Archive for category Writer basics 101
Here’s another of my favourite discussions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass…
How to write several narrators and make them sound distinct
One student had several narrators and was finding it hard to make them distinct. His writer group reported that they sounded too similar, especially in dialogue. One character was male and one female, so some of his critiquers were assuming the gender was the problem; that he as a male couldn’t write as a female.
Hold it there. Some writers – and readers – believe that males can’t write plausible females and vice versa. And certainly, there may be some gender-specific mentalities that are impossible to disguise … but before we all assume we’re tethered to our chromosomes, let’s consider what makes a character distinct.
Difference usually comes from outlook, education standard, moral compass, background and the character’s emotional state. I thought it far more likely that the problem came from not making the characters individual enough, rather than the influence of our writer’s gender.
Sure enough, he said that when he explored his writing group’s objection, they had observed that his characters used similar vocabulary in dialogue. So perhaps the problem was not gender at all.
Where the differences really lie
If you have several narrators, you need to find different ways for them to express themselves. Different catch-phrases, senses of humour, frames of reference, moral and social codes.
If you like writing with music, that can take you to a gut sense of who your different people are – this post on The Undercover Soundtrack by actor-writer Jason Hewitt shows how a few talisman pieces of music conjured a character’s state of mind and helped him remember who each person was … on the inside.
Two characters …. two tenses?
Another of my students had a similar problem. She had two characters in the Arctic; one a hard-bitten scientist, the other a wonder-struck friend who was visiting. They narrated alternate chapters. In her own mind she had a sense of how they were distinct, but despite this she found they sounded too similar on the page. So she decided she’d write one as first-person present and the other as close-third past.
I said I thought that sounded confusing. Some readers would think the shift of tenses was significant in story terms and would look for a reason. Did it mean the action was happening at a different time? Was it a parallel thread? I suggested she scrap that approach and look more forensically at the characters’ outlook, attitudes etc. She agreed as she’d worried about that herself.
But then she said something that was rather interesting.
She’d never written in first-person present before, and when she did she found she felt and thought differently. She found herself inventing all sorts of back story and behaviour that took her by surprise. By squiffing the tenses, she’d hit on a new creative mindset that suited this book.
The verdict was clear – and exciting; write a discovery draft in these two tenses. Then edit and make them uniform, marvelling at the new inventions. Eureka.
Just like listening to music, a change of writing style or technique can get you to new places. Do whatever you need to, then tidy up afterwards. The reader never needs to know how you did it.
There are a lot more discussions on how to make characters distinct in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Have you tackled a similar problem? Especially, have you hit on any tricks that helped you give your characters different voices, and then later removed the evidence of how you did it?
I’m taking a short blogging break to finish a big project before Easter, but in the meantime I can leave you with some slightly unusual bloggery.
Look at the question in the header. When I received it in my email, I thought I’d quietly pass. I don’t really see my fiction as a cudgel for issues. But I followed the link and found Howlarium, a thoughtful discussion blog by short story writer Jason Howell. And by then, I was itching to answer. So today I find myself on his blog, with a few other thoughtful types who have plenty to say about what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ write.
If you’ve got an opinion about that too, argue it here in the comments. Back soon!
There are. They’re my secret.
Actually, they’re not a secret at all. The 4 Cs of a great plot is one of the questions I discuss with Lorna Faith on her writing podcast (which also has a visual, handwaving, grinning version, see right).
Lorna quizzes me about the ins and outs of a good plot and we grapple with many storytelling essentials, including structure, turning points and where plots come from. Step this way.
We’ve probably all had a note in a critique that tells us we’ve failed to include an important scene. Eg – ‘We know these characters well and have seen their lives in close detail. When the cousins died in that boating accident, where was the funeral scene? What about the period where the family adjusts to the tragedy?’ (Indeed, that’s not just a missing scene; it’s an entire story thread.)
