Fiction: EVERY character counts.

An exhibition of Breugel is showing at the Holburne, Bath, the first UK exhibition devoted to the dynasty. Not huge or cheap, but well displayed. The family tree shows the connections between the different artists. Breugel the elder, his two sons, one of Jan’s sons, two of his grandsons.

According to Johnson’s recent article in the Guardian, only Pieter, the elder is worthy of acclaim. The younger, he finds derivative, although his copies of Pieter snr’s work have served us well for centuries.

Things might have been different if the sons had received tuition from their father but sadly he died when they were infants. They were apparently taught by their grandmother. That’s a tale in itself.

Johnson doesn’t rate this, that the Holburne displays proudly:  

For the writer, however, the fascination lies in the characterisation shown in every tiny face appearing in the lively paintings. The Breugels studied and reproduced their local people and events rather than imagined religious ones. Avarice, shame, embarrassment, lust, enjoyment are only some of the emotions portrayed in the works. The faces, movement and expressions take us to a time we couldn’t have summoned up with that accuracy.

Writing a novel, have you made every character notable, memorable, as those in a Breugel painting? Even a walk-on part can illuminate the scene, his character impinging on the plot even if minimally.  It’s a wonderful recommendation if readers comment on the particular characters you have created, superb if they’re recalled some months later.

Breugel characters  are alive in the moment of seeing the paintings. This gives the writer a goal to strive for.

 

New writer? Writing persistence.

Is this how you feel about your work in progress? Advice: the punching must be on computer keys — daily.

Stephen King’s biographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft reveals King as an avid reader, a no-nonsense advocate of writing skills, an honest, humorous, generous guide and a devoted husband of over thirty years to boot. The book soon impresses with his engaging style and self-revelations. At first, you may think, there’s no guide here, for the first half of the book relates Stephen King’s early life, hardships, but the message must be taken from his, above all, persistent writing. He writes when he’s hungry, in a corner, on his lap, in a trailer, in a run-down apartment, after ten bit jobs and later, a rough day’s teaching. He does everything to put food on the table for his wife and little one before turning to his writing. But he carries on. Then the wondrous telephone call comes and he makes his first big money. (Carrie is the novel and I wonder if carries on was uppermost in his mind when he wrote it).

This is such a nice guy, you find yourself thinking, I want to know and celebrate his success and then take account of the how and why. That success is so immense, but above all, so appealingly hard-won, that you just can’t refuse to accept what he is saying. And he says it in the second half of the book. His advice is clear, uncluttered, simple and to the point.

Many, if not most writers read books about writing: style, plotting, planning, joining retreats, engaging in courses, identifying underlying themes. They despair that they’ll never gain sufficient organisation and techniques.

King has no truck with much of this.  His recommendations come down to this: honest, always honest writing; getting the story down ‘as it comes’; ensuring that the action is or could be true of the characters; similarly that the dialogue rings true of them. He is not precious, and does not value pretensions.  He states that all his stories stem from some initial experience and the personalities he has met. What he adds is a stunning ‘What If?’

He gets his first draft finished without recourse to beta readers, then puts it strictly away for six weeks. He works on other things.  In the second draft he fills out as well as corrects. At this point he may sit back and think what the novel is really about, what is important and consistent throughout the story.  This is when he might come up with an image or metaphor that enriches the writing.

What is very apparent is that Stephen King is excited about what he writes and loves the activity. He is not identifying a genre where he can make money nor is he intending to write blockbusters. He writes with an audience, an ‘Ideal Reader’ in mind.

His book can clear a writer’s mind and stop the flow of words circling round and down the plug-hole.dyslexia

On Writing is not a new book and it will have been lauded and praised many times before this. However, if there is any reader who has not read a book on Writing, they would do well to read On Writing.   It could well set you on a good, productive path.

Persistence pays, and King has evidenced this. 

Five essential writing tools

Starting out on your first writing journey?

Starting out, Flickr, Simonov

If you are just starting out to write and self-publish, whether fiction or non-fiction, put some money aside for the journey. After all, if you were about to open a shop,  or offer a repair service, you’d expect up-front costs. Don’t expect the writer’s expense to be limited to computer, printer, ink, paper and reference books. Below I’ve listed five essential writing tools. You will be very thankful for these. If I’d known of them when I began, I’d have saved many months of time.

