Point of view & narrators

Where do you start your story?

One of the very first bits of clear writerly advice I ever came across was the short-story writer's dictum of "Start as near the end as possible". Later, I encountered the thriller-writer's "Get in late and get out early", which is a double-ended version of the same idea. Certainly it's rare for me to see a beginner's novel that starts "too late" in the story, whereas perhaps the majority either simply should start at what's currently chapter three, or the writer's realised that, and tacked a zingy prologue onto the beginning, in the (entirely folorn) hope that it will compensate... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2014

... and some others which might be useful. As always, Writers' Workshop's Festival of Writing at York was a brilliant, bewildering long weekend, stuffed with workshops, talks, keynote speeches, book signings, and oceans of talking and drinking and eating and writing. As well as the mini-course on Self-Editing Your Novel that Debi Alper and I gave on Friday afternoon, I taught workshops on prose - Plain & Perfect, Rich & Rare - and on The Heart of Storytelling: three- and five-act structure. I sat on an industry panel about Historical Fiction, and I did lots of one-to-one Book Doctor sessions,... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at HNS London 2014

It's just been London's turn for the Historical Novel Society Conference, and as part of a packed programme, Suzannah Dunn and I were asked to give a workshop on "Figures of Speech: Recreating Past Voices". That too, was packed: it's just as well no one else turned up or we'd have had people sitting on the floor! As is the way, I found myself referring quite often to posts on the blog, so here's a roundup of the ones I remember, and any others which seem relevant. Do say in the comments if I've missed any, or there are any... Read more →


"A Cold Vehicle for the Marvellous": writing a story for J Sheridan Le Fanu

One of the things which has made my summer busy and fun has been writing a story for a new collection, Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: stories for J. S. Le Fanu, which is published this Thursday. Though he's now mostly known as the author of Uncle Silas, the influence of J Sheridan Le Fanu on the ghost and horror tradition in literature is vast, not least in his homeland: his vampires pre-date those of that other Irish writer, Bram Stoker, and his novel The House by the Churchyard was an important influence on Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. As V S... Read more →


Ten Top Tips for Writing Sex Scenes

I've pondered the odd business of writing sex before, but a good post by US writer Sebstien de Castell, about writing fight scenes, made me start thinking about it again. Sex and violence are hard (that's only the first double entendre) to write because both kinds of arousal involve an altered mental and emotional state which interacts with relatively complex choreography; what happens isn't built of words even if words are involved. Fiction has the same complexity, because it tells stories through characters-in-action as drama does, but in nothing but words. It evolved so richly because it can evoke and... Read more →


Writing outside your comfort zone

A friend, Colin Mulhern, who writes gritty contemporary YA fiction, posted in a Facebook group of writers: "I've got one idea that's been bouncing around for a while, but it's just a bit... predictable. I read a novel right out of my comfort zone while I was away, and loved it." What did we all think about writing outside one's comfort zone? A Good thing, or a Bad one? Some would say Good as a point of principle. Those who have to pay the rent with their writing would say Bad, since the risk is you'll produce something you can't... Read more →


Historical Novel? Biography? When is your life writing actually historical fiction?

I'm delighted to have been commissioned by Hodder to write Getting Started in Historical Fiction, for John Murray Learning's classic Teach Yourself list. It will be published towards the end of 2015, and starting it prompted my post So What Counts as Historical Fiction?. But there's another question I'll need to explore. Fiction is often a way of exploring real worlds and lives, but what makes a narrative about a real historical character a novel, and not a biography? A biography or autobiography is a whole life narrated with the techniques and boundaries of the historian: provable facts assembled; the... Read more →


Filtering, scaffolding and how to perform an explain-ectomy

You know the trick of stealing a square of chocolate, invisibly, from a bar? Which is a tasty way of explaining how I recently cut nearly 10% of a novel, without changing a single thing about the story - the plot, character-in-action, dialogue, description - which actually mattered. The effect was like taking off a veil and earmuffs and plunging back into the story: everything was exactly the same, just infinitely more vivid. So, what got cut? Or, rather, what particular things got interrogated fiercely about how necessary they were, or weren't? More speech tags than you need in dialogue,... Read more →


Straight proof: what any of us can learn from Dick Francis

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... Read more →


Chapter breaks and other joints

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... Read more →


Working hypothesis: write as if you're a writer

One of the things I often have to explain when I'm teaching academic writing is that it's important to define any terms you're working with, because if you don't make it clear how you're using them, then the first time anyone says, "But what about...?", the chain of persuasion, which is your argument, is broken. The thoughtful students look nervous: they know that concepts such as Modernism, or Need, or even The Eighteenth Century (1713-1789? 1660-1815?), are things which people write whole books about, arguing with other whole books. So we talk about working definitions: of the possible sensible, reasonable... Read more →


