My guest this week is tackling the Croatian conflict of the early 1990s, and she used music to suggest fragments, atmospheres and moments of memory. When she sent me her post, she remarked that she found the process of writing it had been even more challenging than the novel, as she had never before admitted anyone to her personal space of creativity. This is one of the reasons I’m continually refreshed by this series – no matter what genre the book is, or what type of music they choose, the heart of each post is this real contact with a writer delving for the truth. Anyway, here you’ll find some haunting and unusual pieces by PJ Harvey, Smoke Fairies, Steven R Smith and Laurie Anderson, all in the Undercover Soundtrack of Alison Layland – on the Red Blog.
‘An expectant silence, a connection to something greater’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kathryn Craft
I have been looking forward to sharing this Soundtrack with you. I’ve known the writer for a number of years on social media as we’ve moved in the same Venn diagrams, but when I saw the pre-publicity for her latest novel I had to approach her for this series. One of the hallmarks of these posts is that they are deeply personal journeys, and this novel is perhaps an ultimate example – it’s based on true events, the suicide of her husband. Do you recognise her already? If you’re in our Venn diagrams, perhaps you do. Before I confirm her name, let me say a little more about the music. This Soundtrack is a series of songs that reached out of the radio at the right time, to comfort, add perspective or share a moment; to make it possible to create a novel out of such a happening. She is Kathryn Craft, and she’s on the Red Blog with the Undercover Soundtrack to The Far End of Happy.
Imagining doom. This made me wonder: what characterises the writerly mind? I thought I’d run a diagnostic on the mental routines that make me the scribbling sort. You can tell me yours at the end, or summon Nurse Ratched.
To infinity and beyond
First of all, there’s the tendency to conjure chains of events, especially the unthinkable possibilities. We’re sensitive to the skull beneath the skin. That might be a safety valve, as with the many cheery crime writers I know. Equally, it might be a curse. Ask David Foster Wallace, Sylvia Plath.
Everything is wondrous
I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. It’s a work of great imagination, about a flu epidemic that wipes out most of the world’s population. In one chapter, a character is among the survivors trapped in an airport, and a pilot decides to fly a plane to Los Angeles, to see what’s there. After so long among the grounded planes and the silent skies, the viewpoint character watches the plane speed down the runway and lift off. He thinks
Why, in his life of frequent travel, had he never realised the beauty of flight? The improbability of it?
I read that line and thought: I have always seen the improbability of aeroplanes, and the wonder. I have always thought that electricity is astounding, and so is what we do with it.
I recently read an interview in the Paris Review where Ray Bradbury said:
If I’d lived in the late 1800s I might have written a story predicting that strange vehicles would soon move across the landscape of the United States and would kill two million people in a period of 70 years. Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious. Once the automobile appeared you could have predicted that it would destroy as many people as it did.’
This is the writer’s mind. The questioning never stops. It is like Brownian motion – why, what, what if. What could be different, or taken away? What if I looked from a different angle?
As I walked from Moorgate station through the Barbican centre, I passed a glass ziggurat and saw it as a resource. Perhaps a supply of cutting edges. Until the glass ran out, of course.
Dismantling the world
I have always questioned reality. I have always dismantled the status quo and the world around me. In real life, this can make for abstruse conversations. Doh, Roz, what’s the big deal about aeroplanes? Electricity? Whatever. If you say so.
But writers are surrounded by big deals, things we can uninvent and meddle with, and a past, present and future that changes at the crook of a finger.
But it’s real
Still with Station Eleven. That world is as real to me as the house I left, and the office I walked into when I finished my journey. People in my imagination, whether put there by a writer or invented by me, are as real as a table you can knock your knuckles on.
I must tell the page
This post sprang into my mind as I walked past the fragile skyscrapers, still half in my book. I hurried to my desk and hammered it in rough. Musicians are more complete when they’re at their instrument. Writers are more complete when talking to the page.
Prose is transformation
Let me introduce Janys Hyde, who runs the website Words of a Feather (and has invited me to run a writing course in Venice this September, details here). Janys reported on a Facebook post that she was reading the Tenth of December short story collection by George Saunders. She said:
His writing is like being flooded with emotions that you weren’t aware you had, or had subconsciously chosen to repress.
Janys must have been eavesdropping in my house because, by coincidence, I’d been having exactly that conversation with Husband Dave – about how good prose dyes your mind, makes you see in a new colour, opens doors you didn’t know you had. (Lest that sound too lofty, the next remark was: ‘your turn to pour the wine’.)
And this is why, although I love movies and other storytelling forms, prose is my favourite way to travel.
