How to avoid painful feedback– losing track of time

Times are bad,’ he said, ‘children don’t obey their parents any more and everyone is writing a book.’ That was Cicero in 43BC. Everyone’s life is full of majestic stories but crafting them into a novel takes skill, perseverance and several rewrites that can tax the brain. That’s why writers need this feedback stage so much.

Feedbackers who give you clear, itemised lists of where you can improve your draft might make your teeth grind but at least they’re useful. It can be hard to know how to react when they are vague, unsure. They say they got lost, couldn’t finish it or, worst of all, they got bored. Bored?!! You think, how can they be bored, you’ve sweated blood over that draft …

Generalised dissatisfaction is often down to plot problems. In other words, does your story arc slacken and need a tweak or two? If you’re sure it’s not that, then it may be your use of time that’s confusing them. Let’s think about how you’re using memory and flashback.

MEMORY EXERCISES: 5 minutes each

  • Your main character is telling you in the 1st person about an important memory from early childhood, many years ago.
  • Your character is alone, quietly remembering the same event only 5 or 10 years after it happened. This can be in 1st or 3rd person, it’s up to you.
  • The day after this event happened, your character is telling someone else in your story about it.

This is about how memory alters with age and distance from the thing remembered. It also shows us that while we remember, however vividly, we stay in the present, aware of who and how we are now, while remembering.

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Manet, The Railway: 1873

Flashbacks are different.

First, let’s distinguish psychological flashbacks, where involuntary memories of traumatic experiences can invade a person’s present so vividly that it feels as if they are almost happening afresh, there and then.

Story-telling flashbacks are devices conjured by you, the writer, to bring the story from one of the story’s time zones to another for the reader’s benefit. They are like that bit of old movies where the screen goes wiggly and the characters are twenty years younger, until the screen goes wiggly again and they are back in the harsh, unhappy (or otherwise) present.

Those old films can teach us a thing or two, namely:

  • It’s important that readers are clear when you’re going into flashback and coming out again. They often read to relax with a mind full of work stress, children playing close by or with a busload of distracting people around them. If we are going to do something unrealistic like fiddle about in our use of time, we should guide them confidently.
  • The shorter your flashbacks, the more easily your reader will keep track of what’s going on. If a flashback goes on too long, you risk losing people. (Unless your whole book is in flashback and your reader knows that.)

FLASHBACK EXERCISES

  1. Your character is doing something mundane: cooking, driving, maybe daydreaming at work. What triggers the flashback? Hover there and concentrate on that moment. Then describe to yourself your character’s sensual awareness. Go through the five main senses (sight, sound, taste, smell, touch) and heat and cold, tension and relaxation, readiness or sleepiness and so on. Find one or two predominant ones – if your character is washing up, has he paused to feel the water swoosh around the hands? Noticed an aroma or something out of a window? Now take your character into the flashback and write it. Using that sensual experience, the swoosh of water again, come back out of the flashback and write the character’s reflections on it. Bring the reader securely back to the book’s present world.
  2. Now, what did you want that flashback to do? Explore this free writing, for yourself.

Lastly today, let’s try a version of our first memory exercise:

  • Your character, many years after the incident in a flashback, is telling you (the writer) about it for the first time, in the first person.
  • Explore on your page or screen how these exercises have shown you how memory and flashback differ. Both can be exciting, heart-breaking, immediate in their different ways – what do they have to offer in their different ways?

Next week we will start looking at how to send your novel out and get it published. Exciting!

Happy writing.

 

FEEDBACK ETIQUETTE – or how to keep your friends

You’ve revised your novel until your fingers are numb and you can’t wait to show it to a grateful world. Here is some advice, learned the hard way, about feedback.

There are three main kinds of feedback:

Proof-reading  

By this I mean the whole caboodle that includes spelling, grammar, plurals where they shouldn’t be, and muddled tenses. Re-arranging your story during edits inevitably brings the need for these and we weed them out the best we can before we show our work to anyone else. But they are tenacious. Don’t blame yourself, it’s normal.

Proof-reading is best handled separately from the larger story aspects as our brains can only do one or the other well at a time. Ask a trusted friend (or pay an expert) to proof-read for you. Check it yourself several times. Do this before it goes to your feedbackers as mistakes will deflect them from what you want them to do.

