Friday, 30 March 2012

There’s Nowt So Queer as Folk

The title of this post is a saying that's stood the test of time. My kids (well-coached in such matters) have a different version of the same idea: We're all different. Now, I'm sure that this is good, that the world would be a poor place indeed without the diversity of human experience. But this multiplicity of viewpoints can make life very difficult. For instance, it's impossible to accurately predict a person's reaction to particular stimulus – such as a manuscript, or a decision that might seem uncontroversial. Everyone has their own prejudices and pressure points, their own strengths and insecurities. People can react in bewildering, even hurtful ways – sometimes they may not even understand why.

To expand on my point from a couple of weeks ago, stories are one of the ways we try to make sense of the world. By building a sandbox of words, we can attempt to model human behaviour in all of its richness and contradiction. Like most scientific models, our early attempts will be ramshackle, amateurish affairs, populated by one-dimensional characters that no-one could mistake for real human beings. Yet, as we write and rewrite our stories, we begin to refine the model, along with our understanding of what makes people tick.

Part of the problem of predicting behaviour in the real world is the vast number of conflicting influences that people are under, influences that we may know nothing about. Work, relationships, family, health, money – these concerns may be circling in a person's mind, each one taking different precedence at different times. What if (mild stereotyping alert) an editorial assistant had a blazing row with her boyfriend just before picking up your manuscript? If it's a story about a world without men, well, good for you. But if it's a story about true love? Expect a form rejection on that one.

A recent revelation for me has been the idea of driving plot through the motivation of several characters - not just the protagonist - while restricting the narrative to a single viewpoint. As the writer, I realised that I had visibility of every character's worldview, which would theoretically allow me to model their exact reaction to an event. More than that, I could use these internal tensions to trigger other events in a linked chain of cause and effect. By purposefully concealing a character's true motivation from another (and sometimes, from the reader), I could drive tension through the story towards the climax. It's fair to say that I also ended up with a fair bit of climactic exposition, as everyone explained what they were doing and why, but I'm sure I can work on that!

There is a writing maxim that suggests when building a convincing fictional character, you should have them act completely out of character exactly once. Perhaps this reflects humanity's very real propensity to snap in moments of extreme stress. Alternatively, maybe it means that - however deep we dig the sandbox - we can never thoroughly understand our characters. But it won't stop me trying to find out.


Friday, 23 March 2012

Staying Suspended

Maintaining suspension of disbelief is one of the most vital (and intangible) elements of a work of fiction. The ability to carry your reader with you, through many plot twists and turns, is something that marks out the truly talented writer from the merely skilled. But it's also very personal – one reader may stay glued to the page from start to end, but another will suddenly break off mid-way through chapter ten, claiming that the whole thing is just too ridiculous.

There are broad things we can do to encourage maximum absorption: smooth writing that flows and doesn't draw attention to itself, believable characters, and a plot that builds rather than changing direction on a whim. But much depends on tone and confidence. It's my belief that a strong voice always comes from a writer who is confident about their material and prepared to take charge of the narrative. A reader can gauge your level of confidence from the very first page – they will quickly decide whether they trust you to guide them through the story world and reach an appropriate ending.

I had a big argument with another writer at critique recently, about whether an author needs to understand why or how things function in their fictional world. I said (rather too stridently) that a writer should understand how everything works, especially in fantasy worlds – even if they don't describe these mechanisms to the reader. The other author was unable to see why this was a problem – couldn't I just accept that these things worked as described and move on? But for me, that lack of knowledge showed up on the page and shook my belief in the world and its rules.

It might be my engineering background or basic control-freakery, but I have to understand all the whys and wherefores of everything that happens in my books. The idea of getting it right is very important to me and hugely disruptive to first drafts, because I spend more time thinking about the book than actually writing it. But when I don't know how something works, it just niggles at me until I fix it. Clearly I wouldn't be a good candidate for writing magical realism!

Character motivations are another area that is important for maintaining suspension of disbelief. If a writer understands their characters' motivations, then they are able to structure the plot appropriately. Using characters to drive the plot is a basic tenet of story theory, because it keeps the narrative believable, even when the events are unlikely. If the reader can always see why something happened and why a character acted a certain way, they will be far more accepting of the outcome.

