Saturday, 13 November 2010

MEET MY PAL ED.

Editing should feel like an old friend, standing by your side telling it like it is. And, just like most old friends, love 'em though we do, we don't want them there 24/7. They should drop in for a coffee and leave again before you have to hint you're busy. Ed's just the same. Although he knows he'll be needed even at the stage where ideas tumble about the brain, nudging each other aside in the hope they’ll get chosen, you honestly don't want him peering over your shoulder until you've got them all down in the raw.
You're scribbling down every thought that comes - filling your notebooks, Word files, diaries, backs of till receipts - it's all pouring out, but there comes a time when you have to chose which of these bits and bods to develope. And there he is, Ed, whispering...‘chose the ones you think will work.’
With any luck, Ed will help you chose a workable idea, but it’s not going to flow out of you, word perfect.  So close the front door on him, or leave him mooching over his beer in the pub and get that first draft finished. Naturally, this draft has a ton of hitches. So when you've got a first draft down, give Ed a call, so that he can appear to give you a hand.
Sometimes I prefer to think of Ed as my friendly roadside breakdown mechanic, checking the brakes and the engine...is the plot going in the right direction? Do the characters’ motivations work? Have you got the right point of view? Sometimes – and I promise I’ll drop the analogy after this – you have to hang the expense go for a new model, because Ed is telling you this version is too costly to fix.

Finally, you have a good draft. ‘Don’t think,’ says Ed, ‘that all you have to do now is tinker – cross out adverbs...check for clichés. Dear me no.’
So you ask...should I have more or less dialogue? Should I have more or less scenes? Is there a strong narrative trajectory that pulls the reader along? Is my protagonist likeable – or at least intriguing? Do I use all five senses? Does the beginning jump up and bite? Does the middle sag? Does the end make you sigh?
Ed’s at your shoulder again. He’s reminding you to do that final proofread. Get rid of typos imbedded in the text.
Then he winks. Waves good-bye. Till the next time. Those thoughts are jostling already...

Saturday, 16 October 2010

screaming

Have you watched that scene in Cabaret, where Lisa Minnelli runs under a viaduct, waits for a train to roar over her head, then screeeeeeams?


First time I got a rejection slip, I wanted to do that. Sadly – no railway close enough, so I put on a DVD instead. It might even have been Cabaret; I’m a sucker for musicals when I’m down.

It felt like a surgeon had removed my stomach in an emergency gastrectomy and now he was contemplating pre-frontal lobotomy, because my head was buzzing so hard, logical thinking was impossible.

No chance of telling myself, with fingers still burning from the touch of poisoned paper, that rejection is common to every writer. Each editor’s desk is littered with submissions, even those of publications that pay badly, or not at all. Editors will – must – take what they like and send the rest back in boomerang time.

I was sure this editor had barely glanced at my manuscript before he placed it, with the horrid little rejection slip, into the SAE. And I was probably right. After all, he doesn’t have to take unsolicited work. He didn’t ask me to send it.

The movie ending was sad. I dried my tears and took a deep breath, finally ready to read the slip. Right at the bottom something was scribbled in black pen. A jotting, telling me why they’d rejected my work.

I clung to those words. They felt like a glimmer of light when you’re lost under the Mendips. I rewrote the piece, taking note of them. I did that a lot, over the next few years – the entire routine, I mean –rejection arrives in the post...watch the movie...tears...read the slip...rewrite...resubmit...

Finally, a letter arrived. A cheque fluttered out.

I drove right across town to the railway viaduct and screeeeeeeamed....

Sunday, 12 September 2010

TOP TEN PLACES TO WRITE YOUR MASTERPIECE


 1. Railway carriages. Long journeys over rattling rails helps your mind to become contemplative, almost trance-like. The constant movement of the scene outside encourages your imagination to follow trajectories, invent plots , link themes , see outcomes, understand characters and visualize landscapes.


2. Bed. While you are lying there, waiting for blessed sleep to descend, you might start to daydream a little about the characters or scenes in your latest story. Don't worry if you drop off to sleep in the middle of this; you're bound to recall snippets of it later. And if you can't sleep - if your mind is buzzing with ideas - don't fight it. Keep a notepad by the bed so that all those good ideas can be jotted down. Never mind the morning grind. Matchsticks are the sign of a writer!


3. The garden shed. Obviously, I’m not suggesting you share it with the lawn mower. But if you’re
 lacking a ‘room of your own’, to quote Virginia Wolfe, a little wooden shack at the bottom of the garden might be the answer.

4. The library. The idea place. It’s out of the house, so if your major writing problens us that people insist on stopping you while you work from home, or 'drop in for coffee’ as if you're a person of leisure, then the library is an ideal office. It has Internet access, tables and chairs, and all the research facilities you'll ever need. When inspiration dries, you can wander round the shelves, noting down interesting titles, to get yourself going again.


5. The park. Fair-weather writers can find all the stories they ever need in a park. It is full of people interacting and reacting with each other. There’s the couple whose dogs fell in love before they did...the father who brings his son here on his access day...the woman who pushes her elderly aunt out in a wheelchair...what are their stories? Or rather, what are the stories you might write for them?

6. The beach. Holidays tell great tales. Toss the sunblock to oneside, prop up the deck chair and spill the beans onto paper.


7. The local cafe. Take a tip from JKR and finish your novel over a cold latte. It may end up a bit stained and damp, but you will be in exhulted company. Which leads us to...

8. Under the stairs...or any bit of dwelling place you can cleverly transform into an office space. Once you are thinking of  this area as 'office space', you will have somewhere where all your things can be stored together (rather than scattered around the place) and where, as soon as you sit to write, a little 'tap' gets turned on in the writing part of your brain, as it thinks...ah, here I am, in the place where words spill effortlessly from my pen...

