Friday, 29 August 2014

Week Eighteen: Writing Your Novel

Sometimes you need to put everything else aside ... and just write.

I have been busy writing my novel this week, in amongst the usual mad stuff that happens towards the end of the school holidays, and didn't get round to doing my weekly blog post until now, on a Friday!

So I thought, what can I blog about?

Then it struck me.

I've been so busy writing recently, I haven't had time to think about how-to-write or what to blog or any of that other background nonsense that goes on when you're a writer and a busy parent and a professional with obligations to fulfil. It can be hard to get a strong writing schedule going when you are being pulled in ten different directions at once. I've been saying no thanks, and not yet, and maybe another time, and sorry ... all so I can write. I'm between contracts, as they say, and have to finish this novel before I can get back into a healthy situation, writing-wise.

So this week's 'how-to-write' advice is very, very simple.

Just write your novel.

And here's how:

If possible find a private space where you can write undisturbed for a few hours. A place where everyone knows you are working and are under orders not to burst in, asking where their clean socks are kept or when dinner will be ready. Virginia Woolf knew all about this: unlike gentlemen, women of her era rarely had access to 'a room of one's own' where they could write. In an earlier age, Jane Austen had to write in a corner of a busy room with people coming and going around her. But anywhere will do, even the cupboard under the stairs or a shed: at one stage, the place we were living in was so small, I had to turn the tiny frosted glass porchway into my study. It was boiling hot on sunny days and freezing in winter, and the postman thought I was mad, but it was a private space away from the kids and it worked.

Block out extraneous noise with headphones or ear plugs, or listen to music.

Lock or block the door.

Hang a sign on the door that says Go Away or warn family not to approach. (Maybe set an alarm to go off elsewhere to let them know when it's safe to ask you if you want a cuppa. One hour minimum, better yet three.)

Know what you aim to write beforehand, so you don't waste the first 20 minutes fiddling about with a plot change or dithering over a character's name. Outline the scene or chapter you need to write, then execute that plan as closely as you can without becoming rigid about it.

Put fingers to keys, or pen to paper, and just write. Get into the 'zone' where words flow and you barely need to think what you're writing, it just happens naturally. If you're the sort who corrects as you go along - as I am - make sure you don't get bogged down in minutiae. If you get stuck on a problematic sentence or scene, just sweep past it and make a side note to return later. The important thing is to make the most of your writing time. To get the words down and build a respectable word count by the end of the session. You can always craft them later.

Set a goal that works for you: 3 pages by lunchtime, or 1000 words before midnight. It doesn't matter how much, only that you hit your goal more often than you miss it. Be realistic and don't push yourself if your life is currently insane. If you're unwell or working a full-time job, time slots will need to be shorter. And if you have a young baby in the house, you may have to write between feeds: 300 words here, 100 there. It all adds up.

At the end of each writing time, congratulate yourself, regardless of how much or how little you managed. It's not easy, writing a novel. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and it takes stamina and determination. Maybe you've only written one page today, but it's still one page more than you had when you sat down to write. So treat yourself to a nice coffee or whatever makes you feel good. You've earned it!

QUESTION: Do you have a set routine when you write that helps you get 'into the zone', or is it different every time?

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Week Seventeen: Researching Your Novel

Every novel requires some form of research, even if it's only where you might buy a ribbon for an old typewriter like this. Sounds like detective work? It has its moments ...

Every novel needs to be researched, not just stories set in bizarre or exotic locations, or historical novels. If you already know your world well - you work or live there, for instance - this research may be minimal. But you will still need to allocate time to do it. For instance, does your fictitious law firm share its name and location with a real-life company? Better change that, or you risk being sued. And how many doors does that particular make of hatchback have?

Basic tips include: keep a notepad at the ready, in case you spot an answer to a riddle while out and about, or hear an interesting fact on television; keep copious, detailed notes of all your research, preferably in one place (I learned this the hard way); if taking notes from the internet or a book, keep a note of URLS, article titles and author names, page numbers and full publishing details (remember to do this even when you cut and paste, so you can refer back to that website if you later need more details or are compiling a list of acknowledgements or a bibliography). Also, importantly, if a fact is vital to your story, double or indeed triple-check it with a respected source. Don't just accept Wikipedia's version, in other words!

