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!

Dialogue – how to keep it real

What does dialogue do for your novel or story?

  • It brings your reader right into the action in what feels like real time. It’s the powerful essence of ‘Show, not Tell’.
  • It’s a direct route into character. The moment we begin to speak, we reveal who we are, where we come from, our age, viewpoint and a thousand other things.
  • Readers love to work out for themselves if they trust characters or not – are they truthful? – and how deeply characters know themselves.
  • You (as writer) can show how different your characters are in different contexts. The people we are at work are not the same as who we are with mum or an old friend. IMG_2214The play La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler (David Hare’s stage version is The Blue Room) exposes how the way we all behave and speak depends on the company we are in: a Duke’s behaviour in bed with a servant girl is not the same as when he is with his wife, for example.
  • Which means that dialogue is a quick route into showing your characters being as inconsistent as we all are. This is not the same as lying, it’s just that we are all multitudes inside. If stakes are rising and we are tested beyond our usual limits, our presentable mask slips. This is where you can bring out your character’s vulnerabilities and hook your readers emotionally more than ever.
  • Dialogue makes your page more attractive to read. One of the first things we learn in journalism school is that the more ‘white space’ there is around your words, the more likely people (any people) are to stay and read it. Good dialogue has plenty of white space.
  • Better than anything else, dialogue can raise questions as well as answer them. You can use it to expose longings and ambitions, hint at secrets.
  • You can switch from comedy to tragedy relatively easily, as we do in real life.
  • Dialogue breaks up passages of description, varies the texture.

How close is written dialogue to real conversation?

In some writing classes, you’ll be asked to eavesdrop on chatting strangers and record what you hear. That’s a time-consuming way of discovering that we all repeat ourselves a lot, have verbal habits like ‘You know’ or ‘Yeh yeh’, say the same thing several times in other ways, interrupt each other and do not always reply to what the other says as if it’s a game of ping pong. Eavesdropping is fun, and all writers do it. Be careful though: if strangers find out what you’re up to, they might not be best pleased.

The biggest lesson you will learn from your recording exercise is that dialogue needs editing. A lot of editing.

If you’re on a roll with a first draft, don’t let thoughts of editing get too much in your way. The only rule of first drafts is to keep writing and at all costs finish, so best of luck. We’ll leave you to it.

If you are ready to take things further, let’s look at how we make dialogue on the page feel real while doing the work we want it to do in terms of character and plot.

DIALOGUE & CHARACTER

What is revealed in the way we speak?

  • Age, personality, birth place and origin, economic status, education, world view.
  • Character traits you have been working on, such as the most important wound in your characters’ lives or what they passionately want and need above all else.
  • Relationships in our lives come through how we speak. Whether people are happy at home or have established religious faith is usually obvious from their conversation.
  • Fears, ambitions and dreams creep in too.
  • Any verbal tics you have given them (like Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’).

Each character also arrives in every scene with:

  • Context (has she slept badly, has he just been sacked, have they got money worries etc)
  • Mood (happy/sad/angry/fed up etc).
  • Agenda: what is each character looking for? We are all always looking for something from every encounter we have with others, whether we are aware of it or not. If a journalist is trying to persuade someone to be interviewed or to divulge a secret, that’s an obvious agenda. It can be more subtle: when you come home at the end of a day’s work and call ‘Hallo’, is there anything you want from that moment? Dramatic conflict (the essence of all stories) comes from the clash between our agendas and what actually happens. Don’t be too easy on your characters and give them what they want too soon.

EXERCISE 1

Imagine you’re in a park and see two people with a baby buggy. You move so close, you can hear what they say …

For five minutes, write their dialogue, showing as much about each character and their relationship as you can. Don’t bother with too many attributions (he said, she said, he muttered, she explained) – let rip and enjoy it.

EXERCISE 2

Psychologists have discovered that in ordinary conversation, we rarely say more than 7 to 10 words at a time. In plays and soap operas, it can be even less.

