Words on Waves is back! Join us on 10 Jan at 6.45pm

Chase away the winter chills with beautiful writing at WORDS ON WAVES at Harbour Books in Whitstable, Kent. Our readers include Steve Kendall,  former life model Carol DeVaughan reading from her new poetry collection Life Class (Oversteps Books, 2018), Wordsmithery publisher and poet Barry Fentiman Hall, Christopher Hopkins, Angela Dye & Caroline Millar with something new, if there’s time, from Rosie herself.

Book your seat by phoning 01227264011 or calling into the shop.

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How to make characters feel complex, real and vital

Last night was party night here in the UK with bonfires, fireworks and beverages of one sort and another. We were celebrating the failure of a terrorist plot to blow up our Parliament in 1605, which goes to show there isn’t much new under the sun.

If you don’t have time to write, does it ever feel as if your characters have wandered away to a party without you and are too busy having fun to come back to your desk to work?

Let’s lure one of your main characters back into a scribble-chat where the two of you are chatting together like old friends while you catch it all on your page or screen. Ask your character, in their own voice and words, to finish these three sentences – quick-fire is best, around five minutes for each one:

  • I regret
  • I regret not …
  • I do not regret though maybe I should …

The essence of any of us is right there. And yes, even children have regrets.

Now it’s time to step back from your fictional character. Have a coffee or a breather outside, but not for too long. It’s time to be objective for a change. When you’re ready, step out of scribble-chat mode and ask yourself, on the page/screen as always, these important questions:

  • What do I (as author) like about this character?
  • What do I (as author) dislike about this character?

Write freely now. Take as long as you like. While you’re submerged in writing your first draft, it can be all too easy to paint yourself into a corner where your main character is mostly nasty or all nice. Every one of us has selfless and nasty traits in our character. I know of no simpler way to ensure that our characters feel complex, real and vital than to give these two questions our deepest attention. When the Churchill Writers were writing together yesterday, I was fascinated to see them all take off in that last section and surprise themselves.

Everybody is full of nuance, contradictions and surprises.

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Not everyone is as nice as they seem. Long John Silver (Treasure Island), Toad of Toad Hall (Wind in the Willows, my favourite version), and Uncle Monty (in Withnail and I) for example are all monsters but they ooze generosity, charm and their own kind of sincerity. In Pride and Prejudice Wickham, who turns out to be a cad who is likely to leave poor Lydia alone, pregnant and miserable, is so charming to everyone around him that even sensible Lizzie Bennet is half way to falling for him. IMG_0314And nobody is evil all the time: even Hitler had friends.

Now, having taken a dispassionate look at your fictional character, ask yourself:

  • What is this character’s greatest anguish, their most significant pain or wound? This may take you a few long walks to discover, or you may know it in the snap of your fingers.
  • Whatever it is, does it explain the aspect you don’t like?
  • What do you as author see now that this character wants most in this story?
  • What does s/he actually need?

By now do you feel important plot ingredients pushing to the fore? A sense of everything – character, plot, theme, even place – coming together? Do you have a greater sense of what your main character is after and deserves, of how their own plot arc is taking shape? A new sense of the shape of your whole story, where it should start and end? Maybe a new idea for the title?

If easy answers don’t come quickly, never mind. Don’t bother to be conscious about this, just keep walking and pondering and all will be well. Keep writing too, exercises and your draft. What you need will come when you need it.

Next Sunday, how do we put all this character work into action? We’ll talk about Point of View and I’ll be keeping it simple.

Have a happy writing week.

Let’s find your plot’s engine

Quentin Crisp said, ‘Other people? They are usually a mistake.’ Sartre agreed: ‘Hell is other people’, he said, though he might have meant other French people. Yet here we are absorbed in making people up and getting to know them better than we know some of the humans we live and work with.

What’s a scribble-chat?

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As usual, settle yourself somewhere comfortable in as close to peace and solitude as you can find, with your favourite writing materials, whatever suits you, and invite your main character to come forward. You know each other pretty well now. Maybe you can hear the tone and lilt of the character’s voice, the accent, age and ethnicity in it, the education, traces of life past and present. Start to engage your character in ‘conversation’ with some chitchat and, like a loving friend, listen and encourage. Keep writing as you go – nobody needs to see it but you and it frees up channels in your writing that go way beyond day-dreaming and conscious planning.

