Archive for category How to write a book
No, they’re right where you are, indeed where these words are travelling. They are parts of the human eye.
I sense an artistic sensibility in the world of ophthalmic nomenclature, as though its members are preserving a sense of wonder about what these organs do for us. Next door, the brain is another grotto. It has diencephalon, fissure of Rolando, aqueduct of Sylvius, cingulate gyrus. The founding fathers of neurology were blessed with linguistic grace.
In a novel, even if your setting is a known place and realistic, each name you choose creates expectations, hints at themes and the characters’ roles.
Daphne Du Maurier wrote in The Rebecca Diaries how Maxim de Winter was ‘Henry’ in the first draft. She changed it, feeling ‘Henry’ didn’t live up to the troubled, vain creation she had in mind.
Of course one of the striking things about the novel is that the first-person narrator doesn’t have any name of her own at all. Du Maurier’s diaries reveal that this wasn’t deliberate. In her early drafts she couldn’t think of a name and left a blank. One day she realised it was a rather interesting challenge to write her without a first name. But what a fine instinct. It leaves us to think that the second Mrs de Winter has no name because she has no identity, only the roles that others give her.
Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote for pulp magazines like Weird Tales, used to make lists of names with one or two qualities that the name suggested to him. Then when he needed a character he might pick “Gideon Balcoth” or “Alfred Misseldine” and grow the character from that germ.
How you feel about the characters determines how you develop them. In My Memories of a Future Life, the narrator is a musician. I named her Carol, thinking of Lewis Carroll and trips to wonderland, and because it is musical without being fey. But this was completely lost on one reader, who chided me for choosing a name that suggested the character was in her fifties. This surprised me. My Carol is in her thirties. I knew, of course, that some names suggested an age. A Gladys, an Ada, a Mabel or a Flo. There have been fashionable waves of Dianas and Freyas. But Carol? I thought she was timeless. (Carols reading this, any opinions?)
I haven’t had an complaints so far about the hypnotist character. I called him Gene Winter because heredity is important in the novel, and I wanted to give him a sense of elemental coldness.
Names from the world
I approached names differently in Lifeform Three. The title came before the story, and that one idea set the vocabulary of the world – Lifeform Three is what they call a horse. I explored why that might be, and realised the people had an overzealous desire for cataloguing, an algorithm mentality because of their love of software and apps. So I gave them a vocabulary derived from computers and from the relentless positivity of brainwashing corporate-speak. When things are damaged, they are ‘undone’, and putting them right is ‘redoing’. The characters are named after their functions. Tickets is the doorman on the main gate. The others are PAF and a number – Park Asset Field Redo Bod. I got that idea from a motorway service station where every item was labelled Service Station Asset No. Hand driers, bins, doors, all homogenised under one label. Let us expunge the separate nouns and look ahead to a future of Newspeak.
And then there was the horse, the lifeform himself. In the book, he was named at random by a product sponsorship. A giant brute of seventeen hands, he was called, absurdly, Pea.
Places are important too. My Memories of a Future Life takes place in a town called Vellonoweth. I spotted it as a surname in a magazine I was working on, and thought it carried a sense of wild weather and the elements running out of control. I liked the strong emphasis of the ‘no’ syllable, like a prohibition. Whatever you want to do, you can’t do it here. The town down the road is Nowethland, a sleepier suburb derived from Vellonoweth but less tempestuous.
Lifeform Three needed just one named place – The Lost Lands of Harkaway Hall. Fans of Siegfried Sassoon will recognise it as one of the horses in Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man, a world that becomes significant for the Tickets and Paftoo (aka PAF2).
Outgrowing their names
I’m working differently again with the names in Ever Rest. Some characters started with names they owned and inhabited right from the start. Others outgrew my expectations and have been rechristened. Others still do not have names at all yet. They are labels – [Millionaire] and [Manager]. I’ll sort them out later.
Sometimes our off-the-cuff instincts are surprisingly predictable. I’ve especially noticed this in manuscripts from other writers. They seem to have their favourite defaults. If they have a Jack, they’ll also have a Jake or a Jacqui.