Try to research in a meaningful way. If you're looking up a fact about handguns, don't get sidetracked into reading three chapters on field artillery, however fascinating. Don't let research become a fetish.

Some facts can be easy to research or double-check. A few clicks and you have that missing data. But for complicated settings, especially historical ones, you may need to compile a vast wealth of accurate, double-checked details, some of them hard to discover in the first place. Sometimes thorough research may be your only path to a finished manuscript. Sometimes you can type Chapter One with an easy conscience, and deal with issues as they come up.

So how to go about this?

I can't write this novel yet. I don't even know what my main protagonist's surname should be. He's Russian, born 1947, his father was a political prisoner ... Time to hit the books!

Research First, Write Later
Some writers prefer to do their research before they begin the novel. That way, all the information they need is close at hand. They can plan a book, secure in the knowledge that their plot hinges on a particular stagecoach journey time in 1823; not only have they checked that timetable, they know all the inns along the way, what kind of meals they might have offered a weary traveller, and even how the coach driver would have been dressed.

But this method - research-first, write-later - holds considerable dangers for the unwary writer.

If you think research is more entertaining than the hard work of writing the actual novel, and have not set yourself a cast-iron deadline for beginning to write, you may find yourself drifting. One month, two months, three ... and the novel is never started. In the end, you may find you've spent a whole year on researching the minutest detail of your proposed story, and are now so bored by it, you chuck it over for some new, as yet unresearched idea.

To avoid this danger, decide beforehand when you are going to start writing the novel - and stick to it! Anything you don't know by then will have to be researched on the hoof. Which brings me to method number two for researching a novel.

Researching on the Hoof
Those impatient to start chapter one may well decide they know enough to begin writing without further research. Hopefully these are not delusional types whose efforts will soon end in disaster, but those who have prior experience of writing about this world or location - or are in the category I mentioned above, i.e. they know it intimately because it's their everyday world. My own preference is for plunging in at page one, perhaps after a cursory check on date, time, location for my story, then researching on the hoof, i.e. as I write.

The method is simple.

You're writing an historical novel, and your protagonist is changing her dress. You can't recall what might have been worn to an informal soiree in the late Regency. Or you know the gown, but not the shoes. What would they have looked like? For my Tudor stories, I have used the internet and also fantastic book and website resources like The Tudor Tailor to ensure my descriptions of clothes for various social classes are as accurate as possible. So to check those facts, to get each tiny detail correct, you stop work for a few minutes - hopefully not more than an hour! - and do your specific research. Then get back to the job of writing.

Visiting Locations
Whichever method you use, if you need to visit a certain location for your book - a local factory, for example, or an area of London - you will need to plan ahead. There's no good visiting after you've written that scene, as seeing a place with your own eyes may completely change your approach. If it proves expensive - for instance, involving a trip abroad - try to find a way to use that location again. That way you're getting more than one book for the cost of a single research trip.

Take notes and photographs, which should be as exhaustive as possible. Write down what you photographed and in which order so you can readily identify your shots later. Buy postcards, guide books, local maps. Grab secret candid shots of the locals for your own use. Making your own film on an iPhone or camera is also advisable if you need to really capture the atmosphere or remember how you got from A to B. After all, you don't know when you will be able to return there. (You could even share it on Youtube and social media, and get a little advance publicity for your project.)

Don't simply wander a location though, taking notes and photographs. You're a novelist, which means you need to write in the narrative voice of a person who is actually in that location, at a certain time, doing particular things. So approach your visit as if you are that person. Imagine where he or she would stand or sit, how they might act, what kind of smells and sights and textures they might experience. Make notes later, if you like, but that part may need to be deeply internalised. Drawn into yourself and experienced through the senses of your narrator, in other words. And that's something no external fact-finding can replicate.

Plus, don't forget that research is a legitimate tax-deductible expense if/when your book is published. So even if you don't have a contract yet, keep all receipts from research trips and general expenses.

When writing THE QUEEN'S SECRET, I was lucky enough to live only a few miles from Kenilworth Castle, where all the action takes place in 1575. Being a 'local' meant I was able to visit the location frequently, check all my facts personally, and really soak up the atmosphere.

