Friday 29 June 2012

Who Should Teach Creative Writing?

Anyone can teach creative writing.  You don't need special qualifications to set yourself up as a teacher, you just have to do it - or persuade someone to employ you as a teacher.  Nor do you need special qualifications to set yourself up as a book doctor, or editor.  All you have to do is persuade somebody to pay you to read/edit their manuscript.

So, if you're looking for a creative writing class, what should you look for in a teacher? In my opinion they should have at least one of the following three areas.

Publication record
Just because a writer has been published it doesn't make them any good as a teacher.  However, they will at least have some first hand 'how to' knowledge, both of how to write and how to get published.  Does it matter what they've published?  For myself, I'm published in novels and short stories and feel confident about giving feedback on them.  I've also had a film script produced and have acted, so feel able to offer some feedback on scripts - though not with as much confidence as with prose.  I don't read or write poetry, so I don't claim any special knowledge or insight there.  But there's a lot of crossover within the different types of writing so just because someone is, say, a playwright, it doesn't mean that they won't be able to give feedback on prose.

Publishing experience
An editor or agent might not be able to write themselves, but they know what makes a good piece of writing.  Or certainly a sellable one!  They should also know about the business of publishing, probably far more than the average author does.  A good editor is worth their weight in gold and is probably more able to give feedback on a wide range of writing styles than a writer might be able to.

Teaching record
Teaching is a skill that not everyone possesses.  A good teacher makes difficult concepts easy, classes fun while being informative and so on.

Watch out for...

Experience and/or qualifications as an English teacher doesn't automatically make someone able to teach creative writing, especially if they're used to teaching at school level and you're an adult.

Be aware that just being regularly employed is not a mark of a good teacher. Sometimes they are judged by qualities other than teaching ability - I have heard of a writer who gets a lot of work at a particular university, despite getting complaints about his teaching style, because his students routinely get high marks which makes the university look good.  Who does the marking?  Why, he does, thus guaranteeing more employment.  Word of mouth is very important to guard against this.

The publication record that doesn't really exist.  Self publishing doesn't count, unless that's what you're aiming for. 

The cynical writer - type 1. They're out there, and can be bitter about publishing.  I've heard of a creative writing tutor telling their students that there was no point in even trying to get published, it was so difficult to get in.

The cynical writer - type 2.  They believe that teaching is a doddle, money for old rope.  I've actually heard a writer say that people were so grateful to meet a published writer, that's all you needed to do.

But don't let the fact that there are some not so good creative writing tutors out there stop you from joining a class.  You can learn something from almost anyone, and making a commitment to going a regular class will help motivate your writing.  Overall I think writing classes are great, no matter who is teaching!

Thursday 28 June 2012

Writing Believable Declarations of Love

I'm busy re-writing this love scene, so declarations of love are much on my mind.  Recently I've read some love scenes that didn't work for me.  My main problem was not that characters declare love for each other, it was the circumstances of how love was declared.

1.  The announcement out of the blue.
The reader doesn't see the announcement coming.  Now, this could work if the scene is in character A's viewpoint, and Character B makes the declaration.  But then you'd expect A to be surprised, even if they were delighted.  If they just go, 'I love you too,' without having any other expression (internal thoughts or external dialogue) it makes them come across as a) emotionally flat lining and/or b) extremely conceited as it comes across as if they expect people to declare love.  

2.  The characters who hate each other
I know, I know, it's a favourite from Pride and Prejudice onwards - they meet, they don't like each other, they fall in love.  But in P&P we see both Lizzie and Darcy's development, from his early crass declaration and her refusal, to his second proposal and her acceptance.  We know she has changed her opinion of him almost before she does.  This takes simply doesn't work if that morning the characters were at each other's throats but by elevenses they are cuddling up to each other and looking gooey eyed.

3.  The oblique declaration
When I was about 18, an old school friend I was visiting at university told me that we were destined to be together, and that later on we'd get married.  Perhaps I was suppose to blush, and agree thereby showing my own feelings.  Given there was no romance at all between us up to that point, and from my point of view felt there never would be, I smiled politely and didn't say anything. Not seen him since.  But he was young. Do adults go round making these sort of declarations without even having had some indications that their affections are seriously reciprocated?  I don't think so.  In other words, the reader should be also aware of it.  

