Archive for category How to write a book

5 tips for handling amnesia and back story

amnesiaI haven’t forgotten I’m half-way through the self-editing masterclass snapshots, but I got this fantastic question from a writer who’d read a post of mine about back story.

I’ve begun the same novel a couple times and it relies so heavily on back story that I’ve begun to wonder if I should just write it as a separate novel.

But I want to write a novel about AFTER the hero saves the world – and in doing so has forgotten HOW he did it and WHAT happened, which is a huge plot point. I want to avoid the ‘zero to hero’ shtick that is so overdone – and I want the reveals to be important with emotional impact. I’m not sure it will work. Thoughts?

(Here’s the post that started it, and the question in full. Scroll down and look for Mark.)

I like this concept of exploring the save-the-world scenario from an unusual angle. And I don’t see why you can’t make it work – with a few considerations.

First, do you have a convincing reason for the amnesia?

Second, you have a convincing mechanism for paying out the story surprises? Why doesn’t he remember all at once? (I tackled both these problems in Lifeform Three, although it wasn’t a save-the-world.)

As for the emotional impact, focus on how the revelations affect what your hero is doing now, what he wants, and the people who matter to him. Set those up so that the reader cares about them, then deliver your blows from the past. Did he betray someone or renege on a promise? Has ne now got a family who will be threatened by what happened? Make sure we’re involved with characters who will be hurt.

Also, have you got enough story in the ‘aftermath’ chunk? Otherwise the reader’s attention will wander and they’ll just skip to the flashbacks. Make sure the resolution in the ‘present’ is more interesting to you than the resolution of the big hero story. Make sure you have enough in your aftermath story to keep the reader’s attention firmly on that, rather than the questions of how he saved the world. (This is on my mind at the moment too; Ever Rest has a lot of major events in the past, but my biggest interest is the mess in the present.)

Will you tell the back story in chronological order? If so, you’ll need a convincing reason for the discoveries to happen in such a convenient way. If you tell it out of order, that might be more realistic, but it might also be confusing. Non-chronological order isn’t always muddled, but remember that readers are much more adrift in your book than you are. Chronological order is the easiest for them to understand. You, as the writer, can hop around the timeline easily because you know it so well. You might write a romantic scene and then flash back to the hero’s love life before the big heroic act, because they seem thematically linked. But your reader might think ‘did this happen before that?’

On the other hand, you might want this fragmented approach because it’s how memory works. Send the reader on unraveling trails if that will enhance the emotional effect you’re looking for.

So in summary, you need:
A convincing mechanism for the amnesia and revelations
A current scenario that will be threatened by the past revelations
A disciplined approach to the revelations so that the reader doesn’t get confused.

And psst…. the Bourne Trilogy is great study material.

ebookcovernyn3There’s loads more about handling back story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Have you had to tackle a story where the hero is rediscovering a hidden past? What problems did you encounter? What smart solutions did you come up with? Let’s discuss!

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: Characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?

guardgrief-stricken characterI’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount, and how to flesh out a draft that’s too short. Today I’m looking at an interesting problem of pacing:

Characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?

One student had a story in which the characters are coping with the death of a close family member. How, she said, could she keep the new developments coming, as the grief process would take many months?

We’d been talking about pacing the story, and how it was crucial to be aware of change. Each scene should present the reader with something new, to keep the sense that the narrative is moving on. That change could be big or small – a major twist or a slight advance in the reader’s understanding, a deepening of a mood or maybe a release. What’s important is this sense of progress – because it’s one of the chief ways we keep the reader curious.

So what do we do when the characters are in one intense emotional state such as grief, whose very nature will not let them move on?

The answer is to find ways to keep the reader surprised about it. And indeed, a life-changing shock is not a one-time blow. The loss is felt in infinite details we are unprepared for, and this is what makes it so vicious. Look at any grief memoir and you’ll see how every act of normal life becomes a new ordeal. The wound is being reopened over and over.

Seven stages

Indeed, grief counsellors generally describe a number of distinct phases – up to seven, depending on how you define them. They are:

  • Shock and denial.
  • Pain and guilt.
  • Anger and bargaining.
  • Depression, reflection, loneliness.
  • The upward turn.
  • Reconstruction and working through.
  • Acceptance and hope. (More here.)

Forgive me an apparently insensitive comment, but this is a fantastic framework for storytellers. Nature tells us how to shape our plot.

If your story is about coming to terms with a great shock, find the day-to-day challenges that keep the experience painfully fresh. Then map the overall path and how your characters will move along it.

ebookcovernyn3There’s more about pacing in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart – including a section on how characters can react plausibly to shock and bereavement. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.

I’ll be continuing this series, but next week I’m breaking the pattern. I had rather a good question about back story that I know is quite urgent for the writer, so I’ll be tackling that.

And for now… Have you written about characters who are adjusting after a great shock? How did you keep the reader’s attention, even when the grieving state lasted for a long period? How did you figure out how to shape the material? Share in the comments!

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots – ‘My drafts are too brief’

guard10600083783_247409cd5d_bI’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Last time I discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount. Today I’m looking at the opposite problem.

‘My drafts are too brief’

One writer in the class confessed that he had an uncommon problem – his drafts were quite brief. While most of us had fluff we needed to cut, he never did. Which was an interesting problem. (It turns out he’s not alone. After last week, I had a number of comments from writers who also found their drafts were on the skinny side.)

Here are some places to pump up the pagecount –

  • sub-plots
  • secondary characters
  • secondary paths in the main characters’ lives
  • back story
  • parallel stories
  • action that seems to echo the theme.

And here’s a post I wrote about turning a short story into a novel, which includes a link to another post about filling gaps in your story outline.