9. In front the telly. I am not joking - I spent the whole of one writing year writing in on an easy chair, my laptop (suitably) positioned on my lap. It was the only option, so I took it. I was able to 'switch off' from whatever antique was being sold at a boot sale, but there are always ear plugs to help this along. The downside to this option is your seating position; it's not good for your back to balance a laptop on your knees. I did end up seeing an osteopath! But I got of lot of writing done. So if your only writing opportunity and location is while everyone else is wrapped up in Eastenders, get out the earplugs.


10. The kitchen table...of course! Hands up if you eat regularly at your dining table. Hands up again if it's actaully covered in stuff that really ought to be put away. How about storing your writing equipment in a nice strong box, a little larger than A4 size, and leaving it in a corner of the table? Then when you need to write, you take the box off the table, take out the necessary and use the newly-gained space to write on. And if it really is in the kitchen, you won't have to move far to make a coffee.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

My Winning Writing Resource

I use a winning writing resource – stimulating, user-friendly and widely available, it’s without charge and needs no upkeep, power supply or insurance policies.

my writing buddy Gail.
Without fail, this facility always motivates and refreshes me. When I’m depressed, it reminds me of all my small achievements, and as I’ve used it a long time, those reminders go way back. When I’ve something to celebrate, there it is, ready with metaphorical cork-popping champers. Not that this is some anodyne application to my writer’s ego. No; it ceaselessly supplies me with sparkling new versions of So? Live with it...and... pull your finger out, girl.
This appliance is generally under-used by my fellow writers. They don’t seem to understand the full worth of the well-spring, or if they do, they don’t appreciate it like they should. I’ve seen this facility ignored, squandered and left to fade away in a dusty corner. Then the writer complains the resource has let them down when they needed it most, or that someone else is monopolizing it. They should be ashamed of themselves, for there is no finer writer resource. I am quite sure I wouldn’t’ve achieved any of my success without it.
My favourite writing resource even has a name...Gail. Yours should have a name too...Jim or Hilary or Sue. Because, in my opinion, the best resource a writer can have is a writing friend. A friend who knows the dark days, blank screens days, the evil rejection slips, the crashed screens, writer’s cramp and silent tears of frustration. They should do – they’re suffering too.
Naturally, they’ll expect you to be a writer friend right back. Gail and I agree...that’s like twice the resource. Double the result for us both.
I wouldn’t be without her, so...thanks, Gail.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Despondent Writer's Question and Answer Session with Nina

FAQ from Despondent Writers...
Q I feel low about my writing
A…make sure you keep all correspondence that has perked you up (especially my Reports) and leaf through them from time to time
QI have nowhere quiet to write
A… Invest in some ear plugs and you can even join your family in front of the telly.
Q I never seem to be in the right mood to write
A…You may find this disappears, once you put all the tips into effect…especially notebooking, Tapping Your Imagination, reading relevant books, dipping into research and using piecharts and timetables. But you may also want check your writing ‘time’ is at a good part of the day for your mood – not when you’re exhausted, or have had alcohol, for instance. Find one effective way to ‘beat’ your own mood and put it into action at the start of your writing time.
Q   I really want to write, but just have no ideas
A…the more we focus on something, the stronger those ideas become. So focus in on one project and go all out to research it, making notes as you go and using your ‘Miscellany book’ to store ideas.
Q  I feel guilty spending time on my writing.
A... How important is writing to you? Give it a score, as compared to other important parts of your life, out of ten. Now look at how much time you give to other parts, and allow yourself at least as much.
Q No, it’s not me, it’s those I live with – they make me feel guilty.
A...This time, your list should be about how much time they spend doing what they like…watching rugby, chatting on the phone…watching soaps…their new Wii…now you feel better, don’t you?

Got the writer's blues? If the question you're burning to ask isn't here, when not post it as a comment below?

This posting originally appeared in Nina Milton's Notepad Programme

Sunday, 27 June 2010

linking up a web of creativity

A student recently wrote to me, towards the end of her course work. This is what she wrote...
Through the first part of the course I thought about my finished stories like a hierarchy of pieces of work. I suppose I judged them as a list of titles with the best at the top and worst at the bottom. A liner system that reminds me of my experience of learning at school. Now it feels like all the stories and poems are spread out on a web or ecosystem that keeps growing. They are all valuable. It’s not all about which one is better than the other. They are all interconnected. They contain tools and craft and experience and all have a positive experience in the evolution of my writing.
This feels much more of a comfortable process to work with in and one that can be continually added to in the future. This web also expands to contain all of my other types of creative work. Having an understanding of an ever-growing web also make it easier to give my stories to other people to read, which I have started to do, instead of keeping them all to my immediate family and myself. This, I am finding, is a very valuable experience...
What wise words! It would do us all good to think about our collections of creative writing in this way. We should consider every single piece as ‘grist to the mill’ – a widening and growing understanding of how we’re developing as a writing, everything linked; everything essential. Part of that ‘web of creation’ my student talked about.

