How do you get started? Do you have grand plan in mind, or do you have an initial thought, scene, or small idea which you then develop One of the problems for a writer is story construction – how do you go about it. Do you have a plan of action or develop your story empirically In my case, being short in the imagination department, it has to be the empirical approach. I believe I can write reasonably well, can create characters that sound reasonably convincing, can deal with specific scenes and ideas but none of my stories have the scope of a big idea, the depth of a thought out plot with a predefined purpose. Some of them came from a name, a very minor incident, a vague idea. Not for me the wide scene, the dramatic story, the fabulous idea – I wish. Indeed when I read some other author’s work it does, sometimes, leave me with a sense of inadequacy about my own writing. It seems at those times naïve, too straight forward, lacking in colour, atmosphere, and excitement, and worst of all beauty of expression. Where are the flowery metaphors, where the sublime rhetoric? Then I console myself by thinking that some readers might like my direct form of story telling, might like reading about the interplay between people of all types and ages, the way they play out relationships, the way they talk to each other.
Empiricism or not, by the time you’ve finished your piece of writing, the story must have structure, a completeness about it, a beginning and an end. You can do what you like with the peripheral parts, go off on tangents, but somewhere there should be a main theme. You must sound authentic, not flat, make the characters and the story live. Action – must have some pace to retain the reader’s attention – a surprise every so often – twists and turns in the plot. Interplay between characters and sometimes animals and things. Rewrites will always be necessary because you change your mind about the structure of the story or the twists and turns of the plot, something maybe something doesn’t ring true, so must be reworded or changed altogether. Also because when you write a sentence, phrase, paragraph or whatever, there are always several ways of saying what you want to say. When you read over your work you can frequently think of a better way of saying something. Do you want the reader to respond to your descriptions or situations – look behind you – don’t trust the bugger – that’s not the right option, and so on. Perhaps the overall test of a good story is to keep the reader wanting to know what happens next, and more especially what happens in the end. It is easy to criticise a plot for being contrived, yet in a way all fiction is contrived, all the actions events and characters in a story are contrived; the trick is to make them sound authentic, to introduce them in away that seems natural to the story, smoothly without giving the impression they’ve been inserted because the author couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Another angle to be considered is where the story is coming from. If you tell it from the first person viewpoint then you limit the action to a degree. The narrator has to there or to hear about the action from elsewhere. The story could be about a limited group of people, say a family, and cover each of their particular takes on various situations as well as the interplay between them. Over what period of time is you story to be told – could be a saga covering many years even generations of the characters involved, or much briefer time scales, perhaps twenty four hours at the opposite end of the scale. I tend to find that one or two years is the optimum time, although I never know until I start writing; like Topsy the story just grows.
Another aspect of novel writing is density. Some writers, quite effectively, go into great detail, often saying a lot about very little. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The strands of a story can straggle off in different directions each wanting their own particular attention, and this again can be effective or the opposite. As far as my own work is concerned, I could probably do with a bit more filling out of detail, not allowing the strands to go nowhere too quickly. Like most things in writing, there’s a a balance between overblown substance and sparse lack-luster descriptions. Getting that balance right is what makes for good writing. Having said that, however good the writing, or not, the story itself is vital. You can always improve the writing, but without a good story you really have nothing. I think perhaps my stories are lacking in originality. I need to work on that aspect.
At the risk of repeating myself I cannot stress too much that probably the most vital ingredient of a novel is this authenticity, I talked about; the story must be written in a way that when read, it ‘rings true’ to the reader – would the character say that, do that?. If the reader says to himself, that wouldn’t have happened or he wouldn’t have said that, then the essence of the story is diminished. The writer must capture the essential essence of a scene or a character rather than merely flat lining the words. The characters have to follow this principle at all times. All this applies to conversation especially – say the words over to yourself – does it sound right? That’s why read-throughs are necessary. If the writer has the courage and indeed the common sense, he should scrap bits that don’t adhere to this basic concept; sometimes even the whole thing. I suspect a lot of writers hang on to material in the hope that future repairs can revive its authenticity; probably a forlorn hope.
