writeafirstnovel

follow a rookie writing his first novel

Archive for the category “Writing issues”

Healthy body, healthy mind

I know, the title sounds like some dodgy fitness slogan from the 1960’s (the image in my mind is of some moralistic teacher banging on to us kids about the dangers of masturbation, but then that might just be me). The context here though is the health implications of the writing life. Let’s face it, sitting in front of a computer screen, frantically tapping away at the keyboard for hours on end is not a prescription for good health.

I have to then wonder, does it matter? Do I need to be in rude health to write well. Is there any link at all between health and writing output? There are plenty of examples of great writers who had debilitating illnesses but that does not necessarily mean that it enhanced their writing – we can never really know what they might have achieved otherwise.

There is a myth that great art has to come from angst and suffering, but it is a myth (see work by Richard Bandler if you won’t take my word for it). So what I would like to know is can enhanced health improve output? My initial thoughts are that yes, it probably does, if for no other reason than there must be improved concentration, stamina and general alertness. That being the case, do we as writers need to build in time for exercise in our lives, would it make a difference?

I would be interested to hear anyone else’s experiences regarding this. Are you a writing ninja or a creative couch potato – do let me know…

a word on inner consistency

When we first start to tell a story keeping the events in the right order is no big deal. However as the word count rises so does the probability of getting events or conversations out-of-order. Even one of my literary heroes Carlos Castaneda fell foul of this when he invented the mythos surrounding his meetings with the enigmatic shaman Down Juan Mathus. It was DeMille who first pointed out that his diary dates and events did not hold true. So how can this happen?

I think part of the problem stems from having an overall idea of the story which while not fully defined, we carry round in our head while writing. It can be all to easy then to allow a character knowledge of an event which either has not happened yet, or more subtly, which they could not yet know about.

Then again, inconsistency might creep in if we have a couple of weeks rest from the story. It is not all that easy to pick up all the threads straight away (especially with my aging brain). I’m sure there are lots of other reasons just waiting to trip me up in the months to come.

As I get further into the novel I find this a growing problem. I just noticed a bit part character which I started off by calling Kevin has miraculously turned into Steve! Now I shall have to go back to find out where this name change happened.

I have thought of other measures I might take, such as background notes giving more detail to the locations, characters and events. I might also construct a timeline of events with times and dates. Although Writeitnow4 supports this, it all seems like a lot of work but at the moment I cannot think of a viable alternative.

So, what do you do on works of over 30,000 words? How do you avoid these inconsistencies?

 

Not about real life

We all know that novels are fiction. I don’t mean just in the sense of whether the events portrayed actually happened, but also what events the novel contains. Think about it; when was the last time that a novel you read contained events that had absolutely no bearing on the plot – for example, someone getting their hair cut, or dyed a different colour. Or going to bed, or the toilet. We all do these things (yes, even I had the front of my hair dyed gold in the 70’s), but in a novel they are rarely if ever mentioned unless it has a direct bearing on the story.

I can think of a few exceptions off the top of my head. The girl with the dragon tattoo trilogy for example seems to have a curious fascination with people’s coffee drinking habits; incidentally, I read another crime fiction novel by a different Swedish writer and that did the same, so maybe its a cultural thing. I also read a book called ‘Don Juan and the art of sexual energy’ which kept describing what people were eating for their meals for no particular reason that I could fathom. In these cases because it isn’t the usually done thing, it draws our attention and we can find ourselves almost waiting for the next time the author does it, which distracts from the plot.

Then there is the dialogue. In a novel it is always neat and crisp and to the point. Rarely if ever do we see the ‘ums’ and ‘errs’ that litter normal speech, unless it is to make a point. Dialogue as written in a novel then is really too good to be true.

