Who’s coming to April’s Words on Waves? #Whitstable

WORDS ON WAVES at HARBOUR BOOKS, WHITSTABLE has been warming our literary hearts this winter and our first spring event is this coming THURSDAY, 4 April 2019 from 6.45pm.

We’re looking forward to a magnificent line-up of local writers: Jessica Taggart, Clair Meyrick, Setareh Ebrahimi, Rosemary McLeish, Angela Dye and Ferretta Wilson, with me as your host. 

Words On Waves is a series of monthly spoken word evenings showcasing a variety of writing talent and has a tendency to sell out fast. Writers of all genres have ten minutes each to amuse and amaze you, with a break at half time to refresh glasses. Tickets at only £3 each include wine. 

Please book your seat by phoning 01227264011 or calling into the shop.

 

When the writing flow stops – 12 TIPS to keep writing

At our last Churchill Writers session, we started off talking about our perfect writing days, when the muse is our best friend and the writing flows like chilled mojito down Papa Hemingway’s throat. Then, of course, chat turned to how we keep our writing going when things are not so good.

We came up with this list – feel free to add your own:

  • Keeping a journal can limber up the writing muscles and clear the mind before you start on your novel. Liz Lochhead has described it as like skimming the top of a good broth before it’s served.
  • Congratulate yourself as much on a good session of wool-gathering or writing exercises as on producing pages. It’s all needed.

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  • A trick I learned from journalism is to get a rough draft down, quickly, last thing before bed if need be, so that you have something to work on next time. Anything is better than nothing.
  • If you aim to write at a regular time each day or week, the writing begins to flow at that appointed time as if it has a special welcome.
  • Targets (1000 words per day, or a chapter a day, for example) work for some people, less so for others.
  • Going for long, slow walks alone, without (if you can) any thought of fitness or time, helps many writers. Charles Dickens walked huge distances, often through the night. It’s about letting your story and characters settle in the rhythm of your body while your eyes rest on the world around. Take some way of writing down stray thoughts, even if it means scribbling on the back of your hand.
  • Writing buddies. Arrange to meet a writing friend in your favourite café for an hour or so. Say hello, and then sit a good distance away from each other for your writing time. When your words are done, it’s time to have a good old natter together. This can be a happy way to have a regular writing slot but it’s important not to let the chat happen first, OK? #learnedthehardway
  • Some days are fallow, don’t let them worry you. Just pick up and carry on next time. In fact, life has tides, highs and lows, and it’s important not to punish yourself or get demoralised if writing is squeezed out by a crisis. Come back to it when you can.
  • If you don’t have the chance to write for a while, try writing in short bursts of ten or twenty minutes. Forget about quality, let the writing energy take you wherever it likes. You can do this on the bus, in a café, anywhere, and it will remind you how much you can achieve, and how deep you can go, in just ten minutes.
  • Reading good books and blogs about the craft can bring you back into your sense of being a writer after a break away.
  • Remember that, however much you procrastinate, and we all do, once you do give writing your time and attention, the words will come. Every time I used to sit down to write, I would spring off the chair to do something else apparently urgent, maybe about a dozen times. Once I realised that my home was not going to catch fire if I just sat there and wrote, I dubbed it ‘hot chair syndrome’ and recognised that it was part of my run-up to writing. And it went away! I love writing and always feel better if a day has writing in it, and I bet you do too.
  • Keeping work in progress private is, for me, a crucial part of protecting the flow; having to show your workings every day to a well-meaning but critical family member can be death to your progress.

Keep it regular. Keep it to yourself. Keep it fun.

More on Sunday. In the mean time, happy scribbling!

THREE GREAT TRICKS FOR REVISING YOUR DRAFT

Your draft is covered in lines, highlights and lots of great big ticks. What happens next?

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Have you ever thought of sending your novel to a script agency?* That can be a useful step but writers are sometimes disappointed by the feedback because the agency or editor seems to have misunderstood the book. Script advisors try to find the heart of your story, your main narrative drive. First novels in particular can have everything in them including several kitchen sinks, so the advisor recommends the strongest line that they think will sell. The trouble is, it may not be what the writer had in mind, at all, leaving him or her confused and upset. Some writers then lose faith in critiques and even, sad to say, have a sense that their critiqued story is not worth working on any more. Writers get a better return on their money if they work first on bringing out the essence of what they and their characters want to say.

