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Archive for category How to write a book
I’m thinking about this because of a review I saw this week of a novel billed in The Times as science fiction, which sounded rather disappointing – and it’s put me on a bit of a mission.
I haven’t read the book so it would be wrong of me to name it, but it concerned a new planet populated by humanlike aliens. The main threads are the bringing of God to the indigenous people, and the exploitation of its resources by mining companies.
It seemed this story could have been set anywhere. The human challenges were no different from those in a historical novel. The other-world setting didn’t add anything fresh, except maybe to save the writer some research. (I see a lot of science fiction – and fantasy – novels that are written for this reason. If you invent the world, you can’t be accused of getting it wrong.)
But shouldn’t we be doing something better with science fiction (and fantasy)?
Bob Shaw says, in How To Write Science Fiction, that science fiction’s defining quality is that it deals with ‘otherness’. Whether it’s in the future, the present or the past, it’s about realities we don’t have at the moment.
He also says that the central idea in a science-fiction story is so important it should have the status of a major character. It needs to be developed and explored. It changes what people can do, creates new situations that illuminate the human condition. It adds a new quality of strangeness. And Shaw also says if that concept is taken away, the story should fall apart.
One of Shaw’s own short stories illustrates this. Light of Other Days sprang from an idea about an invention called ‘slow glass’, which allows you to see an event or a setting that happened years earlier. And so a man whose wife and child died in an accident can still see them, every day, in the windows of his house.
Take, by contrast, Andy Weir’s The Martian. An astronaut is trapped on Mars and has to make enough air, food and water to survive. It’s genuinely an addictive read and I loved it, but it could just as easily be happening in Antarctica or on a deserted island. The science provides the particular challenges and the possibilities, but it does not change the human essence of the story.
We’re used to thinking that any story outside the Earth’s atmosphere is science fiction, but they’re not. They’re survival stories. But take the slow glass out of Light of Other Days and you’d have no story at all. That’s science fiction.
The Martian is a great read. The other novel may be too. But it’s a pity if the critical press and the literary community are presenting them as examples of good science fiction.
Science fiction should be a literature of the imagination. I think it’s a shame if we forget this. The same goes for fantasy – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book is a deeply invented world, and very different from The Jungle Book, which inspired it.
We only have to look at our own, real past to see how science fiction and fantasy should grapple with the idea of transformation. Every invention in the history of humanity shows us this. Think of electric light – we can change society and the very fabric of life with an idea like that. With phones – and particularly mobiles – we are reinventing the way society works, saving lives and creating new types of crime. With scientific narrative non-fiction like Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we also have a model for writing great science fiction. We can examine the impact of a scientific discovery and the quantum changes it brought, in individual lives and for global corporations.
Science fiction works on this same continuum, the scale of human change. A great science fiction idea should allow us to send humanity to startling new places with new advantages, cruelties and injustices. And those are places in our souls, not just other planets.
So – rant over. I’m hoping this isn’t too abstruse or marginalising for some of the regulars here, but you do know how I love the strange … Do you write science fiction or fantasy? What are the ideas you’re grappling with? How do you refine them or test if they will be bold enough? Would they pass the Bob Shaw test?
POSTSCRIPT How could I have forgotten one of my favourite things about science fiction? It took Dan Holloway to remind me of it in a comment – the reason these ideas prove so beguiling is that they are metaphorically resonant. They enable us to see aspects of humanity that aren’t yet visible. Do read Dan’s full comment below.
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Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Many of us do. While certain principles can be learned well from both media, others can’t.
I’ve already discussed a few points in previous posts – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view and dialogue. Today I’m going to look at description.
Description in prose aims to give the reader an experience. It fills in the specifics. Description in scripts or screenplays – and novels by writers who don’t read a lot of prose – is often labels or generics. Let me show you what I mean.
The writer who is more tuned to movies might describe ‘1970s furniture’, or ‘a battered car’. But a great description in prose will talk about the chair shaped like a giant egg, the Toyota with a mismatched door and an unlevel fender.
The movie-fan’s description of a person might be ‘a man in his 60s’, or ‘a well-preserved lady’.
But what does that look like? In prose, it’s the writer’s job to show us – and not just the physical basics of blue eyes, age or a dapper dress sense.
