Finding your way around my blog

To help you find posts from the past, I’ve added a guide to my home page, like a long list of contents.

In August and September last year, posts are about getting started (including things not to worry about), from late September to December we look at character, in January this year we started learning plot skills and from April posts are about what Stephen King calls the Box of Tricks: aspects of the writing craft.

This week, we’re busy rewriting, polishing to the highest standard, with a section to follow between now and the summer, about getting your novel out to the public.

Happy writing, everyone! More next week.

The First Draft High

You’ve just finished your first draft and you’re right to be very proud of yourself. Particularly if you’ve done a lot of polishing and redrafting, you might well think it’s perfect. You smile at yourself in mirrors and tell strangers at the bus stop that you’ve ‘written a book’. You are dreaming of resigning from the day job and can barely resist browsing property websites to see what Scottish castles are for sale close to JK Rowling. You might even have sent it out to a publisher or two and can’t understand why it’s not immediately on the best seller lists.

This is the First Draft High. Congratulate yourself: you have achieved something most writers do not manage. You have created characters and put in the time and work to complete a story for them. You know the satisfaction of that last full stop. It’s a great time to sit on the hillside and look back at how far you’ve come.

Then take a deep breath and look upwards at the summit. I’m sorry to break it to you but there is probably still quite a climb ahead before your book is ready for strangers.

If you’re still reading this, you have the makings of a published writer. Your first draft is like the first row of squares on this game of snakes and ladders: there are many more squares to climb before you are home. Except that snakes and ladders is a game of pure chance. Writing is not – there are steps you can take to improve your chances.

Writing group

If you haven’t already, find yourself a group of kindly, like-minded souls you can rely on for encouragement and fun. (Sorry but it’s a sad fact that friends and family might not always understand the writing process, nor to be as much on your side as you might like.) If you always come away from your writing group feeling low and out of joint, find another one or set up a one of your own. You need a combination of support, thoughtful review and fun. In the words of one of my most treasured writing teachers, most writers are ‘convalescents’ and need tenderness as well as criticism to thrive.

Keep studying the craft

Read everything you can get your hands on about this writing craft.

Now that you have that first draft under your belt, you know better what you are looking for and can go back with fresh eyes to the many resources that have helped you get this far. There will still be more gold there to discover.

When I started my writing groups in 2011, there were many writing courses available. Mine were always different from the main stream in two main ways. Anyone was welcome as long as they had a passion to write. There was and is no sifting or qualifying process and my writers might not have written anything before. That does not stop them being full of great stories and progressing to fine writing careers.

The second thing is that writers are welcome to stay in my groups as long as they like; some are still with me all these years later. My courses follow pretty much the same cycle each year – character, plot, tricks of the craft – with no sense of coming to an end. The writers keep finding new aspects of the craft to excite them and intensify their writing, delving deeper each year as their needs and talent develop.

In other words, we all keep learning this wonderful craft all our lives, and what fun it is.

A room of our own

Virginia Woolf said in 1929 that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction“.

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Virginia Woolf pained by her sister Vanessa Bell

She was writing in a world dominated by men of a particular educational slant and her words apply to all of us, whoever we are. But it’s counsel of perfection and lack of a whole room ‘of our own’ needn’t hold us back. Jane Austen wrote at the kitchen table, young Ted Hughes at a small table in the hall. I’m a believer in giving your writing self as much physical space as you can, not least because it sends a message to everyone else that you are serious about this and that in that designated space you are to be left in peace.

Writing courses

Again, the field has never been in fuller bloom, with free online courses jostling with MA university courses and many others. A selection of day courses from time to time might work well for you or a weekly evening class. Try everything you can afford – I have never done a writing course without coming home with at least one useful nugget though of course some are better value than others.

Writing is rewriting

The fundamental truth about writing to a professional standard is that it is all about rewriting. Huge, tedious amounts of it. We all do it, we have to.

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Even Dickens kept a pretty sizeable bin handy.

