Why did she say that?

How often in creative writing workshops have you heard that it is important to make your characters come alive? Like most authors I’ve struggled with that over the years but let me tell you, when it happens it’s both exhilarating and problematic.

I’ve plotted every scene of my current novel in sufficient detail for me to work on the first draft, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months. There are quite a few characters in addition to the protagonist and antagonist, some I’m happy with, some I’m not. The latter need more work but the former feel well-rounded and I can see them. The problem starts when they’re so well drawn that they say things that aren’t in the plot but seem entirely appropriate for them to say at the time and in the place they find themselves. The other characters then need to react to the new situation and the story takes a twist I wasn’t expecting.

I could, of course, just go back and make the character say what I wanted them to say, bully them into submission if you like, but that would then be me talking, not the character. It would be false and, after all, I’ve wanted my characters to jump off the page so shouldn’t complain when they do.

How have I drawn them in this way? I don’t know. I’m a writer not a tutor and there are many good books out there which explain better than I could how to strive for this. All I know is that the two characters in this novel who seem to be speaking out of turn the most are ones where I drafted character sketches in the early planning. They didn’t become the characters I’d sketched, not entirely, but something in the process must have made them more real to me – allowed them (and me) to break free of two dimensions.

It’s exciting when this happens, even if it does mean parts of the plan need to be screwed up and re-written. It’s more than worth it in the end.

Number Three

Finally. The writing of James Given number three has started. I’ve been plotting for a few weeks, and planning to start for much longer, but the actual words on the page have eluded me.

True, there have been a few changes in my life over the past few months (selling the house, moving country, etc, etc) and I’ve not quite settled in to a routine yet, but it’s not really a good excuse for not writing. I’ve still been sitting at the keyboard for a few hours every day reading those all-important Facebook posts, checking vital emails from holiday companies, and generally wasting time. I’ve told myself that if only I was still able to go into my favourite coffee shop (Mrs B’s in Killybegs, County Donegal if you’re passing) the prose would flow, though I know it isn’t the reason. The real reason is I’ve just been too lazy and easily distracted – not a good combination for a writer. I did have a traumatic experience in one new café though – I was accused by one of the locals of writing down everything that was being said. He might have been right but I wasn’t going to admit it!

So, to get a grip, I started to plot. I began with a vague notion of a body being found – there almost always is, you know – then asked ‘how did it get there?’. A chance encounter with a ‘what’s on’ guide gave me a murder weapon. Whilst thinking about who the villain might be, I wrote a ledger for the victim using some characteristics from someone in a newspaper article. The murderer came to me part way through the poor corpse’s scribblings so I wrote their journal next. Then, using a three act structure passed to me in a recent workshop, I sketched out the three main storylines.

Today, I wrote the end, then the beginning. At least it’s a start, and only 75,000 more words to join them together.

I’ll keep you posted.

Is it ever good enough?

Most days I try to write, with ‘try’ being the operative word. Some days the words just won’t come, and if they do they stumble across the page, tired and listless. On other days I might be happy with what I’ve produced and feel motivated to do more the next day, which is good.

Then I might read another author’s work and feel demoralised, ready to throw the pen (or laptop) into the bin along with everything I’ve ever written. Largely this doesn’t happen because being published isn’t necessarily a measure of quality, only a measure of financial viability – a perfectly valid reason but we have to admit that the latest premier league footballer ‘autobiography’ may not be great literature. However, occasionally, something magnificent comes into my reading orbit and I’ll be blown away by the prose.

For Christmas I was given a copy of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold which has staggered me by its economy and descriptiveness. At first I thought it may be because these Cold War scenes are so familiar to us through films from The Third Man through to Bridge of Spies but then I realised it was much more than that. Le Carré’s description of Leamas, for example, includes the phrase “He looked like a man who could make trouble, a man who looked after his money, a man who was not quite a gentleman”. How I wish I’d written that. Rhythm, clarity, cynicism and humour tied up in simple words painting an accurate picture of the character we’re dealing with.

Thankfully, I’ve avoided the ‘I’m going to give up this writing lark’ response this time. I’m going to read and learn. Then attack my next completed draft with a different eye.

 

Did you kiss the dead body? – Situation development

I recently came upon a poem Death by Harold Pinter which apart from being brilliant in its own own right is also, in my opinion, an excellent framework for developing plot. Just the sort of questions we should be asking about any character or situation in our writing, not just the dead body of Pinter’s work. For example:

Who was the dead body?

Who was the father or daughter or brother
Or uncle or sister or mother or son
Of the dead and abandoned body?

Check it out – I’d like to quote the whole poem here but it appears to be covered, quite rightly, by copyright but you can see it at http://www.haroldpinter.org/poetry/poetry_inart.shtml

I love the line ‘Was the dead body naked or dressed for a journey’.

Editing can be fun – or so they tell me.