A great piece of prose description will put the person in the room with you, with expressions and impressions that give them life.
Here’s John le Carre from A Small Town in Germany:
Bradfield was a hard-built, self-denying man, thin-boned and well preserved, of that age and generation which can do with very little sleep. *
A writer who doesn’t get a steady diet of prose tends to describe a street as ‘rough’ or ‘average-looking’ or ‘smart’. They might use place names, such as ‘Fenchurch Street’ or ‘Friedrichstrasse’. These names do add a certain atmosphere, but they are little more than labels. They don’t create the experience for the reader.
You need to identify what you want the reader to conclude about the street – and supply the specific details that will let them conclude it. The rough street might have overturned dustbins or litter on a balding patch of grass. The smart one might have front doors painted in expensive shades of sludge. If you want an ‘average’ street, decide what makes the street average and describe that.
That doesn’t mean you can’t also observe that it is ‘average’ – indeed, it might suit the personality of the narrative to add a judgement. But you have to qualify what ‘average’ is. My idea of average won’t be the same as yours – and might not suit your narrative at all.
Versatility of prose
And indeed, prose description can do more than just tell us what’s there. If you’re showing the weather, you can use it to add atmosphere – it can be like music to underline a mood. If you’re writing a description of a person from a character’s point of view, show what jumps out at them, and use it to illuminate their personality or situation. Perhaps he is meeting his girlfriend again after spending time away. Is it like seeing a tunnel back to their old life? Is she less glamorous than he imagined because he’s now moved on? Is she a poignant blast of comfort, showing how lost he now feels?
What’s in your head? Put that on the page
Many writers who make this mistake usually have an impression in their mind’s eye. So you have to make sure to put it into the reader’s imagination. Examine what you want them to see, and write it.
*There’s a longer discussion of this point in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2
Thanks for the pic Daniela Vladimirova
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good description? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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Right now, my voice actor Sandy is in her recording booth, speaking like a bod. Lifeform Three, my second novel, is currently in production as an audiobook, so this week I went to an event in London hosted by ACX and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Audible president Jason Ojalvo and author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn were speaking, and they had some interesting points on the business of choosing and working with a voice actor. (For an introduction to how to work with ACX, including auditioning actors, look at this post.)
Male or female
So a female author or a male main character must need a certain gender of voice actor, right? (And if you’re crossing the gender divide, how do you choose?)
Actually, it’s less of a cut-and-dried rule than you’d think. Jason said he’d often had authors who’d specified they wanted a female voice, then when a male actor had auditioned it had been the perfect match – even in genres like romance, whose readership are very definite in their expectations.
Jason made the point that the book – or the author’s work in audio – might have a voice that’s independent of the voice of the author or the character; it is its own identity. We’ll come back to this.
When I originally looked for a voice actor, I specified a British accent, but as many of you probably know, the narrator I chose is from the US. Initially I got a lot of US actors auditioning because I was one of the guinea-pig authors when ACX launched in the UK – they hadn’t yet got a bank of UK actors to choose from. So I heard a smorgasbord of attempts to ‘do British’, some convincing and some not. But I soon realised it didn’t matter after a few minutes anyway. The accent was irrelevant. The interpretation of the book went deeper than a voice’s characteristic twang, or lack of it. What was actually important was the voice actor’s understanding of the work.
And Sandy, regardless of the flavour of her English, was the most in tune with the novel. She also liked a lot of books that I liked. I picked her.
Same voice for all your books?
Jason said if you have a series, listeners expect the same voice throughout or it breaks the story world. Authors of standalone books, obviously, might search for new narrators each time. I’m happy with Sandy for both my novels even though they are different in tone – because she works well with my style and outlook.
Joanna has two series, so she cast a narrator for each. Funnily enough, we might have ended up with the same one, as the narrator for her dark crime series was one of the auditioners for My Memories of a Future Life! Small world.
Hunting for narrators
You’re not limited to only the voice actors who approach you – and indeed, many authors don’t find an ideal match that way. Jason encouraged authors to hunt around the ACX narrator profiles, listen to their samples and invite them to audition for yours. Or some authors do what I did – if you know a voice actor who’d be perfect, introduce them to the system.