  1. WRITING PLAN  Scrivener  software organizes you. Forget writing from A-Z on one document. Scrivener encourages you to write in scenes, sections, chapters, ideas, dialogues, time frames, or whatever takes your fancy. Everything is updated and saved automatically. You can set yourself targets. Slip easily between looking at your notes, the outline, research, all beautifully laid out. Yes, you have to learn how but you can use the tutorials, or, easier, buy this book : Scrivener Essentials. Author Karen Prince explains clearly and succinctly: a big contrast to Scrivener for Dummies where the only tilt at your newness to the application is the occasional very weak (and patronising) joke. When you’ve finished the last chapter and have compiled the various sections into one book, Scrivener formats it for you: paperback, ebook or mobi. This in itself is a huge help.
  2. EDIT AND REVIEW Pro-writing aid This is a comprehensive editor, good to use chapter by chapter so that when the book is finished, your editor and proof reader will have far less work and cost you less. Pro-writing aid surveys your grammar, writing style, (over) use of words, and lots more. Paying attention to its advice will make you a better writer as you are progressing with your book.
  3. READ GUIDANCE Kindle  If you don’t have one, do it now. This cheapest one is quite good enough, clear to read indoors or out. You can download free, or free to read guides for your writing, marketing, style etc. onto the Kindle and have it beside you as you work on your book on your desktop or laptop. That’s so much easier than reading, making notes or trying to remember steps, and then returning to your computer to put it into practice.
  4. NOTIFY OTHERS Canva You may want an illustration in your book, but more likely you will want to blog about it or post on Facebook. Canva allows you to painlessly compose visual images and add text. It’s quick, too.
  5. FORMAT AND PRODUCE Vellum  Above all, when you’re sure your book is ready, avoid hours and days trying to format your book for the different platforms. Buy a lifetime licence for Vellum and have beautifully laid out books with no stress. 
    This advice comes from painful experience. If you don’t follow any of it, the same pain will be yours!

Re-writing a short story

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                    Each time I finish a short story . . .

I get a tremendous sense of self completion. It’s transitory: I will be rewriting my short story soon. Although the satisfying sense has gone by my first edit, this ‘completion’ sense doesn’t occur at all when finishing a novel. The process of beta-reading, editing, proof-reading that lies ahead is so lengthy that it’s more like beginning an uphill journey than reaching the top. 

Recently I was asked about my process of writing my Crime Shorts, so I thought beginner writers might be interested in my answer. It begins with a voice or a sentence followed soon by the speaker. The situation that causes the sentence follows, and the story stems from that.

Once an idea comes I can become too involved in one aspect to pay due attention to other important elements that go towards making a good story. In the case of Homed, I was totally immersed in developing the voice of a none too reliable narrator. (These characters appeal to me.)

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Deep into my narrator’s account, at about 2,000 words I realised that I had too many characters. Even without assigning them names, they would crowd my story. I doubt if a story of under 5000 words can work with more than three characters. 

I sat back and re-thought the story. Where was my character at the beginning? How many places and situations could he refer to? As with characters, not too many, otherwise the reader would become confused. How could I best lead up to the climax? Had I laid down a hint near the beginning so that the end had validity? Had I described sufficient of the scenes for them to be visualised?

After these considerations, I rewrote the story. Bearing the number of characters and locations in mind, each had to be written as seen through the eyes of the narrator. Moreover, he had to credibly remember each one. 

I hope I succeeded, but if I haven’t, you can let me know. In the case of my first Crime Short, readers suggested I continued his story and made it a novel. Perhaps I will come back to that story again if its feral narrator refuses to let me go.

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            If you’ve like this post, please do share it.

Character-writing: resources

Writing characters? E.M. Forster admitted that “We all like to pretend we don’t use real people, but one does actually. I used some of my family …”

Perhaps you can’t or won’t do that. As a writer, you will need different resources for bringing your characters to life.

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Character invisible on the stage

You may have access to a group or category of people who encapsulate the characteristics you want for your character. But perhaps the stage is empty . . .

You want to give your character a convincing appearance and a convincing voice. It’s good if  you can summon up a face and voice that is still in your head. But suppose that isn’t the case and you need to create one? You won’t want the fruit of someone else’s vision — i.e. you don’t want to copy a character from a film or tv script.

Feeling stuck? Try these resources:

  1. Documentary films. The British Film Institute site is not just for buying films you’ve missed seeing. Let’s say your character is a steelworker in 1948. You can see a 1948 close-up of steel production to get the manufacturing process vivid and exactly right, take in the working clothes worn at that time (including a man in a suit working with heavy machinery) and hear the tones and terminology of the narrator.

  2. Oral History interviews  are a wonderful source of actual opinions and attitudes. You can hear audio clips of contemporary voices such as those being compiled by the BBC’s Listening Project, or past voices in archives such as those at East Midlands Oral History Archive, or in the US via the G. Robert Vincent Voice Library – a collection from 1888 of voices from all walks of life.   http://vvl.lib.msu.edu.

  3. Online discussions. Say you have never been in your character’s situation.  Find a blog on that subject, then wheel down to the comments: real people reacting to the situation. For instance, unemployment or being cheated by a friend. You’ll not have to guess how it feels. The comments following an advice column, even review sites include personal accounts with the tiny details that will make your paragraphs sing.

