Friday 30 September 2011

Good, Bad or Effective?

People talk about good writing, or bad writing.  Then there's trash. Personally I think using words like good or bad aren't helpful when it comes to writing the stuff.  The word I prefer is effective.  

Effective writing does exactly what the author wants it to do.  If you want them to laugh, then effective writing will make it happen.  If you want them to cry, or be scared, or be stunned by your use of language, your writing is effective if it gets that result.  

When I'm looking at student work, I'm looking to see how effective it is.  Is it doing what the author intends it to do?  If, for example, it's fantasy I might be looking to see how effective the author is at creating the milieu of the invented world.  If it's a thriller, I'll be checking to see that there's tension running through each sentence and that the pace is right.  If it was a more literary piece of writing, I'd be looking at the effectiveness of the language and character creation.  

Writing is all about communicating.  You have an idea or a story, and you want to pass it across to me.  Because we're not telepathic, we have to use writing as an interface between our imaginations.  The more clearly your idea or story is expressed on the page, the more easily it reaches me. 

Tell me this story you have in your head, about these characters.  If I understand it just the way you intended then your writing is effective.  If I get out of it just what you wanted me to do, then it's effective. 

I think writing has to be judged by its own standards.  Does it achieve what it set out to do? Not good, not bad, but effective.

Thursday 29 September 2011

How Much Writing Success Should Your Writing Tutor Have Had?

This was raised on another blog, and I thought it was an interesting question.  I don't have any answers, but these are my thoughts, in no particular order.

1.  I'm a better teacher now than when I started teaching, but it's not my personal writing success that's made me so, it's my experience as a creative writing teacher plus lots and lots and lots of thinking and reading about creative writing.

2.  When I started going to writing classes, I wanted someone who'd had some success with their writing.  I didn't have confidence in someone who hadn't achieved publication in some form.  I still feel that way, and cringe when I hear of someone teaching who hasn't actually been published (unless they've got other professional publishing experience, such as having been an editor).

3.  When I was on my MA some of the feedback the other students gave was excellent, some was not.  There was no correlation between the quality of the feedback and the student's previous success or experience.  However, those people who gave good feedback went on to have publishing success while those who didn't, didn't.

4.  There is publishing success and publishing success.  Self publishing a book, however you dress it up, means you have sidestepped the quality question.  I'm not saying all self published books are bad, just they haven't been through an external quality assessment process and backed by someone else's money.  I've seen people announce that they are published, when actually they mean self published, or published by a vanity press.  

5.  I am successfully published by most people's standards, but I could no more give useful advice on poetry than I could run a marathon.  If poetry was your thing, you'd do better with an unpublished but knowledgeable tutor than you would with published but ignorant me.

6.  I have high standards and want my students to set themselves high standards too.  Even if I'm teaching a leisure course I want them to work hard.  That's not for everyone.  Some people are happy for their writing to be way down their list of priorities, and that's fine - but I may not be the best person for them.

7.  Similarly, I'm not a great person for touchy-feely navel gazing, although I hope I'm sensitive to people's vulnerabilities and encouraging to the tentative.  Some tutors are touchy-feely and like navel gazing, and if that's what you want, why not? In other words, the personality of the tutor may be more important than their publishing history.

8.  If you were writing to go through a lot of personal stuff then you'd be better working with someone who has experience of this.  There are courses around of writing for therapeutic purposes, and there are people trained in this area.  Their experience would count far more than their publishing history.

9.  Some tutors are very sniffy about some forms of writing - I've heard of students on MA courses in particular having their work dismissed as not worthy, simply because of the genre they wanted to write in.  It would be more important to have someone as a tutor who was open to what you wanted to write but was perhaps not a super successful writer themselves, than someone who was a starry literary name, but dismissed your work and undermined your confidence.  

10.  Related to the above, you may be sniffy about what the tutor writes, in which case you won't have confidence in what they say.  You may be right, you may be wrong, but if you don't have confidence in them, they are the wrong tutor for you.

OK, so that's my thinking.  What do you reckon?

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Watching Late Night Films

Oh dear, we've all done it.  That film that we've quite fancied watching is on TV but quite late in the evening.  We decide to watch 5 minutes, just to see how it goes, and hours later we're still glued to the sofa, bug eyed and desperate for bed, longing for the film to end but somehow unable to stop watching.

Unless it's on Film 4 or some other commercial channel, which gives us handy cop-out sessions in the form of commercial breaks.  It's one thing to leave a film when it's in full swing, quite another to leave when the programmer has decided to break it into sections and give us ads for insurance companies in the breaks.  

Novels have breaks too, in the form of chapters.  As writers, we want to keep our readers glued to the book late into the night, so we don't want them to use the excuse of the chapter break to put the book down.  This means we have to think about the ending of each chapter very carefully.  

Does it make the reader want to read 'just the first page' of the next chapter?  Once we've got them reading the first page of the next chapter they're bound to carry onto the next, and the next.  Ways to make the reader stay with the book are by using what could be crudely called cliffhangers.  Examples of a cliffhanger could be the arrival of an unexpected character or the making of an unexpected announcement.  It could be something that is unresolved, a niggling question, or a statement that is left hanging in the air.  