Working with unfamiliar accents
Joanna, like me, is British, and ended up working with an American narrator. Once into the recording process she found there were pronunciations that were alien to her Brit-tuned ears but natural to the US narrator. What to do about them? Tomayto or tomahhto?
Before recordings start, you need to discuss this, and also tricky pronunciations such as character or place names. Sandy and I talked about it. I suspected there would be many more variations than I’d have be able to think of. If I’d decided ‘leisure’ couldn’t be ‘leesure’, I’d have then, for the sake of consistency, had to pull her up on words I never dreamed had a US difference until I heard them.
And the difference goes further than isolated words – sentence emphasis is also radically different. US English stresses the adjective in a phrase like ‘lying on a sticky mat’. UK English stresses the noun (UK: ‘on a sticky mat’, US: ‘on a sticky mat’).
I didn’t want to stilt my narrator with unnecessary strictures so I asked her to pronounce her usual way. I’m glad, because there were hundreds of differences. Hundreds. It would have been madness. In any case, that didn’t matter. So long as the interpretation of the line was true, the emotion understood, the accent was irrelevant.
Joanna had also come to this conclusion, saying there’s a lot we need to leave to the narrator’s judgement and style. She intervened in place name pronunciations, but allowed everything else to go with the actor’s natural style and emphasis.
Having said that, an audiobook is a creative relationship. The voice actor is expecting you to guide them on interpretation. Sandy and I spent several emails discussing how the bod characters in Lifeform Three should sound and what their individual characteristics were. I sent her short recordings of how they seemed in my own head as I wrote them, which she turned into polished performances. It was quite a feat for her – sometimes she had four or five characters in one scene and had to inhabit all those minds, as well as switching to thoughtful narration. For me it was easy because I wrote them. For her, it was mind-and-tongue gymnastics.
You can probably see why questions of ‘leesure’ versus ‘lezzure’ cease to be important. Forget them.
Don’t expect a drama performance
Jason pointed out that the audiobook isn’t a stage or film performance. It’s a reading – a quieter, more subtle business. Characters’ accents don’t need to be full-on impersonations, they are a hint. Passages of emotion don’t have to be performed, merely rendered so they bring to life what is already in the prose.
In prose, the writer has already done the job on the page. The voice actor is converting that into sound. It’s intimate; it’s not slaughtering the back row. It’s murmuring in your ears.
The voice that is the best conduit for your work
Ultimately, the best narrator is the right person to inhabit the book and bring it alive, from its lightest moments to its darkest corners. If you’re weighing up possible narrators, be prepared to revise what you imagined. If you thought the narrator should be British or male, but the more true interpretation, the one that gives you goosebumps, is US and female, that actor is the one to choose. The differences will vanish as soon as the listener gets into the story. After a minute or two, they won’t notice.
Since I released My Memories of a Future Life, some people have asked me why I chose an American, and indeed have mentioned it in reviews. Then they report that they got immersed. Your best narrator is the person who can inhabit the book, who can become its voice in the reader’s head and make them forget everything else.
Thanks for the pic Michael Mol
Any tips or questions to add? Have you made an audiobook? If you listen to a lot of audiobooks, do you have any feedback on what makes a good narrator? Let’s discuss!
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Every week, my bookseller friend Peter Snell gets customers who ask him nervously: ‘how do I write’ and ‘how do I get published’? Sometimes they give him manuscripts or book proposals. I get emails with the same questions.
So we decided to team up for a series of shows for Surrey Hills Radio. If you’re a regular on this blog, you’re probably beyond starter-level advice, but if you’re feeling your way, or your friends or family have always hankered to do what you do, this might be just the ticket.
If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen the various pictures of us goofing with a fuzzy microphone, recording in the bookshop while customers slink past with bemused expressions. (Yes, that tiny gizmo is the complete mobile recording kit. It’s adorable.) So far the shows have been available only at the time of broadcast on Surrey Hills Radio (Wed afternoons at 2pm BST), but the studio guys have now made podcasts so you can listen whenever you want. Shows in the back catalogue have covered
- giving yourself permission to write
- establishing a writing habit
- thinking like a writer
- getting published 101
- how to self-publish.
