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.

How to lay out your dialogue

The three biggest tools in a writer’s box of crafts are through-line, point of view, and training ourselves to show our story in action rather than telling it at a remove. One of the easiest ways to bring your reader up close to your story is to show your characters talking to each other. Readers feel as if they are right there in the conversation themselves.

IMG_2200

Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette, 1876

So, how do we write dialogue, edit it, present it, use it best? Let’s start at the beginning, with how we lay it out.

EXERCISE

Choose a couple of characters; they can be your own, from somebody else’s novel or just make them up for today, it doesn’t matter. Call them by the initials of their first names (such as A and B) and scribble lightly, fast an exchange they might have on a Sunday morning.

Don’t sweat too much about what they’re saying, though if you’re on a roll and produce something useful for your draft, that’s great. What we’re concerned with today is how we lay those words out.

Each publisher has its own house style and will expect you to have had a close look at theirs before you submit your draft to them. This will, I’m afraid, take time and care. Consistency and an eye for detail are everything.

Practices differ around the world but the same questions arise everywhere. Let’s start with the most usual UK practice (only because it’s where I live) and notice the sort of wrinkles and subtleties that come up.

Dialogue layout

In the UK, our characters’ spoken words are usually surrounded by single inverted commas or quotations marks:

‘How do I lay this table?’ he asked.

Elsewhere in the world it can be double quotation marks, or none at all, just a dash to lead in the spoken words.

If your character is quoting something within a spoken sentence, we in the UK use double quotes for that:

‘You’re useless. Your mother said the self-same thing on the phone yesterday. “He’s useless,” she said. Those were her very words.’

All punctuation belonging to the spoken words comes inside the quotation marks, nice and cosy.

‘When’s she coming? Did you say – I heard you say, didn’t I?  – she’s coming at two?’

And try not to forget the closing quotation mark, it’s easily done.

If there’s an attribution like ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ after the spoken words, then a comma comes after the spoken words, inside the final inverted comma, and ‘he said’ comes in lower case as part of the same sentence:

‘I really wish we could just run away, now,’ he said.

Even if what he said was a full sentence, as above.

If you’ve got an attribution other than ‘he/she said’, it’s the same:

‘Well, I never invited her!’ she shouted.

If the attribution (‘he/she said’) starts with someone’s name, then the capital letter is used, as usual.

‘I know, darling. Calm down,’ Paul said.

And when the character keeps speaking after that attribution, you can keep going with a capital or lower case letter, depending on whether the speech is a new sentence or not:

‘You used to love me,’ Alison cried. ‘At least I thought so, until now …’

 

As above, if there is a new sentence to come, then the attribution ends with a full stop. We know that the new piece of speech (beginning ‘At least I thought so …) is Alison’s because it’s on the same line as her previous words.

(If Alison had run this into a single sentence, it would look like this:

‘You used to love me,’ Alison cried, ‘or I thought so, until now …’)

Paul took her hand in his and said, ‘Why do you doubt me, darling, when I’ve given you all this?’ Which could equally be written:

Paul took her hand in his and said:

‘Why do you doubt me, darling’ etc.

Again, if Alison continues her sentence after her attribution, the first comma is inside the quotation marks and her new speech starts lower case, as it would if the attribution wasn’t there.

‘You make me sick,’ she sobbed, drawing her hand away, ‘especially when you think you can get around me like this.’

If the attribution comes before the spoken words, then it ends with a comma and the spoken sentence starts with the capital it would have if it were standing on its own:

Paul shouted, ‘My mother’s due any minute and I don’t want to see her any more than you do but we’ve got no choice. Now clean yourself up and get into that kitchen!’

‘Don’t you yell at me like that!’

Yes, quite often you don’t have to tell the reader who is speaking. In fact, if your character’s voice is right, the reader will know just from verbal inflections, accent and personality who is saying what. You can also indicate who is speaking by putting a character’s actions in the same line:

‘I’m not yelling at you.’ Paul pulled his sweater down and looked out of the window. He saw two pigeons fussing together on the lower branches of his monkey puzzle tree. A stab of envy of their simple joy ate into his heart. ‘I would never yell at you, my sweet, I’ve loved you all my life.’

If you have a brief bit of description interrupting someone’s spoken words, you can put it inside dashes outside the quotation marks like this:

‘You haven’t known me all your life’ – a car horn blared outside on the gravel – ‘and you know precious little about me now. I do have a choice actually, and I’m making it. I’m off!’

Indents, or a new paragraph, make it clear that there’s a change of speaker:

‘Please don’t go, darling, not now.’