4.  The immediate declaration
A close friend of mine walked into a university lecture theatre and was spotted by another student who turned to his friend and declared, 'that's the girl I"m going to marry.'  He managed to meet her, chatted her up, they went out with each other, and did indeed marry - and have been married for more than 30 years.  The point is, he didn't tell her about his feelings until they'd been together for some time.   Again, do sensible adults meet someone they like, and within a few minutes declare their feelings?  And if they do, do we as readers believe that those feelings are genuine and well founded?

So, what makes a believable declaration of love?  Well, the opposite of the above points, in my opinion.  Characters don't have to like each other from the start but the writer must give them time to change.  They ought to be circumspect in the timing of their declaration, and if they do behave impulsively they out to be aware of that (unless they are either 15 or it isn't going to be a realistic love at this time, though again it could develop in time).

And above all, the reader must be along for the ride.  What's the point of having a romantic story if the reader doesn't live it vicariously?

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Writing That Works For Others

I've been re-writing a love scene recently.  I thought it was fine, but my workshop group all turned up their noses at it.  They didn't find him charming, and thought she came across as naive at best, a fool at worst.  I stared at the scene, trying to see it through their eyes.  Which I could do, hence the re-write.  But I know at the time of writing I was so caught up in the excitement of the moment I saw only what I wanted to see, not what I'd actually written.

It's a situation that crops up a lot of the time.  Someone writes a scene that they can fully imagine.  It's utterly clear to them, you can see on their faces that they don't get why it isn't equally clear to you.  'But it's there,' they say, tapping the manuscript.

We peer at the manuscript together. Um, no it isn't.

The other tactic is to claim that it's between the lines.  'I don't want to spell it out for the reader,' they say.  'I like sparse writing.'

Fine - up to a point.  I have read manuscripts that have avoided stating things that really shouldn't be mysteries.  If the scene is about, say, a confession by one character to another, then there's no purpose achieved in making the reader worry about whether the scene takes place in a train or a moving car.   Why not say where the characters are?  By all means be subtle about the confession, and its implications, but the location?  Why choose that?

We as writers have to be aware that the reader only has our words to create the scenes we want to scroll across their imaginations.  They want to do some work - work which is genuinely spelled out makes for very dull reading - but they don't want to have to second guess their way through the whole thing.  Sometimes spades need to be called spades if it's to work for someone else.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Too Much Detail v Too Little Detail

Nice Girls Do was centred around an C18th landscape garden so of course I had to describe it, so the reader could get an idea of what it was like.  It was a complicated lay out within a steep sided valley, based on a real garden that I'd visited plus my own twiddly bits added on, and I wrote it all out in great detail - down here for fifty feet, along there until a sharp right hand turn, zigzagging down the valley, up six steps then along a bit then curving to the left...

No one in my writing group had a clue what I was going on about.  They were trying to visualise this 3-D description and getting hugely lost but more than that, they were struggling to remember all the details because that level of detail implied that it was all important information that they'd need later on.

It was a great lesson for me.  It didn't matter at all if the readers could visualise the garden exactly as I saw it, all that mattered was that they had a visual image.  I could have written, 'it's very overgrown and in a valley with a lake at the bottom' and that would have been enough detail for the reader to imagine the garden.

But not enough detail for the garden to seem real.  You need some specific details - the smaller the better - for a place or thing to seem real.  It's that specific garden, not any old generic garden.  The trick is to concentrate on atmospheric details - the scent of decaying leaves on the path, the play of sun light through the gently swaying branches - rather than any detail that involves measurement or the reader having to work something out - along fifty feet, down eight steps, north of the summer house.  

It's not really a question of too much detail or too little detail, it's more the sort of detail. Quality, not quantity.