But back to my student. The key to his problem was rather more interesting, and came later in the day. We were talking about moments when your story might need downtime – say, to give the reader a breather after a sequence of shocks and reversals. Sometimes you need a moment of light relief or a chance for the characters to relax and bond. In movies this is often called a campfire scene. My student made an interesting comment – he understood the need for such a scene but found them boring.

Aha, I said.

Are you a bit bored by the scenes you’ve planned to write?

If you don’t find the scene interesting, you sure won’t get the reader hooked. We know we’re not always the best judge of what is interesting – look at our fondness for indulgent scenes, aka the darlings that must be killed. But an absolute rule is that we must not write a scene we’re not committed to. If we can’t muster a bit of enthusiasm, no one else will.

This led to another discussion – about how we often need a scene to form a particular function but feel disinclined to write it. It’s usually for continuity or story mechanics, but the thought of writing it … zzzz. The answer, obviously, is to find an exciting angle. Find an unlikely setting. Or add a person who mustn’t know what’s going on. Unruly animals are good value. Introduce a factor that lifts your bog-standard, box-ticking event into the unusual. Or consider whether you could despatch the business in a simple line – ‘they flew to the Bahamas’. (Although that isn’t going to solve your problem of a short manuscript. In that case, return to the above.)

Repurpose your flabby scenes to give them new life

One of the exercises we did on the course was a beat sheet. This is a scene-by-scene summary of the entire book, noting the scene’s purpose and what it adds to the story. (Lots more about it in Nail Your Novel, here.)

My student here had another interesting insight. He looked at his own beat sheet and remarked that several sequences in his novel didn’t have that sense of forward progression. Things were happening, but they weren’t moving the story onwards. (What did he say about not having fluff he needed to cut? After looking at his story’s pace, it turned out he did. He was thinking about events, instead of what took the narrative forwards. It’s strange how we can confuse the two.)

Aha, many of us said.

You’ll probably want to trim those out, I said. But you know what? You can repurpose them – perhaps for a subplot, or those downtime scenes. Perhaps rewrite them with a lighter flavour, or use them to demonstrate how characters are bonding. They’re probably events that you were interested to write but are surplus to the main story thread. So use them to enrich the story in other ways.

Thanks for the stamp, Smabs Sputzer
Next time: characters are grief stricken – how do I stop that becoming monotonous?
nyn1 2013 ebook j halfresThere’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.
Have you ever had to make a story longer? How did you do it?

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Writing unforgettable characters – guest post at Vine Leaves Literary Journal

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 09.22.27How do you create a fictional character who not only leaps off the page, but lives on in the reader’s mind after the story is finished? Today I’m puzzling these questions at Vine Leaves Literary Journal, with examples from Emily Bronte, Robert Goolrick, Patricia Highsmith and Nevil Shute. Do pull up a chair.

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots – how much will you write to create your book?

guardLast week I was back at The Guardian, teaching my course on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next couple of weeks.

You’ll write a lot of material that is not intended for publication

ideas book crop

One student who had taken a creative writing MA was bemused when her tutor set her the task of writing a scene from a different character’s point of view. This wasn’t intended to appear in the book; it was intended to encourage her to explore ramifications she hadn’t thought of. She said she found it a surprising idea, to create something that was never intended for publication.

We all have material we write that never reaches an audience. Sometimes this might be book ideas that don’t work out, or apprenticeship novels that are best filed in the ‘forget it’ drawer.

But those aside, a lot of our written output won’t end up between covers. I hadn’t thought about this until my student talked about this exercise, then I realised the amount of wordage we might write in order to get to the text.

In my own case this might be:

  • musings on the meaning of the central idea, to hone the themes and discover the story, maybe with an Undercover Soundtrack
  • ditto about characters, individual plot problems
  • outlines and refinements thereof, or scrawlings of events on cards
  • beat sheets for afterwards to aid revision
  • tryouts of story events from other points of view, like the exercise my student was set.

(Here’s my writing process in pictures.)

That looks like a colossal amount of wastage. If I look in the folder for Ever Rest, I have 68 exploratory documents, and some of them are 20-30 pages.

And then there’s the material that gets cut from the manuscript – even more pages written that the reader never sees. The novel that emerges is a super-concentrated distillate.

I hadn’t ever questioned this, but I realise that for some writers it seems odd. They often think that, except for a bit of polishing, every word they write is intended for the book.

nyn1 2013 ebook j halfresThere’s more about exercises to build and refine your story in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More posts here about insights from my Guardian masterclasses.

Next time: ‘My drafts are too brief’

So let’s continue the discussion. How much extra material do you write? Have you ever added it up?

 

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Naming your characters and settings

le moulin 221The three chambers of fluid, lacrimal caruncle, fornix conjunctiva, canal of Schlemm, choroid, ora serrata. Where are these places? Somewhere under the sea?

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.

Rebecca

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.

Weird Tales

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.

le moulin 219Age

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

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.

le moulin 218All the same

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?

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Three signs that your novel has too many main characters – and what to do

5310002921_d790cd7161_bThis is another interesting question from my postbag:

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.

Solutions

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.

Thanks for the pic philhearing

nyn2 2014 smlThere’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?

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How to write dialogue that’s convincing and full of life

life in dialogueI’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?

Also consider:
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.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’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?

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‘Janys in Venice, Tina in Canada, EJ in New Mexico…’ – global audience for our writing radio show

adam21Our 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 adam1episodes 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.

Library Journal 1coverLF3In 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.

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How I cope with writers’ RSI – and when your books come back to haunt you

lizspikolIt 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.

rsi googleThey were earned.

Ouch

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?

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