Stage 4

When the time is right, let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I regret …
  • I don’t regret though maybe I should …
  • I love most of all …
  • I hate …
  • I’m most afraid of …
  • I want …
  • I need …

Go for short, snappy answers this time, the ones that bypass inner barriers. Don’t think – just write what comes and be ready for surprises. You might not know it yet but these answers drive your story. This disentangling of what we want and really need is at the heart of self-knowledge whoever we are, wherever and whenever we live.

Let’s look at two or three classic stories to explore what I mean.

Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge is a good example of a man passionately pursuing commercial success to find respect; what he really needs (and tragically does not get it until after his death) is steady family love, the very thing he ditched so controversially in the book’s famous opening chapter when he ‘sells’ his own wife and baby.

In Willy Russell’s marvellous Educating Rita, first a play, then a film starring Julie Walters and Michael Caine, Rita longs to be educated, more specifically to be confident among educated people chatting about Blake and Shakespeare. What she needs is to make her own choices about her life. I love the moment in the closing credits where Rita, having said goodbye to the teacher who brought her so much, is walking along the corridor out of the airport, shoulders slumped, missing him – then she straightens, her step quickens and she’s off into a new life that we know she’ll handle beautifully.

Similarly in Titanic. The tension in this story is not about whether Rose survives the wreck or not – we know that early on – though the film has much to say about what makes a survivor. What Rose wants from the start is to escape her gilded cage (later into lifelong love with Jack); what she needs, like Rita, is to take charge of her own life.

Does your main character want money and need love? Need safety rather than what looks like love?

In a complex story, it can take time to bring your character to the clarity you’re after, so – if you are not sure which way to turn –

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you may find it helps to come back to this. Today is more about thinking and feeling your way to answers rather than merrily writing thousands of words, though that’s still a great idea too. It’s about leading your character to insight.

Phew. Stand back for a moment and congratulate yourself. It’s time to treat yourself to a walk or a coffee with a friend and clear your mind. Sleep on what you’ve done so far and praise yourself. You’ve worked hard.

Next week we’ll stand back from your characters for a change, bring a little objectivity to what we’ve done and make sure they can come across as rounded people.

Have a happy writing week!

 

 

FICTION’S BIGGEST TRICK

and how we play it

Story-writers have a trick that people in films, television drama and theatre can only envy. We can take our readers into the minds of our characters and deep inside their emotions. While you’re reading a story or novel, you are not just walking a mile in those characters’ shoes, you’re with them every step of their biggest crises, maybe their whole lives, living and breathing it sometimes from behind their eyes. This trick happens so lightly that readers maybe aren’t even aware of the miracle but it has changed the world.

Drama on screen or in a theatre can move us very deeply but the best it can do is show us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard at helping us know what those characters are going through, and it can feel genuine. Film directors often fill the gap with swathes of music. But do we really know what the characters feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters talk to each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue to talk to us direct what they’re up to. But it’s always at a remove – we are watching it, not living it.

From the first word of a novel we are invited deep inside a character’s internal essence. Why are the Game of Thrones novels so clever? Because George RR Martin writes each chapter from the mind of a single character so, whatever horrors are going on, we live those events through that person.

Why was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre so revolutionary when it was finally published in 1847? From the beginning, we are inside the formidably honest, rebellious mind of Jane growing up and it’s a thrilling place to be.

Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) broke boundaries too in bringing truths about marriage to an alcoholic into the daylight, beautifully written and from his wife’s point of view.

It’s hard these days to understand the impact of something like Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty in its day (1877) about the life of a working horse in Victorian society. It has sold 50 million copies (so far) and brought animal welfare changes all over the world. At the core of the book’s success is that the story is told by the horse himself.

SHORTCUT

Whenever we have our scribble-chats with our characters, do your best to let them tell the story for you. In their own voices.

Too many first drafts have characters who all speak in the same voice. This tends to be because the writer is ‘designing’ the characters from the outside without getting inside their heads. These writers are more likely to tell us what a character is wearing than thinking or feeling.

Readers want their interior worlds. If you work through scribble-chats at letting your characters speak to you, each in their own way from their own lives and hearts, you will jump past that first draft error and find yourself in a much more vibrant fictional world with more realistic characters around you.

EXERCISE

Think of a character, just one. Ask him how old he is and be aware of his reactions while he’s telling you. How does he feel about his age? Let him keep talking about it while you catch it on your page or screen. Stay inside his thoughts and voice. When is his birthday? How does he feel about birthdays? How did his last one go? Any plans for the next one?