The trick is to enjoy it. Why do our precious first drafts need more attention? The main reason is that we carry a perfect version of our story in our heads and a first draft is bound to be still some distance from it, though we take time to able to see that.

Rejections

Whenever a famous writer mentions all the rejections that came their way before they became successful, they encourage you to keep sending your work out, not to lose hope. They often forget to add that there may well be no sense in sending out a rejected text as it stands.

Rewrite, buff it up, go through it with a fine-tooth comb to see where it can be cut, tautened, deepened, generally improved. When I sent out the first draft of my first novel, I believed it was the very best I could manage – otherwise I wouldn’t have submitted it – but an agent was quick to point out that, although she liked the characters and scenario, the draft needed ‘a lot of work’.  Her response put me in the dizzying circle of Hades reserved for rejected writers, but she was right. My draft was also far too long.

I saw those four dreaded words – ‘a lot of work’ – as rejection and it stopped my writing for months. Eventually, I learned that it was a compliment. Sometimes agents and publishers will say, ‘Not this time but keep writing!’ Or, ‘Not this time but send us your next one’. Treasure these words in your heart: they mean it.

Musicians work for hours every day to be good enough to perform in public and we writers are just the same. Our writing exercises are the equivalent of musical scales and arpeggios. In rewriting we practise over and over to find what works and what works better, so that the best options come to us more quickly. We work at some parts of our story again and again from different angles to see how differing light shines on them. We write much more than readers ever see. We read other writers and listen to them as much as we can. Above all, we refuse to be easily satisfied because our readers deserve our best.

HOW DO WE REWRITE A FIRST DRAFT?

There is a universal pattern with us writers. When we have just finished something, we are thrilled with our work. We’re convinced it is a flawless work of genius and will stun the world. A few days later our hearts drop and, as we look at it again, we see nothing but rubbish. How could we ever have thought it (or we) had any merit at all?

Never at this second stage throw anything away. You are not the best judge at that time. Later we can look again with enough composure to see that some of it doesn’t quite work but other parts really do. You might even feel an inner buzz at that point as you start to edit, knowing that you can lift your game.

Leave it to cool

So, whenever you have just finished something big, take a rest from it for a few weeks. If you wake in the night thinking of improvements, jot them down and store them away for later. If you can’t resist the urge to tinker, start your cooling period over again. When those drifting afterthoughts have truly dried up and you’re enjoying other things, it’s time for you to open your draft again.

THE BIG READ

Are you ready for an exercise? A really big one, much more than five or ten minutes?

Set aside a whole day or maybe two when you will not be disturbed. Turn off all the buzzing things and wi-fi and warn people that you’re busy. You’ll be available later but not during this precious time. I do this on a sofa with biscuits handy because sometimes it can feel like self-surgery. But it must be done.

Think yourself into the mind of a stranger who knows nothing about your novel. If you dare, try to think yourself into the mind of a really cynical editor or agent who has seen it all. Then take a deep breath and read your draft straight through in as close to one sitting as you can.

In a bright, happy colour, mark your good bits, the bits that really sing. You might even remember the excitement of writing them. Congratulate yourself on that writing.

Do some bits now feel underwritten and need more? Are there other patches that sag, feel too long? Repetitions? Inconsistencies of plot? In another colour, write yourself notes and instructions in the margins – but don’t stop, keep reading.

Above all, put big red lines through anything dull. If you don’t, somebody else will.

Try at all costs to keep going until you’ve read the whole draft right through. If you need to visit the loo or have something to eat, mark where you were able to do that. It’s always worth noticing where anyone puts your story down.

Do you see now why your cooling period was needed? The objectivity you need is impossible while you’re still rolled up in the excitement of fresh writing.

Always save your first draft – you might regret some of those deletions – but that’s all it is now, a first draft. You’re making it your second and it will be miles better.

You’ve finished your read-through? You have a healthy crop of instructions to yourself for further action, and a lovely lot of ticks and positive notes too? Great! You’ve worked really hard so put it all safely away, pat yourself on the back and go for a walk, smiling. You have completed another big climb.

