, and everything. But the ending that’s more for the reader will be to leave them with a feeling.
So if you’ve got something like “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. You’ve got a group of boys on a desert island and they’ve all but gone feral. At the end they’re rescued and the final scene is on the beach. The rescuer is a man in a Navy uniform and at that point one of the main characters sees him and bursts into tears because he just realizes what he’s been through and it ends there.
We do not follow the characters into their lives. We don’t find out how they settled down, found nice families, and were happy again. We end on the beach with this realization of what’s been seen, what they’ve gone through, and the complete disintegration of civilization. That’s an ending for the reader because it resonates in the reader and they go away and think about it. So that’s one extreme. But if you were to tell that story in a more conventional adventure way then you would have them rescued, you’d have them taken off, you’d have someone say, “Oh, that island you found, well it’s here. You can see it now.” We’re all kind of normalizing, getting back to normal, and that would be more about solving the puzzles.
So these are two extreme ways of getting an ending, two endings for one story really. So you have to consider what you’ve made the reader interested in. if you’ve made the reader interested in the disintegration of civilization then the disintegration of civilization is a good thing to end on, or just some way in which it has been changed.
If you’ve made them interested in how they get out, how will they find the device that’s going to blow up the world, how will they win the war, then you must end with that question being solved. So what Steven King, I haven’t read that book, but what he might have done was set something up and you were more interested in that being resolved than what he actually resolved.
Joanna: He basically switched genres in the last five percent of the book, which is confusing and I think that’s really important. If you’re going to write, like you can’t write a contemporary-set novel which is three quarters of the way set in normal London with normal people and then slam in like a fairy in the last five percent, for example.
Roz: I think we call that an ass-pull. It’s just inventing something that you didn’t have in before. Another way in which you know your ending has gone wrong is if you have to have screens of explanation in order to make it work. Because your ending comes out of what you’ve been knitting into the text all the way through. If it had had fairies all the way through it might have worked.
Joanna: I need to know the ending before I write the rest of the plot. So now I know the ending of Deviance, like you say I can now scatter in things that will make the ending right. You have to go back and see that earlier so that people think it’s inevitable, but still surprising.
Roz: Absolutely. They have to be surprising and inevitable. That’s what a good ending is, but it’s got to, and it’s got to seem fair. Because if you just suddenly fling something in that the reader didn’t know about they know you just invented it on the spot.
Joanna: I do want to write a techno-thriller called Deus Ex Machina. Okay, so you know we’re running out of time but I wonder if you could give us an overview of your plotting process for one of your books. Obviously every author is different, but you’re a literary writer but you still have a pretty hard-core plotting process. So maybe you could talk about that.
Give us an overview of your plotting process
Roz: I do and I do a lot of shuffling about of events so what I do is I first of all have, usually a situation where I think, “This is provocative in some way.” So with My Memories of a Future Life it was somebody going to another life through hypnosis and I thought, “Who’d do that?” So I speak by characters who would be the most sorely tried by whatever it is I’m cooking up. I’d explore all of the people who I could get involved who would be interesting to watch. It’s the people that’d be interesting to watch, you want people who will be really challenging their comfort zones. Struggles, struggles all the way.
Then I start to piece together what they might do and I research and I find things that are maybe suggested by, like you with the kind of world they’re in, things that could happen, historical events that might be useful, and I build up a set of events. Then I start writing and I usually swap them around quite a bit because I feel more natural ways for the events to happen. I also have to work out what my ending’s going to be, what kind of resolution I’m looking for, and write towards that.
Then I put it away, then I bring it out again, analyze it all in depth with the beat-sheet which is one of my tools in the original Nail Your Novel. What that lets me do is just look at the story-flow and then I go into it again and I start looking for much better ways to use the events that I’ve got because in my first draft they’re probably a bit anemic and I haven’t really utilized them to the max. But I love stories, I love that, I love keeping the reader gripped page-by-page, making them think, “What’s going to happen? This person is getting in a worse situation.” So I look for that all the time. But then I just go through the book looking for ways to make things worse.