Monday 25 June 2012

Keeping The Reader Within The Story World

I was reading a charming story for children about some little mice when - wham!  suddenly I was jerked out of the fantasy.  The mice were walking paw in paw.  Now, up until that point, I was enjoying the story and not really thinking about the level of anthropomorphism.  I accepted that the mice were living a human lifestyle, with mousy additions.  But that one phrase took me into reality - if the mice were walking paw in paw they had to be up on their hind legs, and that created a visual picture that jarred with my vague imaginings.  Worse, once I'd been taken out of the story, the rest of the fantasy was undermined.

We can accept all sorts of things as being real within a story, from the wizarding world of Harry Potter to the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  But the second something challenges the reality of the story world, the whole thing falls apart.

All fiction is a fantasy.  If a character behaves in a way nobody would in real life, the fantasy is exposed.  How many single women, on returning to their flat, start to take off their clothes without turning on any lights?  According to a certain type of film, this happens all the time, but when I see it any tension dissipates as I stop suspending disbelief.  In a romance, I'm quite happy for the central couple to bicker their way through the first three quarters of the book before realising they're in love, but the change has to be gradual.  If it's bicker, bicker, bicker, oh look we're in love! you've lost me.

Implausibility takes the reader out of the story world more than anything else, but any hiccup in the reader experience is to be avoided.  That's why, if someone says they didn't get something your reaction shouldn't be to defend your work but find out exactly what it was that made them leave the story world.   Because if they leave, you've lost them.

Friday 22 June 2012

Why Faking It Is Better Than The Real Thing

Recently the True Love series ran on television, but I didn't watch it despite the impressive cast of actors.  The advance publicity was flagging up that the actors had improvised the scripts as if it was a plus point, but I've been an actor and I've performed in improvised plays and what it's taught me is that 'actor' and 'writer' are different words.

Improvised dialogue feels right.  It feels natural.  It comes from a emotion that feels real to the actor.  There appears to be an authenticity, which is the Holy Grail in acting.

But do we really want to watch (or read) real life?  No - because we're living it ourselves.  I suppose there must have been some Big Brother afficionados who watched every second of footage from the house, but they must have been thin on the ground.  We watch and read fiction instead.

Fiction isn't real.  It has structure - which real life often doesn't.  It has purpose - which real life often doesn't.  It has meaning - which real life often doesn't. It has an ending - which real life doesn't (even if you die, life carries on).

The trick is to make fiction appear like real life.  It's real life but with purpose, structure, meaning and an ending.  That's what the writer adds.  So don't tell me it's improvised - I can do that in the comfort of my own home.

When we write fiction it isn't about us and how we feel, it's about how we make the reader feel. And that takes craft.

That's my blog post.  And now:

A Boring Anecdote To Prove The Point from when I was an actor...

I was playing Ruth in The Silver Sword, a play about a group of Jewish children fleeing Poland and trying to get to Switzerland where they hoped they might be reunited with their parents.  Ruth is the oldest, and leader of the children.  In rehearsals, the reunion scene always made me cry (shades of Jenny Agutter crying 'my daddy!' in The Railway Children) and several of the other actors congratulated me for feeling the emotions, for living the part.

Come to the performances, and my group of children has gone from the two other professional actors to a troupe from the local stage school.  In the big reunion scene they were all fidgeting and whispering on stage behind me.  I couldn't get into my emotions!  I didn't cry!  My whole performance was ruined.  For three nights this was a problem.  The children fidgeted and whispered, I didn't cry, it was a disaster.  (For me as an actor.  The play was fine.)

Then I got over it.  I would have to act, instead of 'being there in the moment'.  That night, the children fidgeted and whispered, and I acted my Jenny Agutter moment instead of living it.  To my surprise, there seemed to be a lot of white things waving in the audience.  As I'm hugging my father and mother on stage, I'm also squinting at the audience trying to see what was going on.

It was handkerchiefs.  People in the audience - and quite a lot of them - were crying. I was AMAZED.

And that's how it went on. night after night.  When I genuinely got caught up in the moment and cried, the audience didn't.  When I acted, the audience did.

So as a writer, I ask myself - who do I want to get emotionally involved?  Me?  Or the reader?  Both is best, but if I have to use craft and not my own feelings to get the reader going, then that's what happens.  The reader comes first.  Always.

