Week 44

After returning to the first chapter or prologue last week, I worked on two questions this week: why is my main character writing, and at what stage in the story is she writing? First things first. Is she writing, necessarily? Ross Raisin's book God's Own Country is narrated by a voice, not a very literate voice, so one must assume he is speaking rather than writing. Whether it is being transcribed and by whom is irrelevant; the story grips you immediately. The main character Sam is narrating events as they happen, whereas my main character is concerned with events from the past. I think she is writing.

Why? Something has happened. She is explaining herself. First person almost always implies the confessional. Is that the note I want to hit? Is that the note she wants to hit?

And when in the story is this? How much does the character know? Is it right at the end of the story, or some time before? I think it starts with some way to go, at the end of act four in the Hulk's narrative structure.

This consideration isn't just about getting the character's tone of voice right, it involves rethinking her entire narrative arc. Over the course of the story, she, as all narrative theories demand she must, comes to an understanding about herself, but to describe events in the order they happened would require a deliberately naive attitude. An authorial narrator writing in the third person could tell the story and show characters developing, but when it is a character telling the story things are different. The character is in charge. She has experienced all that she is describing, and it has already changed her. How do I make sure she doesn't give the game away from the start?

I focus on my main character too much. A 1982 interview with Philip Larkin reminded me that this is not a single-character medium (thanks to @lloydshepherd for the link). Asked for his definition of a novel, a notoriously thorny question, Larkin replies with a single statement:

"I think a novel should follow the fortunes of more than one character."

Point taken.

Philip Larkin Top TrumpsFirst person narrative does that though; every character is seen through the main character's eyes. There's plenty of scope to imply the main character's viewpoint is flawed, but it is still claustrophobic and incessant.

So I started writing a section with two other key characters. It's a crucial section - act three, to use the five-act structure as a reference - that sets the final events in motion. I've had to think about different characters and how they relate to her, what she thinks of them and what those thoughts let on about herself.

It's often said that characters leap out at you. They jump off the page. Well, bullshit. Mine don't feel real like that (yet). Some days my main character is clear, but some days she's difficult to make out from stuff I'd say, stuff I'd do. I refer to character notes when I forget what a character is supposed to be doing. I pin a list of characters to my board to remind me of their names.

Character is like every element of my book: added to and developed a layer at a time. I think I have a handle on them, and then I think of something else, another aspect to their character or backstory, or whatever it is that makes up an identity. Character doesn't just spring up from nowhere, just as no-one appears fully formed when you meet them for the first time. You must fill in the blanks, make assumptions and change them.

This week's word count is low, but I'm pleased with how the plot is taking shape through a focus on characters. When those two things work together - plot derived from character, and character fleshed out by plot - then you know you're on to something.

Focussing on one, whether by endlessly structuring your book and planning scenes, or by working on character in isolation, believing in a constant index of character, is always to the detriment of the other.

Erm, as Aristotle put it rather better 1,400 years ago. Keep checking back here for more up-to-the-minute news, folks.

Word count this week: 2,943 Total word count: 83,551 First draft: 73,535

Week 41

This week I had to face writing again after almost four weeks off. I know from past experience you have to chain yourself to the desk. I have a new laptop, and therefore wifi access again (my old Dell had helpfully disabled its wireless card somehow - annoying, but invaluable when it comes to focussing on the task in hand). Now, once again I have the world's knowledge at my fingertips. As well as the world's emails. And the world's opinion on the latest episode of XFactor.

I know also not to expect too much. The first writing session after time off is going to be miserable. Constipated. Discouraging.

So I sat down expecting not to write much, but to reacquaint myself with my storyboard. I now have two - the one developing as the first draft in Scrivener, and the real one on my windowsill, which is of another story altogether. Well, not quite, but the real-life storyboard is my attempt to keep where I think this story might be going in my head, while maintaining where it has actually gone on my computer. I do this to avoid temptation to look back and edit - "don't look back and edit", as Noel Gallagher once sang - and turn into a pillar of salt (eeewoooghh! Toot the horn! Biblical reference! Who do I think I am, Jeanette Winterson?).

Louis Ferrigno as The Incredible HulkI'm about halfway through my story I think; maybe three fifths. Although three fifths would make me at the stage of the "spiral" according to FILM CRIT HULK, who lays into the what he sees as the "myth of the three act structure". (Is Hulk a he? Or an it?)

Anyway. I've always felt uneasy reading books about "story", as they tend to come from a screenwriting background, and novels are a whole lot messier than that. Most of these books cling to the notion of conflict as core to story, and this, I think, gives too much emphasis to a single plot, a line of action around which everyone dances.

