Some more weird headlines:
Naming your characters can be a tricky business. In fact I’ve been known to stall on the first paragraph of a story just because I can’t make my mind up what to call my hero/heroine/the dog.
The tried and tested method is of course using your porn name. (Porn, wtf? ed). I got myself into a bit of trouble when I suggested this the other day on a blog run by a rather earnest religious type. Trouble is, you can’t delete the remarks you make. So, I think I should, as the politicians say, clarify my position.
This kind of name is just a way of giving yourself a rather memorable alias and it just so happens that it nearly always sounds like something you’d see in a porn mag. (Not that I’ve ever read any). Try it. You take the name of your first pet, as your first name, and the name of the street or house you were born in as your surname. My porn name is Winston Ross. Which is not so bad, but a mate of mine confessed to me that hers was Buster Cliffe. My husband’s is Shep Harborough.
If you don’t want to use this method, and frankly I can’t see Tolstoy running with it (although his porn name would be Laska Asnaya, which I think is rather nice) you can always use the US states for the first name, plus Smith or Jones (or any verb, actually), for the surname. Indiana Jones and Dakota Fanning are already taken, but Arkansas Smith, Missouri Jones, Arizona Palpitating and Alaska Running, are all there for the taking. I make no charge.
Let me know what you come up with.
PS I reckon Shakespeare’s porn name would be Crab Stratford. (Exit quickly, there’s a bear right behind you, ed)
PPS My husband has now informed me that his first pet was called Bimbo. I have absolutely nothing to say to that.
Here’s an interesting thought: lots of authors don’t like plotting their stories. They say they’re waiting to do it, they say they’re willing to do it. But when it comes to the moment with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil, do they really want to do it? No, they don’t.
Look at me. All this stuff I’ve written. Have I ever plotted it out? No. Not properly. I’ve scrawled a few ideas on a sheet of paper and then thought, bugger this, I want to get started. Also, there seems to be a feeling that if you plan something out, you knock the fairy dust off it. You are turning what should be an artistic creative exploration into some kind of mechanistic plodding.
In the last few weeks, I’ve decided that I’ve got to get off my butt and write another romance. When it came down to starting, this week, did I plot it out first? Did I plan? Did I take any of my own advice, as given to everyone else in my blog posts? No, I bloody didn’t. I shied away from it. I decided, instead, to just freewrite; I wouldn’t , as I usually do, rewrite and rewrite, I would just keep going until the end, which would probably be about 5,000 – 7,000 words, and then I would use that as my plot. Clever, huh? Yeah, right.
And I suppose I would have gone on like that and probably got through, if it wasn’t for the fact that I teach a creative writing class and they’re all having some difficulty with giving their stories real narrative drive. I mean, making the reader feel as if the author is in charge, that they know where they’re going.
The research on plotting that I’d done up until that point hadn’t come up with anything that’s really useful. I wrote about it last week, about how you start with your hero wanting something, and then you keep putting obstacles in their way until you decide they’ve had enough and bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. But it was all too vague. If I’m going to get advice, I want practical stuff. I want something that I can use, that is going to work for me.
And then, quite by chance, on Twitter, I found this brilliant website: thescreenwritingprocess.com. It’s for screenwriters really, (no shit, Sherlock) but they have step by step instructions on how to lay out a plot, and I read them and I felt as if I had discovered New Life.
You can get the whole bit, if you’re interested, by going to their site. But in a nutshell, the first thing they advise is to write a premise (or a logline as sreenwriters call it). This is how you do it: Describe your protagonist (cab driver, mother, superhero, whatever) then give them an adjective that sums them up (world weary, alcoholic, retired), then describe their aim (saving the world, saving a child, singing in Eurovision). Then describe who/what is standing in their way. Then put it in a sentence. Like so: World weary mother wants to sing in Eurovision, but has to fight off alcoholic superhero.
