Friday, 29 January 2010

Building Character

I'm generally quite down on people who see writing as some kind of magical spiritual journey - it's more like digging the Channel Tunnel with a teaspoon a lot of the time. But if there is a magical aspect of writing - a part that I can't wholly rationalise - it's the creation and maintenance of characters. To breathe life into these people and see them wander around the page spouting smart-mouthed dialogue is a pleasure I rarely tire of.

A writer acquaintance of mine imagines all of her characters as looking like real people - the dashing English captain might be based on Ewan McGregor, the heroine perhaps Vivien Leigh. There's a certain appeal to this fantasy casting exercise, but I'd be wary of unconsciously transferring the non-physical traits of those actors into the book's characterisations. For my part, I totally struggle to picture any of my characters in my head. I don't have a particularly visual imagination, so this might be part of it, but I think this vagueness actually helps me, because I never risk over-describing my characters' physical attributes. I mean, who really cares what a book character looks like - it's what they say and how they react that's important. I often say that a lot of the fun of writing for me is just winding up the characters and letting them smash into each other!

Somehow I just know what my characters are like and it's that feeling of living inside their skin that I strive for. Method-writing if you will, although it sounds like multiple personality disorder too! I once read an interview with Sofia Coppola just after she made Lost in Translation where she was asked which of the characters in the film most resembled herself, and she replied that they all represented different facets of her own personality (apologies to anyone who heard me boring Meg Rosoff with that same anecdote at the SCBWI conference).

Examining my own work, this is totally true of the three main characters in Back from the Dead - they all represent who I am and who I want to be (and sometimes who I don't want to be). Griff is jittery and anxious, but at the same time pragmatic and resourceful; James is smart in a bookish way, distrustful of the modern world and reliant on sarcasm to mask his crippling self-doubt; Sarah is playful and subversive - constantly trying to push the envelope and see what happens. You could probably argue that the adult characters aren't as well defined, but then this is a kid's book and I have been guilty in the past of not letting the younger characters take control. After all, children are the future of the world - we're just paying for them to live here!


Monday, 25 January 2010

Just Like Grammar Used to Make

I'm guessing that the majority of us writers use Microsoft Word (although I'm still flying the flag for longhand first drafts) and that we've all tussled with the Grammar Checker from time to time. For many years, I just turned it off, traumatised by the biblical plague of green snakes that wriggled across my page. In recent years, as writing well has become a religion, I've allowed it back into my life. For all of its many reasonable suggestions, it always feels like an ultra-strict schoolmarm, constantly rapping me across the knuckles for such heinous crimes as "Wordiness" and "Fragment (consider revising)". Wouldn't it be great if they added a mode that could congratulate you when you get something right, with statements like "Superlative imagery in that sentence" or "Groovy verb use, man."

People of my generation are always saying that we weren't taught grammar at school and that's why we don't write proper, like. I have vague memories of concepts like prepositions and reflexive pronouns but they are quite often adrift in my head, unconnected to the thing they actually describe. Accordingly, I've grown up with a very pragmatic approach to grammar - if it feels right, it is right - and a lot of the time that seems to work, even if I couldn't tell you why. This is probably what I get for taking English Literature at A Level instead of Language, but would I be a writer now if it had been the other way round? Hard to say, but it's always been the emotional rather than the technical that inspires me. On the other hand, the world would have been saved from that great satirical work The Sylvia Plath Guide to Gas Cookers.

Over the past few years, I've been actively searching for the nasties in my work and trying to scrub them out. Excess adverbs were the first to go, followed by the passive voice, badly punctuated speech and all of those hyphenated/unhyphenated/separated words and phrases. Now I have found a new evil in the war against my writing - the comma splice (where a comma separates two unrelated clauses). Yep, all those times that Word suggested using a semicolon instead of a comma - it was telling the truth. Grammar has become like a kind of video game where every time I vanquish some fault, another more insidious foe takes its place. A lot like the "War on Terror", actually.

Remember, the enemy is everywhere, they could be hiding in this very sentence.


Monday, 18 January 2010

Read All About It

It's finally arrived, the week that Undiscovered Voices 2010 gets sent out to agents and editors, and I'll admit to a certain amount of trepidation as to how the whole thing will play out. This is my first experience of having anything published and my first encounter with that strange and mystical species known as The Reader. Ironically, the one kind of reader I probably won't get is any actual children - instead it will be a somewhat scary bunch of Important Industry People.

I've already had enough interest in Back from the Dead to know that it won't go down in flames, but beyond that I don't have a clear idea what's going to happen. As I'm midway through a rewrite for an agent, that has to be my main priority. I'm also in the happy position of having an editor who wants to read the draft when it's finally finished, so that's all to the good. Will I get other offers? I hope so, but maybe more for my ego at this point in time. In a month or so, with the new draft finished, I might feel differently and I'm certainly going to keep my options open.