I've lost my ability to suspend disbelief during quite a few novels, when a single scene stretched credulity too far – often to cries of "Oh, come on!" As a writer, I'm probably more demanding in these areas, but it's true that once a reader loses suspension of disbelief, they will suddenly start to notice everything else that's wrong with your story. When that happens, you'll have to work twice as hard to win them back.


Friday, 16 March 2012

Tell Me a Story

What are stories? And why do we write them? In browsing round the web, I found this Michael Rosen article from a couple of months ago, that grapples with the question without really answering it. Perhaps that's because it's actually quite a complex question with a range of very subjective answers - in addressing it, I can only give the reasons why I write stories and what they mean to me.

When I write a story, it's always because there is an emotional, psychological or philosophical problem I want to work out. It might not seem that way when I begin, but below the conscious surface of my mind, the gears are already turning. It's often quite late in the writing process when I get the light bulb moment and realise what I've been unconsciously striving towards all along. This is essential, because it helps me to shape the ending and also give strong pointers on what I need to revise in the second draft in order to bring the themes to the surface.

I find it almost impossible to detach the meaning and tone of a story from my own state of mind. This may add emotional weight to my work (the jury's still out on that), what it definitely does is make it hard to consider writing as escapism. The novel I've just finished is a good example - writing an adventure story about grief and depression was never going to be easy, but even when I felt happier, the action of writing the book could sometimes pull down my mood. Good for getting into the mind of the protagonist, less good for making me happy. I just hope that after all that work, the end justifies the means!

This idea of story as catharsis is a popular one, and something I've covered before. It's interesting to look back at that post, albeit slightly disappointing to realise I'm still struggling with the same issues a year on. At least I've finished struggling with the book (for now).

So the question becomes: what kind of story should I write next? My enforced layoff from writing fiction (two weeks and counting) has already given me itchy feet – I need to get on with something. Can I influence my own mood by deliberately choosing something light and upbeat, rather than another emotionally-challenging epic? Or could I shape the tale as my very own hero's journey, depicting a protagonist who is moody and introspective at the beginning of the story, yet joyful and carefree by the end?

It strikes me that the stories we tell ourselves are at least as important as the ones we write down. Perhaps this is why the idea of "The Writer's Journey" has become so indelible (and open to parody). This serves to demonstrate how we use stories to make sense of the world, simplifying the messy sprawl of human experience into a recognisable shape. If we believe that the path of:
is possible, then we will keep persevering, even in the face of long odds.

My journey so far looks more like:
win competition->agent->publisher->rejection->
depression->writing->rejection->leave agent->writing->?
Call that "The Writer's Crawl" perhaps. In my mind I'm already recasting it as The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare...


Friday, 9 March 2012

The Last Minute Blog Post Cookbook

My mind hasn't exactly been zinging with blog ideas this week. Although my manuscript was ready at the weekend, writing a synopsis and submissions emails took me well into Wednesday this week. At that point, I wondered:

A) If it had really been the best idea to submit a book in the week before the Bologna Book Fair.

B) If I should have avoided mentioning this blog in those emails, since now I felt under pressure to write something today, rather than just take the week off.

So it was while I was scrabbling for ideas yesterday that I remembered those cookbooks for last minute entertaining, dealing with the Mad Men-esque scenario of the boss suddenly coming round for dinner when all you have in the cupboard is a bag of out-of-date macadamia nuts. Why wasn't there such a thing for bloggers? And what would be in it?

The My Literary Life Post

  • One Fabulously Busy Writer

  • Many Fabulous Writer Friends

  • Many Photographs of Many Fabulous Writer Friends
Half-bake a "What I Did on My Holidays" style blog post, describing all of the literary events you have been to in the last week and who you met at each. Drop names liberally and concentrate on the people who are well-known, rather than the ones you actually like.

Emphasise how lucky you are and what a dream it is and how you're not worthy etc. Be sure to layer this part on really thickly, so it doesn't look like you're a self-aggrandising snob.

Stir in photographs, but only if they show your good side and definitely not that wobbly bit below your chin.

Garnish with air kisses and allow reader to steam.

The Writer's Journey

Serves: Around 20 blog posts

  • One Unpublished Writer

  • One First Novel

  • Many Agents

  • Zero Book Deals
Finish your first novel (N.B. Do not revise it – this risks adding quality to your mixture and may cause unexpected success). Submit your novel to as many agents as possible, preferably with a very generic query letter.

