Welcome to my blog.
Every month I publish insight into my writing and editing experiences as an independent author.
Welcome to my blog.
Every month I publish insight into my writing and editing experiences as an independent author.
by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
During the initial drafting of Divided Elements, I realised that I needed more eyes on it than just mine. As an untested author, I was unsure whether I was on the right track, whether the story idea was genuinely interesting, whether I had the chops to pull it off. To that end, I joined two online critique groups and found a local critique partner with whom I could exchange ideas and chapters. Feedback is critical for any writer, but sometimes reviews and critiques can seem like a version of ‘how I would write this book’, rather than ‘this is a problem for your story’. In this post, I talk about how to manage reader expectations to avoid the former criticism…
Honest feedback and constructive criticism from other writers and readers can be incredibly useful in identifying technical areas for improvement, such as:
Feedback, especially when critique partners are also assessing your WIP as readers, can also become more subjective. Personalities, reading preferences (genre, style, audience, etc), and whether they are in a good or bad mood when it comes time to reading that particular chapter, can all impact on how these readers assess:
This is where the subjectivity of reviews and critiques becomes tricky. Yes, you need to write for your readers. But you also need to write for yourself.
This is your project, your creativity on a page, your piece of soul and worldview in ink.
That being said, you also have a responsibility as a writer to not mislead your readers. Readers may not like your characters or enjoy your world, but that is something that will become apparent early on in the story. It’s okay for this to happen, because at the beginning of the story, the reader’s investment in the book is still low. They may have only spent half an hour reading your novel before realising it is not for them.
No harm, no foul.
But what happens when a reader gets halfway through the book, or worse – to the climax, and their expectations or desires for the story are thwarted? They’ve been rooting for the protagonist to enter into an epic sword fight with her arch nemesis, but at the final moments she is disfigured and loses all of her strength and sword-wielding abilities, ruling out this plot line…
Or they’ve been reading eagerly through the chapters, enthralled by the developing attraction between the two main characters and awaiting that moment in the climax when they just know the two are going to finally put aside their resistance and actually admit they love the other, but just before the peak of this build up, one of the characters dies…
These are the sort of things that can send Goodreads review into vitriol territory – Hell hath no fury like a reader scorned.
Now, while it is not the author’s job to pander to reader desires – it is the author’s job to manage reader expectations. That is the whole purpose of a story – to take a reader on a journey with the author (and the characters) – and to set parameters within which plot twists and key events will be surprising, but in a way that enhances the reader’s appreciation of the story.
The key to this is managing reader expectations from the start.
This is why the start of a book is so critical – it not only establishes the characters and the world – it should also establish the style, tone and theme. In a way, the start of your book is its constitution – the set of rules and laws by which your book will abide from beginning to end.
George R.R. Martin did this expertly in “A Song of Ice and Fire” – *** WARNING – Spoilers for those who have been hiding under a rock, living in another universe, living a life without television or internet and do not know about GAME OF THRONES ***
– when he killed off Ned Stark early on in the piece he illustrated his story’s constitution – indicating that killing off beloved characters was not something he would shy away from. Because it happened early in the piece, readers and fans were able to forgive him this (they were still orienting themselves to the story), and future instances of untimely deaths (they were, by then, used to his sadism).
So, dear authors, by all means introduce plot twists and intense character arcs and story surprises in your novel – just ensure that you have adequately prepared readers for the possibility of these things by successfully establishing your story’s constitution in the opening chapters where you introduce style, tone and theme.
Have you ever been disappointed or infuriated by a story plot point later in the piece? Has an ending ever made you regret picking up the book in the first place? Tell me about it in the comments section!
by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
One of the recurring plot devices in dystopian literature is the ‘Divided Population’. This is to be expected, given that dystopian stories (and their more up-beat counterpart, utopian stories) are, at their heart, socio-political narratives. Population structures and methods of control are, therefore, a key aspect of many dystopian stories.
