Friday, 29 July 2011

Other Sorts of Consistency

The last couple of posts I looked at consistency with POV, but there are other sorts of consistency.  Pretty obvious is consistency of characterisation details - if their eyes are blue on p4, then they need to be blue on p6.  Watch out for words like delicate or swarthy which indicate a particular physical look.  

The same is true for locations.  Watch out if you've done a lot of editing because bits can be left behind without your noticing.  For example, in one of my books I started with a farmhouse kitchen location. Later I changed it to a modern house with a sleek designer kitchen.  I remembered to alter most of the details except the oak beams that were left in the ceiling (luckily my agent spotted them). 

Then there is character consistency.  If a character is  coward all along, they can't suddenly be brave unless you show why.  I was reading a post from Kate Walker that said the one of the main stumbling blocks for romantic manuscripts was when characters who had been at loggerheads with each other throughout the ms suddenly declared their love, leaving the reader feeling there was no basis for such a sudden change.  So characters can change, but the reasons why have to be shown and the change has to be plausible ie consistent with their range. A timid person might conquer their fear and give a public speech, but they won't suddenly transform into a life-and-soul-of-the-party type in the rest of their life.  

There needs to be consistency within structure too.  A bit like the first post on POV, you can do what you like in terms of setting a pattern with the structure, but then you need to stick to it.  So you could, for example, alternate between locations or times, or have diary entries or whatever you liked, but having set a pattern the reader would expect you to follow it.  If you suddenly change it needs to be explained.  At the end of Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man the means of delivering the story has to change, but I still had a slight feeling of disappointment.  

If there appears to be no pattern the reader will trust that by the end of the book you will have revealed that there actually was a pattern after all - Kate Atkinson does this brilliantly in her recent Jackson Brodie novels from Case Histories onwards. (Having said that, with Started Early, Took My Dog I'm still confused about where the stake-out at the beginning of the story fitted in. And who was the little girl in the end?)

Consistency within genre follows on from structure.  If you start out as a techno-thriller, the reader will be disappointed/baffled if you end up with a historical romance.  Or vice versa. That's obviously an extreme example, but there are many sub-genres even within literary fiction.  It's one of the reasons why you should be reading lots so you automatically recognise consistency within the area you're writing.  

Be consistent is a rule, but at least you get to set what the rules of consistency are.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Headhopping in Point of View

Yesterday I wrote about being consistent with Point Of View within the overall structure of your writing.  Today I'm writing about being consistent with POV within each section.  

I'm assuming you've decided against an Omniscient POV for your story.  Your story is going to be related by the characters as they see it unfolding before them, much as it happens in real life.  If Joe is having an argument with Helen, he can see what Helen is doing, he can hear what Helen is saying, but he doesn't know what Helen is thinking or how Helen is thinking.  He can make guesses as to what Helen is thinking by what she says and how she says it.  He can make guesses at to what Helen is feeling by how she looks as she says and does things.  But he doesn't know with 100% certainty what she's feeling or thinking.  

So, when you're writing from Joe's POV you can have him guess at Helen's thoughts, but not know them.  

Helen's cheeks flared red as she spat out the words, 'I hate you.'  

That's neutral description, what a character can see and what a character can hear. From that, it's reasonable for Joe (and the reader) to guess that Helen is cross, but neither Joe nor the reader know for sure. 

Joe thought Helen looked furious as her cheeks flared red and she spat out the words, 'I hate you.' 

You could even write Joe knew Helen was furious because her cheeks flared red etc as the 'because' shows that Joe is reasoning it out using the same clues that the reader has. 

What you can't do is this: Joe didn't know what to say or do. Helen was furious.  Her cheeks flared red as she spat out the words, 'I hate you.'

But you could do this: Joe didn't know what to say or do. Helen looked furious.  Her cheeks flared red as she spat out the words, 'I hate you.'

Headhopping is when you jump from one character's head to another and back again.  

Joe didn't know what to say or do. He flapped his hands ineffectually. 
Helen was furious.  Her cheeks flared red as she spat out the words, 'I hate you.'
Joe felt his jaw tighten in response as he stopped himself shouting back.  One of us has got to have some self control, he thought.
'Don't you have anything to say?' Helen shouted.  Why wasn't Joe arguing back?  Didn't he care any more?
Joe took a deep breath.  Stay calm, he told himself. 'Look, Helen,' he began to say but she cut him off.
'I've done enough looking. I'm leaving you.'  She picked up her bags, registering with a flicker of pleasure his horrified expression.  

The effect of headhopping to the reader is similar to being a spectator at a tennis match, you're going back and forth between the two characters.  It's exhausting and you risk confusing the reader fairly quickly.

At which point I'm pretty certain you're digging out your favourite author and showing how they headhop all the time.  It happens.  It used to happen a lot, but times change and you see headhopping less often now.  I think we're much more aware so have become sensitive to it.  Speaking as someone who gives feedback regularly, I think headhopping is the easiest thing to spot and comment on.  Any agent or editor who reads your work will notice it too.  

Headhopping is something that's as easy to fix as it is to spot, so writing that features headhopping suggests that badly edited work by a writer who isn't in control of their craft. The reality of today is that work that gets published is work that doesn't need a lot of editing. 

Some people seem to never head hop.  Other people do it all the time.  I've no idea why there should be this difference but if your nature inclines to headhopping then you need to take steps to edit it out - or accept that it make make publication harder (tho not impossible).  

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

What Consistency in Point Of View Means

Rule 1 about Point Of View is to be consistent.  You'd think that would be quite a simple rule to follow, but when you're starting out as a writer what's obvious to others isn't always to you so I thought I'd elaborate a bit about what consistency meant in practice. 