Joanna: You know, do you, you’ve got a lot on your websites and in the book of course about your plotting process. So I think people should have a look at that, but it is important to kind of remember that everyone does it differently and like you use physical cards, don’t you? That’s awesome.
Roz: I have, this is “Ever Rest”, the novel that I’m doing my second draft of now.
Joanna: Is that the one that you used to call “The Mountains”?
That was a little trick for me because until I found the ending, until I got to the end of the first draft I didn’t, I felt there was something I wanted to keep back. I had actually named it but I wanted to keep it back until I felt competent enough to say, “Okay, I have an ending on it. It will have a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Now I feel I can reveal what it’s really called. It’s just a silly thing to give me a mile-stone. Once I was able to reveal what it was called then I felt like I understood it better.
On struggling with titles
Joanna: This is totally off of our topic, but titles. I am so struggling with titles right now. I mean I’m questioning everything I ever knew about titles and I’m retitling some of my books and this is something of freedom as indies that we have, to re-title.
But when I’m writing the first draft, and I’ve had loads of titles for all of my books, as I’m writing my titles change. So for you was “The Mountains” it was “The Mountains” but was that just what you would call a working title and do you always have two different, a working title and a finished title? Or do you have any tips for titling books? Because I think it’s damn hard.
Roz: Oh, it’s really difficult. The title tells you something about the novel’s genre. So if you’re struggling to title your book the best thing to do is to look up books that are like it and just see the kind of language that’s used in the title because one of the possible titles that I had for “Ever Rest”, which is what I’m actually calling it, was Comeback.
Joanna: Which sounds like a thriller, more like a killer crime.
Roz: Exactly. Now it would work. Within it’s own world it would work to call it “Comeback”, but that wouldn’t be right for it.
Joanna: I think that’s like a movie, as well. Like a shoot’em up movie.
Roz: There are loads, there are loads of books and movies called Comeback. That’s another problem. Also I thought I couldn’t even remember it. I couldn’t remember it myself so that wasn’t going to be any good. So there’s got to be, a title’s got to set up expectations. It’s also I think got to set up a promise that makes the reader think, it goes a little bit more closely at that.
Joanna: This is something I want to talk more about titles I think in general. I think it’s something that is under-talked about in general and not really written about. Especially for indies because I think when you are writing the book you put a title on your working draft and your manuscript.
When you’re typing it has a file name, so you have to create it with a file name so you’re already thinking about titles. Yet when you’ve written the book sometimes that doesn’t work it will change, and I think we don’t have enough direction really around titles. I mean you’ve worked in traditional publishing a lot, how did they do it? I mean there obviously the writer doesn’t get the choice there.
Roz: No, not often. It’s a marketing decision. The marketing department and the editor, they’ll talk about if they like your title.
Joanna: Does the writer very often not get their choice?
Roz: Well, it depends. Sometimes the writer’s made the perfect choice and it also depends on the genre they’re writing. If they’re literary writers then it’s more a question of personal expression. So what the author would choose to call the book would be respected more, I think. If it’s genre then if the author’s got the wrong title then they’ll be given quite a lot of hell to find a right one.
I’m curious to know which of your titles you think you’re changing?
Joanna: Well, this is the thing. I don’t mind revealing it on the show. I may have talked about it in the introduction by now. So my first book which when I wrote it was called Mandala, then became Pentecost and is now going to be Stone of Fire.
The second book “Prophecy” will be called “Crypt of Bone”. The third book, “Exodus” will be called “Ark of Blood”. Tying in with “Gates of Hell” which is also in the series. Because the main reason being at “Pentecost”, “Prophecy”, and “Exodus” are very religious words. Most of my critical reviews say, “This book is not Christian.” Which it’s not.