Sometimes this happens because, well, we were concentrating on a million other plot developments. We do a lot of dumb, impulsive things when we can’t see the wood for the trees. The omission only becomes apparent when we give the book to a reader who isn’t lost in the forest of book decisions. And the easiest remedy is:
Replace it with something less drastic
Well of course it is. Ask yourself: why did you include the event? Was it only to bring some characters together? To show passage of time? Brainstorm some other solutions that will be less disruptive.
The second option is to embrace the disruption, drop the bomb and enjoy mopping up.
So far, so obvious. But sometimes, the workings of the writer’s heart are more complicated – especially first-time authors who aren’t yet confident with story-wrangling. They might have the gut instinct that it’s ‘right’ for the cousins to die. But something stops them writing the scenes that explore the aftermath. When I’ve seen this, I’ve found there are two main reasons. (And here are the remedies.)
They feel unequal to the challenge
We all worry from time to time that we won’t do justice to a tricky scene or issue, especially if it’s beyond our own personal experience. But that isn’t an excuse to dodge our duty to the reader.
If we don’t feel we can tackle a situation authoritatively, it shouldn’t be in the book. Friends, we are fictioneers. We can use our empathy and curiosity to invent with truth. I’ve never (yet) been in a room with a dying cancer patient but I can find the resources to write about it convincingly and with respect (My Memories of a Future Life). Crime writers manage to find out how murderers think. If lack of life experience is stopping you using a plot idea, take a break to research it. Most of human experience has been set down in other novels or real-life accounts. Find them. Live your events in the imaginations of others until you feel armed to write them.
Here’s a separate reason why writers might avoid that funeral episode.
They assume the characters won’t do anything surprising. It’s just a funeral, right?
Many of us are reluctant to write a scene if we fear it will be predictable. That’s often good, but equally there are events that can’t be avoided without leaving an obvious hole. So we think we know what will happen at the funeral? We think the reader has seen it a dozen times before?
No they haven’t. Not with your characters.
You just set yourself a high-stakes challenge. So rock that funeral. Set up character developments the reader didn’t expect. Heal rifts. Or create them. Set your story on fire. Brainstorm the way to present the funeral, wake, mourning and fallout in a way that is not predictable.
An alternative suggestion: if you want the funeral to be fairly routine, you can show the impact with a light touch – perhaps a montage of details that are vivid enough to remain in the reader’s memory so that the event is marked. A character will put on a seldom-worn smart suit, which tells us there’s a formal occasion. The extended family reprioritise their diaries, all clearing the same date. Perhaps possessions are redistributed. Someone is dismayed to be bequeathed an ugly lamp but doesn’t feel they can refuse it because it belonged to the departed cousin. The mixed feelings this generates will be an interesting way to log the gravity of the event. Get creative. Have fun.
There’s a lot more advice on plotting in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.
Have you ever had feedback that told you you’d skimped on an important plot development? Do you remember your reasons for doing so – whether active avoidance or absent-mindedness?
If there’s one major issue I find writers struggle with, it’s the difference between showing and telling. In every developmental report I write for a debut author, I find numerous instances where they would improve drastically by grasping this principle. This week I found myself explaining it again, and as I’ve been watching How To Get Away With Murder, I found myself reaching for courtroom terminology to explain …
It’s all about evidence versus verdicts. Simple, huh?
First, what is ‘show not tell’?
Show not tell is a technique that makes writing more vivid.
• It makes us feel as though we’ve been present as story events happen.
• It’s persuasive when you need to teach us something about a character, an event or even an object. (Was the car dangerous? Don’t tell us. Show it.)
• Show not tell is a great way to explain information or back story in a way the reader will remember – effortlessly.
Showing gets more oomph out of your story events. It lets you pull the reader into the characters’ lives and make them share their hopes, happinesses and disappointments.
So yes: showing is a good thing indeed.
Telling is like this: ‘it was frightening’.
Here’s the showing version: ‘she walked along the dark street. Were those her own footsteps echoing or was somebody following? She reached into her pocket and felt the reassuring bulk of her door keys. Her hand tightened around them; spikes she could use as a weapon just in case.’
Can you see the difference in vividness? ‘It was frightening’ is easy to skim over. We hardly notice it. But the showing version shows you what it was like.