‘Not when I’m supposed to be cooking, you mean?’

‘I mean not when we’ve been happy for so long!’

‘You call this happy?’

‘But how could I cope without you?’

Whether you use indents or paragraphs for speech is a matter of house style and your publisher will tell you what they want.

If someone is indulging in a monologue that goes on for more than one paragraph, each subsequent paragraph of the speech opens with an inverted comma although the previous one remains open. This is where it can be especially easy to forget to close your final speech marks and the reader thinks that your next piece of description is being said:

Paul ignored a prolonged honk from the car on the gravel outside and took a bottle from the fridge. He filled two glasses with ice and covered the cubes with dark rum. ‘Well, my darling, I’ll miss you.’ He handed one glass to Alison. ‘I remember the first time I caught sight of you, during lectures in the first year, with your hair in plaits and those yellow cycle clips over your brown jeans, and I thought, that’s the prettiest girl I’ll ever see in my life.

 ‘I was right too. I’ve never wanted anybody else, Alison. Never even fancied anyone else. But if you want to go, I can’t stop you. I’ll always have Mother … and rum.’

He lifted his glass in salute as Alison downed hers and slammed the door behind her without another word.  

Have a look at a wide selection of the books around you, comparing the different ways publishers do it. As always, have fun, and remember the times when conversation can be silent.

IMG_2199

Klimt’s The Kiss, 1907/8

Happy writing. More about dialogue 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.

IMG_0863

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.

IMG_0619

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.

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!)
  • 17499381_10155223098717835_5992690378704277205_n
  • 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!

POINT OF VIEW made ridiculously simple

You’ve been quarrying into your characters’ depths until you know them as well as you know yourself or better. What’s the best way now to give your writing a professional sheen and bypass several experimental drafts while you tell their story?

Let’s enjoy a scribble together

Think of an important moment in your main character’s story. An encounter, a fight or battle, a crucial discovery.

Take a few minutes to scribble-chat your way into your character at that moment on your page or screen until that character’s place in the scene is crowding your imagination and the writing flows freely.

Now, sit back for a moment and consider the mental jumble we all carry through every day of our lives. It’s usually a mixture of:

Our physical comfort – are we too hot or cold, our clothing too tight or loose, are we hungry, thirsty, in need of the loo or a rest?

Our wider context – have we just been sacked, fallen in love, won money, bought a car, fallen ill, wakened up?

Our mood – are we feeling excited, content, angry, fed up, exuberant, needful?

Our agenda – there is always a range of things we want at any given moment, from world peace to a burger. Which is the most pressing? Which has gone on for longest? Can you distinguish urgent and important?

Now let’s go back to your character’s big moment. Concentrate on just before it happens and let your character tell you about their mental jumble. Their worry list, how they feel, what they want and need. Blend your writing into a monologue where your character talks in his/her voice for at least 10 minutes. Write quickly and freely, let the character’s voice take you.

Congratulations. You have just written with a clear, strong single point of view (POV). And you’ve got something to edit. The more you do of this exercise, the more you’ll do it in every draft first time. It takes you where your reader wants to be.

POV is simple really. Ask yourself, ‘Whose head are we in?’ at a given moment in the story. Whose eyes are we looking through?

IMG_E1421

That’s all there is to it.

Drama on a screen or theatre stage shows us a selection of characters acting out their stories in front of us. Actors and script writers work hard to help us feel what those characters are going through and it can feel real in the way being in a room with other people is real. But do we really know what they feel, think, plan, need at the deepest level? Characters do tell each other, yes, and sometimes they even move out of the action into a monologue given direct to the audience. But they could be, and often are, lying to us. (I’m thinking of Alfie or Iago in Othello.) How do we know what’s genuinely going on?

Poems and non-fiction can pull this off sometimes too but, if you ask me, fiction is far and away best at it. This single ingredient in powerful novels has changed the world.

Why all the POV fuss?

Sometimes when POV is ‘taught’ to fiction writers, the thing strays into spreadsheets and Graeco-Roman labels of almost medical complexity. We can end up more confused than when we started and that gets in the way of our writing flow.

Two things are going on what’s usually described as POV. They are linked – all storytelling is – but there’s nothing to lose in treating them separately and everything to gain.

The two elements are these:

  • Whose head are we in as we read this story? and
  • Are you as author choosing to let your characters tell the story in their own voices (as I or we: 1st person) or are they telling it through you as she, he, it or they (known as 3rd person)? This is what grammarians mean when they talk about point of view, hence the overlap.