General feedback

Do people engage with your writing, your characters, your story? In other words, does your book work? If so, what works best about it? Which characters sing out most? If something feels not quite right, where does an off-kilter feeling start? Is your plot arc working? Where do readers feel able to leave your story down and perhaps forget to come back?

Experts

Have you written about jobs or conditions you have not experienced yourself? Research is great but now is the time to ask for a reading by people who have lived it, if you possibly can.

Does your story take place somewhere you have never been? If you cannot afford to go there, find somebody who knows the place.

Do you feel pretty confident with your early research or your experience in a job years ago?  It’s always worth bringing it up to date. Most people are more than happy to talk about their work.

Your book is set, say, in the 1960s and you’ve spent months researching – but have you spoken to people who lived then? You could find your whole perspective tilted and enriched.

FEEDBACK ETIQUETTE

Courtesy to your reader:

It really is best not to part with your draft too soon. It’s a draft and your reader will know that but:

  • Have a final proof-read. It’s extraordinary how excited readers can be about mistakes in the draft, and how deeply it distracts them from the qualities in your story.
  • Is your reader ready for it? S/he has said yes in principle but please check before you send it that now is a good time. Otherwise days and weeks might pass before the reader gets around to it, you’ll be agonised waiting and it’ll get embarrassing.
  • Ask whether your reader would like a typescript (paper copy, at your expense, for the reader to keep) or a screen download. IMG_2456This is their choice: you want your reader to be as comfortable with the experience as possible.
  • If it’s paper, make sure it looks clean and smart. Something that has another reader’s coffee stains and scribblings will not get you the attention you need.
  • Do NOT pester your reader during the reading time. If you see her/him regularly, try really hard not to bring it up. Readers will do the job when they’re ready and badgering them will not help them do a better job.
  • Thank your reader afterwards: tea/drink/lunch/dinner, whatever you can afford, PLUS an invitation as an honoured guest to your launch when the time comes, an acknowledgment (properly spelt) in the published book and a free (at your expense) signed copy.
  • Don’t ask your reader to read a subsequent draft unless they offer. It’s time-consuming so once is enough – and you want fresh eyes to help you each time.
  • If your reader doesn’t finish your draft, don’t be upset. We can’t please everyone. Just thank them for their time and generosity and ask where s/he stopped reading. S/he may have stopped for many reasons which are nothing to do with your writing but finding out where a reader felt able to abandon the story can help you fix a weak spot.

Courtesy to your writer:

  • When a friend sends you a draft for your feedback, please do your utmost to read it as soon as you can. Every minute will be agony for the writer while s/he waits.
  • Useful feedback comes from reading the draft twice: once for the buzz (allowing yourself to be carried along by it) and secondly to make deeper observations, connections and suggestions.
  • Keep the writer posted of progress, saying for example that you’ve finished the first reading and will be starting the second the weekend after next. You do not have to make comments at this stage as you may revise your views.
  • When giving your feedback, the usual rules apply: praise first, then points of criticism and an overall view. You do not have to suggest improvements: it’s not your book.
  • Don’t expect lunch, dinner, acknowledgements etc., even though it’s in the advice to writers above.
  • If the book is not your sort of thing, don’t be afraid to say so. If you can’t stand elves and your best friend wants you to read their Middle Earth spin-off, it’s best by far just to hand it back and say you can’t wait for the launch and will read it then. There is no point in struggling with a book that doesn’t suit you and your feedback will not be as useful as you think.
  • Don’t forget that your carefully considered feedback is only advice. The writer may well ignore it. Try not to notice – and stay friends.
  • You can keep the typescript.

How to use feedback:

Feedback can feel like evisceration of you and your book. All too many feedbackers will give some brief, dilute praise followed by yards of detailed criticism. It is entirely normal for a writer to blink away the compliments and take each word of the criticism as a personal wound. So –

  • Always be grateful. Your reader has taken time and care and some of what they say might help you.
  • If the feedback is in writing, leave it for a while before you look. When you feel ready take your time going through it, marking what you think might be useful, what less so.
  • There is no need to comment on the feedback when you thank your reader.
  • If your feedback session is in person, resist the urge to argue the toss. IMG_2457Take full notes. A lot of what is said will whoosh past your ears, gone for ever, and some of it could be invaluable.
  • Look after yourself during this phase, it can be more wearying than you think.
  • Ask questions wherever you need more information, especially of your expert readers.
  • Say you are consulting a number of people and will think carefully about all views. Make no promises: it will be your decision where you choose to go with your feedback.
  • There is no need to rush into your response. You can put it all away for a while until your head clears.
  • Re-read the compliments often, you need them.