Writers' Resources
Never underestimate the usefulness of long library visits, especially to specialist libraries - though getting a Reader's Ticket may be tricky - or a good research book written by an expert, but the internet is where you're likely to find most nuggets of information quickly. It's also great for turning up odd information, the kind that's hard to pinpoint in a book. The toilet habits of medieval princes, for instance.

Join groups on Facebook in your chosen field, or on Goodreads, or an informative group blog like English Historical Fiction Authors - anywhere people gather to exchange information. If really stuck, try a shout-out on Twitter and hope people retweet your request for information until someone turns up an answer or a possible resource to try. Social media is a great place to ask research questions, so make friends with other people interested in your research area. Some historical programme presenters are actually on Twitter and might reply to a question or two, if you're polite and not pushy.

And get yourself a Youtube account, or browse there. If you can't visit a location, you may find it's already on film on Youtube - someone's amateur holiday film, perhaps, or a genuine expert's view, perhaps compiled themselves or a snippet from a television programme. It's free, and it all helps.

Employing the Writer's Flannel
Sadly, it's not always possible to find the fact you need, or not at the time you need it. In that case, you may need to use 'writer's flannel' to bypass your problem. This is a kind of textual shuffle, a little narrative sleight-of-hand, whereby you appear to have used a fact, but have actually sidestepped it. In other words, when in doubt, write around the unknown fact and hope nobody notices. They probably won't. 'Her shoes pinched' is better for conjuring up an atmosphere than a detailed description of the stitching and fabric of a pair of Regency shoes.

There can be such a thing as too much research, often evidenced by large wodges of barely digestible information or description. The ideal is to digest it all yourself, then only use a small percentage of what you know, keeping the rest on hand so that you sound like an authority on the subject, yet never bore the reader with your excess of knowledge.

Queen Victoria finished her slice of plum cake and glanced at the text message alert on her iPhone ... wait, that doesn't sound right. Oh hell, no one will notice!

Finally, remember that no one version of history, or indeed any other 'fact', is the definitive one. Some facts and dates may be reasonably solid and easily verified: when Queen Victoria died, when the First World War began, the current members of the cabinet etc. But most 'facts' are rather more slippery than that. How long is a piece of string, how many minutes to soft boil an egg? Bear this simple truth in mind when taking notes: just because the writer of an article or book is respected as an expert and has letters after their name does not mean their version of the truth is the most accurate one. We all have opinions and biases, and that includes 'experts'.

I repeat: trust no one. Do your research, double and triple-check it, then write what you believe to be the truth. Oddly enough, that's all anyone else can do too.

QUESTION: do you prefer to research beforehand or on the hoof? Does it jar you out of a book when you spot a fact that's wrong?

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Week Sixteen: Where To Start Your Novel

Some writers make notes or write outlines beforehand; others plunge straight into the story ... but where do they start?

There is nothing so wonderful as beginning to write a new novel. The failures are all ahead of you, only a few preliminary notes and a feeling of excitement - which could be indigestion - are behind you. You've been bottling it up for days, weeks, perhaps even months. Now at last you can write your first few pages ...

But where to start? When Victoria sits down to write her sixteenth blog post? Or a few minutes beforehand, when she gets that life-changing call from her agent? Perhaps you should go further back, start with some cleverly-sketched backstory: maybe that day many decades ago when she stuck her puny ten-year-old fist in the air and vowed to become a bestselling novelist, or when she had that incredible idea for a kickass story while balancing on an inflated gym ball in her exercise class?

The start of your novel is not about set-up and backstory, though it can involve those to some extent. Rather, it is a sacred moment, breathing life into clay you have shaped with your own hands. Your world is born out of nothing; your characters rise up and start making things happen; a predestined chain of events is set in motion, racing toward an unseen finish line. The beginning of every story is that moment when a storyteller invokes the magic territory by saying the four magic words, 'Once upon a time ...'

Heads turn in the room, a hush descends, people settle, and your readers willingly step alongside you into the magical world of The Story.

"Once upon a time ..." Erm ...

None of which helps the novelist in any practical sense, though it may put more pressure on her to get it right. So let's look at more practical methods of deciding where to start.