It doesn't matter what it is, so long as it doesn't help the reader put the book down.  Examples of things that help you put the book down would include questions resolved without new ones being raised or characters going to sleep (this works by suggestion).  

But chapter ends are only the most visible form of break. There are usually spaces after scenes, so you really need some hook to get people reading on after a scene ends.  And readers can break away from the text mid-scene for example to check something someone said earlier, or if they're puzzled over the use of a particular word.  Any time a reader gets confused and pulls away from the story world you've created for your novel then potentially you've lost them.  

Your writing should be so smooth that before they know it, they're the ones stuck on the sofa, bug-eyed and desperate for bed, but unable to stop reading.  In effect, your aim as a writer is to induce sleep deprivation in your readership.  

Tuesday 27 September 2011

JMW Turner Has Advice For Writers

One day the artist JMW Turner was out sketching.  An admirer offered to buy his sketch which Turner agreed to, saying the price was 60 guineas. 
    '60 Guineas! But it only took you 10 minutes.' 
    'Ah yes,' JMW Turner is supposed to have replied.  '10 minutes, and 40 years of experience.'

I'm dredging my memory of my Art History degree for this anecdote, so it may not be 100% accurate, but it came to mind when I was giving feedback to those 40 first pages a couple of weekends ago.  I've given feedback to so many writers over the past 15 years that it doesn't take much time for me to analyse a text and spot what may be holding the author back.  People sometimes are amazed that it only takes a few minutes for me to see something that they haven't despite hours of slaving away at their work. Well, a) I'm an outsider and b) I've done it before.  10 minutes, and 15 years experience in my case. 

As well as reading other people's work, I've written quite a few words of my own - well over a million I think, given my prediliction for cutting vast chunks out of my early drafts.  The more I write, the easier and quicker it is to write.  Similarly writing this blog.  Posts took ages at the beginning.  Now ideas come often, and take less time to write up.

People sometimes ask me for a possible timescale to publication, and the immediate answer has to be: no one knows.  A deal could turn up tomorrow, or never.  

But I think JMW Turner suggests another answer.  The time it takes will be directly related to the amount of time - writing, reading, giving and getting critiques, researching the publishing business, promoting yourself etc - that you put into it.

Monday 26 September 2011

Little Hooks Catch Bigger Fish

Last week I wrote about the importance of establishing 'Normal World' before having something super-dramatic happen.  When I give this as feedback people often say, 'But I've been told to start with a hook, that's why I started with the car crash/presumed dead father turning up/announcement of pregnancy.'

But the event itself is not a hook.  The hook is the promise that a dramatic event is in the offing. 

Think about these scenarios:  

1.  You are told that thousands of people have just died in an earthquake in Paraguay.  
2.  You are told that your neighbour has been in a hit-and-run incident and is in a coma.

We are upset by both these events,  but the chances are that the one that really affects you is the second because you know your neighbour and also because it could have been you.  You are directly involved.  It's not the size of the drama that matters, it's the degree of involvement. 

So, if we were writing this, we'd need to establish the characters, whether they were the neighbour or a Paraguayan.  This sets up the dramatic event - remember, it's knowing the characters that makes it dramatic, otherwise it's just another headline in the papers.

But the event is not the hook.  The hook is a promise that there will be an event.  

I haven't watched Casualty for ages, but it always started with the viewer seeing a series of characters doing things - crossing the street while talking in a mobile phone, about to climb a ladder to fix a roof tile, getting into a car saying 'It's all right, I'm not over the limit.'  Part of the fun was guessing which one was going to end up in hospital. That was the hook.

Hooks are usually small.  

'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.' 
(From Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.) Where or what is Manderley?  Why is the character dreaming of it?  Then we learn that Manderley is a ruin - why?  What's happened? And all the time we're learning how the place is ruined, we're also learning that the narrator knew it when it was a great house.  We want to know what happened - that's the hook. 

"It is a truth universally acknowledged that..." I probably don't have to carry on for you to recognise this one from Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen).  The same is true for:
"All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy.) 

These are not dramatic events.  But they're promises of what is to come.  We know that P&P is going to be about getting married well, and AK is going to be about unhappy families.  Detective stories start with the body - dramatic, yes, but the hook is that we're going to discover who dunnit.  It's not about the body.  

The order runs: Hook (the promise), the characters (so we care), then the event.  Remember: The hook is the promise of the event, not the event itself.  

Friday 23 September 2011

Keeping Description Going

Description falls into the same category as exercise and meals when dieting: little and often.

At feedback feedback sessions I frequently see pieces of writing which have no description whatsoever in them.  I suggest some would be a good idea; without it, the reader can't place the characters who are so busily talking to each other.  It's as if they are floating in time and space, disembodied heads nattering away.

The writer says that they've already included lots of description in the bit that comes just before this.  (This is often stated in an end-of-subject way.) But having a wodge of description on page 10 and then nothing for the next 4 pages simply doesn't work.  Readers like to do some work, but it's asking too much of them to hold an image of the location in their heads for so long.  Besides, they might not read p9 - 15 in one go; it's not impossible that they will put the book down and go off and do something else.  When they come back, they will be looking for clues as the location.  