This week’s show will be on planning a non-fiction book and the show after that will be outlining a novel – and will also include sneak peeks of the advice I’ve been cooking up for my third Nail Your Novel, on plot. So you want to be a writer? We have the inside knowledge. Do drop by.
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Do you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?
If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.
Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.
I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.
Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.
On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.
They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.
If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:
Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.
Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.
Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.
Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.
There’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?
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Why? Because they looked like they had the potential to be significant.
I’m not going to tell you the true details, of course, so this is a paraphrase. Broadly speaking, the characters have formed a new business venture. If it succeeds, it gives the narrator a new start in life. Also there’s a romance that will be threatened, because the girlfriend wants to settle somewhere else. The business makes this more tricky. Yet the writer summarised this period of preparation and change.
It’s fair enough to fast forward if there was nothing interesting to show. But during those hours, the characters are playing unfamiliar roles, and getting closer to their hopes and dreams. Relationships will change because of the responsibilities. Tensions will be growing. I said to my client: are you sure there is nothing interesting in these scenes? Do you really want to leave them out? To me, they’re gaps in the narrative.
I’ve often been guilty of this myself. I’ll be working through my outline and I’ll find a section where I’ve glossed over a set of events, not imagining they might hold important developments. I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought, but as I write, I detect this is leaving an unacceptable hole, disconnecting the reader from the characters’ arcs.
However, I don’t know what to write in these scenes. I certainly don’t know what might make the scene interesting. So what do I do? Apply backside to seat, start the fingers and let the characters guide me.
Some of my most satisfying scenes were born this way. It might be a good campfire moment, a small-hours conversation that turns surprisingly confidential. It might be a time to have an argument, confess some back story or blurt out something unwise because a character is ratty and tired. There might be a switch in a character’s attitude, a hardening of resolve, a feeling that this venture is committing my people to a disastrous path.
I start by writing any old nonsense and look for the point where the significance begins to grow. I might cut 90% of it later, but some part of this new material is usually valuable. And if I’d let myself summarise, I’d never have found it.
Gaps in research
Another reason I might dodge writing a scene like this is because, well, I didn’t do the homework. I have no idea what the practicalities of the situation would be. You’ll probably agree that’s a lame reason to leave a scene out, and might shortchange the reader. Writer, get thyself to Wikipedia.
Not all summary is bad!
Summary can be good, of course. You have to condense sometimes. But if you’re summarising scenes only because you find it too difficult to jump into them, or you hadn’t thought what they might contain, or you don’t have the knowledge to write them, don’t assume the story doesn’t need them. Get in and start exploring. You might be surprised.
Thanks for the pic Alistair Sutton
Have you surprised yourself with a scene you summarised and then wrote out at greater length? Let’s share examples! (I’d share some from my own work but, having a direly inefficient memory, I can’t remember what they are. So it’s over to you.)
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As Oscar Wilde didn’t say: ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken’. (No really, he didn’t.)
In our early novels, we’re more likely to see our main characters as proxies for ourselves. But there comes a stage where we learn more versatility, and to create new hearts, souls and minds to carry our stories. This was one of the interesting findings of a project organised by a team of researchers at Durham University and reported here in The Guardian.
Authors who took part in the survey were asked how they experience their main characters while writing. Those with many books reported that in their early work they saw the main character as a proxy for themselves. Sometimes it was simply wish fulfilment. Sometimes it was a deeper working, perhaps of a problem they couldn’t express in the real world, or an issue they had left undone. It was only in later books that they were aware they were creating individuals who had their own distinct hopes, dreams, values and reactions.
Does it matter?
Interesting though this is, does it matter? It depends. When editing, I’ve certainly seen where it goes wrong. There might be a sense that the main character’s viewpoint is never challenged, or nobody else in the book is as vivid, or all the other characters victimise, worship or pander to the narrator. It can look like the book lacks any perspective that would engage an outsider.
If you’re writing from your own trauma or sense of injustice, no matter how wronged you feel you still have to win the reader round. Indeed Anne R Allen has written hilariously about protagonists who turn readers off - usually because the writer has put themselves too literally into the story.