Maybe the three elements that make up a story are writing style, what you have to say about the world as part of your story, and of course most important of all is the story itself, the plot you might say. The style is something that grows as an author writes and hopefully improves and can be aided by reading worthwhile books by recognized authors. The story covers the doings of a set of characters, their thoughts, their environment, their actions and their interplay with the other characters. The ideas are really an expression of the authors own thoughts using his characters as vehicles for that purpose.
Every story you tell has major events or turning points in it, but there have to be passages in between the exciting bits and they can be tedious, if you’re not careful. What I’m saying is that pace is important, keep the story moving along in between those peaks I mentioned. The valleys can be just as interesting, filling in gaps, character pictures, background and so on but always the main story should be there waiting to be taken forward. There must be a continuous flow to the story making it essentially readable.
Writers are a bit like God in the sense that they have absolute control of their characters. The writer knows more about each one than they know about the others; he knows what they’re doing, and in fact decides what they do, but only allows the others to know about it if it suits his him. He knows what they think as well, which none of the other characters can be absolutely certain about. This differs depending on whether you’re writing in the first person or not. If you are, you obviously can’t be so certain about what the other characters are doing or thinking. If you’re well into a story, the characters appear to be carrying on without you. You might be doing some mundane thing when a character, or what a characters is doing, or will do next, comes into your mind. You have to stop what you’re doing to find a piece of paper and write down those thoughts, before they get lost.
After you have been reading and writing for some time, or at least in my case anyway, you find you have a fairly large stock of words at your disposal. Different descriptions, phrases and sentences can be created in many different ways depending on how you put together the words you call up from your stock rather like a painter mixing colours on his palette. If you’re in the right frame of mind, in the groove as it were, those words come easily to mind tumbling over themselves to be used, sometimes rejected for a better word. There is always more than one way of saying what you want to say; choosing the right way is very much part of the writer’s art.
One thing is certain and that is that a writer will never be completely satisfied with what they’ve written, will always be able to improve the work when they read it through. Self criticism is fine, but with objectivity always the watch dog. If you’re like me, frustration will always dog your writing footsteps, frustration that you can’t put into words what you’re trying to say, that you can’t produce that masterpiece, or even a small part of one, although there are times when something comes uninvited into your brain when you’re doing something else and you have to jot it down on a piece of paper to incorporate it later somewhere in your work. Yet by the time you do it, often loses the sparkle it had when it first came into your mind. There will always be sections of your work which come over as good, while others don’t ring true; perfection is a very distant dream. Sometimes you read back what you’ve written earlier that day and it doesn’t sound right. You try to rewrite and it still doesn’t ring true. In some cases you just have to settle for second best and put up with a sense of dissatisfaction. I find this reading back can result in mood swings. You read a bit that comes over well and feel great, read another bit which doesn’t satisfy and down go the spirits.
The other thing that is near certain is that with practice your work will improve. Of course your own opinion is very subjective, but by reading old work and comparing new stuff the comparison will be clear. There are times when you will come to a dead stop. You have reached a stage where you have included some aspect of the story as envisaged but not yet located the next peak to conquer. There is a danger in such instances that you resort to the banal, filling in the pages just to get through them. Not good at all – pause and give it some more thought. Consider what might happen to your characters now you know them and their circumstances. Maybe introduce new characters to keep the pot boiling or new twists in the plot. How I envy those writers who have the whole story structured in their minds and only have to get it down on paper – what bliss.
Two things are staggering when you come to put pen to paper. The first is how little we know. Veering away from topics because we can’t speak authoritatively about them, must be common – certainly it is for me. Secondly, inadequate imagination. How many of us has real imagination when it comes to writing a story. Where is the original thought? The neat little twist and turns of short story writing for instance – not easy. Many, like me, resort to empiricism, then rely on character building, on common sense, on letting the story flow, bringing in perhaps what little we do know and what views we have.