This is consistent:

Section 1: Joe's POV
Section 2: Joe's POV
Section 3: Joe's POV
Section 4: Joe's POV
Section 5: Joe's POV
Section 6: Joe's POV
Section 7: Joe's POV
Section 8: Joe's POV
Section 9: Joe's POV
Section 10: Joe's POV
Section 11-100: Joe's POV

This is not consistent...

Section 1: Joe's POV
Section 2: Joe's POV
Section 3: Joe's POV
Section 4: Joe's POV
Section 5: Joe's POV
Section 6: Joe's POV
Section 7: Joe's POV
Section 8: Helen's POV
Section 9: Joe's POV
Section 10-98: Joe's POV
Section 99: Fred's POV
Section 100: Joe's POV etc

This is consistent:

Section 1: Joe's POV
Section 2: Helen's POV
Section 3: Joe's POV
Section 4: Helen's POV
Section 5: Joe's POV
Section 6: Helen's POV
Section 7: Joe's POV
Section 8: Helen's POV
Section 9: Joe's POV
Section 10: Helen's POV
Section 11-100: Joe's and Helen's POV alternating

Section 1: Joe's POV
Section 2: Helen's POV
Section 3: Fred's POV
Section 4: Joe's POV
Section 5: Joe's POV
Section 6: Fred's POV
Section 7: Joe's POV
Section 8: Helen's POV
Section 9: Joe's POV
Section 10: Joe's POV
Section 11-100: Joe's, Helen's and Fred's POV alternating, with Joe having the majority of sections

I could do lots more examples but I hope you get the point: the pattern you set up at the beginning is the pattern you need to continue with.  That's what being consistent means.  You set the pattern in any way you like, but the reader will be disconcerted if you suddenly ditch the pattern and do something different.  

Sometimes you might want to disconcert the reader, that's fine, but it carries the risk that the reader will go off and do something else.  There is also the risk that the reader won't think you're being clever, but instead assume you don't have control over your writing.  

The exception is when you're using what's called Omniscient POV.  This is when there is a narrator/author/character who knows everything, the past, the present, the future, who can go into all the characters' heads and know what they're thinking.  It's a legit form of POV - lots of the great C19th novels are written from an omniscient viewpoint - but it isn't popular at the moment and if you want to write using omniscient, be aware that you'll have to work extra hard elsewhere to win the reader over.

Consistency also means sticking to one person's POV for the entirety of any one section. Breaking this rule is often called Headhopping and I'm going to look at that tomorrow.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Characters Haven't Always Read the Script

A friend told me a story about a woman she knew, who'd sold up everything here and emigrated with her husband and family to the other side of the world.  On the plane over her husband slipped off his wedding ring and said the marriage was over.  He was following his mistress, who'd emigrated earlier too, and had decided he had to get over there too - but wanted to keep access to his children, so had persuaded everyone that the emigration was a good idea.  He was flabbergasted when his children refused to speak to him and they all promptly turned round and went back leaving him alone.  That wasn't in his script!

We all carry scripts in our heads.  I'll say this, then they'll say that, and then I'll say this and ha! that'll show them.  Trouble is, people have their own ideas and follow their own script.  They haven't read yours so do things you'd never do, say things you never thought they'd say.

When I'm teaching a class exercise, rather than putting up words or phrases that I've thought of, I ask for contributions and put them up on the board.  This isn't because I'm lazy (well, not only) but because I've learned that there will be a far greater range of ideas than I could have thought of, some going in directions that hadn't occurred to me before.  

Our characters have to follow their own scripts, rather than obediently going along with ours.  They have to speak with their own voice, not ours.  They have to do their own actions, not ours.  They need to have their own tastes, not ours.  When you've got a character who is following their own script, not yours, you're in that situation where the characters seem to write themselves.  

How to get there?  I think there are probably as many ways as there are writers.  I usually write my first draft not really knowing and during the writing I start to 'see' my characters.  Actors sometimes say if they get the shoes right, the rest of the character falls into place. I normally know what their hair is like before I know anything else - in the book I'm writing at the moment, I know my main character has black hair in a Louise Brooks type bob and is fond of black skirts with bright, bold applique.  Once visualised I understand their quirks a bit better, their tastes in food, music, cars etc.  Then I start hearing their voices more distinctly.  Gradually they become real people, just as tangible (to me) as my friends and family.  And like real people everywhere, they don't follow my script all the time.

Perverse, isn't it?  As a writer you control your characters, but the writing is best when they control the script. How do other writers get there?  

Monday, 25 July 2011

Little Words That Make a Lot of Difference

Back to covering letters and some examples of how a few changes can make a big difference to the way you come across.

1.  You will remember meeting me at XYZ conference.
That's asking for someone to say 'No, I won't', and chuck your letter away.  Better to write You might remember...

2. I write like X and Y
That's presumptuous and, if it's accurate, plagiaristic.  Better to write 'my novel will appeal to the same readership as X and Y', which will indicate your market awareness and also the genre of your novel.

3.  Who are X and Y?
You want to show market awareness, but make sure that your examples: 
a) reflect your book accurately - I'm sure that many readers of Ian Rankin also enjoy Jilly Cooper, but their books are in different genres and 
b) genuinely show market awareness - Melvyn Burgess and Frances Hodgson Burnett would be the same genre - children's - but they don't sit comfortably together on the shelves. 
c) are current.  Dickens and Tolstoy are fine writers but they're not writing now. 

4. I'm just completed my 100,000 word novel
Just completed?  The implication is that you haven't spent any time redrafting, editing, rewriting, etc.  Hot off the press is not a good sign with novels.