As far as rewriting goes, I'm rolling fairly smoothly at the moment and I'm about to reach a section where I can lift a few thousand words straight out of the previous draft with little to no changes. I keep obsessing about tiny stuff, of course, and no-one's read much of it yet, but the detailed synopsis has proved to be a godsend so far. Every time I slam into the buffers, I get an instant hit of calm from seeing it all there planned out for me. I'd worried about it stifling my creativity, but so far that doesn't seem to be the case. After all, it's my plan, so I get to change it any time I want!


Monday, 11 January 2010

Life. Work. Writing. Whatever.

As is so often the case on a Monday, I am writing this while listening to an extremely boring conference call. "But!" I hear you cry, "If you can concentrate enough to write this, why can't you do some real work instead?" This is a valid question, and one that I'm going to sidestep by thinking about the increasingly permeable boundaries between my work, my home life and my hobbies.

Once upon a time (actually about a year ago), things were simple - I went to work in an office every day, I spent my lunchtime in the library writing longhand and in the evening I watched TV / typed up what I'd written / sent stuff to agents. My life had some kind of balance, a daily collection of work, words and polite rejection. Then, imperceptibly at first, the ground began to shift beneath me. I lost my job and the new one was quite a cultural change, with a team of co-workers spread across five countries and two continents. Suddenly I was working at home as much as I was going to the office, and those nice neat boxes of time started to collapse. Undiscovered Voices happened as well, and my harmless little hobby took on a more serious aspect - it started to feel like, well, work.

I'm going to Istanbul tomorrow, on a four day business trip, and that's grabbing much of my attention and threatening to stop me finishing this blog post. But even this visit is not all that clear cut, because:

A. I've never been to Turkey before, so it feels like a holiday.
B. It's a lot warmer there (I have a hot water bottle beneath my feet as I typing this)
C. All that time on planes, waiting in airports and at the hotel is perfect for writing.

I guess what I need to do is impose more structure on myself, but I don't really know where to start. Right now, my life feels a lot like those chocolate bars you see in shops at the height of summer (go on, you can remember that far back) an amorphous squishy mass barely held inside its plastic wrapper.


Monday, 4 January 2010

Finding the Plot

Ok, this is my first post since Christmas so excuse me if it gets a bit ... disjointed. I've spent the intervening period furiously trying to pin down the plot of Back from the Dead, which seemed to be turning into a never-ending task. I'd set myself a target of today (4th Jan) to complete the design of the next draft, with the hope of incorporating all of the suggestions that the agent had for improving the book. As anyone who has had this sort of feedback knows, it can range from very specific to frustratingly vague. Luckily, the feedback I had was pretty specific, but it didn't stop me submitting a disastrous six chapter rewrite just before Christmas that completely missed the point. And even specific feedback leaves you with a whole bucketful of "how the hell do I make that happen?" kind of questions.

I tried all sorts of re-plotting techniques: Post-it notes, bullet-pointed lists, itemising the whole thing in Excel, etc. Every time I tried to catch the plot, it moved off in another direction and I thought about shooting it in the head more than once! Frustrated, I went back to rewriting chapters of the book instead and realised that a narrative method was the best way to approach the plotting problem.

Ordinarily, I hate synopses, but I decided to go for something really detailed that would cover every plot machination - roughly one paragraph per chapter. I quickly discovered that what I hate most about the synopsis is deciding what to leave out, so for a change I got to chuck in every relevant detail I could think of. As you may have noticed, I like to make life difficult for myself and I quickly hit a problem with two possible plot lines which were mutually exclusive. One was complex and very tightly constructed - eventually revealing the baddie as one of the characters you'd least expect. The other built on the draft I already had, bringing the existing baddies further to the fore and making them nastier. I love Swiss-watch precision-tooled plots, so I went with the former, tying my brain in knots for days as I tried to make the forward and backward stories tie together. I eventually got something that kind of worked, but it was way too complicated - especially for a children's book that I was trying to get down from 50,000 to around 45,000 words. Realising that maybe the agent was actually right when she told me I wasn't that good at plotting, I retraced my steps to take the latter path - suddenly it was like running on asphalt instead of through a swamp. I won't say it was easy from that point onwards, but it definitely became achievable.

Managing to hit my own targets for a change, I now have a 4,000 word synopsis of the whole book to work from. I'm also hoping to get some feedback from the agent on this, so it could all change again. But change is good, right???


Update: The agent has read the synopsis (yes, already) and likes it! Full speed ahead then...