Friday, 2 December 2011

Getting into Gear - The Narrative

I've always believed that creative writing should have powerful narrative drive. Coupled with strong characterization and an eye-catching plot, it can be the major reason why a new writer stands out from the slush pile. It is the very stuff of readability.

You may start your narrative
 in familiar territory…
But 'narrative' is a confusing term - it means more than one thing and can mean different things to different people. When writers talk about their plot, or  structure, everyone knows what they're on about, but as soon as they move on to describing the narrative drive of their work, people's eyes glaze over. The only drive they feel comfortable with is the one that gets the car out of the garage and down the road.

Actually, there's a strong similarity. The word narrative might be ambiguous and confusing, but driving the plot of a story, or any other kind of creative writing along, is a pretty straightforward concept.

Perhaps the first step to feeling more comfortable with narrative is to search for a solid definition.

First from ...A narrative is a story that is created in a constructive format (as a work of speech, writing, song, film, television, video games, photography or theatre) that describes a sequence of fictional or non-fictional events. The word derives from the Latin verb narrare, "to recount", and is related to the adjective gnarus, ‘knowing’ or ‘skilled’.The word ‘story’ may be used as a synonym of ‘narrative’, but can also be used to refer to the sequence of events described in a narrative. A narrative can also be told by a character within a larger narrative. An important part of narration is the narrative mode, the set of methods used to communicate the narrative.
Not knowing
the direction you'll take…

Hmm...hope you're clearer now! Perhaps ths, from the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms will help...A telling of some true or fictitious event or connected sequence of events, recounted by a narrator to a  narratee. Narratives are to be distinguished from descriptions of qualities, states, or situations, and also from dramatic enactments of events. A narrative will consist of a set of events (the story) recounted in a process of narration in which the events are selected and arranged in a particular order (the plot). The category of narrative includes both the shortest accounts of events (e.g. the cat sat on the mat or a brief news item) and the longest of historical or biographical works, as well as novels, ballads, epics, short stories and other fictional forms.

A fair degree of agreement between the two sources, but for writers, the word narrative also holds a far more explicit and particular connotation. When refering to this second, more writerly sense of the word  they usually are talking about the parts of fiction that are not dialogue-ridden scenes or action-packed descriptive moments in ‘real time’.  – in other words the exposition of the story, which binds it together.

If you've been reading my Kitchen Table Writers Blog for a while, you'll probably know that I'm always encouraging new writers to 'show, don't tell', and exposition is the dangerous and difficult part of writing, because it certainly is close to 100% telling. But it's a necessary part; it's the string that holds the beads of your scenes, especially in a longer piece of work.

Narrative Trajectory
When writing, especially when writing a longer piece of work,the comprehension and formation of the whole is assisted if you can hold that first, dictionary definition of narrative your mind as you write. Writing gets you very close to the internal workings of story; to return to my string of beads, what you are concentrating mostly on is creating beads and stringing them. That stringing process...the complete your narrative trajectory. Over tens of thousands of words of writing, it's a terribly difficult process to keep a check on, especially if your full work has a complex plot. But doing so will create the overall picture in your mind and you'll be less likely to only see the trees and not the wood.

Narrative Drive
at the mode of conveyance…
If a ‘trajectory’ suggests a road along which a journey is taken, the word ‘drive’ might suggest the vehicle or fuel needed for that journey. Think of narrative drive in this way; it will guide your story towards being compelling and filled with natural suspense. Narrative drive is what makes a story a page-turner, and makes us care deeply about the character and wonder what will happen on the next page. Think of yourself behind the wheel of your writing - although don't take the car analogy too far; you don't have to start out, or finish in first gear, for instance! But you do have gears within your narrative drive and successful use of them is an integral part of getting it right.

Narrative Arc
…you'll take…
You may hear this phrase when reading or talking to may use it yourself!  It refers to the trajectory or journey of a narrative, suggesting that, as a story unfolds, its shape should look something like a rainbow; reaching a peak before settling towards its ending. I like to think of an arrow shot from a bow; it travels on its trajectory which is the shape of an arc. But we've already mixed enough metaphors in this Post - necklaces and cars - without adding bows and arrows! However, using the phrase narrative arc should remind you that your story must have shape.

