Tag Archives: narrative devices

When Non-Fiction Writers Write Fiction

I come across this quite a lot in my work, when people perhaps more used to writing technical documents (that was me)  historical pamphlets, text books or newspaper reports, turn their hand to fiction. This is both liberating and confining at the same time and the difference between those who seem to adjust to it easily and those who struggle, seems to be how much the writer actually reads fiction. How much they already know or can learn to grasp the concepts of narrative device for fictional story telling. Because they are different.

When someone tells me they usually write non-fiction books I can usually guess the kind of mistakes they’ll make and for the most part my instincts are right. Writing a historical text or let’s say science text requires an empirical kind of language, a generic reporting of information in the most succinct way. That in itself requires a skill you have to refine and develop. There has to be a logical reasoned flow of arguments, so the structure is key, one salient point leading to the next. Arguments need to be supported and referenced so nothing can be said without substantiation and when a personal viewpoint is presented it needs to be made clear it is the writer’s postulation but it can’t be ’emotive’. It can’t be I have a feeling or a hunch and written from the heart. Or certainly in science papers it can’t. There is a formula that comes the more you write that way. It has to be objective 🙂

So how is this so different to fiction? Well in the writing of science papers some might say there is plenty of fiction in it! But the whole style is so different. For a start fiction is all made up and therefore you want to emote! Emote! Emote! It’s now all about subjectivity and getting right into the head of characters. So those used to non-fiction often TELL. They report on the happenings in a scene like a character standing back from it. So sometimes we still hear that objective voice and it can sound flat. The writer needs to learn how to climb inside the scene and invade the character.

There is also the danger of exposition dumps; so if you write science fiction and are a scientist you are likely to overload with science, because you know it, you therefore want to show it off, right? WRONG. This is something I had to think about when I wrote the short story Mirror Image which touches on the medical horror. I’d love to develop it into a novel at some point. Because it relies on a scientific principle, I had to use some of that for the readers to understand but it had to be in everyday easy to understand language and not as an information dump. So it needs to seep into the work, it needs to exist between the lines so it’s woven subtly into the fabric of the story. And you can use characters to reveal the pertinent information, on a need-to-know basis. Knowing it as well as you do, the same can be said for example of history or finance if you’re writing a historical novel or a conspiracy thriller, does come through but there is an art to how much and how the information is imparted: not like those non-fiction texts!

Narrative device and how you structure fiction is all about the craft of the story telling itself and so it has to be done in a compelling and engaging way. It has to be filmic and visual for the reader like shooting a movie. So in fact it has to be very different to non-fictional texts. So often I see books written in the same generic flat voice and so often there is no understanding of how the fiction writers do it. I have to say, think about what you learned in writing non-fiction and then leave most of that behind.  So even structure can be played with, and often in fiction does not need quite the same linearity you see in an essay for example — that said it does need to flow, one point motivating another so there are similarities as well. And what you can take from non-fiction is brevity. Now that might seem odd but here’s what you do. You now have license to be wordy, so now you can use description and thoughts and it will capture the voice of a character and not this stilted generic voice. Once the writer has grasped what fiction allows him or her to do it’s liberating. Slough off the constraints of non-fiction writing. But once you have set yourself free to do that, then rein it in so the more the writer develops the skill, the more those skills in brevity allow the writing to be pared down. It can’t lose voice or device, it still needs to be compelling, but now some of those frills can be lost. So the same skills in editing your work will apply: so for example while you can use more description in fiction, it still has to be just the right word in the right place.

What fiction does is open new worlds to us, but in a way that allows us to be there and to truly becomes a part of it. Fiction brings new ideas and ways to see to its readers. So the power lies in reaching people outside the readership of the non-fiction books where often we preach to the converted anyway. How likely might you be to pick up a book on the Holocaust for example, unless already interested but you may well read fictional books that tackle that like The Book Thief; or assisted suicide, like Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You. It’s a great way to raise awareness but here lies a fundamental difference: not in a preachy way. Never in a really I write non-fiction but I am using this novel to impart information way. Got it?

Done well and the fiction has great power. I think it can hold more power and get to more people which is why it’s so important to have something to say in your fiction. Change the world, a word at a time.

And remember the readership of the science fiction writer, is not the same readership as the science writer who picks up text books, so if there is a take-home message to this, it’s always bear in mind who you are writing for. Stephen King calls it your ‘imaginary reader’ (in his case his wife) and says you have to bear that in mind whenever you write.

That is all!

