Beat this, as the opening for a thriller:
I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me.
I've given micro-attention to a short piece of prose before, in An Education in Writing. And I've talked before, in Running With Wolf Hall, about what's going on when you read a whole book that sets you alight. And then the other day I wanted to have a think about how to build thrillers, and for the first time in many years I plucked a Dick Francis off my shelf, and read it. And another, and another, and another, in three days. (This one is Straight, since you ask.) I find them that addictive, although of course when you read a such a writer back to back, you do start to be more aware of the skeleton they share than the individuality which Francis tries to bring to those skeletons. Which of course was the point of my reading: to find what it is which they all have in common.
But, actually, that opening line is an education in writing in itself. Most particularly, it's an education in Telling, in the technical sense. This is information, not an evocation to draw us into a particular place and atmosphere. New writers so often believe that the only way to engage the reader is to admit us to the inside of someone's emotional life, but we can't yet care about the character, and you could argue that it's three sentences of total plot spoiler. And yet it's highly effective. So, how and why?
1) Francis always writes with a character as an internal narrator: his main character is both the main actor in the story and the teller of the story. This bit is very much the character as narrator, but a narrator with an urgent story to tell. He is, implicitly, saying, "Listen! Something terrifying happened to me!"
2) It's far-out in psychic distance, informing us neutrally about certain facts, not evoking them through a subjective consciousness. But the nouns - life, gadgets, enemies, horses, mistress - are potent ones, and so are the only two verbs - inherited, killed - so things are vivid: it's Showing, in the sense of being things which easily come alive in our minds.
3) Those potent words act like sweets, luring us in to want to know more. There's all the difference in the world between this, and what I see a lot of in writing which is hoping to "intrigue" by withholding information. The latter doesn't intrigue, all it does is frustrate the reader, especially at the beginning of the book where we don't have much invested in the main character. Why should we bother to read on, when you're not giving us anything which makes us want to find out more?
4) The words lure us in, but they don't give much away except that the narrator did, actually, survive. (But then we knew that, because he's telling the story.) They rub up together, creating friction and, above all, the instability that is crucial at the beginning of a story: this combination of things is not going to stay peacefully the same for a moment.
5) It doesn't just make us expect the physical action of gadgets and horses: the image of inheriting your brother's life and mistress is ready-packed with emotional instability. (So are horses, for some of us.) There's a story here ... One of the things Francis is so good at is creating an emotional arc which forms and resolves in among and through the thriller arc. It's not the most sophisticated analysis of love and sexual relationships you've ever read, any more than the moral universe of his work has the profound complexity of George Eliot, but both are always there, there's just enough moral and emotional complexity (he's good on friendship, too) to keep the likes of me happy, and they always work together.
6) The voice of the narrative - essentially the same in all Francis's books - is there from the start. We know where we are: direct, practical, adrenalin-inducing, and feeling rather more (brother-life-mistress) than he's ever going to give away in detail.
7) The rhythm and balance of the sentences is spot on. Although it reads completely naturally - no one would call this fancy prose - in fact it conforms to some of the most classic rhetorical forms by exploiting our pattern-making human brains: building in threes (three is the fewest number that makes a patter), with the repetition making the things that are different stand out. Short phrase, longer phrase, we expect the third to be longer still: "I inherited ... Inherited ... ... ... I inherited ... and it nearly killed me." Bang.
8) It's living proof of the fact that it is not incorrect to have a comma before an "and". In English punctuation, it would have been incorrect to have a comma (an "Oxford comma") after "horses", although American punctuation loves Oxford commas. But the comma before "and it nearly killed me" is very properly separating off that final clause. It's not compulsory, since both clauses are quite short and it wouldn't be confusing to have them run straight on. But the slight lift that the comma gives after "I inherited my brother's life" is crucial, reinforcing the repetition of the Inherited phrase, and then going in for the kill. As I was discussing in Don't Plot, Just Play Fortunately-Unfortunately, it's the sort of sentence that asks for an EastEnders-style drum after it - doof, doof, doof - which says "Wow! That was a surprise! And now what's going to happen?"
9) If you read the book (or most of his others) you'll find that the last paragraph captures and evokes the first and, again, the repetition evokes what has changed: if you want to know what's going on with that, you could read John Yorke's Into the Woods.
And after that lot, what are you waiting for?
A writer friend has said that her book-length manuscript has arrived on the page with scarcely any chapters at all: should she put them in? Terry Pratchett doesn't, says another writer. A fellow workshopper was really bothered by how my novel (The Mathematics of Love, since you ask) had several parts to shape a bigger architecture, but not an equal number of chapters in each. One highly successful writer of light women's fiction doesn't put the chapters in till she's written the whole thing, because only then does she know where they should be. Whereas I plan in chapters right from the beginning, like a skyscraper lift-shaft, built round the crane, and round which all else is built, and Scrivener makes that easy. But it also makes the write-it-all-out-and-decide-later method easy.
