‘The planes, the explosions, the dust, the calm’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kerry Drewery

for logoMy guest this week specialises in YA novels set in war zones. With just two novels under her belt, she’s already much-decorated with awards and award nominations. Her music selection is small in number, but it helped her keep the intensity of the environments she was writing about, and connect with the characters’ emotions. Indeed, she has scored a first among Undercover Soundtrackers, because one of her choices was to help her decompress after working with such harrowing material. She is Kerry Drewery and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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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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‘Close your eyes and listen with your hands’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Tawnysha Greene

for logoMy guest this week might seem a surprising addition to the Undercover Soundtrack series as she has impaired hearing. Nevertheless, music is important to her, both as a writing environment and to help her slip into the shoes of her characters. Some of her novel’s people also have impaired hearing, which is an interesting creative choice – what they miss in aural terms, they make up for in what they understand and observe. My author is also a creative writing tutor at Tennessee University and a regular contributor to literary magazines, so I’m delighted she’s guesting here with her first novel. She is Tawnysha Greene and you’ll find her on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack. What’s more … you could win a beautiful print edition.

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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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‘The atmosphere to express the inexpressible’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Rebecca Mascull

for logoIf you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ve probably seen the post where I remarked how every guest on this series seems to end up writing the following phrase in their emails to me: ‘reliving the heady drafting times’. That’s what this series is all about; the joy of discovery, the celebration that we can create a story out of impressions, hopes and dreams. My guest this week is no exception. She describes her two novels and how they were shaped by songs that challenged and changed her intentions for the stories. These songs suggested new time periods, characters and locations, and key story events. But most of all, she says that music makes her reach and search; hence the heading of this week’s post. She is Rebecca Mascull and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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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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‘Tenderness, fragility, an understanding beyond her years’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Myfanwy Collins

for logoMy guest this week has just one musician in her book-s arsenal – a singer who  perfectly, wholly, uncannily embodied the character she was searching for. The story is a young adult novel – a new departure for the writer, who has had other works published in the adult market and in literary magazines. Anyway, the emotions run high – and also the fragility. Hop over to the Red Blog where Myfanwy Collins is sharing her Undercover Soundtrack.

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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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‘Music that seeps beneath your skin, then grows’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Andrew Lowe

for logoMy guest this week is a sometime musician – and as a result he’s another writer who finds that music is not a background but his master. His novel is a hard-edged story about a childhood event whose consequences are poisoning the characters many years later, and the soundtrack is a double-barrelled mix for the past and present timelines. Expect 1970s grit and modern-day anguish – with a dose of catharsis from Sigur Ros. He is Andrew Lowe and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.

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