I believe it is difficult to write a novel with only occasional visits to the word processor. What I mean by that is that in order to get continuity you must be very familiar with your own story and characters. If you have to keep reading back to find out who the characters are, and what they’re like, you will lose momentum. If you frequently visit the work you will live with the plot and characters and develop both because of that familiarity at times when you are not actually doing the writing, lying in bed at night or in the morning maybe. You have to know your plot and its characters like old friends, to help them develop as though you cared about them, which you probably will do anyway. Writer’s block is when you just can’t think of what your characters should do next leaving them stuck there on the page waiting for your instillation of lifeblood to make them move on. Writing can be intoxicating. Finding the right words to say what you have to say, capturing the essence of your characters, their inner thoughts, their raison d’etre can be the ultimate in satisfaction, a real delight. Sometimes I want to write so much it hurts. Ideas come into your mind; you have to satisfy the urge to get them down on paper and hope the scribbles can be brought to life when you come to write them out properly.
When writing a novel you can, in fact usually do, create new characters, although sometimes the opportunity arises to bring back old friends When you tell your story you have to bear in mind that what you write has almost certainly been said before, many times. There is nothing new in the universe so the contents of the story will have elements of familiarity about them. Only so many things can happen to people, although they can happen in many different ways and the same can be said of background descriptions. Of course the list is exhaustive. Illness, accident, family life, weather, work experience, human relations, disasters, creation, art are a few but each has within them a vast number of sub plots. You may find that a subject crops up in more than one novel for instance a child going missing. Here again the end result can be momentary panic, ultimate relief or tragedy. One lesson to be learned is that if you have a good scene or episode in your story, make the most of it, there might not be too many of them. Embellish it without becoming tedious, use the moment to produce a lasting image for the reader either of person or circumstance.
The aspects of a novel can vary considerably. In some cases the actual plot can be the whole essence of the story, twisting and turning, providing good reading through the action impact with the protagonists merely shadows just sufficient to carry through the story. On the other hand the plot can be basic, simple, even unoriginal; yet contain such depth of character study with detailed scene and circumstances description, that its very life is in those intricacies, the plot almost by the way. Of course some novels try to do both and sometimes include elements of philosophy and thoughts about morality or beliefs as well as the authors own very specific idea and thoughts..
Sometimes it seems as though times pushes us past moments of beauty without giving us chance to ponder on them, to appreciate their worth. We seldom think deeply because if we’re superficially happy or content, time passes us by, oh so easily. It might be a reason that some works of art have emerged from situations of hardship or poverty. Are we born creative or is it a learned talent? I know that each novel I write is better than the previous one, at least in terms of the writing itself.
When it comes to sources of inspiration read, read, read – cribbing and learning without resorting to plagiarism. Also plays and films can provide inspiration. You might be watching a film or reading a book when something occurs to you that impacts on your latest bit of writing. Then, if you’re like me, you have to grab a piece of paper to note the thought or idea so it can be incorporated in the work to improve or embellish it to good effect. Sometimes the idea doesn’t appear so marvelous when you come to use it, in which case you may have to reject it or modify it. The important point is that the story you’re writing is to the forefront of your brain which is good, the more you work on your story the better it will be; I hope.
Keep a notebook – enter things that might come in useful in your writing – have a file in ‘word’ to which you can add ideas as they occur to you, just as I’m doing now.
Watch television and make a note of the faces and bodies that appear to form the basis of descriptions to be used later in stories – particularly useful for people like me without imaginations. Use of personal experiences – these will always creep in somewhere, despite yourself
The enthusiasm that sometimes possesses a writer might lead him to want to put down a number of thoughts, actions etc with some impatience and string these together with unthinking ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ when a much more imaginative way of ‘linking’ could be found. That’s one good reason for going over the work again, possibly deleting or changing a number of the conjunctions. Be careful to avoid repetition both of words and ideas.
