clhollandwriter: (marchin)
Part the final, after Parts 1, 2, and 3.

"Prologues sit on a reader's mental clipboard and some of their attention goes on wondering where it fits." - Emma Darwin

In the final session of Emma Darwin's Building the Novel course, we covered hooks and why you need them. A hook is needed in order to pitch the book to agents and publishers, and will tell you who is telling the story - the main character and main problem. This will then lead naturally into writing the blurb, should you be lucky enough to need one.

We also covered one of the eternal questions - how do you know where to end/begin a chapter? Sometimes (more common in literary fiction that genre, apparently) one scene equals one chapter. However, Emma's suggestion was to judge it by content, so that a change of theme would indicate a need for a new chapter, or by showing events linked by stages (either parallels across multiple storylines, or by the stages of a single storyline). If ending with a cliffhanger, Emma suggested it should involve a change of p.o.v. or location, to create a true break rather than the irritation "false" cliff-hanger.

Discussion of chapters naturally led to discussion of prologues. I've never been a big fan of them myself - I skipped every single prologue in David (and Leigh) Eddings' epic series, and agreed with Emma's opinion that if it's important enough to need a prologue it's important enough to be in the story. The best reason not to have one was, for me, the quote at the top of this entry - "Prologues sit on a reader's mental clipboard and some of their attention goes on wondering where it fits". Time the reader spends worrying about your prologue is time they're not focussing on the story.

Finally, drafts and synopses. Emma reiterated what most writers know and spend the whole of NaNoWriMo trying to convince themselves - the first draft is about getting it down. She suggested that the best was to do this is in the way you're most happy brainstorming. In my case this varies every five minutes, because while typing is fast notebooks (the paper sort) are more portable and don’t need recharging.

If you get stuck, writing a synopsis can help to expose problems like having no plot or a lack of connections between ideas. I guess that if combined with some sort of notecard/outlining idea it could also make rewriting a lot easier. Short stories are infinitely easier to hold the whole of in your head, at least that’s what I find.

Emma’s final thought was that any project has its outer limits, things and problems it won't ask of you. She suggested setting exercises to learn the rest. Myself, I think writing outside of your comfort zone would work quite well. If only it wasn’t so uncomfortable.
clhollandwriter: (marchin)
Following on from Part 1 and Part 2.

Who is telling the story and why? This affects the way they tell it. - Emma Darwin

Also in Emma Darwin's novel-writing course we went over the choices a writer makes in how to tell the story.

The first and most obvious choice is of narrator -  are they in 1st or 3rd person (or, god forbid, 2nd)? If the novel is in (or partly in) 3rd person, is the narrator limited to one person's viewpoint or are they omniscient? This of course lead us to head-hopping, the bane of many a writer-reader's life (I know it certainly annoys me). Emma suggested that if you really have to, not to do it more than once a page, and to move to a different psychic distance so as not to confuse the reader. In general, move out to a more remote distance, move across, and zoom back in again.

There was one brief piece of advice about minor characters: don't spend ages describing them, or the reader will think they're more important than they are. I suppose it's different if you want them to be a red herring though....

We also had a discussion on tense. As present tense has no sense of time it can lose tension, but is useful for dreams or flashbacks where a sense of disconnection is needed. Sarah Monette used it to great effect in the first book of the Doctrine of Labyrinths series, Melusine, to differentiate between a 1st person narrator, and the same narrator when he's batshit crazy. Tenses can also be combined to keep plot strands or timelines separate, although this can be quite difficult to do well.

The story itself doesn't have to be told in chronological order, but Emma cautioned against putting the "zingy stuff" at the beginning of a chapter and going back to explain as it breaks the momentum. Also, if you do this and the thing you're explaining turns out to all be a big misunderstanding the reader can feel cheated (I've come across this and yes, it did annoy me).

Whether you're hopping around between timelines or narrators, you should always make sure the reader know where they are. Do something to orient them, preferably within the first sentence. If you're chosing to disorient the reader on purpose, make sure to ground them afterwards - a confused reader can quickly become an irritated reader.

