My guest this week has a theory that everyone’s head is carrying a tune – a permanent soundtrack, a default earworm. Her own cerebrum is tuned to Jimi Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower, which has special significance when she starts writing as she sees the process of plotting as the search for an escape. And her book centres on two characters who need this escape – sisters who were professional singers, who go through multiple misunderstandings before they find their equilibrium. (Cue Nina Simone: Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.) The author is Nadine Matheson and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Last weekend I was teaching a workshop at Writecon Zurich and one of the issues we discussed was killing your darlings. I used the example of a very precious scene I deleted from My Memories of a Future Life. The full story, including the scene, is here, but briefly, it was inspired by a family heirloom and I was keen to include it. But at each revision round I sensed it repeated an emotional beat, tripped the reader up and made the story stall. When, finally, I swallowed my vanity and removed it, the story ran more smoothly.
I found myself using that same instinct the other day with Ever Rest, which I’m revising. I’m recutting the rough first draft in a more dynamic order, now I know the characters more deeply. I’d planned a funky new use for a scene and was pleased with the possibilities – especially as there were some good lines about the characters’ histories. So I improvised a fill-in scene to prepare the way – then realised that had already done the job. Those nice moments weren’t even needed.
I have to admit, this was annoying. If I get excited about an idea, I want to use it, not discard it. But it was surplus to requirements and would spoil the flow. Rather like the dress scene. I liked it for itself, but it didn’t serve the book.
I sighed and parked the sequence back in the rushes file. It might be useful later.
Back to the dress scene. I’ve also used it as an illustration in my Guardian masterclass – and quite often, a funny thing happens. One of the students will argue, quite strenuously, that I should have included it. Why? Because it was nice, they reply. And no matter how I argue about the overall good of the book, they lament that I took it out.
No matter that I tell them readers can find it on my website if they’re that curious; or that I acknowledge the narrator probably had that moment around the corners of the story. That there would have been plenty of moments of the characters’ lives I didn’t show. Real life contains a lot of monotony and repetition, but a storyteller needs to select what to include and what to omit. You get more artistry from discipline, coherence and elegance than you do from sprawl.
The reason I tell the anecdote is to illustrate the kinds of battles we might have as we edit. We have to recognise when we’re trying to include a scene, character or description simply because we like it, and instead search for a more substantial reason.
Now obviously we are not building machines. We are creating works of art and entertainment. A scene, character or description might earn its place for many reasons aside from advancing the plot – thematic resonance, comic relief, helping the reader to understand a tricky situation. And our style is an individual organism that arises from our interests, gut feeling, personality and reading tastes, so the rules for my novels won’t be the same as the rules for yours.
But mature writers have this level of awareness and discipline that helps them edit wisely. I now find I’m catching myself far more often than I used to, examining my personal feelings about a scene, and it’s saved me from stitching in a passage that I’m sure I would have quarreled with later.
Or, in the words of Stephen King: Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’
There’s a lot more about honing your story’s pace in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel.
Have you struggled over a cherished passage in one of your books? Have you had feedback where you were urged to delete something, but found it difficult? What made you want to keep it? If you’ve been writing for a while, do you notice yourself becoming more aware of your reasons for keeping scenes? Let’s discuss!
My guest this week says his novel emerged as part of his creative writing PhD. He was inspired by the post-punk scene in Manchester, and drew on a soundtrack of The Manic Street Preachers, New Order, Ultravox, Savages and David Bowie to summon the grim streets of the city and the mindset of his troubled main character, a rock star who mysteriously disappears. He is Guy Mankowski and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week is making a return appearance to the series. Last time he wrote about how he’d driven his wife bonkers by playing certain albums that evoked the souls of his characters. This good spouse will surely be donning the earplugs again as his musical choice for his current novel is a striking album by Fiona Apple, which consists of drums, close-up vocals and percussive piano. He describes the pieces as having the feel of a therapy session, all raw emotion and obsession – and perfect for his characters who are all connected by an act of betrayal. He is Scott D Southard and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
And there’ll be a slight hiatus in my posting schedule this weekend as I’m teaching at WriteCon in Zurich. (This is tremendously exciting as it’s the first time anyone’s flown me anywhere to teach!) So I’m tied up preparing for that at the moment, but I’m anticipating some interesting issues to share afterwards.
The first symptom I noticed was irritation. A character in a scene I was revising was annoying me. I quickly figured out why. In previous scenes I’d been writing from her point of view. Although I had a strong idea of what she wanted from the inside, when viewed by another character she was a blank nothing. She didn’t feel like real flesh and blood. I couldn’t describe her.
(I’m not talking here about whether her eyes are blue or she likes sharp suits – the physical attributes we can bestow almost without thought. I mean the essence of her. A good character description makes you understand what it’s like to be in their presence. For instance: this is from William Boyd’s Brazzaville Beach, which I’m currently reading:
She had unusual eyes, the upper lids seemed heavy, as if she were dying to go to sleep but was making a special effort for you… She was very thin. I imagined that in the right clothes she would look elegant. I had never seen her in anything but a shirt and trousers.’)
