Suggestions for writing a trilogy.

 

Much advice for writers suggests that series work best for indies. Is the same true of a trilogy?

A trilogy suggests an entity like the three-movement sonata in music, or the triptych in art. The form must be complete, whereas the novelist has more freedom to finish where s/he likes, at any point, at any length.  

A Relative Invasion is probably the only trilogy I’ll write. It was meant as a novel. I began to write the story of a good-hearted boy, Billy, who was going to need all the resilience he could muster to weather the threat of war, as well as that of his manipulative cousin. A trilogy never entered my mind. I wanted to explore how the emotions that led to WWII might play out in micro, in a South London family. This was a story about a life-time rivalry that would have lasting effects, mirroring the tensions in micro of those in pre-war Europe.

This is what happened when I was in the throes of writing the story:

Billy was only five years old at the start of the narrative. At around the fifth chapter I knew what the ending must be, and I wrote that in full. I then returned to Chapter Five. Just a matter of getting Billy from that point to the end, but by the time I had written one hundred thousand words, he was still only seven. At that point I stopped, thinking I had better made the story into two books. Backtracking, I wrote a suitable ending to Book One, which came at around seventy-five thousand words.           

When Book Two reached a similar length, World War Two had just ended, but I was a long way from the climax and culmination of the story. VE Day provided a natural conclusion of Book Two. Billy was then twelve, and cousin Kenneth, thirteen. Adolescence and the terrible austerity of London’s 1940s lay ahead, together with the fall-out from their life-long rivalry.

Book Three had to bring the boys to adulthood, and by the time I’d written to that point, I was at one hundred and twenty thousand words. I could have started the boys’ careers and made four books, but I had published and described the previous books as part of ‘a trilogy’.  I stuck to this, revised, and cut Book 3 down to one hundred and five thousand words. After all, the climax and the ending were set just as I’d planned.

Billy’s story was told, the arc I’d envisaged had been completed. I had written a trilogy. What can I advise would-be trilogists?

Early on, write a time-line.

Put in the historic events, check exact dates of these. Ensure you record each character’s date of birth, location, key events. In a trilogy, you may need to come back to them. Old incidents come back to bite the bottoms of the unwary.

Write your real ending before you get too far into the narrative.

You need to retain a clear sense of where your story is going as you write chapter after chapter. 

Mark out how much will happen in each book.

This way you can pace the drama evenly, making sure you don’t stack up the high points too closely together.

The flow of life needs to show:

precursors in Book 1, developments in Book 2, outcomes in Book 3. In music the third part would be recapitulation. Outcomes do have this element: a reworking of earlier events. If there’s a crisis in Book 1 it can resolve, but not really conclude there;  longer-term effects should pop up in Books 2 or 3.

There needs to be some sense of linear movement

even if the books are not arranged in chronological sequence. The reader will want to feel the size of the whole time span by the time s/he reaches the end.

Include several fully-imagined characters.

Three books are too many to focus on just one or two main characters. The work needs other characters with their own concerns for the main ones to knock against and react to. The range of possible interactions gives a more detailed picture of the protagonist(s) and a fuller character development .

Similarly, there needs to be more than one theme.

For instance, the main theme in my trilogy is the far-reaching effects of an ongoing childhood relationship. Connected to this is the theme of coming-of-age, bullying, parenting issues, the subtler effects of war service, and a re-examining where personal responsibility lies.

Although the trilogy will follow one arc each book also needs its own arc

My trilogy arc was before WWII began until the war effects in Britain ended – “You’ve never had it so good”) The three books fell into line with historic events: Book 1 – threat of war until its onset; Book 2 – the war years; Book 3 – post-war austerity. Each book contained its own drama; each marked great changes in Billy’s life. It’s these changes that make for a satisfying place to end one book and start the next.

AND I’d also suggest the following about a trilogy:

The story has to be substantial.

It has to touch on something in human nature that will resonate meaningfully over the timescale of your three books so that the three do comprise an entity, not three stories about the same people.

Finally, you need to be a sticker;

someone with a persistent, resilient personality who does not give up what they have started. I wrote these traits into my main character, and he helped me to stay the course.

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.

 

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!

Creating edgy short stories.

I have written a few edgy short stories, and I enjoy reading them. As an example, Hilary Mantel’s story of Margaret Thatcher’s fictional death

It’s the suggestion of outrageous possibility that can make a story  or an image edgy.

madrehitler

If the first person form is used as a literary device, the narrator of an edgy story is often unreliable, but his or her fantasies around true events don’t make a fantasy for the reader. There can be a self-deception that the reader can assess.What is ‘edgy’ is the uncertainty around what is real, especially if that threatens safety, physical or attitudinal.

