I can't quite believe that This Itch of Writing has being going for 500 posts - and five and a half years, come to that - but it's true. To celebrate, I thought it would be fun to have a competition, and some of my favourite writerly places have kindly offered prizes.
TO ENTER: Please write a blog post, 500 words at most, which is helpful, interesting or illuminating for other writers. Of course yours will stem from your own experience of writing, but the focus of This Itch of Writing is outwards, towards other writers, not inwards towards yourself. If you're new to This Itch of Writing, have a look here, to get an idea of the range of topics across the whole blog. If you want to include links or images that add real value to your post then please do, bearing in mind that This Itch is all about the words on the page. And you're welcome to enter more than once though, to be fair, I won't give the same person more than one prize!
THE PRIZES: In the spirit of This Itch that every writer is different and so wants and needs different things, the first prize is to be able to choose whichever of these three will be most useful and pleasurable for you:
The second prize is to choose from the remaining two prizes; the third prize is - well - you do the math.
All winning and any highly commended posts will be posted on This Itch of Writing at suitable intervals, and at that point I'll ask you for a couple of lines of biography, and, if you like, a link back to your own blog, website, Facebook page or any other web presence.
THE CLOSING DATE is the end of Friday 31st May (BST, if we're being precise), and I'll post the result as soon as I can after that, although, the writing life being the unpredictable thing that it is, I make no promises about when.
To enter, email your post to me at thisitchofwriting [insert the usual email symbol here] gmail dot com. Please make sure you give your full name as well as the text of your post, and put "competition" in the subject so I can keep things tidy!
By entering, you confirm that the post is your original work, and not published anywhere else.
You keep the copyright in your post, but copyright on This Itch of Writing operates under a Creative Commons Licence, (see the left-hand sidebar for the details) so you must be happy with those principles. The winning posts will stay in the archive of This Itch of Writing while it exists: all other posts will be deleted, so do make sure you've got a copy of the file.
My decision about the winners is final, and I don't promise to enter into discussions of the whys and wherefores of my decision.
There's no cash alternative to the prizes, but they are transferable to someone else, or postponable if (for example) you're already a member of WriteWords, by arrangement between you and the donor of the prize.
The Retreats for You prize includes full board for two nights, but transport there is your responsibility. Retreats for You can arrange transfers to and from Exeter St Davids station for an extra fee.
Everyone knows about the terror of the blank page that you've just written Chapter One at the top of. Some writers spend weeks approaching it, dabbing a couple of words on, and deleting them. Others research for a decade in order to avoid getting to the blank page moment at all. And one of the chief reasons that the crazy/shitty first draft principle works for so many people is that suddenly the cost of failure isn't so high: this was only a crazy first draft, after all. Anything goes to get words on the page; we'll turn them into the right words later.
But what if you're fine with starting, and with finishing that draft, but are terrified of revising? Some feel uneasily that their punctuation/grammar/spelling aren't up to scratch, but that's relatively easy to learn - and you may not be nearly as bad as you think. Others just don't know where to start eating this elephant: some suggestions here. But what if what worries you is revising the bigger and more intangible things? What if you're terrified you won't know if you're making it worse, not better? For some, that fear can be paralysing. First, here are some thoughts about how to keep in touch with the shore as you launch out into the unknown.
But the other side of dealing with this kind of fear is accepting that whatever happens in revising happens. No novel is ever, totally perfect: they're just too big. What you need to do for one reason means it won't quite be perfect in some other way, and it can never be all things to all readers. You have to forgive the novel for not being things it can never be; and for the answer to the question "When do I stop?", click here.
Another face of this business of letting go of the outcome is to understand that revising, too, is partly a matter of trusting your instincts. In the first draft you're inside a bubble of your organic sense of what the novel is - the characters and their situations and conflicts, the settings, the themes and ideas, all in their magical, cloudy reality - and you write within that bubble.
In revising (whether you do it after every sentence, or only when you've free-written the whole book) you have to step outside that bubble and train your editor's searchlight and telescope on it. You have to bring in feedback and general advice, and worry about your particular weaknesses and patches of tone-deafness or simple technical ignorance. Which matter, of course, but when people are afraid of "editing out the freshness" - and it certainly can happen - I think it's because they don't find it easy to bring that cool, technical eye to the writing, while keeping in touch with with the bubble.
