Sunday, 30 August 2009

FOUR OUT OF TEN


Didn’t think much of this. Horribly saccharine and sentimental in (large) parts, it failed to capture the grittier aspects of the novel. Wasn’t expecting much anyway; good novels to good cinema come around about this often.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

GOING TO PLACES YOU DON'T WANT TO GO


Regular followers of this blog (Hi Dad) will know I really quite liked Gerard Donovan’s third novel, Julius Winsome. I’m going to have to sneak into some of his classes next month when he comes to Plymouth to lecture in creative writing.

I was (still am) hoping to interview him here, but in the meantime he talks in the Irish Times about writing a novel, in particular how it’s the novelist’s job to say things other people won’t.

See what you think.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

One of my favourite writers is up for the Booker this year.

The author of my favourite read from last year is leaving New York to teach creative writing here in Plymouth. Just don’t mention the weather.

A writer friend has also just received an Arts Council grant to research a novel, proof that interest in the literary arts is healthy.

This.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

DEAR WRITER. NO.

I think it was Mark Twain who said that giving up smoking was easy, and that he should know as he’d done it thousands of times. Something that doesn’t come any easier, despite its frequency, is rejection. Certainly you learn to brace yourself for it after the naïve outrage the first brings. Each further one toughens you a little, draws the cynicism a little nearer the surface, until you even start to expect it. But it still always hurts.

I stumbled on a few rejection letters I received some years ago from literary agents. Most were two-sentence sound-bites, generic and scything. One, though, offered a few generous and sagacious words, worth considering if rejection is starting to bite.

From the thousands of manuscripts I receive each year, I only take on 2 to 4 new clients. However, the overwhelming majority (over 95%) of submissions are so hopelessly bad that one shouldn’t really include them in any significant statistics.

Last year 130,000 new titles were published.

That there is a vast amount of undiscovered talent out there is a delusion. If you have genuine ability, persist; the real odds are less fearsome than they might at first appear.

So, if you’re confident you can write, regard rejection as a temporary inevitability, and just keep going.

Friday, 14 August 2009

COMING SOON...

A competition to win a signed copy of this novel.

STEWART LEE - PART ONE

Just in case you missed Stewart Lee's brilliant routine on books...(I'll post it in three chunks, as being writers you won't have thirty whole minutes to spare in one go.)


Wednesday, 12 August 2009

SPEAK TO ME

When your characters speak, it must sound authentic and specific to them. The reader should get a sense of who’s talking just by hearing their dialogue. And yet this resembles little how people actually talk. Listen to any conversation – lovers flirting, an argument, an impassioned debate – write it down verbatim and read it back. Makes for terrible dialogue. You have to trim all the pauses, the repetition, the prosaic irrelevance. Everything your characters say must move the story forward, reveal character or act as exposition. Dialogue must be crisp and taut, pruned of extraneous flab. Read speech back aloud and ask yourself whether your character would say that. Not many people say: ‘I cannot understand why I sound so stilted.’ Use the contraction ‘can’t’ unless you’re writing a period drama.

Don’t be afraid to use ‘she said, he said’ all the time. Use ‘he espoused’, ‘she exclaimed’, ‘they quipped’ only if you’re sure your reader has a bucket nearby. Unless you’re conveying volume – ‘he shouted’ – ‘he said’ suffices and allows the author to remain invisible. And don’t qualify with adverbs too often: "Yeah, right," he said, sarcastically. This is telling the reader what to think of the dialogue; the speech itself should do that where possible. Worse still is using speech tags to develop character, as in “Go fuck yourself,” said the coarse, plain-speaking woman; or to point out the speaker’s state of mind: “Outrageous,” he said, aghast.

A sequence without tags can be powerful, as long as it remains clear who’s talking. (Nothing more irritating than having to track back to confirm the voice we’re hearing.)

Vary direct speech with reported speech to give your writing cadence and variety.

Be careful of characters telling each other things they clearly know. “It’s great to see you, as it’s been three weeks since the parachute jump, when you broke your ankle and we laughed in the ambulance as it rained outside.”