Try it with something you’re working on. It’s hard. I thought I would find it easy. I thought I had all my plot in my head. It was only when I attempted this, that I realised that my heroine was a wet blanketty drooping victim, my hero had no personality, and there was no narrative drive.
The trouble was, in many ways, I was rather fond of what I’d written. Promising myself that this was just an exercise, I re wrote my logline just so that sentence sounded good, and then I thought, half grudgingly, half excitedly, Hey, this might actually work as the basis for my story. Then, I followed their plotting instructions. I found myself sketching out a completely new story on the foundations of the old one, but one that now had structure and flow.
Then I took it to my class. I could tell that some didn’t want to do it at all (see fairy dust, above) but they all tried it, even if, for some, it was just as an exercise that they were certainly not going to let anywhere near their inky darlings. Some found the loglines really hard to complete. Some felt the whole thing was silly. Some felt that it showed their stories weren’t dramatic enough, but I don’t think this matters. A premise doesn’t have to be Kerpow! You can apply a logline as easily to Pride and Prejudice as you can to X Men. The point is that you, as an author, know where you’re going. Then we went through the plot stages, with a similarly doubtful reception (see fairy dust, again) but once started, I could see them beginning to think really hard about the structure of their stories and what needed to happen when. Now they’ve taken them home to complete. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.
The rather snappily titled ‘writing process blog tour’ has been making the rounds and I’ve been asked to answer some questions on how and what I write.
I was nominated for this by Bruce Goodman who posts a short story a day. He is funny and sharp, and you never know, even in 150 words, how his tales are going to end. Thank you Bruce!
So here we go:
What am I working on at the moment?
A romance set in the 1920s in France. However, to earn my daily crust, I’m also editing a document about social partners in Europe. The combined effect is having serious effects on my sanity. I’m thinking of combining the two, so that the hero could be a designated representative for occupational health and safety, with the heroine attempting to organise a tripartite agreement on pay and conditions in the metalworking sector. They interface at a stakeholder seminar for hairdressers in Monte Carlo, where he falls for her risk assessment techniques in the casino, and realises that together, they have a sustainable future in roulette. Yes? (No, ed.)
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s written by me? I suppose I ought to say, because it’s sassy and funny and altogether marvellous. But so are most other romances I read. I think I just try to write something that will entertain people.
Mostly, I concentrate on making what I write fit into its genre. I was trained as a journalist, and when I became a sub editor, I spent a lot of time re-writing other people’s copy but making it look as though I hadn’t touched it. Actually, I’m going to wave a flag for sub-editors here. They are the people who write the headlines, correct the reporters’ spelling and grammar, cut out all the libellous remarks, and generally stop reporters and columnists making fools of themselves. (I give you the assistant editor who told the subs not to touch her copy and then praised George Eliot for his wonderful novels). More importantly, subs make the stories fit on the page. (It’s amazing how many reporters think that 1,000 words are going to fit in three inches.) And when I worked on papers we did it all so unobtrusively that, quite a lot of times, even the paper’s reporters were under the impression they’d written what was under their name.
Why do I write what I do?
I started writing romances, because my husband and I wanted to adopt children, and in those days (the 1990s) the social services insisted that I had to give up work. So I looked around for alternative ways of making money and thought of writing for Mills and Boon. It was an entirely practical decision. I knew Mills and Boon read every ms they received, and let you know within three months whether they were interested or not. I felt that writing a romance was merely an exercise in writing to style. And if I couldn’t do that, I thought, then I really wasn’t up to scratch as a tabloid journalist. Of course, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, it turned out to be rather more tricky than I expected. I could write a snappy 300-word piece, but turning out a 50,000-word book was quite different. I knew nothing about creating characters, or plotting, or anything much to do with writing a novel. At all. Still, Mills and Boon liked my first ms (but not enough to publish it) and then published the next five I wrote (under the name of Sally Carr).
