We’ve had several posts on paths to publication, but every author’s journey is unique. Renita D’Silva tells us why typing “The End” is only the beginning.
Wonderful to have you back, Renita!
1) A Wooden Heroine: After I had typed ‘The End’ in the first draft of my first book, I printed it off in a haze of relief and flush of success and proudly deposited the thick pile in my friend’s hands.
‘Let me know what you think,’ I told her, smug in the knowledge that my masterpiece was brilliant.
Then I waited. And waited.
She was busy, I told myself. She had other things to do. But in my head, I was thinking, how can she resist the appeal of my book?
Then one evening as I was chopping beetroot for salad, she called.
I picked up the phone, uncaring that my hands were awash with beet juice.
‘Ummm… Your heroine – she’s one dimensional. Plastic. I just couldn’t relate to her. You have to make her human, feisty, real.’
I put down the phone, stained red and dripping pink tinged tears, and added some of my salty blue ones to the mix.
It is tricky, I know, but creating a believable character, a protagonist we can all relate to, is essential in having readers identify with your book. I have read so many novels where I just haven’t sympathised with the main character and it has detracted from my enjoyment of the book, putting me off it.
This is what I have learned since writing that very first draft:
a) A well rounded character should not be perfect. He/she should be a bit flawed; someone who, in the course of the book learns from their mistakes and tries to do better.
b) Equally, beware of veering too much the other way. While creating a villain, try not to succumb, as I did, to the temptation to make him too bad. My baddie almost became a caricature, rather than a real person. I had to rework him, gave him some redeemable qualities.
c) I have since learned to always ask myself as I plan my story: How has the character grown in the course of the book? It doesn’t matter if the character is unlikeable initially, (in my second book, The Forgotten Daughter, one of the three protagonists, Devi comes across as headstrong and a bit spoilt), but if, in the course of the book, she learns from her mistakes and grows as a person, the reader can identify with that.
2) Which Market: After working on my heroine (feisty – check, real – check, wooden – uncheck), I sent my revised manuscript off to an editor for advice.
She read it through, then sat me down. ‘Who are you aiming this book at? Have you thought about that?’
‘Not really,’ I replied. ‘I had an idea, I wrote it down, fleshed it up, made it into a book.’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘if you want a commercial audience for your book, you have to add in more strands, make it more interesting, broader in appeal.’
Research your market. Think hard about who you are aiming your book at. Who is going to read your book? What is the demographic? What are they interested in? Answer these questions, then rework your book, story and characters so they appeal to your chosen market.
3) Structure: The feedback on my next draft was about structure or the lack of it – the book was flitting backwards and forwards so much that it left the reader confused and dizzy. Now that definitely was not my intention. The story had made perfect sense in my head, but obviously I was not conveying it in a coherent way to the reader.
And so, I worked on the structure, tried to bring together the different strands cohesively. I had oodles of backstory to somehow work into the story, and yet make it feel seamless. I read a lot of different novels, researched how other authors do it.
One trick is to alternate the tenses – write the back story in past tense and the unfolding one in present tense. Your book needs to flow, I have learnt. The story can flit between the past and present but it should be done in an unobtrusive way. If your reader has to turn back the pages to try and understand the story, if he starts getting confused, if it feels too much like hard work, you have lost him.
4) Plot: The next hurdle, once structure was sorted, was plot. I had planned a big reveal – but it was too good. I gave nothing at all away until the very end. This, I was told, would make the reader feel cheated. I had to give the reader some clues. Also, the plot was too fantastic, the ending implausible. I had to make it believable.
Again that axiom – make your story ring true, keep it real (unless of course, you are writing fantasy, but even then, make sure your readers can relate to the story and characters in some way).
5) Voice: The other feedback I got was that the voices of my two main characters were too similar. I had to change the voice of one, give her a few mannerisms, make her sound different from the other, so the reader would not be confused and wonder whose story she was reading.
I have since found that other authors use tense as one way to distinguish voices of their characters. They also use tense to work back story into the plot – so they have the past in past tense and the present in present tense. This helps with structure as well. Also, with two alternating narratives, one could be narrated in the past tense and the other in the present tense. Or one could be a first person narrative and the other, third person. I used first, second and third person narratives for my three protagonists in The Forgotten Daughter. Shilpa’s voice is in first person, narrated via diary entries. Devi’s story is in second person, told through letters to her mother and Nisha’s in third person present tense.
6) Pace: Ah, pace. This I find tricky as I do love describing things and places and can go on and on. But, I have learned, each chapter has to work to push the story forward, to want to make the reader keep turning the pages, want to know more. Just a good beginning is not enough. The story needs to hold the reader’s interest right until the end.
With every book, I inevitably have a lot of descriptive passages which I have worked hard over and don’t want to cut, but which are superfluous to the story I am trying to tell. It is good writing, yes, but it has to go if it does not do anything for the story, add to the story in some way, move the story forward. This bit I find the hardest. But eventually, I do as the editor suggests and the story works the better for it. It flows, keeps the reader interested.
And finally, from all this feedback, what I learnt was to take advice, but with a pinch of salt. For example, my friend, to whom I gave my very first draft to read, suggested taking out the second character and the alternating voices and telling the story from the point of view of just one person. I tried that. It didn’t work, so I put it all back again.
My debut has a lot of descriptions of food in it. One of my early readers suggested I take some out. Another said to put more in. What I realised is that everyone reads your book differently and will have different opinions. At the end of the day, it is your book. And you know your story best. If the changes suggested go against the grain of the book, if they do not work for your story, then don’t make the changes. Having said that, if two people have made the same suggestion, then they must have a point.
What lessons have you learned in the course of your writing journey? What challenges have you overcome? What did/do you find hardest to change? How do you respond to criticism about your book?
Join us on Friday, September 5th, when Cindy Nord presents: Writing Emotionally.
THE STOLEN GIRL (Releases September 12th)
‘Your mother has been arrested. She stole you.’
For as long as thirteen-year-old Diya can remember, it’s always been just her and her mum, Vani. Despite never staying in one place long enough to call it home, with her mother by her side, Diya has never needed anything else.
Then, in an instant, Diya’s fragile world is shattered. Her mother is arrested, accused of abducting Diya when she was a baby…
Vani has spent a lifetime looking over her shoulder, determined to make the best possible life for her daughter. Now she must fight for her child, re-opening the door to her own childhood in India and the woman who was once as close to her as a sister.
Told through the eyes of Diya, Vani and Aarti, this is a heart-breaking story of friendship and betrayal, love and motherhood, which asks the question; how far would you go to protect your only child?
Bio: Renita D’Silva loves stories – both reading and creating them. She is the author of ‘Monsoon Memories’, ‘The Forgotten Daughter’ and ‘The Stolen Girl’. To learn more about Renita, follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or check out her website.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule September 1-5
- Weekly Lecture Schedule, June 24 – June 28, 2013
- Why We Do What We Do with Renita D’Silva
- A Matter of Timing: Positioning Your Major Plot Points Within Your Story by K.M. Weiland
- A Case For Story Structure by Adrienne Giordano