Posts Tagged fiction
Today, Jane Friedman has showcased an excerpt from the characters book on her blog, and she chose the tutorial where I explain this tricky balancing act. If you’re curious about the book – or if you simply want to know how much of your carefully crafted background to include – come on over and see.
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My guest this week says his wife has forbidden him to air certain overplayed albums in her presence. Of course, they are the ones that provided the souls of his novels; drew him to the writing desk; catapulted him into the worlds of his characters. Readers here will be well acquainted with the idea that once a song joins your writing repertoire, you never tire of it (although your family might). For his latest novel, he was drawn to songs of desperation, and the finely drawn character vignettes of Belle & Sebastian – a band he says are truly made for writers. When you see that the title of his novel is A Jane Austen Daydream, you might be surprised that its music is so contemporary. But has there ever been a time when Ms Austen didn’t feel bang up to date? Scott D Southard is on The Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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The rock star had a seizure in his hotel room. He recalled little of it; just a long fight to breathe. As he came to, the other band members were telling the paramedics he’d be fine for the night’s gig, a doctor would take care of him. He didn’t want to let them down, of course, but he felt like death.
His girlfriend had witnessed the unremembered time: 10 minutes of jerking, clawing and choking, pleading for help; the brutal rescue where paramedics only just got him back. She saw the other band members playing down the dangers, arguing with the medics. She wanted to tell them how bad he was before any of them arrived, and how long it went on for; except he was so fragile that might trip another attack. And none of them would listen.
Who is in the worse situation? The rock star or the girlfriend?
If it was real life the answer is a no-brainer. But in story terms, it’s worse to be the girlfriend. So she’s the character we’re more interested in, the more natural focus for our curiosity. But many novice writers would make the rock star the central character.
Why is the girlfriend more fascinating to readers?
She has the heavier burden. She knows that if she could muster enough guts, wits and nous, she could stand up to the band and save her lover. Her conscience is telling her so. But she is outnumbered, has no clout, and even the boyfriend will listen to them rather than her. She is trapped and isolated with her problem. And even if he gets through this show, what about the next and the next? She is burdened with guilt and responsibility. He is burdened only with biology.
When writers want to make us concerned for a character they often try to enlist our sympathy with a trauma or a timebomb. But the reader knows the writer can use a timebomb as the whim takes them; either the rock star dies or doesn’t. Choices and decisions, though, exploit what stories do best; they pit characters against each other, against their own failings, fears and weaknesses. In the above scenario, although the reader might be concerned for the rock star as a fellow human being, they’ll really feel for the girlfriend.
Great stories make us walk in a character’s emotions. A terrific way to do that is to give characters difficult choices. Can she stand up to these people? Does she have the courage to do the right thing? What would it kick off? Will she muster the ability to convince people? We can follow this struggle. If she does the wrong thing, she carries it like a wound herself, but one that was made by the story and her own actions.
Thanks for the dilemma pic Unkreative.
In other news, I just got the ‘Top website for Self-Publishers’ award from the Alliance of Independent Authors. This badge is, according to their email, a benchmark to signify ‘excellence, integrity, creativity and helpfulness in the indie self-publishing world’. If anyone reading this helped it along – thank you. And if you liked this post, there is plenty more advice on getting the reader on your MC’s side in the Nail Your Novel characters book.
Okay, back to the subject. Let’s talk about stories where the writers get us rooting for the characters by the dilemmas they face. Indeed, have you done this in one of your stories?
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I’ve often thought we need to be able to film our dreams. While we’re at it, can we please record the fully orchestrated music we compose in them? While I’ve slumbered, I’ve written albums that surpassed my favourite artistes, and when my eyes open they’re gone. My guest this week clearly thinks the same way. He woke from a dream and wished he could preserve it on film… not surprising as he is a screenwriter and former head of production at Universal Studios. From this idea began a supernatural thriller – but it’s no ordinary book. He worked with a composer and sound designer to create a multimedia app that’s a book when you want to read and a musical experience when you choose to open your ears. And of course there are the secret pieces that showed him the souls and truths of his characters. He is Mark Staufer, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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I’ll leave the story to that post, but briefly, I saw an interview on the Writers & Artists Yearbook website, responded to it, and seem to have woken them up to the fact that indie authors are rather more advanced than they hitherto thought.
