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.
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.
WRITING PLANScrivener 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.
EDIT AND REVIEWPro-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.
READ GUIDANCE KindleIf 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.
NOTIFY OTHERSCanva 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.
FORMAT AND PRODUCEVellum 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!
It’s the suggestion of outrageous possibility that can make a story or an image edgy.
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?)
The 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Turning to dance, the delicacy of Pavlova’s left arm makes this pose arresting.
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.