Here are some of the problems I’ve noticed.
Passive main characters
In a writer’s early books, the main character is often passive. They do very little on their own initiative; they merely react to what is going on. In real life, writing often appeals to people who are observers and analysers. And even if we aren’t, most of us would prefer trouble to go away. But readers find it exasperating if characters don’t at some point take charge or counter-attack. The passive default is generally one of the first reactions a novice writer must unlearn.
Unwillingness to alter events
Sometimes our emotional investment in the book can cloud our critical faculties. At the writing group I used to go to, I remember one lady who read from her novel, which was about a divorce. When we started to question events that seemed far-fetched, she snapped angrily: ‘but that’s what really happened’. Discussions went downhill from there.
Events need to matter more
Drawing on our own experience might produce tunnel vision. It might also stop us taking an idea as far as it could go.
I remember a very early attempt I made to write a story about my experiences with repetitive strain injury when I was a journalist. It was strangely flat. Although I managed to entertain with the strange medical tests, mystery and uncertainty, it was at best lightweight because the stakes weren’t significant. The worst that could happen was that the proxy me might have to get a different job, but that wasn’t a major challenge to my soul that would hook a reader with its urgency. This made me unhappy, because I wanted to write the crisis of somebody’s life…
Then ghostwriting taught me how real life is just material – and material that needs a snappy tailor. (Lots more here about ghostwriting if you’re curious.)
I had a use for my RSI scenario. It was time to adjust real life and amplify. The major amplification was the main character. Now, after writing a lot of fiction as other people, my first novel was the chance to write as me. But my narrator couldn’t be me, the real me muddling through with average demons and crises. She needed desperation. What’s more, her desperation, although it had to be particular to her, had to speak for a more fundamental essence of the human condition – in this case, a search for meaning and love. Perhaps that potential was in my mind all along in that early story, but it didn’t become fully potent until I invented the character who needed it.
If you’ve read My Memories of a Future Life you’ll be recognising her. Carol has elements of my personality and I certainly felt I was her when I wrote her. She comes from things I understand. But she isn’t me. She is herself, created as the person who needs the journey and healing process of that story.
Paftoo of Lifeform Three isn’t me either, though he started with my love of horses and the things we have lost from the past. I then put that in a situation and personality that would cause the utmost trouble, a fight for his very soul. And for Ever Rest I have four, perhaps five viewpoint characters, all with their own consciousnesses, issues and inclinations. I am not those five people.
How to write a character who isn’t like you
Start with something you relate to – what if you lost something that makes you feel alive? Then mine the deeper level and remove yourself. Every time your character reacts, question it. Ask if that’s your own setting, and if it could be bigger, better or different. Find a key for that new character to sing in. Examine their approach to life, betes noires, responses to stress, desires.
In fact, we all have many characters we could create because we already know how to be different. What are you like with your parents? Is it the same as the way you are with your boss? How about the person you are when talking to a person you want to impress, or the head teacher at your child’s school? You already know how to be different at an instinctive level.
So, to mangle the legacy of Oscar even more (because he still didn’t say ‘Be yourself, everyone else is taken): don’t be yourself. Use yourself to invent the people your story needs.
Pic of Oscar by Napoleon Sarony, Wikimedia Commons.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
What stage are you at? Who are your main characters? If you’ve created people who are proxies for you, was that intentional? Unavoidable? Brilliantly effective? Has that caused problems or interesting feedback from readers and editors? Have you created characters who aren’t like you? If you’ve written many books, have you noticed a shift? Let’s share thoughts!
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I’m reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness, and its style is rather striking. It’s an omniscient narrator hopping between a lot of heads. The dialogue is run into the rest of the prose, with no punctuation to distinguish it from the rest of the prose. Yes, no quote marks. Not even a dash. Sometimes the dialogue has no tags to tell us who’s speaking – or indeed that it is speech. When the characters speak, it’s not even presented in separate sentences, let alone paragraphed.
A typical spread looks like this
Dense, long paragraphs. Rather offputting, isn’t it? It looks like the book will be a horrendous muddle and heavy going. Dave – who will give most styles a fair crack – tossed it down in disgust, muttering about pretentious gimmicks.