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    Pixabay

    Always better to get it from the horse’s mouth.

 

 

Writer blogs and their lifetime

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Some few years ago I began my first writer blog:

http://fictionalcharacterswriting.blogspot.com. But I didn’t want to show myself– I let my characters do the talking. Sadly, the characters didn’t live up to the image of Moliére’s group above.  It was more like this on the left. womensclub

I had just published my collection of satirical short stories and I wanted a writer blog that would speak about them, but one that would stop short of marketing. In that respect I fully succeeded; I talked about all the characters, it was humorous, and it didn’t market. I doubt if I sold one copy of the book as result of that site.

But I did have fun and, it seems, this writer blog appealed to the Ukrainians who followed every post(!) The characters became real, including one with a fish phobia, another who could only operate from a chaise longue, and one who was worried about her husband lurking near, ready to snatch her back from her recent liaison. The characters took over the blog completely, writing the dialogue including blistering criticism of me, their author. They started a literary criticism group, discussing each others’ tales. That was extremely unedifying and more than a tad bitchy. Altogether, this wasn’t an author blog, it was a characters’ blog. There was even an intruder, Russell, a character from one of my as-yet incomplete novels.  It’s always good to have an outside perspective on things, isn’t it?

I have just written the final post on this blog. It’s had nearly 23,000 visitors but it’s run its course. The book, Me-Time Tales,  is in its second and expanded edition with new stories, additional characters. Kindle_Cover_opt I need to spend time writing on this blog, and on the author website (http://RosalindMinett.com) that, very belatedly, I am preparing.

I have said Goodbye today to my quirky blog giving this representation of one of mymattress characters. She was moaning that I hadn’t included the new characters from the 2nd edition so, as a swan song, I mentioned her and two others (rather miserable characters).

Now to the serious business of writing. The site you are on is straightforward if far less creative than fictionalcharacterswriting. I learned a lot while blogging on there. But I am not recommending such a time-consuming exercise to new writers or any writers, unless as an alternative to doing Codewords or Adult Colouring.

How far should we write for our own pleasure? One successful marketer, MaAnna Stephenson, has recently stated that before even writing a book she would carry out her marketing exercise: appetite for such a book, pitch, response, audience and so on.

Oh dear. We writers know what we should do but we just carry on writing the stuff in our heads. Our silly heads?

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Strengthening your writing via stimuli.

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Writing stimuli. What gave you that sudden idea that made you urgently scribble it down? It’s worth exploring.

The power of olfactory stimuli in activating memory is well known. But it’s much harder to ‘dream up’ a smell that might affect the character in your story, than it is a sound or sight.

When we’re stuck for ideas for a visual stimulus,  Art can provide perspectives, narratives, symbols to enrich our writing.  For auditory stimuli, theatre and radio present us with ideas and emotions through sound patterns, speech or music.  snuff_optThere is no equivalent for smells.

So having found the right sound or sight stimuli to cause your hero to pale with emotion how to find the right smell/scent/perfume/stink to cause emotional impact? Leave aside the obvious triggers: magnolia, blood, excrement, cabbage (who wants to write hackneyed stuff?). Will the character stop short as spinach fumes enter his/her nostrils, or candy floss?  What particular scent might have been recorded in his/her long term memory?

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You can prepare for that blank moment. How about noting down your own strong reactions to any smell, pleasant or unpleasant? List the source for each. This will make you rack your brains, and may well summon up incidents that you can use in your story. Add any smells that you already know act as powerful reminders for you – and write down why.

A scent for one person may be a stink for another. One perfume might raise very different memories for two different characters. Identifying that memory can enrich your story line. For instance, the whiff of musty clothes in a charity shop reminds Kara of a great aunt, but Debra of pass-me-downs when she was young.  The scent of aloe vera takes Anna back to the birth of her baby, but reminds Dan of a little lane in Almeria where he was set on by teenage thugs. They find themselves quarrelling . . .

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With such a list of smells, you can google them to add any interesting facts to their source and the memories they evoke for you.  Strengthen your writing with that detail that enthralls readers and brings them right into your story.

Title Optional

Struggling to find the right title?

A writer recently remarked that she had difficulty in thinking of titles. I thought I’d concoct a list for beginner writers allowing use for different genres. Let me know if you like this kind of post. It can be taken seriously or not. Who knows, one of these may spark the next novel for someone. These titles are intended for you to make your own associations (and stories). I had fun.