Re-write the first exercise, keeping each line to 7 words or less. Be strict with yourself about the word count.

Once your scene is flowing, try letting the reader know that there’s something that one is hiding from the other.

EXERCISE 3

People move, think and feel while they speak too. Rewrite Exercise 2 with brief actions, thoughts and feelings between the lines of dialogue. Now you have prose fiction as opposed to a radio script!

Two main problems crop up when we write dialogue in first drafts.

First is writing a radio script by accident. You’re deep at your page or screen with the action around you, rolling nicely to the page. Your characters are so present with you that you’re soaked in what they’re saying and their words to take over. This is exciting and marvellous and is one of the great ways to produce a first draft. But if you look back later and find that for page after page, you have almost nothing but dialogue – it’s time to edit.

The second is allowing your characters to fall into lengthy speeches.

There are times when one person in a conversation gets to hold forth, when one is a teacher or in some other position of authority, for example, or one has a problem to unfold. But most conversation is an exchange of short lines.

The good news is that the short stuff engages readers more easily, feels more real and, in the right scene, can raise the stakes for you all by itself by bringing up the pace.

EXERCISE 4

  • Invent a scene or choose one from your work in progress.
  • Sketch out the mood, context, agenda for each character before you start.
  • Write your scene giving your characters no more than 7 words each for at least 100 words.
  • Put a single line of action (she twisted her wedding ring, he held his breath) or thought or feeling between each line.
  • Be amazed at how much has been revealed in those few words, and how actively it all reads.
  • Notice what your characters have not said, and the power of that. Renoir, 1879 IMG_2210
  • Keep writing, and when the scene needs it, allow a longer speech to one of your characters.

See how the change of pace makes the whole scene work better for you? The seven-word exercise can feel really hard and unreasonable but it’s one of the most valuable fiction-writing skills there is. If you do it often, it will soon feel natural and your dialogue will improve no end.

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!

Things not to worry about when you’re choosing a title

Getting it perfect

Book shelves are full of great novels that started off with disastrous working titles. Bernstein & Woodward’s All the President’s Men began as ‘At this Point in Time’ and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was first called ‘Something That Happened’. Why do you think the two working titles were replaced? Was it because All the President’s Men cleverly combines the all-important word President with an allusion to Humpty Dumpty? That Of Mice and Men is snappy and intriguing, with that bit of alliteration we humans can’t help but respond to? Were those first efforts just too vague?

Getting it perfect now

It is never too late or too early to think about your title and it can change any number of times before you send out your draft. In fact, you have probably discovered that the gist of your story develops as you write: for example, what you thought was clearly a love story may well have become a spy thriller with a love story at its heart. A change of title will feel right. All you need for now is something that gets you to your writing and excites you to write. That’s all.

Some titles are too complex or plain ridiculous. Would we have heard much about Scott Fitzgerald’s novel about that glamorous, self-made bootlegger if his title had been ‘Trimalchio in West Egg’? With The Great Gatsby, alliteration is working again – poets have known for centuries that alliteration hooks words into our minds – and it centres us on the shadowy character at the book’s heart.

Fitzgerald is not the only one to bite his lip while his publisher was talking. Pride and Prejudice began as ‘First Impressions’, Gone with the Wind as ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’, Lord of the Flies as ‘Strangers from Within’ and Little Dorrit as ‘Nobody’s Fault’. To Kill A Mockingbird was first called ‘Atticus’, which might work nowadays because we know who it refers to, but then? Some replaced titles might have succeeded just as well: 1984’s working title was ‘The Last Man in Europe’. Alex Haley’s classic Roots: The Saga of an American Family is beautifully titled; its first title, ‘Before This Anger’, has power too.

Is a classic a great book whatever it’s called? Well, War and Peace started life as ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ until presumably somebody mentioned that it was already taken, for a comedy, by someone rather well known in another country. Do you think Dracula might have worked just as well with its first title, ‘The Dead Un-Dead’?