It’s certainly risky to mess with the conventions of dialogue. I frequently see novice manuscripts where all the dialogue is reported. This creates a distanced effect, as if no one in the book is really alive. It also creates a dense block of text that – as you can see – looks forbidding to the eye (although not many writers take it to the lengths Saramago has). But Blindness is enhanced by this style. Let’s look at why.
The society is the focus While there are certain characters who are central, Saramago’s interest is an event that breaks the normal structures of civilisation. The omniscient view and the technique of running the dialogue together in long sentences builds on this. It means they are part of a bigger picture. The focus can be on anyone – the person whose actions are the most interesting or urgent to watch at a given moment.
The main characters become more vulnerable There are key characters, and this style creates a sense that they are more fragile. In any story that follows just a few viewpoints, we’re aware that most of them must continue as consciousnesses until the end of the book. In the dangerous world of this story, anyone could vanish and the world will go on being narrated. So the threat to them is more real.
Nothing is confusing Despite the unconventional presentation, you can usually tell who’s talking. Where you can’t, it’s either not important – or the point is to experience confusion.
It’s set up carefully All stories have to introduce the reader to the rules of the world, and any quirks of the style. Saramago starts as he means to go on, tuning you in so you look carefully at the prose to see if someone’s talking and who it is.
He doesn’t throw us into this many-voiced chorus straight away. The first few chapters follow a limited cast, so we get to know them. This gives us figures who are anchors in the later chapters – if they survive. He assembles a large cast quite quickly, but they are connected with these originals by the establishing scenes so it’s easy to remember who’s who.
There is also a consistency of style, although this may not consciously be noticed by the reader. One paragraph – which may go on for many pages – is a scene.
The story has momentum The style may be unorthodox, but he’s keeping the story moving. Curiosity pulls us along. The stakes keep building, the situation is running further out of control. We keep reading to find where it is going.
I haven’t read very far so I’m looking forward to even more interesting effects, but my final point is this. The run-on presentation with few traditional markers is like hearing a lot of voices and being unable to tell who is who. Isn’t that like being struck blind? It is also panicky, as though things are happening too fast to take proper note of them. It feels out of control (although the writer is tightly in command). You might even say it’s breaking convention as the society of the book is disintegrating. It makes the characters disturbingly into a herd, stripping them of individuality. This clever style choice reflects the experience of the sighted people, who have quarantined the blind people for fear they will catch it. We are at once seeing the story two ways.
This style is creating and amplifying the experience of the world. Wow.
No spoilers, please, as I want to discover the book’s surprises in the proper way… but let’s talk about styles. Have you read a novel with an apparently challenging style that enhances the material?
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You might remember the terrific question Adam Nicholls asked me about daily wordcounts and now he’s sent me this: May I pick your brain about fleshing out a character? I’m struggling with someone who’s addicted to heroin.
What a challenging subject. It’s daunting to portray a character whose experience is well beyond your own, especially to such an extreme. Here’s where one of my day jobs comes in handy. My freelance gig on a doctors’ magazine means I’ve edited a lot of pieces by people who help addicts. So this is my checklist for creating a plausible, three-dimensional character in the grip of a demonic addiction, whether illegal drugs, alcohol or a habit such as gambling.
Choose your poison
The addictive drugs have different effects. Adam has already decided his character uses heroin but you might want your character speeded up, slowed down, made more confident or just mickey finned. For one of my ghosted novels I needed a drug that would produce ghastly, debilitating hallucinations with possible flashbacks and could be easily obtained by ravers. With that wish list I decided on ketamine. (A horse anaesthetic, since you ask. Horrible if taken by humans. And make sure your internet firewall is working. You’ll find some seriously shaky stuff.)
Decide how the drug or habit alters their personality
The drug will probably amplify or change certain parts of your character’s personality. So you need to know what they were like without the drug. And remember personality is not the same as back story. Although you might use back story to demonstrate a traumatic event that led them to addiction, their reaction is individual. That same event may have had a completely different effect on another person.
Consider what the drug does for them
What do they get out of it? Why did they like it at first? Why did they try it? Have they used other drugs and what did those do for them? Are they calmer, more intensely concentrated, does it take the edge off, make them more confident, ease awkwardness with other people, numb a sense of not belonging, being fundamentally wrong or dull some other pain?