I am not speaking now to those people who launch into faeryland like The Fool in the old Tarot pack, not looking where they are going but whistling merrily, a pack on their back, stepping out over the abyss as though it were solid ground. Those people are either deeply talented magicians, implicitly trusting the story to keep them from falling, or they are idiots who think planning will stifle their creative spirit. I am talking instead to the rest of us, mortals with a brain, who know storytelling is an art but also know themselves to be capable of whacking great mistakes, so like to venture out with some kind of story map in their pack, from 'X marks the spot' on the back of an envelope to the most up-to-date Sat Nav.

So where to begin?

Most writers know that character shows itself most clearly under pressure. Like the old Latin saying, in vino veritas (truth in wine), a character reveals itself through the choices made when the usual social constraints have fallen away, perhaps because a zombie has come crashing through the living-room window or they've discovered a bomb under the table.

The door opened, and Captain Darkblood stood there, a snub-nosed revolver in his hand pointing right at my heart. "Step away from the typewriter, Victoria. You've written your last adjective."

Equally, the time to begin a story is when your character is under pressure. Not just any pressure, but an inciting pressure, a pressure that forces them to take action. Not pressure that crushes and near-destroys your protagonist, in other words - that comes later, at the climax - but just enough pressure to make your character jump up and start dancing. So Victoria is feverishly typing her blog post when the call comes in: her agent says, 'Now look, Victoria, I don't want you to worry, but apparently there's a bomb under your desk.'

How's that for a hook?

Obviously though, as readers on page one, we can't really care - beyond basic human sympathy - about a character we don't know yet. So Victoria is about to be blown to smithereens. So what? Go ahead and let the bomb detonate. The world could do with one less writer. (More chance for the rest of us, eh?)

So either we need to make the reader care from line one, which is tough to achieve, or we need to show the character just before the pressure situation, to reveal them as sympathetic and someone we ought to care about, someone funny or kind or clever or worth our attention in some way. A child, obviously, gets an instant sympathy vote from most people (except other children!) but in most cases the writer's main protagonist will be an adult. So how to make them sympathetic in a hurry?

Okay, you might say. Let's have Victoria's young curly-headed son pop his head round the door in the first paragraph, and say sweetly, maybe with a tear in his eye, 'Hey, mum, you haven't forgotten we're visiting Grandma in the hospital, have you? I've baked a special cake for her.' To which Victoria will reply, 'No, darling, of course not. I know how important it is for you to visit your dying grandmother who may snuff it at any moment and ... Oh wait, is that the phone?' Cue agent with bomb warning/threat. Now we have Victoria, her young son, and a specially baked cake about to go skyhigh. Plus the dying grandmother will never get to see her family again ...

Seriously though, the real key to making a reader care what happens to your main protagonist is narrative voice.

That's it. Everything else is just scenery, window-dressing.

Narrative voice does not have to be trustworthy or sympathetic in the conventional sense; it can trick us, lie to us, even make our stomachs churn. But it must force us to keep reading.

This initial narrative voice - which can be first, third, even second person - must enter the reader's head from line one and hold them spellbound. So make it a magical voice: intriguing, clever, intimate, confidential, witty, sexy, dangerous, inviting, moreish - right there in the reader's ear. Your narrative viewpoint character on page one is your storyteller, even if this is a prologue and a character who is never seen again. The narrator can change later, especially in a multiple perspective novel, but the first voice or voices encountered are all-important. The narration can be sympathetic or even vile; but we must care what happens next. Because this is the voice that says the magic words, 'Once upon a time ...' and woe betide if they fail to hook the reader.

So to recap, very simply, in answer to the question 'where does my story start?' the answer should be, 'at or preferably just before a moment of inciting pressure, involving a narrator we immediately care about or whose potential failure intrigues us.'

So dump the backstory and start just before the big bang instead. You'd be surprised how little backstory you really need, and how much can be conveyed in a line or two of dialogue, further on, on a strictly need-to-know basis. Make the reader trust your narrator, and they'll come along for the ride without the backstory.

QUESTIONS: which novels have you read that reeled you in from page one, and how did the writer do it? Do you ever have problems knowing where to start your story, and how do you deal with that?

Monday, 4 August 2014

Week Fifteen: Writing Scenes

Cut the waffle, and make something happen ...

This may seem obvious, but novels are made up out of scenes. Yet one of the problems even established writers can face is moving their characters in and out of scenes cleanly.