Avoid dialect or broken English unless absolutely necessary.

Study published writers to see how they use dialogue to advance the story, show you something about a character.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

WHO YOU GONNA TRUST?

I blogged here about why writers do what they do. Most feel they have something to say, some just want to entertain. Implicit in the process, though, is presenting the finished product to a reader or, ideally, readers. (Does fiction, like a tree falling in the woods, exist if there’s no one there to read it?) So who do you show it to first? Who can you trust for that initial appraisal? Friends? Family? Local writing group?

In my experience, none of the above. Or at least if you do, pay no attention to the effusive praise or damning criticism (especially the former) you receive. Unless your sister or best friend is a published writer, a literary agent or editor, their opinion, I’m afraid, is next to worthless. Sure, they may be voracious readers, know a good story when they see one, even write a little themselves. But this does not qualify them to play any part in your next draft.

Think about it. You’re a trainee plumber just finishing the elaborate pipe-work in a large house. Your great aunt, who has lived in many fine houses in her time, all with expertly working water systems, turns the hot tap on and waxes lyrical about the way the water comes out so quickly, and so hot. Does that make you a great plumber? Well, it’d take a precise inspection of the work to know.

And even if your friend regards your work as unadulterated tripe, are they really going to tell you? Family will be even less objective; they’ll find something nice to say about it. As for writing groups, they can be good for motivation, but members might have their own agenda (indulging in mutual appreciation or enacting revenge), or simply be unqualified to give apposite feedback.

The solution. Until you have a trusted agent or pay a reputable editorial service, in the absence of your best friend being a successful novelist, there’s only one person who can do the job. You. It’s not easy judging your own work initially. The only way I know is to read those who have done it well. Read the masters of your genre. How have they achieved that effect? Why did you love that book? How was character revealed? Tension and conflict created? Look at the structure and style of your favourite novels. Why is the dialogue seamless and authentic, the events plausible? What compelled you to keep turning the pages?

Eventually, you will become your own best critic.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

WHOSE VIEW IS IT ANYWAY?

Choosing who narrates the story (and how) is arguably the biggest decision facing a novelist. Think of classic literature and try to imagine it with a different point of view; it ain’t easy:
Holden Caulfield was a complex, disaffected young man, weary with life’s superficialities.
...or...
As the clocks struck thirteen, I made my way out into the cold April sunshine, aware Big Brother was watching me.

Might have worked, but a story will usually lend itself to a particular narrative style. So why do we need to see events through someone’s (other than the author’s) eyes? Impartial, omniscient narration, absent of a character’s nuanced sensibilities, their thoughts and feelings, makes for unbearably vapid storytelling.

Truth, we are told, is always relative, dependent more on a person’s interpretation than bare facts. As I get deeper into my research, nearer to the business of actually writing this novel, I need to decide who narrates it and how. I know whose story it predominantly is, and having spent so much time getting to know her, I’m lured by the immediacy and intensity of first-person narration (FPN), its intimacy and the empathy it will engender for her.

Trouble is, there are some scenes she cannot be present, which rather rules FPN out. Third-person narrative (TPN) offers more breadth – the ability, for example, to witness the same event from several viewpoints. It’s the degree of this authority that determines how readers respond: they may know something a character doesn’t (dramatic irony), or vice versa. And although for the most part the main protagonist is best suited to narrate, minor characters can also serve this purpose effectively, as in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

I was always told to be consistent with narration, not to unsettle the reader by suddenly veering off into another character’s mind mid-scene just because it suited my purpose. It can cause instability and weaken the narrative, resulting in a loss of unity. And yet if handled properly, the effect can be powerful. Barnes does this brilliantly in Love, etc., describing a recent sexual encounter from its participants’ standpoints, giving utterly disparate accounts - one romantic, the other sinister. William Trevor often changes narration mid-paragraph, but I wouldn’t advise this for the novice.