We see this archetype in classic dystopias, such as 1984, Brave New World and Divided Kingdom, as well as in modern dystopias, like Hunger Games and Divergent. My WIP, Divided Elements, also draws heavily on this archetype in its exploration of identity, loyalty and rebellion.
The prevalence of the ‘Divided Population’ archetype is arguably due to the fact that it draws on two long-established and fundamental philosophies:
[The] gaining and maintaining power by breaking up larger concentrations of power into pieces that individually have less power than the one implementing the strategy. The concept refers to a strategy that breaks up existing power structures, and especially prevents smaller power groups from linking up, causing rivalries and fomenting discord among the people. (wikipedia)
…when individuals that identify closely with their own ethnic or religious beliefs begin to gain the mentality that those who are different from them are problematic. This can lead to extreme separation, alienation, and exclusion of the person or of people that is seen as different or unusual to the typical lens of one’s societal views. Othering can be described as discrimination of people or a population that is different than the collective social norm; since they are different they are also seen as deviant or in need of being cultured by the group that is othering them. (wikipedia)
Despite the common reference to these philosophies, many dystopian stories present the archetype differently. The main axes along which these stories differ are:
In 1984, the divide is socio-political – with the population generally inhabiting the same space (albeit in separate (yet, accessible) neighbourhoods) but divided into three hierarchical classes: The proles (proletariat), outer party (bureaucracy) and inner party (oligarchy). The divide is maintained organically – with each new generation born into the class of their parents. No additional class or group exists outside these divisions – rebellion comes from within the structure.
In Hunger Games, the divide is predominantly geographic and labour-based. The population is divided into 12 districts and each district is responsible for fulfilling a mandated role in resource production – District 12’s core industry is mining, District 4’s core industry is fishing. Like 1984, the divide is maintained organically with each new generation born into their district and, therefore, role. Unlike 1984, however, the Districts are equal in power/standing, with the true political divide presented between the Districts and the Capitol. A 13th district is later discovered existing outside the core division, and it from within this district that the rebellion is built and sustained.
In Brave New World, the divide is biological – the population ‘hatched’ into a hierarchy of five castes of different intellectual magnitude. Stemming from this biological divide is the division of labour – whereby members of each caste are conditioned for roles appropriate to their level of (manipulated) competence. Like 1984, their is no geographical divide – but the strict hierarchical model means that interactions between castes is distasteful at best, social suicide at worst.
As a counterpoint to this manipulated world, there exists a more organic world – the ‘savage reservation’ – where the population is not divided. This world (and its inhabitants) serve as a the key narrative device to illustrate the differences between the two ways of living.
In Divided Kingdom, the divide is based on personality types – the population divided into four types (represented by a different humor: blood (red), phlegm (blue), black bile (green) and yellow bile (yellow)). This divide is also geographic, with each type occupying a designated quarter that is quarantined from the others by security walls. There is no hierarchy – all types are equal in power and standing.
Unlike the above examples, the division is not static, but continually manipulated – with children born into a type (and quarter) and then taken for assessment and re-assignment (if necessary) at a predetermined age. A fifth group, not sanctioned by the state or part of the greater population structure, is known as the White – consisting of people who embody all four personality types and none of them, they are able to roam freely between the four quarters, reviled in some, revered in others.
In Divergent the divide is also personality-based and geographic. The population is divided into five factions based on personality types (Abnegation, Dauntless, Candour, Erudite and Amity) and each faction occupies its own part of the city. Movement between the different parts is allowed (although, seemingly uncommon?). While there is no specific hierarchy, in that each group is equal in general power and standing, one faction is given responsibility for leadership (the pivot on which much of the action in the story turns).
The division is not static – with children born into a type and then taken for assessment when they reach a predetermined age in their teenage years. Unlike Divided Kingdom, where membership is mandated by the state, in Divergent, the assessment is used as guidance only – with candidates allowed to choose which faction they wish to join (or remain in). The divisions are largely imperfect: A candidate more suited to one faction can nonetheless choose membership in another; A candidate who fails their faction initiation test ultimately becomes ‘factionless’, joining a loosely-organised group occupying their own part of the city; A candidate who is predisposed to more than one faction is labelled ‘divergent’.