This seems to happen most with minor characters, perhaps because we pluck the names from mid air as we go along.
My Memories of a Future Life had a Jerry who became very significant but was named on a whim when I thought ‘what shall I call Carol’s friend?’ Then I invented a former beau, and decided the perfect name for him was Jez. Only much later did I realise I had a confusing Jerry/Jez situation. Jerry was by then so quintessentially Jerry that he couldn’t be anything else, so reluctantly Jez became Karli. Then, darn it, I realised Carol’s other ex was Charlie. However, that looked different enough on the page, though it would have been troublesome in a radio play. (And don’t ask about the troubles I had with my audiobooks, when Gene became confused with the neighbour Jean. Lots more about making my audiobooks here.)
Names are never casual
We all grow up taking names for granted; our own names and the names of places around us. They are arbitrary and we get used to them. They are what they are. But names in novels must be given carefully. We are like those doctors, who aim to preserve mystery, wonder and respect when they name the territories of the eye and brain.
What’s in a name? Everything.
How do you name your characters and settings?
I’m writing an adventure story that takes place over a journey, and we meet many characters. I’ve been told my novel has too many, but when I look at comparison titles, big casts are de rigeur. Kidnapped has 15 named characters, though some are very minor. Treasure Island has six main characters and 15 or more minor named characters. The Silver Sword has six main characters and the same number of minor. The Hobbit has even more. How many should I have?
It’s true that journey stories tend to have large casts. In that respect they’re like the family saga, which begins with a core of characters and gathers and loses key players along the way. The constant flux of personnel is one of the pleasures of the genre. Who’s going to join? Who might leave – or even, die?
But it ain’t what you do. It’s the way you do it. Some of us can handle big casts; some can’t. So what are the signs that you’re spreading your story between too many people?
Here are the key symptoms I’ve noticed in manuscripts I’ve edited or advised on.
1 The characters don’t have enough to do. The writer knows we need to visit the main characters regularly, but when we do the scenes are dull. The characters will often be sitting around having inconsequential conversations, doing something uninteresting, or repeating a previous emotional beat. (Repetition can be good, of course, but it can also make the story seem stuck.) What should the characters be doing instead? They should be having experiences that make us curious or tug our emotions – and, importantly, we should have a sense of progress. What happens should seem new, or if it repeats, it should seem to confirm that the story situation is getting more extreme (which is progress). Of course the characters are allowed some opportunities for reflection and relaxation, but most of the time they should be increasing our interest in them.
2 Characters disappear. Sometimes writers handle this problem in the opposite way – the characters vanish for long periods because there’s nothing for them to do. But there’s a danger we may forget them.
3 The characters are too similar. The writer hasn’t developed them distinctively enough – they have similar outlooks, tastes, backgrounds, dialogue styles. Even their dilemmas might be the same. Of course, you might be making a deliberate feature of this similarity, and that’s fine. Perhaps you want to show compatibility, or that two rivals are the same even though they wear uniforms of opposing sides. But when a writer is finding their cast unmanageable they tend to create clones unintentionally.
Well it’s obvious – combine some of your characters.
Here’s where you can get creative. List them all and look for the most interesting splices. If a character is marking time before their interesting bit happens, merge them with someone who has a more active role. Revel in the possibilities to generate more story, and especially look for personal dilemmas – if you have a forensic pathologist and a murder suspect, could they be the same person? Could the lady’s maid also be the young girl who was raped in the dark lane? Could the gentle aunt who dispenses cake and sympathy also be the wartime spy?
And consider their internal landscape. Two sketchy characters could be merged into one three-dimensional, flawed, conflicted, internally contradictory character. Again, look for the unexpected – especially in their desires and story goals. (You might like this piece from the Telegraph about Pete Docter, writer of Pixar’s Inside Out, where he talks about whittling his cast down to manageable numbers)
There’s no hard and fast rule about how many main characters you can manage. It’s as many as you, with your particular story circumstances, can handle. If you can give 10 people proper significant roles and arcs, you can have 10 main characters. If you can find only 3 significant roles and arcs, you have 3 main characters.
