Writing Fiction: A Mundane Task?

I would never describe creative writing as mundane, as if something’s mundane, it can’t possibly be creative.  The word task doesn’t feel right either. However, a larger creative writing project, like a novel, requires a great deal of revision and pruning, and these processes sometimes become tiring and mundane.

I’m at the polishing stage in my current novel, a psychological thriller. Making minor adjustments. Removing redundancies. Making sure dialogue remains true to the character viewpoint.  At times, I miss the simplicity of story telling – i.e. writing a piece from scratch and seeing where the writing takes me.  Maybe, at some point in the future, I will get the chance to start a new novel.

In the meantime, till next time.

 

 

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Writing and Characterisation: Going Deeper

The writing process seems never-ending, and once again I’m at the stage of polishing my manuscript, this time allowing the characters to come alive in more vivid ways than before.

A writer often has to experiment with the points raised in a professional critique.  Incorporating all the ideas on a page by page basis raises the possibility of damaging the overall story and knocking the structure off-balance.  Yet, the writer has to implement some of the advice – otherwise why pay for the advice?

With my novel, I think, the solution lies in allowing some sections of the writing to develop even further without the changes causing a knock on effect with the structure – in particular, concentrating on natural type dialogue that helps the reader better identify with the characters in question.  Also, cutting superfluous phrases or sentences – i.e. redundancies – will tighten up a manuscript.

Just a few of my thoughts.

Show, Don’t Tell – When This Might Not Apply

Writing instructors frequently urge their students to show, not tell.  Showing deals with sensory input as experienced through the eyes of the viewpoint character.  Showing leaves a lot of the work to the reader. Guessing a character’s background from the way they speak.  Sensing tension or danger from subtle hints in the story or, alternatively, from the acceleration of events part of the way through a story.

Telling, on other hand, is obvious.  The writer spells out the details.  No room left for the imagination.

But should an author always show rather than tell?   Possibly not.

For instance:

  • Sometimes, a chunk of information is so crucial that the story wouldn’t work without it.  Simply using dialogue to cover this might not work.  Sometimes, better just to outline the facts as briefly as possible.
  • A character pays a return visit to a place that has played a significant role in their life.  Short chunks of background information about some past major event connected with the place might deepen the immediacy in the present. 
  • Lots of dramatics events, one following another.  I think taking time out and bringing the reader up to date with a short summary of what’s happened can help calm the pace.

Just a few of my thoughts.

 

 

Difficulties Encoutered In Writing Fiction

Once again, I’ve reached the crucial moment in my current novel – namely, the middle section – where choices made can easily destroy earlier potential for drama and immediacy.  Compare to playing chess.  Many people have a good understanding of the opening moves, but once the players reach the middle section, they require a greater understanding of mental combat.  I think the same applies to writing; once the writer reaches a certain point in the story, they’ll probably find the second half much harder to plot and bring off.

I’m currently reblogging articles from five years ago when I first started this blog and was struggling with my first novel, now published.  The following addresses a number of structural issues and introduces the standard story arc: 

 

Creative Writing Headaches

 January 13, 2009 by lawrenceez | Edit

You come up with an idea. You sit down to write. An hour or two later, you crunch up the paper or switch off the computer in disgust. Or you’re already halfway through a story and don’t know where to go next. When I first sat at the computer to begin a psychological thriller, I had no idea of the difficulties in store.

Choosing an Opening

I began with a repetitive dream, perhaps one of the most difficult starters because of the tendency to overdo things by pumping up the fear factor. Not only was the dream untypical of repetitive dreams, it didn’t actually tell the reader much. When I took the work to a novelist group, a member suggested opening with the first inciting incident where a young married couple return from a New Year’s party and the wife, an artist, thinks someone has tampered with her painting. The wife is correct, of course, but her husband thinks she’s overreacting. The rationale and back story took a long time to sort out and I ended up with an entirely different story. I experimented with a number of openings, finally settling for a short dream in present tense – an option I wouldn’t normally recommend. I settled for this option because I believe it’s the best way of beginning this particular story.

Openings are a real headache. In my opinion, people shouldn’t worry too much about the opening sentences at first. It’s better to continue writing until you have a basic draft to work with. Then, you can go back over the draft and select a few possible starters.