In between writing sessions the feeling for the work in hand can vary enormously. Sometimes you just can’t wait to get back to your story. Ideas about what happens next, albeit unorganized, come flooding into your mind, things the characters might do or how they will react, developments to the story and so on, while at other times you become blocked, have no idea of where to go next. There are those characters sitting on their arses, all waiting for you to tell them what to do. These are terrible times, yet eventually you will find new possibilities opening up, probably at the times when you’re not really worrying about it. .
Characters often appear as stereotypes, but then every description of a human being and indeed their actions is a stereotype of sorts, because nothing is actually new. The trick is for the writer to make that stereotype ’seem’ original by the way it is portrayed. Character building is important but the avoidance of cliches is often difficult. We know how breath appears on a cold day, but you need a good metaphor to catch the attention. How does a person think – what are their views – what kind of human being are they. Atmosphere – creating the feeling for a scene or episode. Impressions gained by the protagonists of each other. Where are we? How do characters react to place and ambiance. Rural and urban settings. Smells can be very evocative.
Descriptions of people and places important but not to the point of tedium. You wouldn’t get away with the same extent of description today as Dickens was able to. Autumn leaves, coloured bright in glorious death. Curtains the colour of blood billowing out wildly in the wind. The harsh metallic chimes of the old clock grated on his nerves like a rusty knife scraping on brick. Where the shade from the trees fell, the sun shot pieces of silver across the water. Descriptions of inside and out, but not too much, traffic, wildlife, pets. Affect of colour, temperature, what you comprehend.
Dealing with conversation, dialogue – listen to what goes on around you in shops and with friends. Get the punctuation right. Tackling humour. Tell a joke or use a subtle implication. Femininity, masculinity, adults or children, some of one in the other. Avoid bias unless, of course. that is part of your story. A woman sitting down with her legs tucked underneath her – catlike.
Hosts of ghosts – memory is a funny thing. Little scraps of memory, small incidents, people, even thoughts can spring into the mind either triggered by something happening now, or for no good reason. They can be useful in your writing although if you’re anything like me, they can be frustrating in their incompleteness. You want to expand on the memory, but can’t.
Philosophy – putting in your own and others pet ideas on religion, politics, sex, honour, justice, rule of law and so on. Impressions by one person of another, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. First impressions are often wrong .A person’s outward appearance often belies the truth and a different person is revealed beneath that outward skin..Don’t be afraid to use news items if they fit in – domestic violence, employment disputes, benefit cheating, medical situations to name just a few. Listen to the news, use up to date idium, slang etc. Be willing to take your characters to other parts of the country and abroad. The trials and tribulations of travel.
Character studies, little vignettes, can be useful in setting the tone of a story. When you’re dealing with characters in a story there are two main approaches. The main protagonists are treated differently than the sub characters mainly in so far as inside and outside techniques are concerned. With the inside approach you have a writer’s access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings whereas with the others you only deal with them a third party perspective just as you would with people you come across in every day life.
Reaction – interplay between characters and sometimes animals and things.
Action – story must have some pace to keep the reader interested – a surprise twist – changes of direction in the plot – make it live – keep up the pace. Adopt your own style, perhaps little quirks of expression. It’s not a school essay so you can experiment with how you say things – words are your tools, your paintbrush. Don’t be afraid to wax jyrical now and then introduce a touch of poetry or purple prose bur don’t overdo it. Always remember the sympathy vote.
At the end of it all, some days you will sit back, or at least I do, and realise that in the scheme of things your efforts don’t amount to very much when compared to great or even good authors; a very sobering thought. Why then keep going? I think because I recognis, I hope objectively that each novel I write is better than the last as least as far as the writing itself is concerned. As to the story itself that is a different story particularly as I write in this rather narrow field of human and family relationships with all the trials and tribulations pertaining.
