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.

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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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!

 

 

Family skeletons and state secrets

What is a secret? Something someone knows about you that you hope they’ll never tell? Or something only you know and keep your fingers crossed that nobody else ever finds out? Or something just about everybody knows but hasn’t been admitted out loud?

Secrets are one of the most powerful ingredients in the mix of a great story. They can be international state secrets or personal, from yesterday or years ago, and publishers love the ones that work on both personal and political levels. Let’s see what secrets your main characters have lurking around.

Stage 3 – let’s go digging for secrets:

Take time to settle yourself in peace with your favourite writing materials. Give yourself plenty of time, a tea or coffee and favourite biscuit maybe, and invite your main character to come forward for a scribble-chat.

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We’re after the strange magic that comes whenever our invented people talk to us in our imaginations and we catch the conversation in writing as we go. Something about this process deepens our relationship with our characters in a way that day-dreaming and spread-sheeting our characters can’t hope to match, though those play their parts too.

As before, guide your character gently into the areas you want to cover but let the character be expansive. Have a go with the questions below and see what nuggets of gold turn up. As ever, ‘you’ is the fictional character you’re discovering and you are interviewing gently, like a best friend:

  • Are you now or have you ever been in love? How do you feel about it, looking back? How did it feel at the time? How did things pan out?
  • What was your first sexual experience? How did it feel then? How do you feel about it now? Repercussions?
  • What is your sexual orientation? How do you feel about it?
  • What is your most painful memory?
  • Your happiest memory?
  • Do you have any secrets?
  • Do you have someone else’s secret? How does that feel? Do you want to do anything about it?
  • Have you ever been betrayed? How has it affected your life?
  • Have you ever betrayed someone close to you? If so, how do you justify this to yourself? How has it affected your relationship?
  • What do you most regret having done?
  • And what do you most regret not having done?
  • What would you say is your world view?

Any one of these questions could fill hours if you let it. When you find that your scribble-chat is taking on a life of its own, coming to your page or screen as if it’s not your writing at all but somehow channelled from the gods, please please keep writing as long as you can. These are the pieces of writing that sometimes lead to whole chapters or can go straight, hot-minted, into your draft. For me this adventure is the most intoxicating thing about writing.

Prepare to surprise yourself. As Anthony Powell said, ‘One of the worst things in life is not how the nasty people are. You know that already. It’s how nasty the nice people can be.

Follow your own lead and add to the questions whatever way you like.

Next we will look at how to use your discoveries to unearth the most urgent and exciting parts of your story. I don’t mean that we’ll ditch the raw first-draft wildness – that can be precious and exciting – but these scribble-chats will guide you straight to the hot stuff, saving you maybe several exploratory drafts.

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Now you’re in a great position to assess the main peaks and troughs in your character’s life. If you have time to write one or two of those turning points as short stories, those scenes will feel less daunting as you approach them later. You might find yourself writing something unexpected and useful.

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I’ll leave you with Robert Graves‘ desk (above) in Mallorca where I paid homage last week. Complete with a pot of fresh rosemary.

Next week, Stage 4 – where is your plot’s engine?