While you wait, start a blog. Post enthusiastically and often about how the blog will chart your journey from unpublished nobody to bestselling writer. Think big – your blog could comprise your literary archive and one day be stored in the British Library! Oh, and don't forget to talk about your cats – everyone likes cats.

Get rejected.

Blog about rejection and how you are carrying on regardless because the writer's journey is a hard one and you are brave.

Get rejected by everyone.

Put the manuscript in a drawer, take up needlecraft and never blog again.

The Political Post

  • One Hot Political Topic

  • Some Politicians That Annoy You (Michael Gove is always a good filler in this meal)

  • One or More Newspapers That Reinforce Your Opinions

  • A Ladleful of Steaming Political Invective
Read chosen newspaper(s). Get angry.

Spend time discussing issue on Facebook/Twitter. Allow anger to brew, stabbing keyboard with barely controlled fury.

Become momentarily distracted by picture of cute squirrel. Rekindle anger by reading new Facebook privacy policy.

Pour out barely coherent but INCENDIARY thoughts straight into blog.

Season with righteous indignation and brace yourself for a storm of comments.

The Meta Blog Post

  • One Blogger

  • One Deadline

  • Zero Ideas
Open MS Word. Begin blog post by apologising for not having had a good idea for a blog post.

Add a pinch of reader sympathy by going on about how busy you are and how you really need a rest and blah blah blah.

Stir in cheap conceptual idea and allow plot to thicken.

Write entire blog post about writing a blog post. It's postmodern, innit.

Sit back and enjoy the fact you've got away with it for another week.


Friday, 2 March 2012

Ready to Go

The book is done. Sorted and ready to submit.

Strangely, it isn't relief I feel, but an odd sense of loss, the writing equivalent of empty nest syndrome. The last time I went out on submission, I conjured up this amazing blog post. Sadly, I feel the same won't be true this time, because I am exhausted.

Knowing when a book is ready to send out has become increasingly difficult. Agents and editors expect work to be highly polished before it reaches them, and I have heard the term "market-ready" from several sources. At first glance, this might imply that publishing people are lazy, and want to be delivered perfection on a plate - the real reason is time and market pressure. In a recession, everyone is busier as fewer people have to cover more work. Although agents and publishers would dearly love to do extensive editorial work, they simply can't afford to. This is an especial problem for agents, because a lot of their revenue has traditionally been generated from advances – and these are still dropping like a stone. Publishers can't afford to pay them, not only because of lower sales volumes, but also because of the high discounts that retailers demand to stock their books.

Other writers are a problem too. With ever more people flooding onto the market, many prepared to do a lot of work just for the prestige of "being published," agents are spoilt for choice. I'm sure we can all moan about being nurtured and having the chance to grow creatively, but would we handle the slushpile any differently? Given the choice of a marginal work that might be brilliant after another three drafts, or something polished that can be sent out to publishers in a fortnight, which would you choose?

Editorial agencies like Cornerstones have sprung up to fill the gap, offering to critique and polish your work before it goes out on submission. Of course, they charge a fee for this service, and if you get taken on as one of their special clients they may also take a percentage of any deal you get from a publisher (on top of the percentage your agent commands). This might seem unfair, but they have a business to run as well, and like an agency, you don't have to use them. But, they are a useful weapon in the arms race that is fiction publishing.

There are also creative writing courses, and many of these produce an anthology of graduating authors' work. These anthologies are sent around to agents and are another useful route to exposure. The downside is that writing styles can become homogenised by the academic restrictions of these courses, and this is never more evident than when several students' coursework is put together in a book.

I feel a little like I'm taking the very hardest route, editing and polishing the novel myself, deciding when it's "good enough" for me to let go. But I've actually had input from lots of brilliant writers in my two critique groups, as well as my lovely wife who read the whole thing through again last night to make sure it still made sense. Aside from my own feeling that I was reaching the limit of what I could do to make the book better, I was also getting progressively less critical comments back from critique partners. When people start saying things like "I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to find much wrong with this," you know that another round of critique will probably be wasting their time. Next time, I'll have to throw them a bone and send out a first draft – that'll give them something to get their teeth into.