Even better (and this isn’t in the post) Bloomsbury then asked me to call them. They’d had a rummage through my blogs and wanted me to write for their website and newsletter. (Wow. Big smiles at NYN HQ.)
So W&A – the bible for creatives in the UK – is expanding its coverage of self-publishing as a serious and respectable option. But I detected they’re a tad nervous about it. The editor I spoke to asked if I ‘minded’ writing about self-publishing. That suggests he’s encountering more negative attitudes than positive. No matter. They’re responding to what’s happening in the creative world.
I also have to relish a sense of a circle closing. Years ago, when I was a beginner querying agents and publishers, W&A was my route map for what seemed an audacious and mostly impossible dream. When I wrote the querying section of Nail Your Novel, I recommended using them. Now, thanks to a tweet that alerted me to their post, and a tweet I sent to them, I’ve flipped to the other side and they’re introducing me to their audience. In our online, endlessly connected world, new opportunities might be only a tweet away.
In other news, tomorrow I’m skyping into the Grub Street arts centre in Boston as a guest expert in a seminar on creative book marketing so you’ll get a proper post from me about our discussions. And next Saturday, I’m on a panel at Stoke Newington Literary Festival in north London, talking about multimedia self-publishing. Both those opportunities sprang from relationships made completely on social media. In fact, everything has. Before that, I was an invisible editor and a concealed ghost.
So tell me – what opportunities have come to you from social media? And what tips would you give to help people make the best of it? (Oh, and here’s the Independent Authors Alliance post, in case you’re curious about the W&A Incident… )
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My guest this week describes inspiration as those moments when something small suddenly leaps out and becomes significant. And countless times, the trigger has been music. An entire fantasy trilogy conjured itself when a song took root in her mind. She says she’s sometimes had to hide her soundtracks in case her young children come across unsuitable lyrics, but would not be separated from the songs that feed her imagination so richly. She is Devon Flaherty and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack. PLUS there’s a signed copy of one of her novels AND a CD to be won…
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My novel is more than 170,000 words without the back story, which I had to cull because it was 70,000 words. I tried eliminating it; the book was a shallow disaster. I’ve tried summarising; it interrupted the story without explaining what was going on. The problem is that the culture and setting are predicated on an event 70 years before the story begins. This is key to the protagonist’s behaviour, attitude and circumstances.
The villain is involved 5 years before the story starts and works behind the scenes against the protagonist, who thinks the villain is dead. But if I don’t introduce the back story involving him, a lot of the story doesn’t make sense and characters’ reactions are hard to understand – especially in later books. I’m grateful for any suggestions.
Wow, Henry, I can see you’ve got a lot to squeeze in. And it’s far too much for the reader to catch up with. We need to restructure your story. This is what I would do.
Solution 1 – Try to simplify
DOES the story have to be this complex? Has it run away with you as you’ve added events and complications?
I frequently get myself into this kind of fix. I invent far more than I need. At some stage, I take a hard look and decide what I can streamline.
Take a blank sheet of paper and write down only the most important pieces of history. How do you decide that those are? They’re what help your readers understand the problems of your protagonist.
From other information you’ve told me, I know you’re writing a dystopia. There’s no better model than other novels that do it well – try Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both have a heck of a lot of explaining to do, but never overwhelm the reader. They begin with the protagonist on an ordinary day, coping with a feeling they don’t fit with the world. This is accessible and relatable to everyone, and lets the reader connect with the character’s humanity. So look at your world’s problems in terms of what disturbs or distresses your protagonist in their normal life.