You've probably read examples of this yourself in published novels: the characters are talking, but nothing changes. Nothing happens. The reader is forced to gnaw her own arm off out of sheer frustration.

So what's gone wrong? The writer is 'between scenes' here, unsure how to manoeuvre her characters out of one situation and into another. So what you get first is an introduction scene - rather like a green room at a festival - where the characters wait before going on stage. Later you will have a debriefing scene where characters discuss the events of the preceding scene. The writer tells you what is going to happen; then shows it happening; then reminds you what just happened.

If you find yourself caught in this trap, the thing to do is take a leaf out of a scriptwriter's book and start writing in scenes.

Essentially, this entails imagining your story as a film. You create a 'storyboard' made up of scenes - the encounter scene, the kidnap scene, the campfire scene, the sex scene, the rescue scene - and then write straight in and out of them. No long intros, no faffing about with mundanities, no scenes of exposition afterwards that may leave your reader squirming with boredom. You cut to the chase, as they used to say in movie-making.

In media res ...
Most good writers know to start a scene in media res: in the middle of things. But I've seen this taken to extremes: no introduction at all, no scene setting, just a line of dialogue and bang, we're away. That's not the answer either. In film, there is usually an 'establishing shot' - the outside of a hospital or house, to let us know where this scene is set - and you need that in your novel too.

The establishing intro does not need to be elaborate. A simple one-liner like, 'Charlotte Street was empty and dark, except for a sickly pool of light under the one street lamp still working' may be all you need. Or if retelling Little Red Riding Hood, a neat jump cut from a terrifying encounter with Mr Wolf might be, 'Grandma's house is on the other side of the wood, and a good fifteen minute walk; today I reach it in eight minutes flat, my face hot with exertion. "Grandma?" I knock, but there's no reply.'

Then write your action scene.

A scene should be like a kernel, a seed that contains all the information - the DNA, if you like - about your story, but in miniature. If you can write individual scenes that mimic, in some way, the overarching action of your plot, you will be doing well. This should happen naturally when you are on top form, and struggling for it will not improve your novel, so don't worry too much. But if you see it happening, learn from that and see where else you can draw comparisons with other parts of your story or echo your theme in a scene's backdrop or action.

Gustave Dore's portrayal of the poet Dante, lost in a dark wood in the Inferno - this happens to us all!

To help with this, stay visual in your writing. Your creative brain is much cleverer than your conscious mind, so trust yourself to reach for a strong visual metaphor when setting your scene. Landscape and specific objects may seem to have arrived in a random manner, but if you're writing well, you may find they click perfectly with your story. The scary dark wood in Little Red Riding Hood is a common visual metaphor for when characters have lost their way or are faced with the unknown - see Dante for more details. Henry James knew about visual metaphor when he called his novel about broken relationships The Golden Bowl, as did Dashiell Hammett with The Maltese Falcon.

Objects like this may be brilliant visual metaphors, or they may be McGuffins, unimportant except in their value to the plot. Either way they provide a hook for the reader that makes a story truly memorable. In particular, they provide a pivotal point around which an action scene can swing, giving it added momentum on the way out.

Keep scenes as short as possible. Short scenes avoid the loose ramblings of a writer who is mentally on her way to the kettle, and they increase the pace and tension. Books can sag, especially in the middle. A series of short scenes, sharp in, even swifter out, can tauten your structure until it sings with tension.

Anything that goes over more than, say, six or seven pages, is edging into long scene territory and will slow your novel and lose you tension. If you can't avoid that, it's probably quite a complex scene, in which case, see if you can break the big scene into smaller units of action. This works best when there are multiple characters and you can switch between them, as a camera lens might do during a fight or confrontation.

For inspiration, see this classic scene below - using a musical pocket watch as a focal and auditory point for the scene - from For A Few Dollars More.

In general, avoid lengthy scenes - these easily slip out of your control and into unnecessary dialogue you did not intend to happen - especially those that remain in one location, like the interior of a car. Road trip stories are an exception, but even then, find a way to break up the monotony of a claustrophobic setting: force your characters into bars, up mountains, down holes in the road - anywhere but the passenger seat!

QUESTION: Have you ever found your characters talking aimlessly - maybe over a pot of tea - and been unsure how to move them on? What tips do you have for maintaining scene tension?