And, even if, on finishing something new, we decide to put it away because it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or because it doesn’t feel ‘up to standard’, that doesn’t mean that later on we can’t return to it. We may come back with a fresh approach, or renewed vigour and tackle this piece in such a way it becomes valuable within the collection.
With this in mind, look at my Exercise of the Week. Would this be an onerous task for you as a writer? Or would it be something that might stimulate and energise you? You may find that it’s actually an enjoyable activity...that the old stuff you put away years ago as juvenilia, is, with the hindsight of experience, something you can revamp or learn from.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A Fleeting Moment of a Wider Picture

There is no warning; one moment I’m gaping up at the reading lamp, wishing I could switch it off because its heat is burning my face so badly I can’t breath; the next I’m above it, looking down.
I’m floating above the light, above the bed, above myself in it.
There are two of me now, the ethereal floaty me and the creature lying prone. I know which one I am – no doubt – I am the one looking down. The other one below is the thing I floated out of, and I was pleased to do it because it felt bad; breathless and oven-baked and faint and sore in a weird internal sort of way
The metal shade of the lamp throws a glow over the proceedings. I can see everything clearly, but I feel no connection. I’m not scared or angry, or even confused; although it is apparent that everyone round me is frantic with confusion. I see them as if they are birds, the perching, flocking sort of bird that is small and anxious. They move as if they have both wings and very small feet with a short gait. One flutters in, hovers over me so that the spotlight is on the back of her head now, on the stripes of her dress and her tight ponytail. She flutters off and brings more of the flock back. They hover, raising their voices. I can hear the words, but I’m not all that concerned. Crash, they say. Quick! Arrest. CPR. Phone – no – button. Dammit!
One glances up. I soar away. Strangely, I don’t want to be seen. I am a bit embarrassed about floating. Anything like this is embarrassing to me – I never like to complain in a shop, or be the one that trips in the street. I like to be invisible, normal. But, no, she is not looking at me. She is adjusting the light, so that it shines on my face. Yep, that’s my exterior, but not in great shape. Too white, with that waxy gleam my mother’s kitchen floor always had. Eyes dull in the head, staring into oblivion. Mouth open. I look ugly, stupid.
I look dead.
I am having a baby. I can see that it is in me, a big round hill of baby underneath the pale counterpane. But something was going wrong with my blood, I was poisoning the vacuum sealed compartment the baby lives in. So, looking down like this, seeing my other self and the baby it contains under the spotlight, I’m glad I’m out of there, because now they can take the baby away from the body that is destroying it and make it better. Offer it light, air, warmth, food. Nowadays, they can do anything, can’t they? The incubator is equivalent to the mother’s womb. You pop the baby in and feed it through a tube until it can suckle. Simple…the baby won’t need my poisoning system anymore. And from up here, which is both just above the bedstead and also in another place entirely, I can made that kind of dispassionate decision. I can see that I don’t matter. I am not so very important in the overall scheme of things. Life will revolve and go one and go on again so long as the next generation exists.
The baby is crucial.
Even though I don’t like being in the spotlight, even though I don’t like to create a scene, I float down at little, in case they can hear me.
Save the baby, I say. Save the baby, not me.
The rest of the flock have fluttered in and are hovering over me. One has thrown curtains round the bed, another has tossed the pillows to the floor, where the little nurse who comes to wash me flicks them away from under the feet of the flock. Each has their own job, and seem to know it. Two of them lay me flat, quickly, neatly.
Save the baby, I try to remind them, but they are not listening. A massive block of apparatus on wheels is rolled through the doors of the ward which crash open and bang shut behind the thing that sways like moon buggy with its shiny, hooked antennae holding a bag of clear fluid, swaying along the ward with the woman pulling it shouting something and the nurse with the ponytail responding with one word.
She puts her face on mine. I drift closer. She is kissing me better. I cannot feel the kiss on my mouth, but something lifts in me, something inside my solar plexus pulls…tugs…

And I am back. I open my eyes and the flock of birds dart back, as if I am a cat. They chirp and tweet. One of them says, ‘hello!’
Hello.
You’re fine, they say, later, while I’m recovering. It was a kind of surgical shock from the pre-eclampsia. It won’t happen again. You’re fine.
I nod. I can’t tell them. It would feel irreverent, after their efforts, that all I wanted them to do was save the baby.
But from time to time, as my child toddles, then walks, then runs, I recall that feeling, the desire I had as I gazed down on my body.
It reassures me.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

FINDING THE LIFE-BLOOD OF WRITING

There are many strange truths about writing. In my ‘quote of the week’, John Gardiner sums one of them up perfectly. The more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Skimming over a description loses the reader, zoning-in absorbs him. It’s yet another way to create fiction that is strong, absorbing and energetic
Remember, you don’t have to describe the whole of something. That is the difference between a chunk of description and the detail of it. By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole – whether it’s an artifact, a person, a landscape or an interior – the description of it will be enhanced. The reader won’t want to see it all, because that’s like being too close to the screen in the cinema – too much information.
Symbolism can truly help to get to the core of what you want to say. Using it is fairly simply. Take something symbolic and examine that as a single descriptive detail of the whole.
To find the right symbol, think about the ‘core’ of the thing. For example, your scene is an inner city waste land. Don’t try to describe all of it, your reader’s eyes will glaze over. Instead, focus your imagery on one blighted buddleia, seemingly imbedded in nothing more than rocks and dust, where no butterfly has ever ventured.
Of course, your first draft may be rushed, with not much detail – you are trying as much to get down your thoughts on the story as to write it. It’s fine to end up with a rushed first copy that is possibly ¼ as long as the eventual manuscript. But whether you start this way and return to the beginning, or prefer to get in close in your first draft, when you do this, you’ll find it will actually help you understand your story. It will highlight the small, vital moments that add up to the whole.
This is quite the opposite as providing chunks of description. Today’s readers are not keen on chunks of either description or exposition – that died out with the bustle – so the way to add interesting detail is to slide it in surreptitiously as the action, interior monologue and dialogue continues to move the story on. On the other hand, try not to cram too much description into a short space of words. This tentancy is also the opposite close-up detail, which takes the time…and the amount of words…it has to take to be itself. If you delve into vivid, symbolic imagery while creating your action, dialogue and narrative moments, you will bring your writing alive.
So this is the strange truth…the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes…moving into close-up is absorbing and paints the imagery of the story.
Here’s a fast first draft version of a moment in my latest book for children:

The captain’s knife cut into Jake’s cheek.
‘You’re my slave, with my mark on you, boy,’ said Captain Elliot. ‘We’re bound for England on the next tide, and you’re coming with me.’

