Friday, 29 July 2016

G is for... Genre

G was going to be for Grammar. But I've said quite a lot about that here (and here), and I'm trying not to go over too much old ground. So, G can be for Genre.

Genre is essentially a way of pigeonholing everything and manages to be simultaneously totally irrelevant and more or less fundamental to the world of writing. You can see why people put so much store in it from the response that always seems to follow you telling anybody you're a writer:
"Oh, really? What kind of thing do you write?"
There you have it.  It's the worst thing anybody can ask you in some ways, but in others it makes perfect sense. Is yours the kind of writing I'm likely to be interested in or not? It's a way of establishing where your books might sit in the bookshop. To some extent, it's a way of establishing who your readers are, although I'm never entirely sure that's a good idea.

I don't know how many people jump around the genres as much as I do when it comes to choosing something to read. I'll pretty much pick up anything, if it seems like it'll be worth my time and effort. So far I can't claim to have ventured into the murky world of, say, dinosaur erotica, but if I met someone who could recommend a title and make it sound compelling I'd probably give it a go. I'd like to think most people don't think of books as being divided into two camps - The Stuff I Know I Like and The Other Stuff - but sometimes I'm not so sure. You do find people who only ever read crime, or break out in hives if they leave the science fiction section of the bookshop. It can't be good to restrict your intake to that extent, but I suppose it limits your chances of being stuck with something you really don't get on with. A bit, at least. Surely it makes life pretty dull, though?

Some journals and magazine use genre as a sort of filter. The idea that modern "literary" fiction is a genre in itself doesn't seem to occur to the editors of these kinds of places. "No genre fiction", they'll cry in their submissions guidelines, with the sniffy assumption that a story with a robot or a monster as a character is automatically excluded from actually being any good. Sure, there's plenty of dross written in the sci-fi and horror realms, but it's no more prevalent there than anywhere else. I mean, some of the stuff that gets published purely because of its "literary" badge should really go and take a good long look at itself in the mirror, for a start.

Personally, I think that while the use of genre has its uses for readers, most writers would be better off ignoring it. Sitting down to write a story in a particular genre immediately saddles you with all sorts of baggage, conventions, clichés, and expectations that will start to shape your story before you've even written the first sentence. Put those aside and concentrate on the character or idea that fascinates you, and don't worry about what pigeonhole it ends up slotting into until after it's written. Because, really, who cares whether it turns out to be a western, a space opera, a historical yarn, or the tale of the forbidden (and anachronistic) love between a caveman and a rebellious young stegosaurus from the wrong side of the tracks? If it's a good story, it's a good story.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

F is for... Finishing

Finishing. Unsurprisingly, it's a very important part of getting a story published, or winning a prize in a competition. No editor is going to want to leave a blank page in their magazine or anthology so the readers can write out their own version of the ending.

So, you have to finish your story. That isn't to say it's even remotely easy to do. I'm sure I'm not alone in having dozens of abandoned stories lying around on my hard drive. Some of them are malformed and flimsy and should never see the light of day under any circumstances, but others are just unlucky - perhaps they got interrupted and I never quite found my way back into them, or I lost interest in them for some other reason.

Part of the problem, I think - and this is only my personal experience so I'd be interested to know whether anyone else feels the same - is that the process of getting through a story is something of an emotional rollercoaster. If I was to plot a simplified graph of confidence levels through a first draft, I'd end up with something like this:

Essentially, that's the journey through:
  • I've got an idea for a story, might be worth a go
  • Yes, you little beauty! This is gonna work.
  • Actually, I'm not sure about it now...
  • Oh god, what was I thinking? I'm the worst writer in the world.
  • Hmm, this might be OK after all...
  • Oh yeah, I'm the storymeister - this is straight-up genius!
  • Right, that's finished. I think. It's alright, isn't it? At least, it might be after a bit of editing.
That slump in the middle, where you start wondering where it's going, why all your characters sound the same, how you're ever going to wrestle the story back to the ending you had in mind when you started - that's the dangerous bit. That's where other ideas become irresistible, when you have that sudden urge to reorganise your bookshelves, when keeping going with the current story seems like the biggest waste of time imaginable. But the key is to keep that arse of yours firmly on the seat, and press on regardless.

For me, the main thing is to keep the momentum going. Plough on, resisting the urge to go back and tinker with the beginning, and get yourself a completed first draft before you do anything else. Don't worry about how ropey it is, or that your main character starts off as John with brown eyes but has changed to Stephanie with green eyes somewhere along the line. It's all fixable. Just get to the end.