There’s a lot more advice on developing characters – and detailed questionnaires to help you create distinctive people – in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Let’s discuss! Have you discovered you had too many characters in a novel? What made you realise? How did you tackle it, and did it strengthen the story? Have you found you have a personal limit for the number of characters you can handle?
I’ve had this interesting email: ‘A literary agent told me my dialogue sounded lifeless and unconvincing and that my characters talked only about plot information. What might be missing? What could I do to improve?’
What’s good dialogue?
First of all, although dialogue is one of the ways we can unfold the story, it’s more than an exposition vehicle. Note that word ‘lifeless’ in the agent’s assessment: good dialogue brings a quality of real experience. It lets the reader eavesdrop on people who are experiencing the story first hand. Even in a first-person narrative, we need dialogue from other characters or the world may seem less vivid.
(Of course, you might do this deliberately, perhaps to create a highly coloured or unreliable view of the world. But usually even a first-person narrative will let the other characters speak for themselves.)
However, characters obviously must talk about what’s happening – who is going where, what so-and-so had done to someone else, what everyone should try next. So how should writers handle it? What might my correspondent’s manuscript be missing?
Again, look at the word lifeless. And consider another word that goes with it: emotion.
It’s all about emotion
I would bet the missing ingredient was emotion. And emotion comes from the writer connecting with the characters. If I talk about something I’m worried about, it colours my vocabulary, my body language, the questions I ask. So the first thing I’d recommend is:
Be aware of how each character feels about the situation. Aim to convey that, not the information.
Second, consider the characters’ personalities. Expressive, confident types might tell everybody what they’re feeling. What goes on in their heads comes straight out of their mouths. More private people might find it hard to articulate their worries to another person.
Check your characters’ personalities How does this particular person show they’re worried? And – a bigger question – how thoroughly have you developed your story people?
Relationships – how do they feel about the person they are talking to? Irritated, calmed, excited, flirtatious, threatened, grudging, hesitant?
And don’t forget:
Individual agendas – what personal concerns do the characters have in the scene? Are they hiding anything? Are they competing with the other characters in any way, and do they want to show this? Are they fishing for information?
If you’re finding this tricky
Write dialogue and narrative on separate days
Relax. To write convincing dialogue you need to make a mental gear change. You stop being the storyteller who knows everything. You inject yourself into the souls of the people who are caught up in the events. Many writers find it’s easier to concentrate either on narrative or dialogue in a session. And sometimes, if a character is quite different from you, you might need to concentrate a session on just their lines.
Riff, then edit
It’s hard to get the great lines instantly. Allow yourself to write a riffing draft where the characters natter. Let them go off piste if they want – natural conversation does that. Tune into their voices, their fears, their hidden agendas. Once you’re warmed up, they’re sure to surprise you too, so have fun with it. Then come back on a different day and pan for gold. Look for sections that enshrine the important differences between the characters’ attitudes, and their similarities too. Look for remarks that seem to underline a theme. Cut all of this together to make a dialogue scene full of emotion – and plot significance.
There’s a lot more advice on dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, as well as questionnaires to help you develop your fictional people.
Let’s discuss! What would you add? Have you had to add life to your characters’ dialogue? How did you do it?
Our show on Surrey Hills Radio just got this lovely write-up on a new website, This Is Wild. I’m not sure how we fit the wild agenda, but the interviewer has cited our enthusiasm for all things of publishing, our robust arguments about how you pronounce the Norrell of Jonathan Strange and our music collection. (Okay; my music collection.)
We talk about how the show began, and how the fans made our early episodes into a party on Facebook. (Chriss from Whoknowswhere and Henry in Hyding should also be on that list.) There are a few useful writing tips in among all that, as well as pointers for making friends with local bookshops. And if you prefer audio, you can listen to the whole interview on Soundcloud from the This is Wild site.