There’s nothing wrong with getting the bare-boned basics down in this way. What you’ll have is a sort of fusion between draft and plot outline.
Writing fast without putting in the detail is something you might want to do when your head is full of plot – or conflict between two characters. But having got it out of your head and on to paper, you can go back and look for those details that will not only brighten the writing style, but also help you ‘see’ the images you’re creating on the page – it’s essential that you can visualize exactly what is happening in any scene, as this brings the entire narrative alive.
Once I’d written this tiny section, I could begin to imagine what it was like to be there, on the quay side, for Jake:

The captain grasped Jake’s ear and held him firmly. The knife from his belt glinted silver in the hot noon sun, yet it felt like ice as it slid down Jake’s cheek.
‘You’re my slave, with my mark on you, boy.’
Blood dripped. Jake felt it tickle its way down like a raindrop. It ran behind the iron collar that had been round his neck since the Captain had paid good English Stirling for Jake in the marketplace.
‘We’re bound for England on the next tide.’ Captain Elliot liked to chew tobacco and the black spit flew everywhere, smelling of the tang of the sea. It landed on Jake’s cheek, mingled with the oozing blood. He felt the chain jerk at his neck, felt the screech of pain from the raw skin. He tried to swallow, but there was no spit left in his mouth.
‘And you’re coming with me.’

In this fuller version, I’ve ‘seeded in’ description by using symbolic imagery. I don’t tell you what the Captain is wearing (although I could later), I focus on his aggression via the knife and his general unpleasantness via the tobacco. Notice that I’ve added the sense of touch (the icy knife, the warm trickle of the blood, the pain of the collar) to the passage, and craftily added the smell of the sea via the tobacco. You don’t need to squash every sense into a single description, but sound, touch, taste and smell do work exceedingly well to draw a reader into an image.
I’ve tried to avoid describing Jake’s emotions, though, because that often ends up in telling, rather than showing… ‘Jake was scared.’ I’ve gone for showing, through his dry mouth, which links back to the opposite symbolism of the squidgy, wet tobacco wedge that the captain is chewing. I've tried to imbed the entire description between dialogue and action.
You might like to try the Exercises of the Week – like me, chose a bit of your own work and see what you can make of it.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

WRITING FROM YOUR OWN INSPIRATION

I first experienced an ‘inspired visualization’ in the home of a Druid Priestess. There were twelve or so of us sprawled out on her carpet. I laid my jumper over my eyes and listened to her seductive voice describe an imaginary landscape, telling us to smell the scents and look around us. She called this ‘using our psychic eyes’, which, apparently, were open behind our closed lids.

At first, thoughts kept getting in the way… do I look a prat lying here…is my bag of Chorizos good enough for the communal table? Bit-by-bit, I began seeing things that felt very real. I could feel the grass beneath bare feet, hear a skylark singing. Her voice faded away, and it was up to me what happened next. It was, in fact, just like plotting a story.

Visualization is used regularly as a therapeutic tool to help people with difficulties, and within various spiritual paths to explore the subconscious, and…whether they know it or not…by most writers. A mild trance state takes you from one world (physical, concrete) into another (spirit-based and ethereal).

Trance states are not all that rare. The rhythmic waves that are the electrical impulses of our brains beat at various speeds. When we are alert and about our daily business, they’re fast-paced. When deeply asleep, they slow dramatically. But as writers, we can tap into the cycles that lie between sleep and alertness, when the waves slow to an Alpha rhythm.

It’s that common experience in the supermarket. Tin of beans in hand, our minds soar off somewhere. When a passing friend calls our name, we don’t hear them, and if they tap our shoulders, we jump, hopefully without dropping the beans on their foot. Writers can take advantage of ‘losing of yourself’. In this slower state of thinking, the relaxed, twilight world of the trance, vivid imagery flashes into the mind’s eye.

Like most other writers, I’m fascinated by how plots, characters and entire scenes arrive from nowhere, and recognize that the act of physical writing is merely the setting down of the words and pictures that have already appeared in our imaginations - whether that happened moments, weeks or years before we write. But the guided visualization in the house of the Druid made me ask, what is our imagination? What happens when we visit the world of ‘story’ – when characters stand gazing out from headlands, the salt spray on their lips, despite the fact we’re actually doing the washing up?

Enhancing this imaginative process enables the writing to become sharper, more ‘present’, more melodic. Settings have colour, taste, smell and the subtlest background sounds all built in. The techniques are simple, but need clear instructions to help their effectiveness.

Deliberately entering an imagined world begins by finding a quiet place. The journey into a ‘story’ starts with gentle breathing and waiting for the thoughts that drift, unbidden, through your mind to become focused.

Imagine, for instance, turning the pages of a book. To find your story, keep gently turning pages, moving along until you’ve left the physical realm outside your body behind and are actually inside your own head. Allow the experience to take shape in anyway it likes – words, pictures, symbols, dance, feelings. Don’t worry if you fall asleep – take advantage of those ‘drifting’ moments that are even deeper than the Alpha brain wave state.

If your writing relates to a particular world, you may like to play music that will summon up the appropriate image, but keep the noise level down and avoid song – the words will overtake your own internal dreaming.

Place your notebook and pen by your, and, as soon as you are back, write down everything you experienced. This is the most important part of the exercise. Write immediately, using a freewriting technique, not stopping to correct your work. Describe in detail whatever comes to you.

When you’re stuck for something to write, visualization will send you in search of childhood memories or forgotten moments of passion. If you’re stuck at a point in a story, you can seek the clues to the puzzles of your plot. You can become your character’s therapist, or watch them choose what they wear, eat, drive. You will soon find that your mind is full of startling revelations and things jump out at you and demand to be written down.