You might well find that your readers disagree: it’s not at all unusual to find that one feedbacker can’t stand a scene and another says that’s their favourite bit. You might also find that some critique produces a knot in your guts of protest or outrage. Maybe your book has been misunderstood. All this is useful to know. My practice is to pot-hole about it all – to chat with myself on the page or screen about what I want out of the book, out of a character or a chapter – until things settle into clarity.

It is your book and no-one else’s. Can you think of any classic novel that is universally loved? Exactly, and yours won’t please everybody either so let’s crack on.

My feedback practice is to gather up all the feedback of all kinds, making no comments at the time. I like hard copy for this stage so I print it all out with the names removed and put it into one of those cardboard A4 boxes. Then I have a great big session where I look at it all and mark up what I think works. I ditch the rest and get to work.

Here is the hard part: the most difficult criticism to hear may well be what you need to hear most. It can take time to sink in – there’s no rush.

There is absolutely no need to promise anyone that you are changing your book at their behest. In fact, a feedbacker who wants to railroad you is not your best help. They are often other writers or would-be writers who want you to write their book for them. Feel free to ignore. By the time your book is published, your feedbackers will probably have forgotten what they said.

You have the last word, enjoy it.*

 

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!

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.

DIALOGUE 3: SUBTEXT AND LYING

SUBTEXT

John Mortimer said that translating opera libretti felt strange because they used subtext so little. Each aria is like a pop song where a character’s true feelings come pouring out, usually to let the audience know something important that can’t be said to the other characters.

Subtext is about things that are felt but not said. Things we keep to ourselves.

EXERCISES

  • Write a scene where one character wants something but can’t say so, and the other is unaware of it. If you already have one in your draft, have another go at it from scratch, bringing in what you learned last week about writing dialogue.
  • Write monologues for a scene where one character wants something but doesn’t say, and the other character is aware of it. They can be people who live together or work together, or would like to.

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FIND OUT THE TRUTH

A way to find the truth of what your character is, or is not, saying is in writing practice monologues for them before you start your drafting. It can feel circuitous when you long to get stuck into the real writing but it’s actually a short cut that can bypass several drafts for you. (I learned this trick from studying drama writing.) Take a few minutes, before you start into your chapter, to spend time with each of your characters and ask how they’re feeling just before the action in your chapter begins. Write down everything they tell you – in the usual scribble-chat way – for at least ten minutes and let them surprise you. When the writing begins to take on a life of its own, keep going as long as you can.

Have you planned an ending for the chapter? Write a monologue like this for each character just after your ending too. It will deepen the emotional truth of your writing and turn up plot solutions you may not have dreamt of.

The thing about good writing is that it’s a bit like what Tim Minchin said about happiness: the more you examine it, try to hunt it down, the more elusive it will be. Try listening to your characters in this way and see what turns up.

 

Go through the monos you’ve written and highlight the best lines, the ones that stand out. Those can be valuable lines of dialogue right from the heart.  

Some characters have more forthcoming personalities than others. And sometimes even the most open people want to keep certain things to themselves. Have a scribble-chat with each of your characters about where they are about all this. Let them tell you what they would never tell anyone else in the world. There is the heart of that character. Your reader will sense it and want to know, eventually, what it is. Even if you didn’t think it was important to your story, it probably is.

LYING

We all do it, of course we do, we adjust the truth now and again to make ourselves look and feel better, or get out of a tight spot. Some are more successful at it than others and it’s a rare few who resist lying at all.

HOW DO WE LIE?

  • In what we say,
  • and do not say. Silence can be a lie too.
  • What we do. Body language is a very useful writer’s tool, often more truthful than words but it can lie too, Judas’ kiss being a perfect example.
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  • Like silence, absence can give a false impression.
  • Expert liars often have badges of excellence to give them a look of reliability or worthiness. Sadly, their sheep’s clothing can include charity work, hospitality, offers of help and positions of social authority. It doesn’t stop them being liars.

Lies have their own story arc. They change the future as well as the past. So it’s a good idea to plot your characters’ significant whoppers to keep track:

  • When is the reader first aware that a character is lying?
  • When are the lies found out? What is the very best place for that discovery to happen, in the best interests of your story’s stakes?
  • There are many plot devices for revealing truths, ranging from emails sent to the wrong person to phones falling into the wrong hands.
  • What do other characters’ reactions to lies reveal, discovered and not?