Through-line – the single most vital trick in writing a novel

And by vital I mean life-giving as well as essential. Your through-line is the great big question you ask at the beginning of your story, the one that keeps your reader hooked through every page.

WHAT IS YOUR BOOK ABOUT?

You could answer ‘about 30,000 words so far’. Many people say their book is about one of the big abstract issues like war, heroism, exile, true love or that mixed blessing we call family. Those are themes. Most good books have at least one theme though they’re not essential. Themes are what you want your readers to think about, after they’ve closed your book and are going on with their lives.

Through-line

Your through-line is the big plot question you ask at the beginning of your story, the one that keeps your reader hooked until it’s answered, one way or another, close to the last page. It is not about the meaning of heroism in general, it is about the heroic survival of a particular character your readers care about. Through-lines are about what you want your readers to feel.

Your theme is:

  • an abstract question
  • appealing to the intellect,
  • affecting as many of your characters as you like,
  • that you need not answer – let readers make up their own minds,
  • is not necessarily something that will be attainable or resolved by the story’s end and
  • more than one theme is fine though, if you have more, they should link in some way.

Your through-line is:

  • a specific question about a particular need. Will Jill get a pony? Will Carrie marry Big? Will Sherlock find the killer? Will Black Beauty survive?
  • It’s an emotional question of high stakes
  • about a particular person, preferably your main character(s). A thousand pages of statistics teach us about rough-sleeping but in Stuart: A Life Backwards; it’s Stuart’s own life story that gives it emotional urgency.
  • Your through-line question should be humanly attainable (achieving world peace goes in the ‘theme’ section) and
  • it must be attained or answered in the story. The answer doesn’t have to be yes but there should be a sense of resolution at the end.

An example of a through-line

A fine example of a powerful through-line is in Stuart: A Life Backwards. This excellent book came about when its author Alexander Masters worked in a facility for homeless people in Cambridge and met a rough sleeper called Stuart. They became friends and decided to write Stuart’s life story. Alexander’s first draft was painstaking but, by his own admission, dull. Stuart didn’t like it either and came up with a stunning through-line and structure.

Write it backwards, Stuart said, starting in the present and going back in time to his childhood. Write it like a Tom Clancy thriller, he suggested too, and next is where his marvellous through-line comes in. Readers should ask, he said, who stole Stuart’s innocence. Who ‘killed’ the boy he was.

Who stole Stuart’s innocence? Who stole his life, in other words, and when the answer comes, everything hilariously aggravating about Stuart (and there’s plenty) is instantly understood and the reader’s heart is broken. Stuart died between the finishing of the book and its publication: he didn’t survive to see Alexander awarded the Guardian First Book prize for their work.

Who stole Stuart’s innocence? Will Joey the Warhorse survive the Western Front and come home to the boy who trained him? Will Anna Karenina live happily ever after? Will the community of Watership Down rabbits ever manage to settle safely again? Will the boys in Lord of the Flies ever be rescued?

Golding cartoon

EXERCISE – 10 MINUTES

Choose one of your favourite stories? Give yourself ten minutes to define and write about its through-line. This is not always as easy as it sounds. In the film Titanic, for example, we know that Rose survives for decades after the wreck. The film’s through-line is how she survives.

Your favourite story will have sub-plots – do they have through-lines too? Are they different from the main one? Are they linked to it and to each other? Do the characters have their own personal through-lines? How do they all connect?

EXERCISE – 10 MINUTES

Let’s think now about the story you are writing. Please don’t be discouraged if this exercise turns out to be tricky. At first draft stage, it’s not at all unusual to have through-lines that spread like deltas – in fact, that’s often why people lose heart and give up. Thinking about your through-line at any stage can help keep you on track.

See if you can sum up your through-line in 20 to 30 words. It may well feel impossible but keep trying. You might find yourself coming up with three or four through-lines. Don’t worry, your story is work in progress.