Both those novels do eventually reveal a lot of back story. We do get to World 101 – why it’s in such a mess, on a knife edge and who made it that way. But we don’t find out for some considerable time. First, we bed in with the characters. When the larger chunks of back story are revealed, they are parallel to the protagonist’s state of mind. They come at a stage where the character is curious to ask these deeper questions: how did we go so wrong? How can I get out of it?
If you do this, you will see how little of your back story you need to get the plot running. Concentrate on the characters and what makes life hard for them – and preferably harder than for other people in the story, so that they are the canary in the coal mine. The protagonists of Fahrenheit 451 and Nineteen Eighty-Four are first and foremost unhappy misfits. Second, they are echoing a sense of humanity gone wrong.
Even so, the authors might not have told us everything they had developed. So while you’re simplifying, look out for ideas you could leave out (even if you’re proud of them).
You made the back story this complex because it interests you, right? It’s become as important as the present story.
For instance, your villain had his heyday before your narrative starts. Why not write that story? And the main events happened 70 years before – that could be another story.
You could twine them together as parallel narratives – like The Godfather. Vito Corleone’s life is one strand: his son, Michael Corleone, is living in the world Vito made.
Now I can understand why you might not have thought to spotlight these stories. The outcomes, as we know, must be that baddies triumphed – a downbeat ending. But some books go like that – especially books about worlds. Think of A Game of Thrones – an epic series where some characters succeed and some fail. Your villain’s victory could surely be a dramatic story. People must have opposed him; he can’t have got away without a fight. Even if he succeeds, you could also suggest a twinkle of hope, a scrap of resistance that won’t stay quiet for ever.
Solution 3 – add a newcomer
Another way into a complex world is to introduce it through a proxy character like John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series, who arrives on Mars from Earth. All the civilisation is new to him, which means he has to acclimatise along with the reader. (Same as John Carter in ER.)
You could also begin with a character growing up in the world, and having it explained – like Suldrun in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse series.
Thanks for the pic patriziasoliani
What would you say to Henry? Are there any books you would add to his reading list? Share in the comments!
Dystopias, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 are among the books and topics tackled in Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life. Out now in all formats, including (ahem) combustible.
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When I was Kobo’s Writer in Residence at the London Book Fair last month, they were fascinated to hear about my series The Undercover Soundtrack. Firstly because they’re keen on fostering innovative ways for writers to get together and make contact with readers. And second, because they were busily scribbling their own novels and were imagining what they’d say was on their soundtracks!
Anyway, they asked me to write an introductory piece for the Kobo Writing Life blog. If you’ve ever wondered what all those red posts are, here’s Undercover Soundtrack 101. I tried to mention as many past posts as possible – so if you’ve been one of my guests, hop over there and see if you’re starring on the Kobo blog…
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‘It’s never a bad thing to make the reader feel a bit uneasy’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Jonathan Pinnock
A change of gear this week. This is the first time I’ve hosted a writer who is talking about short stories. A lot of music lurks behind his award-winning first collection, inspiring the plots, mood and characters. Various signature songs have passed through his imagination to become a tightrope-walking couple, a doomed relationship, a person given the eyes of a serial killer and a haunting piece of music derived from nature. His name is Jonathan Pinnock and he’s on the Red Blog today with his Undercover Soundtrack.
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Why is all good fiction driven by characters? How can we widen our repertoire so our fictional people aren’t carbon copies of ourselves? What kind of research can give us greater understanding of situations we have no experience of? Should we bother to create our villains with as much empathy and insight as we lavish on our protagonists? If our MC’s enemy is utterly evil, how can we possibly crawl inside their minds – and why would we?
In the yellow corner is Joanna Penn. In the pinkish corner is me, answering her questions. We’re at her blog The Creative Penn, and you can read a text summary, download a 50-minute audio podcast or watch us grin and and wave our hands while we discuss how to write convincing and compelling fictional people. Do come over.
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