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Showing and Telling: cooperation not competition

Where's the real story? Not where you expected?

I hope I'm a kind and supportive teacher, I certainly don't tolerate seminar bullies, and I can honestly say that the only time I've been aware of tears in a workshop I was running was nothing to do with anyone's hurt feelings, and everything to do with writing fiction.

Since the business of fiction is largely about imaginatively inhabiting consciousnesses and experiences which are not one's own, I had set the group an exercise of writing a scene from the point of view and voice of their main character, though not necessarily an event from the story. First I got them to imagine an object and jot down a few notes to make it present to them. "Now," I said, "your MC has the object, and they must give/sell/foist/hand it on to another character from your story. Do they want to? Do they not?  Does the Someone Else want it? Does the Someone Else not?"

Then I asked the writers to write the same scene in the point-of-view and voice of the Someone Else. Much pen-chewing, staring into space and flipping to-and-fro of notebook pages followed.

Most of the rest wrote furiously, and as I sat there, watching and waiting and making notes about how to shape the rest of the morning, I got that feeling that actors will know: the sense that some kind of collective enlightenment - experience, realisation - seems to be cascading through everyone at once, tucked away though each was inside his or own head. Interestingly, one writer simply couldn't do it. At the end of the time there was nothing but a blank page scattered with a few notes; I made a mental note to catch that writer later and see if she wanted to talk about it.

By the end, one writer had tears in his eyes: his MC was closely related to himself, and he found inhabiting his particular Someone Else a revelation: painful but also moving.

When I called time, and asked how everyone had got on, another writer raised her head from her notebook and said, "I think my antagonist is actually my protagonist. I think it's his story. No wonder I keep getting stuck. I'm writing the wrong person."

So we had a fascinating discussion of whether that meant a total change of story, or simply that the writer should widen the narrative to encompass both sides, (and from that we went on to consider moving point-of-view and how to handle it.) It was a one-off course, so I don't know if she did follow her revelation through and in what way, but I certainly remember the moment.

Then the other day I came across a quote which was attributed to Harper Lee, (though I have to admit that vigorous Googling hasn't been able to confirm that). Anyway, the point is one that many writers would recognise:

Sometimes you have to write quite a lot of something, to discover that that's not where these characters' real story is...

That's a different version of the same issue but, again, it's all about going on grappling with this world and these people from all sorts of different angles: being willing to recognise that the right angle may only begin to show slowly. And no, you mustn't beat yourself for not knowing the right angle from the start. Process writing is never wasted writing. Another version again is the cut-the-first-three-chapters problem, which all editors know. That's not so much about whose story it is (though it might be) or even about where the real story is, it's about where the story really starts.

It's strange, when you think about it, that we talk about "the real story" when actually there is no such thing at this stage. So strong is our human sense of story that we have a sense of something whole and already-existing, even when it's a ghostly clouds of wisps, and doesn't really exist at all.  So many writers have such a strong sense that finding the right words is in some way a matter of putting clothes on the Invisible Man. You have to start putting clothes on before you realise who they really are - and whether they're the man for you.

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