So, as you can see, despite the common theme of a ‘divided population’, each of these stories is able to present a unique narrative by mixing up the other key considerations. I’m hoping to do the same with my own novel, Divided Elements.
Find this post useful? Let me know in the comments!
by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
Ah, the passive voice – much maligned by writers and critics alike. Search the internet for articles on the passive voice and you will find numerous exhortations to avoid it – Lazy writing! Too wordy! Overcomplicated!
Yes, the passive voice can be all of these (sometimes). But, sometimes it can be necessary or useful:
Mary was surprised. The zombie had most certainly been dispatched on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. She should have been compensated by now.
The short paragraph above contains three passive clauses. You can spot them by looking for the to be verb + a past participle. You can also spot them by looking for the object-verb-subject structure. In the above example, there is no subject – which is why the passive voice is necessary.
Look what happens when we add a subject:
Mary was surprised at the final balance on her account statement. The zombie had most certainly been dispatched by her on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. She should have been compensated by ZombieTraders by now.
Ugh. That is one ugly paragraph. Just by flipping to an active voice sentence structure – subject-verb-object – you can make it prettier:
The final balance on Mary’s account statement surprised her. She was certain that she had dispatched the zombie on Tuesday – all day, she had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. ZombieTraders should have compensated her by now.
Notice something about the above paragraph? Both ‘had’ and ‘had been’ make an appearance – but neither create a passive clause.
She had dispatched the zombie on Tuesday. In this case, we need to make the distinction between ‘had dispatched’ (past perfect tense of the verb, dispatch) and ‘had been (dispatched)’ (past perfect tense of the verb, to be). The word ‘had’ + a past participle (dispatched) is not by itself a red flag for passive voice. Only when the had is part of the ‘to be’ verb could it indicate passive voice. Mary had dispatched the zombie – not passive. The zombie had been dispatched by Mary – passive.
She had been sweating on meeting the delivery deadline. In this case, we need to make the distinction between <had been + past participle> and <had been + continuous tense>. The ‘to be’ verb + another verb is not enough to indicate passive voice, the verb needs to be in the past participle form. I had been working on the zombie case – not passive. The zombie case had been worked on by me – passive.
The zombies were an abomination, created by the devil for his own perverted entertainment. (object-verb-subject structure, ‘to be’ verb + past participle – PASSIVE)
The devil had created the abominable zombies for his own perverted entertainment. (subject-verb-object structure, no ‘to be’ verb – ACTIVE)
So, by all means be wary of the passive voice – but please don’t avoid it at all costs.
Hope that helps. Happy writing!
by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
There is a well-worn narrative principle that often does the rounds in writer’s circles. You would have seen it on Twitter or quoted in blogs and books on writing. Chekhov, the Russian playwright and master of the modern short story, is credited with saying “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
The principle is often invoked to caution writers against irrelevant details – if it has no impact on the plot, remove it. It is sage advice, but it has a counterpart that is often overlooked – a reversal of the idiom that I would like to phrase as:
If a rifle is going to be fired in the third act, in the first act it absolutely must be hanging on the wall.
This kind of philosophy harkens back to my school debating days (sigh. remember those? good times.) As the Third Opposition Speaker (which sounds like a key councillor role in a fictional dystopia, but is not), you couldn’t bring up new information – it wasn’t fair to raise new arguments or introduce new concepts that weren’t accessible to the other team for response (and rebuttal).
It’s the same with stories. If you have something major happen in your Third Act, you must introduce it – explicitly or through foreshadowing and hinting – in the First or Second Acts.
Introducing new characters (or other plot devices) too late in the piece is disingenuous. The reader enters the Third Act expecting that everything that is to transpire is a natural progression (likely or unlikely) from the components that have already been built and developed in earlier chapters. Bringing something new in feels like a cheat.