I find that it's helpful to keep in mind that the first draft is only ever that - a first draft. It's the roughing-out, the quick sketch to suss out the proportions and the general shape. Don't aim for perfection - in fact, leaving it as loose and malleable as possible can be very useful indeed. And if you get stuck, skip a bit. Lots of my first drafts have notes like [FIND A WAY TO DEMONSTRATE LENNY'S FEAR OF DOGS PRIOR TO THIS POINT] or [CHECK WHETHER THERE ARE THREE OR FOUR PEOPLE IN THE CAR AT THE BEGINNING]. Anything to stop me getting bogged down, looking back over an incomplete draft and losing confidence in it.

If you're getting bored with what you're writing, for instance if you're having to set the scene for a more dramatic part of the story, it can be useful to simply rough out the basic flow of events with bullet points, and then get on with the exciting parts. When you come back to rewrite the scene, you may find that you don't need half as much detail as you first expected.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

E is for... Editing

Depending on your point of view, editing is either the worst, most tedious and soul-destroying part of writing, or it's the fun, rewarding bit where the story you actually meant to write rises out of the murky depths of your first draft. Or, I don't know, maybe you don't have a strong opinion either way. Whatever you think though doesn't change the fact that editing is an essential part of the process. What I'm planning to cover in this post is less of a technical guide to editing, but more of a suggestion for the kind of approach it needs, or at least, the type of mindset I find works best.

When I first started writing, the temptation to skip the edit was hard to resist. I would usually have another story idea waiting in the wings, and I'd be desperate to get started on that one, and the sooner I posted the story online the sooner I'd get feedback (this is back in the heady days of the BBC's Get Writing forum, when people seemed to be queueing up to review your work - providing you returned the favour, of course). It was easy to convince myself there was no point in revising a story before I'd found out what other people thought of it.

Once I'd got more confident with my writing I could see what a mistake this was. Often, I'd write something, it would collect a bunch of mostly positive reviews, and I'd think, OK, that's it done with. Most of the time, although I'd be pleased with the response, the story would effectively die there on the screen in front of me. It had served its purpose, by leading the way to those complimentary critiques, that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from people saying nice things about something you've written. And, once that had worn off, it was on to the next idea. Most of the stories I wrote during that phase have never been submitted anywhere, and probably never will.

The change came when I started pushing myself a bit. Writing things that didn't necessarily work in the usual ways, stories that needed an unusual structure or style. The reviews, the ones that counted at least, shifted in tone. They weren't so complimentary. People couldn't see what I was trying to do. I found that frustrating, but it didn't take long to realise they weren't "getting it" because I wasn't sure exactly what "it" was.

Taking time to work out what you've actually written may seem nonsensical - after all, you're the one who wrote it, surely you're going to have the best insight into it. But it's strange how often it doesn't work like that. Time is the important factor here, I think. It's easy to be working so close to something that you can't see its flaws. Step away for a few days - ideally while working on something else - and come back to your story only when you've forgotten as much as possible about it.

It always surprises me, when I pick up a story that's been "resting" a while, how obvious some of the faults have become. Often, when I'm working on the first draft or an initial rewrite, I'll be aware of something not quite working, but it'll be a challenge to put my finger on what that might be. Slot the first draft of another story in-between it and the critical part of my brain, and suddenly it's obvious. It might not be easy to fix, but at least I have a better idea of which area(s) need more work.

I think I've said on here before that a game I try to play with myself is to read a story I'm editing as though it was written by someone I can't stand, and imagine it's just won top prize in a competition I entered (and got nowhere). The task is to 'prove' what a terrible writer they are by pointing out all the reasons the story doesn't work, all the lazy descriptions, all the clichés. All the inconsistencies and typos.

It's amazing how often this works.

Monday, 4 July 2016

D is for... Dull

Whatever you're writing, whoever you hope will end up reading it, the one thing you don't want to be is dull. This may be stating the obvious, but it's an easier trap to fall into than most people think. You might believe your work is edge-of-the-seat stuff, but it takes a lot of practice to get to the point where you can spot the bits where people's eyes might start to glaze over. Losing your reader's attention halfway through a story is a disaster for any self-respecting author.

Here are a few factors that might result in a reader skipping chunks of your hard-wrought prose or, worse, abandoning it altogether:

Too self-indulgent

We've all read novels where the author has clambered up onto his or her soapbox in order to proclaim their opinions on a given subject. If done well, these little diversions can be entertaining, but it's a very fine line between that and a tedious intrusion into the story that's both unwelcome and off-putting. By all means write with a message or a moral, but be careful of battering your reader over the head with it. Nobody likes being preached at.

Nothing happens

Short stories seem particularly prone to the curse of nothing happening, and the "literary" end of the spectrum seems to carry the biggest risk. For me, this is particularly frustrating, as if the writing is good, I tend to stick with it all the way to the end in the hope the writer has the skills to make the destination as rewarding as the journey itself. If the tale fizzles out with anything actually changing it all just feels like a big waste of time.