5. My fiction novel
All novels are fiction, full stop.  To say yours is a fiction novel doesn't bode well for the standard of your writing.

6.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if the moon was really made of blue cheese?
The trouble with rhetorical questions is that the answer is more often than not going to be 'No', and that's your central premise blown out of the water.

Friday, 22 July 2011

9 Rules for Mining Your Private Life for Publicity

I can remember clearly the phone call from the publicist for my first novel Adultery for Beginners:  

Publicist: Magazine X wants to do an interview, so does Newspaper Y - are you happy to talk to them?
Me (squeaky voiced with excitement): Yes, of course.
Publicist: They want to know how much of the novel is based on real life.  
Me: Bits - it's based round the area I used to live in -
Publicist (cutting me short): They want you to talk about your adultery.
Me (even squeakier voiced): But I haven't been adulterous, it's all made up.
Publicist (after long pause): So you haven't had an affair?
Me: NO!
Publicist (sighing): I'll let them know, and then get back to you.

And that was that.  No real-life confession of affairs = no press interview.

The media is hungry for real-life stories, which is a problem for writers who want to maintain their privacy.  They want dramatic/sordid/sex-based stories which if you're leading an ordinary sort of life you just can't supply, even if you wanted to.  I recently was interviewed about the time my daughter was mugged.  It was a dreadful event but it brought us closer together and became a positive experience.  The journalist brought the interview to an end early because she knew the magazine wouldn't run it - we were too ordinary a family, there wasn't enough dysfunction. They wanted the character journey/story arc to be more extreme - just as you would for fiction.

So, if you're mining your personal life for publicity.... 

1.  Be aware that it's the murkier stuff they're going to be interested in, not the happy stuff you'd share with anybody.  Writer publishes book is, sadly, not news.

2.  Remember they're looking for a strong story arc if you're pitching ideas.  If you're happy now, you'll have to provide the misery earlier.

3.  Sex and money are always popular themes.

4.  Look for strong story lines.  Affairs, rags to riches, triumph over disaster etc.

5.  If your story impinges on anyone who matters to you, even obliquely, run it past them before you tell the world. People who matter to you are worth more than any amount of column inches.

6. In my experience, people get disgruntled over the stuff you thought was completely innocuous, whereas the stuff you thought might cause problems passes without comment.  

7.  Never, ever read the comments if the article is published on line.  Don't be tempted to even sneak a peak. If you don't believe me, look at the comments under any article about Kate Middleton and see how quickly it degenerates into people being unpleasantly judgmental about things they know nothing of.  There are a lot of people out there with grudges and no inhibitions when it comes to being nasty to strangers. You can't stop them writing it; you can stop yourself reading.

8.  I've only had nice feedback from the public about what I've written about my private life (caveat: I follow Rule 7), but I've heard of other writers getting into trouble. One writer even had excrement posted through her letterbox after writing about where she lived in not 100% glowing terms.  Tread on other people's toes very carefully.  They may know where you live.

9.  Think very carefully about whether it's worth it.  I don't think articles about your private life sell novels, unless they're related to the subject of your book. You can monitor the response using your Amazon ratings - I've seen them leap up after a favourable review, when a full-page article about my life hasn't made any difference.  

10.  If in doubt, don't.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Sometimes You Don't Write What You Think You've Written

I'm currently working on the second draft of a novel.  This book has been a bit of an uphill struggle, and I've done a lot of playing around with the characters and the structure (and I think there's much more to come).  

Anyway, my workshopping group read the first 25,000 words or so a while ago, and gave some feedback.  Their main point - agreed by all - was that my main male character was creepy.  'Yuck', I think was the overall verdict, accompanied by a shudder.  Of course I pretended that that was funny - ha ha ha ha ha, I chortled - but inside I was appalled. How could they think he was creepy?  He was utterly gorgeous and wonderful and seductive.  

Yesterday I started rewriting the bits where he appears and...shock! horror! - he's a creep!

How could I not have seen it?  It's been like going out with some bloke who you think is the love of your life, then he dumps you, you dissolve into a soggy, broken-hearted mess for a few weeks/months, then a year later you bump into him again and think - What was I thinking of?  How could I?  He's so short/fat/ugly/boring/miserable/creepy...

My eyes have been so opened to my character's creepiness that I've decided I can't rewrite his sections, I'll have to completely write those scenes afresh without looking at the first draft just in case his latent creepiness creeps in again.  It means lots of new work, which is a nuisance as I really want to get this novel moving along, but there it is.  

What I thought I'd written wasn't what I'd written.  It took a) feedback and b) time for me to see it for myself.  Sometimes you don't write what you think you've written, and that's just something a writer has to accept.  

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Lottery Tickets and Writers

Did anyone else buy a Euromillions ticket and spend some happy hours dreaming about what they'd do with £161 million?    We went on a long walk at the weekend and most of it was spend discussing whether you'd go public or not, how much would you give to charity, how much would you give to your siblings, and other interesting topics.  Then I discovered that someone in Scotland had won the prize so that was the end of my fantasising.  

At least I'd bought a ticket.  I don't normally, so my dreaming of how I'd dispose of shedloads of unexpected lolly is usually entirely theoretical.  I can remember when I started writing all the wondrous things that I hoped for with my writing.  Top daydream was my gracious acceptance speech for winning the Oscar for best screenplay (this alternated with saying simply "Thanks" and therefore going on record for the shortest acceptance speech ever).  

It's a nice dream, but slightly strange given I'm primarily a novelist (in my defence, I have actually written a screenplay, and it subsequently went on to win several prizes tho not an Oscar).   I've met other writers who are dreaming of getting published, but don't send their work out, ones who dream of winning short story competitions but never enter them, people who fantasize about winning the Booker - but can't find the time to write.