So what's going on? The question of when (and if) you put a chapter break is really one about what chapters are for, in a novel. There is a rhythm and shape to our experience of a novel - as I was exploring here - and chapters are central to it. And to some extent most of these also apply to the bigger breaks into parts, and the smaller breaks - asterisked, or just double-line-spaced - within a chapter. So these are some of the ways that a break might help to shape that experience: some reasons for whether and where to put one:
1) the reader needs a break - a reason to turn the light off or stop and get up. If Poe's definition of a short story is one that the reader can read "as a sitting", then a long story - a novel - must be one which is too long to be read at a sitting. Though you could always take the book with you, to the bathroom ...
2) the reader needs a break, a pause, to absorb what's gone before, before they get embroiled in what's about to happen. This could either be what I've taken to calling a Quiet Pause - a moment of reflection and understanding of what the stuff you've just read might mean for what you'll read next. Or it could be a Loud Pause, where the scary implications of the last scene have a moment to flower into full Triffid-hood in your imagination.
3) the writer wants the reader to have sense that time passes or we change setting. It uses the reader's experience of reading-time, in a tiny way, to evoke a sense of time passing in the events in the story.
4) the writer wants to change point-of-view. Since I'm a great believer in and advocate of the moving point of view, you won't get me to agree that this is a good reason - if it's the only reason - to break a chapter. But I do recognise that not everyone is confident in handling a moving point of view, and if you want to play safe by your more narrow-minded editors and teachers, and do it this way, I wouldn't dream of stopping you.
5) the reader doesn't need a break - the last thing they want is a break - but the narrator is whisking them away nonetheless, to show them something else and so prolong agony of waiting to find out What Happened Next ... This is harder to make use of if you have an internal, character-narrator, since the reader's more likely to feel cheated by the character deliberately witholding what happened next, rather than the tension coming about quite naturally from the need to catch up with the action in what stage directions call "another part of the field". It also, on the whole, doesn't work to break a chapter and then have the action pick up again at exactly the same point and place: readers feel that as an artificial cranking-up of the tension - again, a bit of a cheat.
6) it's the end of the scene. Some novels (specially novels by those for whom film is the primary narrative form) essentially have one scene per chapter, like a train made of carriages. The chapter break is the draughty moment between the really big, real-time, full-show big moments of change and, that's also how the train bends round corners and curves up hills.
7) this moment has big significance: it's where the EastEnders drum-roll might come in. Like enjambment in poetry, the last few lines of a chapter gain extra importance as they linger in the air while we turn the page, and because of that, experienced readers tend to read a Loud Pause in even if the actual action isn't all that dramatic. The risk for the writer is that you get addicted to the drama of the drum-roll, and habitually jerk us away to the next scene, and the novel loses its sense of continuous narrative and becomes a collection of abrupt chunks. The quieter, more fluent narrative move out of one stage of the story to the next are harder to write, but sometimes much more effective because they take the reader where you want them to go. And anyway, we're not scriptwriters.
8) the writer needs to show the bigger architecture of the story: not so much "This is where the story pauses" as "This is where the story enters a new phase." This is just about the only time when having a chapter-break in the middle of a scene might make sense, and even be rather effective in exploiting the more experienced reader's awareness: if you want to mark, very clearly that this was the big moment of change.
And that's it. I can't think of any more reasons to put a break into a narrative, but maybe you can - and if so, do please put them in the comments.
Posted at 01:46 PM in Academic Creative Writing, Books and reading, Craft, Drama & Theatre, Genres, Point of view & narrators, Short Stories, Technique, THE DAY TRIP, THE MAP TABLE, The Mathematics of Love, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (0)
Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so on.
Were your novel set within living memory, in Britain, or the US, or somewhere else your potential readers know at first or at least second-hand, then you could write phrases like "Trafalgar Square Tube" or "Bridezilla" or "TV Evangelist", and they'll conjure up a full set of denotations and connotations which become part of your readers' experience of the novel. But for readers to feel the same density and complexity in life in 5th Century Athens or on the planet Zog, you can't rely on that existing knowledge: you're going to have to supply more of the cultural/physical hinterland. Another reason our books tend to be fat is that readers who want to spend time in another world want to buy into a full, substantial world: to sense that for each street the story takes them down, there's a whole village fanning out beyond it, for each moment in the chapel there's a whole history and geography of faith and heresy underpinning and overlying it that single prayer. Readers want to sense that every wardrobe or weapons store that's opened has twenty garments or guns in it, even if the only ones that matter are the right one the character fails to pick out because it belonged to their hated, abusive grandmother, and the wrong one they do pick out, which leads to disaster in thirty pages' time. But the reader doesn't know what those other eighteen will look like so, rather than do as cheap TV dramas do with their obviously empty suitcases, you're going to have to fill those cupboards.
Or are you? I'm reading Fahrenheit 451 at the moment, and it's startling what Ray Bradbury doesn't put in: what doesn't get explained, what doesn't get described, what actually isn't there at all. And yet I'm experiencing a vivid world; it's self-sufficient and convincing in how the characters struggle to operate in the only reality they know. If you asked me to free-write my experience of that world, it would be full of things Bradbury didn't put in it. (Which is probably why "the film of the book" - any book - always leaves fans of that book disappointed.) It's not coincidental that it's Bradbury who says, in Zen in the Art of Writing, "The artist learns what to leave out." Just because readers want to sense the presence of all those other streets and lives and faiths and garments and guns, doesn't mean that you should put them all in.