The last things I'm going to mention, because this is rapidly looking like it's going to be a four-part post, are subplots, and backstory. Subplots should be linked thematically to the main plot - difficult if, like me, you have no idea what the theme is when you start, but you can always go back and add things. That's where the handy chart comes in, I suppose. Emma also uses it to plot where significant pieces of backstory are revelaed, although she cautions against getting hung up on knowing all the backstory before you start. What will happen is more important than what has happened, as you write forwards the important backstory will rise to the surface. Hearing a published novelist advocating what is essentially pantsing was a relief to me, since this is how I work. Finding out the backstory as you go is half the fun.

Anyway, I'm going to leave it there and write up the last few bits and pieces in another post.

clhollandwriter: (marchin)

Following on from Building the Novel  - Part 1

"Write what you want, and make me believe you know it." - Emma Darwin

During her novel-writing course and Swanwick Writers' Summer School, Emma Darwin offered the above quote as a remedy to the advice "write what you know" (and has an excellent blog post on it here). It's something I imagine writers of literary and mainstream fiction fall foul of more than speculative fiction writers, since very few of us have actually met a dragon.

Emma's alternate advice comes from the fact that the mind doesn't know the difference between a real thing and an imagined thing - if you can imagine it well enough, it seems real, and this is the effect we aim to create in the reader. Observation is important, as is engaing all six senses (the usual five and that sense of weight and presence we get of an object). As a demonstration we did a short exercise where we wrote a description of a real object, then followed it with a description of an imagined one. Emma suggested that in order to better imagine what isn't known, it should be treated as poets often treat their subject matter - with word associations, pursuing odd connections, and reading the work aloud.

Another thing Emma brought up, something I'd never heard of before, was the idea of psychic distance. It's something she discovered in John Garner's The Art of Fiction, and basically describes how close in the narration is to the character. She writes about it in her blog post here, and gives the following example (used in Gardner's book):

  1. It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway.
  2. Henry J. Warburton had never much cared for snowstorms.
  3. Henry hated snowstorms.
  4. God how he hated these damn snowstorms.
  5. Snow. Under your collar, down inside your shoes, freezing and plugging up your miserable soul
Obviously it's a scale of remote and impersonal to stream-of-consciousness. Emma set us an exercise of writing a snippet in each of the five, suggesting that it would be easier to start at three (as that's where most people write) and work our way out to the edges. I actually found it easier to start at five, with a nice cathartic rant about how much I hate answering the telephone on bad days at work, and working my way back. Somewhere in the middle I got stuck - it was quite difficult to tell sometimes whether something would be better for three or two. I suspect this is because I tend towards three/four in my own writing.

We moved on to the choice of who is telling the story and why they're telling it, and how this affects the choices the author makes in the way they tell the story -  narrator, tense, order of telling.... But I think I'll leave that for another post, as it could fill an entry all on its own.
clhollandwriter: (Default)
"Drama is character in Action" - Aristotle

One of the many writery things I did at Swanwick was attend a four-part course on building a novel, by Emma Darwin. She writes historical literary fiction, so some of what she said was counter to what I understand of writing genre (which is often not character-driven), but it was interesting to see things from a new perspective.

The first sessions were about characters and plot.  We did a group exercise, and we created a character using a spider diagram. Emma put the name "Jan" in the centre of the board and people shouted out ideas. What we ended up with was a gay, transvestite, Polish, rapping, piano playing body-builder, with a tattoo, a chihuahua, and an unexplained wedding ring. (At this point I started to wonder if some of the more straight-laced attendees were shouting out all the things they didn't dare to put in their own fiction.)

When we meet a character in a novel we know nothing of them, just like in real life. We intuit what they're like by what they do, and what they do is driven by their needs - love, security, whatever. (In Jan's case it was to improve his English so he could get a job and feed his chihuahua.) The key to a character is what they do and why, and what they do drives the plot. Of course, it's never as simple as characters getting what they want. The stakes need to be raised - what gets in the way and what's the effect of it? If the character doesn't get what they want things should be different even if they're the same, if they do what's the price and is it worth it?