Lies are at the heart of all our interactions. Sometimes ‘white lies’ gently smooth our interactions; other lies can be profound and disruptive betrayals.

  • Who are your favourite liars in fiction and in reality?
  • How do they get away with it, if they do?
  • How do they pull off the trick of being known liars but still likable/lovable, if they do?
  • How do you feel when you discover that someone you rely on has lied to you?
  • Have you ever told a lie and not regretted it? How do you feel about that?
  • Have you ever told an important lie and not been found out? How do you feel about it?
  • Which of the characters you are currently writing tells most lies? Why? How do the other characters react?

Your scribbles about this should perhaps hit the shredder afterwards but it’s worth taking time to work out how you feel about such a big part of human life, and how it affects your characters.

Happy writing!

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.

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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.

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Klimt’s The Kiss, 1907/8

Happy writing. More about dialogue next week!

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!

Epics – why do we love them so much?

For as long as we humans have sat together telling stories, by the fire or the summer sunset, we’ve had a huge appetite for epic stories. Every culture has them, stories like The Arabian Nights, Wales’ Mabinoginon, Israel’s Exodus story, Spain’s Cantar del Mio Cid, Ireland’s Sweeney, Bran and Couhoulain for example, sometimes dating back to the Bronze Age. They can be national crossovers like Beowulf, written in Old English but telling a story of Danes and Swedes. King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table borrow heavily from the French Chanson de Roland. A cracking story is a cracking story, wherever it is set.

Hollywood knows a great genre when it sees one and has spun millions out of excellent versions of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. A Game of Thrones reached huge audiences through HBO. Epic authors are the superstars of fiction writing, so what can we learn from them?

Why were epics first written?

The oldest epics were around long before most people could read or write and would be recited to an audience by a professional saga teller. In Ireland’s post-Roman period, for example, the ollam, or arch-poet, would train for at least twelve years and at any given time would hold 250 ‘prime sagas’ in his head and around 100 secondary ones. These sagas were in rhyme (easier to learn) and would improve in the telling over the years, as yarns and stories do.

What were they for?

Usually ancient epics had something at their centre about a community in crisis. Courageous heroes saved them all from Monsters and were welcomed back among grateful loved ones with feasts and treasure. The heroes themselves might have been sitting in the audience. It’s more likely that the sagas were looking to heroes of the past to excite listeners for new battles ahead.

What are an epic’s ingredients?

Epics are usually long but it’s about much more than the word count.

  • The story should be grand in scope and theme. A girl leaving home is a Coming of Age story – Joan of Arc’s leaving home is epic. Teenager Joan leads the French army into war, thanks to divine guidance, and withstands torture by the enemy English before they burn her at the stake. Joan’s personal story and martyrdom symbolise the clash between the two nations.IMG_2036
  • An epic can have several grand themes, spanning the whole range from the nature of true love or the experience of exile through discovering personal integrity to sheer survival, and they are all bigger than any single character.
  • There’s usually a quest of some kind in there and a great journey.
  • A large backstory influences the present.
  • Political elements are strong, such as the emergence of a new nation or resisting conquest.
  • The events have greater importance than any of the characters.
  • Which is not to say that the characters should be bland – the reverse is true. It’s in a wide range of realistic characters, each with their own complete journey, that we can all find ourselves and a true epic finds resonance through many generations.
  • Epics are capable of gripping whole communities and their success often lies in timing, in their coinciding with a community’s need.

EXERCISE

What are your favourite epics? Here are a few titles to get you started: War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, Earthsea, Doctor Zhivago, Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost and of course Harry Potter.

Taking your favourites in turn, give yourself ten minutes or more to have a scribble-chat:

  • What do you love most about these stories? Generally, and in particular.
  • Who are your favourite characters? Why?
  • Make a list of your favourite moments, taking as long as you like. Are your chosen moments similar in any way? If so, why do you think that is? (There is no wrong answer.) Choose one or two favourite moments and write yourself into them for as long as you like – be one of the characters or the author, it’s up to you.
  • How important is the geographical place to you? Think of a scene you love and describe the place where it happens in all the detail you can remember. Some of that detail might be yours alone, it doesn’t matter. Just be there and feel the place around you.
  • Do your favourites leave you with a debate going on in your head, asking where do you stand on this or that? Take some time to chase those themes around on the page. Enjoy discussing them with yourself. There is no need to come to any conclusions, just let the arguments breathe into your writing and you may find characters coming to you, wanting you to tell a new story.

