Writers’ undercurrents: in the novel you’ve just read — or in your own writing?
Sometimes it’s only after finishing a novel that you become aware of its undercurrent. For instance, in Dead Water (Simon Ings) the fast paced plot involves the protagonist in a deadly international chase after an evil target; but the undercurrent is the dangerous potential of shipping containers which cruise the globe; an understandable preoccupation.
You may be more unaware of hidden undercurrents in your own novels. After a while without reading your work again, consider what you’ve actually ‘said’. It may be a romance or a crime story, but what you have allowed to happen in the plot, or between the characters – such as unexpected capitulation – or within the protagonist him/herself, can suggest unspoken drives or attitudes in your writing.
Even when there’s a distinct variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.
Take two important writers Kasuo Ishiguro and Elif Safak. In 2015 they happened both to be speaking at the Bath Literary Festival, but on separate days, and were probably unlikely to have conferred. However, both authors had a ‘burying’ undercurrent in their novels.
Ishiguro’s first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, is a fantasy. Its fantastic beings form the plot but the ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters. Ishiguro suggested all his novels had an underflow of this unspoken, part-forgotten material.
Talking of The Architect’s Apprentice, Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, saying so much has been suppressed. Sadly, historic artefacts are not being preserved perhaps because, then, uncomfortable events in history are more easily ignored; the role of the woman, the existence of minorities.
Shafak said that there is little urban memory: residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. She mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.
This strong feeling about burying discomforting events and feelings, drives these authors’ writing; the undercurrent enriches the work. What undercurrent can be detected from your writing?
Story Fridays are held every second month in Bath, UK. Six or seven writer-performers read freshly-minted stories inspired by a theme, this time Speed of Light. The packed audience heard stories intriguing, exciting, sad, straight and downright hilarious.
I was very happy that another of my short stories was one of these: The Find. It was not written at the speed of light, however. If you write about meteorites you have to find out about them. This certainly took time, especially as I have no geology in my background. This tale was about the finder who became a – wait for it – meteoriticist, (takes practise to say!) It’s the story of how a young man turns tragedy into obsession and how that obsession separated him from “a peopled life”.
It was read by talented actor, Kirsty Cox. You can judge here how brilliantly Kirsty performed my tale.
Mine was only one of the stories read, the packed audience enjoying a wide range of content that evening from talented writers using sci-fi, romance, humour to interpret SPEED OF LIGHT in their own ways.
(Story Fridays, A Word in your Ear in conjunction with Kilter Theatre, are the creation of the talented playwright and short story writer, Clare Reddaway.)
I didn’t ask the other authors how long they took to write their stories, but this is relevant because there’s currently a great deal of interest in writing a great many books in a short time to ensure (attempt) a very good income (Anderle). That has sparked a great writers’ debate around quality versus quantity and, in effect, whether everyone can write at the speed of light, or what may seem like it to those who need a couple of years or more to complete one novel.
Writing a huge number of books in a short space of time? Well, it’s been done, it’s being done. Usually there are characters who appear in different adventures/situations in each book, with the genre being closely defined – e.g. urban fantasy. There may be a close similarity of structure, characterization and plot within the books in the series. It fits with a life-style that demands instantaneous gratification.
This writing is at the opposite end of the scale to writing Flash Fiction which may be read in a flash but can take many attempts to whittle away the word count. This means heavy investment in word choice and serious consideration of meaning.
Short stories – that is stories of 1,000 words upwards – are different in many ways and different to write. There’s more to discuss as shown on sites such as Shortstops, Tania Herschmann’s website. How long does it take to write a satisfying story, beginning, middle, end? Something credible, because it has been properly researched. Something memorable? It’s worth asking different short story authors for the answer, which in itself depends on how the germ of the idea came to the author’s mind. More of this in another blog post.
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. There 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?
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 . . .
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.
What prompts a writer to suddenly write down an idea? Author – there’s a lot going on when you write.
When your idea appears ‘out-of-the-blue’ , more likely the germ of the idea lies in some unconscious association. Past experience affects the significance of something that appears novel, something just seen or heard or half-remembered.
Why notice say, the length of someone’s thumb, rather than their choice of tie? Subliminal exposure can influence preferences. Even patients with amnesia may show that someone/something is emotionally important to them, without remembering ever encountering these objects of their affection.
The reason for the significance of the idea is unconscious. But the emotional experience is conscious.