In other terribly exciting news, Lifeform Three has just been selected as one of just 200 self-published books to be promoted nationally in libraries across the US. It’s part of an initiative called Library Journal Self-e, and you still have time to enter their awards. And Lifeform Three brings us neatly back to the Surrey Hills, because this haunting landscape was one of my inspirations.
It was final revision time on Lifeform Three. I’d been living at the computer, desperate to spend every moment with my book. And one morning I woke up unable to move my right arm.
To be truthful, I could move it, but it hurt so much I preferred not to. Reaching for my glasses left me a gasping wreck. Keeping still wasn’t much better. I’d felt it nagging the previous day, but never thought it could turn into this.
The repetitive strain injury was back.
In a way it seemed like divine retribution. In my first novel My Memories of a Future Life, I inflicted a cruel case of RSI on a concert pianist. And now it seemed that some deity that sat on the interface between art and life had thought it would be very fine to dump the same fate on me – and right when I needed my fingers most.
In my defence, I hadn’t used the RSI device glibly. Its details didn’t come from comfy googling.
My RSI journey began when I became a sub-editor in the 1990s, when desktop publishing loused up a lot of limbs and livelihoods. I’ve battled this keyboarder’s curse ever since.
In some ways, I was kind to Carol, my concert pianist protagonist. Although I gave her my gruesome medical tests, I spared her the acupuncture.
Wait, are you thinking acupuncture is benign? Do you imagine it’s like being stroked by a healing Chinese butterfly? No. It is not. When the therapist needled my painful nerves, they hurt even more. (He was perplexed, though, and probably suspected I was a wuss. I thought he was an idiot. If you poke painful parts with needles, don’t you expect they will hurt?)
I also spared Carol the buzz needles – this is acupuncture jollied along by voltage from a car battery. Meanwhile my journalist colleagues told (possibly tall?) tales of being put on racks to pull their necks straight. But in our gallery of horrors, buzz needles trumped traction; hands down.
After a year of these random tortures I said stop. The publisher paid for ergonomic chairs and such, and I think these have kept me typing over the years.
So this is the advice I’d pass on to a fellow sufferer
• Posture and straightness are important – I got a kneeling chair, because it makes you sit upright as though poised on a horse. (It’s good for horse-riders too, if lifeform threes are your thing.)
• I learned to touch type, fluttering across the keys instead of stabbing them in my own peculiar pattern. (I rather missed my invented fingering, though. It felt more expressive than the ‘correct’ way.)
• Some RSI is caused by muscle wastage, which means nerves aren’t as padded as they should be. I certainly found relief by lifting considerable weights in Body Pump classes. After a bad bout two years ago I bought a split ergonomic keyboard and joystick mouse.
• Screen breaks are sensible, if I remember them. I’m not always sensible.
• It helps to put the strain on different muscle groups. If my neck starts to rebel, I jack the monitor up to a different height. Hooray for Time-Life books.
Some people use dictation software. As a sub-editor, that was never an option for me and it’s no good for manuscript doctoring either. As a writer, it might do for drafting, but the vast majority of my creative writing is done in the edits. Like a masseur, I think through my fingers. I can’t imagine editing hands free.
I also can’t imagine how anyone can write lolling at their laptops in bed, as we see in the movies.
But sometimes all the ergonomic wisdom in the world doesn’t help me, so I go to the bad side. I get my notebook computer, put it on my knee and hunch over. A few days contorted like that gives the overused muscles a break and they recover. Or they have so far.
So these are the ways I can carry on. But a musician, like Carol in my novel, has no other way. It’s piano or nothing, and the pain of that is worse than anything physical.
Back to haunt you
We novelists have a cruel side. We’re ruthless enough to create exquisite tortures – and sensitive enough to appreciate what they are doing. When I was writing that novel I would wake at night, telling myself these questions were not to be treated lightly, asking how I would feel if I had to face them. I know I’m earning more bad karma for what I’m doing in Ever Rest.