PS The hanging teacups in the pic are the window display of Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead, where its proprietor and I record So You Want To Be A Writer for Surrey Hills Radio. Photo by Adam Waters.
Do you recognise any of these traits in yourself? What others would you add? Or maybe you’d just like to confirm that I’m in a category of one, and that you’re leaving my subscriber list forthwith. The floor is yours.
I’ve been asked this question twice recently – in a conversation on G+, and by a student at my Guardian masterclass the other week. In both cases, the writers had encouraging feedback from agents, but one crucial criticism: the characters all seemed too similar.
And probably this wasn’t surprising because of their story scenarios. Both writers had a set of characters who belonged to a group. A bunch of flatmates, or a squad of marines, or a group of musical coal miners forming a choir. To outsiders, they probably looked identikit – they’d talk the same, use the same cultural references and have similar aims.
So how can you flesh them out as individuals?
1 Look for incompatibility
The first step is to assemble your cast carefully. In real life, if you were choosing a team, you’d go for compatibility and congruent aims. For a story, you need to plant some fundamental mismatches that may threaten the group’s harmony.
So, they might seem similar on the surface, but deep down it’s another matter.
Choose as your principals the people who will be most challenged by each other’s personalities and attitudes. They might be in one choir, but they don’t have to sing from the same hymn sheet.
2 Include this in the story
Make sure these differences are exposed by the plot events.
A couple, who might be well matched in other ways, might disagree fundamentally about whether to send their children to boarding school, or whether to take out a loan. Make that a story issue and explore the fall-out. You could give one of your characters a secret that will clash with the group’s overall interests – a drug habit, perhaps, or a forbidden lover.
Or if your characters are embarked on a bigger task, such as solving a crime, make the attitude differences into unsettling background music. William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach is worth looking at for its distinct bunch of scientists who are living together in a jungle research station (fresh in my mind because I just wrote a Goodreads review).
3 Humour, stress and swearing
Aside from the plot conflicts, your characters will express themselves individually in other ways. Think of their temperaments, and how they handle stress. One of them may go to a boxing gym. Another might stitch a quilt, which may seem intolerably mimsy to the pugilist. They’ll have different ways to express humour, or curse. There’s more here about polishing dialogue so that characters sound individual.
4 Keep track of their different outlooks
With my own WIP, Ever Rest, I’ve got four principal players. It’s tricky to hop between so many consciousnesses, so I’ve made aides-memoirs. I have a list of how they differ on important issues such as romantic relationships, ambition etc. Just writing this list produced some interesting insights and clarifications. As always, so much can unlock if you ask the right question.
Actors sometimes talk about how they don’t know a character until they’ve chosen their footwear. In a similar way, you could walk in your characters’ shoes by choosing a simple characteristic. Perhaps one of them wears glasses. One of them walks with a slight limp. One of them always worries about losing things. A small detail like this might help you remember how their experience is distinct.
Another fun tool is to collect pictures of strangers. You know how we’re told not to judge by appearances? Tosh. We can’t help it. And this instinctive trait becomes very useful when we create people out of thin air. Look through photos of strangers and you probably make instant – and of course erroneous – assumptions of what you’d like and dislike about them. It’s okay, no one will know. You don’t have to tell your mother. Here’s a post I wrote about this in detail.
5 Have dedicated revision days for particular characters
You don’t have to get everything right in one go. And we don’t have to revise a book in one go, or in chapter order, either. We might need a particular mindset to write one of our characters, so it might help to work on all their scenes in one batch.
You also might like this episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, where bookseller Peter Snell and I discuss whether fictional characters have to be likable. Click this thingy for more (plus an audacious cover of a Prince track… no, not by us)
And meanwhile, let’s discuss – have you had feedback that your characters aren’t distinct enough? What did you do about it? Do you have any favourite examples of writers who do this particularly well?
This week’s Undercover Soundtrack is so raw and honest. Although all great books are personal journeys for the writer as well as the reader, this one has a truly traumatic back story. The writer lost a dear friend while he was drafting it, and his soundtrack is as much a journey of grief and recovery as it is the story of the novel’s making. He is award-winning books columnist and writer Jim Ruland, and he’s on the Red Blog right now.
Yesterday I was teaching an editing masterclass at The Guardian. During the lunch break I got chatting to a desk editor from its sister title The Observer, who remarked that he’d always been curious about writing a novel, but wondered where his journalism instincts would be a hindrance and where an advantage. (He was also remaking several news pages to squeeze in the latest royal birth, so was possibly hankering for a life where he’d be in charge of the surprises.)