As a writer, you are just aware of ‘the good idea’ and the urge to write it down. But every scene, even the familiar surrounds of the working or home environment, holds a kaleidoscope of auditory, olfactory and visual stimuli.
At a party, Perry can’t relax because of the scent coming from the candles. It brings on some very uneasy feelings connected to – what? If only he could say why.
Jane focuses on a woman’s blue-grey dress. She doesn’t know why. She distorts its appearance later in a story. Long forgotten, Jane’s shouting aunt was wearing such a dress during a traumatic quarrel.
Derek, beside her, is irritated by the gestures of another guest. He can’t say why but worries away at the conundrum. He may dredge up the original stimulus. If so, that is very satisfying. Catching the germ feels good even if the original stimulus was upsetting. It’s a feeling of getting things into place.
This unconscious layer of memory has a social and a survival function. To know the minds of others, (are they dangerous, are they to be trusted?) is useful, often vital. From our very early days we must attend to the available cues, whether in their verbal or nonverbal behaviour. I remember saying something cheeky as a small child and peering at an adult to work out whether their mouth bore a smile or an annoyed grimace.
We unconsciously absorb tiny details that contain information about a person’s inner qualities; there is a kind of template against which new experiences can be tested over time. When a writer includes such detail it is recognised as significant by the reader. The reader may not know why but s/he also has this layer of awareness built up from infancy that alerts him or her to such clues.
A character may be softly rubbing his eyebrow as he reads. The reader enjoys noticing this detail as a guide to that character’s reaction, and ultimately, personality. It is this kind of detail that moves a piece of writing to another level, (and is often missing from plot-driven fiction). Whether it is the writer writing it, or the reader reading it, such detail makes for what we often call a ‘rich’ read.
Some writers complain of writers’ block. Perhaps they are due for pollination from other sources.
I’ve written before about how cross-fertilization within the arts is something to seek out and to treasure. A writer, performing artist, teacher, does him/herself no good by constantly giving out and never feeding the self. Exposure to other art forms stimulates unexpected associations that would not otherwise occur. Learning the techniques involved in these arts achieves even more than just appreciating the painting, dance, acting or exposition. You can imagine the reception of new stimuli neurologically: neural pathways highlighted and speeding like electric sparks across the cortex. For a writer, new associations, especially unexpected ones, enrich the language that later emerges under the pen.
This post results from participation in a wonderful watercolour workshop arranged by Pelisande courses near Stroud.
An original idea for a botanical painting workshop, Bugs and Botanical provided two outstanding tutors with complementary skills to tutor on the topical subject of pollination. 15 participants learned from RHS gold medal-winning botanical artist Julia Trickey (plants) and Cath Hodsman, ASB, Natural History Museum wildlife artist (insects).
The two artists chose aquilegia as the flower to examine and paint because of its unique method of pollination. The nectar lies in the tip of the curled spurs, coyly tucked away at the furthest point from the seductively displayed pollen on the pistils.
Aquilegia, a beast to paint, is like an unfaithful wife. It can be approached for its nectar from the front (by humming hawkmoth) and from the rear (by bumble bee). The hawkmoth zooms into the front entrance legitimately, showing off its tremendously long proboscis (as long as its body). The aquilegia meanly keeps its nectar as far away from its front entrance as can be, but the hawkmoth can reach it, hovering humming-bird style at the flower’s mouth.
Here is Cath’s painting, showing the hovering wings and proboscis’ tell-tale golden cache, post-visit, held away from its body.
Under the microscope the fluffy body is more like a loofah, quite rough in texture. The wing has minute overlapping segments like the tessellation of a Roman mosaic.
Not to be outdone by the moth’s super-long proboscis, the bumblebee, displaying no shame about its lesser member, flies straight to the back of the flower and drills through the tube, filling its sac with nectar. This means it gathers no pollen on its furry body, a job carried out unwittingly by the moth. For its efficient pollination work on most other flowers, the bee is the ultimate in hairiness, even its eyes have hairs.
Under the powerful microscopes, the worthy bee, post nectar-gathering, is weighed down by its enormous load, carried like panniers either side of its thorax. Its complex eye has a surface like a fine metal grille. Not enough to say ‘I have eyes in the back of my head’ it has enormous eyes, comparable to the cheeks on a pig, plus three simple eyes, in the middle and either side of the top of its head. It must never stop looking.