Sometimes nothing happening can be disguised by having a character thinking back to some event in their past, and the flashback explaining some element of their personality or the reason behind a decision. If the flashback is taken away and the story doesn't show the character making some kind of change in the 'current' timeline, then the flashback itself is the story, and the rest is just unnecessary bookending and should probably be cut.

Too repetitive, i.e. repeating yourself, saying the same thing twice or more often than necessary

Out of all the sins on this list, this is probably the one I'm most often guilty of. For me, it comes down to having the confidence that the reader will follow the story without me doubling back every once in a while to check they're keeping up. So I tend to over-compensate and often when I'm editing my first draft I'll be able to cut a lot of stuff because I've already said it. Give your reader credit - it can be worth mentioning something twice in a novel as people don't tend to read those all in one go, but in a short story most readers will be able to hold most of it in their heads without too many reminders.

Too much detail

I touched on this when I was talking about a story's cast, but obviously it applies to any aspect of the tale that can be described. Less is more, and when I was a new writer I found it difficult to get away from that nagging idea that a good author can describe anything (and so should do just that!). I can still go a bit heavy on description, but these days I'm aiming for an approach more like a sniper's rifle than a blunderbuss - focus on something very specific that gives a clear impression of a given thing, rather than trying to condense its entirety down to a few lines of text.

I'm always impressed by authors who can sum up the mood of something without actually describing it at all. Check out this description of an unattractive woman from James Lasdun's story, The Half-Sister (from the collection It's Beginning to Hurt):
Martin held her gaze a moment. Her face was really very strange - large and oval, with a propitiatory quality, like a salver on which certain curious, unrelated objects were being offered up for inspection.
Effective, isn't it - and it just goes to show that describing what somebody looks like is very different to describing how they look.

Characters you can't relate to

I saved the trickiest for last. There's no hard and fast rulebook for creating characters who'll resonate with readers, but it's worth putting effort into finding those special sparks that make the people you're writing about interesting for you, and bringing that right to the surface. Not caring about a character (particularly the main one) is the quickest way out of a story for a reader. Do they have to like them? Not necessarily. Does your main character have to be 'good'? Again, no - anti-heroes are perennially popular. But there has to be something about them, and to an important but lesser extent, about what they're trying to do, that people can engage with. If that's lacking, very few readers will stick around for long.

Have I missed anything? What else can authors do that triggers an attack of the yawns?

Sunday, 19 June 2016

C is for... Cast

Originally, I'd planned to write about characters, or possibly characterisation, when I got to C. But those are pretty big subjects and I feel like my first too posts were on the lengthy side. So I'm going to scale back a bit and think about an element of writing that's in the same general area: that of your story's cast.

By cast, I mean the people (I'll call them that for simplicity - obviously they may be aliens, animals, bizarre scientific experiments, etc) who populate your story. The characters you use are the cogs in the machine; your story can only move forward if they, also, move and interact. It's stating the obvious to say that the number of characters will typically be small for a short story and bigger for a novel, although - as with everything - this isn't always the case.

When you're writing a story (of any length) it's important to ensure every character is there for a reason. It may be something obvious, like the wise old magician who sends your protagonist off on his or her quest, or the love rival in a romantic story, but they may also be playing a less obvious role. Maybe they are a passing acquaintance who inspires your protagonist to live a better life, or perhaps they only need to pop up at some point, deliver a key piece of information, and then play no further part in the story (take care with this kind of contrivance, though!).

I've seen many examples where a new writer has ended up with a story that's decidedly over-staffed. If the main character goes to buy sausages, you get a in-depth description of the butcher, his stubby-fingered hands, the stains on his coat, and the hairs sticking out of his ears. You're left feeling like you'd recognise this guy if you ran into him in real life, but the only reason the writer has included him at all is that they don't have the confidence to just let their protagonist buy sausages and have the reader imagine the scene themselves. If nothing happens in the butcher's shop that affects the rest of the story, then really there's no point spending time establishing the butcher as a living, breathing character. And I think that's a good test for whether somebody belongs in a story or not - if you could take him or her out and not alter the flow of the plot in any way, then you're probably better off without them.

I often think of it in terms of a film poster. The stars - the characters who appear on the poster and/or the ones for whom the actors' names appear before the title in the small text at the bottom - are the ones you should spend the most time fleshing out. Those who don't get a mention on the poster but are named in the credits are second-tier characters, who probably need a bit of well-chosen description but shouldn't be allowed to take up too much space. Finally you have those 'background' characters, whose screen-time is limited and appear in the credits as Girl on Bus, or Second Gang Member. These are the ones you have to look at very carefully when it comes to written prose. Are you sure you need to tell the reader what they're wearing? Will it really make a difference if you don't give them a name? Do they need to be there at all? Most of the time, the answer will be 'No'.

