Posts Tagged writing
You could split the writing blogoverse into two camps. There are those who streak through books, racking up a few releases a year. And there are those who incubate a manuscript for many, many moons. (I’m talking about experienced writers here, not those on the beginning curve.)
This is on my mind after Joanna Penn’s recent podcast interview with Russell Blake, where they discussed techniques for rapid writing. As card-carrying speed demons, they had a chuckle about literary writers who take their time.
And we do. Talking to my friend Orna Ross, we estimated the gestation for a literary novel as at least three years. For some of us it’s even longer. A few weeks ago I was chatting to an agent from Curtis Brown and she cheerily remarked that three years was fast for some of her writers. And then there’s the colossal amount of wastage. Booker winner Marlon James said in Guernica: ‘You can write one hundred pages and only use twenty.’
Assuming we’re spending all that time working, what are we doing, exactly? I’m curious about this, because when I teach masterclasses, someone inevitably asks what makes a book ‘literary’. I think the answer comes from what we do in that extra time.
Here’s what’s going on with Ever Rest. I nailed the plot in draft #1 and bolted it tighter in 2. So far, I’m neck and neck with the fast folks. Now on draft 3, each scene is taking me a minimum of four days – even though I’ve established the basics of who, what, why etc. And there may be a 4th draft or a fifth. It’s because I’m working on suggestion, emphasis, subtext, restraint, resonance. (And other stuff ) But it all boils down to this: nuance. And nuance can’t be hurried.
I submit, my friends, that this one word helps us understand what makes a work literary. Not introspection, dense sentences, poetry, show-off vocabulary, avant-garde structures, ambiguous endings, classical sources. Not even complex people or weighty themes. And if you’re about to say ‘disregard for story’, we’ve already thrashed that out here .
A nuanced experience is the difference. A non-literary work is simply about what happens.
Or that’s my theory. What say you?
A few weeks ago, a bunch of authors gathered for Books Are My Bag day at Barton’s bookshop in Leatherhead, Surrey. Inevitably, some customers asked for advice on writing and publishing. These were the five MFDs (most frequent discussions).
1 You are not alone.
This realisation marked an important threshold. The moment we all found other writers, online or in real-life groups, was like opening a secret door to home. For me, it was a revelation to be among people who treated writing as a routine part of life. Before then, I had a hoard of notebooks with scattered fragments, but couldn’t see a next step. Trying a book seemed a bit improbable, indeed ridiculous. After all, what would I do with it? Meeting other writers made it possible. Within a few months, I was sending short stories to magazines and searching for a grand idea that deserved to be a novel.
I saw this pattern repeated with other writer friends, especially when they began new relationships. Within a few months, the new partner would start writing. The baton was being passed. For some, it was a passing phase; for others, the start of a lifelong habit. And this makes me wonder – how many of us are looking for someone to show the way?
One writer said that three of her five novels were started from dreams. In one case, she dreamed the entire first chapter, complete with the character’s voice.
Most of us don’t find our dreams are so directly usable. Also, the self-indulgent dream sequence is high on most editors’ hate-lists.
But you can use dreams as prompts, or primers for another way of thinking. I recently found a dream diary from years ago, and expected it to be twaddle. The events were mostly nonsense, but each account had an underlying quality of significance and gut-level logic. Sometimes it’s worth connecting with that if we’re stuck, or unsure which way to take a story. We might find it helpful to open up a more poetic way of thinking, and put aside the literal.
3 Accept that you might have to park a project.
Many of the authors said this was a rite of passage. Although we strive through many rough drafts to complete a book, sometimes we simply can’t make an idea work. Perhaps we need to get older, wiser, more skilled at writing. It’s a mark of maturity to recognise that you can put a piece aside and start on something else. The missing piece might arrive out of the blue, but if it doesn’t, the book was a learning experience.
4 Don’t give up the day job.
One author in our group said: ‘Advances are tiny these days and hardly anyone gets enough royalties or PLR (payments from libraries) to live on. If you give up the day job you’ll have to tour 24/7 doing workshops in schools and every festival on the planet.’
Hands up: who imagined that if they got a publishing deal they’d be ditching the nine-to-five? It hardly ever happens. And festivals/workshops aren’t a reliable source of income, even if you have the energy to do them (and when will you get time to write?). Unless you set out with a business plan as well as a creativity plan – and some writers do, especially indies – your other life will be paying for your authorly life.