When I’m not working with fiction, I do sub-editing shifts on a magazine, so I have a foot in both worlds. And many of us have day jobs where we might write reports, presentations, legally required notes or other documents. Although all of this helps us get used to creating text, it doesn’t help us use it in the way a novelist does.
Here are two major differences.
Difference 1 – the reader’s journey
Journalists – and anyone who writes reports or presentations – learn this guiding principle: ‘Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, then tell them you said it.’
Fiction observes this three-step principle to an extent. Themes and concerns are evident early on and the end seems to arise out of the beginning. So far, so good. But the way fiction fulfils its mission is not the same at all.
Reports and articles take the reader on a straightforward journey. Draw a diagram of the reader’s progress through an article or presentation, and it will be a straight line. Statement, development, conclusion (though see Hugh’s comment below for a few exceptions…).
In fiction, the journey is anything but straightforward. We do not want the reader to guess where we’re going to end up. We want to surprise, reilluminate, perhaps startle. We might want to create complex emotions. The main character may start with a particular goal, then decide they want something else, then change their mind again, then decide none of it was important.
Draw a diagram of the reader’s journey through a novel, and there will be ups, downs, reversals. It may circle back to the place it started or even go backwards and off the scale. The conclusion might be boldly stated, in terms of a problem solved. Or it may be a resonant moment that leaves the reader assembling the final pieces.
A satisfying novel that takes the reader on a journey will not be a straight line. (If it is, it’s known as a linear plot – and will seem plodding and predictable.)
Difference 2 – the relationship with the reader
In an article or report we present facts, issues and ideas. In a novel we work on the reader at deeper levels. We can be subtle and manipulative. We might plant clues, then misdirect so that the reader doesn’t see them. We might make the reader love a character and then do something vile to them.
In a report or article, we might attempt to be balanced, concise and authoritative. In a novel, we might narrate as characters who are biased, unreliable or on the very bad side. Nya-ha-harrgh.
Two habits to unlearn if you write novels
Avoid condensing the process of change. In novels, change is gradual.
Journalism – and other types of report – tend to be super-condensed. When I’ve critiqued first novels by journalists they have a distinctive problem – when characters change it is sudden. For instance, an errant boyfriend is given a talking-to by a wise friend and in the next scene he’s changed his ways.
This sharp contrast will work well in an article or a report. It makes the point that change has happened. But in a novel, the change is part of the reader’s journey, so it is more gradual, spread out over the book. We might also have periods where the character resists, which is why it is a challenge. Thinking back to our graph of the reader’s journey, this is the meandering line.
Stop using scenes and dialogue to convey only a focussed message
Reports and articles are written with a ‘message’ in mind. Quotes from sources and interviewees are used to back the message up. But dialogue in a novel is much more organic and rich.
Mrs de Winter said she was delighted to be at her new home Manderley, but found the housekeeper Mrs Danvers a little frightening. ‘She gives me the screaming creeps,’ said Mrs de Winter.
For novels, we prefer the reader to draw that conclusion for themselves, by giving them an experience. We include details that would be irrelevant clutter to the journalist or report writer. I just opened Rebecca, looking for the scene where Mrs de Winter becomes aware that Mrs Danvers is an intimidating presence. It isn’t one line, or even one paragraph. It’s a scene that builds over several pages, with clues in the characters’ expressions, body language, tone of voice, choice of words and the narrator’s thoughts, the atmosphere of menace and unease.
Of course, you may want to direct the reader strongly – after all, some narrators are highly judgemental. But I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts that stop the characters coming alive because they present the action in a digest.
(Indeed, you might think this topic is looking familiar – it’s that old chestnut, show, not tell. Outside of novels or narrative non-fiction, the norm is to tell, not show.)
So if you’re transitioning to novels from other forms of writing, here are my 5 tips for success:
- – make the journey purposeful, but tangled
- – try being unreliable, biased and manipulative
- – be lengthy
- – build the truth gradually, and seek it in the details that seem irrelevant
- – read novels – and notice how the prose does its work
There’s more on plot twists, structure, show not tell and endings in this little thingy.
And meanwhile … congratulations, my hard-working Observer friend, on your new front page.
Have you had to unlearn any writing habits in order to write fiction? Are there any more you’d add to my list?
My guest this week grew up in thrall to wild west movies, especially the ones with epic theme music. Many years later, she was reading some history books as research and stumbled across the freed slaves who were conscripted to fight the Indian Wars. Those early movie memories with their sweeping soundscapes came back to her, along with a more bitter kind of song – gospel music and spirituals by Nina Simone, Paul Robeson and Sam Cooke. She emerged with a mission to, as she puts it, tell the story of the Civil War from the other side. She is Tanya Landman, her novel has been shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.