28 February 2010

Planning a Novel: Theme & Thinking

It is not my habit to copy other people's blog posts, but when I logged on to Avril Field-Taylor's blog and read her interview with Stuart Aken, I asked both of them for permission to link to it and give extracts.

Stuart is explaining how his novel Breaking Faith came about:
"AFT: Breaking Faith is set in the Yorkshire Dales during the 1976 heat wave. What prompted your choice of location and period?
SA: In the words of Max Boyce, ‘I was there.’ Believe it or not, the initial inspiration for the book came to me on a visit to the Buttertubs, in the Dales, at that time. I looked into the depths and wondered how I would feel if I discovered a body down there. From that simple question, the rest of the book eventually flowed. The Yorkshire Dales is acknowledged for its exceptional landscapes and it’s a place I know well. The heat wave was a useful backdrop to a story which needed a credible climate in which the action could take place: few would enjoy being naked in the area’s usual weather conditions. 1976 was long before the era of the ubiquitous mobile phone, an item that would have altered the tone of the novel. It was a time when fashion and the ideas of youth were still fresh enough to encourage experimentation. Cameras used film and a good printing assistant was still necessary for any professional photographer."
Note the way planning choices were made: none in isolation, each reliant on its neighbour, not in a serial progression but in a 360 degree world view.

Read the full interview to get a glimpse of how one writer conjures with theme, research and characterisation before a word of the story hits the page.

Thanks to Stuart and Avril for allowing me to link to this interview.

26 February 2010

Talk Notes - Huntington, York

I want to thank everyone who attended Huntington's Community Centre, York, last night, to hear myself and Penny Grubb speak about our new novels, Torc of Moonlight and Like False Money. It's great to have such a receptive audience willing to ask questions.

We were there to help launch the La Scala Short Story Competition (theme Equestrian & Countryside) and as promised I am posting below the gist of my talk for beginners how to write a short story:

"Anyone can write fiction - it's just a snapshot of normal life with all the boring bits taken out. If you think there'd be nothing left once the boring bits were removed, consider this: the life you write about doesn't have to be your life. It can be the life of...
  • the confident/beautiful/witty/rich person you've always wanted to be (but don't choose a real living person; they won't appreciate it and could sue you)
  • a historical person, real or imaginery
  • a fantasy person - if you are a rider in real life, might your fantasy person ride a unicorn or be a groom for Sleipnir, Odin's eight-legged flying horse?
  • you, where something fantastical happens - you find Sleipnir in the stables. How do you hide an eight-legged horse?
Think round the theme. The easiest way of doing this is to create lists: every animal you could come into contact with in the country, people you are likely to meet, people's jobs. Pin it up somewhere you'll see it every day. Cross out those that don't interest you, tick those that you find interesting. Once your lists shrink to a manageable size...
  •  invoke the writer's magic words, What if..? and mark all the problems that might occur.
  • choose a problem, and decide how you want that problem to be resolved for the person - the character - you are writing about: well or badly - never indifferently because the ending has to matter.
  • decide how you want your reader to react: frightened, sad, happy, laughing? This is the tone of writing you will use.
You've now got the story's scenario, the problem, the ending, and you know the type of story you are going to write. It's time to focus on the writing.
  • choose a character and let the reader experience the story through that character's eyes
  • ensure that character has a big problem central to the story - wet feet is not a big problem
  • be spare with description: use only enough so characters aren't moving in a vacuum
  • make dialogue snappy, 2,000 words might seem a lot, but there's not enough space to waffle
  • don't just think visually - readers don't want to watch your story unfold, they want to experience it unfolding. Humans have five senses, so make use of hearing, touch, taste and smell as well as sight
Then go for it! Remember, this is only a first draft so you can make changes later. Even professional writers write several drafts. Get it on paper and then leave it a few days before reading it again so that it settles in your mind. Look at every word:
  • does the story make sense?
  • have you covered all the main points: who, what, where, when, how, why?
  • is the problem big enough?
  • do you feel sad, or frightened, or happy reading it? Is this what you intended?
Be aware that you will never feel that the story is "brilliant" - no writer ever does, not even published writers. We all think we could have done better. Now complete the competition's entry form and send it off.