But Bradbury hasn't said, "The artist learns to leave everything out"; what we must learn is to know what the reader can and can't do without, in order to create the world for themselves. The art is in picking which glimpses you offer the reader of those other streets, that religion, those garments and guns. That almost certainly means you imagining or researching an awful lot more than ends up on the page, and then picking which bits of your material will have the best and strongest effect, while taking up the least space on the page. For more on how to pick the details that are evocative, without slowing up the story, click here. And finding the right kind of feedback and beta-readers is the way to grow the judgement of what to leave out, and the confidence to do it.
The other reason that all the imagining/researching too often ends up on the page, is that we too easily feel that any map smaller, and with fewer dimensions, than the world itself is imperfect (which it is, in strict logic: some things are left out). There's always another bit that could and "should" go in: another alleyway or heresy to write, another, subtly different garment which these people really did have ... That's perfectionism in the negative sense: the idea that if you don't create the perfect version, you've failed.
But all maps are selective: all mapmakers take decisions about what to include and how to show it. As important as learning what to leave out, is learning to forgive your (nearly) finished novel for all the things it's never going to include: for all the things it could have been, for all the roads you could have taken this project down and didn't, because you chose to go another way. Unless you're utterly incompetent and have no capacity at all to change how you write something, there will always be other ways you could write it. There is no such thing as a perfect novel in the absolute sense: there will always be avenues/heresies/weapons-stores you could write, which might be just as good, in a different way - but you've decided not to. So be it.
Posted at 02:41 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Craft, Creativity, Genres, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Religion, Research, Science, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, THE WORKBENCH, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
It's a hardy perennial: what makes a book-length act of storytelling count as historical fiction? You'd be surprised at how many different answers there are. Whether a book is historical fiction also depends on whether you're asking as the writer, the reader or the seller of it. So I can't give you fixed answers (no change there, then): we're slithering about in very elemental ideas of space and time and people, here. (And there's a whole other post, some day, in the question of when historical fiction becomes creative life writing.) But here are some ways to think about the issues.
Fiction that uses History because it's distant from us
The Historical Novels Review, for understandable reasons, has tackled this issue, and Sarah Johnson's definition of Historical Fiction is a novel set fifty years ago or more, which the writer is writing from research, not direct knowledge. The Historical Novel Society, on the other hand, has an or where the HNR, implicitly, has an and: "... written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events."
I do think this is the only fundamental, inescapable definition: that it is a novel written about Then, as a world separate and different from Now. Of course, there is a sense in which all novels are historical: they're written "as if" these events are past. But I think there must be some sense of the writer setting out to exploring a time which is long gone, and therefore has a real sense of Otherness about it. Even if your project is to explore the eternal human things, the point is only made if everything else about your characters' lives is different from ours: contingent and particular to their time.
Fiction that explores History as a process
One of the earliest critics of the genre, György Lukács, argues that it's "unarguable" that an historical novel must include real historical events and at least one real historical character (although he agrees with Rose Tremain that the main character must be fictional). I think that's very odd, but it's his Marxist conviction that what matters in human understanding is the processes by which society changes. It's also, arguably, a very "traditional male" view: that what counts as historical is the stuff that makes it on to the record - i.e. men's stuff. (The Commentary part of my PhD thesis explores all this further, and if you really want to, you can download it here.)
Historians study change change from one particular state to the next, so they can form general principles about how these things work. Fiction, on the other hand, "resists generalising", as Jane Smiley puts it in Thirteen Ways of Looking At the Novel. That makes trying to use fiction to explain your history book stuff a dangerous game. In real life we are less aware of the big changes that Historians will notice later, and more aware of the continuities of life in our own small compass. But this is also, perhaps, the place where the novel set in a recent time can work as an historical novel: when the project of the novel is to pinpoint a very clear moment, with the big, slow process of history as the flow of time only implied.
But if fiction is rooted in the particular and the individual, the moment we live in includes our experience of it being part of the flow of historical time: our sense of Then is part of our Now. That's why I don't actually think I write historical fiction at all: I write fiction about history, and I'm not alone in that. The parallel narrative is a dead giveaway, of course, but characters coping in a place and time of acute change is another. Just don't make them unconvincingly clairvoyant about the future.
Fiction that uses History as a setting for genre
The classic story-pleasures can be given extra flavour by being imported into another time and place. Historical Crime and Thriller does well at all ends of the literary-commercial spectrum. Historical Adventure is an easy sell because we all know that adventure was far more adventurous in an unwired, indeed unmapped, world. Historical Romance is the one that people are sniffiest about. There is a sense in too many readers, writers and reviewers that if it's swords, sandals and broken bones it's historical fiction, but if it's sewing, slippers and broken hearts it isn't, it's romantic fiction. Which wouldn't matter if people weren't so snobbish about romance as a genre, though in reality every genre has exactly the same ratio of rubbish (and un-historical rubbish at that) to good stuff. On the other hand I am - apparently - unquestionably an historical novelist, despite the fact that at the heart of most of my stories are characters falling in and out of love and bed and wedlock. Maybe it was the death by being shot through the liver at the siege of Badajoz, in The Mathematics of Love, which got me in.