One of the best summations of what an editor is doing for your book - whether it's someone else, or a workshop, or yourself - is that it's helping the book "to become the book you thought you'd already written." And so you need to hold on to your instinctive, sense of the bubble that you hope you've written, even when you revise: you sometimes need to close the notes and the checklist and the writing text-book, forget it all, and trust that everything editorial/critical you've absorbed just will emerge in your head and on the page, when the text in front of you needs it.
That way, not to sound too mystical about it, the text is driving the process from inside and taking what it needs from outside, rather than outside stuff imposing its will on the text. And that's why it's likely to all work better if, when you've realised the book needs to be very different, you resign yourself to going back and re-building it from scratch. It's not just because you've tweaked the hell out of and it's still not working so you've got to try something else. It's because by starting, mentally, from scratch, you're allowing the bubble to reconstitute itself and come alive for you. You're going back to thinking, "What is this book really, really trying to be?"
It must be spring in the air: I'm fantastically busy on various fronts, but some of them might be relevant to all you lovely blog-readers, so here goes.
Since October I've been absolutely loving my RLF Fellowship at Goldsmiths; it's been some of the most rewarding and enjoyable teaching I've ever done, so I'm delighted that playwright Annie Caulfield and I will again be there next year. Our job is to help with academic writing across the full spectrum of the College, from first years to PhDs and staff, from Fine Art to Social Work and Anthropology. I am planning an occasional series on academic writing, since I know quite a few blog-readers would be interested. And the RLF's website has excellent resources on academic writing, although you do need to do a bit of digging to find it all.
The York Festival of Writing 2013 is on the 13-15th September. I'll be there as usual - as will Debi, several hundred writers, and a hundred or so authors, agents and publishers - and I'll be teaching a half-day mini-course and several workshops, although exactly what hasn't yet been settled (did I say I've been a bit busy?). It's always a fantastic weekend, and if you want to get the flavour, there's a great video here, which was made last year.
I've been playing around with Pinterest, assembling a "board" each for The Mathematics of Love, and A Secret Alchemy. The idea is partly to have somewhere for readers who are tickled by the real life correspondences in the novels, and partly perhaps to pick up the occasional interest from someone browsing Pinterest who didn't know that my novels existed. The boards are very much work-in-progress, and I've sometimes raged against the assumption that novels simply represent Real Stuff. But I shall gently add more images, since it's a lot of fun, perfect procrastination, and I do feel they're adding something that hasn't quite been get-attable before.
Some of my friends do boards for works-in-progress, but I don't talk detail about what I'm working on. That's partly because once I start I'm not very good at stopping and I'm fond of my friends, and partly so as not to "talk it out". But most of all it's because other people's reactions at this thinking-dreaming stage often not helpful, however well-intentioned or merely interested.
But when I got onto Pinterest I discovered that you can have "secret" boards, which only you can see. And compared to files on the PC and folders on my desk, it's a really easy way to collect together images, complete with links to their origins, and see them all at once. So I've made a secret board for the WIP and, when the W is no longer in P, I shall simply turn the board to "public".
At the Historical Novel Society Conference 2012, I took part in a panel discussion called The Lying Art: Tensions and Issues at the Fact/Fiction Interface, and it was recorded. The authors on the panel were Elizabeth Chadwick, Ian Mortimer (when he's being a historian, James Forrester when he's being a novelist), Barbara Ewing, Daisy Godwin, Harry Sidebottom and yours truly, and it was a really lively discussion with lots of disagreeing!
Obviously it might interest anyone writing historical fiction, but it's also very relevant to anyone who's grappling with the perennial questions that come up when you're using real factual material in your fiction - what you must be faithful to, what you can change, what you can ignore.
