The Importance of Structure and Conflict

This entry gives away the storyline of the novel The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kae Tempest. If you don’t want to know, it’s a good idea to skip this entry.


Every six months or so, one of my writing group members runs a 12-hour read-a-thon, where members can encourage each other to engage with a book they want to start or finish. We had the last one on Sunday just past, and I finished reading the aforementioned novel.

As a long-time fan of Kae Tempest’s other work, including poetry readings and music-backed albums, I really wanted to enjoy this, but what a letdown.

We’re led into the slightly seedy, slightly grimy world of the characters. But when the characters’ backgrounds are spelt out one after the other, it quickly becomes directionless.

Around two-thirds of the way in, there’s a scene where some chancer is beaten up after trying to charge a drug dealer double the previous price. This would have made a fantastic opener, from which we could have seen the tensions rise. Instead, any conflict is almost immediately resolved in the following chapters.

The book also suffers from some hallmarks of the first-time novelist. Firstly, Harry is a thinly-veiled version of Tempest. Secondly, the other characters all talk in a similar manner to each other, and not much conflict is built up between them for most of the time.

All the elements of a great story are there, but the final product feels like a collection of notes than a cohesive whole. The only element that made me push on through is the poetic prose throughout.

Having reached the abrupt ending, I recalled hearing about the first edit of Star Wars. It didn’t impress test audiences very much.

There is a standard story structure underpinning almost every major film, so an editor carefully went through the footage and shuffled it into an order closely resembling that structure. Here is the video of how it was done:

Had someone done the same with this novel, I might have been giving it a far better review.

A Trickle of Income

In 2003, The Killers released their first single Mr Brightside, but it didn’t take off commercially until 2004. Despite the gap of nearly two decades since then, the single has spent 307 non-consecutive weeks in the UK Top 100, accurate to Friday 25 March 2022. This type of sleeper hit has a literary equivalent called the midlist.

A midlist book in a publisher’s catalogue won’t shift a lot of units at any one time, instead consistently selling enough copies to justify keeping it in circulation. But is this a good or a bad place to be? It depends on who you ask.

Publishers typically like the midlist because it gives them a wide pool to choose from, not to mention bringing in reasonable passive income for minimum marketing. On the other hand, writers can find it difficult to promote their work because those marketing budgets are geared towards new releases.

Realistically, most published novels will end up on that list, with only a few breaking out as household names. But the aforementioned passive income can also benefit authors. I’ve had a few short stories and poems published between five and ten years ago, and they bring in secondary royalties from when books are lent or copied.

If you’ve had anything published with an ISBN, I urge you to register with the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society. There’s a one-off membership fee taken from your first payment, but subsequent ones are made every six months with no further deductions.

The Energy of the Beginner

Having run events for so many years now, it’s always interesting to watch the folks who are new to writing.

Some have an idea, but don’t know how to start off. Others need constant reassurance that they’re doing a good job. There are even some who fill every spare moment with writing classes and courses.

It’s not only inevitable that everyone will go through this process, but it’s necessary. All the experimentation allows you to figure out your preferences and dislikes. From my own perspective, I figured out early on that I like sending my work to publishers but entering it into competitions. I then worked out that I like to pen monologues or plays rather than novels.

If you do have that kind of energy, my advice is to use it while you have it. Bluntly, once your motivation goes, it might never return.

Repetitive Reading, Repetitive Reading, and Repetitive Reading.

On Christmas Eve, a pal and I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life at the cinema. After the showing, we discussed the number of times we’d seen it. In her case, it was around the 15th time; for me, probably around eight or nine.

Unlike my pal, it’s a rarity that I’ll watch a film more than once. Ones that fall into the three-times-over club include The Matrix, Home Alone, and Star Wars: Episode IV. I simply don’t gain the same enjoyment from watching something again, especially if it’s soon after the last time.

With books, it’s even less likely I’ll read one for a second time. It’s not just that I can’t find the same enjoyment, but there’s a greater time commitment. Assuming a minute per page, a novel takes far longer to read than the two hours or so needed to watch a film.

The only attempt I’ve ever made was with the Christopher Brookmyre story All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses An Eye. In that case, I didn’t even reach the halfway point.

I do, nonetheless, tend to keep books afterwards if I like them. I might never again read A Clockwork Orange, Breakfast at Tiffany’s nor Fight Club, but I do like to know they’re there.

Learning From Fiction

Growing up, I read a substantial chunk of Roald Dahl’s output. I liked them not just for the stories, but how he would explain concepts to his young readers. It was through his novels that I learnt why payments of royalties are made, how some fighter jets fired missiles through the propellor, and that finds of certain metals need to be reported to the authorities.