Where stories are written in the third person,  the main character does not have to be likable.  It is edgier if s/he’s unlikable yet the reader constructs a sneaky liking for him/her. This makes the reader uneasy. (What sort of person must I be if I feel sympathy for this jerk?)

images-2The reader does have to be drawn to the main character in some way – horror or outrage can achieve this – what will he do next? But uncertainty and confusion work best.

 

 

The author can shock the reader by reversing all expectations, or make the protagonist cross over some unacceptable line. He may kill but must he debase? He may cheat, but the person who has just saved him, or his own mother?

Edginess needn’t involve extreme sexuality or aggression.  An action close to home can cause the uneasiest feelings, or an everyday event suddenly appearing to have a different significance. It doesn’t have to involve crime or erotica. It can suggest something subtly sinister. It can be socially provocative. It can even be shockingly funny.

Assumptions we make when we read a story when reversed, can highlight our own prejudices.  Edginess can produce unease and give rise to questions over morality, practice, managing relationships. A story is satisfying when it is thought-provoking and lingers in the mind after the last page.

I hope I’ve achieved this in my Crime ShortsA Boy with PotentialNot Her FaultHomed banner_new

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.

    horse-1333937_960_720
    Pixabay

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

 

 

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.

A_Boy_with_Potential_3_opt-2 Homed_book_cover_opt

 

The detail in writing fiction

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Jonathan Wolstenholme “The Collector” 2005

It is often the tiny detail that remains in the reader’s mind and catapults him into the imaginary world the writer tries to create.

I’ve used Jonathan Wolstenholme‘s painting to portray a focus on detail. Minute detail is the interest in another post featuring cross-fertilization.

The collector uses detail to identify his butterfly, the artist and dancer attend to detail to create a new perception or meaning, and the writer can produce significance and emotion through tiny touches of detail.

It was while watching the DVD of Room on the Broom with little people that this post suggested itself. In the delightful children’s book, a dog, a cat, a bird, a frog in turn ask for a place on the witch’s broom in return for finding her lost items. But the DVD adds a layer to the original. After the cat is installed, it suffers jealousy when the witch takes on new passengers. All this is conveyed silently, by a raised eyebrow or a turned-down mouth, the invention of the animator. The book is satisfying enough to the child (theme: one good turn deserves another) but with the added detail of the cat’s facial expressions, the child’s own difficulty in sharing or accepting a new sibling, is illustrated safely. An added layer is given to the story.

In an expensive perfume, it may be one drop of a rare plant essence that makes it unforgettable (perhaps irresistable).

Shaun Tan’s The Arrival,  a flowing wordless narrative about emigration, is chockful of meaningful detail. One example: leaving his country, the emigrant says goodbye to his loved ones. Tan portrays this by a close-up of the hands clasped, the next when loosened, then the fingers leaving those of the others; a tremendously evocative set of images. This is detail that resonates with the reader. Another graphic artist might have left it to the hug or sad face.

pavlovaTurning to dance,  the delicacy of Pavlova’s left arm makes this pose arresting.

true blood

The drop of blood changes perceptions and significance in this book cover for True Blood.

In textual works, small detail can hit the heart-strings. I’ve tried to do this in Intrusion (Book 1 of A Relative Invasion). Seven-year-old Billy is on the station platform without his parents. As other evacuees are hugged goodbye, a wind from the oncoming train lifts Billy’s name tag against his face, and lets it fall again. (A moment of hope that the exodus won’t happen, thwarted.)

Kate Atkinson’s heroine in One Good Turn breaks an established routine of breakfast by eating the remains of a packet of chocolate digestives with her coffee, and on the peach sofa in the living room. This little detail implies rebellion against her absent house-proud husband.

When in Brick Lane, Nazneem, poor, in an East End flat, gives money for a charity that has touched her lover’s emotions, she gets it from a tupperware box under the sink, a telling detail.

I’ve been arbitrary in my choice of examples. Many writers boost the crises in their plot , but it’s these little details that can give satisfaction during and after the read. This often doesn’t happen with a wholly plot driven novel.

It’s like the difference between eating a large pizza, and a meat and two veg  meal. We may feel full initially but the protein makes the sense of satisfaction lasts so much longer.

Intrusion and Infiltration. Impact out in summer 2016.

ARItrio