It's an art

It’s an art

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Things that go Clunk…

Happy Monday morning to all of you, how fast these weeks are flying.

One of the words I often find myself using with writers I edit for is ‘clunky’ which is a word I have come to find useful when describing word-heavy or awkward phrasing.

Writers tend to feel they can’t just say it but have to find what they think is a ‘writerly’ way when often it’s not. It clunks. These are those long sentences that when read aloud just snag you. Things like (she tries to pluck a good example from the air)  He knew that he would have to tell her even if he didn’t want to or she would find out anyway. Yes it might make sense but it’s flat and awkward. Add energy to this by showing someone’s worry in their body language and perhaps something like: He’d have to tell her. What if she found out? He closed his eyes; felt for the edges of his crumpled handkerchief…

See what I mean?

The other place we tend to overwrite is at the moments of greatest tension when we have a real tendency to pull all those favourite clichés out of the bag (hmm yes that is a cliché).
 
So look at places where you feel the need to say the mind was racing, heart pumping (I’d hope so!), adrenaline coursing… these are not only clunky clichés but they also tend to be melodramatic. And if you have lots of dramatic moments these repeat so we start to see the same thing. Don’t do that either.
 
When you need to express drama think about slowing down the writing at these key moments and really SHOWING the drama. Use internal thought… what the hell was that?  Use action … he turned, slowly …  and most of all really put the reader in that moment.
 
Have a clunk-free Monday folks!
 
Clunky
 

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How the Rain Falls

Next time it rains watch the way it falls.

Listen to the pitter patter pitter patter.

Or is it a soft sound?

Are  the clouds thick, grey and heavy?

Does the sky rumble and flash like a child hanging onto the light cord in the bathroom: on and off, on and off.

Or is the sky white, like a smear and the rain falling silently onto verdant grass?

Rain is a device in a story for conjuring mood and so never say it rains; say what type of rain is falling.

So next time it rains, watch, listen, smell the dampness, feel it,  taste it… and dance.

Today’s post is inspired by rain tapping on the conservatory roof.

Rain

 

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If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things

What a great name for a very clever novel. While the jury is still out about the merits of the book group I have joined, we will see what happens in December’s meeting, it did mean Mum and I read Jon McGregor’s novel and how refreshing it was.

It has the feel of a collection of short stories in some ways, although all part of the one story and not disjointed. The key narrator is omniscient (one of my usual dislikes for various reasons) but not when done well and this is done well. And redeemed because some of the chapters have a first-person narrator who holds all of the elements tightly together and means you can connect to someone; which for me is essential in any story.

In a nutshell the story is set in a particular street in a city, in Northern England, and everything relates to a single event that happened on the last day of summer. The story is based on very carefully crafted observations of the people in the street, named as the man at number 21, the girl at number 19 or whatever. But even without names we get a really vivid picture of the characters and their lives. We see the man dying on cancer who won’t tell his wife. We see the twins playing in the street, the students… and you really become immersed in a single day and its strange events that lead to this something bad that happened only you don’t know what it is yet. It’s a symphony of beautiful prose and clever devices. I love the man painting his house all day, on the day that something happened and he doesn’t quite finish the last part. What a wonderful way of measuring time as the novel keeps returning to the events of that day and we know from the outset that this thing stopped him finishing that last bit, so its progression is the ticking clock, brilliant. The only character whose life we see after the event is the first-person narrator who has a secret and teases the reader along with what did happen that day.

 

This is what it says on Amazon:

‘This novel owes as much to poetry as it does to prose. Its opening, an invocation of the life of the city, is strongly reminiscent of Auden’s Night Mail in its hypnotic portrait of industrialised society…An assured debut’ Erica Wagner, The Times.

On a street in a town in the North of England, ordinary people are going through the motions of their everyday existence – street cricket, barbecues, painting windows…A young man is in love with a neighbour who does not even know his name. An old couple make their way up to the nearby bus stop. But then a terrible event shatters the quiet of the early summer evening. That this remarkable and horrific event is only poignant to those who saw it, not even meriting a mention on the local news, means that those who witness it will be altered for ever. Jon McGregor’s first novel brilliantly evokes the histories and lives of the people in the street to build up an unforgettable human panorama. Breathtakingly original, humane and moving, IF NOBODY SPEAKS OF REMARKABLE THINGS is an astonishing debut. ‘The work of a burning new talent …Jon MacGregor writes like a lyrical angel’ Daily Mail

I loved the way this is structured, for something experimental, and actually even in terms of the narrative it dares to break the rules, in its formatting, its lack of speech marks… and yet it works. I work with writers sometimes trying to be experimental and break the rules and I always say only break them if you one — really understand them, and two — it enhances the way the story is told, forcing the reader to change the way they read the words on the page. This is a good example that does just that.