You may know that I co-teach an online course on Self-Editing Your Novel with Debi Alper. It's a six-week course based on a private bit of the Writers' Workshop Word Cloud. We developed it together, over a hundred writers have "graduated" from it, and this week we're in the thick of the seventh course. As ever, it's being huge fun, and then on a thread which a Word Clouder started about writing courses in general, our course was mentioned. And such was the reaction from graduates that I can't resist posting a link to what they said here. And one of the participants last time has even drawn a comic strip to show (and tell) what she got from it.
and finally...We're coming up to the 500th Postiversary on This Itch of Writing - at least, we are if you don't count the various posts that were just administrative. Once I'd recovered from the shock of realising that this has actually happened - can it really be? - I decided to have a competition to celebrate, and some kind colleagues have come up with some fantastic prizes. But did I mention that I'm horribly busy? At least until the end of term for my RLF Fellowship at Goldsmiths, and the end of the Open University Creative Writing Course A215, that is. So, since the whole point of blogging is that I can fit it round the rest of my life, it'll be a few weeks until I actually post the competition. Watch this space...
Posted on Thursday, 11 April 2013 at 11:44 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Blog and blogging, Competitions, Events, Historical Fiction, Photography, Research, Teaching Writing, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE IDENTITY CARD, The Mathematics of Love, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)
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Q: I'm being kept up at night by one rejection; four full MS are still out there. The agent in question is super starry and it sounds like she gave my MS a thorough reading. She said some nice things, even said I nailed some things. But she said she didn't get a new perspective, neither was she challenged. I've also come across a lot of stuff about risk in writing. I am now wondering more generally where I actually take personal risks, and finding that I'm not doing it much. I guess the book that is looking for a home took a long time in the writing and is probably the 8th iteration of the original idea, so what might have been a new perspective is old hat. But more seriously the things that have affected me in life seem so far in the distance that to bring them up as material feels like a weird contrivance. My second novel is halfway done at least in draft format and although it has plenty (I think) in terms of new perspective I don't feel exposed in the writing of it - not really. Yeah, I'm trying stuff with voice but everyone is doing that to some extent. I know writers who only ever write about their lives and relationships. I don't think that's me so much. Am I alone?
A: I think it's easy to be vague and touchy-feely (or macho and suffering-artiste-ish) about how it's necessary to dare all and bare all if you want to write well, but I'm not sure it's the whole truth. It certainly isn't a guarantee of good writing that the original source experiences were difficult or powerful. But, conversely, it's not a guarantee of bad writing that they weren't, or that you didn't have them. And heaven help any of you writers if you felt tied in to writing about your own lives and relationships - how boring would that be?
Having said that, I do think that for most of us, the best writing comes from places and materials which are really potent for us. That potency may be transmuted into other characters and situations, other worlds, other times, but it still connects with something quite fundamental inside ourselves. If you're not trying to find some kind of direct emotional (in the broad sense) connection with the story you're telling, then you're not going to find and write what's particular and individual and therefore real-seeming about this story. As John Gardner puts it, it's by the convincingness of the particularity of the story, that you persuade the reader to buy into the whole thing even though it's fiction. And the more individual and particular to you it is, the more likely it is to challenge and surprise a reader, and offer them a new perspective. That direct connection needn't be dressed in the settings and relationships of your own life, but even if it's not there at the start of your thinking about "what if...", you do need to find it as you work.
So it's easy to assume - non-writers do assume - that the best writing comes from the newest, closest, most vivid (and so probably painful) stuff. But you also need distance. When Emma has set out to write a story which will enable her to explore something pressing and important to her, it doesn't work. Sometimes it really is too raw: she's dodging being really honest about something difficult. Sometimes it's that the project gets lumbered with her need to write about that stuff, and the needs of the stuff trump the needs of the project. Sometimes it's that this stuff is so potent for her that she just doesn't realise she hasn't done enough for the reader: readers who don't find this particular situation inherently potent may need more help to find these characters-in-action convincing. But one way or another, her relationship to the stuff messes with her writerly compass.
For Emma, the necessary distance only comes with time, and/or when the project is something else. Then, the material from experience has no more and no less status than any other material, as she was thinking about in Yours to Remember, Mine to Forget. Then, the potency of the experience supplies your writing-engine with high-octane fuel, if you're willing to let it. But it is just fuel; it's the project that decides its own direction and organisation, and what fuel it needs and what it doesn't. As Nora Ephron said, she did finally make a happy marriage, but she only found a way to write about happy marriages by writing about cooking, in Julie & Julia.