And here’s where I found myself thinking of the courtroom: telling is a verdict; showing is presenting the evidence.
A big difference.
Evidence convinces, persuades. It lets the reader draw conclusions. It gives them a deeper level of understanding. They own the knowledge.
Telling instead of showing
Writers who haven’t grasped ‘show not tell’ try to tell the reader what to think. They present a series of statements or summaries. Here are some typical examples. ‘She was difficult to love.’ ‘He had to be the centre of attention.’ ‘He had a peculiar way of sabotaging his own happiness.’ ‘He was intimidating.’
Certainly these observations are striking, full of nuance and complexity, but they seem abstract. We hardly notice them. But if you present the evidence for those claims, the reader draws the conclusions… and your book starts to come alive.
Showing is about evidence. Telling is about the verdict.
Other things to consider about show not tell
Sometimes you can add the verdict as well, depending on your style. A character might tell an anecdote (showing) and conclude ‘she never wanted me to have a chance of happiness’, or ‘she was more generous than I deserved’ or ‘it scarred me for life’. Equally, you might leave that unsaid.
Showing requires more effort than telling, and a different mindset, which is one of the reasons writers find it difficult. Most of the time when we’re planning our books, we think in terms of telling. We decide ‘this confrontation will be upsetting’. But when we write the incident at full length we want to inhabit it so that the reader feels the impact. Short version: outlines tend to tell; drafts need to show.
There are times, though, when telling is entirely appropriate. We have to be selective with what we present to the reader. It’s not necessary to show every observation; only those that we want to emphasise. You might say ‘John didn’t like getting up early’ and it’s not something you want the reader to dwell on or digest. In that case, telling will do just fine.
Your reader is a witness
We can add another courtroom word to this discussion: witnesses. Witnesses were first-hand sources. They had an experience. Mostly when we write stories, we want to create them so vividly that the reader forgets they’re looking at prose. There are many elements to this, of course, but a significant part is good use of showing. If an event, a scene or an observation in your outline is important, make the reader a witness to it.
Thanks for the dark street pic, Henry Hyde
Do you find it tricky to show instead of tell? If you’ve mastered the difference, how did you do it? Did you notice you got better feedback from readers? Do you have any tips to help?
Yesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.
1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.
Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)
So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.
2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.
How did they do that? By reading with awareness.
Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)
Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.
You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books, courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.
BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.
3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.
Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.
But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.
(Pic by MC Escher)
That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!
This is part of an ongoing series of the smartest questions from my Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never ends up in the book, or handling the disappearance of a key character. The full list is here.
Today I’m looking at another interesting problem, one that might be especially useful if you’re gearing up for NaNoWriMo this year.
Is it a premise or a plot?
So what might that mean?
A premise is a situation that seems full of promise. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.) But many writers think a premise is enough. It’s not. A premise is static. It’s a still life. (Like these little clay fellas in the picture here.)
Here’s an example, using Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. A bunch of gentle people are taken hostage in an embassy in a south American country, and the siege lasts many months. That’s the premise. The story or plot (I’m using the terms interchangeably, though they have slightly different meanings) is the sequence of events that spring from that idea.
So you need to convert your premise into events. And what’s more, those events need a sense of change, of development. These events must matter to the characters, be irrevocable, present them with dilemmas and push them out of their comfort zone.
Now what might those changes be? Perhaps they might be events on a grand scale – a character dies, another character falls in love, the food supply is cut off, which makes everyone argue. Or the changes might be more subtle – the characters form allegiances and rivalries according to their personalities or political persuasion. They re-evaluate their life choices. You’ll want a mix of both, adjusted for the flavour of book you’re writing. If it’s a thriller or a crime novel, the events might be more extraordinary than the events in the character study novel.
Whichever it is, you need change to hold the reader’s curiosity. You need to treat the premise as an environment, a terrain that creates interesting challenges. The terrain isn’t usually enough in itself. You need an exciting route too.
