Most of us here probably have a shoal of books about writing craft. Here’s just one of my shelves.
But which was the first writing book you ever read?
For me, it was The Craft of Novel-Writing by Dianne Doubtfire. It was a gift from Husband Dave when we first met in 1992. It’s a tiny volume; just 87 pages including the index at the end and throat-clearing at the start. But it has everything you need – theme, viewpoint, planning, setting, characterisation, style, revision.
I flick through it now. At random, I can see sensible advice to use ‘he said’ instead of ‘she gushed’ or ‘he averred’. A section on writing description so the reader remains riveted, with examples from Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene. A paragraph about keeping a notebook beside the bed, including a torch. An explanation of style as ‘a quality as unique as your fingerprints’. A quote from Alfred Hitchcock that ‘drama is like real life with the dull bits cut out’. A section on first chapters, positioned nearly half-way through, because ‘it’s wise to consider … planning, scene and characterisation before you type ‘Chapter 1’.
Other books may cover all of these in more depth, but as a primer it will get you going with good habits. I’d recommend it still today.
To begin at the beginning…
I’d studied English literature at school and university. Yes, we considered theme, character, resonance, symmetries and counterpoints in character arcs and story structure. And historical and social context, an author’s place in the overall evolution in the artform. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why good was good. Reading Dianne Doubtfire was like meeting someone who thought and felt about books in the way I wanted to.
Studying literature can put it in on a pedestal as a thing to be revered. It can paralyse you with feelings that you could never, yourself, presume to write to a standard that’s even readable, let alone half-creditable.
Dianne Doubtfire’s succinct, wise book made writing seem possible.
Can you remember the first writing craft book you read? How did you come to read it? How did it affect you? Did it open possibilities? Did it make it all seem impossible? If you still have a copy, what do you think of it now?
My guest this week delved into personal experiences to write her latest novel. In the 1970s she was working on a psychiatric ward where electric shock treatment was taking place. Years later, troubled by what she had seen, she wrote a novel. She turned to music to reawaken her own memories of the time and to create a cast of characters who are lost in the midst of a broken system. She remarks that her Soundtrack is as much about her own inner world as her characters’ – a line that for me is the very essence of the Undercover Soundtrack series. She is Diana Stevan and she’s on the Red Blog with the music that helped her write The Rubber Fence.
Husband Dave and I have recently been watching the Showtime series Ray Donovan. And sometimes, we’re finding the storytelling is rather uneven.
Interesting developments pop up that seem to promise a new and unexpected direction for the plot. Instead, though, they’re defused and then the main story trots along again, pretty much unaffected.
Here’s an example. Ray is a hired troubleshooter for the rich and famous, and has a few skeletons in the closet. In the first season he’s pursued by an FBI agent of formidable reputation; we’re told he always gets his man. This seems to be setting up a potent adversary. But then the writers then did their best to hustle him out of the story.
First they made him into a figure of fun by spiking his coffee with LSD. Then he’s shot by one of the characters. It’s clear the writers didn’t want to let him cause big trouble, so they got rid of him. (And in case you’re wondering, the shooting doesn’t seem to have had any consequences either.)
This seems to happen a lot in the Ray Donovan scripts. Interesting obstacles pop up that promise a swerve into a more serious gear. But they’re neutralised, and in a way that looks rushed or unbelievable.
For the audience, it’s terribly frustrating. If a serious problem arises, we want to see it cause lasting trouble. And we want it to have serious, unpredictable consequences. We don’t want it to be solved, and for everything to continue as before.
Last week I talked about rookie plotting errors, and this was one of them. Tunnel vision; not giving brilliant plot ideas enough development. No of course I’m not suggesting the Ray Donovan writers are rookies. But there’s another characteristic reason that this problem arises – when writing to a deadline. When a daily quota must be filled. And when the writer has to fit an overall outline.
In TV, a writer probably doesn’t have much leeway to alter the master series arc. They have to fit the show runner’s mission. But if you’re writing a novel, you’re the master. If you’ve made an outline, you can change it, even if you’re rattling the words out against a deadline.
Here’s a plan to examine a show-stopping idea without losing control.
- Acknowledge – stop and look that idea firmly in the eye. Might it upset your plans? A sure sign is if you’re already looking for a way to stifle its effects. Take a moment and let it breathe.
- Assess the consequences. Step away from your outline. Open a new file or Evernote tab or grab a pen. Make a what-if list – if you incorporated this development fully into the story, what would the consequences be? Explore them in this safe space.
- Run the comparisons. Make another list. In one column write the reasons to change. Perhaps a character’s motivation would be stronger. The setting might be used more effectively. In another, write the reasons not to. It might cause inconvenience – perhaps you’d have to rethink earlier passages. (Might that be so bad?) It might take the story into territory you’re not interested in or would be off genre. (That’s a stronger reason not to.) Be honest. Sit and mull.
- If you decide to keep the idea, adapt your outline – and sail onwards with a more robust story.
Thanks for the pic, Pixabay. Discreet cough… There are a lot more tips on outlining and on making the most of plot developments in the Nail Your Novel books.
Another discreet cough… if you’re interested in ghost-writing, my course starts its live period tomorrow. The course will be available after that period as well, but for the next four weeks, you get to take part in a secret online forum and I’ll be holding live Q&A sessions where you can pick my brains. Learn more here.
Back to plots etc. Do you write using an outline or a daily quota? Do you find this sometimes hampers your creativity, or you feel you can’t use an off-the-cuff idea? Or do you have a method for harnessing these brainwaves and making the most of them?
It seems there are certain pitfalls we all encounter when we’re plotting a novel. Creaky story metaphors; genre muddle; clumsy handling of ‘non-real’ material; tunnel vision; ignoring common-sense solutions to the characters’ troubles. This week I had the hot seat at the Alliance of Independent Authors blog, listing dumb things we all might do when building a story (whether self-publishing or not).
As I’ve dinged your inbox several times already this week because of the ghost-writing course launch, this will be my regular writing post. (And this seems a good moment to mention that, if you’re interested, the ghost-writing course early bird offer expires on 17 May – more details here.)
My guest this week grew up in the Mojave desert where rain was a rarity. So a key for her creative space is the sound of wild, wet weather. Sometimes it’s tracks that include storm noises, but she’ll just as easily tune into a rain station at the same time as a piece of music. The sounds go in tandem, whipping up just the right tumult for her writing. So it’s probably not surprising that her work has a Gothic element; she writes what she describes as Victorian and Gilded Age with a Gothic twist. It certainly went down well with USA Book News, who voted her first novel 2013’s best cross-genre title. She is Stephanie Carroll and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
In this post at Jane Friedman’s blog, I outline the mindset and skills needed, some of the challenges you might encounter …. and most of all, why ghost-writing is an attractive option.
My guest this week describes music as ‘a portable environment’. His work patterns have taken him all over the world and he might find himself writing anywhere from a station waiting room to a hotel lobby or a scorching beach. No matter where he finds himself, the music will put him back where he left off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, his novels explore people who are lost, displaced or caught between cultures and he finds their soundtracks in the work of contemporary classical composers (including one of my own favourites, Olafur Arnalds). He is Toni Davidson and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.