So I needed to give my nebulous character some physical heft to make her more real. I considered which actress might play her in a movie, no one seemed right. I considered whether real-life friends or acquaintances had a quality I could borrow to start her off. No one fitted. She remained faceless, presenceless.
Perhaps I’d given her the wrong name, which had then conjured the wrong impression about her. I wondered whether to rechristen to appreciate her afresh. I rolled some possibilities around. None seemed to suit her better than her existing name.
Accessing a difficult personality
I’ve often written characters who I found hard to access immediately; this is the challenge of creating people who are not like you. Gene in My Memories of a Future Life was the stubbornest beast to channel. Writing his dialogue was like trying to guess the desires of an inscrutable and unpredictable monarch – endless patience and guesswork. When I made the audiobook, he gave my voice actor unsettling dreams.
A line she would not say
So I did what I often do in that situation – began editing, guessing new dialogue, and hoped the character would join in. In the first draft she’d asked an important question – and this became the sticking point. Now, she wouldn’t do it.
I tried all sorts of segues to allow it to arise naturally, but it felt fake. I tried the opposite – to let her avoid tackling the situation so that another character could step up. That wasn’t right.
A hole in my knowledge – and the clue
It was clear the problem went much further than her physical presence. There was a hole in my knowledge of her. Despite all the work I’d done on what she wanted or didn’t want, there was something important I hadn’t yet identified. I was writing someone whose true motives and feelings were very unclear to her, and confused. And this scene was bumping up against it.
The lines she wouldn’t say were the clue.
And then I got it. They weren’t my block after all. They were hers. They were the issue she didn’t want to confront – and didn’t realise.
Two days it took me to guess that minx’s heart. But now I have, I’ve pinned her down. I’ve found the inner voice that justified her during this scene. I knew what she’d say. And it fits. It flows. And not just with her, but with the overall arc for that episode of the story. Understanding this question about her was a valve to let the entire narrative flow again.
I’ve reminded myself of three principles I consistently return to:
- The truth about a scene may lie much deeper than we think. Even with a lot of preparation work, there may be more to learn. We must listen to the instinct that something is wrong.
- The thing your character refuses to say or do may not be a story problem. It might be their most important issue. Try working with it.
- So much of our work is done away from the page, from carrying the problem with us as we walk to the station, from thinking, refining and persisting.
And my character? Now she’s not bland at all. She’s in a lot more trouble than I’d suspected.
There’s more about characters in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Has an episode of writer’s block helped you solve a problem? What do you do if a character refuses to enact the plot? Do you have any tips on how you create fictional characters? Let’s discuss!
My guest this week is a master of many storytelling disciplines – including screenwriting and radio as well as prose fiction. She’s currently writing an action-adventure screenplay set during the Russian Revolution, with a decidedly spooky twist. Her soundtrack includes Holst, the romantic 20th century composer George Butterworth and a haunting, melancholy piano piece she discovered on an album of Chinese composers. Best known for creating the TV series Wolfblood, she is Debbie Moon and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
I was editing a manuscript and came across a confrontation scene. It was well set up so that we understood the stakes, the context and why this encounter would sizzle. We were about to watch a protagonist face a mischief-maker and warn them off.
Except the dialogue was painfully obvious. Realistically, the characters should have been tiptoeing about, laying hints, oblique warnings and making concealed excuses. Instead, they came baldly out and said what was what, in a way that was unrealistic for their situation and personalities. Indeed, one of the characters said things that would have been professional suicide – when they were usually much smarter.
Although it was unconvincing, it certainly wasn’t bad work. Indeed it was a very useful way to mark out what must go in a scene where there’s a lot simmering under the characters’ words.
What I advised my writer to do was this. Make a copy of the plain-speaking on-the-nose version, and highlight the dialogue in a colour. This is what the characters really mean. Then rewrite so that they try to get this across without saying it. If one of them originally had the line ‘I know you started that malicious rumour’ or ‘I’m in love with your husband’, make them try to convey it in another way, by steering the conversation, making hints and watching the other person pick up the cue.
It’s not all speech
Non-verbal reactions are very useful in oblique dialogue. After all, a conversation with a heavily shaded meaning is a highly emotional situation. Characters might panic, develop a visceral sense of wrong or injustice. They might insist more strongly that they were right, or back pedal shamelessly. Even, a character might not know what they’re trying to say and surprise themselves with how much they reveal in an indirect way.
Their spoken lines may sound innocuous to an eavesdropper, but you can demonstrate their inner state with gestures, expressions, pauses, and nervous abuse of the cafe teaspoons.