I’ve seen many writers get stuck in this still-life phase. They create the characters and the world, and describe it all in imaginative and vivid detail. But they are lacking this sense of increasing pressure. Their scenes have a stuck quality. They write a lot of stuff that seems to examine a whacky idea, or maybe a theme, but there’s no sense of urgency and complication. Instead of advancing the situation, they simply study it.
And even if your purpose is to create a zoo to study humanity, the reader still looks for a sense of change – usually in their understanding. Your plot will come from this sense of increment, the sequence in which you present these observations of the human soul.
So you can deliver change in endless subtle ways – but it must be designed in.
The static character
A variation of this problem is writers who create vivid and thoughtful character dossiers and then present the characters in an unchanging state throughout the book. If a story is worth telling, it should contain events that challenge the characters in uncomfortable ways – and make them reveal their natures. Instead of presenting the character as an already complete image on a fixed canvas, we should think of allowing the plot to unpeel their layers.
So we could say a plot is a premise…. which you have quarried and shaped to show a sequence of change. Or how would you describe it? Have you had to confront this question? Are you still grappling with it? Some examples would be great – the floor is yours.
More to chew on…
Here’s a post about storytelling in literary fiction, and finding drama in events.
In my plot book I describe four Cs necessary for a good plot – curiosity, crescendo, coherence and change. Elsewhere in the book I talk a lot about conflict, another important C.
And if you’re doing Nanowrimo, here are other posts to help you prep.
I’ve had this interesting email:
Since January this year, I’ve been attending writing workshops, and my novel is progressing well. But English isn’t my first language, and I don’t do any creative writing in my day job. I feel I’m struggling. My priority is quality, and I think I need expert help. Should I get an editor? What do you advise? Maria.
It’s clear that Maria can express herself fluently – to the extent that she can work in a foreign country. (Certainly not something I could do.) So what’s missing?
I think Maria has already intuited it, which is why she feels stuck. She doesn’t yet have the flair that a fiction reader will be looking for.
Skills, craft and style
I think Maria’s off to a good start, developing her critical skills and craft at writing workshops. But this probably isn’t addressing her writing style.
Funnily enough, she’s in the opposite situation of most writers. The majority concentrate on honing their language and sentences, and have to be taught about the invisible mechanisms that make a novel work – characters, structure, pace etc. Here’s a post about that from my Guardian masterclasses.
It’s as if the machinery of a book and its language belong in separate mental departments. Indeed, I once had a ghostwriting assignment to rewrite a memoir by an expat who could no longer express herself in her original tongue. My role was to restore her to publishable English.
So, Maria, I wouldn’t worry about getting an editor yet. I think you could do a lot if you read authors in your chosen genre and study their styles. Develop your ear and your eye; notice how word choice and sentence structure makes you feel excitement, or tension, or fear or tenderness. The authors aren’t just writing what happens; they are performing the story with every syllable.
Spend a few months with this as your mission. Then go back to your manuscript – and you’re sure to find ways to express the story more stylishly. You could also try writing in your original language and translate as a separate revision phase. This might let you explore finer nuances, which you can then search for in English.
Not just literary
Are you wondering if language is a consideration only for literary fiction? Not so. The best genre writers also have to be deft and dazzling. Look at the verve in the verbs of a thriller writer. Look at the meaning and menace in the sparse dialogue of a noir. Look at the warmth and propriety in a cosy mystery.
Here’s another set of alerts. Notice which words and sentence constructions may be funny, or push the reader away. Use them only if you intend that effect. Writers who are still learning to control their voice often produce passages that sound unfortunately humorous, ponderous, melodramatic or detached. Even when their native language is English.
This method I’m proposing is not fast, but it will get Maria to a good place eventually. Here are some other posts that will help.
Reading like a writer, and a discussion on the same topic in an episode of my radio show.
How to develop something special in your writing.
Maria also mentions that her day job doesn’t give her much opportunity for creative writing, but there probably isn’t a day job that would give you the style you need to write fiction well. Here’s a post where I talk about that a little more.
Babel fish pic from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, courtesy of Jonathan Davies on Flickr
What would you say to Maria? Are you writing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue? Whether you are or you aren’t, how have you developed your style?