But learning from fiction is in no way restricted to children’s books. Anyone can glean or dispute historical stories from Dan Brown, or learn a little about the law from John Grisham.

A personal favourite is The Day of the Triffids, where a character talks about risk management by using an example from his family farm. It was explained that once in a while, the cows would bunch together and burst through the perimeter fence, yet it was so rare and unpredictable that it was quicker and cheaper to fix breaks as they occurred than to reinforce the whole fence.

And then I read Lee Child giving praise to Frederick Forstyth as The Day of the Jackal turns half-a-century old. The entire novel is almost a textbook for an assassination, such is the level of detail. The hitman isn’t a spiv with limitless resources. We see how he funds his operation and where his weapon and fake documents are obtained.

Yet the reader is never overloaded with lists of data. The key technique is to convey much of the detail via dialogue. At the very beginning, for example, a suspect begins to tell the police about the assassination plot, and the reader learns the details at the same time as the officers.

I feel compelled to leave a caveat here that anything learnt in fiction should always be cross-checked with a non-fiction source. That’s doubly true if you plan to include something educational in your own work.

November, But Not as We NaNo It

We are fast approaching the start of November, which means that National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo or NaNo) is nearly upon us. This is a worldwide challenge to draft a novel of 50,000 words in 30 days, and I run the Dundee & Angus region for Scotland.

NaNo headquarters in California took the decision not to endorse nor support any meet-ups in person until they say otherwise. This has had a profound effect on our group, who have been accustomed to meeting all year round for five years. Even the pub we use is currently closed until restrictions on selling alcohol indoors are eased.

What we have in our favour is a number of student-age members who are accustomed to interacting online. We already use Discord software, and we’ve been working this week on improving its features.

Traditionally, physical goodies are part of the experience; these usually include stickers, pens and erasers. This also introduces another hurdle of either asking folks to trust us with their postal address or meet up in accordance with local regulations. As such, we’ve replaced the pens and erasers with bookmarks so they fit more snugly into an envelope.

In short, this does not and will not feel like any other NaNo. In other years, I’d even associate the colder nights with the coming of the contest, but that simply hasn’t happened.

There are a couple of factors, however, that won’t change and that we’ll keep reminding our membership:

  • Everyone is welcome in our group regardless of nationality, LGBT identity, &c, provided they follow the published codes of conduct.
  • There is no shame in not hitting the 50,000-word target.

Writing Prose Again

When I first began writing in 2010, my output was exclusively prose. I was in a writing prompt group where I would regulary produce short stories. Around the same time, I was producing longer works through National Novel Writing Month, normally known as NaNoWriMo.

My step into poetry happened around three years later. It coincided with being single for six months after a long-term relationship, but I can’t say how much that influenced me. Since then, I’ve crafted my poetry more and more to the point where I almost exclusively write verse.

Recently, however, that has started to reverse, perhaps because my poetry group is taking a one-month break. I’ve drafted one piece that will probably end up being no longer than 150 words, and I’m planning another with five characters who will likely dictate the length of the story before I know it myself.

NaNoWriMo is a contest to write 50,000 words in November. It’s not widely known outside this circle that there is a less formal contest at other times of the year known as Camp. April saw the last one, and we’re currently in the July edition. In these months, you pick your own word count and type of long-form piece.

However, I’m not writing these stories as part of Camp as I don’t intend them to be terribly long. What I’ll be doing instead is keeping aside my existing longer pieces and working on them during November.

What I have to do now is find a way to keep up my prose momentum from now until then. That said, the excitement in the group tends to swell around November, and that helps a lot.

The Thrice-Over Movie Club

At the end of last week’s entry, I mentioned I’d watched the Fifty Shades of Grey screenplay from 2015. I enjoyed it marginally better than the book, but I would not seek out either the novel or the film again.

Some people find enjoyment in reading the same novel multiple times over several years, or watching the same film on a regular basis. I know of one colleague who revisits The Wasp Factory annually, and another who views Casablanca every month.

By contrast, I’m not normally inclined to go back to a book or a screenplay, even if I’ve enjoyed it. I can think of only two novels I’ve read more than once: Starter for Ten by David Nicholls, and the Chris Brookmyre book All Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye. I’m not even certain I finished the second of these for a second time.

Yet on the film front, there are more contenders, and some belong to an elite called the Thrice-Over Movie Club. It’s also great to air the word ‘thrice’ from time to time.