Taken together then, actions and dialogue, as written, bear little resemblance to reality and yet somehow, when read it seems so right. A piece of prose written as close to reality as possible is almost unreadable or at best boring as hell. Am I the only one that finds this fascinating and strange? What is your opinion…

 

Turns of phrase

As a child growing up in the  early 60’s I was fascinated by the phrase ‘turning round to say things’. I noted that it only seemed to be adults that did the ‘turning’, usually women, the statements they were making once turned around always seemed to have some emotional dimension (no one ever turned around to say what a nice weather we were having) and more intriguingly for me as a child were always doing it in the recent past. I looked long and hard to see someone, anyone, actually turning around before they said anything. I even remember someone saying something like ‘so she turned around and said…, so I turned around and said…’ I wondered, did they start off back to back in a dual like stance or whirl like dervishes before delivering their pithy comments. Sadly by the time I grew up no one seemed to turn round to say things any more; ah well, I suppose some things you are just not meant to know…

Then there was the business of ‘chums’. My hero at the time, William Brown had chums, but all I had were mates which were sometimes referred to as ‘muckers’ by adult men that had been in the armed forces. Oh how I longed for a chum, but they were long gone. Perhaps my dad had chums, but I’m guessing that coming from such a poor background he too was excluded – it seems chums were the preserve of the middle and ruling classes…

Now I note that younger people ‘like’ things a lot. I’ve listened hard and it isn’t that they are actually expressing a preference for anything in particular, rather it is using the word in its meaning as an approximation – ‘so I said, like, where do you want to go’ Does this mean they didn’t use those actual words but said something else and are describing the general meaning? Hmm, not sure. I also notice the overuse of the word gives a distancing effect from the phrase it is associated with, almost as if it wasn’t them they were talking about; precautions in these more litigious times perhaps…

Anyway, my point here is that the use of some phrases define the temporal setting and they do not last forever. In fact a lot of them seem to have quite a short shelf life. Setting a novel in the past then, means that we have to become aware of the verbal phrasing in use at the time although if we go back very far the only source material might be the dialogue in novels written at that time.

You might argue, why bother. Why not use contemporary phrasing that people now will relate to. My problem with that is that words aren’t neutral. They define (or at the very least describe) attitudes and worldviews – contrast the very understated language of the 1920’s to describe even the most horrific events as opposed to the (in my view) near hysterical language used now for the most mundane of things. I think the subtle use of such phrases would help give a real feel of the past in, for example, flashback events. It is at least worthy of consideration.

But as ever, what do you think? Are there any phrases you particularly remember from childhood that are no longer used? Do tell…

 

 

Fashion in writing

It strikes me that writing like most anything else is subject to fashion. At the moment the ’50 shades’ trilogy has captured the imagination in a way that no S&M novel had before. Is it the better than what went before? No, not really. So the question becomes one of why? Why this book and why now?

Well, if I knew the answer to that then I would be writing the next big thing myself. Fashion is transient and fickle. It is really hard to get a handle on it, or its moods. Somehow, the subject, the timing and everything else is just right and a book takes off. Inevitably then a whole host of books of the same ilk are produced and for a while these do relatively well. Then moods change, the fashion train moves on to the next station. In its wake a few stragglers are produced which look and feel deeply out of place – there is nothing more grating than something only just out of fashion.

Alongside fashion though is the time a book is written in. You often don’t need to be told that a book was written in the 1890’s, 1920’s 1970’s or whenever – the style and feel of the book gives it away. I was reading a book by A.S Byatt (The game) this week. Without looking at the publication dates I just knew it was written in the late 1960’s (1967 as it turns out). Why? well, because the pace was much slower than a modern book, the depth of characterisation greater. The descriptions of the intensity of feelings and angst levels matching and reflecting society at that time. It is a brilliant book, but one I feel, wouldn’t find a publisher today. Which is a shame.

This got me thinking. Is it possible to write a book now as if it were written in a different time. Could we even do it, given our worldview, life experiences and assumptions would be radically different. I’m not sure we even notice them changing. I lived through the 1960’s, but could I really step back into the mindset of the time to write like that. I doubt I could even if I wanted to and going back to an age before I was  born, I wouldn’t know where to start.