One of the big leaps into writing to a professional standard is clear use of ‘Whose head are we in’ so let’s leave the discussion of 1st, 2nd and 3rd person for another day.

What are our POV alternatives?

You can stay in the point of view of a single character for your whole story, or you can guide your readers through several viewpoints in turn. It’s up to you. The important thing is to decide and stick to it.

Advantages of one character’s POV:

  • Your story has a better chance of being immediate, clear and gripping.
  • Writing internal thoughts, hopes and dreams comes easily if you’re used to the scribble-chats we do here with characters.
  • Your character describes and judges others, which can be fun.
  • You can show the character’s voice, tone and accent without being restricted to dialogue, although a thick accent or dialect for a whole book can be off-putting.
  • It gets you as writer out of the way.
  • Your character could be honest with the reader or could be an ‘unreliable narrator’ who bit by bit allows his/her self-deception to creep out and take the reader by surprise.

Disadvantages of a single POV:

  • Your character has to be engaging or the reader won’t stay with you.
  • You do need to know that character very well to be convincing.
  • You’re restricted to the knowledge, perspective and experience of that one character. There are ways to get information onto your page other than through that a single viewpoint (news reports, found letters, misdirected or wrongly cc’d emails etc., nosey informers about another’s behaviour, facebook, overhearing, searching another’s phone for texts etc., finding journals, bank or other statements, mistakes eg. the wrong flat) but it takes some thinking about.
  • How do you describe your character externally? The truth is, you don’t have to. Readers are surprisingly happy to make it up for themselves. It’s more engaging anyway to describe how people feel about themselves from the inside and in other people’s reactions. If you really do want the reader to see your character, please avoid the mirror scene in the first chapter, it’s been done to death.

Which single character do I choose?

We will come to that another day. Meanwhile imagine The Great Gatsby told to us by Gatsby himself instead of his slightly shy cousin, Nick. Or Brideshead Revisited told by Cordelia, the youngest member of the Marchmain family. Or The Wolf Wilder told by the boy soldier, Alexei, instead of by Feo herself. Or Pride and Prejudice told as Lydia’s story. Any of these versions could have worked brilliantly too.

Several viewpoints

The advantages of writing from the point of view of several characters are:

  • Information comes from several sources, layering on the suspense and mystery.
  • Readers can identify better with several characters.
  • We all have different truths – it feels real.
  • You avoid shoe-horning in information that a single viewpoint character could not know.
  • You can use dramatic irony more easily, where the reader knows more than a character.
  • It gives the reader a breadth of experience in terms of location, experience and company.

Disadvantages of several POVs:

First, it’s important to make it absolutely clear to the reader who we are with from time to time. We write from the top of our concentration and emotional reserves. Readers often read to relax. They might be in noisy places like family kitchens or train carriages. They may be feeling less than well or enjoying your book with wine beside them at the end of a workday.

Clarity is vital. It’s a big part of your reader’s sense of your authority as a writer: if you lose their confidence, they might well put your book down with a vague sense of dissatisfaction and forget to pick it up again. It’s not just about being kind to tired readers. It’s about strong storytelling.

Many writers give characters a chapter each at a time, e.g.: Junk by Melvyn Burgess, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin. The character’s name makes a good, clear chapter heading. In the first three or four lines the character’s voice and thought patterns should make it obvious.

The second disadvantage of handling several POVs is the temptation to switch viewpoint within sections. Many fledgling writers swivel in and out of the minds of several characters within a paragraph, even within a single sentence. That can give a panoramic view, if it’s what you’re after, but it risks dizzying your reader, interrupting immersion in your story. It can also distract you as author from plumbing down to the levels of emotional honesty your readers want.

That said, I’ve just turned up a POV subtlety in a book called Longbourn by Jo Baker. It’s a wonderful example of a success by a first-time author – hurray! – and she uses POV to bring her lovers together. Copyright law forbids me to quote at length but on page 208 of my copy, we experience the scene first through Sarah: ‘She could feel his hand on the back of her neck.’ Then six lines later: ‘For a long moment she didn’t move or speak. Then he felt it against his chest: she shook her head.’ Knitting the two viewpoints like this has the magical effect of lifting us away from one character’s mind to see the two of them and their hug. At the same time we experience their closeness, heart to heart, alongside them.

  • Don’t be afraid to go in close beside your character and stay there.
  • Stay as close as you can to one character at a time. It’s more satisfying for your reader and easier for you to write.
  • By being aware of how you use POV, you can avoid dizzying pitfalls and use it to create magical effects.

Happy writing!