HULK (if that *is* his name suggests conflict should exist before the action even begins, and that it is a conceit which brings it to the fore. His (its) suggested structure is as follows:

  1. Intro (natch)
  2. Conceit - an issue arises, eg Romeo falls for Juliet (despite the existing conflict between their two families)
  3. Turn - the issue gets worse and unbearable
  4. Spiral - everything goes into freefall thanks to the character's decisions
  5. Climax

I like it because it sounds like a gym routine (with a slightly unexpected conclusion).

He (grr, it! the Hulk thing gets annoying, but stick with it) goes on to say an act is defined not by an end narrative goal, but by a character making a decision they can't go back on. This grounds narrative in character, not twists. I am very proud of myself for thinking of a plot twist, but it was satisfactory not because it was unexpected, but it made so much sense. Of course that's what the main character would do.

Which brings me onto my third reason for liking this article so much (and not just because of its iconoclastic attitude to the bibles of storytelling). The climax, he argues, is everything. It's the reason you're writing the script or book in the first place. What happens at the end is what the whole thing has been leading up to. I've written before about how much I like stories where you know what happens at the end, whether it's the restitution of the status quo in romances or comedies, or the inevitable death of the hero in a tragedy. The idea that the climax is more than just what you see when the dust settles is fascinating to me. It should be uncanny, something you watch unravel through your fingers.

Anyway, that refocussing on character and plot certainty helped me find my feet in my story after so long away. Thanks Tom for pointing it out to me.

I spent the day reading and updating my character charts, and then wrote for an hour or two, the beginning of a scene where my main character finds herself reflective and reflected. Out of that, I hope I shall find my next big decision for her.

Word count this week: 750 Total word count: 70,438 First draft: 60,422

Week 36

Describe a friend of yours. A good friend. Guess Who board game Are they honourable? Would they step in and defend an old lady being harassed on a bus? Or are they devious? Slip an extra biscuit out of the tin? Are they lazy? Committed? Name a physical habit of theirs. Is there a phrase they repeat? When they sneeze, do they blast saliva molecules over the surrounding area, or do they pinch their nose and squeak?

In the past I’ve been asked to write yearbook entries for some of my best friends, and come up with nothing. A friend once asked me to write her profile for a dating site, and I was stumped. Did she like museums and walks in the park? I had no idea.

Now describe you. What do you look like? What do you think you look like? What stuff do you like? What’s your favourite... book? Film? What one album reflects everything you are? What three words sum you up? What skills can you bring to the job? Look down at yourself. Your stained shirt. The roll your stomach makes over the top of your trousers. The scar on your left hand. Tell me about yourself. Start with your values. What do you even stand for?

Hard, isn’t it?

It's the same with my characters. I understand them (one started off life based on me), and I need them to do certain things, but I'm not sure I see them for what they are. When I interrogate them for answers as to what happens next, they just look back at me blankly.

I went to Storywarp last week, and was struck by something someone said in response to a comment made by Rhianna Pratchett, a scriptwriter for video games. They were surprised she'd referred to something called a "blank-slate character" - so important in first-person video games - and did not think something "blank-slate" could be classified as a "character". It was as if characters had to be bundled full of meaning, substance, and, well, characteristics, if they were to exist at all.

My response was immediate; surely blank-slate characters exist. Look at Nicholas Nickleby - wet as all get out. What does he add to the story named after him? Early novels in the Bildungsroman tradition often had a central character who was important not so much for the things he did, but for the things he didn't do, the things that happened to him. Rousseau explains his theories of education deliberately using Emile as a blank slate;Wilhelm Meister walks around eighteenth-century Germany in a kind of daze; and Nick Carraway is a witness only to the enigmatic and absent Gatsby.

Then I stopped being so pretentious and thought, of course there's such a thing as a blank-slate character. You walk around with one all the time. It's you.

Some of my characters are inspired by people I know, and it's hard not to fall in the trap of trying to get that unique and changeable host of characteristics down on paper. This character needs to do xyz, but, he's more complex than that. Or, she wouldn't say that. And that's laudable: people are hard to pin down, they're not stereotypes, not flat and one-dimensional. But holding her tongue because that's in line with her character, so she can mooch about it all night instead, chapters and chapters worth of tedious ramblings, before finally something happens to put her in the same position I needed her to be in 56 pages ago? Booo-ring.

Trying to write so-called "realistic" characters - ones with all the contradictory whims, habits and beliefs of the people you know - is impossible. It gets you nowhere.

Storywarp reminded me that a lot of drama is rooted in character, and that I hadn't been paying enough attention to it. It also showed me that I had to get rid of this notion of doing justice to the complex characters I walk around with, and am, every day.

Character isn't an everyday experience. Characters don't form themselves simply and clearly in our minds. They are a constant fiction, something we have to work at, to make it seem like we are consistent, identifiable, that at any point someone could pick us out of a crowd.

Like every layer of a novel, there's a lot of art that goes into creating character. Each one should not aim to be uniquely identifiable, but do its job, add to the story. Action = character, after all.