Dialogue

My least favourite part of the process. In writing dialogue, the writer has to give the impression of real speech without recording it word for word. Each speaker also needs to be distinct. I try to hear the characters’ voices and accents when I read back over the manuscript. At some point, I made the decision not to print off large sections of dialogue until I’d had the chance to read the sections again a day or two later. It’s amazing how muddled dialogue can get on a first attempt. Not to mention, all the shrugging, smiling, grinning and laughing people can do in one chapter. Generally, writers should stick to “he said/she said” and avoid the use of other attributive verbs because these distract the reader from the purpose of the speech. Also to be avoided are unnecessary adjectives – for instance, he said quietly, she said angrily. The speech itself should reveal how the character speaks.

Dialogue has to travel from an opening point to a finish through a process of development – again, difficult to pull off. Making a few notes away from the computer helps keep dialogue focused. In particular, you should ask yourself what you are hoping to convey in the section you’re working on.

Loss of focus after a few chapters

When I first started, the story soon became chaotic and unbelievable. Add to this, the overwriting and clumsy punctuation. Nowadays, I jot down the relevant story questions after every fifty pages of work and I constantly refer back to the notes.

Many stories pass through eight stages:
The starting point (“stasis”).
An inciting event (“trigger”).
The central character’s search for an answer, an object or a person (“quest”).
A succession of obstacles preventing the character from achieving their aim (“surprise”).
Decisions the character makes (“critical choice”).
The consequences of the choices (“climax”).
Consequences of climax (“reversal”).
Aftermath/New Stasis (“resolution”).

In thrillers and crime, the central characters should be driven by conflict, both external and internal.

In my earlier drafts, the main character went to the police when she suspected someone was coming into her home – a course of action most people would take in real life. As I reworked the back story, I realised the character couldn’t go to the police because of a secret in her past. Instead, she is forced to turn to an elderly family friend, someone she doesn’t fully trust. Here, we have three sources of conflict – the disturbances in her home, her past secret and her distrust of the elderly friend.

To discover sources of internal conflict, write biographical notes for each of your main characters in first person, paying close attention to areas of their lives that draw a blank or produce a particularly strong emotion. Mark these areas and go through each one separately, making further notes. You now have your sources of conflict to work with.

Conflict In Fiction: Dialogue

I’m about two-thirds of the way through my latest novel, a psychological thriller aimed at teenager and young adults. 

Following an incident with the police in London, central character Gavin (17) goes to stay in a remote coastal town in Lancashire where he continues his studies.  Early on, he falls for a girl on the course and drifts into trouble with the local kids.  In this section of the novel, Gavin finds it increasingly difficult to cope:

‘Gross,’ Steve called over to him. ‘You’d better clear that up, mate, or I’ll smash your face in.’

‘Leave him alone,’ Philippa called back. ‘He’s ill, can’t you see?’

‘You can shut up too,’ he said to Philippa. 

‘And you,’ he added to me.

The rap stopped.  A tense silence fell.

The hoodie girl glared at me. ‘Hey,’ she yelled. ‘What’re you staring at?’ 

 

Meanwhile, my debut novel Secrets by Lawrence Estrey is available from Amazon in paperback and e-book. 

Check out the reviews for  Secrets.

Newspaper article on author.

Local musician publishes crime thriller

EggHead by Lawrence Estrey: Questions And Answers

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.

Reading A Psychological Thriller – What I Like

I spend hours writing most days, working on a psychological thriller.  Mostly, I enjoy the process.   No writer’s block for a month now!  But what about reading?  What keep me interested when I’m reading a particular novel?

I like psychological thrillers and autobiographies, but occasionally I’ll read books from other genres.  Here’s a list of what I look out for:

  • Atmosphere and psychological intensity
  • Simple viewpoint or First Person narrative
  • Present tense (in thrillers but not autobiographies)
  • Variation in the writing style and not too much dialogue
  • Showing rather than telling
  • A clear answer to the central story question (open endings don’t work for me)
  • Character build up
  • The effects of a crime upon the people involved rather than pages of endless procedure

My preferences have changed over the years.  At one time, I liked omniscient novels with thoughts italicised and clichés – but not anymore.