The answer is to feed in description throughout the action.  Keep on adding little snippets about the location and the characters so the pictures are fresh in the reader's mind.  In the medieval Great Hall from yesterday's post I've already mentioned the hammer beams supporting the ceiling. I could add:  oak floorboards, stained glass, gargoyles, lions on coats of arms, flags and tapestries, candles...

And I could also be adding active verbs to all of them: oak floorboards (creaking), stained glass (sun shining through), gargoyles (leering), lions (rampant, of course) on coats of arms, flags and tapestries (waving, fluttering), candles (flickering, guttering)...

   John stared up at the massive medieval hammer beams supporting the ceiling as he entered the Great Hall. "Wow!"
   Melissa dragged her feet across the creaking oak floor. "I'm bored," she whined, flicking her long plait back over her shoulder.  
   John decided to ignore her. He went further into the hall, concentrating on the shields hung around the whitewashed walls.  There, among the lions rampant and the unicorns couchant on many coats of arms, he might see the golden balls of his ancestor.  
   "Heraldry sucks big time," Melissa muttered behind him.  
   He spun round.  She was standing in a shaft of sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows, her discontented face coloured red like blood.... 

Little and often, little and often.
Today!  In the library!  St Ives!  11.00 am. Me! 

Thursday 22 September 2011

Creating Pictures as You Write

One of the problems of starting out as a writer is similar to one of the problems of starting out as a driver: you over compensate.  If a new driver realises they're veering too much over to the left they yank the steering wheel round to the right, then have to yank it back again to the left.  

Sometimes, if you point out something to a new writer, they behave in a similar fashion.  Tell them they could do with a little more detail about the location and they immediately assume you mean pages of description. But you can actually create a picture about a place from very little description.  

John entered the room.  

Well, there's not much there to go on.  Try this:

John entered the hall.  

There's a bit more information, but the picture it creates is hazy.

John entered the Great Hall.

One extra word and the capitalisation might be enough for you but...

John entered the medieval Great Hall. might need some confirmation. 

John stared up at the massive medieval hammer beams supporting the ceiling as he entered the Great Hall. 

This conveys far more information and becomes easier for us to imagine the room that John has entered and a little bit about John's attitude, especially if we add... 

John stared up at the massive medieval hammer beams supporting the ceiling as he entered the Great Hall. "Wow!"

Okay, it's more words than we started with, but it's still under 20.  So you don't need to add that much description to enable the reader to create a picture in their heads of your story world. 

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am in St Ives Library.  Go to the website for more info.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Have Aliens Beamed Down Into Your Novel?

Sometimes people write to find out what happened to characters in my novels after The End.  It sounds strange, but I know what all of them have gone on to do - although none of their continuing stories have been interesting enough for me to make into an new novel.  But when you're writing a novel it's much more important to know what had been happening to the characters before the start of the novel.  

Another common problem in the 40 first pages I read at the weekend was that characters appeared to have beamed down from outer space into the story.  They'd been hanging around like featureless homunculi ready for some alien force to dump them into the action.  They had no pasts or presents, only futures.  

I'm a real person.  As I'm sitting typing this I'm thinking obviously about the blog post.  But at the back of my mind I'm thinking about last Saturday's event, and the couple of first pages that had characters that were tabula rasas and how I explained the alien concept to the writers.  I'm also aware that my partner's going to pitch up quite soon.  Later on, I need to make a few phone calls.  Oh, and there'll be some writing to do - I've got a tricky scene to get stuck into. So all this is bubbling away in my head as I type.  If a letter arrived now announcing that I've inherited a million pounds...

Yes, the stuff that's bubbling away now would be put on hold for a bit, but it's still there.  My life exists independently of the exciting bits.  The same is true for characters.  They have to have stuff bubbling away, plans that they're making for the future, thinking over things in the past.  It doesn't have to be on a grand scale - perhaps this is where knowing what a character had for breakfast could come in handy - but it has to be there to make the character appear to have a life outside the story.  

It's this life outside the novel that makes character appear real.  

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am in St Ives Library.  Go to the website for more info.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Importance Of Normal World

I was speaking at a Writers Day at the weekend. As part of the day we asked participants to bring in their first pages, which they got feedback on.  40 first pages later, and it was clear that certain issues were common to many of the first pages.  Some were just down to editing, but one issue was Normal World, or rather, the lack of it.

Imagine these starts to a novel:  

1. A character opens a letter - they've inherited a million pounds!  Now they can go on the holiday of their dreams.

2. A character is having breakfast when they hear the letterbox rattles.  They collect the post - a few bills and a letter.  It contains the information that they've inherited a million pounds!  Now they can go on the holiday of their dreams.

3.  A character is talking to their family about their forthcoming holiday trip to a caravan in Norfolk.  They've worked over-time and saved every penny to afford the two weeks and it means everything to them.  One of the children is rubbishing the holiday - all their friends go abroad.  The character defends the holiday: it will be miles better than abroad will be, lying on a pool by a lounger is awful etc. The letter box rattles and they collect the post, but they can't open the letters now, they've got to do the school run and then go to their job doing something that is poorly paid but gives great personal satisfaction.  At lunch they remember the letter. It contains the information that they've inherited a million pounds!  Now they can go on the holiday of their children's dreams and give up the badly paid job. But should they?

Normal World is the world of the main character before the story proper starts - in this case, the inciting incident (as the film world calls it) is the discovery that the character has inherited a million pounds.  