Of course this is a literary novel and so it more about the characters than the plot that drives it and is a good example to illustrate the difference between the commercial and the literary. The title represents that small things in life and the novel looks at the every day and the mundane and yet significant to those people in the story.

It’s in the small observations we find ourselves.

Did someone say that, am I quoting someone or did I come up with that? I like it. It is the small things and if you get them right you paint a picture of life. I love the small details in my writing. And in fact, while my novels are more plot-driven, I do find myself looking for those tiny details to bring a character to life.

I see this more  in my short stories. It brings to mind the voyeur in The Theory of Circles story published in Unthank Books Unthology 3, one I was very proud of and it was nominated for the Pushcart. These are also observations of the comings and goings on the Crescent and is very much about the characters. See how you do this in your own writing.

Mum would not normally read this kind of book and she loved it. Unlike some novels that make it onto the Man Booker list, it is not word-heavy and the simplicity and yet beauty of the language made it feel as if every word counts. Mum’s only criticism which I kind of agree with in part, is by the end the device of using the observations on that single day was a little like watching something in slow motion. You were drawn into it and you wanted to know what happened, but Mum said she was thinking just tell us now. So perhaps it could have got to that sooner. I see what she means and it’s a valid point, but I felt that less so. I was drawn into the wanting to know and it carried me to the end, although the ending is oddly understated and yet brilliant and Mum did love that.

I urge any writer to look at this book for its differences and to see how to craft nameless characters in a wonderfully vivid way. Any book that makes me stop and say I wish I wrote that line is my kind of book. And there are many bent over pages in this book where I thought, oh what a line! Write it, save it, store it, aspire to write like that.

I will leave you to find out those for yourself.

I will be reading this book again.

I give this 5 stars.

If Nobody speaks...

 

BUY ME

Book clubs make you read other things and so I will be reviewing some of the books here or if I don’t persist with this particular book club (since we didn’t even discuss the book!) I will be doing my own book club with the writing group, suggesting titles and will put them here as well for anyone who wants to read along at the same time.

Have a wonderful Tuesday everyone! The chill means I am beginning to think of Christmas. I love it, but never until December, then I allow myself to succumb to it. Next week…

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The positive influence of good reading

Today I have my first meeting at the book club I recently joined since moving back to Essex. Mum and I are both going as I thought this was a great thing we could both share and we have already talked a little about what we thought of this month’s choice: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. I will post a review on here after the meeting and I hope some of you might have read this or read along with us. I will share next  month’s read when I have it too.

This is a literary novel and it’s in the crafting together of the lives of people living in the same street it starts to weave its magic. Having not been enjoying Richard Madeley’s far more commercial The Way You Look Tonight, which I thought was going to be so much better (bought because of the Kennedy tie-in but the American narrators are for me not capturing the American voice well enough) and the plot has holes, it was refreshing to immerse myself in the literary. Mum said something interesting to me about the style being simple but really well written and it reminded her of some of my short stories. Wow compliment indeed! I wish I did write as well as that but I think what she means, joking aside, is it is just about capturing people; about how we think, what we do. And when people say to me you must have a great imagination I say all you have to do is look around you. The stories do not have to be massive plot-driven high concept huge stories (and yes in a way I did have that more in mind with While No One Was Watching) but it’s in capturing people and all their idiosyncrasies where the real power lies.

Looking back at the short stories I have had success with, I realise it’s not anything to do with having immense plots, but in creating people who seem to live on the page, blemishes and all. So sure, you need some imagination, but you also simply need to look. Capture the odd ways people think and we can relate to it, right?

After reading this novel I have taken a break away from writing the tension at the end of Isle of Pelicans to write the short story that has been bubbling away for a couple of weeks now. This also is more about character. Oddly as I met my old man in the story and his grandson, the young disillusioned lollipop girl and the teacher — all just about hanging onto life by a thread, I realised they all had magical voices. And in their finding me I have felt great satisfaction this week. I am returning to the writing I know well when I write shorts, but pushing myself too — so we have the way the teacher thinks in broken sentences because in school everything is always interrupted. What a gem that was when it fell into my head. It’s in the way these come to me as challenges in discovering new voices I feel the most at home. It’s where I get to experiment and some of these devices might not be sustainable for an entire novel but can work brilliantly in a short story. It’s in pushing the boundaries and taking the risks you might just find that all elusive WOW. Or you can try!