I think dreaming is part of being a writer, and I wouldn't ever suggest we should stop (besides, what would I then have to talk about on long, rainy walks?).  But there is a point where you have to stop dreaming and actually get on with it.  

There's a joke my mother likes.  It's about the guy who pleads with God that he'll be really, really good, and go to church and everything, if God will let him win the lottery.  So he's really good, helps little old ladies across roads etc, goes to church, but still doesn't win the lottery.  Finally he goes and berates God for not letting him win the lottery.  At which a great voice booms out from the sky "Help me out - buy a ticket."

Some people just want to write for themselves and that's fine.  For the rest of us, when you think it's more or less ready, you've got to allow your writing to be seen by the great outside world.  Letting work be 'out there' is the equivalent of buying the ticket. And as the lottery advertising says, You've got to be in it, to win it.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

What's In It For The Reader?

Lots of writers say things along the lines of 'they just want to get read' so I must be in a minority on this one because I'm indifferent if my books are read or not.  I want them to be bought, because that's how I make my living, but read...?  It's not a big issue for me.  I write, I get work finished and sold, and that's enough for me.

But even though I write without thinking about whether my books are going to be read or not, I am very conscious in the editing process about what's in it for the reader.  I don't think it matters exactly what the reader is going to get out of investing their time - lots of exciting action, beautiful use of language, interesting historical information, insight into human emotions, a removal from this mundane world into a fantasy land - but I think the writer should know what it is they're offering - and then deliver.

I've been thinking about this because I've workshopped a friend's memoir for a couple of years. In our workshopping group, we know each other so well that we're sometimes blunt: 'It's interesting to us because we know you, but it wouldn't interest anyone else'. The discussions gradually centred around 'why would an outsider want to read this?'  Sometimes the answers suggested that the author should go down more sensational or personal paths than she wanted to go, so she had to find other pathways.  

I'm pleased to say that the memoir has found a publisher, the contracts have been signed, and the book is scheduled for publication in 2012.  I like to think that asking What's in it for the Reader? helped.  It's made me go back to my own work and ask the same question.  

I know what I think I'm offering the reader - do you?

Monday, 18 July 2011

7 Lessons Writers Can Learn From Dogs

1.  Dogs have no sense of time and don't count the hours spent doing anything.  Writers need to stop worrying about how long the writing project is taking them and just get on with the writing.

2.  Dogs are persistent in the face of repeated failure, which is something writers have to learn.

3.  Dogs take advantage of their opportunities to sneak a bit of extra food.  Writers need to learn to take advantage of their opportunities too, especially if it's about sneaking a bit of extra time for writing.

4. Dogs enjoy working and never grumble about it.  Writers, take the hint.

5.  Dogs are intuitive and sensitive to the feelings of others around them.  They pay attention to body language and subtext.  A good writer writes about what's under the surface, not just the obvious stuff.

6.  Dogs are usually friendly, but will defend themselves when attacked.  Writers have to learn when to defend themselves but should remember that a dog that growls and snarls at everyone is a pain in the neck.

7.  Dogs like to leave their mark at every lamp post.  Using social media is the writerly equivalent. 

My thanks to my much loved Border Collie, Tan - gone but not forgotten - for being the inspiration and to this dog:  a lesson in persistence for us all.  May your rock too end up on the grass.

Friday, 15 July 2011

7 Things NOT to Say About Yourself in an Agent Letter

Yesterday I did some of the things to include about yourself in an agent letter.  Here are some things NOT to include.

1. Feedback from non-industry professionals
Your friends and family will love your book.  So will your grandchildren.  In fact, most children enjoy being read to regardless of what is being read.  The only time to break this rule is if your daughter/cousin/best friend is the book buyer for Tesco.

2. Feedback from industry professionals
Unless we're talking about the book buyer from Tesco then the answer is no.  Why?  Because the chances are that the feedback was essentially negative - or why else would you be looking for an agent?  It doesn't matter how positive the rejection was, it was still a rejection.  Don't include it because...

3. Nothing negative
You shouldn't have any negativity in your letter.  I've seen statements such as: I've written many short stories and some have been accepted for publication.  Why not simply write: I've had stories accepted for publication in XYZ magazine.  

4. Endorsements from authors
Authors do, from time to time, show books to their agents.  But they do the showing ie they contact their agent and say something like, read this book it's brilliant.  Writing 'I have worked with author Jo Bloggs on the manuscript' isn't an endorsement from the author, especially if you paid the author to work on it.  The same is true for literary consultancies/book doctors.  If anything, it implies that you're not up to writing on your own; you'll need lots of handholding. 

5. Personal stuff
I'm not talking just about sob stories (take me on or I'll kill myself) - but ordinary personal stuff.  Is it relevant that you're married with two children?  Almost certainly not, so don't include it. Does it matter if your family are behind you 100%?  Nope. And yes, people do write this sort of thing - my first, unsuccessful, agent letter explained at embarrassing length how my novel Adultery for Beginners wasn't based on personal experience. I cringe in retrospect.  

6.  You've always wanted to be a writer
Um, most of us have.  A lot of us write our first 'book' at primary school.  And most writers are also avid readers, and that's part of the reason we write.  We love books.  This is almost a given, so not worth including.  

7. You're published when you're not
If you say you've been published, the industry takes that to mean you've been published in physical book form by an established publishing company, or as an e-book by a well regarded e-publishing company.  This is very easy to check on Amazon and any agent will know the publishers they consider to be established companies.
Claiming to be published when you're actually considered by the industry to be self published is a big no-no. Did you pay a contribution towards publication at any stage?  Then it's considered that you're self published. 
If you have self published (whether in physical book form or as an e-book) and sold respectable quantities - at least 1000 copies - then that's worth mentioning. If your garden shed is still full of stacks of books, then it's not.   