Example 1 starts with no information about Normal World at all so the incident, while exciting, doesn't have much meaning.  If the character was incredibly rich, for example, a million wouldn't have much impact at all.  

Example 2 offers a little bit more information about Normal World - we'd be able to place the character by the sort of breakfast they were eating, the house they were living in, but we still don't see much meaning in the discovery.

Example 3 establishes Normal World.  We learn a little bit about the character - hardworking, proud, parent etc. This means that the reader can appreciate that the discovery will have a huge impact on the character's life.  It also suggests that the discovery might be negative or positive.

I learnt this lesson with Another Woman's Husband.   I started with the discovery that will rock the main character's world, but my editor wanted me to establish Normal World because the reader needed to know what the character was risking if she strayed.  What was Chapter 1 became Chapter 3 in the published book, and it's all the better for it.

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am in St Ives Library.  Go to the website for more info.

Monday 19 September 2011

How to Make Static Scenes Interesting

At some point you're going to have to write a static scene.  Static scenes are just that - static.  In other words, the characters can't move around much eg job interview, prison visit, date in restaurant, morning coffee. Static scenes tend to end up as two characters talking while facing each other across a table, and are dull dull dull unless you work at bringing some action in.  

Take the prison interview.  We're in a plain room, no furniture except a table and 2 chairs, both of which are screwed to the floor so no movement there.  But you could add...

- a fly on the wall (literally)
- a mirror: the viewpoint character could wonder if it was 2- way and if the wardens were watching inside.
- spy camera in the corner, especially if it moved around.
- high up window: clouds might be visible scudding across the sky
- impeded action, such as trying to move the chair and not being able to
- actions using props such as a briefcase with papers to rustle and pass across the table

You could also add details which imply action...

- a bruise: perhaps the prisoner has been attacked
- cut on cheek: cut self shaving - or something more sinister?
- badly fitting uniform: scratching, edginess, shifting in seat, gestures showing it's too tight etc.
- noises outside: footsteps, doors clanging shut, car horn sounds.

I try to move all my static scenes into locations where they are active but sometimes it just can't be done. It helps to make a list of all the ways you can add actions and active details (as I've done for the prison interview) and then weave them in to create a static, but interesting, scene.  

Finally, don't forget to use interesting verbs - don't have your characters just sit in their chairs, let them slump, fidget, lean.  And as a final resort, if they've absolutely got to be still, they can always radiate menace.

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am in St Ives Library.  Go to the website for more info.

Friday 16 September 2011

5 Bad Ways of Starting a Novel - and 5 Good

1.  The Internal Monologue
This often involves a character staring at themselves in the mirror and wondering how, exactly, they ended up there.  They think about their situation, what has happened, how they feel about it all.  And all the while the reader is thinking: where are they?  what's happening?  why is this interesting?  We know characters by their thought processes, but we need to establish some basics first such as what's going on (ie action), where are they (physically and temporally), what the story problems are before we go into the workings of their mind too deeply.

2. Gimmicky Action
The opposite of the internal monologue, this begins with nothing but action and of the most dramatic sort - car crashes and chases, exploding this and that.  The trouble is, until we know the characters we don't care what's happening to them.  'Normal world' has to be established before we can leap into action.  Closely related to Gimmicky Action is...

3. The Info Dump: Factual
This is when the writer thinks we need to know lots of facts about the characters and their situation before we can understand them.  Not true: we can know very few facts about characters and their situation, so long as we understand the emotional meaning or resonance that they have.  But that's not to say a better idea is...

4. The Info Dump: Emotional
A few weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe having cup of tea when I fell into conversation with another woman.  She then told me her life story including a lot of traumatic detail about her miscarriage and how she'd decided not to have another child.  The writer part of me was fascinated, and as a woman I was sympathetic, but it wasn't a comfortable situation.  Piling on loads of heavy emotional stuff right at the beginning will have the same effect on the reader.  You may think it's a way of getting sympathy for a character, but most readers will find it cringe-making.  Again, establish 'normal world' first.  

5. Flashback
You may have noticed I'm not a fan of flashback generally but I particularly don't like it on the first page of a novel. It makes 'normal world' hard to place - is normal the present situation, or the one in the past?  You want the reader to be swept up into the story of what it happening now, and flashback, by definition, is not now.  Plus, it can be confusing, and the last thing you want to do is confuse the reader right from the start. 

So what do I think are good ways of starting a novel?

1.  Establish normal world 
2. Within normal world hint that all is not as it seems.
3. Show characters in action
4. Give an indication of the main theme(s) of the novel
5. Clearly show the genre (romance, thriller, literary, sci-fi etc)

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am.  Go to the website for more info.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Murdering Your Darlings

It must be one of the most commonly used instructions to writers:  Murder your darlings.  When I first heard it I though it applied only to a type of over-blown, adjective-heavy writing. Now I'm older and a bit wiser, I know there are other sort of darlings that should be bumped off, with a club like baby seals.  

You've read all the books, you know everything there is to know about blacksmithery in C17th Wiltshire.  And now you're going to share it with us.  Sometimes lots of information is good: Frederick Forsyth in Day of the Jackal writing about how to get a fake passport or smuggle a gun through customs.  But most of the time it's bad.

