Tag Archives: Narrative thrust

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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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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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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Workshopping

“Write this down,” I said, feeling like a school teacher dictating the words of Sir Terry Pratchett:

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

 

I have been to a number of workshops over the years, and some have been good, many mediocre and some not so good. Just because you can write does not mean you can critique well or teach well, and I have always been conscious of that. So I only ran short sessions in a couple of workshops for a while and often questioned how useful they were. Especially as I am not too hot on writing on demand myself. Yes the exercises get the juices flowing, but what do they teach?

So when I set up a series of Paws Workshops for children I decided to really look closely at what would be the best and most interesting ways to learn something; and not cover the same old ground but find a new perspective. For children I found showing them what makes a good story work with the story arc as a blueprint,  really helped direct their writing and came off curriculum too so was a different way of looking at things. We even had them acting in the manner of the word to illustrate showing and telling — describe how someone does something, don’t tell it. These workshops have been really successful, not that I do that many.

I was also asked to run a workshop after I won the Bath Short Story last year focussing on How To Write A Psychological Thriller and that was great as I could really look at one key genre and its expectations, while knowing that all of the principles for good writing apply to any genre but the short workshopping exercises were about creating a good premise for a thriller like this and then how to create tension.

 

Workshop 3

Working them all hard, look at the concentration… oh and spot the supersize bookmarks!

Some time ago I also put together a more general workshop I did as part of a workshopping day with our writing group, but what I did on Saturday was another new workshop using some aspects of the others but switching the focus not so much on the nitty-gritty showing, telling, viewpoint, clichés (although we had that) but on how to think differently when we approach an edit and so what questions to ask. I put together a series of short writing exercises. The first was aimed at showing how we tend to write instinctively — which shows what our comfort zones are, asking do you know why you tend to use that voice or that tense and could you maybe try something else? That choice might work best for some stories, but all of them? Maybe not. I also created plot structures to work within as an illustration of how confining it can be when you already have a framework — which is exactly what you do when you edit a completed piece of work — hence sometimes the need to deconstruct to reconstruct. Something I have had to face with my edit of Isle of Pelicans recently.

We also looked at story arcs, themes, plots, structure etc and had an exercise to illustrate the importance of exposition (we told the antagonist’s story from the previous exercise) but then talked about how we are so tempted to tell a story with too much back story and the devices for trickling that in on a need-to-know basis.

 

Workshop 1

 

On an aside the antagonist’s back story can be great fun because all evil has to come from somewhere (that’s if you have evil antagonists!) or as Stephen King puts it: “Before horror comes love.” I think the overall message is everyone has a story and what motivates action is important, builds reader empathy — but we don’t need all the details!

The final exercise was about how we write the dramatic moments — the climax of a story and how that’s when we usually (although these students were talented and didn’t!) tend to either gallop to the finish line or overload with the mind racing, heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through the veins clichés at this point.

The last section before the Q&A was the nitty-gritty stuff we usually see in workshops — and I also provided some copy editing notes that promoted quite a discussion on setting out dialogue and the different dashes!

Soon it was time to make our own dash! But the comments and the feedback since has been wonderful, so I think we can say it was a success and I want to do more of these. Yes workshops don’t work for all, some favour the more one to one approach, and if you’re new to writing it can be a little overwhelming and so might not work for you, but seems from the response it did work well!

The take-home message is that with the right feedback and supporting writer friends, writing does not have to be isolating.

Workshop 2

Keep thinking…

I will be putting more information on my website soon and plan to offer workshops to writing groups for a set fee and happy to travel in the UK and also might arrange my own as one-offs or even a short course once I move back to Essex!

Email me if you think your writing group would be interested and we can talk fees and timings!

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Is your story in good shape?

I am planning on joining a gym as part of my early morning routine (long term) and a needed change in lifestyle when I move to Essex in September. Most of us appreciate the importance of being in good shape. One of the hopes is to stay fit, healthy and I guess we hope for longevity. Right?

So can this be applied to our writing? Can you think the same way about your stories?

What stories stand the test of time and live beyond our mortal physicality?

I have talked about the story arc before but sometimes it helps to recap.

There are variations but this is the one I tend to use and send to clients if their story needs a little ‘gym’ action.

 

Story Arc

I would never suggest the arc is used as a blueprint as you write or the writing is likely to become formulaic. This is why understanding story, a lot of this being gained from reading, is so important. When I call the arc into action for clients is when something about a story isn’t working and in that case I see the arc as more prescriptive.

  • Are you building enough tension into the writing?
  • Do you have enough crises to keep the reader hooked?
  • Is what the protagonist wants and therefore the motivation for action defined enough?
  • Does the climax lead to a satisfactory resolution and is the key question/conflict/dilemma solved?
  • Has your character been changed enough by the story — change being a function of plot?