Always get a friend to read over your biog and tell you honestly if it's too personal or full of irrelevant material.  If in doubt, leave it out. It's better for it to be short - or non-existent - than for it to actively turn off an agent.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

7 Things to Say About Yourself in an Agent Letter

I've been looking at several draft agent letters recently, and one area that seems to cause problems is the author biog.  What on earth do you say about yourself?  

Things to include...

1.  What you do IF it's relevant to the book.  
Obviously, if you're writing a novel about teachers and you're a teacher it's relevant.  If you're writing a non-fiction book then your professional credentials will make a difference. Otherwise, your occupation is not relevant.

2. Writing qualifications/writing courses
If you've done an MA in Creative Writing it shows that a) someone thought you were good enough to get on the course in the first place b) you've spent 1-2 years reading, writing, workshopping which has to be a good thing c) that you're used to getting feedback on your work.  
Other courses, groups - yes, it shows seriousness about your approach to writing eg you've been part of a critique group for 3 years but generally anyone can sign up to a class, and attending a general class is no sign of ability.  Overall I'd be inclined not to list them.

3.  Membership of organisations
Yes to organisations such as the Romantic Novelists Association, the Society of Authors, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.  No to your local writing group unless it's nationally recognised - or you met the agent through it.

4. Publication of short stories/short story competition wins
Yes, especially if on Radio 4 or in nationally recognised magazines.  The more obscure the publication, the less impressive the credit.  And yes to competition wins, particularly if they're nationally recognised (eg Bridport, Asham, Fish) or plentiful.  

5. Publication in newspapers/journals
Yes, if it's in nationally recognised newspapers or journals.  Your local parish magazine is not so impressive.  Generally, did the journal/paper pay you money?  If yes, it's worth including.  

6.  Your marketability
It may have been a million years ago that I was in Only Fools and Horses, but people are still interested and it's often the first thing that's said about me in the media. It's something in my past that makes me marketable in the present. If you have something similar then mention it.
In the last few years authors have been encouraged to build platforms.  This does not involve wood, hammers and nails, but gathering cyber friends and followers through social media such as Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, blogging etc.  The idea is that they a) will be a built-in market for your fabulous book when it hits the shelves and  b) will have lots of goodwill towards you so they will pass on details of your fab book to all their friends and followers. 

7. Something personal
The jury's out on this one.  I've read query letters where the personal bit sounded threatening ('I have a black belt in judo') and others where it sounded interesting (a list of quirky jobs the author had had).  If in doubt, get a friend to give you feedback on how you are coming across. Or just leave it out. 

The general rule here is to include stuff that endorses you as a writer of this particular book. What NOT to include tomorrow...

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Big C - Change!

The Big C is the single most important element in writing and I can't believe I haven't written a blog post about it before.  I believe that one of the reasons we read is to hear how other people handle change in their lives - change of circumstances, change of location, change of relationships, change of lifestyle, change of knowledge.  It doesn't matter what is happening in the story, so long as there is CHANGE.  

In one of the comments a few days ago, womagwriter wrote of an exercise that she'd been set in class.  The class wrote about their characters sitting round a table having a meal, then after 10 minutes of writing the teacher said that the phone had rung/a letter had arrived with bad news, and they had to continue writing the scene.  

In other words, there was a status quo, a change, followed by a period of adjustment, then a new status quo.  

Readers want to read about the period of change.  If a character works for 40 years at the same company then retires, we would choose to read about the character's adjustment from a world of work to a world of leisure.  We wouldn't want to read about the 40 years of working.

Alternatively, if the character was sacked after 30 years of working at the same company, we'd want to read about the dismissal and how the character reacted.  The preceding years of work would be of little interest.  

The reason is, we want to know how the character reacts to that moment of change.  In real life we have to deal with change, although we don't like it much - look at people like me, who are being dragged into the C21st by changes in the technology squeaking feebly that it's all happening too fast.  Think of the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times".  As human beings we don't like change - we want our relationships to stay the same, our children to go steadily through school without too many visits to see the head teacher, our jobs to remain secure.  

When you're writing, at the back of your mind you need to be thinking about change.  A short story is usually about one moment of change, a novel will be about many.  But it's change that fuels the story telling and as writers we must find the change for our characters.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Writers Need to Listen

Who gets the most from the workshop session? Writer A keeps quiet and listens to what is being said, only commenting to make sure they've understood exactly what the feedback means.  Writer B, on the other hand, rushes in to explain what they've done, why they've done it, how it all fits together, why your comments are (in effect) wrong.  

That's roughly the two sorts of response when a writer is getting feedback.  I think Writer A's response is the most effective. Writer A gets to decide whether to act on the feedback because they've taken the trouble to listen to it and understand where it's coming from, even if they disagree with it. Writer B can't have listened to much beyond the first comment - and may have deterred the rest of the group from bothering to make comments.  

Writer A tends to be a much better writer than Writer B because Writer A listens, and not just to feedback.  Writer A doesn't need to be centre of attention, Writer A knows when to shut up and observe.  Writer A is interested in other people and what they have to say, and that shows in their writing.  I also suspect that Writer A is, underneath, more confident about their writing so they can accept criticism of it in a way that the defensive Writer B can not.  

I've heard of several writing workshops where the writer is banned from even asking questions of clarification.  That seems too extreme, but I think writers should generally keep quiet. Sometimes in class I have to stop Writer B mid-explanation because they need to understand that they can't be there to explain to every reader.  If it's not on the page, it's not on the page and no amount of verbal explanations are going to make up for that.  