Great characters:
The main character's funny cousin, the doleful postman who delivers the fateful letter, the whacky best friend.  All tertiary characters ie they appear but don't do much plot-wise, should be kept on a tight lead and not allowed to take over, however hilarious you find them.  

Digressions and hobby horses:
Following ideas as you write can be a very creative process, but it can also lead you way off the plot.  Similarly, you may have strong opinions on many subjects, but a work of fiction is not the place to sudden start spouting about the iniquities of the planning system or the unfairness of post code lotteries in the NHS.  I once hung on doggedly to a little bit of social satire until I had a brief note from my editor: "What is the relevance of this to the story? Please cut it now."

The scene that's there just for the joke at the end:
Some years ago there was a joke doing the rounds of the the internet.  It was about a woman going to her gynaecologist and realising that she'd last washed using a facecloth that her child had used to store some glitter.  Not too long after being sent this joke I read The Adultery Club by Tess Stimson, where the main character goes to see her gynaecologist and realises... There's no real reason for the scene to exist except for that joke.  Sometimes it's a quirky name that's given just for the purpose of people making a joke out of it.  I once called a character John simply so I could make a Dear John letter joke.  It never worked, and got culled in the final drafts.

The simple test for spotting these darlings is to ask yourself: does it serve the story?  If not, then murder is the only answer.

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am.  Go to the website for more info.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Life Bites Writer On The Bum

I was rather pleased with the blog post I wrote yesterday.  But no one commented on it.  No mentions on Twitter.  No one writing to me.  I felt a bit, well, narked to be honest.  Not that I did anything like stomp around muttering 'no one loves me no one cares why do I bother', I wouldn't do anything as childish as that.  I went about my business hardly checking my email/twitter accounts at all but no one said a sausage.  

Doubt began to creep in.  Perhaps it wasn't as interesting a post as I'd thought.  Perhaps whatever insight I may have had had just run out.  Perhaps everyone had realised I'm just an old fraud.  Perhaps I was simply boring...  I made it to half way through the afternoon before checking the site to see what exactly I'd written. And then I discovered I'd pressed the Save Draft button and not the Publish button.  Durr. My pearls of wisdom hadn't been revealed to the world.

OK, so I'm neurotic (I originally wrote "a bit" but the interests of honesty won out).  But isn't that the way - life lies in wait for the unsuspecting writer until it gets a good chance to leap up and bite us on our bottoms.   

We prepare our work to read out in class, agonising over every adjective, and all anyone talks about is the POV change.  We send our work out, puzzling over how exactly we address Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms Val or Jo or Robin Whatsit, and forget to include our contact details. We go to a talk about creative writing where the speaker mentions 'beats' and wake up in the middle of the night worrying because we haven't really understood what 'beats' were and whether they're a good thing or a bad thing and do we have them anyway?  

The writer's life proliferates with things to worry, fret and disturb us.  Other writers are successful and serene, they are swans on the water while I play the part of the comedy duckling that waddles along the bank before slipping beak first into a dollop of goose droppings.

But, although my life is littered with me getting agitated about things that have no real relevance, I think I'd rather be like that than super-confident about my writing.  Because then I'd see no reason to improve, there'd be no reason to listen to anyone else.  And I think that's why life really does leap up and bite you on the bum.

Now to press the Publish Post button...

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am.  Go to the website for more info.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

When You Know the Rules, Feel Free to Break Them

One Day by David Nicholls is a great example of rule breaking.  Two viewpoints throughout, swapping between paragraphs, sometimes her, sometimes him, back and forwards.  It's against all the rules and shouldn't work - but it does.  The book I read before - Family Album by Penelope Lively - did just the same, skipping between all the characters in the large family.

But but but, you splutter.  The Rule says No headhopping!  The Rule says Stay in one character's viewpoint in each section.  These books break the rules.

Yup.  The Rules are there, and writers break them all the time.  But that doesn't make the rules less valid.  You need to understand the reasoning behind the rules, and then you can merrily break them.  

The rules are there to make life easier for the reader.  That's all.  Readers often find headhopping (ie switching from one character's viewpoint to another within a scene) confusing or distancing.  Confused or distanced readers stop reading. That's why it's inadvisable.  

However, if you set up a multi viewpoint scenario from the beginning (as both Lively and Nicholls do) then the reader is prepared.  For example, the opening page of Family Album alternates viewpoint from paragraph to paragraph: ABABA.  Once the reader has realised this they can follow the story.   

The trouble comes if you are starting out as a writer.  The chances are you don't understand why the rule is there.  I've come across many new writers who can't see that they're headhopping,  They're confused, the writing is confused, the reader is confused. 

Exactly the same is true for flashback.  Many new writers don't realise they're doing it, many don't understand why the rule is there.  They're confused, the writing is confused, the reader is confused.  Plus, it often slows down the action, doesn't add new information, goes over old ground. 

Learn how and why the rules work, and then, when you know what you're doing and the reader isn't getting confused, you can do what you like. Headhop at will.  Flashback away.  Readers don't read with a checklist beside them, but they want a smooth journey through your story. If they have to fumble around to check on who is speaking or where exactly the characters are in time then they'll stop reading.  