Decide how addiction controls them
You’ll undoubtedly be reading first-hand accounts of addicts and those who have been close to addicts. But you can also do a little role-play yourself to understand a person in the grip of a fierce dependence. You may not have dabbled with drugs, but I’ll bet there’s something in your life that is so important you arrange everything around it. Your children, partner, job may all govern your day-to-day decisions and choices. So you know what it’s like to place something at the centre of your life and defend it when necessary. This is like your addict’s need.
What does your addict do to fund the habit and how does that impact their life? Do they steal? If so, do they commit crimes or do they steal from the people close to them? Or are they independently wealthy? Is their supply guaranteed or do they struggle to find the drugs? What dangerous people might their habit bring them into contact with?
Significant others who aren’t addicted
How does the addiction affect the lives of those around them? What story conflicts might that create? Does your character have family and friends who aren’t addicted? How do they react? How are relationships changed by it? Who might be driven away? Who might grow closer in an attempt to help? Who knew the character before they were like this? Who has only known them since it started?
Does your addict have the capacity to stop? What might help them? What might throw them back down?
Introduce the reader to the behaviour that will be abnormal
Your addict character won’t behave like the others. If they develop the addiction through the story, you can introduce their bizarre actions gradually. But if they’re already addicted at the start, you need to handle the character-establishing scenes carefully in case the reader mistakes them for clumsy writing or refuses to believe them. This may be tricky for you to judge by yourself, so when you give the book to beta readers, ask for feedback about it.
Ultimately, when writing an addicted character, it’s not about the substance/habit or the extreme physical experiences. Concentrate on their personality, priorities, conflicts and other people. Thanks for a terrific question, Adam – I’ve enjoyed tackling this.
There are a lot more tips about writing a character who’s not like you in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated
Guys, do you have any tips to add? Have you had to write a character who’s addicted, or somebody whose world is significantly different from your own?
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All this week I’ve been running a series of the sharpest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass. In previous posts I’ve discussed three/four-act structure, endings, characters who are either bland or too disturbing to write , making a character distinct through dialogue , a fundamental misconception about self-editing and letting the manuscript rest. I want to end on this note -
The revision journey
A clear message emerged as we discussed my usual stops in the self-editing process – checking the pace, structure, character arcs, tone, using beat sheets and the number of passes you might do to get a scene right. Revision is more than a process of tidying and troubleshooting. It is a voyage towards a state where we know our book extremely well.
It reminds me of when I was at school, revising for chemistry A-level. For a long time the equations and Periodic Table rules seemed an impossible amount of information. I kept rereading my notes, hoping more would sink in, when gradually I noticed it was making sense as a grand pattern. From that point, I felt I could use it.
When I first start to revise a novel, it is a mystery to me. I wouldn’t scrape even a GCSE pass. Revision brings familiarity, clarity, the insight to understand what human forces are at work in the book, how the themes will bind it together, where the most fundamental resonance lies. And that’s why I find revision is more than a process of correcting, polishing or changing. It is learning to use my material. And it is thoroughly creative.
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence. There’s also more about it here.
Having inflicted a new post on you for the last 7 days, I’ll be a bit less prolific next week. The next novel-nailing post will be on 17 August, although there will be an Undercover Soundtrack as usual. And of course I’ll be answering comments. On that note -
Any thoughts on the creativity of the revision process? Let’s comment! Except for Robert Scanlon, who raised this point already in his most recent note here. Robert, you can give yourself a gold star for being ahead of the class :)
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘My word-hand is singing’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Marcus Sedgwick October 22, 2014
- Science fiction – have we forgotten what it should be? October 19, 2014
- ‘Is there life after death?’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Christina Banach October 15, 2014
- Novels aren’t movies – how to write great description in prose October 12, 2014
- ‘A hushed, whispered jingle mimicking a drizzle of rain’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Anjali Mitter Duval October 8, 2014
- Voices and accents for your audiobook – how to choose the right narrator October 6, 2014
- ‘Skinny-dipping in greenish-hued waters’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Consuelo Roland October 1, 2014
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