Imagination is where your writing begins – using this ‘visualization’ technique, you can enter it and roam around it at will. Writing will spill out. You’ll never be afraid of the ‘blank page’ again…you’ll be writing directly from your own inspiration.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG?

My ‘How to Book’ on keeping chickens poses the question…‘What came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Quick as you like comes the pithy reply… ‘Neither. It was the dinosaur.’

You might ask the same question about fiction. ‘What comes first, character or plot?’ And the answer might be…that old dinosaur…whichever turns you on, of course.’

I’m not entirely joking (which must be a relief, for those that appreciate good jokes). I think the personality of the writer has a lot to do with how they approach this subject.

Some people can’t help being ideas dudes. Writers from Agatha Christie to Philip Pullman come in this category. Their thoughts revolve around subject and concept, and the characters simply have to accept their slightly secondary role in their creators’ minds.

Others see new people in their mind’s eye and immediately begin the story of their lives…which slowly evolves into plot. My friend Gail is of this bent. It seems to me that her entire life has been accompanied by imaginary people who feel as real to her as her own family, and whose stories she know more intimately than the lives of her friends. But she will admit that creating satisfying novels that sell, is not easy for her. The characters go their cavalier way about things and refused to be straight-jacketed into plots.

The secret is…well, it isn’t a secret, really...it's that old middle way. Compromise. Fusion. Knowing your own failings and working with them. Not a secret…more a  dinosaur.

As you write – or rather as you read – your first draft, ask yourself; is this story plot-led? Is this story character-based? Chicken? Or Egg? Whichever is the answer to the question, look to the other side of things. Give extra time and energy to the weakest half of the story dilemma.

Chickens
In character-led stories, put time aside to work on the plot, using whatever methods you find most useful – try some or all of the following:
• Index cards
• ‘Timelines’, that prove your story works in space and time
 • Web diagrams
 • Meditations – ‘day dream’ your way to a better plot
• Redrafting techniques
• ‘Brainstorming’ – use your friends to help you get it right
• Whiteboards or pinboards linking your freshest ideas
 • Freewriting techniques
If what you love is character, you might be of the opinion that plotting is dull and stifles the life out of your writing. Try to think of it as a challenging puzzle that will allow your characters to live on the page. Quality plotting can bring out their hidden flaws, create complexities and make them one hundred percent convincing.

Eggs
In subject-driven stories, the writer should put aside their passion for careful plotting and give equal time to get to know their characters. This is best done ‘off page’:
• Candidate characters should first fill out a ‘personality CV’ in the shape of a questionnaire.
• Then, find an appropriate photo or make a sketch on the character
• Note down all the physical characteristics- from moles and tattoos to weak hips and a tendency to nibble a thumb nail. Not down accent, mannerisms, dress sense, body language and any other characteristic you can think of.
• Having noted physical and personality details, write a ‘character portfolio’
• List the things found in their pockets or handbag
• Enter the room this character thinks of as their own and poke around.
• Interview the character – they may surprise you.
• Finally, use the Health Spa Exercise for this week to see how your character responds when they find themselves sharing a table with another character.

Cause and Effect is thought of as part of the plotting mechanism, but in fact it is a technique that can be used to ‘fuse’ plot and character successfully. It can have a riveting effect on the plotting of your stories. Readers love to see the ‘story build up’, through events, thoughts, character traits etc., that are set up in the early moment then link and develop the story towards the end.

A way of utilizing ‘cause and effect’ is to build up tension. An excellent ‘aide memoir’ for this is the ‘5 C’s…Characters Conquering Conflict Create Conclusion. Explore, as you’re working on a story, how you might represent the conflicts that characters – especially the main character – have to struggle against…and how or if they will overcome them. This works whether you choose to summon up your characters first and let them build up the plot by the conflict they create, or have a model in mind which needs characters to fulfil its potential. Either way, you must know why they are in this story, and make them grow on the page, so let the characters show how the action works by keeping them under constant stress.

Be a Dinosaur!
Don’t be ruled by the chicken and egg dilemma; in your first draft, it’s better to be a bit of a dinosaur and take the middle way.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

MAKING A DRAMA OF IT: Tension in your Fiction.

One of the most useful techniques writer can stuff under their belt is the ability to control tension and create drama in their story – regardless of whether it is a piece of micro-fiction or the length of Moby Dick (whale or book). The challenges are subtly different – in a novel it’s keeping the tension going sufficiently to entice the reader the less dramatic chapters, whilst in short stories, creating a balance between the peaks and the necessary lulls in a tight space can be a test of skill.
Some apprentice writers have trouble isolating the drama in their work and often miss all the tricks in cranking up tension. They assume that events in a story will come across as dramatic – a mugging, for instance, that’s got to be drama, right? But it is so easy to muffle the tension instead of enhance it. In my children’s  novel for 9+ readers, Tough Luck, I had to write a mugging sceneHere is a first draft extract; the ‘freewrite’ I scribbled down while the scene had newly come into my mind…

They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder. I ran into a courtyard, hoping to lose them by twisting and turning. Instantly, I realized that I'd blown it. I was in a parking area at the back of some shops. There was only one way in - and out.
They stopped abruptly when they saw me, trapped and defeated. They began to spread out so that I had no chance of scooting around them. I stepped backwards as they moved in slowly. Then I realized I was doing what they wanted, I was backing into a wall. There'd be a moment when I could go no further, when they might pounce.
I gave it one last shot. I sprang forwards, taking them by surprise, head down, holding my skates in front of me like weapons, hurling myself between two of them. I felt hands reach out to grab me, snatch a bit of my sleeve, then one of them leapt at me, wrapping his arms round my legs in a rugby tackle. I put out my hands as the wet, glinting cobbles came up to meet me, but my nose and chin seemed to take most of the impact. The hot pain that comes when you lose a lot of skin swept over my face.
They were surrounding me. I closed my eyes as the first kick came, pulling my knees and folding my arms round my head. This was it, I thought. The very last of my bad luck. The very end of it.
A boot dug sharp into the back of my head…