So I don't think that bringing up the distant past in order to use it as fuel for the present project is necessarily a contrivance; I think it's probably the best way to use it. Only people who don't understand the distance thing (read: non-writers) and assume that there's a direct correlation between how recent the experience is, and the how immediate the story feels, will think it's contrived or inauthentic. The rest of us (read: writers) know that the sliver of ice in the heart is necessary: it's what provides the distance - the duality we need - in order to re-experience and re-create experience in the service of the story.
If what the agent says resonates with you, and you want to do something about it, I wonder if somewhere in the iterations that deep, and live connection with your concerns has ... not exactly gone, but weakened. Perhaps you've so taken its presence for granted, that you haven't spotted that it's been nibbled away (at least for some readers) as you've worked at other things? Perhaps as things changed in the novel and you were concerned with the mechanics of cutting it apart and solving problems and stitching everything back up again, you didn't go looking to connect with that original fuel-source afresh.
Much-revised novels are like the proverbial knife which has had four new handles and three new blades. It is in some sense the same knife, but the question is, do both handle and blade still work together to cut the same things with the same precision? And if not, do they cut different but just as good things with the same precision? It's the last bit which can get lost.
As to whether you don't feel exposed in the new novel - and whether that matters... It could be that you're suffering from Submission Blight: that awful self-consciousness that comes over so many writers when their work is somewhere out there, being judged, from the first competition entry to the reviews of your twentieth novel. Submission Blight is an auto-immune disease which allows your Inner Critic to get the upper hand.
It could be that the new, different project doesn't make it as clear as the first one did, where you might find the most powerful, new material for it - inside yourself, or out there in the world. That needn't mean it's the wrong project, just that you haven't yet seen which large and small aspects of the story offer that scope.
Or, yes, it could be that the piece is full of things which could work better - be better written, more powerful, more challenging for the reader, more radical in perspective - but you've decided, consciously or unconsciously, not to do them that way. There are a hundred thousand choices of that sort in any novel, and you do have to choose. There are always perfectly sensible reasons for choosing not to go down a road which you may not even be acknowledging to yourself is difficult for emotional, political or practical reasons. You might be right that something's too raw still and must wait for another couple of novels. You might be right that drawing on something from a long time ago might seem contrived. You might be right that a ton of research would be needed and you're not sure you could handle the material anyway. You might be right that this topic is one which can't be a sideshow in a novel, but only the main subject, and that's a different novel.
Or you might not be right. How do you tell? I'm not sure you can, although shying furiously and desperately away from an idea is a sure sign of its potency for you - and therefore potentially for the novel. Whether it would be right to put that potency to the service of this novel is a different decision, and has to be controlled by your overall sense of what this novel is. It might be too rich: like putting rocket fuel into a Morris Minor and watching it explode into shards. But certainly on a smaller scale, I do think a willingness to be as open and naked to the writerly demands of the situations in your story is very important. And that can be difficult to do, especially if in other areas of life things aren't being so easy at the moment. But readers know, instinctively if not consciously, when you're pulling your punches in a piece of writing. Even when the only person you're not hurting is yourself.
Emma Adds: Re-reading Jerusha's reply, and seeing the comments, has made me think of a couple of points. First, that when Jerusha's talking about "emotional connections" she doesn't just mean heartbreak, or love. She also means things like fear, triumph, excitement, frustration. You can no more write a good thriller if you're not willing to find those places in yourself and let them fuel your story, than you can write good mumlit if you're not willing to find the places where the stuff of family life lives.
Second, Jerusha is careful about confidentiality, so it's I who can produce an example of how you don't need to have experienced a trauma directly, to evoke it effectively. The first time I wrote about a divorce I was happily married. Years later, after I was divorced, I came across that MS again, and realised I'd got it right. I'd imagined how it feels by spinning together the usual threads from which we all make our stories: what I knew about marriage, and breaking up with boyfriends, and friends' experience, and things I'd read in fiction and non-fiction. Out of that - it turned out - I had spun together a convincing rope of story, even though no strand in it came from precisely that situation. And that was the day I realised that, despite having had a very ordinary and boringly un-dreadful life, I really could be a writer.