By this time we’d adopted two children and then, to my enormous astonishment (after years of infertility treatment), I got pregnant (twice), so we had four children in three years, and writing rather went on the back burner. A few years down the line, I thought it might be good to write children’s stories and I had a few of those published, and then real life intervened once more, and it’s only now, after starting to blog, that I have come back to writing again.
How does my writing process work?
My imagination just gets sparked by something. Then I let the idea grow and grow, and then, when my brain won’t hold any more stuff, I write. For example, I recently read a book by fellow blogger June Kearns and I was really captivated by the idea of setting something in the 1920s. Hers is based in England and Texas, but I’m setting mine on the French Riviera. (I’ve got the whole first chapter in my head, and I’m at the point where I’ve got to get it down on paper.) I’d never really been taken with the idea of writing historical romances before because, with the research involved, they seemed far too much like hard work. But the 1920s I can manage. And if I get stuck I can always borrow shamelessly from look up Agatha Christie or PG Wodehouse.
So there you go, there’s my contribution to the writing process tour. Next up, on Monday, May 26 is Ian Probert a former sports and music journalist. In America, in the 1990s, his first book Internet Spy was a bestseller there and was made into a TV film. In the UK you might know him as the author of Rope Burns. He’s been posting chapters of his book Shotgun Reality, which is about as far from romance as you could possibly get, and frankly I can’t wait for the next instalment.
I’m writing another romantic novel. At the moment I have two characters, a secondary (but pivotal character) and a cracking first chapter. But the rest, as Shakespeare said, is silence.
Working out the plot of story has got to be the hardest task for a writer. So imagine my joy when I found loads of self-help stuff for novelists on the internet. Plotting, it all seems to say, is child’s play. Just follow the advice and you could knock out a scenario in your lunch hour.
The received opinion on writing plots is that they should be character driven. Build your characters and they will take you there, to paraphrase Kevin Costner. Which is pretty good advice, but characters do need some kind of motivation.
Which leads me swiftly on to the ‘what do they want’ school of plotting. Here, the experts advise that you work out what your characters want, allow them to embark on the job of getting it, put obstacles in their way, let them overcome them, hit them with a socking great disaster, and then, ta dah! allow them to pull through into the sunny chapter that finishes with those marvellous words, The End.
I quite like this theory, except that my characters want irritating and intangible things, such as happiness and independence and, since this a romance, lerve. And that’s the problem. In a romance, if two characters fancy each other, the hard bit is not the motivation. It’s keeping it in check. And so you have to think of some sort of sub-plot that’s going to get in the way every time the heroine gets her hand on the knob (down, boy) of the bedroom door. This can be anything, a row over property or an inheritance, or a misunderstanding about other possible lovers (who always turn out to be long lost cousins, or conveniently gay).
I suppose I could be terribly practical and say, well, the hero wants the heroine, on the table, in the library in Chapter Four. She could throw a book at his head, (minor problem), they kiss and make up; but he might then develop concussion on the eve of their wedding and be rushed to hospital (disaster) only for him to wake up at the sound of her voice in Chapter Ten. Actually….wait a minute…that’s not bad (it’s terrible, ed).
Another way of cracking the problem is to look back at your story from the point of view of one of the leading characters, and get them to tell you how they got through. That, on the surface, does sound a bit potty, as you are asking an imaginary person to give you a hand, but looking at things from different perspectives can help. ‘Tell me how you fell in love with so and so, mummy?’ or ‘Tell me how you nabbed the murderer.’
The final way, which in the end is the one I always go for, is after planning your characters and plotting as far as you can, just start writing. The trouble, of course, is the ‘just start writing’ bit. Committing to write at least 50,000 words is hard. And we’d all rather faff about with spider diagrams and five-minute free-writing than get down to the grind. However, as you write and become absorbed, your characters will do stuff that surprises you, and that will open up new possibilities, which hopefully will keep you going at least until the next chapter, and then the next.