In other words, your second draft will be much better. Whose first drafts are perfect? Hemmingway knew the answer. The place to start is your through-line.

1st TRICK – ROSIE’S PLOT CLINIC

Summarise your plot roughly and quickly. Approach this like an exercise; there’s no need to be self-conscious or to trim as you go, no-one will see it but you. If you can, do it without looking at the draft itself or your notes. You are after the excitement you get in a writing exercise where the thing takes off and is carried along by the power of its own adventure.

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By Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891)

One or two thousand words should be enough. If your summary wants to go in a new direction, something you haven’t thought of or written yet, that’s fine. Write it anyway. If you end up somewhere you do not want your story to go, never mind. Save it and have another go.

If this exercise does not come to you easily, try this shorter approach:

EXERCISE

Summarise your plot in 10 words, then 20, then 50, then 100.

These little summaries are more difficult than they look but you will need them later:

  • When someone introduces you to a literary agent at a party, you will have about ten seconds to grab her attention – that’s where your 10 words summary comes in handy.
  • If she hasn’t looked behind you for someone more saleable after ten seconds, it’s time to expand into your 20 words.
  • Your 50 words summary can go into your submission to an agent or publisher when the time is right. (Not yet.)
  • Your 100 words summary can be the basis of publicity like the blurb on your book’s jacket.

Doing these little outlines at this stage concentrates you on your story’s gist. Keep them in a file, together with other versions you doodle and rewrite from time to time in idle moments.

WHAT IS YOUR THROUGH-LINE?

Let’s remind ourselves about through-line: the spine of your story, the string that holds your chapter pearls together, the engine of it all. Its elements are these:

  • A question
  • that is specific, emotional and urgent (will Odysseus find home, how does Rose survive the Titanic’s sinking, what will become of Lizzie Bennet)
  • about a particular character or characters (will the Watership Down rabbits find somewhere safe to live),
  • that should, one way or another, be answered by the story.

Toy with discovering and refining your through-line for as long as it takes. Just keep thinking and summarising and scribbling until, click, there it is. The clearer you are about your through-line, the more successful your story will be.

2nd TRICK – CHARACTERS

Now is the time to have another good old chat with your main characters too, so back to the character questionnaire

Some characters arrive fully formed and change very little while you are writing your draft. Others morph as your story develops. In both cases it can be a good idea to revisit your character questionnaire to see what comes forward. If nothing else, it will free up any writing muscles that might have got sluggish during your rest.

If it feels like too much of a chore, so be it. Let’s sit on the sofa with the red pen and read that first draft through again, this time more specifically.

Take one of your main characters at a time, and reread your draft as if you are that character:

  • Summarise that character’s storyline as you go. Is it consistent?
  • Does that single strand feel true in itself? Does it feel true for that character?
  • Are there gaps or jumps, anything that could do with explanation? Any plot holes where for example your character knows something he or she hasn’t been told yet? Be hard on yourself because your readers will be.
  • Is your character’s voice consistent in the dialogue, not only the accent and content (both important) but also the world view, age, ethnicity etc. Does the voice reflect the character’s growth through the story?

By now, you may feel like doing a bit more of the character questionnaire. Time spent that way is never wasted.

3rd TRICK – SLEEPING

Being with your draft every day is crucial now or your energy will drop. My favourite trick is this.

Before you go to sleep, read over what you’ve done with your draft that day. You’re just reading, no need for this to feel like a chore, and make a few short notes for attention next day. Then sleep.

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This does something inexplicably marvellous: it bakes everything together in your brain (or little devils whisper in your sleeping ears, like these around Botticelli’s Mars) so that in the morning you will go happily to your writing again and it will be more alive. If a thought or two wakes you in the night, note it down and go back to sleep. Some of those notes will be great. Not all of them.

Revising your draft can take a while but somehow it can be exhilarating and less exhausting than producing your first draft because the road map is there in front of you.

Next week we’ll look at your plot arc.

*I do not offer a script reading service, by the way.

Happy writing!

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.