Posted on Friday, 05 April 2013 at 01:09 AM in A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Book Trade, Craft, Creativity, Historical Fiction, Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt, Research, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE FUEL TANK, THE IDENTITY CARD, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)
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Whether you have one would-be writing buddy, or a large writers' circle which meets twice a week, or a bunch of eager or reluctant students, giving and getting feedback is central to most writers' lives, but it's a while since I've blogged about it.
This discussion usually comes up when someone on a forum has found feedback distressingly painful, and battle lines are quickly drawn: "fluff is useless" vs. "no one has the right to destroy confidence", "some people just want to be told they're wonderful" vs. "some people can't admit there are other ways of writing". I've blogged before about how it all works best when there's a good match of style, but recently I've been thinking about what sort of mindset we all ought to try for, if we're going to get the most, and give the most, from feedback situations.So where do you start trying to be useful as a critiquer? I think John Updike's Rules for Reviewers fit rather well. Editing out the specifics of reviewing, they go like this:
First, I want to say clearly that there is no inherent merit, no virtue, no bravery and no use in being brutal for its own sake. "This is shit, you fool" is no more useful than "This is wonderful, darling." If anything, it's marginally less useful because it damages the writer's confidence, and un-confident writers don't dare do the things which would make their writing stand out. If the writer feels bruised or worse, then it's a regrettable if sometimes inevitable side-effect of being told how their creation affects another reader. Those bruises are not a mark of how right the critiquer is.
So, if you have a lot to say about what's wrong with the writing
a) have a bit of humility. Don't assume that you're right, when it's really just that you're you. Don't hand down your comments as if they're the laws of the Medes and Persians. To quote Updike, check it's the writer, and not you.
b) keep it specific. "This is shit" is useless and damaging. "The middle paragraph is flat and unengaging, maybe because you're suddenly Telling in the middle of the scene" is useful, if painful, because it's specific about both which words, and what's wrong with them: it may be hard to take, but the writer knows it's worth swallowing. And that "maybe" is a nod towards humility.
And it's forcing yourself to be specific about others' writing - good or bad - that will make you a better writer yourself. At least 50% of the value in critiquing is in how it educates the critiquer, so stay humble long enough to be grateful to the writer for offering you the chance of that education!
c) be specific about what works, as well as what doesn't. It's not about sugaring the pill, it's about reflecting the piece back to the writer: it's information which is equally useful. It does also help the writer not to shut off from tougher things you're saying, out of a very natural instinct of self-protection,
d) don't be afraid to say what you think. Someone has asked for your opinion, in order to improve a piece of their writing, and you do them no service by not being honest about your opinion. It's patronising to behave as if they can't cope with the truth as you see it. Better to practise being specific and honest, as above, than to just dish out bland and useless "lovely darling" stuff for fear of hurting feelings.
e) think twice before crossing out and re-writing someone else's work. It is often the quickest way to show (rather than tell) what you're trying to say about something. But it is an assertive act to write over someone else's words - not least because it lacks humility. If it really is the best way to make your point, make it clear that this may be what you would do, but of course the writer must find their own way to address the issue. In other words, if you've taken power over someone's writing, hand the power back to the writer at the end.
f) if you find yourself being very brutal in how you express what you see as the truth, bear it in mind that the words may be brutal not because you're right and brave and splendid and everyone else is a wuss who only wants affirmation, but because you have the hide of a rhinocerous and are incapable of hearing anything said less forcefully.
Not all writers have rhinocerous hides - most of the good ones don't, because you have to be thin-skinned to life to be a good writer. If in doubt, assume that the writer has a thinner skin that you have. You are a writer too: you're perfectly capable of expressing a truth in a way which helps without damaging. If you're not that much of a writer, why would your comments be useful and what are you doing in a writer's circle?
g) let the writer demur. Your job is not to persuade the writer that you are right (and by implication they were wrong.) One in many ways excellent writing teacher I know is, somewhere inside him/herself, a bully. It's not that what they say is wrong, or that how they say it is brutal: it's that they're temperamentally incapable of letting the writer disagree, and in conversation will push on and further, in an attempt to win the argument. But the critiquer's job isn't to persuade, it's to mirror. Even as a teacher, your job is to reflect back the effect of the piece of writing, and make suggestions - not assertions - about how that effect could be strengthened or changed to benefit the piece.