Let’s look at some epics more closely, starting with one of the oldest in Western literature. In many ways it’s the most surprising and can teach us a lot.

Homer’s Iliad

I grew up with my darling dad telling me Homer’s great stories at bedtime. By the time I was eight years old, I adored Odysseus’s weird sense of humour and was in love with the Trojan hero Hector.

What makes The Iliad epic? A Trojan prince called Paris fell in love with Helen, a Spartan princess of great beauty who happened to be married to one of the most powerful Greek kings, Menelaus, and took her home with him to the city of Troy (in present day Turkey). Menelaus wasn’t best pleased and called on a treaty with all the other Greek kings that if one of them had to go to war, they’d all join in support. The Iliad is the story of the gathering of the Greek armies, their ten-year war with the Trojans and how eventually a long siege of Troy came to an end, all told through the prism of the climactic final weeks of the siege.

Homer is thought to have written the poem around the 8th century BC, about events that are reckoned to have been the 12th century BC.

If you think that’s far too long ago to be intense or exciting, please think again. This story is packed with vibrant, contrasting characters, amazing jinks in the plot, heroism and failure on both sides, and timeless understanding of poor human bipeds like us struggling through our lives.

Did I say timeless? Let me give you an example of how Homer strode right into my life as if he were writing his stories that very day.

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When the various paramilitaries promised ceasefires in the Northern Irish Troubles in 1994, poet Michael Longley (a Classics graduate from Trinity College, Dublin, like my father) wrote Ceasefire. It was published in The Irish Times and rocked Ireland north and south back on its heels. Longley chose to write about the closing moments of The Iliad when the Trojan King Priam, Hector’s father, visits the Greeks’ greatest warrior Achilles to beg for the return of his son’s mutilated body for loving funeral rites. Achilles has defeated Hector in a duel of the best and, in high rage about the death of his own close friend, has been desecrating Hector’s corpse by dragging it around the city walls. With both Priam and Achilles exhausted by years of war, it’s a scene of reconciliation, not just of handshakes in suits but of eating together and feeling each other’s suffering. In the final lines, Priam says these almost impossible words:

I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.

Not many of us would dare to rewrite Homer but, like Longley, you too can take these timeless characters in their ancient scenes and reimagine them for your own life and time.

More about what we can learn from these great epics next time. On a scale from one to ten, how obsessed with Harry Potter am I? About nine and three quarters.

Have a wonderful writing week!

Show and tell? What’s the difference?

In many writing courses, you will be told firmly to ‘show, not tell’. But we’re telling stories, aren’t we? What’s wrong with ‘Once upon a time in a land far away lived a king who had three daughters’?

Thanks to cinema and television, our readers are more used than ever before to being shown a story as it unfolds. Yet even among the relentless action of soaps and ‘reality’ shows, you will find scenes where characters swap stories from the past. They tell each other things.

Both showing and telling have their uses. So, what is the difference between the two?

 Great Expectations

Let’s look at the first page of Dickens’ masterpiece:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

Dickens starts by introducing us to his main character who tells us in the first person how he’s known by his childhood name. It’s endearing; Dickens knew it would be.

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith.

So poor old Pip’s father has died. In Pip’s voice, Dickens develops the lad’s tragic history:

As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers- pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.

What beautiful detail. Just where it’s needed. Dickens even brings in an odd little smile about his five little brothers’ headstones. It feels as if it just fell from the pen – but nothing is wasted, it is all precise.

Then, after just two vivid paragraphs of background, Pip draws us into the first, terrifying slice of action. Look how carefully Dickens places us in the churchyard, beside ‘the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry’:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

Take a moment to look at how much detail Dickens has given us so far, and how much he has not given. There is exactly as much as we need to see and feel the place and the small boy in it. Now to raise the stakes sky high:

Hold your noise,’ cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. `Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!’

2016-07-15 15.12.33Dickens is accused of verbosity but he’s anything but wordy here. There is no mawkish simile about ghosts ‘as a man started up from among the graves’ – the man is all too real. Dickens hurtles on with no time for verbs:

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

`O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,’ I pleaded in terror. `Pray don’t do it, sir.’