Exciting as your several through-lines might be, it’s important to keep scribbling around them until one edges forward as the most urgent. Some classic novels have more than one but if you’re working on your first novel, try to keep things simple and clear. The clearer your through-line, the stronger and more saleable your story will be.

Your through-line is precious. It’s your story’s backbone, its engine, the thread that holds your story’s beads together, and it should appear somehow in every chapter. Occasionally readers will forgive a little tangent but keep it brief. (By Book 4 of A Game of Thrones, George RR Martin had so many of us readers by the heart that we kept reading as if it was an endurance test, but our favourite characters and their through-lines were missing from that fourth book and, to be honest, he lost a lot of us.)

Once you’re confident of your through-line, congratulate yourself. You now have what is known as your ‘elevator pitch’ for those precious ten seconds when somebody introduces you to an agent or publisher and you’re asked what your novel in progress is about.

Crucially for your story, once you know your through-line, you are equipped to destabilise it in every stage of your story, nudging up your stakes as you go, until you reach your destination. As Wilkie Collins said, make them laugh, make them cry and, above all, make them wait.

A QUICK WORD ABOUT STAKES

What lowers your stakes? Anything that makes a reader put down the book and forget to pick it up again. This list comes from my writing groups – please feel free to add your own:

  • Repetition,
  • Diverting the story into something else (away from your through-line),
  • Too much leaden description,
  • Telling us what we know already or can guess,
  • Spelling out every damn thing,
  • Being predictable, and too unpredictable,
  • Unsympathetic or boring characters,
  • Showing off research and
  • Mistakes.

FINAL EXERCISE – 10 – 15 minutes to start with

For practice, let’s imagine a static scene where one of your characters is sitting in a traffic jam, pauses lost in thought while they’re up to their wrists in washing up water or takes time out to look at the sky. 

whit evening

First, let’s discover how your character (X) is feeling at the beginning of the scene. Start with a brief scribble-chat together:

  • What can X see, hear, taste, smell and touch?
  • Is X hot or cold, comfortable or not, in tight clothing or loose, in a familiar place or a strange one?
  • What is X’s mood: stressed or calm, low or excited, fearful etc.?
  • How does X feel about what’s just been happening ? For example, has X just left an exam or job interview early and is worried about the outcome?

You should have X’s voice flowing nicely in your imagination now as s/he leads you through her/his senses, surroundings, mood and context.

Now, find a way to bring X’s thoughts around to your through-line, if you haven’t already. As you keep writing, see if you can let your character raise your novel’s stakes to greater urgency with a lightning jolt.

Even a static scene can be full of activity. In fact, the contrast in pace can work to your advantage and produce an unforgettable chapter. As long as you bring your stakes and character together with your through-line, all will be well.

Happy writing!

What does 3rd person mean? Why does it matter?

Knowing ‘whose head we are in’ from page to page, chapter to chapter, is a central skill in writing fiction. Keeping closely inside that character’s heart and mind is key to keeping your readers with you. (This is Point of View, made easy with exercises and tips, yesterday.)

Writing in the first, second or third person, on the other hand, is a stylistic choice for you as author.

Sometimes your publisher or agent will ask you to alter from 1st to 3rd person (or vice versa) because they think it will improve the storytelling. Or maybe your own gut feeling will guide you into a change, to see if it might work better. It’s worth playing with it to see where you’re comfortable for this story and these characters.

Which ‘person’ is which?

EXERCISE

In a handful of lines, describe a car crash involving one of your favourite characters. Then:

·       Invite that character soon after the event to come to you for a scribble-chat to tell you about it as if you’re best friends. Start with something like, ‘I don’t know why it happened but …’

·       You’re a paramedic telling a colleague about the crash in the hospital just afterwards.

·       Write a police report of the same incident.

·       Describe the crash in the past tense as if you are a god-like story-teller who watched it all from above: he did this, she did that.

·       A close friend is sitting beside a patient in hospital in a coma. Write what the friend says as s/he talks to the silent patient recounting what happened at the scene of the accident, e.g.: ‘You had the kids in the back and everything and then this lunatic, I don’t know how you survived it, love, I really don’t.’