You are mining for depths you never would have thought of if your character summary stopped at ‘Age: 26’.

Have a happy time!

 

Incidentally, I said last week that we’d be with the Churchill Writers this weekend. I got ahead of myself – that’s not until next month. We’ll do it then …

Your book’s world

Whether you’re writing about Venus for earthlings or a disastrous first date, the Napoleonic Wars or your grandmother, every book invites readers into its world. Even a cookery book has an atmosphere of its own and is often rooted sensually in a particular place.

You know your book’s world and so do your characters. How do you write it so that it not only convinces your readers but gets right into their blood?

Let’s start in the here and now.

The senses exercise

Sit on your own somewhere, anywhere. Let yourself become aware of nothing but where you are and what your senses tell you. Scribble what you find, just for yourself.

Are you warm or cold? Can you feel the air moving on any of your body? Become aware of what you’re wearing and what pressures it makes on different parts of your body. Which parts of your body are tense? (I usually write in something like a sprinter’s starting position, forward on the chair, up on my toes.)

Check your way through the five senses. Four of them are handy there on your head: eyes, nose, ears and mouth (taste), with the fifth covering all of you in what you touch and feel. What do you smell, what can you hear and so on. Most of our senses are more complex than we realise day to day. We can stretch our hearing for example to catch a thousand sounds from far away even on the most silent beach and can the zoom in like hawks for precision if we choose.

This is can do several important things for us writers:

  • This trick helps us concentrate on our writing wherever we are, however distracting and noisy it is. Use the distraction, concentrate on it, write about it and its detail for five minutes, then select the bit that takes you into your writing world. In no time, you will be writing happily in your bubble.
  • This exercise can (as Proust showed us) take us on a ramble through our memories, something we can harness for the good of our writing.
  • The more you develop your ability to be aware of specific details, the better your writing will become. Notice yourself and the effects your life has on you. If we’re afraid, our heart and breathing rates increase, our stomachs might clench and we might start to shake. How and in what order do you feel these things? Does one effect lead to the other or do they happen independently? What do you taste when you’re afraid? These details are our writing paradox: we’re looking for unusual little things that the readers might not have noticed much but which they recognise immediately as true. It is a search all the time for specificity, and for emotional truth.

 How do we find details in our character’s world?

Have a scribble-chat with your characters. Ask them one by one about where they live and work and note down the answers as you go with pen and paper or your laptop. No need to stop and tidy, this is exploration for you and nobody else. It’s the kind of chatty, best-friends interview I’ll post more about next week. Ask about:

  • Home – kitchen and bathroom, main room, bedroom(s) and especially the bed. Tracey Emin was right, your bed can tell more about you than almost anything else.
  • The car, including what’s in the boot and the music. It’s not just about those designer headlamps flashing past everyone on the motorway or the dog baskets in the back – how does your character feel the minute s/he sits inside and sets off?
  • Work – the location, the place itself, equipment, people, air-conditioning or not, the loos, whatever comes to you. How does your character feel there?
  • Hobby/pastime – the gym, golf club, pub, dance studio, mall, choir room. Again, what emotions roll through your character in places like that, and on the way to and from them?
  • Family – Mum’s place, Nan’s place, girlfriend’s place etc.
  • The home(s) your character grew up in.
  • School/uni or college?
  • Holiday – favourite and least favourite places and why.

SHORTCUT

This saves you loads of time later and primes you to write better and more deeply in your first draft.

It’s also really good for limbering up your imagination, your style and your talent for seeing the world through your characters’ eyes and hearts. More about that last one next week …

Welcome

Since 2011 I have been helping groups of new writers find their feet, first in Bermondsey, then Greenwich and Cambridge. My posts here are going to summarise our sessions over the years about conjuring up characters that feel true, finding out why some plots and structures work better than others, and studying those writing techniques that make all the difference.

Usually my groups look at character in the autumn, classic plots through the winter months (plenty of excitement to keep us warm) and in spring and summer it’s all about tricks of the craft from handling dialogue and point of view to editing your pages and finding a publisher. These posts will try and follow the same calendar.

Each week I’ll post a visual prompt too, just to see where it takes us.

For years I longed to write but hadn’t the confidence to start. That’s why I take a particular interest in people with a strong wish to write but who feel that something is holding them back. In my next post we’ll look at how we can just get started…