On the other hand, under the broad umbrella of Women's Fiction, Historical Drama is very welcome indeed, as it's so rich in possibilities for one of fiction's most honourable functions: that of giving voice to the voiceless. And, as ever, once you get into literary fiction, all the boundaries of genre and plot begin to melt and run: Wolf Hall is discussed as fiction by many who would never say they read historical fiction, and it's also on some History degree reading lists, not because it's "true" in the historian's sense, but as an example of how all narrative needs to think of itself as an act of storytelling.
Fiction that uses a period of History as a character
For the writer, it's often the smell of a place and time that first hooks us, and then we look for a character and story to embody it. But a couple of years ago I heard a bookseller saying that the Second World War had only just "become historical fiction". In other words it was an era that, for the readers of fiction, had only now acquired its own personality, as a particular country has a personality that visitors seek. I assume this is because few are still alive who lived through 1939-46 as an adult. Readers' sense of the period is mediated through (grand)parents, school, non-fiction, documentaries, gift shops, music, re-enactments. That's what readies readers to buy our stories which are one step away from those "facts": a whole story which never actually happened.
The thing is, to sell a book you have to convey what the book will give the reader. The analogies between space and time always crop up when you're talking about this stuff. The past is a foreign country, as L P Hartley says: they do things differently there. Readers have to have acquired some sense of what that country is, before they will want to travel in it. "This book is set in a period which means nothing to you but I promise it's really interesting", is always going to be a tougher sell (believe me, I've tried) than "This book is set in Tudor/the WW1 Trenches/Napoleonic times", or one of the other periods which we're fed by school and films and national myth.
On the other hand, where you can draw on readers' existing tastes, but push beyond their edges, there's lots of potential. A Secret Alchemy's Wars of the Roses setting is every bit as glamorous and violent as Tudor times, but less well-trodden territory: that was part of what drew me to the period, and it did the same for readers.
Saturday 29th March was the anniversary of the Battle of Towton: the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As you may know, my novel A Secret Alchemy is woven from three strands, two of the fifteenth century and one of our own time, so here is a scrap of thread from each:
Una – Saturday
We roll on up the motorway, out of the plump, low Midlands towards a bigger and rougher landscape of hills and moors and deep-carved river valleys. There are signs to the junction at Ferrybridge and I think of young Anthony seeing his beaten fellows limping back from there, waiting on Towton moor for the battle that would certainly come and the death that might.
It didn’t, not for him.
And then, half a lifetime later, he rode back over that old life, retracing himself from Sheriff Hutton to Pontefract, knowing that this time he was, certainly, going to die. We know that they told him, and we know the journey need have taken no more than a day, so near midsummer: a long, hot, single day.
But I can’t think what he thought as he rode, or feel what he felt. He was a man of – no, not piety, that’s too smug and narrow a word, and faith too weak. He had a belief that’s hard for us to feel, perhaps impossible: a structure of absolute certainty that transcended faith, a knowledge as much part of him as his own bones, clothed in words and rituals that had clad him since the chrisom-cloth first wrapped him, since he was borne to church, to be baptised with holy water to bless him, and salt to scare away the Devil.
I’m very tired, and deeply shaken, and it suddenly seems unbearable, too, that I can’t know Anthony, that I can’t read his books, talk to him, walk beside him, look into his eyes, touch his hand. Perhaps if I try hard enough, perhaps if I imagine completely ... I try to feel him riding at my shoulder, but he isn’t there.
Elysabeth – the 1st yr of the reign of King Edward the Fourth
There were more battles. And then came the news of the fight at Towton.
Even by those first reports, it was clear that the slaughter had been like no battle before. My father was thought to have fled north with the King and Queen, and Antony was most certainly dead.
My mother’s grief for the loss of her first-born son was no less for being silent, or for the news being still uncertain. My own, coming so hard upon the loss of my husband, seemed more than my flesh might bear. And still we could not be sure. It might be a false report, I told myself, but if it were, would a true one not have come by now?
It was a week before a messenger from my father brought news: he and Antony were both safe at York, and the King and Queen were fled to the Scottish king.
Our joy that Antony lived was the sharper for having thought him lost. But if it had not been one of our own men who told of my father’s going to Edward of York, kneeling first in surrender and then in fealty to his new king, and Antony with him, I would not have believed it.
Antony – Tierce
Micklegate Bar is the strongest gate of all. Now I am leaving by it, in the company of my captors. And we entered by it so many years ago, when my father and I rode as the staunchest Lancastrians to join Queen Marguerite and see off the Yorkist rebels for good. Duke Richard of York was already dead, killed almost under the walls of his own castle at Sandal, his second son Edmund with him, and King Henry rescued in the second fight at St Albans. My father pointed upwards to the men’s heads stuck on pikes, leering down like puppets from the gate tower. They were black, not with age but with tar, the better to preserve their rictus of fear: the threat of death to the traitorous. I was nineteen, and I did not know that the wheel of Fortune would turn again so soon.