Serve the reader. That's the ultimate rule.  

PS Mind you, there is another reason why I advise unpublished writers to follow the rules.  Nicholls and Lively are both established writers.  They're not sending off their first 50 pages and trying to find an agent, or sending short stories out to competitions or magazines. You probably are. It's a very competitive world (in case you haven't noticed). You don't want to give anyone reasons for rejecting your story and, like it or not, headhopping or misplaced flashback could easily be a reason.  

Anyone in St Ives for the September Festival?  I'm giving a talk on Friday 23rd September at 11.00 am.  Go to the website for more info.

Monday 12 September 2011

What The Reader Needs To Know

Think of your three closest friends. Now answer these questions: What did their parents do for a living?  Did they have a pet when growing up and if so, what was it called?  What is their favourite film? 

The chances are you're struggling (unless you're 15, in which case you probably got a full house).  Why?  You don't need to know this information to be friends.  It's just the same when we write characters.  

I've just finished reading One Day by David Nicholls and it's startling the lack of hard information we know about the characters throughout. In the opening pages - we only discover their names on the 3rd page by the way - we very quickly get an impression of who the characters really are, through knowing their thoughts and attitudes.  For example, " 'I think reality is over-rated,' he said in the hope that this might come across as dark and charismatic."  We know immediately he is young and not as confident as he might appear to be.  

This is much more interesting than knowing, for example, where he was born or what his father did for a living.  And it also reflects real life.  You are far more likely to know your friend's attitudes to life than you are to know facts about their past history.  So, the reader needs to know about characters' attitudes to life, but not necessarily facts about their past history.

Secondly, how did you learn about your friend's attitudes to life?  You probably knew little bits straight away from how they spoke and dressed, a few more from what they said on that first meeting.  Then, each time you met up you learned a little bit more about what made them tick. You might have had a long heart to heart conversation at some point, but it's unlikely that happened on your first meeting, and even more unlikely that it happens every time you meet up with your friend.  This is exactly the same as when you're writing.  You want to drip feed information to the reader so they gradually build up a picture of your characters.  

Finally, have you ever been to a party where you've met someone who seems on a mission to fill you in on the most interesting topic in the world: them? I've been trapped by someone like this several times in my life. They tell you about themselves in exhaustive detail while you stand there glazing over and hoping you'll be able escape soon.  People like this are bores.  Well, guess what - so are characters who you know everything about when they first turn up.  

One Day is a good example of information being carefully rationed, and the gradual release of information about the characters is one of the factors that have made it such a success.  You really don't need that much backstory information to hook a reader into your characters.   Concentrate on making them interesting, not the facts about them.


Friday 9 September 2011

Being a Flexible Friend to Your Writing

I whiled away a few minutes the other day looking at an old piece of writing and counting the number of structural errors in it.  It had begun from a writing exercise I'd been set in the writing class I used to go to.  We were given the beginning half of an opening sentence and had to take it from there.  I had done, and made a nice little story from it.  

The trouble was my starting sentence came pretty close to the end of the chronological story, so much of it had to be done in flashback, and worse, flashbacks within flashback.  (Shock horror!  Yes, the woman on a mission to eradicate flashback from prose was once an offender.) It made it hard to follow what exactly was going on on the first couple of pages.  I vaguely remember being aware of that, and trying to signpost exactly where the reader was in the story.

It never occurred to me to change where I'd started.  And yet, why was I so wedded to that opening sentence?  The first words of it weren't even mine.  It was because my writing mind lacked flexibility.  The story started there because that was where it had started in the writing class exercise and that was that.  

First draft writing is about getting those initial ideas down.  Re-writing is about being flexible.  Why shouldn't this bit go there, rather than stay where it is?  Does John have to be an engineer?  Could John be Joanna?  What if Rover the dog was a cat called Pushkin? What if we set this scene in a fish market instead of a tea shop? Does the story need John/Joanna at all?  

We get hooked on the initial ideas and images that inspire us to write and become rigid when change is mentioned.  But writers need to be flexible when it comes to looking at our work a second time.  I like the opening line of my old short story.  It's a good one.  But it screws up the rest of the story telling and then I lacked the flexibility to change.  

Now I try to write with as much flexibility as possible.  Everything is up for change, depending on the demands of the story.  I try to keep the writing as fluid as possible until the last moment, which means I have moments of despair as I survey the utter mess that is my novel. But I remember the fable about the sapling, that can bend with the storm, growing next to the mighty but rigid oak, that topples in the wind.  Flexibility is good.

Thursday 8 September 2011

What If Failure Is All You Get?

Someone on Twitter asked "What if failure is all you get?" in response to my post on Three Cheers for Failure.

Our lives are not like the lives of characters in a book. We get born, stuff happens along the way, we die. We only put "The End" when it literally is "The End" - ie you're dead. You may have "failed" at 20, 30, 40, 50...but who's to know what's going to happen when you're 60 or 70?

I know several people who have first got published in their 60s and 70s - are they failures because it happened late to them? Or terrific success stories because they persisted?

I'm struggling to finish my current novel. Deadlines have come and gone and I still can't get the b****r done, which is probably suicidal in the current climate. Is that failure? Will, a couple of years down the line, I be laughing over the champagne as I read my amazing sales figures? Or will I be watching the clock to get to the end of my shift at the check out in Sainsbury's?