Then write another story. That's how you hone your writing skills - by practising. Good luck."

22 February 2010

Tips for Entering Competitions

Often with a theme, always with a deadline, competitions are great motivators to write, write, write. A list of competition placings can enhance a thin cv when submitting to magazine and book publishers, but competitions are no easy option. Entries, and standards, can be high. Try these tips for making the most of your entry fee:

• Read the rules. An unbelievable percentage of entries are binned without even being read because the rules are not adhered to. Aim below the maximum allowed word-count, and if your name should not appear on the script, ensure it isn’t sitting in the strap-line with the page number.

• Weigh the tone of the organising body. If the competition is being run by a literary magazine the chances of the judges looking favourably on your story of a lonely three-legged donkey in a cabbage patch is pretty remote, unless, of course, it is dripping in metaphor. However, a competition run by an animal charity... For the same reason check out the writings of the judges to gain a feel for what they consider ‘good’.

• Write for the reader, not yourself. Reader reaction is often ignored by beginning writers whose prose can resemble aide memoirs to their own imaginations. Readers – the judges – need to experience the story, not watch it unfold through a telescope. An intriguing beginning will draw the judges in; the pacing should undulate, rising to the denouement; the ending should leave the judges feeling satisfied that no other ending could work as well.

• Believable characters carry fiction. Ensure that your story isn’t populated by stereotypes. Complete a history sheet on your main characters prior to writing the story so that you know what motivates them. Wallowing in physical descriptions is no substitute. Write through their eyes, not your own.

• Keep the prose focused. Remove all adverbs and exclamation marks. Adjectives should not arrive like carriages of a trains, but should be used individually to highlight. Write narrative in sentences, not phrases; keep those for dialogue. Paragraph correctly, especially within a dialogue exchange.

• Presentation matters. Coloured paper, fancy fonts in small or large point sizes, single spacing, block paragraphing, sloppy keying-in... if you want your story to fail, try any one. There won’t just be your entry to read, there could be hundreds, and the judges will be burning the midnight oil to complete their task to a deadline. Ensure when they pick up yours they can immediately relax into the fiction.

• Finally... remember that professional eyes will be assessing your story. Paying the courtesy of being professional in return could move your story through the ranks.

10 February 2010

Reader Anchors - Building A Virtual Reality

When readers pick up a novel, or even a short story, they are making a conscious decision to let slip their own, everyday reality, and to immerse themselves in an alterative, virtual reality. This they subconsciously build from anchorage points - flashes of solid information into which readers can safely tether their imaginations as they enter the fiction.

For example: a character turns into a street and notices a derelict car and litter floating in an overflowing gutter. Readers, depending on their own real and secondary experiences, might extrapolate that street to include care-worn terraced housing with peeling paint and boarded windows, a growling dog and weeds growing between paving slabs.

None of this is mentioned in the text, but until the text offers an alternative this could be the virtual reality those readers run with. It might be transient, but it is surprisingly real to readers. If they mis-step, their virtual reality, and their faith in the solidity of your fictional world, comes crashing down. The best way to avoid this is to ensure that enough anchorage points giving the correct information are available as soon as the fiction begins.

There are four main anchorage points that readers subconsciously seek at the opening of a story. These arrive in no particular order in the text, but tend to come in quick succession: time, place, focus character, and an intimation of the problem.

Time. If there is no indication of time, readers take for granted that the time is ‘now’, a fluid construct which equates to whatever year the reader interfaces with the story. Bearing in mind that it usually takes a year to write a novel, and perhaps a further year or two to bring to publication even if taken immediately, and that the reader might have borrowed the book from the library three or so years after it was published, it will be appreciated that the story needs to be written in such a way that it does not date.