In Conditional Validation I was talking about how Malcolm Bradbury saying "They're good. Keep going" was enough for Ian McEwan to - well - keep going. We tend to think that the "they're good" is the important bit of that, but I more and more think that in some ways "Keep going" - said by someone whose knowledge and judgement you trust - is just as important. The thing is, they're two sides of the real question, which is "Is this worth doing?".
Mind you, Hilary Mantel said on Front Row that having won the Booker twice is no help at all, when you sit down to work on a new book: it's like the first day you started to write. In other words, the energy doesn't come from the pleasure of doing something know you're good at or are admired for - because that evaporates at the sight of the blank page. The energy to start in (again) and keep going comes from the knowledge that it will all turn out to be worth it, when you finally get to the summit. It's that knowledge which keeps you going over the endless immediate difficulties and setbacks of the terrain. Every step, every day, every month, every novel.
I realised this all over again recently, when the novel I'm working on was being profoundly awkward, at a moment when I had let into my psyche more of the routine book industry doom and gloom than was wise. As a result I was feeling the routine hysterical conviction that the novel, as a creative form and a way of earning money, is dying. Some writers and would-be writers seem positively to relish* feeling like that (or I assume they do, or why would they blog and tweet and grumble about it all the time?), but all it does to me is make it extremely difficult to get on with the novel. But this time, my agent happened to ring up to see how I was getting on; I said something about how disheartened I was. "Well, let me tell you why I'm optimistic about the long-term future," said my agent, and proceded to do just that. When your agent's been in the trade long enough to have only just missed Allen Lane, you believe what she says. And I put down the phone, rolled up my sleeves, and barrelled into the novel with as much energy as if I'd just had two strong coffees and a fan letter.
The novel hadn't miraculously solved its own problems, and the industry hadn't changed a hair: what had happened was that the work that the novel still needed suddenly seemed worth the energy and time and loneliness, and (let's admit it) occasional boredom that it was going to demand of me. When I thought that all might be pointless, I had no energy. When I thought it was worth it, the energy came rushing back.
And I think making it seem worth it is also one of the functions of a teacher. I was surprised, in writing But Can You Teach Creative Writing?, to realise how important a part of my job isn't just to provide a safe space for experimenting, say, or technical tools: it's to help the writers to feel that what they do is worth it, that there's a goal worth aiming for, that it's realistic to think they might reach it.
But in the end, I think you have to decide for yourself what makes it worth it, and then do your damnedest to seek out those things. And, perhaps, be prepared to acknowledge that they're beyond your reach, and either change your idea of what makes it worth it, or give up. For me it's having readers. Coming from the storytelling, not the journaling end of becoming-a-writer, I know that If I had no mechanism for reaching readers, I wouldn't write. But not everyone is like that: for some the act of writing is self-fulfilling.
And one final thought about what your writing is worth. As Claire King was discussing on her excellent blog some time ago, what we pay for something is a crucial component of what we feel it's worth. There are lots of good reasons for giving your work away for free on occasions: for charity, as review copies, as exposure in a place you want to be seen, as a twenty-four-hour ruse to get yourself top of a "bestseller" ranking. But I do think that anyone who consistently doesn't expect to be paid for their professional creative work is sending out a very strong message: that they don't think their work is worth it.
Far be it from me to tell anyone what to do with their life. But, I don't know about you, but my life is far too short to spend on anything as frustrating and badly paid as writing, if it isn't, also, profoundly worth it in all the ways that matter. I want it to be good. I want to be able to keep going. I need to feel it's worth it.
* I asked a psychotherapist friend why so many people seem determined to hear and even relish only bad and depressing news. "It's a form of masochism," she explained. "They're getting off on it." So next time someone insists that we're all going to hell in a handcart and refuses to hear your evidence for the reasonableness of a bit of optimism, you can quite legitimately and exactly describe them as that technical term: a w***er.
