Posts Tagged reading
I write a lot of posts about problems with book drafts. But isn’t it just as important to look at the positive? If we listed the qualities of a brilliant read, what would they be? (Plus, I think we need a feelgood post.)
So, as I sit here on Sunday morning in London with an hour to get this post out of my head and into the grey matter of the blogosphere, this is the list I’ve come up with. I hope you’ll storm your brains and join in at the end.
Deft use of details
A writer needs to give a lot of details to evoke the setting, time period (if it’s not contemporary), distinguishing features of the characters, points about the weather. A skilful storyteller will smuggle a lot of these in as part of the action. A historical period might be evoked by showing a character cleaning their teeth, or lifting their skirts away from the horse manure on the city roads. If we need to know a character is left handed, we might see them borrowing a friend’s PC and clearing the clutter off the desk to rearrange the mouse before they start to use it. Weather might be evoked by a character worrying that the rain will ruin their suede boots on a day when it’s important to look smart. We’ll never get the sense that the narrative is marking time in order to explain something.
Characters that are real
We hear this phrase a lot, but what does it mean? The characters will seem to have their own agendas, and good reasons for everything they do. They won’t seem like puppets for the plot. Their emotions will spur them to act so we feel everything they do is genuine and believable. They’ll have distinctive ways of thinking and expressing themselves. Even if they are conflicted or make bad choices and decisions, they’ll have ways of justifying what they do. They might have interesting blind spots about how the other characters feel.
Never a dull moment
Every scene will move the action on. There will be a sense of trouble building and escalating. The characters’ plans will never quite work out as they’re supposed to, and every scene will finish on a slightly unexpected note. Whenever the characters get something they want or need, it won’t be in the way anyone could predict.
Fresh until the end
The writer will know when to change to a different group of characters, which we’ll welcome. At the same time we’ll be eager to see those other characters again soon. They’ll know when to vary the mood with some humour or a more serious note. They’ll deploy some major turning points at just the point where we think you know where it’s going.
It all adds up
The story might begin by resembling an unraveled sweater with threads going everywhere, but slowly it will converge into a shape. The ending will seem to be inevitable, yet it will be a surprise. Or, if we can anticipate the ending’s events, we won’t be able to predict how we’ll feel about them.
Now you. Grab coffee or brain-stimulating accessory of choice, and … jump in!
What are you reading? Are you reading it for your writing or for your soul? Is there a difference? Should there be? What books did I read to teach me how to write? And what is ‘passive Graham Greene’?
Sorry I’ve been quieter here than usual. Those of you who also follow me on Twitter or have seen my stream in the sidebar will probably know that I’m bolted into my study in the final throes of My Memories of a Future Life. (Can’t tell you much about it yet, but it has its own Twitter ID.) So my blog has forgotten it has an owner, Dave has forgotten he’s got a wife… or he thinks I’ve forgotten him. The upshot is that I can’t talk sensibly about anything that isn’t happening to my characters in their time of crisis.
Anyway, while I do these most final of final edits, I invented a little tool that I thought you might find useful if you’re also at the last pass. I’m calling it the critical list.
What I’m doing at this stage is test-driving the whole book to see it works as it’s supposed to. Speed is of the essence. When we edit we read slowly which is great for detail but gives us a distorted idea of the pace. When we read at the speed a reader does, we understand the flow.
I’m finding points that need a tweak, but that can bog me down to that detail-obsessive snail pace again, which I don’t want. So I make a change, whip out a sentence here or reword something there, and keep a note of the page number so that I can come back and check it at editing speed later. Then I go on through the manuscript, running it at the speed a normal reader would.
Big deal, huh? Sorry. This is probably the least profound post I have ever written on the storytelling art. You are probably wondering if I’ve lost my senses, but such has my world shrunk while in the grip of this book. You’re very welcome to share your most trivial writing tip ever in the comments, and I’ll be delighted you said hi.