The perfect mix of show and tell. If the author or a character is explaining something, we are in ‘tell’ country. If we are in the midst of action and dialogue, we are being shown.

 Wind in the Willows

In chapter 8 of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad is in gaol, chatting with the gaoler’s daughter who has a plan for his escape.

First, as you read this, notice how wonderfully lively this scene is. How does Grahame do that, when the action could have been dismissed in a couple of sentences?

Second, take a moment to mark where you find ‘show’ in it, and where it becomes ‘tell’:

One morning the girl was very thoughtful, and answered at random, and did not seem to Toad to be paying proper attention to his witty sayings and sparkling comments.

“Toad,” she said presently, “just listen, please. I have an aunt who is a washerwoman.”

“There, there,” said Toad, graciously and affably, “never mind; think no more about it. I have several aunts who ought to be washerwomen.”

“Do be quiet a minute, Toad,” said the girl. “You talk too much, that’s your chief fault, and I’m trying to think, and you hurt my head. As I said, I have an aunt who is a washerwoman; she does the washing for all the prisoners in this castle—we try to keep any paying business of that sort in the family, you understand. She takes out the washing on Monday morning, and brings it in on Friday evening. This is a Thursday. Now, this is what occurs to me: you’re very rich—at least you’re always telling me so—and she’s very poor. A few pounds wouldn’t make any difference to you, and it would mean a lot to her. Now, I think if she were properly approached—squared, I believe is the word you animals use—you could come to some arrangement by which she would let you have her dress and bonnet and so on, and you could escape from the castle as the official washerwoman. You’re very alike in many respects—particularly about the figure.”

“We’re not,” said the Toad in a huff. “I have a very elegant figure—for what I am.”

“So has my aunt,” replied the girl, “for what she is. But have it your own way. You horrid, proud, ungrateful animal, when I’m sorry for you, and trying to help you!”

“Yes, yes, that’s all right; thank you very much indeed,” said the Toad hurriedly. “But look here! You wouldn’t surely have Mr Toad, of Toad Hall, going about the country disguised as a washerwoman!”

“Then you can stop here as a Toad,” replied the girl with much spirit. “I suppose you want to go off in a coach-and-four!”

Honest Toad was always ready to admit himself in the wrong. “You are a good, kind, clever girl,” he said, “and I am indeed a proud and a stupid toad. Introduce me to your worthy aunt, if you will be so kind, and I have no doubt that the excellent lady and I will be able to arrange terms satisfactory to both parties.”

Next evening the girl ushered her aunt into Toad’s cell, bearing his week’s washing pinned up in a towel. The old lady had been prepared beforehand for the interview, and the sight of certain gold sovereigns that Toad had thoughtfully placed on the table in full view practically completed the matter and left little further to discuss. In return for his cash, Toad received a cotton print gown, an apron, a shawl, and a rusty black bonnet; the only stipulation the old lady made being that she should be gagged and bound and dumped down in a corner. By this not very convincing artifice, she explained, aided by picturesque fiction which she could supply herself, she hoped to retain her situation, in spite of the suspicious appearance of things.

Toad was delighted with the suggestion. It would enable him to leave the prison in some style, and with his reputation for being a desperate and dangerous fellow untarnished; and he readily helped the gaoler’s daughter to make her aunt appear as much as possible the victim of circumstances over which she had no control.

“Now it’s your turn, Toad,” said the girl. “Take off that coat and waistcoat of yours; you’re fat enough as it is.”

Shaking with laughter, she proceeded to “hook-and-eye” him into the cotton print gown, arranged the shawl with a professional fold, and tied the strings of the rusty bonnet under his chin.

I’m shaking with laughter too!

It’s all about telling stories in the most engaging way possible. What engages our readers most is vivid characters, their thoughts, feelings, actions, their hopes and dreams.

So when is telling good and when is it better to show? Both have their uses…

How to ‘show’?