So, crack on, dear writer. And if you get stuck, you can always follow the advice of my former editor at Mills and Boon. I was wailing at him because I had got to chapter four and everything had begun to look rather stale, flat and unprofitable. ‘That’s easy,’ he said. ‘Just introduce some mental torture or a bit of sexual tension. That’ll take you through until your brain picks up again.’
If you are thinking of writing for children, I am going to tell you something vital: children are the last people who will read your book.
Really. Think about it. Ok, so you may have read your story to your kids, or your neighbour’s kids, but if you want to get it published and in a book shop you will have to get it past your agent, a publisher and an acquisitions panel. Never mind the adult who will wonder if it is suitable to buy for their child. And none of them is under 12.
Most authors starting out just think in terms of getting an agent. But as you can see, that is just the first in a long, and increasingly uphill, line of hurdles. I’ve had several children’s books published, and when you are writing to a publisher’s brief, however elastic, the process is pretty simple and very civilised (I have to say here that Oxford University Press are a really lovely bunch to work with). It’s when you go off piste and come up with your own ideas, that the problems start.
Let me tell you what happened to me. I wrote a story about a little girl who does something very naughty, but very funny. Agent loved it. Publisher (not OUP) loved it. Even my kids liked it (which was the biggest thrill). But the next step is the most important. This is when your book makes its way in front of the people who really matter; the accountants. Everyone involved at the publishing house gets together; editors, sales and marketing and yes, the bean counters, and they decide how much they are going to spend, and how much they will make. (Because, never ever forget, this is a business).
My book sailed through the first meeting (yay). Everyone round the table agreed they wanted a whole series about this girl and her adventures. (drinks all round, ed) but then I was told that the American branch wanted another look.
‘Piece of cake,’ said my agent, ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Couple of days later, agent rang me up.
‘Can you make her older?’
‘Can you make the girl older? The publishers are saying that children never read about children who are younger than them. If you make her older, obviously, they will sell more.’
I thought about this for a bit. The girl in my story had originally been six, which was probably a bit young. I could make her eight, or possibly at a really big stretch, ten…but that was pushing it; any older and the whole glorious innocent silliness of what she does would be lost.
‘Can you make her 12?’ relayed my agent. ‘Because they could really maximise sales, then.’
I thought about it. I thought about it really hard. I was being offered the chance to launch an entire series of books, here and in the US about a character who made me laugh while I wrote about her. If I made her 12, I would have to change everything. She would no longer be the character I’d fallen in love with. I thought about it some more. I probably went down the pub and drank more than I should have done.
And then, I rang up my agent and said no. I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t change her. And that was that. Publishers withdrew. Story put on virtual shelf and I went back to writing headlines for a living. Occasionally I wonder if I did the right thing. If I was in this situation now, maybe I would find some way of negotiating round the problem. Maybe not. But after writing this piece, I fished that story out of my files and I read it again. It still makes me laugh.
Picture from Canham, E. (2005) ‘Cinderella Stories’, in Driver, J. (ed) Oxford English Quest, Companion 2, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Some of my students asked for a special class on showing and telling. So I thought I’d look it up on Google and see what other authors and experts thought. Confusing, or what?
Some experts I’ve read on the web seem to think that telling is simply not giving enough detail – as in, ‘Mr Wolf was enormous.’ And they say that showing is all about giving better description, such as, ‘Mr Wolf was as big as a tiger; he had yellow pointy teeth and a patch over one eye.’
But I think showing is also about describing a situation through a character’s feelings. So, instead of, ‘The burglar lifted a knife, and she could feel the adrenalin rushing through her body,’ you could write, ‘The burglar lifted a knife and she breathed in quickly, her heart thudding, as she tensed to jump.’
The advantage of telling is that you can pack an enormous amount of information into a very short space. But you have to be careful that you don’t turn your text into a list of occurrences, like some kind of random, fictional cv.
She had moved into the house in April 1988. She had steamed off the wallpaper in the back bedroom three years later, and then painted the hallway in 1994 while training as a careers advisor. Today she was meeting Brian, her latest speed-dating conquest. Previously she had gone out with George a chartered accountant, and Harry a landscape gardener from Cumbernauld.