While this new story is nothing like the wonderful novel I have just finished reading,  not in terms of story, I do think it has made me think in the right way and that is without doubt testament to good reading.

Read well and the rest will follow.

Watch me wave my banner for the short story — again!

Oh and remember the giveaway is still open on Goodreads for another week as we count down to the 51st Kennedy anniversary.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

While No One Was Watching by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

While No One Was Watching

by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

Giveaway ends November 23, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

 

 

Have a wonderful day everyone!

Signing again!

Signing again! Come and say hi!

 

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Foundations and Structure

… are what stop it falling down.

It might seem obvious but you’d be amazed how often something I critique is as flimsy as a house of cards.

 So the question is, can your work stand up to scrutiny?

The historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman talks about how she tackles truth in fiction, weaving together her tremendous historical knowledge (she has a PhD in history I believe) with the ‘stuff she makes up.’ But she rightly says of that, she makes sure the stories have a solid historical foundation before she weaves her worlds around that.

Everything we write needs a foundation, be it metaphorical, be it background as Sharon talks about, or be it the way you lay the first layers of the plot. The basis of story is conflict, but it has to be solid; your protagonist has to have a solid goal worth fighting for or the reader will ask themselves why they should care? So all of this is in the set-up of the character’s needs, flaws, passion and it needs to be credible.

When you tip the character over the threshold into their adventure we should be invested in that — we should ‘get it’ now and above all we should care enough to take the journey with them. And, if you have set the foundations well enough, it will hold.

But always remember to keep in mind what the character wants as this is the driver.

Coincidence, unless used as a specific theme or device that’s deliberate,  is not enough to motivate or cause action in fiction. If too many scenes are wrong place, right time, there just happens to be a policemen when you want one, the structure that now holds it together starts to crack.

I remember one of my tutors on my MA talking a lot about MOTIVATION FOR ACTION. All actions need basis. At the time I rather thought she was over-egging that, giving extra cause for action, surely people would just buy into the character in a moment of madness doing something out of character? But , NO. She was right. The seeds have to be there. And we have to know why a character acts as they do.

In other words, we have to believe a character’s actions or we start to question the premise and the premise is what makes a story.

I have been plotting and re-plotting Isle of Pelicans so many times because of this. How can I justify every action? Why would a young cop behave in a reckless manner? What would drive him to take the action he does for the plot? And this is where it’s about crafting together enough of his back story without sidelining the main event, but creating a credible enough motivation for action to drive the action and for, at no point, the reader to say, “Yeah, as if he’d do that.”

Sure we shout that at movies often, right? And it is fiction, but trust me, set the foundations right, make the reader believe in your character, in what they want and you will allow them to accept even when maybe ‘in real life’ it might not happen quite like that. But whenever you can, ask the credibility question and make sure it’s as watertight as it needs to be — don’t want any leaks now do we?

Have a great day.

House of cards

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It’s not a race…

A lot of the time writing is like remoulding. It’s like taking the slab of putty you shaped and carving out the intricate details — sometimes you then smooth it over and start again. It’s a process and being a perfectionist is a great attribute for a writer. Slowly you breathe life into the shape, working it over and over in your hands until you create this beautiful thing and then decide tomorrow it’s ugly and you rework it again. Layer by layer, word by word until you get it right. And then if this masterpiece is accepted, along will come notes that say: don’t do it like that, do it like this — and so it starts again.

I tell clients over and over that it is a long process but a wonderful one — editing is the process. If you don’t like it, don’t write, it’s that simple. But making something from nothing has always fascinated and thrilled me. If you want to make anything the best it can be you have to learn your craft and keep on learning it from those around you. It’s not a race to get the next book out. If you make it about money and persona, I doubt you’ll find happiness. If you make it about process and enjoy it, you will always be happy no matter the outcome.

And there is also that lovely phase when ideas seem to fall from the sky. You stand with your head back and your arms outstretched and you let the ideas fall; one by one. Some ideas hit hard and won’t let go — like my little dog when she grabs her cuddly toy and shakes the life out of it. And then loves it back to life. Some ideas seep in slowly from the outside like mizzle. But look for them because they are ubiquitous. Seek and ye shall find.

Have a great week everyone. Last writer’s brunch tomorrow as this time next week, last morning in Wales before phase one of house move with animals.

Life is full of endless possibility. Never stop dreaming. Always believe.

MAD_BAD_BANNER

Book me at my first South East gig!

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