Emotion – how do characters feel and how does that make them react. Mood – must sound realistic. Shedding of emotions, sense of humour, sixth sense. Frisson, catch in the throat, throb, vibrations. Enduring anguish, nostalgia, grief, elation, torpor, ennui, chemistry between people. Tremble, shudder, shake, shiver, tingle, pulsate, anxiety, agitation, worry ,panic, lassitude ,tension.
Sensation – how do people feel, smell, taste, hear, see, react. Constricting sensation around the sternum. Smile without showing the teeth, tight lipped, sucking in the lower lip, narrowing the eyes, a heart that thumps, beats, pounds. Wrinkling of the nose in disgust, toffee nosed, nasty smell under the nose, chin on heel of hand. Butchers’ shop thighs. Rubins type arses. Absorbing things around you, perception, observation. Dreaming, sleeping, smoking, not being able to sleep, body language, facial expression – creasing of the forehead, pursing the lips, biting the lips, biting the finger nails, heaving a sigh of relief, deep breaths, folding arms, flicking hair back. We feel hot, cold, sad, happy, interested ,bored, excited, angry, pleased, dejected, frightened, hurt, wracked, cantankerous, arrogant, tender, wistful. We suffer from pride, humility, wonder ,indifference, courage, cowardice, hope, regret, discontentment, ,joy.
What do we do – we smile, laugh, grin, sneeze, cough, fart, belch ,walk, run, talk, shout, touch, smell, be smelled, drink, eat, stroke, poke, fuck, kiss, love, hate, sit get op, lie, fall, write, read, scatch, slip ,jump, cry, weep, blush, wash, smoke, cook, play, work, listen, speak, sniff, switch, shit, pee, sigh, blink, wink, wank, itch, scratch, prepare a meal, how do people dress or undress, the pressure of wanting to go to the toilet.
Elements – rain, wind, snow, sleet, sunshine, fog, lightening, thunder, frost, storm, clouds – weather can be very dramatic, useful in setting moods or of moods responding to it.
The body – face, long legs,.flat stomach, profile, hair, letter opener nose, lardy thighs, fat, thin, complexion, veins, bucolic, ruddy, oval face, square face, pimples, spots, lips thin or full, tongue, teeth, saliva, eyebrows, lashes, angular face, designer stubble, size of hands ,length of fingers, soft or hard, lizard neck, film of sweat, broad across the hips, big arse, tits like pears, all woman, head on one side, quizzical, intimidating bosom, movement of breasts as their owner moves.
Gestures – rubbing nose, pulling ear, rubbing chin, winking, escpecially female gestures – she smoothed her hands over her hips in a tidying gesture.Pulling down the hem of a dress,pushing back a lock of hair behind an ear, brushing hair. Generallly – rocking back on heels,standing on tiptoe or on the balls of the feet, eyes going round in a circle of incomprehension, shaking head, nodding, many hand gestures, licking lips, scratching, folding arms, crossing legs, puttting hand to mouth, running hands through hair, putting hands together in a steeple, pointing, balling a fist, picking nose or at dead skin or spots, raising eyebrows, widening eyes, pursing lips, finger in an ear, spreading of hands, steepling of fingers. Langour. Lassitude, languish, truculent, invective.
Descriptions of clothes people wear and their features. Not many people are really good looking, very few are beautiful, most are just acceptible, a few are grotesque. Pick out features that make someone different or maybe endearing. Big hands, small hands, long delicate fingers, gnarled fingers. Affect of colour, temperature, what you see or comprehend..
Metaphor is obviously important but you must try to be original.As sweet as hope to a child, Unsoftened by long corridors (had a hard life) Delicious taste – like the virgin Mary pissing in your mouth .Feet crunching over gravel, talking with mouth full, sound of speech, gritty, silky,
smooth, gravelly. death is news, imperious child, petulance dripping with impatience.
How do you end a story? Well you don’t really. Like life, the story goes on even if you’re not writing it, The trick is to find a convenient place to pause and a convincing way of doing that which satisfies yourself and your readers, not always easy.