Novel Writing: A Question of Focus

About a year and a half ago, a friend read my second novel – a psychological thriller – and gave me a good deal of constructive criticism, all gratefully received. 

‘I almost feel there’s several novels here,’ she told me over coffee. ‘I think you need to find a way of bringing the various streams together.’

A huge challenge.  At the time, the streams included:

  • The central character’s back story
  • Friendship between central character and his best friend from childhood following a reunion after many years
  • A complex history between the best friend and the central character’s sister
  • A growing sense of menace originating in the three main characters’ shared pasts
  • Shady caricatures of criminals in a bland town

There was little distinct scene setting, and most of the novel revolved around back story and endless dialogue.  At times, I found the writing unbearably frustrating.  The story tended to meander, a problem since its first tentative draft.

Ideally, I wanted to concentrate on the central character, in particular his psychology and confused memories of childhood, but I couldn’t, as I didn’t actually know what had happened to him during his childhood, so I concentrated instead on the on-off romantic relationship between his sister and his best friend.   For some reason, the material didn’t always ring true in places.  I guess that if a writer isn’t passionate about the story, readers will quickly notice.  

Most writers, I would imagine, don’t like cutting material, especially well written material, but pruning seems to be an essential part of the process. I’m now concentrating primarily on the central character with a view to developing the forensic aspects of the story.  Instead of relying solely on memory flashbacks and countless back story sections (both potential clichés), I’m allowing a number of viewpoint characters to establish the forensic elements, along with a simple First Person narrative in present tense that includes occasional brief hazy recollections of a childhood event that is not entirely clear at first.   There is no reason why memory uncertainty shouldn’t play some role in the story.

The back story question itself is far more complex than originally sketched out, now allowing for a richer unfolding of events.  For the first time since resuming this project, I feel a greater degree of confidence and interest in the story.

Novel Writing: Having Good Back Story

In an earlier post, I outlined some of my thoughts on using back story in fiction.  Clearly, back story doesn’t always work and may leave readers feeling lumbered with unnecessary information.  However, like I pointed out in the earlier post, when done properly, back story can add extra atmosphere and immediacy to a story in a way that employing dialogue might not.

I think that for back story to work, the content must be relevant at all times and should only address the central story questions.  In other words, it should be kept to a minimum. 

I also think that back story needs structuring like the present story with the same eight stages.  Those are:

  • The starting point (“stasis”)
  • An inciting event (“trigger”)
  • The central character’s search for an answer, an object or a person (“quest”)
  • A succession of obstacles preventing the character from achieving their aim (“surprise”)
  • Decisions the character makes (“critical choice”)
  • The consequences of the choices (“climax”)
  • Consequences of climax (“reversal”)
  • Aftermath/New Stasis (“resolution”)

More on story structure

Perhaps the best way to ascertain whether back story works is to copy and paste to a separate document and see if it feels complete. 

Just some of my thoughts.

________

I will be sending my first novel to the editor on Monday and shall continue working on the second, which seems to be going well.

Novel Writing: Some Thoughts On Polishing The Story

At some point during the month, I hope to get my first novel back to the editor.  This means I’ve had to put the second novel on hold and take a final look at the first book, a psychological thriller.

I feel the overall quality of the work has improved, in  particular the plot and the structure, but at times I get so frustrated by traces of previous drafts still present in the work, especially old clichés like, “She went in, her unease mounting.” 

For instance, what does “unease” really mean?  Different things to different people.  And would most people use verbs like “mounting” in their everyday vocabulary.  I don’t think so.  I’m having to find new ways of bringing to life the various emotional responses.

So what are the things to look out for in a (hopefully) final polish?  If the story works – and I suspect mine is beginning to – I would say:

  • Dialogue.  Try to keep it relaxed with each speaker’s voice as distinct as possible
  • Redundant sections.  Cut these
  • Does the unfolding of plot always make sense?  I’ve included a new paragraph about an eight-year-old child’s  introduction to a pony called Bella to bring out of the oasis of a childhood that later turns sour
  • Specifics.  Exactly what is it that affects the viewpoint character so much? 
  • Easing language that has become stilted or formal, or language that intrudes into the viewpoint character’s voice.

 A bit hard going, but I think the extra work is worth it.