‘See that one, son? Edward’s father of York, and a very great man, whatever he did. Edward’s brother at least was laid in the ground unbutchered. But that’s what gives Edward the fire in his belly. He and Edmund were brought up together, so close in age you might call them twins, and no older than you are. He has much to avenge. When he comes north to find us, it will not be an easy fight.’
If Edward had much to avenge, then the fight at Towton was a vengeance I had not thought it possible any mortal could wreak. It was the only time, they said, that Edward gave no order to spare the commons, and forbade his men to take any prisoners for an honourable, profitable ransom. All the enemies of the House of York were to be killed.
At Tadcaster we leave the Roman road that leads to Doncaster, and turn south. The sun is hot and high now, and I pull my cap down to keep the brightness from my eyes. No more than a couple of miles’ ride, and we are in Towton village. Chickens scatter from beneath our hoofs and a glimpse of skirts shows how the women whisk themselves indoors. Beyond the huddle of cottages and alehouses the road runs level; on our left hand the heat is beginning to shimmer above the higher ground. Even the larks have fallen silent, and only a sleepy dove, calling from the trees of Carr Wood, is still awake.
How bare and high the road seemed that day, with the sky hanging like lead over the frost-hardened earth, and the becks that we could not see until we stumbled on them, so deep had they cut their way into the land. Old soldiers felt the raw wind that stung our faces and looked to the east and shook their heads. Young ones left off rubbing blisters and asked what they saw. ‘Snow by the morrow,’ someone said.
We were part of the vanguard, south of Towton village. Places were set, tents put up, horses untacked and watered, ale barrels broached and cannon shot stacked. Squires polished armour and checked straps and buckles, clerks scratched at lists and camp women set snares for rabbits. The men piled their fires as high as they could get wood for them and smoke began to rise. By the time I had accounted for my men and seen them settled, I could smell charring meat and fat dripping on to embers. Some was not meat but fowls, no doubt got against the rules of war. But I knew better than to ask or to tell my father. He was in command of the second battle – supporting his new young grace of Somerset – and might decide he should seek out the felons, though there were far greater matters at stake.
A shout from the London road made us leap to our feet. A straggling handful of men, a few mounted on horses whose heads hung almost to their knees. No threat to us even before we could see their badges in the failing light. A lad with more energy to waste than the rest ran to them, and ran back to bring the tale: this was what remained of our vanguard. York’s men had forced through at Ferrybridge, and were even now but an hour or two away.
It was all but dark already. They would not arrive in time to attack tonight, my father said, coming out of his tent with a list of the musters who had joined us since yesterday. But we must make sure everything was in readiness.
We had need of all our strength on the morrow to hold on to a dream of any kind of good. Hard to believe it now, with the sun beating down on my head and the horses half asleep under us as the road drops gently towards Saxton. Hard to believe that some men who lay down to sleep that night never woke to fight but had the snow for a gravecloth. Hard to believe that the wind and sleet drove so hard in our faces that we could not see the enemy, and our archers’ arrows fell short time and again. The noise was as brutal as the press of men about me: steel and flesh, and cries for the King shrieking in our ears. So close did we fight that it seemed each army barely moved, or gained on the other. It never grew fully light, but the day crawled on. Too late did we realise that where once Cock Beck had guarded our flank, now we were turned inch by inch, and pushed back to where the ground fell away, and the men with it, tumbling helplessly down to the ice-covered rocks and bloody water. It was said the waters ran red for days. Men who could walk slipped away, those who could only crawl were left for the villagers. We who were captured in hope of ransom knelt and prayed that our knighthood would earn respect, and our estate earn safety. It was certain that the cause of Lancaster was lost.
But soon we realised that, with the battle won, Edward of York had reconciliation, not vengeance, in his mind.
‘Has not God shown by this victory that there can be no hope of peace while Henry with his usurper’s blood still wears the crown?’ he asked my father, with a solemn face. Then he smiled. ‘Sire, I have lost my great Plantagenet father, and must have men about me of worship: of courage and wisdom. There’s peace and prosperity waiting for us all, had England but strong and godly government at last. You are one of the few who can give it that peace and prosperity. What say you, my lord Rivers?’
My father went to Mass and prayed for guidance, and I prayed, too, that the oath of allegiance which would secure our family would also be acceptable to God.
I've blogged before about how to give feedback, and how you decide when it's time to stop revising. I've even suggested 16 Questions to ask a critique and a critiquer. But how do you decide when to share your draft? Some show their partner every day's work: the writerly equivalent of the cinema's dailies. Some don't show a soul their first or even their tenth draft. Most of us are somewhere in between, but the what and when and who are still worth thinking about:.
Are you thinking of sharing a crazy first draft? The plus is that you might get lots of pointers towards better and worse ways to develop it, including things you might never have thought of on your own. Early drafts are malleable, and not just in words and the shapes of things; the very idea and form of it is malleable. And if the project is fundamentally not working, or you realise that the amount of work it needs is more than your level of interest will sustain, then you haven't spent forever on it.