Front-loading, dangling, and dangerous modifiers

Running down the road, the briefcase slipped from Anna's hand and burst open on the pavement. After falling in the practice and suffering concussion, British Team officials say she may not compete. Having been firmly closed and locked, Alice's visit to the pub was fruitless. Elaborately frilled and tucked, John tossed the quilt onto the bed. Blue, orange and pink, the dog ate the latest designs. As a former Mayor of London, I thought it would be great to interview Ken Livingstone. Over 4000 years old, the Queen enjoyed her walk around the ruins. No matter what horrors they have... Read more →


SOMETIMES... 20 things about writing that don't get said often enough

Sometimes less is less and more is more. Sometimes telling a story demands Telling, not Showing. Sometimes only an external, "third-person" narrator will do. Sometimes only far-out psychic distance will do. Sometimes point-of-view needs changing frequently. Sometimes a jump-cut between scenes destroys all the narrative tension. Sometimes present tense is less immediate and more stilted. Sometimes first person is more distanced and less evocative. Sometimes third person can go more deeply into a character. Sometimes only an adjective or three, and an adverb or three, will do. Sometimes long sentences are more fast-moving, more direct, more dramatic than short sentences... Read more →


19 Questions to Ask (and ask again) about Voice

First of all a big HAPPY NEW YEAR to all the readers of This Itch of Writing. May your resolutions be resolved, your writerly shadow never grow less, and your infinitives split precisely how you want them to be. And since New Year has a way of prompting thoughts about the work-in-progress, or the work-not-yet-in-progress, here are some of mine, for that happy little window when the last family person has gone but the first work colleague hasn't yet arrived, and you can actually get some writing done. *** One of the challenges of a big writing project is finding... Read more →


Exercises, heroes and your hat-check girl's journey

A writing exercise which the wonderful Debi Alper taught me is to write a two-character scene in first person, from the point of view of Character A (who might be yourself). Then you re-write it, as exactly as you can, from the point of view of Character B. Then you pick one viewpoint, re-write the scene with an external narrator (i.e. in third person), and move point of view once, finding the most effective moment in the scene to shift. Even with veterans, this exercise can be salutary, and in several different ways. - The Other character becomes pure character-in-action.... Read more →


Free Indirect Style: what it is and how to use it

Free Indirect Discourse is the original term, being a direct translation from the French discours indirect libre, but that doesn't get you much further. And least helpful of all is Free Indirect Speech, because most of the time we don't use the term for stuff which was said aloud. (Does it make more sense in French, given that they don't routinely use speech marks in fiction? A question for another day.) But we're stuck with the name, and it's not really as vague and alarming as it suggests: quite likely you've been doing it all along - you just didn't... Read more →


Postiversary Competition First Prize Winner: Seeming & Thinking, by Esther Saxey

Congratulations to Esther Saxey for this fantastic post, which has won her First Prize in the This Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition. Esther wins a free Quick read of 5,000 words, synopsis and covering letter, from Writer's Workshop. What I love about Esther's piece is how she's thinking about craft, in the sense that I use the term: the business of what's going at the interface between imagination and technique. It's craft that makes what you want to say into something the reader can and will and will want to read. And Esther made me laugh, which I'm always... Read more →


What I learnt, as a writer, about writing, from A S Byatt's Possession

A while ago I blogged about what's going on, intuitively, when you're reading a really good book, using Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as an example. But, of course, many of us do read a really good book for a conscious, specific purpose. And if you have to write at length about it then you have to read even more clear-headedly. The first time I did that was for my MPhil dissertation, and the book was A S Byatt's Possession. I was writing a novel which wasn't, then, called The Mathematics of Love, and there were things I wanted to say... Read more →


Voice and tone: Figaro, Feydeau or the Moor of Venice?

In the Self-Editing Your Novel course that I co-teach with Debi Alper, Week Three is about Voice, and an old friend of a question came up: "How do I find my voice?". I've blogged about Voice before, and explored how it's the combination of "What you want to say", and "How you want to say it". So at the micro or midi-level, finding the voice for a piece of fiction is about two things: 1) Fully imagining your characters-in-action and their predicament: their actions, their emotions, their experience of the world that they act within, and their take on that... Read more →


6 questions to ask your descriptions

In How Would You Describe It? I was talking about this thing called Description, which seems to get so many beginner-writers worried, and how you can get better at it. But I don't myself have a mental category of writing called Description at all; I just think in terms of Dialogue, and Everything Else - or, more grown-uply, Narration. That's not because evoking places and things isn't important. The places and spaces we live in, and the things we live with, are profoundly important - but notice that they're important because we live in and with them: it's how we... Read more →