Novel Writing:The Immediacy Experiment

Over the years, I’ve had to tackle the issue of back story.  Back story, of course, is crucial in some novels. In others, writers might want to find different ways of bringing the past to life, perhaps through dialogue.

I like back story, but I would admit it has the tendency to slow down the pace of the story.  As a reader, I prefer to experience the now, the rising tension, the move towards a conclusion.  I don’t like sudden interruptions and journeys into the past, especially dated sections of writing.  And yet, some novels wouldn’t function properly without back story.

I’ve tried a different approach in my second novel, a psychological thriller set in the north of England.  Instead of taking the reader back into the past, I insert short sections at the start of certain chapters, concentrating on simplicity and immediacy.

Here’s an example:

They say I never went to the caretaker’s house, only Gordon did. But I did go, and so did Wayne Winters. I remember the three of us going and I remember the house. I doubt I shall ever forget. Faded curtains. Musty smells. Shabby carpets. Elusive dancing shadows behind the loose banisters on the staircase. Model aeroplanes littering the sitting room.  Spitfires. Lancaster Bombers.

The whole place had a dark and gloomy feel, as if the house concealed years of secrets. The creaking floorboards used to conjure up images of ghosts watching us, causing me to turn cold with fright. Yet, the house never seemed to scare Wayne and Gordon. They liked exploring, going into forbidden rooms. Once, I ran up and down those stairs, searching for Wayne and Gordon who were hiding from me. Their giggles gave them away. I was frightened of the ghosts, but I tried not to let Gordon and Wayne see in case they thought I was a scaredy-cat.

When Wayne came with us, he always got overexcited. He loved the model aeroplanes in the sitting room. He’d reach out and touch them, but Gordon would have to warn him off. For we all knew that Vince Macarthur was a kind man who wouldn’t begrudge anyone a chocolate biscuit and a glass of lemonade. But he was a man with a temper, a man who’d give the three of us what-four if we damaged his planes.  And none of us wanted that.


Being Specific In Your Writing: Scene Setting

I suppose it’s obvious…be specific in what your describe…use words to paint pictures…make every location special, even when a location is mundane.

Yet, difficult to put into practice. 

Some creative writing instructors stress that less is best when it comes to scene setting, and there may be some truth to this.  Overwriting – in particular, relying on adjectives and adverbs, or repeating a point to add emphasis — spoils rather than helps the writing.   In some cases, the superfluous details and writing style will prevent the reader from getting to the story.

And yet, having a style that evokes atmosphere and immediacy is crucial to the story. I think someone once likened scene setting to the ingredient that causes a cake to rise whilst baking.  No ingredient, a flat cake.  

When I read the revised version of my second novel recently, a psychological thriller set in the north of England, I felt the opening quarter had improved in many ways, allowing for atmosphere and unfolding tension – exactly what I wanted.  Later sections of the story, however, seemed to fall flat again. 

I think the key to the problem lies in the scene setting itself.  Up to now, it’s been pretty vague.  A cottage in a village (no real description).  A lake on a hill (no name).  Playing fields at the bottom of the hill (could be anywhere).

I’ve changed the cottage to an old factory converted into apartments on glass balconies.  This, I feel, will allow the atmosphere to develop.  I’m enjoying placing my central character in situations that unsettle him – for instance, when he returns to The Factory with his young son on his second day there, he thinks someone’s watching them from the top balcony.

I’ve also added names to the hill and reservoir to make them distinct.

Early days, but I’m enjoying the revision.

A Picasa Dark Room

I’ve only recently begun experimenting with Picasa photo editing tools, but I’ve built up something of a simplified digital dark room on my computer hard drive.

I took these two photos today in North London’s Alexandra Palace and Park:

Alexandra Park, North London, July 2010Alexandra Palace, North London, July 2010

The Second Novel

Have completed two thirds of the rewrite for my second novel Secrets, a psychological thriller set in the north of England.  Lot’s of new viewpoint chapters and a revised back story plot. I think it’s going well.

Alan is a web designer, living in London and married to Lana.  But when Lana disappears, abandoning their eight-year-old son, Alan’s nightmare is just beginning.  Forced to move to his sister’s country cottage, he struggles to rebuild his life.  But on the eve of the move, he receives an email from someone in his past. The events that follow trigger a series of flashbacks, dragging Alan deeper into the past and danger.