As muggings go, this one is pretty mundane at the moment, but there is so much I can now do to heighten the tension and turn this into an extreme dramatic experience for character and reader alike.
Control your Reader
Some stories prefer to jog along at a steady pace until ‘bang!’ the tension is loosed like a cannon shot – often towards the end. Other stories build up tension slowly and steadily from the beginning, like tightening the elastic band on one of those little plastic aeroplanes. To help you understand how your drama functions, think about the affect you want to have on your reader. In fact focus right in on your reader’s stomach. When we read edgy, dramatic pages, our stomach knots up alongside the characters’. At first it might just be a butterfly flutter of worry. But as the tension takes hold, we begin to grip the cover tight and pant with anxiety. The writer achieves this affect by controlling what happens in the reader’s mind (and in his steadily knotting stomach) moment by moment within the narrative.
Once you have a first draft – at least in your own head or scribbled onto a plot outline –looking at how the way you tell the story will directly affect the knots in the reader’s stomach. This might mean presenting the ‘threat/mystery’ earlier in the story. Equally, it might mean holding off on the true mystery, while mini ‘subplot’ threats are seeded in.
The excerpt above is an early scene in the book – it sets the plot moving. So it should present an ‘explosion’ near the beginning that can set the blood racing and encourage the reader to then move through the next chapters - ones that burn slowly in comparison. I should let that explosion really rip. I might need to re-jig the sequence of events a bit and I should be careful not to race through it. I need to let the character (Brandon) tell his story at his own pace.
Get inside a head
Scenes should be described from inside the mind of the character most affected by any rise in tension and drama. If this isn’t possible – because your 1st person protagonist is watching the event, for instance – you must be sure that they are intensely affected by what they see – that they are able to empathize with the affected person. (Unless, of course, what you want to demonstrate is that your protagonist isn’t good at empathy, or doesn’t consider this a drama at all. If that is the case, the scene won’t be represented to the reader as drama – so be sure this is what you intended.)
Show, don’t tell will kick-start the process. Allow the character to register any physical reactions to the growth of tension inside him…my fists tightened…my heart was thumping against my ribs…my breath was coming in short, painful rasps…
Take all the time you need to make sure the reader is absolutely ‘there’ with the character(s). Don’t race through the action, or fail to report a single word spoken. Stop and use descriptive affects, ‘teasing’ your reader as unbearably as you can. Use strong verbs wherever possible to build tension. Avoid too many adjectives, but don’t avoid description…My fists tightened around the blades of my skates. They were cutting into my palms…My heart was thumping against my ribs but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the gang as my breath came in short painful rasps
Slowing Down
‘Take your time’ is one of my favourite phrases. I offer this advice to almost all my students, and so I guess I should take it myself. In the excerpt, I pummel along, looking neither to the left nor to the right. Brandon would be doing that, after all. I can’t stop the action – it is full pelt. But there are ways of holding it up while not actually stopping it. The simplest is to move into a short internal monologue. This is a renowned way of putting on the brakes at tense moments (some writers take terrible advantage of this, holding off their readers for pages, but that’s quite a risk). I must take as much time as I dare to express Brandon’s thoughts as he confronts the gang …They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder – footsteps that rang on cobbled stones. I remember thinking, they're not wearing trainers.
I saw a turning ahead and swerved into it, hoping to lose them by twisting and turning. Instantly, I saw I'd blown it. I was in a parking area at the back of some shops. These were shops I'd been into, buying chocolate and chewing gum, millions of times. But now I was on the wrong side of them. There were no open doors and racks of sweeties. Just bricked up back walls

You can see that I’m slowing the action down…writing into the gaps I left in my rush to get the words onto the page. Doing this increases tension. You wouldn’t think that would be so, but it is. The reader longs to be teased. They want to know the end of the story, the solution to the mystery, but when they reach the end they’re saddened. They wanted it to go on for ever. Otherwise Spielberg could have just spliced the first and last scenes in Jaws together and save everyone a whole evening’s viewing, or Bronte could have inscribed …reader, I married him…on the first page of Jane Eyre.
Make it Hard
Slowing down and holding back action works well to tighten the knots in the reader’s stomach. An equally good way is to make the action as difficult as possible. Make achieving a goal, even a small one, as hard as you convincingly can. Let terrible events draw out for as long as you dare, too…A boot dug sharp into the back of my head. There was a cry – I didn’t know if it was them or me. I tried to wriggle away. I felt a dead weight on my back. One of them had sat on me. The boot came again. My eyes filled with blood
Atmosphere and Mood

These often ‘grab’ a reader and draw them in, making them feel as if they are ‘inside the story’, experiencing it physically. There is a subtle difference between these two terms:
• Atmosphere intrigues, excites, disturbs, beguiles…in other words it’s that ‘je ne sais quoi. It is often created from the setting…PJ James is good at this…or the dialogue…consider Raymond Chandler…or character description…think Dickens. To create atmosphere, let the ‘surroundings’ of each scene speak to the reader…. Just bricked up walls looming over me, black in the dark courtyard. Suddenly a security light flashed on, like we were on stage, caught in the spotlight.
• Mood is subtly different from atmosphere. It works like a perfume, subtly sensed as it further lifts the pace and atmosphere. It is usually dictated by the feelings of the protagonist or narrator... They began to spread out so that I had no chance of scooting around them. They whistled high, tuneless notes, like birds arguing over a worm. They were grinning. Their teeth glinted in the security light. They were grinning and whistling over a worm…..