BOX OF TRICKS – INTRODUCTION

Whenever readers open a new book, they really do want to like it. They persist in loving books even though the world has never contained so many exciting distractions. We need to make sure we hold their attention more powerfully than ever before, or ours will slip down their busy priority list and may never rise again.

All creative work is a combination of that free flying excitement that some people call inspiration and clever use of tricks and techniques that have evolved over centuries. Composers and painters know this, so do actors, sculptors and musicians of all kinds. It’s the only secret really: the best way for our work to deserve the attention of strangers is to combine the excitement of our unique ideas with learning the craft, year after year. We need both.

What about overnight successes? Creative people in every field who ‘break the mould’? Well, it does happen but usually the mould-breakers have done their homework, put in the hours, and know exactly what tired old moulds they’re breaking.

I have no interest in forcing your story into a shape that does not suit you. All I do here is to introduce you to some accepted tricks of the trade. What you do with them is up to you. So I ask you to read this section and then forget it. Rule 1 applies: if you’re in the grip of an idea that excites you, write it fast, dump everything else and keep writing until it’s done.

If you find your writing getting into difficulties, however, and you can’t see a way out, it might be time to take a rest, be kind to yourself … and take another look over this Box of Tricks section.

Between now and the summer, I’ll be posting about Point of View (today and tomorrow), Show and Tell, through-line, dialogue (including subtext and lying), use of time and seasons, how to handle turning points, using memory and flashback, handling stakes, using hooks and links, finding your beginning and ending and choosing your title. I may think others up along the way.

IMG_E2116London’s Poetry Library

These tricks of the craft are about what makes people put a book down and stop reading. They are about how to keep the pages turning, the kindle pages swiping, until your reader has reached the ending satisfied but wanting more. Most of the tricks have been used in every classic you’ve ever read, and can help non-fiction as well as fiction. Some have been around since Homer’s grandmother, and her mother too.

That doesn’t mean they’re dull or outdated; it means they work.

We’ll start today and tomorrow with looking back over Point of View and use of 1st, 2nd and 3rd persons. Tomorrow too? Well, it’s a holiday in some places. Happy writing and if you have extra writing time on your hands, I hope you enjoy it too!

The QUEST for a perfect story

Last week’s post gave us a feel for a traditional story arc – the lift-off from normality to a challenge, stakes rising in crescendo to the most exciting, potentially harrowing place in the story, the place of crisis where something vital is realised, something won, before things rest back towards a new, richer normality.

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Forgive my graphics please – drawing has never been my best thing!

A story arc is not symmetrical like an arch: the highest point is closer to the end than the beginning. Any dips or slackening in the arc’s line are where your reader will put your book down and wander off to find something more interesting to do.

Let’s take a closer look at some of our most familiar plot structures. For this I lean not only on my own reading over the years but on the late Christopher Booker’s masterpiece The Seven Basic Plots. If you were ever to find me alone on a desert island, the chances are my free copies of the Bible and Shakespeare would be gathering dust among the sand dunes and I would be deep in The Seven Basic Plots. Not that I agree with Booker that there are only seven basic plots or that they are necessarily the ones he identifies, but I love the way he analyses and debates it all.

QUEST

Quest is one of the oldest plot structures in the world. There’s no need to fetch it a rocking chair and slippers though, it’s very much alive and filling cinemas and bookshops. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a classical quest in the old style and so is Erin Brokovitch. Aeneas and the tribes of Israel are on quests for new homes every bit as much as the rabbits in Watership Down. Gulliver’s Travels, Bunyan’s Pilgrim, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Treasure Island (the buried treasure), Frodo taking the Ring to the Cracks of Doom, Sir Lancelot and the Holy Grail, the Taken films – what do they all have in common?

The ingredients of a great quest are a priceless goal far away, a questor with an overwhelming desire to up sticks and go and get it, surviving many perils and obstacles, internal and/or external over a long journey, before eventually the goal is achieved.