 

One day too long

Caught in Time

Idyll in Back Alley

Plenary Session

Forbidden Journey

Is There Hair on my Burger?  (or their hair – works as well)

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An Intricate Endeavour

It Takes Time to Jam

Black is the New Grey

They never called me Edna

Not Everyone Marries in a Cathedral

Blogging To Bliss

Entropy

 

IF YOU LIKE THIS, I CAN DO MORE. (But I should be finishing my next chapter).

9 points on writing edgy stories

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My second post on writing edgy short stories.

Here are some suggestions. (My previous post will add meaning to this.)

1. Write with a clear voice. Not yours, your character’s. It doesn’t have to be first person. You can write third person from the main character’s (MC) point of view. What matters is that point of view, the reader feeling sure s/he is standing in the MC’s shoes.

2.  The reader doesn’t have to like the MC. It is edgier if a sneaky liking for a character makes the reader uneasy or worse. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this baddie I’m reading about?)

3. Short stories can’t cope with having too many characters. The edginess may depend on being in the MC’s head most of the read, so the reader has to be drawn to him/her in some way – even horror or outrage can achieve this.

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4. Dialogue has to do its job well and pithily. Every word counts; every unnecessary word detracts. A character merely saying ‘Whatever‘ can give a total feel of his/her reaction, whereas a whole sentence may not.

5.  Structure. If you are working on : 1/5 start, 3/5 middle. 1/5 end, that final fifth must hit home. Either shock the reader by reversing all his/her expectations or let your MC cross over some unacceptable line. It may ‘only’ mean stealing a child’s bike and pretending innocence. However, the ‘journey’ must be there, and it’s vital that whatever happened is some kind of shock to the system.

6.  Edginess doesn’t necessarily require extreme sexual or aggressive behaviour. Risk of some form is usually involved but an action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance.

7.  The edgy story does not have to be crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can be funny.  It’s no longer edgy for sexual abuse to be involved, not because it’s any more acceptable, but because it’s now hackneyed as a character device.

8.   It is still edgy to nudge into those actions that would be too awkward to admit to a friend. e.g. a friendship established in the first 4/5th of the tale where we worry that this friend is about to cheat or betray. The last fifth reveals that we are wrong. The kickback is that the assumptions we made highlight our own prejudices.  Edginess must produce unease.

I hope I’ve achieved this in the first two of my Crime Shorts, A Boy with Potential and Homed. Do let me know if I have.

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Strong characters capture readers

The US presidential election campaign! How rich a source of strong characters and plot for any writer to capture!

Simon Schama didn’t predict it in his 2010 article where he discussed passionately what historical events all school children should learn.  Otherwise he might have included it.

The study of Machiavelli can raise the temperature of university seminars and one day, no doubt the phenomenon of Trump will do so.

One way of involving readers with your characters is to make them bold, multi-faceted, unconventional and unpredictable. But creating one or two strong characters shouldn’t mean falling short on remaining characters.

I was captivated by The Girl on a Train because the main character’s complex personality and back story were gradually revealed. The plot had me gripped because of her difficulties and situation.  She had strengths as well as weaknesses, and could be unpredictable so that the book was a good page-turner. I stayed involved until late in the plot when another character’s behaviour wasn’t credible. As a psychologist, I know that is not how such a person in that situation would behave. The book lost a fan at that point. Hawkins had not so carefully researched and designed that (male) character, and having lost my belief, I didn’t enjoy the novel from then on.

However, should Paula Hawkins write a novel with the same main character, I would want to read it. This is the power a writer has: strong or complex characters attract readers. Inadequately researched ones, lose readers. If you’re a new writer, there’s a useful article here from Writers’ Digest on character building.

It’s taken me a long time to complete my trilogy about a boyhood rivalry that begins in 1937.  I’ve worked hard to ensure that any actions make full sense in the light of the character’s personality. Readers love my protagonist and hate my antagonist – a psychological bully – but there are aspects of the plot that invite sympathy for him, and by the third novel, the hero is examining his own short-comings. The rivalry culminates in an act extraordinary enough to make an unpredictable but satisfying ending (I trust).

Endings have to satisfy readers by being believable in the context of the characters. It can surprise but I like to leave the reader feeling “Yes, that would happen” or “he would do that”.  It’s easier for a trilogy or series to achieve this than a single novel. The writer can lay the necessary stones on a path within each book.  Development of plot and personality is being built up over time. Less prominent characters affect the main ones. Wittingly or not, they are change agents. It’s best if the reader realises their effect on the main character’s behaviour  – rather than the writer pointing it out.

What a student remembers of his/her history lessons is often due to the character: king, rebel, victim, adventurer, cardinal, causing the historical event.

Whether it’s on TV or in a book, it’s the strength of characterization that makes for my involvement and enjoyment. I wonder if it’s the same for you?

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A RELATIVE INVASION 

 

WWII, two boys, a fateful rivalry

                       INTRUSION    INFILTRATION    IMPACT