These are links to all the posts I can remember mentioning last Saturday at the Writers' Workshop Getting Published event. If I mentioned a post that I haven't listed here, then do say so in the comments and I'll try and dig it up.
SHOWING AND TELLING: the basics : how to use both to make your story do everything you want it to do.
HOW TO TELL, AND STILL SHOW : how to get on with the story without sacrificing vividness
PSYCHIC DISTANCE: what it is and how to use it : a key technique, not much discussed and not hard to grasp.
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
PROLOGUES : why you probably shouldn't, why occasionally you should.
REVISIONS: Taking down the scaffolding: many writers find it hard to spot the things which needed to be in the first draft, but must be fished out in revision. Here's how to spot them.
PLOT vs. STORY: what's the difference and why does that mean for your writing? Includes a link to Andrew Stanton's TED talk.
CHARACTERISATION-IN-ACTION : how to develop your characters-in-action and make sure their journey is really compelling.
and a couple which are very useful whatever stage you're at:
FIDDLING, HANGOVERS AND THE PARIS REVIEW : How not to get stuck in revision hell.
When I let myself in for giving a workshop on Characterisation at Writers' Workshop's Getting Published event yesterday, I realised I haven't blogged directly about Characterisation as much as some things. It is a big subject, but for me, it's all founded in Aristotle: a character without action isn't a story, it's a portrait. In "Clothes and Food and Dropping Presents" I explored how the process of creating (discovering? uncovering?) your characters can, essentially, go from the outside in, or the inside out, but here are some other ways to help you develop your characters-in-action.
And please don't forget that, as with any kind of imagining-on-paper, there's no reason to assume that you need to do this kind of thing before you start your draft. It may well be that it's more useful later, when you find you're defaulting to bland, standard-issue actions because your character isn't yet fully individual; when you just can't think what they'd do next; when you're in the 30K Doldrums.
First, as anyone who knows anything about acting (or grammar) knows, actions are expressed as verbs. So try these:
Did you notice how mental actions are often expressed as physical metaphors - crumple, flinch? Next, if you find that material objects help you to focus on someone, then try these to help you jump the tracks of the standard-issue things for your character's gender/age/ethnicity/class:
And characters aren't just in-action, they're always characters-in-interaction. So, as I explored here, ask yourself - or your character
But whether you start by thinking about shoes and move inwards to Oedipus complexes, or start with dysfunctional childhoods and move outwards to Ferraris, the big drivers of your story - of your character's journey as routed by the plot - come from the answers to these kinds of questions:
And notice, again, how that list is all about the verbs: drive, want, need, hope, dream, dread, lose, win. Now, one more tip, one more list and a grid. (Y'all know how I love a grid.) First, remember that red is redder and green is greener when they're next to each other. So, any time you're thinking about a particular characteristic, try thinking about it for combinations of characters, and using that to boost the distinctiveness - the characteristicness - of all of them. For example:
The list? It's the kind of list you see a good deal - but for me it's wholly optional. Still, there are times when it can help to think about these sorts of things:
And the grid? It's for thinking about what characters think about each other, and where the gaps are. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that you must fill this out at all, of course. But it's surprising how it makes you think about relationships and relationships - characters-in-interaction - is what fiction is all about. Sorry it's only a quick jpeg, so you'll have to make your own, but what did Old Hamlet think of Ophelia?
A student has just quoted a how-to book, 30 Steps to Becoming a Writer by Scott Edelstein. As with most how-to books, she says, lots isn't specially useful - at least not to her - but one or two things are. And the one she quoted which struck me was from a list of things you see in your writing which should ring an alarm bell: Beginning with an almost immediate flashback. This is probably caused, suggests Edelstein, by the desire To avoid the work of showing full-fledged events. And the thing is, I know exactly what he means.
I should say that I haven't got hold of the book, so I can't be sure I'm reading it right. But I have lost count of the number of MS I see which start with a moment in the story, and then zig straight back to the past. It's not, of course, that you should never do it - never say never about anything in writing (at least, not within my hearing). But I think there are several things that might cause you to do this, and they all need interrogating.