Let’s develop this a little:

  • The quest should be really important – life or death in some way or other. In the stories of the tribes of Israel and Watership Down, for example, the whole community will be wiped out unless a new home is found.
  • The quest has great urgency. There is no choice but to go now. ‘To boldly go’ and seek new civilisations here and there is not nearly pressing enough to be a quest.
  • Leaving to go on the quest requires considerable self-sacrifice but it’s inevitable.
  • Even starting on the quest can be dangerous. For example, in Treasure Island, Jim is in deep danger before he’s even left his mother’s pub.
  • The hero usually takes companions with him/her or gathers them. Even Dick Whittington has his cat. An exception is Lancelot whose spiritual quest for the Grail (as penance for his adultery with Guinevere) is solitary.
  • A pattern ensues of near-fatal ordeals alternating with periods of respite – tension followed by resolution prompting danger again in ever-rising stakes.
  • Alien terrain is usually involved, real or figurative, where the hero/ine is far from home.
  • Monsters (Polyphemus, harpies, auks) and temptations (Dido, Circe) abound and there can be a visit to the underworld (Christian in the Valley of the Shadow of Death; Odysseus meeting Achilles)
  • Sometimes there’s help from a wise old man or woman, ranging from Tiresias to Obi Wan.

Once the quest has been achieved – Odysseus makes it back home to Ithaca, the Watership rabbits find a suitable new warren, Lancelot glimpses the Holy Grail – is the story over? You’d think so but no. That does not satisfy our need, honed over countless centuries, for the best in story-telling. In fact, arrival is only half way. Odysseus arrives home in Ithaca at the end of Book 12 out of 24. The Watership rabbits spend the second half of their story securing the land in a battle, and finding and wooing female rabbits before they can settle with them and call the place home. Lancelot sips from the Holy Grail but must spend time as a hermit, and train and live as a priest before he is allowed to see Guinevere’s face again, while he’s officiating at her funeral.

Poor Lancelot. I imagine his grizzled smile as he confides that he found honour at last at that funeral and that his quest, though testing him to the limits of his endurance, simultaneously broke and healed his poor, battered heart.

All quests end happily, one way or another. That sounds sweeping but if there is not some sort of happy resolution, the story just isn’t a quest. Could it be that the quest’s real theme is not achievement of the goal at all, whatever it is, but learning to appreciate home, honour, security, wholeness? Love?

Love creeps in surprisingly often at a quest’s end as a symbol of that wholeness, a blessing on the story’s other endeavours. Romance may have been very far from our hero’s mind but it’s part of Quest’s ancient pedigree that he is rewarded with ‘the Princess’ in return for his labours as well as everybody’s applause. (In that historic way, the questor is male in the early tales and ‘the Princess’ is handed over as a trophy whether she likes it or not. Usually, in the hands of an expert storyteller, we have been prepared for this being a love match for them both and she’s as thrilled as he is.)

That’s not the only template of course. Odysseus’s quest for home after the Trojan Wars takes credit for being one of the oldest novels in Western literature but in many ways Homer breaks the mould while he sets the standard. Odysseus’s ‘Princess’ is not some young beauty he hardly knows: she’s his wife Penelope who has been loyally waiting for him through his ten years of war and another ten years of wanderings. Did he wander by the shortest route? No, but after all his shenanigans with love goddesses and what have you, after he’s hauled his boat onto the shore and rested his eyes on his home sunset for the first time in so long,

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all Odysseus longs for is to be home in his own bed with his loving wife, and for them to grow old together. But first he has to win her again as if they were youngsters.

As I said last week, these thoughts are not flat-pack instructions or patterns for knitting identical jumpers. Take from them what works for you and go ahead, reinvent the wheel as Homer did.

Which brings me to LOVE STORIES. Love is as essential to us as food and water and what a palaver we often make of it. Next week we’ll look at how the structure of love stories has mutated over the centuries. You’ll be able to absorb the variations and make them your own.

EXERCISE

Choose your favourite quest story – page or screen – and write freely about why you like it so much. Why do those particular characters work in that story? Where does the action begin? What is the most heart-breaking moment? Does a main character undergo any change in the story or learn anything life-changing? What hooks you into it all? Why?

Happy writing!

 

The hillside exercise

This writing lark can feel like an uphill slog going nowhere. Especially at this time of year, when our writing time can melt away in the festivities and well-meaning loved ones ask us difficult questions like ‘How’s the writing going?’ Not all of us can report a new publishing contract, launch or shortlisting for a prize. So now and again it does us good to sit and rest, look back and congratulate ourselves on how far we’ve come.