The mood affects the pace, and the opposite can also be true. Atmosphere can match, shadow or underline the character’s moods. The Pathetic Fallacy can aid this, from time to time, using landscape, place/objects, climate/weather, events, etc. Truly absorbing, readable stories have braided all the effects in perfect measure.
Light and Shade…Adding Pace
It’s good for ‘light and shade’ to be added to writing. We do this even when talking, changing the tone, speed and timbre of our voice for effect. Pace…the ‘speed of the read’…is the best way to vary light with shade, and useful at encouraging dramatic tension to fluctuate in a narrative.
Pace should change regularly within a piece of writing. Of course, it’s fine to have a ‘favourite pace’ that you’ll use for the majority of the time. Particular paces attract particular readers. For instance, someone who loves the pace of a Virginia Wolfe novel, probably won’t like the pace of a Grisham, and vice versa. Pace can crawl, crush, accelerate, thrust or hurtle. We usually expect pace to be created from the action, but dialogue and even inner monologue can have pace, too. It’s used to advance the action, but can be cleverly used to delay the action – the ‘build-up’, which is often the place where the most tension lies. The pace you take your narrative at will depend on your readership, but don’t miss out on increasing the tension by varying pace at the important moments.
There are various technical ways to engender pace and so control the tension that arises, including some quite small, but important adjustments:
1a. To slow pace, use the present participle frequently.
1b. To speed it up, take them out (look for ‘ing’ endings)
2a. To slow pace, use longer words, longer speeches, words with a a smoother feel, longer sentences and longer paragraphs.
2b. To speed it up, use short, staccato words, lots of full stops and short paragraphs, snappy dialogue. Alliteration works well. Find a rhythm within the abruptness.
3a. To slow pace, use a little of the perfect tense (he had seen her) within the simple past. The passive form, although generally unwise, will slow pace. Abstract words slow pace because the reader has to ‘interpret’ them. Avoid unnecessary words such as seemed, then, also, quite, very, however, might.
3b. To speed it up, use the present tense, if possible within the context, and avoid the perfect tense, the passive form and abstract words.
4a. Look at presentation of images. To slow, give them a dreamy mood. Use all the techniques in ‘slowing down’, above.
4b. To speed up make images clear and precise, sharp sights & sounds. Don’t over describe, but metaphors and symbols can work as ‘shorthand description – sneak description into the action. Avoid adverbs like the plague. Avoid clichés, too!

In places, I need to speed my pace up. Here are the ways I utilized the ‘B’s above:
1. They howled into the courtyard…I hurled myself between two of them…
2. One last shot. I sprang forwards. My head was down. My skates were like weapons…
3. I took a step backwards. They paced forward. I stopped. I must not do what they wanted. I must not reach the wall. Once my back was against it, I was trapped.
4. The gang surrounded me. I was a worm. I was going to be squashed. Their boots scrape on the stones.

Once you have your reader’s stomach wound into a knot, it’s difficult to keep that buzz of attention when you know you need to drop the pace again. Try creating a break where the reader can take a breath – ending a scene or chapter on a ‘high’ is an accepted and common method of curtailing high tension moments. Just don’t do this until you’ve extracted every gram of possible stomach-knotting!
Flashbacks work very well at this point in a story, because they put everything completely on ‘hold’ and the reader understands that mechanism (that ‘trick’) and goes with it, taking the ‘mystery’ forward with them in the hope it will later be solved.
Interior monologue has a similar affect. Allow your character to ponder the dramatic moments or allow him to cogitate on a separate but vital issue.
Often, the moment is so dramatic that it needs to be resolved at once. I can’t leave Brandon lying helpless on the ground. Not in chapter three. I need to find a way of saving him so that he can live to tell us the rest of his story.
I’m a bit happier with this section now. It’s tighter and faster, but has variations in pace. I think I feel confident to show you the outcome…

They were gaining on me. Each time I reached a corner, their footsteps were louder – footsteps that rang on cobbled stones. They were not wearing trainers.
I saw a turning ahead and swerved into it, hoping to lose them with twists and turns. Instantly, I saw I'd blown it. I was at the back of some shops. These were shops I'd been into, buying chocolate and chewing gum, millions of times. But now I was on the wrong side of them. There were no open doors and racks of sweeties. Just bricked up walls looming over me, black in the dark courtyard as the gang from the ice rink howled in and stopped abruptly.
I took a step backwards. They paced forward. I stopped. I must not do what they wanted. I must not reach the wall. Once my back was up against it, I was trapped.
They would pounce.
My fists tightened around the blades of my skates. They were cutting into my palms. My heart was thumping against my ribs and my breath came in short painful rasps, but I couldn’t tear my eyes from the gang..
I thought about scooting round them. No chance. They spread out across the courtyard, like they were playing rugby. Suddenly a security light flashed and we were on stage, caught in the spotlight. They didn’t care. They whistled high, tuneless notes, like birds arguing over a worm. They were grinning. Their teeth glinted in the beam of light. They were grinning and whistling over a worm.
They were well spread out. I could get between them. I sprang forwards, head down. My skates were like weapons. I hurled myself between two of them. I felt hands reach out to grab me, snatch a bit of my sleeve, hang on, lose it as I kept running. For a wonderful second, I was free.
One of them leapt at me from behind, wrapping his arms round my legs in a rugby tackle. I put out my hands. The cobbles came up to meet me. The hot pain that comes when you lose a lot of skin swept over my face.

The gang was all round me. I was a worm. I was going to be squashed. Their boots scrape on the stones. I closed my eyes as the first kick came, pulled my knees up as high and folded my arms round my head. This was it, I thought. The last of my bad luck. The very end of it.
A boot dug sharp into the back of my head. There was a cry – I didn’t know if it was them or me. I tried to wriggle away. There was a dead weight on my back. One of them had sat on me. The boot came again. My eyes filled with blood. Least, that's what I thought the redness was. Then I heard the sound of an engine through the fuzz. Smelt the exhaust. A car was rolling into the courtyard.