Story analysis is one of the key considerations when examining your own work. While we have to look at devices and your use of words, phrasing etc. that is all great but if what you have isn’t a story it’s just a nice piece of prose. But if you want something to work properly you have to pay close attention to the SHAPE of your story.

My advice for first drafts (novel or short story) is just to get the story down (although I have written so many now I do a lot of editing and polishing as I go, but it’s whatever works best for you). Once you have the draft now begins the fun part. And this is where you might feel something is missing, overdone, and the shape needs consideration.

If the story appears to fall flat in the middle or the climax feels like its missing or ill-defined and the ending isn’t as satisfactory as you want it to be, you probably have a story in need of a little body sculpture and the questions above could prove useful.

To get into the practice (especially for the newer writers) of looking at this, try thinking about these questions and the story arc in the book you’re currently reading and the short stories you’ve read. Step out of yourself and apply this to films, TV series, plays even West end musicals. Can you tease apart the key elements? Can you think of ways you might have improved this in something you’ve read?

Once you understand these basic principles of story telling, you have access to something that will no doubt improve your plotting and story telling.

I hope this has been helpful!

Have a great day! Some plotting of my own to do!

Get into shape ...

Get into shape …

 

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Seeking page-turnability …

One of the things I tell readers I work with is you decide when your reader pauses. You set the pacing.

Creating the kind of book that really grabs has always been one of my missions. There are so many stories and so many novels where I falter, am not as gripped as I ought to be and any excuse to put the book down, go make a coffee can lose your reader. But how do you keep those pages turning and stop that happening?

Clearly you need a good plot, one that keeps moving and this means not overloading it with filler. By this I mean too much back story, complicated sub-plots that do not tie into the main plot, extraneous detail. Readers will see through this and it will turn them off. So this means you have to really tighten your plot so it all feels credible and it moves the story onwards. Anything that can be removed without the main plot tumbling probably can be removed full stop.

It’s the function of the second BIG edit where you address issue sf plot, characters that don’t need to be there, filler etc.

And also think about narrative devices, teasers that end  chapters and have you read the next chapter right away!

The validation comes with the kinds of comments I am getting with reviews about like not being able to put the book down I say a big “PHEW” . You can get there, but you have to be brutal when you edit and tight with your plot and your devices.

Well that’s it for now, have a wonderful day. I am now trying to resolve some plot issues with the current novel… means a lot of note jotting and rocking in my chair … now there’s an image for you … complete with cats too! In fact I am feeling like a real writer! And what a wonderful way to spend the day!

Writer

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Keeping the dream alive … responding to criticism

I was reading an article this morning about how we receive and how we give feedback and criticism and it made me think.

As a writer I am no stranger to having my work picked over. Fortunately those who have, have always been encouraging even if there was plenty to address.

I also give feedback as part of my day job and I like to think I have developed a style that is encouraging and empowering, but at the same time, honest. It has to be.

What I did was look at what I want from a critique, honesty first and foremost, but no point in saying what’s wrong if you can’t offer a fix, an idea, a suggestion. This is where I think various things combine — me being a writer myself, the fact I work in publishing (albeit on a small scale) but I have worked with lots of stories and lots of writers to know what works, being a reader helps, and my MA alongside numerous other courses so I have a strong grasp of what works and what techniques to use to make things work better. And like you, I return to books and I read magazines and I make sure the advice I give is as solid as it can be.

I once had someone critique my work who just said things like — nah, boring, cut, don’t believe you — and no offer of why or how. I found it demoralising. And I vowed I would never do that or make someone feel that way.

Yes I have worked on manuscripts by very new writers that need a lot of work, but handled right, the comments and suggestions and advice make it clear they have a lot to learn, but a good teacher empowers and makes the student want to learn, and doesn’t demoralise or make them feel like giving up forever.

It helps I am, a ‘people’ person, or I like to think I am, so I approach the job with passion and enthusiasm and do go the extra mile for people. I love it when they tell me they can see the improvement and when they start to have success.  And since I have my publishing contacts, the various projects I am involved in, like CafeLit, I do offer ways to kick-start careers where I can and have suggested they submit to various collections.

Not everyone can teach, I like to think I have the balance right between honesty and encouragement. All I can say is it seems to work and we start the official first full week of work this year, I have a full board of jobs and lots are new clients, as well as familiar faces — so I look forward to what we can do together.

2014 is going to be a great year, come along and see!

Have a great week everyone!

1455061_614034055330223_967283944_nPs the kindle version is still 99p!

 

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