You're dying to ask, "Does this speak to you? Is it worth pursuing?", of course. But at these early stages you're still inside the bubble which is this story-world. The whole point of the crazy-first-draft is that you let go of self-consciousness, you don't start judging things yet, and instead follow your instincts for story and imagination. Is it time, yet, to step outside the bubble and see it from the outside? Maybe not: it can be very difficult to get back inside.
Have you got some of the book reasonably as you'd like it, but lots isn't written at all yet? If you're in the Thirty-Thousand Doldrums, then a blast of feedback can fill your sails again. And if there's stuff that isn't written, then it's no disaster if feedback prompts you to change your plans for it. But feeders-back can't read what's still in your head, not on the page. Their response can't have that context, and their judgements may threaten your still-insecure, feeling-your-way sense of what this project is.
Have you left paragraphing, grammar, punctuation and those pesky spellings till later? I know that it seems like a waste of time to polish things are going to be cut or re-written, but creative work is inherently wasteful, and if the grammar, syntax or spelling are wayward enough, then the effect of the piece will be blunted or blocked altogether. What's more, if the MS is full of trivial slips it does encourage commenters to stay at typo-level, when what you want to know is whether the tension increases properly or your MC is scary enough. So do give it a quick spit and polish before attaching it to an email.
Have you left it till you're on the third draft? Or the tenth? That early, malleable stuff has firmed up: it's become a more specific, boundaried project, and you've committed yourself to that version of it. The advantages of this are obvious: you know now what this project is trying to be and the story and plot are pretty fully developed and settled. You can weigh the usefulness of comments and ideas from that security, and change things within a solid machine that you know actually works.
But if a commenter's feedback questions the whole nature of the project, then it's a bit like asking someone to help train and feed your Dalmatian to win at Crufts, only for them to say that your pet would be cleverer, more beautiful and much more likely to win a medal if it was a Siamese Blue. But Pongo is never going to excel at tree-climbing and maiowing. In that sense, it's too late. And even if you do realise that the commenter is right - that the project needs to be set about, from scratch, in a completely different way - are you able to do it? Any creative piece which is solidly embodied in words comes to seem like an independent entity: it's very difficult to imagine beyond the firm form and substance of it.
How often are you sharing it? It can be a huge help that your writers' circle know what came before and, arguably, with a book-length project it can be essential, if you want to talk about larger issues of story and structure. But there comes a point where they know it too well: where they, like you, can't see beyond the boundaries of what it is at the moment. I think there's also a danger with this, as with long-term workshopping of a single project, of writing by committee: of the group, not you, making all the decisions. It's easy to feel that dealing with each thing they say will make the book work, as it will if you do all the corrections teacher tells you to. Whereas it's actually how well everything's integrated to make one, whole, coherent arch from beginning to end, which will make the book work.
How much are you sharing?
This is where the poets and short-short story writers have it so much easier. Someone has to love you very much - or need the money - to read your book-length project in manuscript, and a long short story is also quite a commitment. And though detailed feedback takes time on anything, on a book-length project your reader probably has to choose between a small chunk of close-up attention, and broader (less helpful?) comments on the overall effect. Which do you want at this stage? Which is your potential more likely to do?
And parts-of-books are an odd thing. We're wired to read a chunk of writing as a complete unit, even if we know it isn't. We know this is a slice out of the novel but the brain is bothered by these trailing threads. A lot of comments will be irrelevant, too: asking this section to contain stuff which is held perfectly well elsewhere. That may not matter (accept, adapt, ignore), but it may be confusing or confidence-denting to get feedback which really doesn't fit with what you - but not the commenter - know of the rest. Either way, I'd suggest you add in a rough synopsis, just to help the reader to a wider sense of the novel this chunk has been broken off.
Who are you sharing it with? It's very touching that your dad, who hasn't read a book for twenty-five years, wants to read your novel. It might be the affirmation you need, and you might want to take up his offer precisely because he's doing it from sheer love. Similarly, someone who never reads this genre might provide a brilliant light on some of your defaults which need challenging. Or they might just complain that your SF/F has too many spaceships, or your Romance too much about boy meeting girl. Are they right anyway, or just wired wrong for the genre? And you should feel free to exclude non-writers if you want. There lots of things that anyone can say about a book which are entirely correct, but entirely unhelpful to the writer trying to work out how to improve the book, and in that I'd include much that publishing professionals might say among themselves.
So it's perfectly fair to be ruthless about who reads your work: all opinions are not equal, in this, and it's you who gets to decide what you want and who might supply it. It helps to have faith in what style of feedback suits you, and not to be ashamed of steering clear of critiquers who are bullies in the name of "honesty" or bland in the name of "supportiveness".
In other words, who may be more important than when. Timing matters, but as I hope you've realised, there are pros and cons to sharing work at any stage. Most of us will find we have favourite times, but it's not always possible, and besides, different projects often need different processes. If you develop a feel for what the effect of sharing at each stage might be, then you can hope to exploit the differences, and make the most of the help you're offered.
As an ex- wannabe-actress, I actively enjoy the performing side of being an author, even if I do need plenty of Piglet-time afterwards before I can get back into writing-mode. So I'm looking forward to providing a Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, on 27th November, and if you can make it, do come and say Hi afterwards. I've never been to Belfast, either, so I also hope I'll get a little time to have a look round.