Unreliable narrators – whether through naivety, a lack of knowledge or even an attempt to deceive the reader – can enhance suspense/dramatic tension, but should be used sparingly and only with an obvious aesthetic plan in mind. Likewise authorial intrusion, where the storyteller suddenly addresses the reader directly by commenting on the action. If you tend to write in the FP, try TP for a change. Think of your favourite novels, try to identify their narrative style, then open them to see if you’re right. Why do they work so well written that way? Could they have been so strong narrated differently?
Viewpoint, then, is worthy of serious consideration. Changing a short story from FPN to TPN may be no great hardship, but 90,000 words…

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

A MEANDER

I'm off on one of these for a while. I've been assured there are pubs along the route.

Rather than being industrious and writing some fresh posts for my absence (and rather than posting nothing at all), I've scheduled some of the more 'useful' posts on craft to appear again. If they don't, I obviously didn't work out how to do this.

Happy writing.

In the meantime I'll leave you with the words of James Walkley-Cox - poet, nature-lover and dear friend - as he attempts to convert me to the esoteric machinations of his favourite pastime.

"Very early morning best. Sat on the edge of the barge, everyone else asleep, barefoot, mug of steaming tea, float cast a few metres away, a few feet below a hook baited with a chunky earthworm (slightly chopped or squeezed to bleed a bloody perch attractant if you aren't too squeamish). Perfect.

At worst your heart will skip a beat when a coot pops up from the far bank reeds to squawk a warning at an unaware, sleepy mallard, or a kingfisher will dart by, or a dipper will bob-bob a hello, or a heron, still as a statue, will honour you with its presence, or a tern will hover briefly above the shallows before plunging into the black water to return with an unlucky gudgeon.

At best you with feel a deep-felt lunge in your gut when the float moves or, god willing, jags and sinks, the sort of lunge you feel when you realise that you love someone too much just as you are driving too fast over a humpback bridge having eaten a potently spiced curry dish the evening before whilst thinking about an imminent dental appointment or...

Whatever, as you can read, you need to have a rod and line. You simply need to.

Huckleberry Vowler - Gone Fishing!"

Sunday, 2 August 2009

ALL PEOPLE GREAT AND SMALL


It’s a good idea to populate your novel with a few characters. You know, those people that things happen to. Them what carry the story. Here are some rules, then:

  • Nobody is wholly good or bad, happy or sad. Create multi-faceted, complex characters: unpredictable, inconsistent, confused and flawed - just like you and me.

  • People change, develop, grow. Your characters should too.

  • First novels tend to have an autobiographical character; check you’ve not just written yourself into the book.

  • Make them distinguishable from each other. Guard against peripheral characters that merge into one.

  • Nobody is average height with normal hair and ordinary looking. And if they are, they don’t belong in a novel.

  • The reader must care what happens to them. So must you.

  • Don’t just weave people in as bland extras, there as mirrors to others’ behaviour.

  • Reveal character slowly. And do this by showing us what they think, feel, believe, not by telling us.

  • Not every behaviour relates back to a childhood incident; we’ve moved on from Freud.

  • Clichéd characters are lazy. Those stereotypes that tabloid hacks, not novelists, portray. The grumpy, misunderstood teenager who stays in his room, hates the world, plays his records backwards. The camp hairdresser. The drunken old man, boring folk as he topples from his barstool. The serial killer who tortured animals as a child and can’t relate to women. The abusive priest. The feminist, man-hating lesbian. The prudish spinster and her cat. The New Age vegetable grower who knits her own yoghurt. Yes, these people exist, but dig deeper and you will find other qualities, hypocritical ones, nuances, idiosyncrasies, quirks, qualities nobody else sees. It’s your job to reveal the essence that makes people unique. Think about someone who doesn't cry at a parent's funeral. Someone who buys the same novel from every bookshop she enters, but never reads it. A man who only opens his post with gloves on. Something more interesting begins to emerge. (Read some John Irving for the antithesis to hackneyed characters.)

  • Know as much detail about your characters as you can. More than their likes and dislikes. How do they vote? What would they kill for? Die for? What is their last thought at night? The thing that frightens them the most? The secret they’ve carried forever? The sound they make when they...well, you get the idea.