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?

Friday, 3 June 2016

A is for... Adverbs

Adverbs. Ask any writing 'expert' for advice about writing style and sooner or later - usually sooner - the issue of adverbs will crop up. The expert will lean forward, as though letting you in on some great secret. "The thing about adverbs," he or she will say, pausing for dramatic effect, "is that you must never, ever use them." Then they'll settle back in their seat, beaming with pride whilst you soak up their great wisdom.

Adverbs, it seems, have been out of fashion for longer than anyone can remember. And the "No Adverbs" rule is one of those little nuggets that People Who Write can dish out whenever they feel it's necessary to assert their superior status over People Who Don't Write, or People Who Are Learning How to Write. As a result, it's become more or less accepted that only the most bumbling amateur would use an adverb in a story, let alone two or more. People on writing sites across the globe point and laugh whenever somebody includes a phrase like "she walked slowly". "She walked slowly?" they'll cry. "You mean she shuffled, or crept, or sauntered, or trudged. Real writers use strong verbs - don't you even know that, you giant idiot?"

The source of this anti-adverbism seems to be the muscular, stripped-down prose of writers like Ernest Hemmingway. In fact, there's an online app called Hemmingway that'll pick over your prose and weed out the adverbs, as well as shaming you into getting rid of all your other filthy writing habits too. You'll be left with clear, stark writing, free of any floweriness. Which will mean you'll be a better writer, right?

Well, consider this:
Our days together speed past, eaten up by housework, shopping, cooking, little trips to the park. Bunty and I stroll around immaculately clipped bowling-greens and sit on benches wistfully watching small children being pushed on swings and she'd be quite happy to stay there all day but when I say, 'Come on, it's time we were getting home,' she gets up obediently and trots by my side.
That's, what, three adverbs in the space of just one little paragraph? It can only be the work of a terrible wannabe author, who has a lot to learn before he or she can even dream of getting published.

Not exactly. It's an extract, taken more or less at random, from Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum. A book that was hugely successful, scooped up plenty of awards, and remains popular 20 years after it first hit the shelves. I'd imagine the majority of those 'experts' parroting the No Adverbs rule would be more than happy with Ms Atkinson's sales figures.

The point I'm trying to make is that remembering "rules" doesn't make you a better writer. It's fine to use an app like Hemmingway if you want your prose to end up, well, like Hemmingway's. That's no bad thing, of course, but would the world of literature be better if everybody wrote like Hemmingway? Would going out for a meal be better if every restaurant only cooked Italian food?

Adverbs can be over-used, and they can make writing flabby and ineffectual. But they can be useful. They can create particular effects (humour, for example), and they can give your writing a unique sense of identity. The trick is to think carefully whenever you use one. Is it absolutely necessary? Is it pulling its weight in this sentence? Is there a better way of getting this idea across?

And in that regard, they're exactly the same as any other type of word.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

An A to Z of Writing

I'm struggling at the moment to find sufficient material to update this blog with anything even approaching regularity. A combination of day job busy-ness, seemingly endless DIY projects, a holiday, and all manner of other non-writing activities eat away at my time. Focusing on hammering the novel into shape rather than working on (and submitting) short stories means I'm not generating a lot of "news", either. I'm sure a weekly blog update of which page I'd been polishing recently and how many times I'd submitted a maybe for a perhaps - before changing it back again - would drive away the few blog readers I have in a very short space of time.

To try to avoid falling out of the habit of blogging entirely, I've decided to start a project unrelated to anything I'm working on, but which I hope will still be of at least passing interest to people. It's an A to Z of writing. Not, I admit, the most original premise of all time, but I'm hopeful I can bring a new viewpoint to some of the topics I have in mind, and as a series it seems like something achievable alongside all the other stuff currently on the go. If I run out of steam before I get anywhere near the end we can all just agree it was a bad idea from the start and forget all about it, right? Splendid.

Stay tuned for A, coming soon. It's for Adverbs. Please wait patiently.