The most common transgression of ‘reverse Chekhov’s gun’ is the much maligned ‘Deus ex Machina’ (which sounds like an awesome futuristic sci fi, but is not (although 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’ deserves a mention…)).
As Wikipedia so eloquently elaborates, Deus ex Machina (literally, God in the Machine) is “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.” The internet is full of examples.
But, more subtle transgressions are where minor characters or plot devices that make brief appearances in earlier chapters or Acts, suddenly and inexplicable become crucial elements that are central for tying up the loose ends of Act III.
If you find your story falling into the latter category, fear not! There is a solution (and it is simple):
Go back and add some foreshadowing and hinting in earlier chapters/acts.
That junior intern that has a whole two lines of overlooked dialogue in that scene jammed into the middle of chapter four? The one that will end up saving the day with her personal rocket launcher project that isn’t even mentioned in the story? Go back and beef up her role. Hint at her ingenuity. Give us a glimpse of that awesome rocket launcher. Let her reappear throughout the story, maybe at the pinch points, or points of high tension. Keep her simmering in the back of our minds, so that her reappearance will be welcome and logical (even if it is a little surprising).
What about you? Have you introduced a Deus ex Machina in your WIP or are you committing a transgression against the reverse Chekhov’s gun? Offload your guilt in the comments…
by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
So, I’m still working on this ‘editing journey’ with Divided Elements. It’s not so much a journey of ordered paths and clean lines as it is a 90s mosh pit that spits me in and out and jams me up against a whole slew of obstacles. But, in any case, I’m on it and I’m making some progress.
The hardest part has been writing new scenes to plug plot gaps and/or correct timelines.
This is for a number of reasons:
1) It pulls me out of full editor mode and into a quasi- (and much restrained) creative mode,
2) It demands consistency not only with what came before, but also what comes after, which entails a lot of reading and attention to detail, and
3) It happens in a kind of vacuum, outside of the original flow of writing. It’s not an organic process of creation, with the drafting momentum pushing it along a nice trajectory. It’s forced – a manipulation of a newer puzzle’s piece to fit an older puzzle – a shaving here and snipping there to jam it into place with (hopefully) some finesse that makes it appear seamless.
I’ve struggled with these scenes (hence the angst that’s poking through in the above para). I’ve written each of them close to ten times over. Nothing seemed to be working, no matter how many changes and revisions.
And then I realised that the problem wasn’t in the new scene, it was in the preceding one.
Remember those Bugs Bunny episodes where he would end up in some random place? He would poke his head up, look around, pull out his map and frown in concentration. And then the epiphany would arrive and he would realise his error – he should have taken that left, all the way back in Albuquerque.
It was the same with me. I realised my problem with the troublesome scene wasn’t in the preceding sentence or paragraph. It wasn’t in the scene at all. It came long before that, in my story’s metaphorical ‘Albuquerque’.
So instead of just manipulating the new puzzle piece, I also began to rearrange the older puzzle piece.
I went back to earlier scenes and chapters to add subtext and foreshadowing. I slightly tweaked the trajectory of earlier plotlines to allow a connecting piece that would fit the overall story better.
And it’s working.
So, if you’re in the same problem that I was, ask yourself:
1) What gap are you trying to fill with this new scene/chapter?
2) What does it need to achieve?
3) How do earlier scenes/chapters compromise this goal?
4) How can you alter them to make for a smoother transition to the new scene?
I hope that helps. Good luck and happy writing/editing!
by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
So, we’ve figured out that stories are about stuff happening. And the best kind of stuff happening is the stuff that happens because of a problem. Problems are what are driving your story forward – they provide tension, intrigue, character development and (by necessity of requiring a solution) they provide momentum. Problems should plague your protagonist and proliferate in your plot.
But, as I have discovered, not all problems are equal. Some problems are better at ratcheting up tension and accelerating momentum. Some are deliciously subtle. Others are explosive. And others are…well, they are just another problem – an obstacle, a thorn in the side, a stone in the shoe.