Thursday 21 June 2012

6 Ways Of Using 'Find and Replace' You Might Not Have Thought Of

Like most people I use Word as my word processing software. You'll find the Find/Replace button if you go to Edit on the top bar, then you're offered Find - which will just find a word - or Replace, which will find a word and then replace it. I use Find and Replace a lot when I'm writing and editing.

1. When writing and I get stuck and want to jump I put XXX and then make the leap. Later on I can Find all those XXXs and then stick in whatever's needed to make the link.

2. When writing I might get an idea for a previous scene. Instead of scrolling back I put XXX and then make a note. Later, I use Find and look at all those notes.

3. When writing I know I've got certain...shall we say, quirks? If I'm stuck for a gesture on the first draft, I often have characters running their hands through their hair. This is fine once, twice maybe, but too many times and all my characters would look like cockatoos. Finding the phrase "running his hand" or "he ran his hand" means I can think of something better.

4. Which do you prefer? She felt as if a sledgehammer had whacked her...or...Bam! A sledgehammer whacked her...or...his words hit her like a sledgehammer. I could go on with different versions of sledgehammering, but the least effective uses "She felt". It's a distancing phrase, it puts the reader at arms length by telling us how she feels rather than showing. Bam! let's us feel the sledgehammer at the same time as she does. As a general rule, all "she felt"s can go, and Find is a useful tool for hunting them down. I also do it with "seemed" and "that" and have done it for adverbs too - type in ly and see how many come up.

5. Names. My characters change names a lot when I'm writing, especially minor ones. And then at the end I go back and check I haven't used similar names - I speak as one whose first draft of her first novel featured Patrick, Pat, George, Gerry and Jenny. It's easy to change names using Find and Replace BUT be careful before you press the OK button. I have changed names like Gus to Nick, and ended up with words like AuNickt and disNickting. Get round it by adding spaces before and after the names, or press the Next button rather than All so you can check each one before you change.

6. If I cut bits out from a draft I stick them at the end of the document so I have them to hand if I either want them back, or think there might be a nifty phrase or bit of dialogue lurking that I can use later. I put *THE END* at the end of the book (which is good for morale) and then cut and paste them after it.  (Putting the * * means I don't get mixed up with phrases like 'she thought it was the end of everything'.)  That way I can easily find where I am so far, and how much of the whole document is discard.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

How do you change a duvet cover?  I always feed one corner of the duvet into the new cover, then hold it securely while I do the other corner, then shake the cover down.  A friend does something clever with starting with the cover inside out and then flipping it over, which they insist is a far better way than mine. I think it is too, except I can't seem to work out the mechanics and spend longer trying to work out what I'm supposed to be doing than I do on changing the cover.

The 'flip it over' method doesn't come naturally to me.  Neither does planning a novel.  I've tried it, and enjoyed setting it all out on cards, and doing little charts and all sorts of colour co-ordinated bits, but when it came to actually writing the thing, I couldn't.  The story I wanted to write was something quite different, and whenever I tried to wrestle it back into the plan, I couldn't.

Stephen King sets out without a plan at all.  Ken Follett does 300 page plans (and yes, that is about half the length of the novel, and I'd think at this point I'd start calling it a draft, but it's a plan to him).  Ruth Rendall plans her novels, writes them, then changes who the murderer is, re-writes the novel. I've heard of other novelists collecting snippets of writing in a file and gradually seeing how they work themselves into a story.

Some people plan, some people don't.  Some people lay down the law that the only way to write a novel is to do this, or that, or follow this formula, or let your muse roam free. Some people are very convincing and persuasive about their writing method, so convincing you think that if only you could use that way of writing, you'd be as good as them.

The only way to write is to try every method out and see what happens.  Hopefully you'll have fun along the way, even if you do go down a few dead ends and blind alleys. The only right method is the one that works for you. And in the end, so long as the bed gets made, does it really matter how you got there?

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Being A Writer Shouldn't Be Depressing, Honest

Someone recently got in touch about my blog saying nice things, but adding that they found it 'also a bit depressing sometimes when you highlight the plight of the debut writer and how difficult it is to get published.'