5 Separate your publishing achievements from your writing achievements.
Publishing is the ecosystem we’re involved in. Sometimes we’ll fare well, and sometimes we won’t – even if we’ve done everything right. Publishers might reject us or drop us. Marketing departments will decide we’re not worth publishing. Whether we’re traditionally published or indie, our books might not sell, despite the most astute campaigns. Amazon might change its algorithms or invent a new incentive that steals away all our readers. We don’t have any control over this. But we do have control over our craft. Writing – the reward of making good books and satisfying our own standards – is where we should put our pride.
Thanks, Leo Hartas, for the eyes and brain pic – which is from Husband Dave’s graphic novel Mirabilis, Year of Wonders
As we reel into December, how’s 2015 been for your writing and publishing endeavours? Is there something you’ve learned that you would pass onto a new writer? Perhaps this was the first year you made a serious go of writing, or put significant mileage into a manuscript, or hit your goals, or did something you wouldn’t have imagined was likely or possible. Leave a comment – and forgive me if I’m a little slow replying. I’m away this week with sporadic internet access.
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.
If you’re friends with me on Facebook you’ll already have seen this picture. Years ago I held a fancy dress party with the theme ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. My costume was The Masque of the Red Death, after the story by Edgar Allan Poe. Well this week, I was the guest of The Literary Roadhouse podcast, an online discussion group for short stories. Each week they choose a literary short story and gnaw over it for a good hour. If you want a conversation that cares about a story’s language, themes, resonances and whether it works, this is for you.
Even better, you can take part. Read the story before you listen, and you can tell them afterwards in the comments what you agree and disagree about. Indeed, they’d love it if you did.
So, to explain the splendid party picture you see here. Literary Roadhouse pick the stories by a random and bizarre game. I have only once in my life dressed up as a short story, and the hand of fate took it to Literary Roadhouse for my guest spot. Spooky. Hop over there now. If you dare.
Extremely serious question. If you had to dress as a short story, or ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’, what would your costume be? You don’t do that sort of thing? Just me, then.
I was editing a manuscript and came across a confrontation scene. It was well set up so that we understood the stakes, the context and why this encounter would sizzle. We were about to watch a protagonist face a mischief-maker and warn them off.
Except the dialogue was painfully obvious. Realistically, the characters should have been tiptoeing about, laying hints, oblique warnings and making concealed excuses. Instead, they came baldly out and said what was what, in a way that was unrealistic for their situation and personalities. Indeed, one of the characters said things that would have been professional suicide – when they were usually much smarter.
Although it was unconvincing, it certainly wasn’t bad work. Indeed it was a very useful way to mark out what must go in a scene where there’s a lot simmering under the characters’ words.
What I advised my writer to do was this. Make a copy of the plain-speaking on-the-nose version, and highlight the dialogue in a colour. This is what the characters really mean. Then rewrite so that they try to get this across without saying it. If one of them originally had the line ‘I know you started that malicious rumour’ or ‘I’m in love with your husband’, make them try to convey it in another way, by steering the conversation, making hints and watching the other person pick up the cue.
It’s not all speech
Non-verbal reactions are very useful in oblique dialogue. After all, a conversation with a heavily shaded meaning is a highly emotional situation. Characters might panic, develop a visceral sense of wrong or injustice. They might insist more strongly that they were right, or back pedal shamelessly. Even, a character might not know what they’re trying to say and surprise themselves with how much they reveal in an indirect way.
Their spoken lines may sound innocuous to an eavesdropper, but you can demonstrate their inner state with gestures, expressions, pauses, and nervous abuse of the cafe teaspoons.
Readers love to spot what’s between the lines and a scene that is undershot with subtext can be immensely satisfying. But until you know what your people mustn’t say, it’s hard to write it well. Indeed I see a lot of scenes that suffer from the opposite problem. I’ve seen many a scene drown in opaque, vague fluff because the writer wasn’t clear what was going on.
So if you’re having trouble with a nuanced, subtle dialogue, write the clumsy version. Splurge everything out. Describe the elephant in the room, its every wrinkle, eyelash and toenail. Then go back on another day, rub it out and leave just the hints and shadows.
Your clodhopping dialogue could be the mission statement to a fine scene.
There’s a lot more about dialogue and subtext in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Do you have problems with writing oblique dialogue? Have you any tips to share? Let’s discuss!
My guest this week brings a real blast of the 1980s, with a bright red emphasis on romance (I guess it’s that time of year). She drew on the soundtrack of her adolescent years to create the love-torn characters in her novel, and the heart of the story beats to George Michael, Berlin and Patrick Swayze. She is Audrina Lane and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
In a recent episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, my co-host, bookseller Peter Snell, asked a great question. What makes dialogue sound awkward, unnatural or ‘wrong’?