Remember, stick to the point. Keep the bits in that are relevant to her character, but junk poor old Harry, unless, of course, she’s murdered him, put him in a cupboard in the back bedroom and wallpapered over him.
Showing can really bring you into a character’s skin. But it can also slow down the action. Like this:
The bomb went off and he ran to the house. It was all in darkness. There was a ‘for sale’ sign stuck in the hedge, and he could make out two garden gnomes by the front door. This was a faded blue and needed repainting. ‘Help,’ he shouted. ‘Help’.
If I had limited myself to just telling and a tiny bit of showing, I would have kept the urgency and the interest:
The bomb went off and he ran to the house. It was all in darkness. ‘Help,’ he shouted. ‘Help’.
So, my rules of showing and telling are these:
All showing, or all telling is boring.
If you are describing action, use mostly short, telling sentences, with maybe one showing sentence.
If your characters have more time, or you want to crank up the tension, use a short ‘telling’ sentence, and then expand it with showing, like this:
It was cold in the hut. He had just put the branches together in a hurry, and there were gaps big enough for him to put his trotter through. Thin flecks of ice were forming on his little curly tail, and his legs were turning a blotchy blue. He was trembling uncontrollably. But it wasn’t because of the cold. It was because Mr Wolf was loping up his driveway.
Excerpt taken from Princess Rose, by Elaine Canham and Rose Canham, in (Waters, F. ed.) Don’t Kiss The Frog, (2008) Kingfisher, Basingstoke and Oxford.
Somewhere, in an alternate universe, there is a small town (very small) containing all the characters I’ve ever invented. One of them, I suspect, is wandering around, moaning, ‘She started me off as a librarian; all I wanted to do was drink cocoa and watch Downton Abbey, and then she made me get drunk and go windsurfing.’
Given that character’s unbelievable behaviour, it’s not really surprising that she is still stuck in literary no man’s land. And she’s definitely not the only one I’ve messed up.
When you invent a character you have to be true to them. You can’t just invent a swashbuckling pirate and then have him, for example, becoming a chartered accountant. It wouldn’t work. Unless, of course, he was a very neat pirate with a penchant for double entry book-keeping.
If your characters are true to themselves, your story will hang together. Otherwise it will lurch from plot point to plot point like a train driver on amphetamines. Truthfulness is an odd sort of concept when you are making up a story, but if you just make your characters do things for the sake of your plot, then you are going to get bored and frustrated, and worse, so is your reader.
The trick I have learned with describing characters is to try to be them; really try to get into their skin. I’m not talking about using senses here (I’ll talk about that some other time), but about absolutely nailing the action. If you can visualise a scene, not just as if you are watching a film, but as if you are actually in it, and question each point as to how it would be in real life, then how you write about it should be bang on.
Let me talk you through it with this example:
‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!’ shouted Mr Wolf.
The two little pigs leaned against their flimsy front door and waited for Mr Wolf to blow. They could hear him wheezing as he drew breath (so I drew breath there and tried to describe what it sounded like). Then there was silence. (Bit of tension there) The little pigs looked at each other and then ran squealing for the back door. (At first I had them waiting for their end to come. Which was lazy on my part. But then I put myself in their place and immediately wanted to run for the nearest exit). Then Mr Wolf blew. From the shelter of the forest, the little pigs could see that their house was still standing. (Be honest, can anybody really blow a house down? Then don’t shy away from telling the truth) Nobody can blow a house down. Especially not a wolf who smokes 60 cigarettes a day (He’s bad; give him a bad habit). But then, just as the pigs were wondering whether to scamper back inside, Mr Wolf, exhausted from his efforts, and still wheezing, staggered forward and their little house of wood collapsed under him like a stack of Jenga (avoid cliches, try to use something new for any similes).