Oh dear.  Nothing could be further from my intention because I don't think the road to getting published is depressing at all.  As far as I can see, getting published is open to anyone, of any age, background, colour, creed, nationality, shape, size, whatever.  Anyone, absolutely anyone, can get published.

Personally, I think that's cheering.  What I accept might be depressing is quite how competitive it is, but that's true for most endeavours that  are worth doing.

For instance, I didn't realise until I started working at the University of Bath, where many of our elite athletes train, exactly what those young people put themselves through.  Hours and hours of training, day in, day out, for year after year.  Diet constantly monitored, no fun and games, sponsorship only for the lucky few, and real success only for one or two out of the hundreds who are training - and that's just at Bath.

It's hard doing almost anything and most things require years of training and practice - it takes about the same time to learn how to blow glass properly as it does to become a doctor.  Why not writing as well?

So you learn, you practice, you get better.  It takes time.  Yes, a few lucky people get there more quickly than others, but so long as you constantly keep on learning, keep on improving, keep on pushing at the door I believe it will eventually open.

The key to opening the door is writing something good, and that's possible for all of us.  Keep trying, keep on improving, keep writing, keep learning, keep pushing the door.  The only way to fail is to stop trying.

Monday 18 June 2012

Describing Places

The holidays are looming and lots of writers are heading off for places with notebooks hoping to capture some local colour that they can use in their writing.  But what to capture, and how to use it?

When I go to a location I'm going to use I take a camera  but my notebook is much more useful.  In it I record any thing about a location that I couldn't get from a guide book, such as smells, sounds and tiny details that you'd only know if you'd actually been there.   I write details about specific places at the front, and more general observations in the middle.

These are some general details about Rome, as written in my notebook:

Tiny cars - have some that look like Cousin It in the Adams family
Down every street lines of parked scooters - Lambrettas & Vespas
Constantly changing road surface - tarmac, cobbles, flagstones
Lots and lots of specialist shops.  Row after row of different knives, for cooking, for doing anything.  Clippers for nails and nasal hair - who would have thought that the world needed so many varieties of nasal hair clippers? Pen knives, chisels for wood carving, Canadian dental cream with retro pictures of Canadian Mountie, at the back an advertising poster with Mountie plus blonde haired girl in red chequered shirt, drawn into impossibly tiny waist and v 50s pointy breasts.
More is definitely not less here.
Pope shop - red, purple, scarlet, orange. Flat shoes for nuns - 69 pairs.

(I can remember counting the shoes.)

This ended up in A Single to Rome as:

    Another cobbled narrow street, then another, punctuated by random shops.  One was selling nothing but clerical items, everything from wimples and dog collars to shining gold-embroidered capes fit for a pope, and sixty-nine pairs of sensible shoes and sandals in shades of grey, beige and black.  Another had nothing but rows and rows of different types of knives.  Knives for cooking, for cutting, for hacking down jungle undergrowth, penknives and chisels for wood carving, and an extraordinary selection of nasal-hair clippers.  It had never occurred to Natalie before that there could be so much choice for a nasal-hair clipper, but here they were, offering different sizes, different grips, different mechanisms.
    Street surfaces constantly changed from tarmac to cobbles to flagstones, and down every street were lines of motorcycles, mostly Lambretta and Vespas but also other bigger machines.  Dotted between them were minute cars, some that looked as if they belonged to Cousin Itt in the Addams Family.

(The Mountie and his girl never made it - not specifically Italian enough.)

The most important point is that if anyone wanted to use your novel or short story as a guide book they would have gone out and got a guide book in the first place.  Your descriptions need to create the world your characters live in, rather than be a list of facts.  

This section has quite a lot of description in one go, but Natalie is exploring the city for the first time, and this is what she sees...what I saw...what I hope the reader sees along with Natalie.  Obviously writers are able to recreate places without having been there - in A Single to Rome, I also wrote in detail about an entirely imaginary museum - but the more real stuff there can be, and the smaller the detail, the better.  Real rings true.