The first, writing as ‘I’ – that’s first person. So is the paramedic.

The police report is in the third person, using s/he.

Your omniscient narrator is third person too, either keeping a certain distance from events or zooming in for a closer encounter with minds and hearts.

The friend talking to the patient is using you, the second person.

1st = I, we, me, us.

2nd = you.

3rd = he, she, her, him, it, they, them.

Choose your approach and stick with it throughout your draft, knowing you can change the tilt of it later. Clarity and consistency keep your readers with you.

THIRD PERSON – advantages

·       We’re all used to third person storytelling. Most books do it this way.

·       It combines distance with being able to get in close. Both are useful.

·       An authorial voice can be useful too, either impersonal or another character.

Third person – disadvantage

·       A bit dull and predictable sometimes? A sense of distance from the heart of things?

EXERCISE

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’

So she was considering in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy- chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

This is the opening of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865). Wonderful Alice. You’ll have noticed that it’s written in the third person, yet we’re right in among Alice’s dreamy thoughts, using she and Alice’s name as subject.

Try writing it again changing ‘Alice’, ‘she’ and ‘her’ (3rd person) to ‘I’ and ‘me’ (1st person).

How does that feel? Try reading both versions aloud to see what you decide about the difference in effect. This is not about exam answers. Trying it all on for size is what’s important.

Here is the opening of The Sign of Four written by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1890. This time try rewriting it, deleting ‘I’ (1st person) each time and replacing it with ‘Watson’, ‘he’ or ‘him’ (3rd):

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel- piece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest.

What do you notice this time? Does using first person makes it easier to distinguish the two men in a reader’s mind? What else feels different?

 

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SECOND PERSON (you) is rare because it’s tricky to pull off in a full-length novel. Advantages are the jolt of the unusual and, up to a point, it can feel friendly and conversational. Disadvantages are that it can feel preachy. It’s better when it has a context like a letter or a speech in court.

FIRST PERSON narrative has a long tradition including Moby Dick (‘Call me Ishmael’), Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Here are the famous opening lines of Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

Dickens was very fond of it too.

First person – advantages:

·       Your character’s voice – tone, accent and content – is clear without being rationed to sections of dialogue.

·       Readers feel can feel as if the character is confiding in them.

·       Internal uncertainty comes easily. Here is George Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, written in 1936. It is not for the squeamish but displays beautifully how you can write someone working something through in their thoughts.

·       If you’re used to scribble-chats with your characters, you’ll find first person accounts easy.

·       Your ‘I’ can be honest (like Holmes’s friend Watson) or an unreliable narrator who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out.

·       Writing in the ‘I’ of your character keeps you and your own personal agenda out of the way. Usually a good thing for the flow of your writing and the result.

First person – disadvantages:

·       Your character needs to be someone the reader wants to be with for a whole book.

·       While a confiding tone is easy, distance is more difficult to achieve.   IMG_0589EXERCISE

It’s time to reach for your bookshelf, online or otherwise, and choose one of your favourite novels:

·       Notice first, through two or three chapters, ‘whose head are we in?’

·       Is it from a single viewpoint or many?

·       Whose story is it? By that, I mean who has the most crucial place in the story arc? Some characters are fascinating but they come in briefly as catalysts, that’s not what I mean. Who is the character who is most challenged and developed, who is it really about?

·       Is the story told from inside that person’s head and heart? If no, why do you think not? If yes, what does that give the reader?

·       Finally, does the author use the first, second or third person to tell the story? Why do you think that’s what the author chose? Try to rewrite some of it in another person and see how it feels. Now try the same with a piece of your own draft.

As I said, it’s not about exam answers. It’s about what seasons the pot best. It’s your pot and your decision.

Happy writing!

PLOT – WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

In an early episode of A Game of Thrones, Old Nan says that old stories are like old friends: we need to visit them now and again.