It's always particularly easy and enjoyable when you're slotting into an established structure and venue, as with the Literary Lunchtimes, but I was surprised to find myself actively happy, a couple of weekends ago, as I turned off the A1(M) to Harrogate. It had been a long drive through Friday traffic from South East London, the sky over the Pennines was inky black and slashed with lightning, and there were rain-soaked roadworks. This was a brand-new festival, and I hadn't got much time left to to prepare an event I was chairing, billed as Wives of Tyrants: Tudors to Nazis. Why was I feeling so happy, and so looking forward to it?
As an author your only responsibility at an event is to be audible, interesting and well-mannered company for the audience and the other authors; it may not be easy, but it is relatively simple. Elizabeth Fremantle and Jane Thynne did it all just brilliantly. But when you're chairing, you're trying, in real-time, to find the coherence in two or more writers and their books and what they have to say about them; you're trying to draw out a discussion from them that the audience experiences as a well-shaped, coherent, intriguing and satisfying forty minutes; you're trying to hold back on what you might say about your own work because it's not about you, today; you're trying to fit in the readings and the questions, and still land the plane dead on 10.58 ... and you're nonetheless trying to avoid making the discussion so complete, or so focussed on the non-fiction interest, that the audience decide they don't need to buy the novels at all.
I love chairing, but in many ways it needs more prep, and can go more horribly wrong, than my own events. So it was nice, too, that the whole festival took place in the same, large, comfortable, agreeably Victorian hotel, The Old Swan. In the gaps where I was tired or had done enough talking and listening for the moment, I could just disappear upstairs to my own room and kick my shoes off. I don't think I once got that lost-in-translation feeling I usually get at some moment, where you eye the hospitality tray and its potlets of nasty UHT milk, and want to be at home.
The first Harrogate History Festival was the brainchild of Manda (MC) Scott, chair of the Historical Writers Association, after an earlier festival, and a marquee-full of books, were drowned in the floods. A roof and solid walls make life so much better, Manda decided, and who better to team up with than Harrogate, which has been hosting the crime writers' equivalent for a decade?
Another thing that made Harrogate such fun was how smoothly it ran: even the microphones were the nifty kind which curl round your ear and you're scarcely aware of. I don't think administrators and curators and committees get nearly enough gratitude when events go well, considering what a difference it makes to our performance if we can relax back onto a solid structure of the right things happening in the right places at the right times. My singer sister suffered hideously when no one remembered to tell her and the other singers till the day that a production of L'Orfeo was to be at Baroque pitch, but even with less critical issues there are always the times where no one knows where you should go, lack of publicity makes a thin audience, and no one's cordoned off the event space or silenced the coffee machine.
Yes, any festival's function, at one level, is to sell: sell tickets; sell books and more indirectly authors-as-brands; sell hotel rooms, drinks, nearby attractions, and next year's tickets. It worked, too: the bookroom was packed, 2000 people bought tickets - far more than even optimistic estimates - many events were sold out and all were full, and all is set for the second Harrogate History Festival in 2014. And the fact that all the authors and chairs must be paid has been built in from the beginning. But what really made Harrogate such a blast was that although we were all in economic relationships with each other, it genuinely felt like a communal event too: the gathering of the Clan History, if you like.
There were writers I already knew, from old hands like Robert Low to students from the Arvon course that Manda and I taught, blogging friends such as Sally Zigmond and Alison Morton, there were Self-Editing graduates, blog readers, strangers in the book room who bought my books, strangers in the greenroom who've written more than I ever shall, strangers I sat next to in other sessions and agreed or disagreed with. The jam-packed event on the Search for Richard III sparked interest in my own A Secret Alchemy; a Random Penguin publicist said something super-useful about the book I'm basing on this blog; historical crimewriter Andrew Taylor and I had an illuminating conversation, over a late-evening Chinese meal with Lloyd Shepherd and Robert Ryan in what used to be the Royal Baths, about the different ways writers work.
The more people I talked to, I realised as I drove away through the most deliciously sunny Sunday afternoon, the stronger a sense I had of a web which connects readers and writers of every kind to each other. We were all readers before we were writers, of course, and the web is spun from our endless, shared fascination with the Otherness and Sameness of the past to our own time. I'm glad we'll all be back in Harrogate this time next year.
Last time I blogged about prologues, I did so under the title "Why you probably shouldn't, why maybe you should", and I do stand by that. A lot of the prologues I see are trying to do something which would be better done another way. At the worst, they're trying to solve a problem with how the rest of the book works, but just cause a worse problem. At best they're surplus to requirements, and weaken a beginning that would otherwise work well. So I'd suggest that your first reaction to wanting a prologue is to see if there's a better way to do what the prologue's trying to do.
But then I dropped in on Jane Wenham-Jones's pilot for a new YouTube series, based on her hilarious and also excellent Wannabe A Writer books. In Episode Two, the lovely - and seriously bestselling - Katie Fforde talks about how the reader "locks on to" the first character they experience, like a baby bird imprinting. (The other episodes are well worth watching, too.) You need to make sure that that's the right character, says Katie, and that we know immediately what her situation and her problem is.