Friday 15 June 2012

3 Time Sucks That Can Be Dumped For Writing

Which would you rather have on your tombstone: 'watched the complete boxed set of Mad Men' or 'wrote a novel'?

Writers watch television, of course they do (lunchtime wouldn't be lunch without Bargain Hunt IMO) but only after they've done the writing, not before.  If you've had a heavy day at work then coming home and vegging out on the sofa is attractive, but first try sitting down to write for just 10 minutes.  You will feel much much better for it.  Promise. (You can always make watching the boxed set of Mad Men your writing reward.)

Which would you rather have on your tombstone: 'her children's socks were always ironed' or 'wrote a novel'?

A certain amount of time has to be spent on domesticity unless you want to live in a slum but surprising amounts can be ditched.  Ironing can go - buy stuff that doesn't need it.  It's not child abuse to train your children to tidy up after themselves, and they can learn to use the washing machine and hoover and load the dish washer.

Which would you rather have on your tombstone: 'went to parties' or 'wrote a novel'?

Speaking from experience, life goes on once you ditch dinner parties and the like.  You have fewer acquaintances, but that seems a fair trade off to me.  Things like Twitter and Facebook can give the illusion of a social life, but they're also time sucks.  Use a kitchen timer.

So, television, domesticity and socialising are my top 3 time sucks.  What about yours?

Thursday 14 June 2012

Persistence and Practice Works

I've just made 5 Roman blinds for my house.  The first two took a lot of swearing and are a bit wonky, the third involved a lot of unpicking and resewing and the fourth has copious quantities of my blood spread between the 4th and 5th bar where I stabbed myself with a pin and didn't notice until it was too late. The fifth is just about perfect and took a quarter of the time of the first blind.

In other words, I got better with practice.

Same with writing.  It's a lovely idea that writing just pitches up on the page without any effort on the writer's part but It's Not True.  If you do a lot of it (of anything!), you get better and more efficient, and you have confidence that you can succeed.

Persist. Practice. Get better. Succeed.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Feedback, and Adults v the Inner Child

I couldn't find any cushions in the sort of colours and design I wanted.  Then I had a bright idea - I would make some!  I bought some cheap plain covers, fabric paint, felt and glue, and spent a happy evening painting and sticking.  The results were brilliant, and I was as pleased as anything with myself.

I showed them to one friend, who made nice (but in restrospect I realise rather non-committal) comments. Then I showed them to another friend.  The reaction was immediate: 'They're horrible.'

I whipped them away.  'It was just an experiment,' I said as nonchalantly as I could.

My friend realised the mistake and tried to make amends by saying they hadn't realised I'd made them, that they thought they'd come from a cheap shop; if anything that made it worse.  The cushions were despatched to the darkness of the cupboard under the stairs.  I was devastated, and have never attempted anything like that again.

I wonder how many people get put off creative writing in exactly that way?

They have an idea and write it up, show it to their friends or at a creative writing class, it doesn't go down too well and so they give up feeling hurt and bruised by the experience.  Quite a lot of people I've met have been put off writing by a negative teacher at school.

It's about standards, I suppose.  Should the fact we've attempted something outside our comfort zone be applauded regardless of the quality of the work?  Yes, of course.  And if we were children, that praise would probably be the end of it. But we're adults. In the adult world there are standards - reader enjoyment, entertainment, comprehension, etc which often get summed up as 'publishable'.

The problem with getting adult feedback is that creativity is about letting your inner child free.  It's that inner child that gets hurt by the negative comments.

As someone who frequently gives feedback on creative writing, I'm conscious of walking a tricky line.  Do I respond to the adult before me, or the child?  The adult wants feedback on how to make their work publishable; the child is vulnerable to any hint of criticism.  It's  hard to satisfy both and I get it wrong some of the time, for which I apologise profusely.  I know how upset I was about those cushions...

...but they really weren't very good.  Who was kinder - the nice friend or the one who told me how it was?  It's a mixture - I needed to know what was wrong so I could improve, but not so brutally I crumpled inside and gave up.  It's tricky because we're all different.  But then, if everything was easy, nothing would be worth doing, would it? 