Certain favourites keep cropping up – Beowulf, Cinderella, Perseus, Jonah, Noah, for example – stories that go back thousands of years across countless cultures. The best stories feel as if they meet a need beyond entertainment and escape, and bring us in some mysterious way a sort of psychological ‘retuning’. They bring a sense of satisfaction and wholeness.

Why study plot?

Now and again in my writing groups, somebody will say that this plot stuff doesn’t apply to them because they don’t want to write to any formula. That’s understandable – we all want our work to be fresh and original, we want it to be us. I agree that copying other people’s work has limited value if you’re already sure of your own voice and intention. Even if you haven’t.

Besides, studying plot can feel as if we’re trying to put into boxes things that shouldn’t always be in boxes. So I ask you, as I ask everyone in my writing groups, to treat this post as a bit of fun. Read it lightly and then forget it. Let it circle in your dreams along with whatever else you’ve read over the years. If you ever need anything from it, it will come to you in its own time.

For example, if your draft’s finished but there’s a vague sense of reader (or writer) dissatisfaction, or you feel that it’s somehow fallen apart and you are not sure why, you just might find a solution here…

A man walked into a bar … and found the ingredients of a good story. Good stories usually have:

  • A hero or heroine or both. Even the humblest joke has a man walking into a bar or a chicken crossing the road. Story-making starts with character, which is why character has come before plot in this blog.
  • An imaginary world: the chicken’s road, the man’s bar, Cinderella’s kitchens, the Starship Enterprise, Lizzie Bennet’s home full of sisters. Non-fiction sets out to lure readers into its world too.
  • Something that unsettles the present and has to be acted on. Mr Darcy arrives in the shire. A quiet housewife is invited to join the French Resistance. Lucy Manette must set off to Revolutionary Paris to recover her father after his release from the Bastille.
  • Now for the exciting bit: a series of conflicts, obstacles, uncertainty, thrills. The rollercoaster middle part. Non-fiction is not exempt: The Double Helix and Longitude are excellent examples. Check their sales figures if you would like proof.
  • Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood magnate who put the G into MGM, used to say, ‘Start with an earthquake and work up to a crisis’. There is usually some sort of climax where the story’s obstacles are at their most extreme. The main character faces her biggest possible choice or test. This does not have to be an epic battle with thousands of auks – Mole, Ratty and Badger find their own challenges in a comic battle against the weasels in Toad Hall. In one of my favourite novels The Descendants, a peaceable sort of guy discovers that his dying wife was having an affair, so he tracks down his wife’s lover. Another writer might well have written a round of fisticuffs in the street. Kaui Hart Hemmings is subtler than that.
  • Somehow (more about this later) the tussles resolve into an ending and a new beginning. If things come to a sudden halt in the middle of the battlefield, readers tend to feel as if they’ve been left dangling – they long to be settled into a sense of life going forward again.

Is there such a thing as a formula for surprise? Can be. Quite often actually and I’m sure you’ll recognise this one:

  • The main character is shown in his normal world.IMG_1159 (2)
  • Something is unsatisfactory, hurting or threatening him and other people. It can be external danger or an inner dysfunction whereby the hero is doing the hurting.
  • ‘The inciting incident’: something happens that forces change. The bandits have become so dreadful that the peasants persuade the cowboy to help them and Yul Brynner sets off to find the other Magnificent Six. Mole drops his paintbrush – Hang spring cleaning’. A digger is heard in the distance, coming to destroy the rabbits’ warren. There’s no turning back.
  • The main character realises exactly what it is he wants and forms a plan to get it.
  • Forces of opposition gather (and those who help Our Hero to resist them). One obstacle can be that the main character himself refuses first of all to take up the challenge. (The ‘Call to Heroism’ was not invented in Hollywood, by the way – Homer’s Odysseus tried to avoid call-up to the Trojan War by sowing salt into his own fields, pretending he was mad. It didn’t work.)
  • The succession of conflicts ensues. The stakes rise and keep rising.
  • There’s a climactic crunch scene where the main character is forced to crack wide open. To get what he wants, he must do the most difficult thing he’s ever had to do. The emotion is overwhelming for character and readers.
  • The battle brings an epiphany to your character, an insight about what sort of person he really is. He is forced to recognise his greatest need (ta-dah, something you know about from your work with the character questionnaire). He acts on that insight …
  • The worst is past and life can return to normal. But it is a new normal, things have irreparably changed. 457587_10150986744197470_2016124434_o The character ends at a higher or lower level of fulfilment, depending on how far he’s changed and accepted the insight.