If you suspect you're inclined to being a Writer B - and let's face it, we all have our moments of defensiveness - then try to control your impulses and just listen.  One of my breakthrough moments came when my work was being workshopped by someone who I knew held very strong political opinions.  They didn't like what they were reading, which was hardly surprising since it was contrary to their beliefs. I started to defend my characters then suddenly realised that it was a waste of time because they were never going to agree with what my characters were doing.  But if I argued or defended my writing, I wasted time that I could use to get feedback from other members of the group, and that's what I wanted.  So I stopped being defensive, thanked them for their feedback, then asked the rest of the group for their comments.   Which were plentiful, and very useful to me in improving my writing.  

If you're being workshopped, try to be like Writer A not Writer B.  You'll get so much more from the session.  

Monday, 11 July 2011

Let's Ban the Hero's Journey

Having had a go at Character Data Sheets, I'm now taking a pop at the Hero's Journey. 

Quick recap:  The Hero's Journey was originally written about by Joseph Campbell in a book called The Hero with 1000 Faces. It is a study of thousands of fairy tales, legends, myths, stories etc from around the world that feature a similar pattern - a young man of unknown/uncertain parentage discovers his true self and saves the world, often with the help of an older mentor, often with the help of a magic sword.  Most cultures have such a tale eg King Arthur.  Christopher Vogler wrote another book called The Hero's Journey for Writers, which showed how you could reduce it down to a 3 Act, 17 step structure which provided a blueprint for writing a novel or film script. Chuck in a whole load of Jungian-based analysis of characters such as the Mentor, the Shapeshifter, the Mirror etc and that's the Hero's Journey.  It came to prominence when George Lucas used it as a basis for writing Star Wars, and many scriptwriters have used it as a format subsequently. 

That's obviously a very short version - here's the link to Wikipedia  if you want to know more or you can Google the Hero's Journey and you'll get lots of information and analysis. You can apply the Hero's Journey to many stories, from Cinderella to The Wizard of Oz and beyond and jolly good fun it is too.  Many a happy hour can be spent developing your story according to the Hero's Journey.  

And that's why I don't like it, or rather, I don't think it's a useful tool for writers.  It's another great way of procrastinating instead of getting on and actually writing your book.  Secondly, it implies that there's a format for writing, and while I would agree that working to a basic 3 Act structure is a good idea, I don't think that there is a universal format that any old writer can use.  Thirdly, it's restrictive - not every story follows the Jungian archetypes, not every story is a quest.  

I have a sneaky suspicion that the reason it gets taught in a lot of creative writing courses is that it's a great one for creative writing tutors to teach.  You could spend a whole term on it without having to think of any new stuff that might be really useful to a student writer.  Even better, you can teach it as an academic subject, in just the same way English is taught by academics who analyse books, rather than by writers themselves. 

I first came across it on my MA in Creative Writing where it was being taught by an academic.  Everyone was very excited because here seemed the answer to one's prayers - a surefire structure that you just had to fill in the gaps, join up the dots, and bingo! a lovely shiny new novel or film script would emerge. Except it doesn't.  What you get is lots of writing ABOUT your novel, and not much writing OF your novel.  

So - are there any writers out there who use the Hero's Journey as a starting point?  Or even as a finishing check-list?  Is it really a useful tool for writers who want to write? Or is it, in Hero's Journey speak, just another temptation on the Road Of Trials for those of us who want to write a novel?

Friday, 8 July 2011

Scenes in the Air

I'm sure you recognise the feeling.  You're reading something and after a bit you get this dislocated feeling as if you're floating somewhere.  The characters on the page are still talking to each other, but you're not quite sure where they are so you have to break off from reading to locate their whereabouts.  Then, having established where they are, you carry on.  

Or so the author hopes, because every time a reader has to stop and go back to check something, you risk losing them.  Writing creates an imaginary world that the reader becomes immersed in so completely that they begin to believe that the characters are real, not imaginary.  

The writer of the scene can picture it clearly in his or her head.  They can hear the dialogue, so they write that down, they know how their viewpoint character feels so that gets included too.  But they forget that the reader isn't there watching the scene in the way that the writer is, so they omit all the grounding details that create the scene.  Instead it floats in space.  

My first editor told me that the reader needs to be clearly told where and when a scene takes place - preferably in the first couple of lines of a scene, certainly within the first paragraph.  After all, why keep it secret?  Yes, it's good to show rather than tell, but there are somethings that really, it's easier/quicker/more sensible to simply tell.

Then the writer needs to add little reminders throughout of where the characters are - footsteps ringing out on the pavement, for example, or the honk of a bus, or smells wafting from a delightful cafe (or stagnant river).  

Not only do those reminders help to anchor the scene, but they can provide useful character info.  For example, in Kissing Mr Wrong, Briony and Lu are having a discussion about their respective relationships. That was originally a scene set in space (a lot of mine are, in the first draft).  When I came back to it for the next draft, I had them walk down Milsom Street in Bath (a real place) and go into a (real) department store so Briony can make a purchase.  While she's doing that, Lu tries on some make-up but doesn't buy anything because she can't afford it.  What they try, what they buy, both grounds the scene physically but also shows the characters' different situations. 

Trying to think of a final, closing para, it suddenly occurred to me - what about a scene actually set in space?  All that floating in blackness.  But then you'd have the stars around you, the crackle of the space suit mike, the sound of breathing, the lack of easy movement, the tug of the umbilical cord connecting you to the capsule/mother ship.  See - even scenes set in space don't need to be written in empty space.  

Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Antidote to Character Data Sheets: Sarah's List of Stuff to Do

I roundly condemned the Character Data Sheets a couple of days ago, because they concentrated on superficial characteristics rather than character - the What not the Who.  

I believe that, in real life as in fiction, character is revealed through action so rather than a list of 'what was your first pet called' questions, here is a list of things that you could get your character to DO...aka Sarah's List of Stuff to Do.

Make your character…

- Wait at a bus stop, an airport, a station, for a job interview, for a doctor’s appointment

- Eat a meal…alone, with friends, with a lover, with a parent, in a restaurant, in a cafĂ©, on a park bench, at the office, on a train

- Take a journey by car, lorry, taxi, train, bus, coach, bicycle, horse, jet, plane, boat, ferry, Take some exercise – aerobics, yoga, walk, tennis, golf, football

- Go out to the cinema, club, winebar alone or with friends

- Get a letter/parcel in the post, send an important letter

- Get stuck in traffic on the way to job interview, first date, meeting with lawyer

- Look for a new job in a newspaper, shop window, small ads, job centre

- Interact with an animal – stroke a cat, bitten by a hamster, walk the dog, kill a chicken

- Go to the library, buy a newspaper, do a tax return

- Prepare some food, clean the house, do some gardening

- Watch television, read a book, read a magazine

- Make something with fabric, wood, paper

- Go shopping for clothes for a camping trip, a school reunion, a week in Tuscany

- Phone someone up and complain about something, receive a phone call selling something

- Spend half an hour googling

- Write a diary, a short story, a letter to their best friend, a letter to a hero, a postcard to a lover, a Valentine’s day card

- Have a birthday alone, with friends, with family

Have fun! 

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Technology and Me

I had rather a trying day yesterday, battling with computers and talking with my agent about ebook rights. I ended my final email with her with the heartfelt plea: I wish I didn't live in a digital world.

Which is actually nonsense. I love living in a digital world, I love my Macs, big and small, I love the iPad and I'm getting more attached to my Kindle. I love blogging and Twittering, although I'm not very good at doing the more promotional side of things, but I reckon that's OK. I'm trundling along at my own pace and

My brain has always done a bit of a freeze when confronted with anything too technical. My fault - I can't be bothered with it. I only discovered my car (after 5 years of ownership) had air conditioning when last month the garage offered to service the A/C for me. I said I didn't have A/C. There was a short pause. You do, they said. No, I don't, I replied full of confidence. They then showed me the button marked AC...

I am trying to be less swamplike but I recognised myself in this clip (Not to imply that I look like a man in a habit and a tonsure, because I don't think I do.) Hope any other dinosaurs out there find it funny too.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Is There Such a Thing as Pointless Conversation?

My student daughter came into my room at the weekend, puzzled by a text conversation she was having with another girl, a sometime student on her course who she hadn't seen for 6 months. The conversation went something like this:

A - Hey, how are u? x
B - I'm good, how are u?
A - I'm fine. It's been ages. Hows everything going?
B - I'm at home, going up to London in a few days.
A - oh v nice. How is it in Bath then. Is the weather nice? Are u in London over the summer? I'm back home myself.
B - Yes the weather's lovely. I've got my room this summer, but I don't think I'll be living there. Have u still got your flat?
A - Yeah it's lovely here too. Hope it lasts. Nice. I moved out of my flat so not going back. Any plans over the summer, holidays or anything?
B - I'm not sure, will probably go somewhere but not sure when or where, how about u?

And at this point, B, my daughter, turned to me and said 'What IS this conversation about?'

I asked her what she meant. She said:

' You'd think she'd get to the point. Usually, I kind of start off with a bit of the point so it's hinted in the conversation what the point is, and then I move it through the conversation. You start with the point of why you're texting. Surely that's the question you'd ask - how's X, have you seen Y. She doesn't seem to want anything.' Daughter looks at phone in puzzled way. 'I mean, I don't think she wants anything except maybe to keep contact but I don't know what she wants. It's weird.'

In real life we don't have pointless conversations. Subconsciously we're making points, and we're on the alert for the points the other person is either making or hoping to make. When we can't see the point we think it's weird.

It's exactly the same with dialogue in fiction. When we can't see 'the point' of the dialogue we give up reading. Your characters should know what points they're making - it could be anything such as establishing a relationship, angling for information, working round to asking a favour. But there should be points to be made, and you as the writer should know what they are. Otherwise your readers will be looking at your dialogue and thinking...weird.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Character Data Sheets

I like going to creative writing workshops as a student, not a teacher, and I went to two last week, both run by editors. They were useful and informative, and I had two great days playing around in areas I don't normally touch - 1st person, present tense etc. But oh, how I gave an inward grimace when they both trotted out the character data sheet.

For those who don't know, a character data sheet is a list of things about a character - name, age, what they're wearing now, what they had for breakfast, what did they dream about last night, what is their favourite/least favourite food etc. Sometimes the questions are mundane - what sort of car do they drive - or quirky - if they were a piece of furniture, what would they be?

The data sheet was presented, and the writers dutifully scribbled their answers. Me too, although I think the character data sheet is one of the more pointless tasks for a writer to do. Why? I hear you cry. Lots of books/teachers insist that the character data sheet is an essential part of creating a character. To which I say: Phooey!

The answers are simply made up by the writer. They're not genuine reflections of a character, just where the writer's imagination lands them on the spur of the moment. Give anyone a data sheet, and they can come up with answers which can amuse/entertain/fill an awkward moment but they are superficial responses, ungrounded in anything real.