What are we after?

So, if your publisher suggests a change of title, you are in excellent company. Our writing job is to find such a stunning title that agents and publishers cannot look away, however tired or saturated they are at the end of a hard week. Look for something that will sing out of the header in your email or letter. Ideally, it’s punchy, somehow sums up the essence of your main character’s story arc and catches the passing shopper’s eye on your book spine.

IMG_E2174The shorter the better. A single word is fine: Jaws, Nutshell.

Two words work well too: The Slap, The Help, The Firm, The Inheritance. So do three: Eat Pray Love.

The prize for the most ridiculously long working title, though it gave clues to the toxic psychology of its author, goes to ‘Four and a Half Years of Struggle against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice’, better known as Mein Kampf.

Quotations are very popular: Summer’s Lease, Far from the Madding Crowd, Mad about the Boy. Make sure any quote you use is out of copyright as a standard publishing contract will probably require the author to pay any charge for its use. Long-dead poets are very useful in this respect. Song lyrics by living or recently dead artists cost a lot more and it can take ages to nail down the copyright permission, holding up your publication date. Sometimes your publisher can help you out with getting permissions but it’s best not to rely on it. It is not unusual for authors to spend a wearying amount of time between approving their cover and publication date chasing up permissions for quotes they wish they’d never bothered to use but as everything is off to the printers, it is too late to change.

Your main character’s name can be a good choice: Emma, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Bridget Jones, Tristram Shandy, Black Beauty, Harry Potter and the Next Instalment. These days readers probably want more of a clue to what they’re buying, hence titles like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry .

Or you can look to your theme: Death in the Afternoon, Hard Times, Betrayal, Damage, and almost anything by Jane Austen.

How about a quotation from your own book? Sometimes those call out to the writer begging for attention, like Bird by Bird or Eats Shoots and Leaves.

Does your genre have a convention about titles – the word Girl in the title, for example? Following the crowd might get you noticed by the right agent; if you have reservations, you can discuss changes later.

Before your final decision, check on the internet to see if your title already belongs to another author. You might think calling your book The Hunger Games worked once, why not twice, but it’s not what agents and publishers are after. If your character’s name and surname are your title, check online that there isn’t someone living with that name, especially someone living in the same area or in the same line of work as your character. They may take exception to your giving them an exciting, fictional life involving crime or dodgy dealing.

London Book Fair

Here is what book shops will have on offer next year, following the London Book Fair.  Have a look at the titles. Which title would you pick up to read first? Why?

EXERCISES

  • Brainstorm your own work in progress and come up with TEN titles now. Quickly, without thinking too much. Surprise yourself.
  • Choose the best three and make each one shorter if you can. Have you got the right three? It’s not too late to rethink.
  • Can you choose just one?
  • Ask your writer friends for feedback and suggestions. Sometimes people are better at naming other people’s work than their own. A seeing the wood for the trees thing.
  • Have a look at a hilarious site called betterbooktitles.com. What would they call yours?

Like your first pages and ending, your title needs your sharpest attention again, after everything else is in place. And once it’s done its job and caught you an agent or publisher, it’s OK to take the experts’ advice. They usually know what they’re doing.

Good luck and happy writing!

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!

Point of View made easy

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 skip the need for 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?

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Baby or dad? (Yes, it’s me in the rucksack, Belfast behind us.) Mum taking the photos? A stranger strolling past?

Choose one. That’s all there is to POV.

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? Who are you choosing, as author, to lead the story to your readers? And
  • Are you letting your characters speak direct to your readers in their own voices, as I or we: 1st person? Or are you going to be the story’s channel, using she, he, it or they (this is known as 3rd person)? This I/you/he/she/we/they thing is what grammarians mean when they talk about point of view, hence the overlap.

One of the biggest 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 tomorrow).