Drama, on the other hand, takes not just the script but the perfomance into account. Every actor playing Hamlet has to decide how to play him: as a petulant, spoilt boy, or as a wounded, haunted man. You have to give him an angle. Is Lear sinning or sinned against? The play leaves it open, but every member of the audience goes away with an opinion on way or another.

I've quoted Robert McKee on archetypes before, but it really made me stop and re-read it a few times when I first came across it. Is he really saying that successful characters are archetypal first, and characteristic second? To start with specifics, in McKee's words, is to risk writing "narrow, culture-specific experience" and dress it "in stale, nonspecific generalities" (The Story, p.4).

At first, the advice to write archetypes to avoid stereotypes seems counter-intuitive. But McKee is saying you’ve got to take a real-life character and smooth out its fuzzy lines, harden its edges, fictionalise it. There's no point worrying that Aunt Emily wouldn't go out in such weather - get her out there. What'd change her mind? What'd make her put her dressing gown on and venture outside?

In other words, exaggerate characters. Don't minimise them. It’s the only way to get them moving - you can make it more subtle in the edit.

Word count this week: 6,836* Total word count: 68,871 First draft: 58,855

* Word count is high this week because as well as finishing section three I also planned the next section, tidied up my notes and added some old ideas that still work. THAT'S NOT CHEATING! The first draft is simply catching up with my total word count. Ahem.

Week 22

Getting back into writing has been daunting, not least because I'm still feeling the after-effects of jetlag (it's been more than 10 days! Enough already!). I gave myself a day of acclimatisation, which involved opening the 20,000-odd word document (I think the largest I’ve ever written – my university dissertations were maximum 15,000) and staring at it.

Four hours later I'd not written a word, but instead worked on characterisation. Not necessarily characters who already existed, but a list of possible characters based on the setting. That sounds a bit odd, but when I tell people what my novel's about, they're really interested: in what I got up to, the sorts of people I knew. As it's based on my own experiences, however, it's difficult for me to see what's interesting and what's run-of-the-mill.

I was a fan, but what other fans were out there? How were they different to me? How did their fandom compare with mine, and what light does that shed on my main character?

This feels the wrong way round - McKee said taking characteristics first and applying universal themes second was a recipe for stereotype, after all - but has nevertheless been really helpful in working out how multiple characters work towards and not against a unified story. I fleshed out a list of characters based not on people in my story, but people I met, knew of, made up the fan world I lived in. Taking each in turn, I thought about their motivations, and what's stopping them getting what they want. They might not make it to my story; most won't, and some might, but not for long. But thinking about extra, possibly unseen characters helps me discover more sides to my main characters.

This has a big impact not just on characterisation, but plot too. After I'd thought about characters, I wrote a list of events that make up my plot from memory, without looking at the list of scenes I'd written months ago when I was first planning my novel. It's a useful backbone, but unlike last time when I tried to list every scene that happened one by one as per the Snowflake method, this time I just wrote significant moments, and hope to fill in the stuff in between as I go.

I realised when reading on holiday that the story in the kind of novel I want to write is episodic; not everything leads up to a final crescendo. It requires multiple characters, and sometimes scenes work just because they are interesting in and of themselves, not because they lead into another scene, or set up a conflict or situation that needs to be resolved later.

The problem with so-called story theory, or writers like Robert McKee, is that novels don’t follow a single story that rises and falls according to a single character’s actions. That is much more appropriate for drama or screenplays.

They are messy, exploratory things, which delay gratification and take readers on detours, disappoint and surprise in equal measure, satisfy our yearning for a broad sense of completion, and delight with a single phrase. Every page should be fun to write, and not full of anxieties about where this is all going, who I'm writing for, and am I setting this situation up right. There should be hundreds of stories within a novel, and a hundred ways of telling it.

Well, that's what I'm telling myself next time I open that 20,000 word document anyway.

Word count this week: 2,339 Running total: 37,230 First draft: 20,237

Weeks 18-21

This week's motto That's this week's motto.

I’ve been on holiday in Hong Kong and Thailand for the past few weeks, and had an amazing time. I didn’t get much (any) writing done, but I read a whole lot.

I don't know if it was a coincidence, a recent trend in fiction, or simply something I was looking out for, but I noticed a few of my books had an interesting approach to character. A couple (A Visit from the Goon Squad, A Week in December) introduced multiple characters upfront who were all connected in some remote way, and then wilted a little when it came to sustaining a unified story, whereas another (To Have or To Have Not - okay, Hemingway, so not a recent trend) slipped from first to third person, and thence to other characters altogether, like the narrative has suffered a lapse in interest in that viewpoint.