Which brings us to the three types of problems you can introduce in your story:
Causal problems are those that occur as a direct result of cause and effect. It rains, you get wet. You put your hand in the fire, it gets burned.
Causal problems in your story are the explosive, flavour-packed, all the tingly feels problems that are perfect developments from situations that have come before in your story. The best of these are problems that happen because of something your protagonist has done (or failed to do), but still work well if they happen because of something else in your plot (e.g. something another character has set in motion, the result of a environmental incident, etc).
* Your protagonist runs away from a fight, that leads her into a dark alley where murderous thieves are lurking. A problem that occurs directly as a result of something your protagonist has done.
* Your protagonist’s sidekick tries to pick up the local barmaid and lets slip some vital intel that is overheard by the antagonist’s goons. As a result, the antagonist is able to hijack the protagonist’s mission. A problem that occurs directly as a result of something another character has done.
* An earthquake hits town, cutting off all roads and leaving the protagonist stranded and unable to get to their destination. A problem that occurs directly as a result of an environmental incident.
Problems that are correlated are (as the word suggest) related, but not caused by the other. I put my gumboots on, my friend grabs their umbrella. I grab frantically for a bandage, my friend screams in horror. While these things aren’t causal – they are related. My friend and I both grab our wet weather gear because it is raining. I grab for a bandage and my friend screams because I have burnt my hand in the fire.
Correlative problems are the subtle problems in your story. The problems that hint at a deeper understory or that give clues about possible plot developments, character flaws, or story complexities. They can be explicit – where the ‘binding agent’ (the third aspect that relates them) is known; implicit – where the binding agent is hinted at; or inexplicit – where the binding agent is unknown.
* The earthquake causes widespread damage and destruction. The protagonist, left without a car, heads out on foot through the city to get to their destination, vulnerable to aftershocks and violent looters. Character B, whose child is injured, races out into the city to find medical assistance. Both journeys put each character on a collision course. The two problems are caused by a known binding agent – the earthquake. –> This closely mimics a causal relationship (since the cause of these related problems is known).
* People around the city are falling sick and/or dying unexpectedly. Character A frantically attends to their sick child before running out of the house. The protagonist, a renowned epidemiologist, receives a phone call in the middle of a celebration, immediately turns serious and leaves without telling anyone. The two problems are caused by a hinted binding agent – a disease outbreak of some sort. –> This is great for causing the kind of tension that comes when a reader reads on to find out if their hunch is correct. Whodunnits are famous for it – giving readers enough of a hint in order for them to form a theory of their own and keep them reading to get validation/confirmation.
* Character A withdraws her life savings and buys a plane ticket. The protagonist packs up their car and heads out of town. The two problems are caused by an unknown binding agent. –> This type can seem as pure coincidence at this point in the story, but is discovered to be related later in the story (a satisfying pay off). To be effective, both incidents need to be evocative (causing the reader to wonder why these two events are happening and to keep reading to find out). It can also help if the same type of emotion is present – in this case urgency – or opposite emotions are present – e.g. extreme joy vs extreme disappointment — both of which help to establish or hint at a shared connection.
Coincidental problems are those that are completely unrelated. I lose my watch and my worst enemy becomes my boss.
In stories, these problems provide points of interest and action, but can (if overused) give an episodic feel – you know, the “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” style (for more on why you should avoid this pitfall – read this).
Sometimes the coincidental problem is inevitable – and sometimes it is necessary. Accidental Hero stories depend on them – your average Jane finds herself embroiled in an international terror plot, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The best place for coincidental problems is at the inciting incident stage – where unlucky circumstances can be forgiven as a plot point. But if all your protagonist and plot problems ‘just happen to happen’, then you may need to review whether you have a plot or just a series of unfortunate events…
What problems have you introduced into your story? How do you use them to establish tension and drive momentum?
Image courtesy of Frederic Bisson via Flickr Creative Commons.