Historical fiction is not for me. I neither read much of it nor write it. I admire the dedication of people who do, the research they do is incredible. But even then, it is still a piece that is written about the past from a modern mindset. And I’m not sure how popular it would be if it wasn’t, as the readers worldview is very much ‘of the present’. I suppose the trick is to make enough concession to the past to make it seem authentic. As with much else in fiction, it needs to be an approximation to reality, not reality as it is, because that often makes poor reading.

So, fashion is all-pervasive. From the subject to the language it is written in and the prevailing attitudes of the day. Is it any wonder that writing the next big thing is a lottery. But the thought that what I am writing might be, just might be it – Ah! that gives me a warm glow…

 

The saggy middle

No, I’m not talking about the excess weight around my waist that has been carefully sculptured over the past five decades, but rather that part of the novel that is neither the beginning nor the end.

Actually I’m rather excited about it. Up until now it was only something I had read about in how-to books. A part of the story that can run out of gas, or meander along without purpose, just sort of waiting for the end to appear. Free wheeling along, making up the word count, with very little actually going on. A bit tired, like me on a day after the night before.

The thing is though about a saggy middle, the actual thing is, you have to have written enough words to qualify for one! By my reckoning, as I’m aiming at a respectable 80,000 words, 20,000 may be considered the beginning and 20,000 the end. As I have just surpassed the 28,000 barrier, I’m officially in the middle.

So, saggy or not – bring it on!

 

Writing groups

A phrase that sums up my writing efforts for this week is ‘after the lord mayor’s show.’ Last week – lots of words; this week no words. In fact, I took the week off and had a grand old-time visiting various places in the county.

I often find that this is the best sort of activity to liberate the old grey matter and consider things related to, but not directly involved with, the writing project at hand. And this week has not been an exception.

The topic I have been thinking around is writing groups. A cursory foray into Google suggests that I do not have such a thing in my area. Given the number of groups that come up in a search, this seems surprising but that is how it is.

So, what is it exactly that a writing group actually does? Looking at some of the groups websites and back articles on such things in magazines, they would appear to fall somewhere between a support group and a forum for critique. Writing is (or can be) a lonely occupation. It is one reason perhaps, that we blog, in order to make contact with like-minded people. I can see the attraction then, of face to face meetings to talk about writing with others. I can also see the attraction of getting some honest feedback from people who have some expertise in the area. But.

I have been part of many interest groups in the past, and while they seem fine on paper, things can get a whole lot messier once you involve, well, people! They come with baggage, they come with agendas, and they can come with egos the size of a planet. Of course, this can all make for some hilarity if you observe the interactions casually, but more often you are intimately caught up in things and become embroiled yourself. As for running groups, if you haven’t tried it yet, go outside and hit your head against the wall, then take a pee into the wind, and that will give you some idea of how it can be. In my experience there are usually a few people who do everything and a lot of people who sit back and expect to be entertained. Ah,  the tales I could tell you about interest group committees that I have been part of (tries to control nervous facial tick).

But despite all that I have learned through bitter experience, I still find myself thinking of starting up such a group locally. Well. I guess I’m just a cup half full sort of person….

So, does anyone out there have any experiences to share about writing groups – do tell; I would love to hear.

Back story blues

As well as the psychological makeup a person possesses, it is often their personal history that provided the reasons for their actions. In writing, this personal history is sometimes called the back story.

While back story may be necessary, dumping it on a reader in one go can make them feel like they have had to stop at a train level crossing with the lights flashing and no train in site – frustrating.

The clever writer drip feeds it, a little at a time, only so much as is necessary for the current action and not so much that the reader notices.

But then there is another dilemma. What if the back story has actually been told elsewhere. The knowledgeable reader would already know it, but could we rely on that? Could we just point the reader to the fact of its existence and expect them to go off and find it out for themselves? Hmmm.

Well, this was my main problem this week. The characters are norse gods, plotting to liberate Baldur from Helheim. You see, some of you do know the story, but some of you wont. So what’s a writer to do? It isn’t a main plot of the overall story, in fact it is only a device to introduce a very pissed off Hella and give the main character another problem along the way, so I don’t want to spend much time on it and that makes the drip feed approach to the back story difficult.