All this got me thinking about character. By the time I got to Zadie Smith, I was surprised at her small band of characters - a protagonist, his father, girlfriend and friends - and how little they sprawled time, or space. Each represented a different element to the story and yet were brought vividly to life.

When I got back I spoke to my dad, who's reading Story by Robert McKee, and he mentioned something McKee had to say about character:

"The archetypal story unearths a universally human experience, then wraps itself inside a unique, culture-specific expression. A stereotypical story reverses this pattern: It suffers a poverty of both content and form. It confines itself to a narrow, culture-specific experience and dresses in stale, nonspecific generalities."

He goes on to explain that the "symbolic charge" of a story’s imagery should be in the move from the particular to the universal, the specific to the archetypal, not the other way around. As well as being a good reminder to start with realistic characters, this struck me as kinda appropriate for my book, which is about fandom and identity, what's real and what's symbolic (or archetypal, to use McKee's term).

It also reminded me that successful characters aren't just realistic. I've struggled with this in the past, as my novel is based on my own experience, and, to a certain extent, events and people I've met. That's always the way, isn't it? Surely everything a writer writes includes some of his or her experience?

A passage about a wannabe novelist in A Week in December made my blood run cold:

"So it was that he began yet again, with a main character not unlike himself on a life path that bore a fraternal relationship to his own. This thing about 'inventing' characters that some novelists banged on about; really, when you came down to it, why bother? Very few people knew him, or any of his acquaintances he planned to include, so what was the point of conjuring and moulding new people from the void? At least he and his friends came with built-in credibility; they were, by definition, 'realistic'..."

Except of course they're not, as soon as they hit the page. Characters are only as realistic as they are written, and writing about a real person leads you into forgetting what makes them who they are, which characteristics are defining and which are dull.

So I've realised I need to take a step back and work on my characters, think about what makes them special and distinctive, and what they eventually will come to represent, without losing any of their believability. Smith's description of an auction room in The Autograph Man, the first few pages of Goon Squad, and the opening lines of the prom scene in Carrie showed me that a few choice characters can really bring a scene to life. There's a lot more to a story than that, but I need to get that initial interest right, and set up a few more characters better.

Next week is about thinking about my characters, how they could move from particular to the universal, specific to the archetypal. It's a chance to think about that little guy Daniel too, and how he might fit in the story.

In the mean time, such a long break from writing means I have some work to do just to psyche myself up again. I want to get back to where I was before I went away: writing a little bit every day, and looking forward to it. This weekend I had to force myself to sit down both days, and work through every distraction in the book (tidying, googling, tweeting, coding, watching the 'Thriller' video) until I got into the swing of things again. I think I managed about two hours' solid work out of about 15, writing a long blog post and the bare bones of a short story.

Tomorrow's alarm clock is set for 6am; jetlag be damned.

Word count this week(s): 0 Running total: 34,891 First draft: 19,523

PS Sorry about my use of the word 'thence' earlier, by the way. It won't happen again.

Week 6

Working on character development this week. I've got to the point where I think naming characters would be useful: until now I've used either a shorthand (usually a name in (((brackets))) to denote its temporariness), or in some cases the name of someone I know, for most of my main characters. After a while though that becomes restrictive, and the name starts to dictate too much.

Names are strange; they put a lid on things. I've avoided putting names to my characters as it's too hard deciding what they should be called, almost like naming a baby. This one isn't right, this one is too common. This one reminds me of that odd kid at school.

Empty name badge

Names can be evocative. Emma. Heathcliff. Wackford Squeers. Are they the seed of a character, or the cherry on top?

At the moment my characters still feel like sketches on paper; they haven't risen from the page and taken form. I'm working on it. A few people have asked me what I'm going to call my book, and I haven't got an answer for that either. Should I? One friend who writes was surprised, as if naming stuff comes first and form later, like Adam in the Garden of Eden. A lot is certainly gained by a name, but I feel at this stage of my writing a lot is lost too.

This week though I've thought of two titles. One is really exciting, and immediately makes me think of everything I want this book to be. But I'm a million miles away from that now, so for the time being I'm as reticent as an expectant parent to tell anyone what they are (I told someone yesterday, and immediately regretted it - they got hold of it, and started running away with what they thought it might mean.

The title seems to decide the story somehow, and prompts me to explain it (it's a song lyric, of course). Starting with a title feels back-to-front to me, too soon to have worked out how hundreds of thousands of words might be packaged.

At some point too, I'm bound to get carried away and think about the front cover. And we know what happens when you judge THAT. But the names are there in my head in the mean time, helping spread out the words and shape a story.

I can't help feeling that the sooner I get away from the personal pronouns of people I know and recognise, the sooner I'll break my characters away from the perceived personality traits and consistencies of real people ("so-and-so would never do that, so-and-so would say it like this"), and create their own. That must be worth doing.

Word count this week: 0 Running total: 9,306