Whose head are we in – what are our 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. Otherwise, readers can lose a sense that you know what you’re doing.

ADVANTAGES OF A SINGLE 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 assesses other characters, 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 as told 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.

EXERCISE

What is your current favourite novel (written by somebody other than yourself)? Choose one of the apparently lesser characters and write a summary of the story as if that character is telling it. Be as adventurous as you like – Moby Dick told by the whale? Why not?  

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

  • Information comes from several sources, layering the suspense and mystery.
  • 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 already knows something that’s about to be revealed to 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.’ We’ve moved from her awareness to his. 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 (at last) their hug. At the same time, we experience their closeness, heart to heart, alongside them.

ROUND-UP

  • 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.

More about 1st, 2nd and 3rd person tomorrow. Happy writing!

 

BOX OF TRICKS – INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_E2116London’s Poetry Library

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

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

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

Ten top storytelling tips from Homer

Last night Achilles and Hector were duelling it out again on British television. Achilles’ roar was as alive as ever. What is it about Homer’s storytelling that makes it work so well after nearly three thousand years? Can we bottle it and have some?

This week let’s look at The Odyssey, a work that has been recast and rewritten maybe more than any other in human history. What can we learn?

  1. It’s a perfect quest

The quest is the simplest plot structure of all. Your main character wants and needs something urgently and goes to the ends of the earth to get it.

After ten years, the Trojan war is over and Odysseus can finally set off for home. He didn’t want to be at war in the first place: when Menelaus came gathering all the other Greek kings for support, Odysseus’s young wife Penelope had just given birth to a son, Telemachus, so ‘wily’ Odysseus pretended to be mad to escape the call-up and sowed salt into his fields. It didn’t work. Menelaus knew him too well; he had to honour the one-for-all treaty and go.

To say Odysseus gets a bit lost on the way home from war is an understatement: his journey takes him another ten years through lethal seas, mythical terrain and an inner exploration that has kept readers, filmmakers and academics rivetted ever since. In his The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker says, ‘there is no more complete and profound version (of a quest) than The Odyssey’.

  1. It’s two perfect quests

As JS Bach knew, we love a bit of counterpoint where two tunes fold together into a more beautiful combination than either one of them alone, and the same is true of storytelling. If you can do two things at once in your story, try it. The first four books of The Odyssey are about the quest of Telemachus (Odysseus’s son) to find his missing dad. His quest mirrors his father’s and both combine in the powerful ending.

  1. Start in the middle

Homer’s two great poems The Iliad and The Odyssey are both thought to have developed from a tradition of epic tales recited orally. If you have an audience full of good food and chat, wine and flirting, you need to start well, as any after-dinner speaker can tell you. So, the Ancient Greeks and Romans liked to start ‘in media res’, Latin for ‘in the middle’. Horace said that was the proper starting point for an epic, or indeed any story.

You don’t need to start in the high crisis of a battle but it’s important not to hang around. Above all, do not begin with undigested slabs of character biography, no matter how much Dickens got away with it. Your readers will wander off, as I expect diners did thousands of years ago.

Homer (whoever she, he or they were, nobody knows) could have started The Odyssey story with the beginning of the Trojan war, or with scenes of victorious Greeks waving the big man off afterwards. Or while Odysseus is facing one of his tests. Below is JW Waterhouse’s painting (1891) of Odysseus resisting the Sirens …

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Instead, we begin at the point of maximum distress for the three main characters:

  • Odysseus has just managed to escape seven years of miserable captivity with Calypso and is telling his story (after a meal) to his saviours before they help him on his way back home. Let’s absorb this for a moment – almost all of what we know as The Odyssey is told in flashback.
  • If Penelope were a widow, she’d be quite a catch so her home fills up with men jostling to persuade her into marriage. She holds them off, refuses to choose, still hoping darling Odysseus will make it back to her, but there’s a grisly stand-off going on around her while the ‘Suitors’ eat her out of house and home, help themselves to the servant girls and generally make the whole place hell.
  • Their son Telemachus can’t endure this wretchedness at home either. When Menelaus lets him know that Odysseus is being held captive, Telemachus heads off to save him.
  1. If you can do two things at once, why not three?