Thank you, Christina Welsh, for the picture – and back soon.
Today I’m very excited to be guesting on the books podcast Guys Can Read.Very, very excited, actually, as I’ve been evangelising about their show ever since I discovered them.
Guys Can Read is a weekly podcast by Luke Navarro and writer Kevin McGill. They adore fiction, period. They review everything from Jonathan Franzen to Star Wars novels, with equal expectations of great storytelling, strong characterisation and robust themes. They’re not afraid to pick apart what doesn’t work, regardless of how hallowed it might be, to venture into genres outside their usual tastes (which are pretty wide anyway) and to celebrate a darn good book even if it’s in a genre that’s normally sneered at.
Kevin is putting his story instincts to good use on his fantasy novel Nikolas and Co, which you can read about here. Luke, meanwhile, sets himself challenges. Last year he read 52 books, and washed them down with yet more narrative in the form of 52 games and 52 DVDs. This year they channelled their zeal into Boys Can Read – a Skype school visit where they risked withering ridicule and worse to persuade a class of 28 MG boys to swap games for good old books.
If you love reading, if you live for fiction that leaves you provoked, moved, flabbergasted, shaken, stirred, touched, tickled, amused or amazed, then you’ll love these gutsy podcasts – whether you’re a guy or not. But I am extremely honoured to be welcomed as their first girl guest…
What did we talk about? A bit about writing, why I blog, but most of all, writers who give me major palpitations, especially Ian Fleming.
It all started when Jonathan Moore, who juggles a full-time job with writing a modern-day adventure-magic-sci-fi novel (not to mention finding time to be an energetic commenter here), mentioned to me that he might give up TV for a month.
He had in mind a radical change, he said. ‘No TV, while I was in my own house. I normally watch six hours a night, so this is a major change. I don’t watch anything I particularly like, I just watch it.’
We all might make resolutions like this but he did it. And in not just any month, but World Cup month – when the rest of the globe probably watched more TV than ever. And he says it has really paid off. He has laced into his rough draft (scraps of dialogue and description) and is now a third of the way through a cohesive, readable manuscript.
It is hardly surprising that spending more time on writing means you get more work done. What is surprising is what Jonathan, who perhaps is the chap pictured below, learned about the way his writerly biorhythms work.
‘I’ve always believed I work best between 11pm and 2am. Now I know this is rubbish. I can work at those times, but my mind is sharper the earlier I work. I can get out of bed and sit straight down at my desk if I want, especially if I’m picking up where I left off. I had one day where I couldn’t stop writing, and went on till 3am because the ideas kept coming. That was because I’d been working since the afternoon and they’d had time to brew.’
There were other benefits too. ‘With the time I’ve freed up I’ve also read seven novels – a lot for me as I had literary burnout after doing a degree in English. When TV was a major factor I was lucky to read one a month, so it didn’t take hold enough to influence my writing style. On the TV-free month I was reading for two to four hours a day and it was far more pervasive.’
That reading soon filtered through to the page. ‘I realized my prose was essentially a screenplay – describing setting in functional way and then going into the dialogue. I wonder how much of this was due to thinking in TV terms? I’m now more able to find alternative expression because I’m reading novels. You can see what I was reading from how my writing changes. Forster makes me introspective, verbose and loquacious. Raymond Carver makes me more terse.’
So now the experiment’s over, have the old habits crept back?
‘I have to keep this momentum going,’ he says. ‘I take nights off to watch TV episodes before they vanish from I-Player, but I have no desire to go back to watching programmes I have no interest in (which was often under the excuse that they’d be useful to me as a writer). I have to keep going to my desk as early as possible, laying the groundwork for the next step and keeping the story going. I have to keep reading. I have to keep putting the hours in to write something a bit crap so that the next day I can work out how to fix it. And I have to keep making time for this every day. Otherwise I’ll only ever be one of those people who had an idea for a novel once.’