Cath demonstrated her technique for painting every detail in the microscopic accuracy for which she is acclaimed, and is used by Kew Gardens as scientific illustrator. Her painting is a matter of many painstaking layers, very fine brushes, a steady hand and tiny movements: dots for the bee and dashes for the moth. Her drawings are the amazing result of reproducing what is seen when enlarged very many times. When a writer can portray a character or setting in that detail, readers can feel they are truly entering the lives of those in the narrative.
It was a privilege to listen to Cath’s extensive knowledge of wildlife, and equally to watch the exquisite painting of flowers by Julia. Under her hand the complex form of the aquilegia came to life, petal by petal and not just with great attention to accuracy but with incomparable interpretation. Before painting, Julia examines the plant in detail so that its structure is as clear as the light and shade on its form.
Painting wet on wet, Julia’s not so small brush delivers a touch of colour that slithers into place, The brush comes away leaving a perfect petal behind it, immaculate edges, veins, light, shade and shape. Note the plate beside her. It indicates how little paint she uses; she uses the cloth in front of her as often. Julia has videos of her techniques, as well as her beautifully illustrated books so that those who attend her courses can follow her techniques at home. http://tiny.cc/76n1yx
During the 2 1/2 day course, participants worked intensively on their own attempts at both flower and insect, straining their eyes to capture the details that make the difference between a cursory and an informed detailed illustration. Fortunately, Pelisande courses include delicious food. Participants went home enriched in mind and body, if cross-eyed.
The humming hawkmoth pollinates jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia, pittosporum, plumeria, oleander, star-jasmine and flowering tobacco amongst others. Writers would love to think that their words were that widely imbibed.
Among most species that breed in water, the males and females each shed their sex cells into the water and external fertilization takes place. Ideas and images in our environment are cast out in different artistic forms. They are absorbed, then mentally reworked into the receiver’s mental system. In the case of fiction writers, a story emerges mostly many years later.
Among terrestrial breeders, fertilization is internal, and the parallel for the writer might be the unconscious adoption of behavioural tendencies that can come from early relationships. These then enrich the development of characters in the writer’s stories.
In reproduction, by recombining genetic material from two parents, a greater range of variability for natural selection to act upon, increases a species’ capacity to adapt to environmental change. So in writing, by reworking imageries from different art forms, something new can emerge that has greater meaning to readers than the unpollinated material that went before.
Are you starting to write a novel? Yes, it’s hard. Really, it’s best just to press on with it rather than tell people about it. There will be time for that when you’re finished.
Here are 10 points to consider. You can waste so much time in the early stages of starting a novel when you should be just getting that important first draft down. Before listing these, one thing that will help you above all others, is to buy Scrivener. At around £45.00 it’s the best purchase I’ve ever made and if I’d had it years ago, I would have had a longer life and lived more of it! It organizes all your writing and avoids all those hours searching for previous drafts, short notes you’d made on a character or setting and so on. It will considerably help your structure. You can even trial it free.
Let’s say you’re well past the ‘thinking about writing a novel.’ You have the germ of the plot and have written enough to imagine the finished work in your hand. Download the trial of Scrivener and start building your chapters, or scenes within the chapters. (iTunes has how-to videos).
Now consider these ten points.
1. Write your target quota each day before entering any social media site. Social media diverts you, it is time-consuming and will seriously cut in to your allotted writing time. Scrivener provides a progress signpost, showing how well you are meeting your target.
2. Write from your instinct before reading any writing advice on style. This is to ensure it is your voice that emerges on the page. Texts on the craft of writing are best read before or between writing novels. The analytical task is best kept separate from the creative one of starting to write a novel.
3. Similarly, only seek feedback when you have planned and written a substantial section. It is your novel from your imagination and experience. Others’ views and suggestions when you are writing the first draft will confuse that first push to get the story down.
4. Only seek feedback from other writers. Readers’ views are wonderful, but only when your novel is published or ready to publish.
5. Stop and decide where the plot is going one third of the way through. You might write the end at this point.
6. Lie in bed and hear your characters’ voices clearly. Feel their conflicts and listen in to their conversations.
7. When you are ready to read your first draft, print it out. Highlight the sections you’re unhappy with in blue. Scrivener allows for you to mark your chapters or scenes with colours according to how near they are to ‘finished.’
8. Beyond halfway, read the first and last lines of every chapter. This is a way of seeing a ‘want to read on’ for your future readers.
9. Your own voice and writing style will be uppermost in your mind. Read a highly rated novel – with a very different plot from yours – while you take a break. High quality writing is privilege to read. Each such work has some impact on your own developing skill.
10. Care about your characters and write their future… and above all, get on with your writing NOW
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