  • Dialogue. The surrounding text can be present or past tense – we will look at that in another post soon – and as each character speaks, we learn about that character as well as what is or is not going on. Please do not forget to bring in how they move as well; sometimes this can contradict their words.
  • Action. The plainer your action language, especially your verbs, the stronger your action will be. Strip away as many adjectives and adverbs as you can, they just hold things up, and try not to forget ambience as well as action.
  • Thoughts and unspoken feelings. Cinema, television and theatre use monologue as a diversion from the action to show us a character’s deepest thoughts and feelings. Where Hamlet comes to the front of the stage to say ‘To be or not to be’, for example, the audience is entrusted with emotions he cannot share with anyone else. But visual media tend to use dramatic monologues sparingly and actors wrestle with ways to show their audience what they think and feel. For us fiction writers, those unexpressed inner workings, maybe unexpressed even to the characters themselves, are our special territory and whole books can be written in it. This is why fiction gives such unique depth of empathy with characters, and has been credited with changing societies.

 When is it better to TELL?

First of all, beware of the info-dump.

In your character work you will have discovered where your character was born, went to school, first fell in love, was first rejected or sacked, and how he or she feels about it all. Before Dickens wrote his first page of Great Expectations, he will have known all that too. Did he set down to tell us at length, or did he bring us as quickly as possible into one of the most terrifying scenes ever written? Agents can tell beginners by the slabs of casual biography dropped into their sample pages, known as info-dumps.

Train yourself to spot an info-dump – a boring slab of ‘tell’ – and learn to spin it, as Dickens did, in engaging ways. There. That’s all there is to it.

How can ‘tell’ serve our story?

Use it above all to vary your pace, tone and the rhythm of your story.

  • It can bring some distance after a heated scene or crisis.
  • A quiet moment, in a garden for example, between crises can raise poignancy, especially if your character is not likely to survive (for example, Jesus’s time alone in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion).
  • You can slow down the action to stretch a scene and deliberately raise stakes.
  • You can use it for you as author or for a character to comment ironically on what has just been, or to raise a question that will not be answered yet.
  • It can be a handy way to carry your story in a few lines across time, geography or culture.

The best description uses those few precise details that bring us there, not forgetting our five-plus senses.

Proportions of show and tell?

Many writers begin by thinking that the main job is telling, with intervals of showing. If anything, it’s the other way around.

Yes, you will have plenty of classic books on your shelves and e-reader that do it that way but our readers today have often been educated by cinema and television screens and this means two things. Not only do they expect to be in the middle of a story as it unfolds  – a trick incidentally as old as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey – but they do not need as much detail as previous generations did. They like to guess. Credit your reader with being a few steps ahead of you and you will rarely be wrong.

So it’s show and tell, with a strong emphasis on show, being aware of both and the jobs they can do to engage your readers to the maximum.

 EXERCISE

Two people are arguing in a car park. They get into the same car which moves off.

  1. You are one of the two people. Tell us what is going on in the present tense as it’s happening, in the first person with dialogue and action.
  2. You are a reporter watching from a distance, not involved. Write your report in the third person, after the event so past tense, for your local newspaper.
  3. Write the same scene in dialogue only.
  4. Using your text from 3, add one sentence of action between each line of dialogue, eg: ‘A yawns, looks at his mobile’, ‘B pulls her skirt down over her knees’. Action only please, no description or thoughts. See how much you can convey in those lines of action about where and who they are, eg: ‘A kicks the tarmac’.

What do you notice? What difference does it make to your writing to be among the dialogue and action? How do you bring feelings into play? How does your balance of show and tell affect the stakes?

There are no right or wrong answers here; it’s a matter of being aware of what you’re after and how you bring it about. The distant observer can throw up questions that raise the stakes just as effectively as telling the story from the point of view of a terrified child in the back seat of the car.

 EXERCISES – 5 MINUTES EACH

Finally, in just two or three paragraphs each, without ever stating the obvious, describe all or any of the following. It’s up to you how you show or tell:

Harry was thrilled to be going on a date for the first time in ages.

If she had to put up with one more takeaway, she’d scream.

Sam stood outside the boss’s office shaking with fear.

Ellie hadn’t expected him to look so ill.

Any minute now she was going to grab his phone and throw it out the window.

The bedroom was a shambles.

The last thing she wanted was show how frightened she was.

It was a dark & stormy night…

 

A note to myregular readers of this blog,

I did promise to write today about the great epic novels of the past and present from The Iliad to Harry Potter but I’ve had an exceptionally busy week with no time for the extensive reading that post needs. Next week, I hope! Today in the mean time, as they used to say on Blue Peter, is one I made earlier. Not long ago I met a radio and television celebrity who is working with an editor on a novel. What was the advice coming his way, time and time again? Show, not tell. 

Happy writing – more next week!