At the moment I have settled for a brief (and hopefully) humorous account of how he ended up there in the first place and why he can’t come back which turns out to be about 800 words. Being a first draft I can get away with this but I’m sure there must be other ways to skin this particular cat.

So, what would you do?

Ways of editing

This week I have become fascinated by the various ways people say that they edit their work. I know, a bit presumptuous you say, given that I’m only 20.000 words into my novel. With about 60,000 to go, received wisdom says that I needn’t trouble my poor ageing brain with the problem of second drafting for at least, oh I don’t know, at this rate, a couple of years.

But, I came across something where the writer claims to do the editing as they go along; paragraph by paragraph. Heresy! But they have written several books and had them published, so whatever they are doing is clearly working for them.

Looking a little further, I then saw that some people need to actually add words to the second draft, rather than the commonly held opinion that a machete needs to be taken to the first draft (or at least pruning shears) because we always start off by adding extraneous detail that ought not to be there.

This actually resonates with me because looking over what I have written so far it does lack some detail as I fill in the plot scenes. I suspect that my second draft will add more than it subtracts. I wonder if this is a common problem with plotters and perhaps it is only pantsers who need the ‘edged weapons’. What do you think?

Another approach seems to be a combination, based more around time than progress, in that they spend their most creative part of the day getting words down, and the less creative editing what they have written; the writing always pulling ahead of the editing.

So, I am becoming convinced that there must be nearly as many ways to arrive at the second draft as there are writers. How do you get there?

 

On plotting and pantsing

It is a question I’m sure you have seen or been asked many times in the past – ‘are you a plotter or a pantser?’ I’ve given this question some thought too and have to conclude that I’m a bit of both.

It’s like this. At the start of my story I have an idea; it is often vague and not well-formed. The idea might be a plotline, but equally it could be a character or a place or sometimes just a line or two of dialogue that pops into my head.

I might flesh this out a little bit by writing a scene or two. A great idea for a start or an ending might occur to me so I write that too. Before long I have a collection of fairly unrelated scenes, some of which are sketchy at best and others fully written and edited. I have a few notes and ideas as well; possibly even pictures that look like they might be of interest.

At some point though my inner plotter takes over and attempts to impose a state of order on the mild chaos. When it does I start to outline the story into chunks that may or may not end up as chapters, but they have a sort of logic between the scenes they contain. I then realise what scenes are missing and also need to be there and add these to the diagram.  Before long I have an outline plan consisting of scenes loosely grouped into blocks/ chapters. I then go on to write out the scenes that I now I know I need, from the plan.

You would think that was that, and with visions of my press interviews and award ceremonies that would surely follow I trot serenely to the finish line called ‘the end’ waving at the imaginary crowds there to cheer me on.

No. What actually happens is what happened this week. I was gaily knocking off about 1000 words per day (might not seem a lot to you, but given that I am pathologically idle it is a lot to me) when drawing towards the end of a scene the inner pantser who had by now managed to throw of his manacles and bonds that the plotter had thoughtfully tied him down with grabbed the mike. “You really need to add in a scene about that group of nobodies that you mentioned in passing about 5000 words ago.”

“But it isn’t in the plan” the planner says.

“Go on, it’ll be fun. You’ll love doing it.”

“But my plan, my wonderful plan, it doesn’t fit…”

Too late, I’m off writing the said scene with a sense of glee and the inner planner shrugging his shoulders and wondering how it might fit in. A while later and with another couple of notes about scenes that I have no idea how they will relate to the overall story, the inner planner has found a taser and the pantser has been restrained once more. For now.

The plotter strokes his chin and before long has a flash of inspiration and has inserted the new scenes, which he hates to admit, has added another dimension to the overall story.

So this is how it is. A constant interplay between pantsing and plotting all the way to the end. As for the accolades and awards, we’ll just have to see…..

 

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