Thank you to a tutor from the Soho Theatre & Writers’ Centre for much of the detail in this template, shared many years ago on an Arvon Foundation course.

In my many years of attending writing courses here and there, I have come across many of these formulae. There’s usually something useful in each one. I have no interest in taking you through the Hollywood screenwriters’ usual five-act structure with this particular encounter required on page 13 or that on page 42. If that appeals to you, I wish you well with it but this blog is about novels and novelists are freer. We can take the best from all these options and make them our own.

This last one, I will call the problem-solving formula – I came across it on a course many years ago about writing for children:

  • life is unhappy for the main child character and/or other people;
  • the main difficulty gets worse and worse;
  • until we reach (the tutor called it this, I kid you not) the ‘plateau of awfulness’;
  • this goes on until everybody’s in tears and it all looks hopeless;
  • somehow the main child character (nobody else) solves the problem from her/his own resources;
  • everybody’s happy and grateful.

This problem-solving formula has the virtue of simplicity – you can develop it any way you like. It’s the backbone of children’s classics from Animal Farm and Black Beauty to the adult worlds of Bridget Jones and Sherlock Holmes. Does it fit any of your favourites?

It always unnerves me when people start taking written notes in my sessions because this is not about studying or taking tests. It’s about developing a feel for the shape of a powerful story arc, for who drives the story forward, about pace and stakes, and how a story comes to a close. Read plenty, short stories and long, think critically about what you’re reading and feel how these templates described here might have a part to play for you.

These lists are no more than the scribbled drawing to guide paint onto the canvas, the invisible armature that supports the clay while a sculpture is being made, or a shoe’s last or mould.

EXERCISE – 10 minutes

To save you from feeling that too much analysis is going on, choose one of your favourite themes: love, death, fear, life, happiness, sadness, joy, grief, birth, greed, peace etc. Treat yourself to ten minutes of free writing about what it means to you, utterly privately, just for you. You can imagine you’re chatting with one of your characters about it if you like, or just let rip. For as long as you want.

Between now and the spring, we will look at a series of classic plot structures – love stories, thrillers, rags to riches, rite of passage, overcoming the monster, voyage and return, and epics – starting next week with one of the oldest of all, the quest.

Have a happy writing and reading week!

 

Old friends

‘You can’t make old friends’, said the late Christopher Hitchens. Romantic love can come and go but a really solid friendship year after year, there’s no treasure like it.

Whenever we’re writing fiction, there’s pressure to edit out everything that doesn’t propel the story along, so a main character can have just a friend or two, or none. In reality, most of us gather friends through every phase of our lives.

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SHORTCUT

You can save first draft time, once you know your characters well, if you give some thought to what binds friends together. Stand back from your main story and plot their friendship over the years like a love story: how do they meet, what obstacles does their relationship face, how do they stay together, or not? In the usual scribble-chat way, ask each of them separately to answer these questions for you, taking as long as they like:

  • How did they meet?
  • How are they together when they’ve only known each other a short time?
  • What do they have in common at the start?
  • How does their warmth develop?
  • What is in it for each of them?
  • Where are the tests in their bond? What difficulties have they recovered from, or not?
  • How do they work things through together?
  • How are they when they’ve known each other ten or more years?
  • What secrets do they have from each other?
  • What do other people think of them and their friendship?

Not all of this needs to go into your draft but you may well discover useful things that give you the nuance and plausibility you’re after. Old friends’ answers don’t necessarily match of course.