There are exceptions. Chicklit is one genre which revels in its specific time-frame, using popular culture as a main ingredient. The downside is that its shelf-life is short because popular culture moves on, and any novel not taken by a publisher almost immediately soon becomes unpublishable. Science Fiction set in the future – Stardate 17:571 – doesn’t so much rely on setting a specific time-frame as ensuring that readers are totally removed from their own.

On the other hand, historical fiction, or fiction set in the close future, should intimate its time-frame very early on so as to offer readers a specific anchorage point they cannot misinterpret. Where is the benefit in going into detail about a young man leaving his family for war if readers pick up from the choice of dialogue and descriptions that he is leaving for World War 1, only to discover three chapters on that he is in training to be a paratrooper?

Finding that their virtual reality is thirty-five years out of date is a big shock to readers’ fragile belief systems. Not only are they jarred to a halt in the forward momentum of the storyline, but they feel a need to go back in the text to determine where they went wrong. If there is no specific line they can identify, they will then distrust every word that story offers. Thirty-five years or five years makes little difference to readers. Double-checking each nuance in the storyline interferes with their ability to build an alternative reality and seriously detracts from the reading experience. Often the answer is to bin the text and pick up another.

Place. Fiction set in a real place is the current fashion due to the way reality entertainment has moved across mediums. This is understandable; modern readers travel and so are no longer satisfied with bland settings which could be anywhere in the country, any city in the industrial western world. What they don’t want is a descriptive info-dump reminiscent of a page from a tourist guide. Deft touches threaded through the conveying of the storyline is all that is required to enable readers to produce a three-dimensional effect in their burgeoning virtual reality.

Gaining a sense of place doesn’t just apply to the big picture. When the focus character enters an office building, or a corner shop, or his garage, readers want to be there at his shoulder reacting to these settings as the character reacts. Readers don’t want to feel they are being whisked from one hermetically sealed cube to another. Think in terms of the five senses and marry these to the focus character’s emotional status, observations and movements.

Focus Character. By default, readers accept that the initial named character will be the focus character for the entire work, and they start to dissect that character for mood and motive, age and appearance, and the 101 other attributes that make up a living person.

To find several pages later that this character is a mere walk-on is to make readers stumble unnecessarily, and often leads to a double beginning. This leaves readers in a quandary. Do they discard the virtual reality they have so far created and start building a new one, or do they keep the original on a mental back-burner in case they are being misled and the initial character is the main character for the story? While they are juggling these concerns they are not concentrating fully on your fiction.

Readers are perfectly able to carry several main characters, such as an ensemble, and create intertwining virtual realities for each, as long as these are introduced with deliberate care so that they remain individuals.

Problem. As stated in a previous post, we all might like to lead happy and carefree lives, but reading about such paragons is boring. Every focus character, and in a novel often most of the subsidiary characters who will be supplying the subplots, need a set of problems to mirror real life, and an over-riding problem to be overcome which is at the heart of the story. To baldly state this on the first page would ruin the credibility of the work, but there needs to be some inkling telegraphed to readers early on to keep them turning the page.

Humans are emotional beings able to pick up the transmitted feelings of other emotional beings. We do it every day in real life and use the same skills when reading. For instance, anxious people worry, not just about the main problem, which often they cannot identify, but about everything around them, and this translates to a tone which colours their view of life. The tension carried reverberates back at them from people they interact with, creating an atmosphere. In turn, readers pick up on these ethereal qualities in the text and use them to colour the virtual reality they are building in their minds.

It doesn’t matter what the problem is, or how minor it appears at the opening of the story, it is enough for readers to lock onto and so set in motion the hope/fear see-saw which will develop as the story progresses: hope he escapes the burning building / fear he won’t; hope she finds the love of her life / fear she’ll be misled.

Virtual realities do not appear fully formed, they have to be built and they are constantly being rebuilt and adjusted in response to the twists and turns of the storyline. But the faster readers are able to grasp the anchorage points in your fiction, the faster they will feel confident enough to let slip their own reality, build a three-dimensional virtual reality, and emotionally immerse themselves in your fiction.