Readers love to spot what’s between the lines and a scene that is undershot with subtext can be immensely satisfying. But until you know what your people mustn’t say, it’s hard to write it well. Indeed I see a lot of scenes that suffer from the opposite problem. I’ve seen many a scene drown in opaque, vague fluff because the writer wasn’t clear what was going on.
So if you’re having trouble with a nuanced, subtle dialogue, write the clumsy version. Splurge everything out. Describe the elephant in the room, its every wrinkle, eyelash and toenail. Then go back on another day, rub it out and leave just the hints and shadows.
Your clodhopping dialogue could be the mission statement to a fine scene.
There’s a lot more about dialogue and subtext in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Do you have problems with writing oblique dialogue? Have you any tips to share? Let’s discuss!
My guest this week describes his novel as a romantic comedy about a young man’s attempts to find love through an internet community. Despite its thoroughly contemporary setting, he says it was sparked by a song from the early 1960s, by a band who have long faded into obscurity. Other songs joined it, to represent the strong women characters who are at the centre of the book – people who are aloof, cool, full of contradictions – and some of them dealing with the painful bewilderment of losing a loved one. He is Chris Hill and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
The life of a writer is a kind of madness. We have the pressure to produce. The expectations of ourselves and, if we’re lucky, our readers. We have, usually, the feeling that we can never do enough – can’t write enough words or books, can’t be in enough online places, can’t sell enough copies. We might also have the feeling that we’re failing in comparison to others, that we have too many opportunities we can’t fulfil well enough – or no opportunities at all because, as we hear every minute of the day, the market is glutted and nobody needs any more writers.
But writing and publishing are long games, and those of us who keep at it have to develop a resilience. Day by day by day, there’s a secret fuel that keeps us keeping on. Otherwise this would be a dumb way to live, right?
In my corner of the world, March has dawned bright and full of promise. I still can’t figure out how, as it seems just a fortnight since Christmas, but as we’re here I thought I’d share the things that put a spring in my step.
Noting each hour I’ve spent on my fiction. Those of us who write and edit as a day job often find our soul projects get pushed aside. That’s one of the surprising truths about the writing life. Emma Darwin posted about this recently, in which she talked about ring-fencing time for her own writing. I cherish the time I spend with Ever Rest each morning before I open the deluge of emails. Just an hour loads the book in my mind and keeps it ticking over while I deal with the day’s demands. Sometimes deadlines make it impossible, and if that continues for a few days I start to get twitchy. But a proper appointment with my own writing restores my equilibrium. Even if that’s an hour of filleting a paragraph over and over, hunting for the right tone, that was well spent. Page by page, it adds up to a book.
The sense that so much of a book is serendipity. I look back at my completed novels and can recognise where incidental details came from, and sometimes the big ideas too. So much of a book’s texture seems to have come from random remarks I heard, news headlines I glimpsed, a novel I happened to be reading or a film I saw when my own story was at a sensitive point. My books are made of a collection of happenstances and lucky discoveries. Which is a bit magical.
Finding an email, a tweet or a Facebook note about one of my books. Sometimes they’re from a stranger, or a name I recognise only glancingly. We are probably more widely read than we suspect. But every single remark is a genuine, welcome surprise – or at least confirms I’m not howling into the wind.
An afternoon reading for pleasure. My reading time is usually appropriated by work – manuscripts in progress, research to get ideas and to make sure my WIPs are properly informed (both non-fiction and fiction). So I try to make time for an indulgent read, purely for fun and curiosity (which is how the rest of the literate world probably reads anyway). Again, I don’t always succeed when the deadlines go wild. (If you like to explore more about how writers read, bookseller Peter Snell and I discussed it recently in one of our radio shows. Find them all here – it’s show no 21.)
A good sales day, of course, which is different for everyone, and seems to be more of a challenge now than ever. But they do happen. I’ve written before about how much harder it is to sell fiction than non-fiction, and how to take a long-term view, and how a sale of one of my novels delights me about five times as much as a sale of a Nail Your Novel book (but I’m still very grateful to have those, thank you very much).
The Undercover Soundtrack I started this series on the Red Blog and have kept it going now for four years. It’s fun. People enjoy it and it’s nice to be able to offer an unusual kind of showcase for other writers. But also The Undercover Soundtrack keeps me in touch with the essence of creativity. These essays ground us in the work we do. It’s not about communities, forums or sales. It’s the pleasure and struggle of sitting down with yourself, the long persistence of flying blind through an idea, seeking clarity, gathering substance, the process of gradually making something from nothing.
The wonderful web of writer support. Most of the time we all try to be upbeat on line. And there is much to do, and many opportunities to grasp, and many reasons to press onwards and upwards. But I’m grateful whenever one of my co-conspirators lends an ear for a moment of woe, or confesses they are having just the difficulties I am – when I thought I was the only one.
Thanks for the pic MadAdminSkillz
Over to you – what keeps you resilient as a writer?