Tuesday 12 June 2012

7 Heart Sink Things For A Would Be Writer To Say

An unscientific compilation of things I've heard agents and editors say makes their heart sink and why.

1. It's true...
a) if you're writing fiction, so what - does it work as a story?
b) you're likely to be extremely touchy to work with because 'it didn't happen like that'

2. I've always wanted to be a writer...
a) why do you think that makes you different from lots of other people?
b) why do you think wanting to do something makes you able to do it? (I'd love to speak fluent Italian, but I don't.)

3. My mother/children/workshop group loved it...
a) of course they do - they love/cherish you.
b) are they known arbiters of writing eg an editor or book buyer for Tesco

4. What it really means is...
If it isn't there in the writing, it isn't there.  You can't be explaining it to every reader who might read your book.

5. This book will make you millions!
a) hardly any books make millions, no matter how rich JK Rowling is.
b) to claim that yours will shows that you know very little about publishing.

6. I wrote it last week...

Um...quality control?

And last, but absolutely not least on the Heart Sink monitor - 

7. My fiction novel.
It doesn't bode well for your use of the English language. 

Monday 11 June 2012

A Point Of View Lesson From Shakespeare

There's a simple rule for choosing Point of View:  which character is the most interesting stuff happening to?  Interesting stuff could be internal eg a moment of realisation or external eg a car chase.  However, the chances are in any one scene more than one character has interesting stuff going on and sometimes however it's not so clear about who to chose.

Take Othello.  There are three main characters: Othello, Iago and Desdemona. 

Othello is a brave and honourable man with a weakness -  jealousy. He's going to be influenced by Iago into believing his faithful wife Desdemona is actually unfaithful.  In a fit of jealousy he murders her.  When Desdemona is vindicated, in remorse he kills himself.

Iago is a clever man who has been overlooked for promotion and therefore wants revenge on Othello.  He persuades Othello that his wife has been unfaithful, driving Othello to murder.  Afterwards, his own wife spills the beans that it was all a plot by Iago, and Iago is arrested and sentenced to death.

Desdemona is Othello's faithful wife.  Accused of adultery she protests her innocence but still gets murdered by the jealous Othello.

So they all die in the end. (Hope that wasn't a plot spoiler for anyone...)

But who has the most going on?  It's fairly obvious that Desdemona has very little to play with.  Iago has a lot of interesting elements to play with - thwarted ambition, deviousness, manipulation, but as a baddie he's a bit one note.  Othello on the other hand has a great character arc full of change from honour to jealousy to murder to remorse.

Which might explain why it's called Othello, rather than Iago.  Shakespeare shows that the interesting stuff - internal or external - is all about the character who has the most change.

Friday 8 June 2012

Writers Who Take Entrenched Positions

Over the last couple of days I've been a casual bystander for a few online squabbles and scraps ranging from Mac v PC, self-publishing v traditional publishing, the definition of 'legacy' and so on.  On Twitter I've also quietly unfollowed a few people with trenchant political opinions which they show no shyness in sharing, or those who are constantly plugging their books despite the fairly well known advice that it's counter productive.

But part of me is fascinated by those who a) have such strong opinions and b) seem to show a complete lack of awareness that others might not share them.  I have opinions, but rarely feel the need to share them with other people.

To me, that's part of being a writer.  I spend so long thinking about people's point of view in fiction, trying to get inside their heads, that seeing things from all angles gets to be a habit.  Character X may behave badly, but if I don't understand why, if I'm not at least aware of the reasons behind the behaviour I won't be able to write X with any conviction.  And when X is speaking of their opinions I have to believe them regardless of what they are or the dialogue won't ring true.

I've trained myself to think from other people's point of view, and that has passed into my life.  If some one real does something or says something I disagree with, I immediately think about why they think that and try to see it from their point of view. It tends to take the heat out of things.

So when I see writers banging on and on about this or that, I wonder what their writing is like.  It makes me feel that it will be populated by one dimensional characters who all sound the same.  Anyway, that's my opinion and I'm sticking to it...