I soldier on, bludgeoning the RSI when I have to, so that I can continue to do my own version of playing an instrument. I hope I never have to be really brave, the way I force my characters to be.
(thanks for the pic Lizspikol. This post originally appeared on the Authors Electric blog)
Do you get RSI – and what do you do about it? How bad are you to your characters? Are you grateful you don’t have to live their lives?
When you sit at the keyboard (or seize your writing irons), how certain are you about what you’re going to write?
I’m a big fan of plans, but sometimes they’re frustrating. We know the next point in the story but can’t get the characters there. We need to set up a development and it won’t work. Or we need something, anything to darn well happen.
This week I heard the broadcast journalist Libby Purves (@Lib_Thinks) ask two creatives about their processes, and the results were rather interesting (listen to it here) . They weren’t writers, but what they described was exceedingly familiar.
The moment when you get the pencil out
Fashion designer Katherine Hooker (left) @KatherineHooker and furniture maker Peter Korn (below) (who has written this book about creativity) were asked about the moment ‘when you first get the pencil out and think now I’m going to create something‘.
Peter Korn immediately modified the idea. ‘Getting the pencil out is a challenging moment. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail, or how long it will take to come up with something pleasing, until the pencil stumbles on the right thing.’
Katherine agreed. ‘Rather than making it happen, you see it happening. You see it presenting itself. And then you’re away, thinking this is good.’
Beginning without knowing what you’re aiming for.
Exploring until you stumble on the right thing.
Hold those thoughts.
So – what has this got to do with being stuck? And writing??
It’s this. Often I’ve found that when I’m stuck with a scene, or frustrated because I can’t find a the right story development, the thing to do is to step back. Remove the expectations.
Usually I’m blocked because there’s a possibility I haven’t seen. Or I’m forcing an unnatural direction, or a phase in the story is missing. Or I’m repeating a beat and haven’t yet recognised it, but the creative elf has put the brakes on. No, we can’t go there again.
Whatever the reason, I’ve found the way to solve it is to forget the plan and just write. I don’t know how long the solution will take, or how much I’m going to delete, but eventually, like Katherine, I’ll see it happening.
What’s more, I’ll find something more new and surprising. (Indeed, over the years I’ve come to see the creative process as a search for questions, instead of answers. More about that here. )
And this spirit of exploration was how these two people, one creating clothes and the other creating furniture, discovered what they wanted to make next.
Here’s another remark I liked from the interview. Peter Korn said: ‘If you draw a lot, you get to the stage where you can remove yourself and the pencil can do the thinking.’
That’s us with our craft, adding the building blocks of story and character, shaping the idea into crescendoes, crises, conflict, protagonists, antagonists, hooks, midpoints.
Blank page panic
We often fear the blank page, especially when it presents at an inconvenient time. But those who do discovery exercises, such as free writing, already know that if you start the fingers, the muse can spring wonderful surprises.
I’m sure someone is about to say ‘trust the process’. Sometimes that’s our craft knowledge. If your narrative’s flagging, check the structure, look for repetition, create more contrast in your subplots. Strengthen a character’s motive. Sometimes it’s our tools like beat sheets or Undercover Soundtracks.
And part of that process is also allowing time for invention and knowing when to welcome the blank page. Tailors do it. Table-makers do it. This is invention at its most pure. (pic from katherinehooker.com)
So in summary, here are my tips for moments when you’re stuck:
1 Back up – are you trying to race ahead to the next development? Do you need more steps?
2 Is the next development really the right one? Subtract your assumptions and see if that frees your ideas.
3 Don’t expect results. Write, and accept that you don’t know if you’re going to succeed or fail.
4 Keep going until the solution presents itself – listen to your intuition, you’ll know when the right idea comes along.
5 Add craft – and stir. Or, with reference to Ursula K Le Guin, should that be steer?
There’s lots more about unblocking techniques in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence, and lots about plot and characters in the other two books in the series.
When you’re blocked, what do you do? Have you learned any interesting insights from creative people in other media? Let’s discuss.
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?
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?