The last time I was among my favourite writing friends, my hillside exercise was this:

2007-06-01 12.26.10I’m up the Mournes, County Down on a clear June day, a bit of bite in the air, pleasure in the body as my boots meet the grass, contentment in being here doing what I’m doing.

There have been dreadful times, toiling hard in squalls on the lower slopes with hailstones driving hard into my back, plastering my hair wet to my face, freezing the rims of my ears. There have been steep patches where the only way I could get anywhere was to narrow my eyes to the square metre in front of me and keep plodding, silent, alone.

People have joined me from time to time – Anji, my first proper agent (then at AP Watt), and Dennis my poetry publisher being my kindest and most lasting champions.

I remember a brush of brief success when a Guardian reviewer asked my publisher to put my novel up for the Guardian First Novel prize. But it wasn’t my first novel – my children’s novel edged to publication first – so she couldn’t, and now that experience feels like a brush from an angel’s wing, a dreamt blessing from another world. But there have been breaks in the clouds, widening patches of clear blue on leaden days, when a contract for publication of my children’s novel arrived eighteen months after submission with no chit chat or connection in between. And when Dennis Greig of Lapwing accepted my submission of poems, with incredible speed and enthusiasm, in 2010.

Lately, the going is grassy, warm, brighter. A few wee flowers cheer me. Now and again I even sing to myself as my palms press strength down through my knees into my boots. The higher I climb, the higher the sky rises. The air is fine and free. It’s time to turn around and glance back.

The tough bits of the climb are invisible. No shale and scree meet the eye at all, just stretches of green, the odd boulder and a surprisingly clear, neat path. Cows in fields below are smudges of a sharpened pencil. Cars are glints in the granite. My climb, my effort in getting here, where is all that? Gusts in the heather, rufflings in clouds.

On a peak not far away, there’s a happy launch for my next book of poetry.

Rosie Scenic 1

The ground dips between here and there, masked by whins. I can’t see what the going is like. Further off, steep, sharp, dignified, is a beautiful granite summit garlanded by pale mist. Its slopes are white-grey, luminous in the sunlight, and I’ll need all my skills to climb it – publication of my non-fiction book-in-progress.

I’m up off this boulder now, ready to keep at the climb. Happy with the privilege of being here, in love with this writing world.

I wish you joy in your writing climb too, wherever it takes you.

Love and many thanks to my late father, RR Johnston, for these photographs. He adored and climbed the Mourne mountains all his life.

Your character interviews all in one place

An external description of your character is not a bad place to start. It’s not essential for your reader to have detail about how your character looks, walks etc. but you should have a pretty clear idea. It’s not just about hair colour, it’s about how they move and speak too.

Most of all, it’s how they feel. Then you know what drives them. Once you know what drives them, they’ll write the story for you.

EXERCISE

You are watching your character from afar as they go to work. Describe them leaving whatever transport they use, walking in the street, moving towards their place of work, taking off their outer garments and taking up their place. If they work at home, describe the move from domesticity into whatever it is they do. Where are the telling details: how they sit, how they feel in their clothes, how aware they are of others around them, how they react to others’ approach?

Try this exercise again, the same place and actions, but this time it’s the character doing the talking. Describe the internal monologue (first person) as this daily process unfolds.

Back to our scribble-chat interviews with our character. To start with, imagine you’re conducting an interview with your fictional character as if you’ve just met. By the end, you’re the very best of friends. Please feel free to fill it out as much as you like with musical tastes, what’s in her/his bag and pockets, where they go on their holidays, favourite biscuits, anything you like:

  • How do you look? To yourself? To other people?
  • What is your name? Who gave it to you? Have you a nickname? Where did it come from? How do you feel about it?
  • Your age? How do you feel about it?
  • Where do you live? Why do you live there? How long have you lived there? Do you like it there? Is it your choice or someone else’s? What would you change if you could? Where would you ideally like to live?
  • Who do you live with? Describe the relationships and how you feel about them? Why do you live with these people, or alone? Is it by choice? Has it always been that way? Will this story change or challenge that?
  • Where were you born? How did you feel about it when you were little? How do you feel about that place now? What accent do you have? Has it always been the same? Are you speaking in your first language?
  • Tell me about the family you were born with: mother, father, siblings and any other family members important to your development and/or the story. Are you youngest or eldest, or where in between? Who is emotionally most remote from you and why? Who worries you most and why? Who do you feel safest with and why? (Yes, this is me up the Cave Hill with my dad!)
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  • What’s your education? How did you feel about it then? How do you feel about it now? What would you change if you could? Do you have ambitions for more education in your life? Why(not)?
  • Do you have a job? Is it your choice? What would be your ideal job? Etc. (Take time to get your character to talk freely about this. We learn a lot about people from their jobs: is it what they want, how did they start there, what was the training, how do they feel about where they work, the people they deal with and the nature of the work itself. There’s an argument that doing a job can fossilise certain aspects of your personality and sometimes that can produce a crisis or neurosis. Whenever you meet people, ask them about their work. People will usually talk about it freely and it’s often where people find life partners. All great material.)
  • What’s your economic situation? Has it always been that way? What would you change about it if you could? What are your hopes for the future? How do you feel about it at night when you can’t sleep?
  • What is the music you love, your favourite art and other artefacts? Your most prized possession – why?
  • What makes you laugh most?
  • Any favourite rants?

It’s time to go deeper:

If it hasn’t happened already, let the character speak from now on (on your page or screen) for as long as she/he wants. Good questions come in pairs. Any one of these answers could take a whole day or even a weekend:

  • What are the early successes you’re most proud of?
  • Your early failures ditto?
  • What makes you cry most? (You never cry? Why? Would like you to?)
  • What for you is perfect happiness? Perfect misery?
  • What is your greatest victory? Greatest defeat?
  • Greatest excitement? Greatest boredom?
  • Greatest trap? Greatest escape?
  • Greatest delight? Greatest fear?
  • Greatest happiness and joy? Greatest sadness? Most painful memory?
  • Greatest achievement? Greatest loss?

You can develop this in whatever way you like, and feel free to keep going after you’ve started writing your draft.

What are your character’s places:

Home, travel, work, hobbies, favourite place in all the world etc.

Secrets:

Again give your character as long as he or she wants to answer:

  • What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
  • Are you now or have you ever been in love?
  • What was your first sexual experience?
  • What is your most painful memory?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Do you have any secrets?
  • Do you have someone else’s secret?
  • Have you ever been betrayed?
  • Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? How do you justify this to yourself?
  • What do you most regret NOT having done?
  • What would you say is your world view?

SHORTCUT

Let your character finish these sentences in her/his own words:

  • I want …
  • I need …
  • I regret …
  • I love …
  • I hate …

Though you might not know it yet, these answers form the engine of your story. Short, snappy answers are truest.

A little objectivity …

Sleep on what you’ve done so far. Have a walk, coffee, spend time with friends.

When you’ve left your interviews behind enough to be objective about this person you’ve created, ask yourself these important questions:

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

The Big Ones:

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

  • What is this character’s greatest anguish, their most significant pain? Expand. 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 does this character actively want in this story?
  • What does she/he actually need?

The answers to these last questions help your plot to come together. Don’t bother to be conscious about this – just keep walking and pondering and what you need will come to you.

Incidentally, I found this on twitter – scientists have proved what we writers have known all along: writing is good for us. Have a happy writing week!

You, me, I, she – what’s this Third Person thing all about? – Point of View, 2

Knowing ‘whose head we are in’ from page to page, chapter to chapter is a central skill in writing fiction. Close engagement with a character’s heart and mind is key to keeping your reader with you.

Writing in the first, second or third person is a stylistic choice for you as author. Sometimes it’s altered in later drafts at a publisher’s or agent’s suggestion, or because of your own gut feeling that something else 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 is writing as I is the 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.

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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). Dear Alice. You’ll have noticed that it’s written in the third person; 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?

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’, a timely piece (though it was written in 1936) which isn’t for the squeamish but which displays beautifully how internal debate can be written.
  • If you’re used to scribble-chats with your characters, you can blend into first person accounts easily.
  • Your ‘I’ can be honest 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.

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EXERCISE

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.

Next week we’ll be back to character work. There’s lots more still to do there.

Happy writing!

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.