One suggestion Emma made was that if a scene won't work, try writing if from a different point of view, or switch from 3rd to 1st person or vice versa - if it still doesn't work it doesn't belong there. Looking back, I can see dozens of times when doing this would have helped - or I did it but was too stubborn to admit what the scene was trying to tell me.

Emma also mentioned "The Thirty Thousand Doldrums". Apparently it's very common, whether you write short novels or long ones, think in chapters or don't, to get stuck at around 30k. She also suggested that this is a good time to stop and produce some kind of outline, whether you're an outliner or not, to give you an overview of what you've got and where it's going. It could be that your novel's no longer doing quite what you thought it was.

She provided a handy example of the structure she used when writing The Mathematics of Love to keep everything organised, a grid with the chapters down the side and each element with its own column against them (also useful for keeping track of information you need to know but that doesn't necessarily appear in the book). She goes into more detail in her blog post here, and also how she thinks about novel structure in her post "Building the Bridge". Anyway, this post is getting be quite a bit longer than I expected, so I'll finish it in another sitting.

Still alive

May. 6th, 2010 01:15 pm
clhollandwriter: (block)
Not much writing at all the last few days, as we've been preparing for a visit by the bf's mother who arrives today. Currently I'm writing a story for rejection by S&S25, and trying to figure out what I'm doing with this novel project: "You're struggling to get anywhere because what you're writing's not ready to be written yet," said the bf, "so write something else." And he was right - main characters who refuse to tell you their names is a bad sign, especially when you're one of those writers who can't use placeholder names.

And to help me along I've joined the Codex Writers' novel contest, so at least I'm struggling in company.
clhollandwriter: (hello)
I got home last night to find that the anti-biotics the vet had given us for Gabriel were eight months out of date.

I was not amused.

Because the bf took the morning off to go to the vet, and is off tomorrow morning to get the special food, I had to be the one to go up today and get the pills replaced. Which meant an hour of lost pay at work, since I had to go to the vet, go home and feed the first dose to Gabriel, then find a bus going in approximately the right direction.

The bf isn't conviced that the special food will do the job - he knows someone whose cat wouldn't touch it. My personal feeling is that she doesn't drink enough water, because both problems occurred on a Sunday night after she'd spent two days charging around outside. So in an effort to combat it we've stopped giving them dry food at all (Lucifer is not amused), and are adding 1-2 tbsp of water to the tinned cat food, as well as providing a second water bowl upstairs. We've also let the bath tap dripping so they can drink from that, since they both love to, while we look into getting a pet water fountain. Apparently adding tuna flavour to their regular water can also encourage them to drink.

In writing news, I started work on a story yesterday that's been floating around my head for a while. I hope to have it done for an anthology deadline at the end of the month. And I had a brainwave about the novel last night, which has introduced me to new characters and changed the feel of the whole thing much closer to what I originally intended. Now I have to figure out how it all goes together, but I'm optimistic.

clhollandwriter: (block)

I have a problem: I hate my novel.

Something about it's just not working for me and I can't figure out what. I've got my initial problem, my characters, a chunk of worldbuilding, but it's just doesn't feel right and I'm finding it really hard to stay motivated.

I'm trying to remember how it felt when I started Reunion. That was a NaNoWriMo project, and I ran at it full-pelt for a month. The only things I had when I started was the opening lines and a question - who would be raising long-dead mercenaries from the grave and why? By the time I stopped writing it I loved spending time with the characters. At the moment I'm just not feeling it for the new project.


clhollandwriter: (Inigo)

Not much more on the wordcount - I'm still only just on 1% - but it looks a lot bigger when you see the pages of the notebook being filled.

And the thing I learned today was where a monk might hide letters he doesn't want anyone to know he has.