Inductees of the Club include It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Home Alone (1990), Romeo + Juliet (1996), Being John Malkovich (1999), The Matrix (1999), The Phantom Menace (1999) and most recently The Greatest Showman (2017).

So what is it about these particular films that make them stand up to repeated viewings? The short answer is that I have no idea, and I’ve redrafted this entry several times trying to find a common thread. Even the three released in the 1999 have little in common with each other:

  • With Home Alone and The Matrix, it’s because I’ve owned the video or DVD.
  • It’s a Wonderful Life has become a Christmas staple and is frequently shown around that time.
  • I’ve seen Being John Malkovich mainly by introducing it to others.

And I first saw The Phantom Menace at the cinema when I was about 15. It was with a girl I was trying to impress, and it turns out that’s the very much the wrong film to do it with.

Playing it by Ear

About a month ago, I bought my partner an audiobook through Audible as she prefers them over paper or e-books. I also received a credit to use in exchange for an audiobook of my choice.

After some deliberation, I picked the J G Ballard novel Crash. With a running time of six hours, it was shorter than many other novels and a good introduction to the format, this one spoken in the calm and almost factual manner in which the author writes.

When hearing something on the radio or in a live setting, there’s no opportunity to recap what you’ve missed. Yet when listening to Crash, I found myself many times pressing the button to skip back 30 seconds.

It is true that if I were to let my mind wander, I would soon be able to grasp a sense of what had just happened. The novel is a heavily descriptive one, going into detail about the curve of the motorway embankment or the injuries sustained by the characters.

I’m already accustomed to listening to podcasts. I found it easier to listen to a single voice on an audiobook, as podcast hosts often talk over each other. That said, with the opportunity to repeat the previous half-minute, I wanted to dwell upon each word and to confirm my own understanding of what had just happened. I only made an exception if it were too inconvenient to reach the controls.

I am keen to listen to more audiobooks, as I enjoyed being free to work or to wash dishes at the same time. I reckon the more I do it, the less I’ll be inclined to rewind what I’ve just heard, so I’m still checking Audible every so often for other appealing titles.

Making Time for Editing

Beginner writers sometimes fall into a common trap after finishing a piece. That trap is reading over a freshly-written piece once or twice, correcting any obvious mistakes, then sending it out into the world. As a result, editors and competition judges routinely receive work that is littered with careless mistakes. Most of them are not inclined to read beyond the first few errors.

By contrast, more experienced writers know that creating a satisfactory piece of writing is not something that can be rushed. Editing work is a very distinct process from writing it, and the mind therefore needs time to switch between the two.

As such, it’s essential to leave an interval between writing a piece and looking at it again with a critical eye. That means leaving your work in a drawer – either physical or virtual is fine – and returning to it at a later time.

In just about every piece I’ve written, the passage of time has alerted me to spelling and grammar errors, sentences that are too unwieldy, or plot points that aren’t clear to the reader.

But how long should you leave that work in a drawer? This is a question I’ve previously considered on this blog, but I’ve returned to the issue as I consider how much breathing space is necessary once I finish my current long-form piece.

In an entry from three years ago, I proposed a minimum period of one minute per word or at least 24 hours if the length was under 1,500 words . Three years is more than enough time to revisit that entry and to tweak the formula I proposed.

My new recommendation is to leave at least three minutes per word, or at least 72 hours if the word count is 1,440 or below. The slight adjustment from 1,500 to 1,440 is merely a pedantic tweak to reflect the number of minutes in one day.

If you don’t have the luxury of time, cut those figures to two minutes per word, or 48 hours for 1,440 words. And whatever deadline is absolutely looming, I still strongly recommend one minute per word or – you guessed it – 24 hours at the lower end.

This works out at between one and three days for most poetry and flash fiction, while a 20,000-word novella would be left between roughly two and four weeks.

When you open the drawer after that time, one of the best ways to spot mistakes is to read it out loud without an audience, as any blips are more difficult to ignore. It’s also a good idea to read it at different times of day, when you’re in different moods, and so forth, and see how you react to it then.

If you still have the time, there’s nothing wrong with leaving it aside again and coming back to it at an even later date.

With these blog entries, there often isn’t a lot of time as I want to publish by 6pm every Tuesday. But I always aim to make sure it’s typed up early, and I go back to iron out the inevitable mistakes.

After these periods of resting and editing, that’s the time to send your work out. Naturally, there is still no guarantee of success, but there is a higher likelihood that editors and competition judges will read more of the work you send them and take it more seriously.