A Knotty Problem Unravelled, or How Knitting Saved my Novel

My third novel was languishing in a bottom-drawer file on my PC. I couldn’t see the way through it, even though I had all the characters, the plot and subplots, and the ending, firmly in my mind. I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Was I being too ambitious? It’s actually a good story; I’m very proud of it, but it had become a dense, tangled muddle. I had to figure out why it wasn’t working, why the damn thing wouldn’t progress. I decided a more forensic approach was needed if it was going to be resurrected.

I’ve been a keen knitter all my life. I’ve designed and completed many garments, invented tricky stitches and twisty cables. Complicated patterns don’t faze me; multi-coloured fair-isle designs aren’t a problem; twisty Arans don’t daunt me. So it occurred to me that I might bring some of my knitting know-how to my novel writing. If I can carry several different strands of yarn along at the same time when I’m creating a piece of knitwear, why shouldn’t I use the same principle, and knit several plot lines together, too?

Off we go, then. In the same way as I tackle knitting designs, I started with a blank sheet of paper. I wrote down the names of the main protagonists in a circle. The story has four main characters and is moved along by their individual voices in alternate chapters. So that’s four storylines. So far, so fair-isle. Then I added another three minor characters, who, despite their lesser status, still have important interactions with all the major players.

Next thing was to draw lines connecting each character with others they had links with. I soon had an unmanageable set of intersections and potential subplots where their lives overlap. This wasn’t knitting – it looked more like a tangled cat’s cradle. If I was actually knitting a garment with this many components, I’d take a more measured approach, using a maximum of four different strands in each line, or section of pattern. I’d drop the others and introduce them back at intervals, alternating as I went, until I’d created a multi-coloured masterpiece.

So, taking my own advice, I’m giving each main protagonist their time in the limelight. At the end of each character’s section, they hand over the reins and the story is carried forward by the next one, revealing aspects of the plot only they are privy to. I’ve refined the main storyline and the subplots to make things more manageable, and it’s slowly coming together.

 I liken these segments to the self-patterned sections of the knitting: ribbing to keep the plot nice and tight; twisty cabling to add interest and intrigue; moss stitch to enhance the background; plain stocking stitch to keep things on an even keel; a lovely button for an unexpected surprise. Additional pops of colour and texture are produced by the character interactions, some of them quite unexpected.

In the background, I’m maintaining the tension (a very important aspect of knitting, and storytelling) so there’s no sagging in the middle, no dropped stitches to create glaring plot holes. Just as if I was knitting a sweater and shaping a sleeve or a neckline, for example, I increase or decrease the number of characters on stage at any one time and develop subplots to create suspense and keep readers interested.

So far, the knitting analogy has been successful. Sometimes the ‘garment’ is loose and free-flowing, other times taut and structured; it’s coming along nicely – satisfyingly complicated but not confusing. New colours have been introduced and the ‘pattern’ has emerged.

I can see the path I have to follow for a successful completion, with a final flourish to finish things off.  I’ll be able to cast off soon.

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Are You Ready For Your Close Up?

I’ve just discovered how to embed a Kindle preview in my social media posts.  It’s a very useful addition to the self-publisher’s promotional arsenal, as, like the ‘Look Inside’ facility already offered by Amazon, it gives our readers a chance to sample our work before buying. This has got me thinking about those all-important first chapters and how they’ll stand up to this scrutiny, divorced, as they are, from the rest of the narrative. Is your work polished enough to withstand such a close up, critical examination?

The same rules are in operation as in the usual submission process, but how many of us who are going it alone actually apply them before hitting the ‘publish’ button?

I’ve read some pretty awful previews – bad punctuation, poor grammar, non-existent editing. You might think these things aren’t important any more, but if you’re hoping to attract a wide readership, with positive reviews, you should aim to tick as many of the boxes as possible. The professional services of editors and proofreaders might be beyond the budget of most self-publishers, but there’s still a lot we can do to help ourselves. We want to produce the best manuscript we can, which means paying attention to all the things mentioned above. Your story has the potential to be a best seller, a real page-turner, so you don’t want to turn prospective readers off before they’ve even started.

And that’s another thing – if you’re guilty of admitting, ‘the story doesn’t really get going until chapter six’, you need to take a long, hard look at the structure of your novel and consider starting it in a different place, such as a point of conflict, or where the action begins. A preview two or three chapters full of meandering, irrelevant material will not reveal your master plan or show off your story-telling skills to their best advantage. Tempt your readers in by laying a trail of tasty breadcrumbs that they can’t resist. 

I’m presuming that now you’ve reached the point of publication you’ve already got all your tenses agreeing, points of view sorted, spelling checked, punctuation and grammar perfected. But have one final read of your opening chapters with these questions in mind:

  • Do they entice the reader with a promise of a cracking good read?
  • Is there too much description? Be honest!
  • Does the reader know immediately whose story you are telling?
  • Are the characters too numerous for the reader to distinguish?
  • Are the introductions rushed, or too brief?
  • Are there too many adverbs/adjectives?
  • Is the story already too complicated? Or not interesting enough?
  • Does it start in the right place?
  • Is there too much irrelevant backstory?

It’s notoriously difficult to read your own work objectively, to look at it with new eyes and spot the problems that a dispassionate reader would notice immediately. But I promise you it will be a worthwhile exercise and result in a more engaging opening if you give those initial chapters a little more attention.

Changing Lives

Fiction – is there a reason for it? A point to it? Most importantly for us novelists, why do we write it?

Speaking for myself, the main purpose of reading fiction has always been entertainment. Losing myself in a good book on a rainy afternoon is an enormous pleasure. I don’t usually expect a novel to be life-changing; that is not my primary reason for reading fiction. If it’s an historical novel it might inform and educate me; a comic novel will entertain or irritate me; science fiction might stretch my understanding with varying levels of success, but a novel tackling some kind of moral dilemma will always get my full attention. Continue reading

Emotional Roller Coaster

We did a very good exercise at the writing group recently – write a short scene where a character expresses an extreme emotion, such as anger, joy, grief, passion, impatience. Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? But we’d been instructed to show the emotion, rather than tell it. So “she was frightened” was never going to cut it. We had to create a feeling with words. Continue reading

Short Story Writing

We’ve been doing a lot of work on what makes a satisfying short story at the writing group, and here’s an easily digested summary of what we’ve discussed.

A memorable short story will say something about the human condition, encapsulating one idea succinctly, with each scene building towards a crisis point, followed by a point of realisation or moment of clarity. The issue you address at the start of the story should be the issue that is resolved at the end.

A good short story starts in the middle of the action and as close to the climax as possible. At the end of the story, the main character should be in a better place than at the beginning, enabling them to move forward.

Once you’ve chosen an idea, remember these basic steps: Continue reading

Sagging Middle Syndrome: are you a victim?

We’ve all been there, and I don’t mean that rapidly expanding rear end through far too much sitting and writing (and eating snacks, let’s be honest) and not enough exercise. I mean that space between the opening of our novel and its climax, when we run out of steam.

Continue reading

Creating characters

It was my turn to take our writing group last week and as my theme I chose a topic I’ve written about in the past – Characterisation.

As well as what the story is about, readers are interested in who it’s about. They want a protagonist they can empathise and identify with throughout the story, but these characters won’t necessarily be nice people; some memorable characters from literature have been downright horrible – think Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Pinkie Brown from Brighton Rock.  Whether likeable or thoroughly villainous, we need to believe that the characters we create are real, breathing people or our readers won’t believe in them either.

Continue reading