Who knows? It's likely to be somewhere in between - a recent programme on chaos theory said that it was impossible to predict what you'd be doing 5 years ahead, even if your life looked ultra stable and solid now. You may be "failing" at the moment, but if an acceptance letter or phone call arrived in the next 5 minutes, you'd consider yourself a success.

Stop focussing on the end, because it won't be the end. Getting an acceptance will lead to more problems to be solved, more failure, more success. It's a bit like being pregnant and only preparing for the delivery. Wake up! You've got the baby around for at least the next 20 years, more if you're unlucky (or house prices continue to rise).

Enjoy the journey, even when it's tough and hard going. Failure and success are only words, they're not states of being and the ending is only the ending when it really is The End. There's plenty of time for living until then.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Quantity v Quality

I've spent lots of time this summer with friends and family; them visiting me, me visiting them. It's been fun, even the two nights I spent on a slowly expiring single lilo with the bedding rigged up from a double sheet and a scratchy, winter-weight sleeping bag. But some of my friends and family didn't go in for uncomfortable nights. They instead booked hotels and B&Bs and joined the hosts at pre-arranged times. They had quality time, not quantity time.

They may have had a good nights sleep, but I feel that they missed out on the full experience. They missed out on hanging around waiting for everyone else to decide what to do (difficult when you're talking about organising 4 multi-generational families). I had some good chats then. They also miss out on the opportunities for surprising revelations - someone confessed to relationship difficulties over the fruit and veg counter in Morrisons, and there was a late night heart to heart with a friend of a friend I'd never really noticed much before.

So lots of hanging around not doing much, but with the occasional flash of pure gold, versus bursts of rather controlled quality time where things were done on the grown-ups terms.

I can't say which is preferable for family and friends, but in terms of writing I know where I stand. Quantity beats quality every time. If you write, and write, and write you risk some of it being utter tripe, but you also gain the unexpected thread of gold running through the dross. If your writing time is controlled, you risk getting hardly any done - good or bad.

I appreciate that not everyone has unlimited time at their disposal and, for some, their writing time is perforce limited by circumstances. But you usually have lots of thinking time available (waiting for trains, walking the dog, cleaning, doing the washing up, knitting...) so when your writing time comes, splurge it all out on the page. Don't worry about the quality of what you're writing, just get it written. You can always sort it out later.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Buyers and Readers

Waterstones recently announced that they were doing away with their 3 for 2 promotion, which has generally had a good reaction in the publishing world. I looked at my To Be Read pile - which is actually more like a couple of shelves-worth - and realised that many of the books on it had been bought as part of the 3 for 2 promotion. I hadn't really wanted that third book, but got it any way as it was free. Having got it, however, I haven't spent my time reading it.

It's the same with my Kindle. I've downloaded lots of books - mainly the entire works by classic authors such as Henry James and Charles Dickens - but I haven't actually read any of them. The books I have read on my Kindle are the ones I paid for. And more than that, paid a reasonable sum for. (Your definition of what's 'reasonable' will probably be different from mine, but I don't think paying 99p is reasonable for a book that has taken an author maybe a year to write.)

People sometimes tell me that they've bought my books but haven't actually read them, and my standard response has always been, "so long as you've bought them, I don't mind". The flip side is that when someone tells me that they've read all my books from the library, it's hard to be thrilled. I've never been a writer who has said "I just want to be read" - I want to earn a living from writing!

But I wonder if I'm going to have to change my attitude. Someone buying a book for 99p doesn't seem much of an achievement if they don't actually read it. If they don't read it they can't tell other people that they're worth reading, and they won't bother to go and read the rest. Why should they, when they've already got a copy of one of my books waiting to be read?

It's not just about money. As a reader I'm handing over great wodges of my time to read a book. Whether I paid 99p or £7.99 for the product, it's taking up a lot of my leisure time. I want the book to be good because my leisure time is worth a lot to me.

I think anyone who says that they know where publishing is going is a fool. Things are changing too fast and what is true this week may not be true next year, next month, even next week. But a lot of the discussion around publishing - especially epublishing - is based around price. This year, when we've got new reading devices to fill, perhaps price is the key topic. I think however, that selling lots of books at rock bottom prices is a red herring.

What did I do last week? Bought two full priced books, because I wanted them. I've now read them both, along with another book that was lent to me by a friend with a good recommendation. That's anecdotal evidence. But many of the ebooks by best selling authors sell at prices comparable to their paperback price, and are doing well too.

I wonder if 2012 will see quality of reading experience coming to the top of the list, when we choose to be readers rather than just buyers. I hope so.

Monday 5 September 2011

Countdown to Consistency

I have a Countdown Teapot.  For those who don't know it (you fools! or sensible people for having proper jobs and not wasting time watching daytime TV) Countdown is a words and numbers game on Channel 4 at 3.10pm.  A few years ago I auditioned for it, along with my friend Caroline.  

The audition process roughly followed the game, but with 10 people playing each time.  We were given 9 letters and had to find a word containing the most letters in the next 30 seconds.  Ready? The first set of letters were: TICPAETOT. Tick tick tick...