In real life, I've unfortunately had to give up belly dancing. My knee is giving me trouble again, and I've been in constant mild-but-irritating-pain since February. It's a combination of things and at the moment I'm trying to minimise the strain on it - which means no dancing, minimal stairs or lifting, and getting the shopping delivered. I'm also trying to eat more food that's good for joints, and lose some weight. That latter not being easy when you can't exercise much, especially as I've put some on since I stopped dancing. Mostly I have to do it by changing my diet. So no more sugar in tea or coffee, no crisps, no cake or biscuits in my lunchbox (although I am allowed to partake of the communal stash at work on the proviso that I get off the bus early), switching fizzy drinks to diet, and no more lattes. Oh how that last one hurts. I've decided to keep them as a treat only for when I either sell something or for every 10,000 words of the novel.

Update post

Apr. 6th, 2010 10:09 pm
clhollandwriter: (Default)

Subject to decrease or increase once I type up all my handwritten pages. I know it takes longer the old-fashioned way than on the computer, but at least with a notebook I can write anywhere. And I bought a shiny new one just for the purpose, although purple with white polka dots doesn't exactly capture the feel I'm going for.

It's taken this long to figure out why the beginning wasn't working, but a change of viewpoint character has fixed it and now things are starting to come together. I don't know how long it will last because I suspect that at least one of the others is the sort of character that doesn't do as they're told. We shall see.

(In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably mention that the novel I picked to work on is one I posted about a little while ago, when I was looking for a career for a runaway prince. I never really got past the initial tinkering stage of it, and two major characters have changed race and/or gender since then, so the bf agreed it was fair game.)

Maybe when I get caught up with myself I'll post a snippet, since it seems to be the thing to do.

clhollandwriter: (Inigo)

That's right, I have a wordcounter. I also need one of these. 


And now for an explanation.

The bf, marvellous and understanding person that he is, has always been willing to support me with my writing, even to the point of letting me out of household chores in order to meet a deadline.

The other side of this is that he expects to see results, and of late he feels I've been letting the side down.

He has a point. Back when I could get on Liberty Hall I was producing a new flash story at least once a month in the challenges, sometimes twice. A lot of them ended up at Every Day Fiction. But since the site was changed I've had so much trouble getting on the forums that I decided it was more trouble than it's worth, and the result was no new flash fiction and no short story challenges. Back then I was also in a critique group, for which I produced a chapter of a novel a month. Since that folded, I haven't touched the novel I was working on, nor have I made a serious attempt at starting a new one. I've blown off anthology deadlines left, right, and centre. So far this year I've written a grand total of about 8000 words all year, when this time last year I could write that in a single month.

Which is a long and roundabout way of saying, as I'm sure I've mentioned before, that I'm absolutely apalling at motivating myself.

Small steps have been taken to remedy this. I've bought new, attractive notebooks that I feel good writing in, instead of cheap things that fall apart after ten minutes. And I've joined the specfic subclub, to keep up to date with deadlines and for moral support.

The bf feels I need to do more. Yesterday he set me a challenge: if I can present to him the first draft of a novel (a new one, not Reunion) in one year's time, he will take me to London. He'll pay for the transport, the hotel, the food, and take me in every museum and gallery I could possibly want, so I can geek out to my heart's content.

If I can get it done early, there's a surprise bonus.

I guess I'd better get writing - and he'd better get saving!

clhollandwriter: (Default)
Got lots of writing done this evening, lengthening and rewriting the first chapter of Reunion. It's still not fixed, but I think I'm going to get to the the end and then post it up, because it's in desperate need of some outside feedback.

Also did my first crit in the novel group, which turned out longer than I intended. I do tend to waffle a bit, but I suppose they can always ignore me! I'm going to limit myself to one crit an evening, so that my own writing doesn't get neglected. It will also leave me time to crit at LH if I take part in any of the challenges.

The problem of Asher has now been fixed for the time being. He's now got the placeholder name Calador (Cal for short). Most of the towns have got new names too and a couple of new plot and background developments have been duly noted. Hopefully this time I'll make it to the end without stalling.

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