Some of the most memorable stories have friendship at their centre, dating right back to Gilgamesh and Enkidu, written around 2000 BCE. It’s often opposites who attract, not just because it makes the story bubble but because it happens in life. That’s why we believe Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are great mates, Horatio and Hamlet, Frodo and Sam, Ratty and Mole. Jane Austen uses the friendship between Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas brilliantly to point up the economic crises they both face in Pride and Prejudice, and solve differently. Jane Eyre and Helen Burns bring Bronte’s particular palette to Jane’s story from its outset.

My favourite of all is the exquisitely written friendship between Jack Aubry and Stephen Maturin in the Master and Commander series, that survies war, poverty and wealth, even their being in love with the same woman.

What are the things to avoid whenever we’re writing close friends?

  • No exposition please or dumps of backstory where they tell one another things they already know. Sometimes we do this with each other as a rove down memory lane but swathes of dialogue where they tell each other how they met and who their girlfriends are? Just delete it, your readers will catch up.
  • Friends have familiar or code words that mean more to the two of them than to anyone else. Watson understands who Holmes means when he refers to ‘the Woman’, for example.
  • They are likely to have usual places where they eat, drink, laugh, maybe described with a code or nickname.

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Friendship doesn’t always go well of course. Banquo could tell you that, after his old friend Macbeth has him and his son Fleance killed. Shakespeare allows Banquo some wonderful supernatural – or is it psychological? – revenge.

Sometimes friendlessness is the point: Ralph is a decent soul in Golding’s Lord of the Flies so his isolation in the face of appalling bullying is all the more heart-wrenching.

We writers are always snappers up of life’s unconsidered trifles so next time you’re with your dearest friends, take a close look at how you are together. What are the traces of your friendship that anybody can see from across a room? Where are your depths, how the two of you hide them from the world? I’m not suggesting for a second that you betray your friends, just study how you are together. Your fictional friends will benefit.

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!

 

 

Where are we now?

My blog was later than usual this week so here is an extra post to warm us up for the writing weekend…

We’re travelling deep into the hidden furrows of your characters’ hearts and memories now so it’s time for a breather before we go even deeper. Let’s look around at the places in your story where your characters eat, sleep, work, suffer, celebrate and love.

SHORTCUT

Your draft flows more quickly, more consistently if you get to know those places early in your writing. Most important of all, find out how your characters feel about them.

This is about more than location: what are the colours, smells, textures and sounds that tell us about your character and are significant for your story? What is the atmosphere in each place? How does the air move there? Is it warm or cold, stuffy or clear-headed, does it bring a taste to the mouth? Does it bring memories? Above all, does your character want to be there? Why? If not, where would they rather be and why?

  • Let’s start at home. Using your scribble-chat technique, let your character invite you to where s/he lives and show you, a room at a time, their kitchen, sofa, bathroom, garden/ view from the rooms, bedroom, bed and so on. Robert Graves’ kitchen in Mallorca is below – I loved that place.

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  • How does your character describe her/his bed. Tracey Emin was right, you’ll learn a lot.
  • Let’s move on to day to day travel – how does your character usually get around? Ask your character to describe her/his car, bike, route to work etc.
  • From there, it’s easy to lead the scribble-chat to your character’s work place. We spend vast chunks of our lives at work and have a wide range of feelings and reactions to it.

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  • What does your character do in spare time? Find out about their gym, choir room and so on.
  • Can you think of other places that are important to your character? Friends’ and relatives’ homes, for example. Worship spaces. Places to socialise.
  • Where is your character’s favourite place in all the world, real or imaginary?

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Different characters will see the same places differently of course and that’s always fun.

As usual, this is just exploration. You could have another go next week and find yourself up to the eyes in different answers. That’s great! You can choose what excites you most and works best for your characters and your story. Above all, you are immersing yourself more and more in your characters and their world, letting your writing flow, and getting closer to a deeply imagined, consistent draft.

On Sunday we move to Stage 4 – where is your plot’s engine? See you then!