What makes a person real? How do you 'know' someone in real life? By what they had for breakfast? I think not, unless you truly believe that everyone who enjoyed a bowl of Cornflakes this morning has an identical personality. You know people by what they do. It's their actions that reveal character. So to start building a personality with made-up data is daft, in my opinion. Far better to write scenes that show them interacting with other people and things, and understand their personality through that.

So, why do they keep turning up in classes? Because it sounds logical. Know all the information about someone's life and you will 'know' them, except you don't, until you explore the reasons behind their choices - but the character data sheet doesn't go that far.

Secondly, I don't think it's coincidence that the people who seem most keen on data sheets are non-writers and beginners. Put it like this, getting a group of students to fill in a data sheet and then read them out cheerfully fills at least half an hour of teaching time - you could probably stretch it out to an hour at a push.

Thirdly, if you fill in a character data sheet you feel you've done something positive to promote your writing. OK, you haven't actually done any real writing, but the sheet was at least something....

I've never done a character data sheet for my writing. When I need to know what a character had for breakfast I make it up there, on the spot. The decision is based on what I know about the character's internal make-up - their hopes, their fears, their conflicts - all of which I've learned about through their actions and thoughts.

I can see that I'm laying myself open to an accusation that my characters aren't 'real' and that may be true. But I don't see how knowing what they had for breakfast would make any difference to that at all.

Over to you - is there anyone out there who'll defend the character data sheet as a means of discovering character?

Friday, 1 July 2011

Flashback and Backstory 2

I hopefully put you off Flashback yesterday, now it's Backstory's turn. To recap, Flashback is this:

In the morning Dolores stared at herself in the mirror. Last night it had all been so different. She'd walked into the bar and seen Emilio glowering at a table in the corner, so she'd gone over to him.
'Hello, Emilio,' she'd said.
Emilio looked up. 'Dolores! What are you doing here?'
'I came in looking for Juan - have you seen him?'
'No. Have you seen Conchita?'
'Not since this morning.' Dolores licked her lips. 'How about buying me a drink?'
etc etc etc until
Dolores shook her head. Thinking about last night wouldn't make any difference. She began to slowly, sadly peel her false eyelashes off.

And this is Backstory:

In the morning Dolores stared at herself in the mirror. Last night it had all been so different, so different from West Whimpering, the place she'd grown up in. She lived there for her earliest years. West Whimpering was a sleepy little town, and the inhabitants liked it that way, but Dolores had always yearned for something better. She finally left to go to the University of Watereddown to read History, but there she'd met Alberto and ended up in this one horse town. It was just like West Whimpering, but with rancheros, she thought, peeling off her false eyelashes.

Actually, I don't feel as strongly about Backstory as I do about Flashback. It does have its place, but that's rarely in the second paragraph of a short story, which is where it often pops up in my experience of student work. And then continues in the third paragraph, and the fourth. So, my concerns about backstory concern its location within a narrative and its length, and finally its relevance.

Right. Imagine you've just met someone at a party. Does the conversation go something like this....

'So, how do you know Emilio, Dolores?'
'Oh, through Alberto. What about you?'
'Through Alberto, too. It's strange that we've not met before. Tell me about yourself.'
'There's not much to tell. I live down the road and I work in accountancy. What about you?'
'How bizarre - I'm an accountant too. Which company do you work for?'
'Really? I work for Sneak, Grabbit and Fiddle.'
'You had the big tax fraud case - how did that go?'
etc etc etc

Or like this...

'So, how do you know Emilio, Dolores?'
'Oh, through Alberto. I was born in West Whimpering which is a sleepy little town, and got away the second I could to read accountancy at the University of Watereddown which is where I first met Alberto. We became friends, then lovers and then when I graduated - after a bit of a dodgy second year when I really questioned the purpose of double entry book keeping - we got married and I ended up here. Then we divorced after two tempestuous years, and I thought I never wanted to speak to him again but after a lot of water had passed under the bridge we started to see each other again and recover our friendship, so here I am! What about you?'
'I met Alberto first in 1985 I think it must have been. Our parents went to the same church and....'
etc etc etc

I hope your real life conversations follow the same pattern as the first exchange. In real life we give out little snippets of fact about ourselves as we get to know a person, we don't give whopping dollops of biography on first meeting. So why do it in fiction? So, the correct location for a chunk of backstory is going to be quite a way into a narrative, once we've got to know the characters a bit better.

The other thing about real life is that we give out our little snippets of biography on a need-to-know basis. The chances are there is stuff about your life that your closest friends don't know about you, for the simple reason that they haven't needed to know it so far. Exactly the same with fiction. Does the reader need to know Dolores went to the University of Watereddown? If the answer is yes, then put it in. If the answer is no, leave it out.

At which point a student says, yes, but we won't understand her character unless we know about her backstory, which show her motivations for behaving as she does. This is true, but often that's not what the backstory - as written in the narrative - is telling us. The mere fact of going to the University of Watereddown won't tell us much about her deep inner motivations, as presumably lots of people went to Watereddown and they aren't behaving like Dolores. Now, if someone who the reader has been led to believe is dim suddenly reveals they have a double first from Oxford, that becomes relevant.

(I'm thinking of that scene in The Graduate when Benjamin decides to have a conversation with Mrs Robinson, who reluctantly reveals that she went to university and did a history of art degree - I think it was history of art, it's ages since I've seen the film, it could have been English - which tells us lots about her boredom with life, and that she's only after sex with Benjamin not conversation, and in the process also reveals his immaturity.)

So before you put in some backstory, check that its in the right place - does the reader need to know it to continue understanding the narrative, check on the length - long chunks are as interesting as reading CVs, and finally check on the relevance - does this fact really tell us something about the character.