Thursday 7 June 2012

The Trick Of Writing Pitch Letters And Pitches

Pitch letters and pitches appear impossible things to get right - I've heard lots of people say they find writing the pitch harder than writing a novel.  But there is a different way to look at them which should help.

Let's suppose your submission to an agent has worked and they've taken you and your book on.  Now what?  They sell it to a publisher - that's obvious.  But how do they sell it?

They use whatever you said in your pitch letter as the basis for their pitch. So, when you're writing your pitch, think of someone else using those words to sell your book to another person and then ask yourself if you would buy a book on that basis.

A mother of three from Portsmouth - would you buy a book on that basis?
An accountant with an interest in railways - would you buy a book on that basis?
A novel that's taken ten years to write - would you buy a book on that basis?
A novel that's based on a dream someone had last summer - would you buy a book on that basis?

All these may be true and interesting to you, but I don't think they would sell a book to a stranger.  What about...

She's won several short story competitions.  He's had articles published before.  The novel's a Cold War thriller/a time slip romance/a journey of self discovery...

Keep asking yourself - would you part with your hard earned cash on that basis?  If the answer is no, then don't write it in the pitch.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Celebrations For Writers

As we've spent the weekend celebrating the Diamond Jubilee, it made me think about writing celebrations.  In my experience, writers tend to be a self deprecating lot who are always worried about their work and tend not to celebrate their achievements.

Celebrate finishing anything however long, from a flash fiction to a novel.  Any piece of writing that is finished is worth more than the piece that languishes half done or stays in the writer's head.

Celebrate sending work out.  There's no such thing as a perfect bit of writing but it can be hard to accept that tinkering around the edges a little bit more won't make it so.  Send it out - and celebrate the achievement.

Celebrate a contact made.  Yes, we can be successful working at home and never getting involved in the writing community, but it's harder.  Networking is part of being a writer, even if it's as simple as finding a writing partner to exchange work with.

Celebrate every success you have, no matter how small or humble.  The Chinese proverb says that the journey of 10,000 steps starts with a single step - so celebrate the fact that you've just made another step.

Celebrate every bit of positive feedback you get.  Believe it or not, people generally don't say nice things 'just to be kind'; they tend to say nothing at all.  If someone says something nice, they mean it.  Celebrate it.

In fact, celebrate just about anything and everything.  There are plenty of people out there who seem to emit negative energy; be someone who looks for the brighter side and celebrate that.  Cheers!

Friday 1 June 2012

Writing Confidence

On Wednesday I wrote a new scene for the WIP, and cut 7,000 words.  On Thursday I cut another 2,000 words and re-wrote the new scene completely.  I didn't bother to save any of the cut words, or the first version of the new scene, because I knew I had done the right thing.

Why?  Because in the first version of the scene, the main character comes in with a bit of good news, and is a bit disappointed by someone else's reaction to it.  In the new version, the main character discovers a bit of good news at the beginning of the scene, is diverted by someone's reaction to something else, which changes the good news into bad news and they make a major decision as a result.

That's what I mean by writing confidence.  It's not blind confidence in my writing, but that I can recognise  when something doesn't work, and be prepared to ditch it and start again to write it better. In the first version, nothing much happens - the good news was revealed in the previous scene, so all that is left is really a bit of disappointment.  In the second version, we see the character discovering the good news, see it turn to bad news, see the character make a major decision.

I've analysed what has happened for the purpose of this blog, but I didn't need to analyse the scenes to feel that the first version was light weight and on the following morning to know I needed to re-write.  I didn't know before I started writing that the character was going to make their decision, but I realised quite early on in the re-write that that was an option and recognised it as a good choice.

Developing your confidence in your own judgement is essential for a writer.  If you don't, a) you will always need feedback from others and b) you're at the mercy of everyone else's opinion of your work.

Peggy Ramsay, a legendary agent in the 1950s and 60s for playwrights such as Harold Pinter, Joe Orton and John Osborne, said, "If you believe you have talent, be generous with it."  In other words, trust that your talent will out, and discard anything that's less than your best because you believe better words will come.  And if you write it, they will.  Promise.

That's writing confidence.