The Odyssey and Iliad are both double-layered. The ancient gods play active roles, champion their own favourite humans and set up traps and mischief for ones they don’t like. Homer invented this, by the way. This is not how Greeks of the time thought about their gods – it’s a storytelling trope.

When the Trojan prince called Paris falls in love with Menelaus’s wife Helen and steals her away to Troy, that is Aphrodite at work, igniting the story of The Iliad. It’s the goddess Athene who supports Odysseus against Poseidon, a sea god who has it in for him.

Zeus (top god in this pantheism) calls a ceasefire on godly interference in the Trojan war after Hector’s duel with Ajax, then lifts it to release the final stage.

This godly layer of the stories is usually left out of adaptations these days but it’s a pity to lose such mighty divine characters throwing their weight around.

  1. Magic realism is as old as time

You can have reality mixed with witches, cannibals, giants, gods, rocks that shift around, sea monsters, all at the same time. We have always loved it.

  1. Homer’s theme winds through every segment

What is The Odyssey’s theme? The need for home and peace? The struggle of an old soldier to find his way back into civilian society?

Classicists contend that the theme is really ‘xenia’. It means hospitality – sharing food, welcoming strangers, listening around the table – with elements of peace and shalom.

Breaking the rules of xenia brought unhappiness and violence in the Ancient Greek world; xenia could bring foes together in peace as we saw last week with Priam and Achilles.

Every element of the Odyssey story has xenia at its core. Calypso is all about glorious sensual hospitality, except that she won’t let Odysseus leave.

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Arnold Bocklin’s painting (1883)

Polyphemus eats his human guests – what more gross abuse of hospitality can there be? Penelope’s ‘Suitors’ are overstaying their welcome, if they ever had one, and are abusing her generosity. On the other hand, when Odysseus finally reaches safety, he is nourished and looked after, tells his story in an entertaining way and, when the time is right, his hosts help him safely on his way – perfect xenia. For a more about this, I recommend Emily Wilson’s wonderful new translation, the first ever by a woman.

  1. Your characters can be as complicated as you like

Odysseus is a powerful athlete and an old man, a beggar and a king, victim and aggressor, adulterer and adoring husband, a liar we trust, heroic ‘city-sacker’ and somebody who did not want to go to war. In The Iliad, even fearless Hector tried to run away at first rather than duel with Achilles. Homer knows all our hearts and sees into all our conflicting corners.

There’s no need for your characters to be consistent. If you do your character work well, you’ll know how to play their different shadows.

  1. Tricks to identify characters

In the long academic debate about who Homer was or whether the poems were initially oral or written, a key clue to their oral heritage lies in what are known as Homer’s epithets. You’ll have heard maybe of the ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, ‘wily’ Odysseus, ‘prudent Penelope’. Aphrodite is always described as ‘laughter-loving’ even when she’s wounded on the battlefield.

The ancient storytelling bards used epithets to give them time to think while the story bowled along. (This was discovered by Milman Parry, an American classicist who rocked the world of Homeric studies when he published his studies of Serbo-Croat oral balladeers in 1960.)

We can use tricks too to help readers conjure up our characters quickly. I’m thinking of Blind Pugh’s tap-tap-tap, Bill Sykes’s dog, Gatsby being ‘an Oggsford man’. A kind of code is dropped into the reader’s memory so that slabs of description don’t have to hold up your story.

  1. The best stories have family at their centre

Though we think we’re 21st century sophisticated people, the human heart hasn’t changed all that much in three thousand years. The best stories have family at their centre.

  1. The best stories can come from strangers

As Emily Watson says in the final paragraph of her introduction, kindness to strangers can lead us to the best stories too.

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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!