Pick a well known bedtime story (simply because you will already have a structure to work with) and try the same sort of approach and see what happens. Evaluate each step honestly, and see where it takes you. I guarantee it will be interesting.
Pictures from Mr Wolf, by Elaine Canham, Voyage 1 Short stories, Oxford University Press 2005
There are moments when you are writing a story and you are inside it and everything is falling together in this wonderful symmetry and your fingers aren’t typing fast enough to keep up with what is unfurling on the page. Unfortunately, there are also moments when your characters have disappeared off for a tea break, and you are left alone pawing uselessly at your keyboard. And everything you try just falls flat.
So, try Story Magic! One teaspoon a day and in 28 days you are guaranteed to write like a Nobel prizewinner. Available in Hemingway, Steinbeck and Greene flavours.
No. Really. I made that last bit up. But there are lots of ways you can kick start your imagination. I’ve already talked about creating characters through their possessions. But you can also create them by thinking of opposites. For example, start with a handsome man. Then think of an opposite. Maybe he wears scruffy clothes. Then think of a trait. He’s very kind to his mother. But then, maybe he beats up his wife. It’s quite an absorbing technique and it very quickly gives you a believable character, because most humans are a bundle of contradictions. Once you think you know your new character, you can supply more contrast by introducing another character.
Of course, you can’t write an entire story by introducing contrasts. You have to eventually flesh your characters out. But I’ve found that, after a paragraph, that you are so intrigued by this new person, that your words start flowing again.
Here’s an example I wrote:
Everything about him was a contradiction. He was fat and he walked with ridiculously light steps, as if he were twinkling along, his hands held up slightly, his fingers splayed. He minced along the street like a caricature of a Soho queen, and yet in the boot of his car he had a stack of dog eared porn mags. His car, too, was a contradiction. He was a detective, a private detective, mind, but whereas the other lads had cars that could pass for skips, his was clean, almost obsessively pine fresh. He hated the way the others kept their cars. Rab, would you believe it, even had a slice of bacon under the front passenger seat.
Not the most brilliant prose, but I hope you see what I mean.
My last post, about three million years ago, it seems now, was about creating characters. So what did I do after I wrote it? I decided to enter a short story competition. Nothing bad about that, except for the fact I took all the earnest advice, I had just handed out, far too seriously, about planning and plotting and making sure everything was right before getting to grips with the story. Bad idea.
I was inspired, you see, by a photograph. Nothing wrong about that, although it was of me on holiday in Bordeaux, which seems a bit self absorbed. But I just thought how cool it would be to write a story about a woman who wants to treat her mother to a weekend in Bordeaux, only to realise that her mother knows the city really well, on account of a broken love affair long ago (get your hankies out now).
I decided to up the tension by putting the affair against the backdrop of the invasion of France in WW2. Which was where it all began to unravel. Because, if I made it a modern day story, then the mother couldn’t really be much younger than 90, and probably wouldn’t be up to trailing round Bordeaux and bumping into old acquaintances in the maquis (unless they were literally skeletons in her cupboards). And, when I started researching the history of the time I got in a right tangle. It was almost impossible to give my characters factual backgrounds without wondering if I was saying something completely wrong. All my inspiration was strangled and died. (Hankies, don’t forget the hankies).
My problem was that I let the research take over. If I’d done a bit of free-writing, say, I might have found a way round the problem. (Maybe by making the daughter tell the story to her daughter, and maybe setting it in a city whose past is slightly easier to be confident about. Maybe.).
But there you go. After writing and writing and re writing and reading more than I actually wanted to about the history of Bordeaux, and getting far too close to the competition deadline without achieving anything concrete, I screwed the whole lot up and sent in a story I wrote two years ago. Then I went to Ikea. Not exactly what Brendan Behan would have done, but then, despite my artistic tendencies, I am a middle aged woman who has cutlery needs.
Live and learn. In writing follow your instinct, not the rules. And when in doubt, keep blogging. It’s nice to be back.