Roz: Well, my first comment would be that probably what you would tell me if I was going to change my titles, which is, “Aren’t people going to get confused?”
Joanna: Well, the confusion is mitigated by the fact that you cannot buy the same book twice on the store.
Roz: Oh, can’t you?
Joanna: No. If you try and buy, because you don’t have to republish. You can just change. Technically as self-publishers this is very easy. You just go onto Amazon and Kobo and whatever and you over-type the title. You just add another cover, basically.
Roz: I actually did this with my character’s book, because I decided I’d called it a rather dull name. It was “Bring Characters to Life” which is what it did, but it wasn’t, it didn’t give people a benefit. So then I changed it to “Writing Characters to Keep Readers Captivated”. Title, I can’t remember.
So like you said, I changed it on the eBooks dead easy. What wasn’t easy was the print book. You do have to create a new book.
Joanna: You do. But print to me is such a tiny percentage of sales I’m not really bothered. The number of books sold of those is so small. Plus I will obviously email my readers and I will put on the blurb in the bottom, “Previously published as Pentecost”.
So I think to be honest, I’ve just turned 40 and I consider this to be a lifetime career. So changing my titles now in a series that I’ve already written, books seven’s just come out, I’ve got book eight, nine, 10, you know ideas for those. This is not ending. So what I want to do is set myself up more for the future.
Also I think, I’m sure you’ll agree with this, when you write your first novel or your second novel or your third novel you don’t have a clue who you are as a writer. You don’t know what you’re aiming for. You don’t know your target audience. You just don’t know, do you?
Roz: That’s right, yes. It takes time to just find who you are and what your people like as well. If you’re getting feedback that says, “Oh, this wasn’t what I expected and you’re giving the same wrong signal all the time.”
Joanna: I think, yeah, it’s a fascinating, and I’ve learned more about how other books that are similar to mine are marketed. They are marketed as conspiracy thriller which is Dan Brown, “The Da Vinci Code”, is a conspiracy thriller. Not the fact that it’s about the descendants of Jesus. It’s the same kind of thing. So I think, and I mean the theme of this, of our discussion is you never stop learning about any of this stuff. Right? I mean you just never stop. I mean didn’t you change the cover of “Memories of A Future Life” as well?
Roz: No, I didn’t. No. I changed the cover of “”Nail Your Novel”” a few times. I really hope nobody remembers what it originally looked like. Because it didn’t do a good job of selling what was in the book, really. But that’s the cover I have changed.
Joanna: That is the point. It’s about who you are versus who the potential readers are, for me the word “Pentecost” for example because I have a Master’s in theology, that has some resonance for me that I understand. But the number of people who don’t understand what the hell that word means, what it represents, or come from a religious background and therefore consider it to be a religious book. It’s a problem, it’s a gap between where I am as a writer and where the reader might be. This is something again that indies struggle with more because we don’t have a team of people at a publisher.
Roz: Yeah, exactly. The publisher knows what wrong signals you’re going to give. Actually I’ve just remembered the cover you’re talking about of mine, you’re thinking of “Lifeform Three”?
Joanna: It was an alien.
Roz: Yes. I never released it under that but I was just going mad trying to find the right cover. Covers is a completely different topic as well. Eventually various people gave me feedback. But you know, this is what we struggle with as indies, isn’t it?
Because we have to acquire expertise that is more than just writing.
Publishing, there’s a lot of experience that goes into it as well.
Joanna: So fascinating. We might come back to this topic at another point, you know there’s a little extra bit there. So, Roz, tell people again the title of the book, where people can find it, and where they can find all of your other books online.
Roz: Okay. This latest one is called “Writing Plots with Drama, Depth, and Heart” “Nail Your Novel” Three, and the easiest place to find it is if you go to www.nailyournovel.com and there are tabs there that will guide you to those books. If you’re interested in my fiction you’ll also be able to find it from there, too.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time, Roz. That was great.
Roz: Thank you. That was fun.