The most obvious question is, as with misjudged prologues, are you doing it because you want to start with a bang, but there's a lump of backstory that needs explaining if the bang is to have any kind of significance? Maybe you should ask if you're really starting the story in the right place, if so much that's important went before? It might be better to find the bangy-ness in the real start.
And besides, we may not need nearly as much backstory explained as you think we do. It's amazing how much you don't know about where people in good movies have come from, or indeed in good short stories; are novels really so different? And even if we ultimately do need it, we certainly may not need to have it explained now.
More generally, it's worth remembering that any page which is entirely backstory isn't moving the frontstory on. Of course it's contributing to it indirectly, in setting out why the stakes are so high in the frontstory, or setting up suspense or an instability for the frontstory. And a backstory scene should, of course, have its own narrative drive. But if the promise that the beginning of the novel makes is that as the story unfolds it will be worth the reader's while, any chunk of backstory can only be, as it were, something of an aside.
More generally - not just at the beginning - are you jumping into flashback because you're not confident weaving backstory into frontstory, but only in writing either one or the other? It's not difficult to learn to integrate the two, and it does save those lurchy, stop-start moments when you have to negotiate the jump into a fully-formed flashback, and back again.
But the reason Edelstein highlights is also very interesting: To avoid the work of showing full-fledged events. Of course backstory can be written as immediately and fully-fledged-ly as frontstory, but there's always a risk that it becomes a summary of necessary information: Telling (Informing) us about how ever since she'd left school she always... or the battle had been long and hard and only as night fell did .... Especially if the backstory involve large sweeps of time or place, Telling it is so much easier and quicker than doing the full-on imagining and then the challenging writing that you need to Show (Evoke) such things. So I would agree that if you find yourself tucking major events away into pieces of flashback, it's worth asking yourself if it's partly because you can't see how, or don't want, to write them in full.
Mind you, my fiction is very often about setting right things from the past, and I'm often mediating a story through a character-narrator. In that case, what we learn of their past is often by way of their own memory: fragmented, subjective, elusive. They are their own narrator, if you like, and it's they who are telling/informing us. And for me, that's even more interesting, even if it also carries all the risks I've just suggested. The whole of Anthony's strand in A Secret Alchemy, for example, is essentially one big series of flashbacks.So although I take the point that, for example, a flashback might be a too-easy way out of actually writing a scene in full, it's an alarm-bell you should attend to, but not necessarily act on.
To put my money where my mouth is, I'll give you an example. The Mathematics of Love is all about what war does to people, without ever portraying war except as mediated through memories and nightmares. And I don't think that does it any harm. This is from the end of Chapter 5: it's 1819, and Stephen is escorting Lucy around the battlefield of Waterloo.
She leaned forward to call to the driver, ‘Arretez-vous là, s’il vous plaît!’ He pulled up the horses and she scrambled out before I could assist her, only then turning back to me to say, ‘Shall we stop here? You must know this part of the field the best.’
Indeed I did, but struggled, as I had not on the day, to make my way through the heat towards the sandpit at the base of the knoll which we had been ordered to hold. Miss Durward climbed quickly up the small elevation and stood in the thin shade of the trees, looking about her. As I came up, she said, a little out of breath but as if there had been a few seconds, not several minutes since she had spoken the first part of her thought, ‘If I could only draw it as I see it now, with the battle more vivid in my mind than it can ever be on a printing plate or a twelve-ounce paper… If only I could draw this scene so well that what is in my mind is conjured in the viewer’s mind. That would be more honest! Do you understand?’
‘I’m not sure I altogether do,’ I said, the heat beginning to hammer in my head.
She seized my shoulder to turn me towards the country spread out before her. ‘Look! Look at the these hills and fields! Put them together with your memories! You will never see them thus in a gilt frame on a parlour wall!’
I looked as she demanded. The heat that day had been blistering and now it seemed to waver before my eyes. Our savagery was numbered, chained and uniformed, the brute harnessed and hardened. We were made little cogs in the machine, each turning another, I saw, and then clamour began to beat about me, and the stench of fear. The dust stung in my eyes, rasped my throat, clogged in my ears. I could not see, hear, breathe. It was blood in my eyes, sour and stinging. No breath – no sense – no thought. Only the machine, grinding.