Katie's absolutely right, of course. The opening of a novel establishes the most important character or two and what their essential problem is: what they're trying to find or get, and what chasm is yawning before them if they fail. This is the person whose fate we must care passionately about. This is the character who has so much at stake that the opening can implicitly promise, as Andrew Stanton puts it, that this story is going to be worth the reader's while. Katie's example is, you could say, the women's fiction/romance equivalent of having a body on page one in a crime novel: in those, what you want the reader to imprint on is the problem that a dead body automatically poses, and the narrative is the story of how the problem is solved.
Mind you, at the more literary end of things, (see here for my exploration of the difference) readers are willing to stay for a while in a more uncertain, ambivalent, ambiguous narrative, where it's not quite clear what we're hoping for, what we're fearing, and whether it will all be be worth our while. And if that's the kind of thing you hope to write, boy will your prose, ideas, voice and general literary wonderfulness have to be staggeringly brilliant, to make up for denying the reader that clarity and immediate connection, and that clear forward drive.
Meanwhile, the rest of the reading world needs to know who and what they're following, and why. So what I'm wondering is whether this also explains the proliferation of prologues these days: it's a way of starting obliquely, as more literary fiction may, but without risking the reader imprinting on the wrong character and situation. The fact that it's a prologue warns us off; it says, "You need to know this, but watch out, this isn't the real story." Maybe that's a good reason for having a prologue.
But still, I'd say, you the writer need to be careful too. There are two halves to what the existence of a prologue is telling the reader. How you write it may well say very clearly and compellingly, "You need to know this", and really make the reader want to know it. But are you sure that the other half - "this isn't the real story" - is a good enough way to start your story? Is that really the best way to make the promise that Andrew Stanton talks about? What in your prologue is telling the reader that the following 300 pages are going to be worth our time?
These are all the posts I think I mentioned at Arvon Lumb Bank, when M C Scott and I had the pleasure of spending a week talking about writing historical fiction with fifteen writers who are rash enough to want to join us - and then wrote some truly fantastic stuff. We also had a splendid evening with Robert Low, ex-Para, ex-journalist and current Viking.
If you were there, and remember me mentioning a post or a book or a topic which I haven't put here, do say so in the comments, and I'll do my best to dig it up. If you've been digging in the Tool Kit section of the blog, quite a few of these will be familiar, but some may not.
And I distinctly remember mentioning Sarah Stovell's novel The Night Flower, as a great example of first-person historical voices working in parallel, because it wasn't at that point published (it is now). And also Linda Buckely-Archer's children's time-slip trilogy Gideon The Cutpurse (calle Time Quake in the US). I know there were others, obviously, so let me know if I mentioned anything else you haven't been able to track down.
READING LIKE A WRITER:
AN EDUCATION IN WRITING: in which I dissect 100 words of Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day. Just watch those verbs...
BOOKS FOR WRITERS : all the books I mentioned should be on this list, including The Seven Basic Plots, and if you remember one that isn't, mention it in the comments here.
SHOWING AND TELLING: the basics : even though you know this stuff...
PSYCHIC DISTANCE: what it is and how to use it : the examples will be familiar...
CHARACTERISATION-IN-ACTION : some of these will be familiar from our Arvon week, but there's more
MORE ON CHARACTERISATION : which comes more naturally to you: thinking about characterisation from the outside inwards, or from the inside outwards?
PROLOGUES : why you probably shouldn't, why occasionally you should.
POINT-OF-VIEW AND NARRATORS SERIES:
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 1: the basics : what point of view is, what a narrator is, and why it matters
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 2: internal narrators : character-narrators who narrate in first person
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 3: external narrators : limited, switching and privileged point of view in narrators who narrate in third person
POINT OF VIEW & NARRATORS 4: moving point of view and other stories : how to work with a moving point of view, second-person narrators and other stuff
DESCRIPTION : how to stop your descriptions being slabs of scene setting, and turn them into storytelling
6 QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DESCRIPTION : more on the how and why of evoking places, people and everything else
FLASHBACKS AND BACKSTORY : how to handle the stuff from Before The Story Starts.
SIXTY-PLUS WAYS OF ARRANGING THE SAME 11 WORD SENTENCE ; yoga for writers, in other words
SENTENCE STRUCTURE AS STORYTELLING: how the order of the elements in your sentence can make such a difference
HOW THINKING ABOUT GRAMMAR can help your prose to sing
THE COMMON SCAFFOLD: all the things which get into your first draft for good reason, but then need fishing out again
CLUSTERING : as a way of finding material, with a picture of the clusters I worked to develop a story.
TWELVE TOOLS (NOT RULES) OF WRITING : just what it says on the tin
THE THIRTY-THOUSAND DOLDRUMS : somewhere between 20k and 40k, and decided that the whole thing's a disaster? You are not alone.
SCRIVENER SOFTWARE : why I'm a complete convert to the only writing software real writers use, whether they're pantsers, planners, or imaginers-on-paper.
THE SYNOPSIS: Relax! : the synopsis won't make or break your novel's fate, but it can help to give it the best chance. Here's how.