In the manuscripts I see, there are four main reasons.
1 Trying to say everything in dialogue
Sometimes we get so focused on making characters talk that we forget to let them perform non-verbally, especially if they are shocked or surprised.
Speech is only one part of dialogue. Writers often don’t realise they can use silence, pauses, thoughtful expressions, gulps, gasps of laughter. Instead, they try to put the character’s reaction into words, but this can sound false because many people don’t verbalise if they are reacting strongly. Indeed, they might be robbed of their words.
If a character has been highly amused, don’t make them say how funny something was; let them laugh. If they’re horribly upset, don’t force them to translate that into speech unless this is one of their personality quirks. I’ve seen many an awkward dialogue moment when writers have made their character say ‘No, please no’, when a gesture or a facial expression would be the natural response. Pauses and reactions can be just as eloquent as speech, especially to demonstrate when a remark has had an impact.
2 Including too many banalities
Sometimes, writers stuff their scenes with inconsequential dialogue. Encounters with postmen, neighbours, waiters, flight attendants and others are narrated in their entirety:
You all right?
Yes, thank you, how are you?
Did you come a long way?
Yes, but the motorway was clear so it only took me a couple of hours….
Oh snore. An exchange like this would be normal in real life, and probably in a TV or film script. Indeed it might go on for much longer. But on the page, even the briefest amount of chit-chat soon racks up a lot of lines and draws attention to itself.
If you’ve got a sequence like this, consider why you’re showing it. Is it to make the scene more lifelike? Does the content of it matter? Could you condense it and show just enough to establish that the characters greeted each other, then get on with stuff that will keep the reader’s attention?
Although it would be strange if characters never said anything inconsequential, we need to strike a balance. A few lines go a long way:
Your Chablis, sir.’
Do sit down.’
This same problem arises when major characters have downtime. For instance, they meet for a casual day out. Because they are major characters the writer feels they have to record every sentence. Was the train ride all right, is the fish good, where shall we have coffee, isn’t the weather awful. Let’s go into the cheese shop, and nod as the owner recommends the Brie. Crikey, will anything happen that’s worth talking about?
As always, writers need to examine what the reader should take away. Is it closer knowledge of the people and their relationship? Is it a change or a deepening bond? Pointless chat won’t show this, so delve deeper. Use subtext to explore the boundaries being pushed and adjusted. Maybe your scene is not as edgy as that and the characters are simply enjoying their day. In that case, lose the dull details and bring out the enjoyment. A little trivia is authentic, of course. But use inconsequential dialogue sparingly – and keep your focus on the real purpose of a scene.
This is the easiest dialogue problem to spot. Obviously characters have to explain stuff to each other from time to time. And exposition isn’t always bad – indeed, a novel with none might be incomprehensible. But often it’s mishandled and the number one way is in scenes where characters explain something they don’t need to talk about.
As you know, when you and I arrived on this planet three weeks ago and found there was no one at the base…’
So how do you give the reader background information? Simple: find a reason why the characters discuss it. Or write it in the narration, just as you might handle back story or description. But don’t contrive a scene where the characters explain it to each other.
4 Trying to be too idiosyncratic with accents and other speech characteristics
We want our characters to sound distinct and to speak with their own voices. But sometimes writers attempt to replicate accents and dialects, using odd spellings and dropped syllables. Phonetic and mutilated language slows the reader and might throw them out of the story. It can be comic, of course, and more so if other characters also struggle to understand. But it’s just as likely the reader will skip those bits, especially if the rest of the prose is conventional and easy.
If you need to draw attention to a character’s distinctive speech and you want us to read it, tics are best kept to a minimum. You can remind us of it indirectly:
He heard the Scots burr in her voice.
Of course, a novel is its own special world. Your quirks might enrich the speech of the people you invent. It might make glorious sense if your gangsters posture in iambic pentameter, your infants sound inscrutably academic and schoolteachers mumble in monosyllables. But these effects are the result of a conscious style choice.
Certainly we should make our characters distinct, but this should come from their personalities and personal styles. This can come through vocabulary, word choice and sentence rhythms. University-educated characters might think in elegant sub-clauses. Streetwise bruisers might have one plain idea per sentence. With all those devices, you hardly need phonetics.
There’s an entire section on dialogue tips in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have problems making dialogue sound authentic and natural? Do you have any tips for overcoming them, or have you had to learn some unexpected tricks when working with an editor? Are there any writers whose dialogue you particularly admire – or can’t abide, and why? Let’s, er, talk about it…