Okay, you can unknot your stomach now…

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Walking Through Stories

Many writers walk to invent their stories. Dickens apparently wrote most mornings and walked every afternoon. I think his characters and their senarios walked with him, ready for their creation by pen the following morning.


I've used this method for years. It doesn't matter if the surrounds are urban or rural, but naturally it's nicer if there are trees and birds. The most important thing is that I am on my own. When you walk with others, you're bound to chatter. When you walk alone, you chatter to your characters, and they chatter back. In this way, stories develop through your feet. I've walked my way through dialogue, scene-building, description, interior monologue, action, development of plot. Holding it in your head is the hard part - I've been known to race back on the home stretch, my hands itching for the keyboard.

A more recent development has been to walk with Joe (my walking buddy) to explore actual sites for events to happen. As I'm now writing crime fiction, we laughingly call these 'murder walks'. On them we search out the best place to dispose of bodies, the best place to commit the crime, the best place to hide from the cops...whatever is required, really. Actually seeing the landscape enhances the final descriptions from guesswork to atmospheric reality and the 'blocking out' process of making sure things can really happen - all the hows, whys, thens and theres - becomes accurate and simplified.

As we walk, we chat about the interweavings of plot and character with landscape, throw ideas at each other and iron out problems. Such a walking buddy has to be trustworthy...and a bit of a writer themselves, if possible, but mostly any good friend with a pair of lace-up boots would do.

In this way, we've marched through forests, along coastlines, past power stations, been blown off mountains and squelched into bogs. I once walked all around a Killarney lake and ended up with a love song which, foolishly pen and paperless, I had to hold in my head until I returned to my friend's house.

I'd be interested to know if other people do this, and if they feel it's worthwhile...at least for the waistline!
Continue to read this blog at wearetheOCA by clicking here

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A winterwonderland walk with no pictures

Apparently, CCTV has almost had its day, with the introduction of Mission Impossible type spectacles which record whatever you see as you wear them. This news item forced me to ponder…when will we watch these reruns of our day, and will we bother to notice anything that is around us any more, in the knowledge that it’s all on film?
Today, with inches of blustering snow, even in the Bristol area, I went for a two hour walk. I headed towards my local nature reserve across the parkland, nipped over the style at the far side and returned home on a wide circular route. Snow fell, stinging my eyes and tasting icy on my tongue. Children shrieked and pummelled snowballs at each other. As I walked through the wonderland that my locality had suddenly become, the thought passed through my head…should’ve brought a camera…but then I thought – no – not good – nowadays we spend our lives seeing our lives through a lens. I was glad I had no way of recording the exhilaration of my walk, except with my eyes and my memory. It made my awareness of my surroundings more vivid, more memorable.
Some years ago, in Hawaii, I went to the top of Haleakala, the volcano on Mauwi, to watch the sun rise. I was not alone – even though it happens every morning you have to book way in advance to be part of the spectacle, way above the clouds at sunrise. It’s not a fast experience, either. It takes almost an hour (in subzero temperatures), from the first gloriously tantalizing moments as the rays peak above the horizon, to the final eye-blowing experience of full sun. And yet almost every tourist spent most of that hour behind the viewfinder of their camera. I took pictures, too, but I was horrified by the way people were not witnessing the experience at all…they were waiting to view the photos and impress their friends. The same thing happened on the way down the mountain. The coach driver stopped because a very rare Hawiian goose was crossing his path. Every person stood up and began to snap the goose through the windows of the bus. All except me. By the time I’d’ve found my camera and got the bird in the centre of the viewfinder, it would’ve been in thick cover. So I just watched as the goose crossed the road, presumably to get to the ganderary side. Actually, it looked very much like any other goose – especially, I imagine, on those holiday snaps back home.
A few years later, we went to Kintyre for an autumn holiday. It wasn’t until we unpacked that we realized we’d forgotten our camera. We decided to just try to take pictures in our minds. We bought a few postcards, but otherwise, we had to remember that holiday without the usual holiday snaps. I recall the week in Kintyre vividly – the little bay where the seals swam, calling to each other and (I truly believe) listening to my early morning beach song – the fantastic faery-moss wood we walked through – the ‘designer’ stone circles on Aran (more than ten of them, all so different, within a few mile’s radius) – the cup and spiral markings on Neolithic stones – the boar carved on a hillside from the time of the Irish invasions – the boat trip with Jessie our dog (wet through and ponging) – the marvelous meal in a fine hotel where we were the only guests – the ancient yew in the grounds where we were staying. Maybe if we’d taken a camera, I’d have to see the photos now, to remember any of it. Of course, I’m not decrying taking pictures. It is amazing how a holiday snap brings memories back. But it is sad to spend your holiday behind a block of plastic. Not exactly ‘living in the now’, is it?
By the time I reached the stile halfway along my walk, the snow wasn’t falling gently anymore. I was in a mini-blizzard and I began to storm my way home, almost unable to see in front of me. But I will not forget the things I didn’t take a picture of today…the amber fronds of a bare weeping willow, like horse’s tails…the way the snow followed the lines of branches, boughs and twigs in an avenue of poplars, white on black…the treacherous wonder of the drifts and the deep, King Wenceslas footprints I made as I struggled through woodland…the site of the Bowl, which I fought to save from development a few years ago, speckled with snow, birds wheeling overhead…the tobogganing children, their cheeks glowing with a red hue usually only seen on Christmas cards…the twenty-seven-and-a-half snowmen (is there a Northern holiday destination for uncompleted snowmen?). Oddly, the very best snowman was waiting for me at the top of my road – scarf, gloves on sticky arms, complete with walking stick, smiley vegetable face and a crown of greenery.
I almost went back with the camera to take a photo.

But I didn’t.