30 seconds later we went round the table each saying our highest scoring word.  My heart was pounding as I declared a 9 letter word.  I was so excited I felt sick, especially as no one else declared a 9.  There was so much adrenaline flowing in my system that I genuinely thought I might have heart failure as I said "petticoat".  

And that was my high point.  My brain was completely scrambled by my initial success and I couldn't focus on anything.  I failed the audition, as did Caroline.  But you were allowed 3 goes at auditioning.  We went again and the same thing happened.  One high score, then nothing.  This time Caroline got through.  She went on the programme, and won her teapot.  I wasn't going to bother to try again (and really, was my heart going to take the strain?) but in the end I did apply.  

By the  time my third and final audition came up a lot had changed in my life and I wasn't watching Countdown as much so I wasn't as worked up about it.  Also Caroline had worked out the secret to passing the audition.  She told me that they were looking for someone who was consistent and therefore wouldn't be embarrassing on the programme.   It was better to always score a 7 or a 6 than get a wide range of 9s and 5s even though the average might be the same.

Reader, I won it. I succeeded in the audition by aiming for 7 letter words not 9 letter ones, went on the programme and won a teapot.  

And the point of all this rambling is that consistency is important also in writing.  It's no good having flashes of brilliance if there are also chunks of lumpen prose.  In fact, if anything it's worse because the flashes of brilliance highlight just how chunky and lumpen the rest is.  All the writing needs to be of the same standard, which obviously should be as high as you can make it.  

So, if you know that dialogue is your weak point, then you have to try to improve it. If feedback tells you your problem is in too much description then you have to learn to wield the axe. Page 1 should be as good as page 5, or page 55.  Or, to extend the metaphor to another TV gameshow, your writing is only as good as The Weakest Link.  

Friday 2 September 2011

Three Cheers for Failure

A friend of mine is trying to move from journalism into fiction.  He's a very talented writer: I love what I've read of his work.  He's aiming high and wants to be a Booker prize contender, which is a fine ambition.  The trouble is, his ambition is preventing him from moving forward.  

He has problems finishing work, endlessly re-writing and editing.  When a short story is finished he won't send it anywhere - he says doesn't want to send it to competitions because there might be issues over copyright should he want to publish a short story collection later on. He also worries that he hasn't yet found his voice.  He tries different styles, different genres.  He destroys a lot of what he writes.  He researches agents and publishers, but somehow never finds one that is suitable for his work - he tells me that it's very important to start as you mean to go on and the wrong agent or publisher can kill your career before it starts.  Well, yes, but... 

What it amounts to is some beautiful writing which only gets read by a select few (I am now off his reading list after I ventured some criticism).  I think it's great when writers write just for themselves - but this writer is ambitious.  He wants to be launched in a blaze of glory. He doesn't want to follow the ordinary path, or so he says.  

I suspect he doesn't send out because at heart he is frightened of failure.  He has set his sights so high that he will be very lucky indeed to succeed.  Ambition is a good thing, but it can also cripple you.  Easier to say 'I'm not ready' than risk being turned down.  

But failure is part of any creative endeavour.  Without failure we can't judge our strengths and weaknesses.  Without failure we won't grow.  Without failure we stay in the same place and stagnate.  Failure means development.  If a writer gets 99 rejections but an acceptance on the 100th, is that writer a success or a failure?  A success even though if they'd given up at 98 they would have been a failure.

I believe that we are all on the same road.  Sometimes we move faster or slower than others.  Sometimes we get a lucky break and jump a section, sometimes we go through bad times and slip backwards.  Luck plays a big part, as does hard work.  If you fail - that is, get a rejection - then you slip back a bit, but you only come off the road if you stop writing and stop trying to move forward.  

Thursday 1 September 2011

Using Beats in Prose

I first came across the word 'beat' a million years ago when I was training to be an actor.  It's used to describe a pause - literally the time taken to say the word beat - in dialogue.  What it does is allow thinking time.  

If a character's dialogue is: 
'I love porridge. Aunt Alice sent us a postcard - did you see it?' 
then there has to be a pause or beat between the two sentences:  
'I love porridge.' (BEAT) 'Aunt Alice sent us a postcard - did you see it?'
because there is a change of direction in the character's thinking from the first sentence to the second, from porridge to the postcard.

On stage the actor would pause or perform some action between the two sentences.  When you got your script for the first time you'd go through marking the beats, working out what the thinking was behind the words. (I acted in a Pinter play once and we spent some time working out how many beats there were to stage directions such as pause (2 beats), long pause (4 beats), brief silence (6 beats) etc.)

That's in acting.  The word beat is used in film scripts, but it's used in the same way - to indicate a pause in dialogue.  And from film the word beat has come into prose to describe the spaces between dialogue.  But in prose we can't hear the characters pause, so we have to write something...

'I love porridge.' She wiped the table down. 'Aunt Alice sent us a postcard - did you see it?'
'I love porridge.' She looked up as the letterbox rattled. 'Aunt Alice sent us a postcard - did you see it?'
'I love porridge.' A mouse ran along the edge of the skirting board. 'Aunt Alice sent us a postcard - did you see it?'

Every time your character changes direction in their thoughts there should be a beat, unless you want to indicate a character whose thoughts just rattle through their head - for example, Miss Bates' long speeches in Jane Austen's Emma.