On Sunday afternoon a wonderful thing happened. I finished the first draft of my second novel. I’m not a Stephen King-type 2,000 words a day writer but I had been consistently pushing out 600-1,000 words every day for the past two or three weeks trying to get the job done. Coming to the end was a strange experience, different to A Shadowed Livery, and, because I’d decided to put the manuscript to one side for a while (they say you should do that), I suddenly felt bereft and I’ve been the same for the last couple of days. Not quite knowing what to do with my time. So yesterday evening I began another project. I say ‘began’ but I was actually returning to a novel I last worked on two and a half years ago. I’m not sure where it will go but there’s 7,000 words in the bag and a fairly comprehensive draft plan in place. I think I may have given it up when I started the editing of my first novel because the date coincides with receiving a contract from the publisher.

I’ll only work on the new project intermittently because I do want to get back to the real job of editing ‘A Rose by Any’. The first task will be to re-sort the chapters – some are an acceptable 2k-3k words but some are as high as 7k, just a result of expansion in the redraft. Then I’ll check the whole thing with Pro-writing Aid, a great tool for finding all the repeated words and phrases, cliches, over-long sentences, etc. I had a note they’ve released a version for Scrivener so I’ll have a look at that one soon. These steps are really a bit of a slog, but necessary (even without Pro-writing Aid I’d have to find all that stuff).

I’ve already made some project notes as I’ve worked on the first draft, such as checking for conflict in every scene, strengthening my protagonist’s internal goal, ensuring there are barriers to achievement of his internal and external goals, etc. So I’ll work on these larger themes next.

Then to reading the manuscript again. Slowly, sentence by sentence. Can I say this any better? Have I said this before? Does this need to be moved? Underlying this is the check for spoilers related to this and the previous novel, completeness of the narrative (e.g. have I left anyone standing at a bus-stop for ten chapters?), are my characters rounded and the overall shape of the novel.

All of this, of course, is only the first phase of the edit, getting it as good as it can be before it’s wheeled in front of a publisher. If they think it’s good enough then the process starts over again – only this time it will have the benefit of external eyes.

Actually, I’m looking forward to it. Let me know your tips and tricks.

A brick wall

My, my. I’ve arrived at a difficult place. Sixty one thousand words into my second novel and I’ve worked out I don’t know where it’s going. It’s a mystery in which Inspector James Given is investigating a case where a mummified body has been found in the crypt of a school chapel. It’s not the case which is the problem, that’s all fairly well plotted, but I think I’ve realised that the murder itself isn’t the main issue for my hero. Well, I’ve known all along it isn’t, but now I realise I probably haven’t written the first draft with this in mind and will need to do a considerable amount of work to get it back on track.

Fortunately, I do have a second case he is working on and this probably needs to become the major case, rather than a sub-plot.

Interestingly, I’ve only discovered this flaw when I was working on a synopsis to approach potential agents. I was following an outline in a blog from Glen C Strathy based on Dramatica principles and realised my main character might solve the crime but won’t actually change as a result.

Ah well, back to the drawing board. At least I now know one of the reasons why I’ve been stuck on this synopsis for the past couple of weeks.

It’s getting closer

Only two weeks to go to the publication of A Shadowed Livery and I’m excited to think it will soon be out there.

It’s an odd SL Front onlyfeeling when something you’ve worked on for so long eventually grows wings and flies the nest. There’s nothing else can be done with it, the darling either flies or it doesn’t. I keep thinking of parts I could have phrased better, twists in the plot which might have improved the story, traits of my main characters I could have emphasised, but none of these are now possible because it’s in print and ready to go.

Do other authors have this problem?

What’s in a name?

I was recently listening to an interview with a well-known crime fiction writer in which she was complimented on her character’s names. She said she knew the area her characters inhabited so the names came to her quite naturally. Her words confirmed for me that authenticity isn’t just about the historical facts or geographical description but also grows from the images we create of the people in their universe.

In writing A Shadowed Livery the setting for the deaths is fictitious but it is based on a real location in rural Warwickshire. Because the novel is set in 1938 and I knew the ages of the characters I was able to plunder the 1901 and 1911 censuses for the area to come up with names and surnames which fitted not only my vision of them but were also rooted in time and place. This possibly pampers to my obsessions with genealogy and research but I still think its an important consideration when naming our characters.

It is possible, of course, and sometimes desirable, to use an unusual name but we do need to be aware of its impact. We may, for example, love the name Scarlett, but if it doesn’t fit the time and place then any character we give the name probably must be one of the principals, slightly out of kilter with the rest of her world. There are, for example, only 1,600 men named Uriah in the 1851 England census, compared with almost 900,000 called James. There isn’t a single Uriah Heep, but what a character Dickens created there. It’s easy for us to now associate Uriah Heep with patronising sliminess or  Ebenezer Scrooge (again, none in the 1851 census) with meanness, but Dickens didn’t have our hindsight, only the brilliance to devise names which fit the character. How did he do it? I don’t know but I feel a PhD thesis coming on!