But can a story have too few characters? I think you have to be careful if you are writing a story where there's only one significant person. Somebody sitting alone with their thoughts is almost always unbelievably tedious. My preference is for at least one other person to be there, even if it's only in flashback or on the other end of a phone. I've not written many stories that have somebody entirely on their own, and even in Last of the Sand Dragons you could argue that the sea itself is a character, of sorts.

I'd be really interested to hear of any examples of successful short stories that have a huge cast of characters, or any that have a solitary protagonist and manage to avoid being dull and introspective.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

B is for... Beginnings

Beginnings. Arguably the most important part of a novel, and almost certainly the most important part of a short story, the beginning is worth getting right.

It's hardly worth saying that the main purpose of the beginning of a story is to hook the reader. This advice is trotted out so often it's become something people say without really giving a lot of thought to what it actually means.

All too often, this advice gets over-simplified, to the point where the suggestion becomes that all stories should start right in the middle of the action, your main character hitting the ground running, with the clock ticking and danger all around. If you need to explain how he or she got into this situation then do it through flashbacks, later on in the story. Otherwise, you risk losing the story's momentum - and with it your reader's interest.

Like all writing advice, this works some of the time. Thrillers, particularly, often benefit from a pacey start where there's not much exposition to slow things down. For other stories, though, this approach just doesn't work. Not every story can (or should) be an adrenaline-fuelled page-turner.

So, instead of necessarily looking to hook the reader, I tend to try to think about it in terms of drawing them in. The difference, I'd say, between the two is that with a hook, you read on because you want to find out what happens; when a book draws you in, you read on because you don't even realise you're reading. This is a sign that the writer really knows what they're doing.

Let's look at some examples of what I consider successful opening sections...

Firstly, here's how The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall begins:
My name is Sister.

This is the name that was given to me three years ago. It is what the others called me. It is what I call myself. Before that, my name was unimportant. I can't remember it being used. I will not answer to it now, or hear myself say it out loud. I will not sign to acknowledge it. It is gone. You will call me Sister.

I was the last woman to go looking for Carhullan.
At first, this seems like a variation on Moby Dick's famous "Call me Ishmael" first line. But there's more to it than that. The insistence with which the narrator is talking about her name being "unimportant" and "gone", suggests something very significant has occurred. Also, the defiance of a line like "You will call me Sister" gives a strong suggestion of who this woman is, and hints at her relationship with the character she is addressing, in this case the faceless authority who acts as a stand-in for the reader.

Also, consider the questions this brief section poses: Why was this narrator "given" such a generic name? Who gave it to her? What happened three years previously that made her give up her old name (and, by implication, her old life)? Who is she talking to? Who/What/Where is Carhullan? - All of these are reasons for the reader to keep reading.

Next up, the start of The Resurrectionists by James Bradley:
In their sacks they ride as in their mother's womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this a second conception. A rope behind the knees to hold them thus, another to bind their arms, then the mouth of the sack closed about them and bound again, the whole presenting a compact bundle, easily disguised, for to be seen abroad with such a cargo is to tempt the mob.
For me, the effect of this paragraph is twofold. Firstly, the writing has such a pleasing, poetic rhythm that it is hard to resist being swept up in it. Secondly, the sinister overtones of the prose, the way it shifts from the dead bodies riding along - a weirdly jolly image, in some ways - to the description of them being a "bundle", or "cargo", pulls the reader up short. This is a task, a business, and it's not without its dangers - as the mention of tempting "the mob" confirms.

This opening doesn't pose as many questions as the previous extract, but for me at least the author's control of language means that doesn't matter. This is a writer you can trust, the opening says. It doesn't need the bells and whistles of a race against time or an intriguing mystery to make you want to keep reading.

And finally, here's the opening of Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood:
I'm writing this in a stranger's room on a broken chair at an old school desk. The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still. The lid of the desk is scored with symbols that might have been made by children or men, and at the bottom of the inkwell a beetle is lying on its back. Just now I thought I saw it move, but it's dry as a husk and must've died long before I came.
This one has more in common with the Sarah Hall extract, in that it poses a series of questions. In essence, the book opens with a pretty unremarkable scene - a person sitting at a desk, writing. But there's an undercurrent in the way it's written that makes it clear there's more to it than that. The need for the writer to keep still, to avoid making any noise (and presumably avoid detection) gives the whole passage an air of mystery, and the detail of the long-dead beetle provides an element of menace.

So that's a few examples of openings done well. It's always interesting to unpick the way a writer starts a novel, or a story, and try to work out why it's successful (or not!).

Do you have any favourite first paragraphs - opening sections that really made it impossible not to keep reading?