Narrative Mode
This refers to the methods the author uses to convey their plot. Narration occurs because the writer is using the narrative mode. It encompasses several facets which multitask to create rich writing. Most important of these is narrative point-of-view, the perspective and view of the story; and narrative voice, which determines the manner through which the story is communicated to the author.

Narrative Participation
Narrators can said to be either non-participant or participant; implied, omniscient or semi-omniscient being who does not take part in the story but only relates it to the audience, or  an actual character in the story, often the main character or protagonist; and that participation can differ in substance, concentration and form. For instance, the narrator may be a fictitious person devised by the author as in the novel Autobiography of a Geisha by Sayo Masuda.

Ane where your story will end...
Marcel Proust said ...The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes... looking at your narrative through new eyes can really help you see the complete landscape of your writing.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Plot Junkie or Characterphile?

Plot Junkies and Characterphiles

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said...Plot is character and character is plot...and I’ve always believed that to be true. I tell students that if they can create a living, breathing character, that character will show them where the story should go. But I also believe in careful plottingin always having a flexible way forward. I think this is especially important for a novel, but it’s also the reason many writers never get to the end of most of the short stories they conceive; they may have a character, but that character has nowhere to go.

Do you control Character....
I’ve talked to so many writers on this subject, and I’ve come to the conclusion that  most of us are unevenly balanced, when it comes to character and plot.

Some writers create characters easily. Before anything else comes to their minds, a person walks into it, often fully formed. They get to know them before they start to think what their story might be...except of course, that the character is likely to tell the writer what their story is. J K Rowling famously said the Harry Potter arrived in her mind during a train journey. If he introduced himself as a boy wizard about to go to a magical school, you can see how the story might immediately start to take shape. These writers  are character-driven, allowing the character to drive the story and create the events within it, always generating events that event affect the character.  I call them Characterphiles – they can’t help but start with character.

Some writers (myself among them) start with an idea, a concept, a theme, the twist at the end of the
...before Plot?
story, or the way the design of a story within cause and effect. P G James tells us that she almost always starts a story with a setting; she sees a landscape or building that affects her. The story grows from the setting, and the character slot into it seamlessly...when they’re ready for them.  
Plot-driven. Stories in which the driving force is subject matter, often encompassing a concept or theme, or locations and scenes. When the idea for a story starts like this, the characters have to be ‘fitted’ into the story, rather than steering it themselves. I call writers who cannot help but see the ideas, themes and plotlines first, plot junkies.

So although I recommend to my students that it’s best to summon up the characters first and let them build up the plot by the conflicts they create as they grow, so that the characters show the writer how the action works, this simply cannot work for plot junkies. And although I do recommend this, it’s often the reason so many stories fall into the mass grave for unfinished fiction.

There are advocates of both character and plot driven stories – published writers who allow characters to lead them where the characters want them to go, and published writers who always start with the idea, sort out the plot first, and only allow the characters a look-in once that is all settled in black and white in their notepad or file.

The ‘characterphiles’ shudder in horror at the idea of squeezing a character into a role, suggesting that readers love the people that inhabit fiction above all other things, and what they really want to know about is how those people tick – what happens to them in the story is almost secondary and mostly useful in that it illustrates and represents this particular person’s journey through their life (and through the pages). ‘Plot junkies’ would argue that the easiest way to give interesting characters sufficient ‘cause and effect’ to generate strong drama is to explore an idea first and foremost, using invented people to do so.

Good examples of this are a couple of writers of ‘crossover’ fiction (for teens and adults alike). Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is based on specific ideas that he wanted to explore – he does, however create extremely interesting characters to do the exploring, but critics have passed judgment on his books for being ‘idea-centric’. Sonya Hartnett, an Australia writer, on the other hand, clearly allows her characters to make up and star in their own stories, and her novels can meander in a slightly vague way because of this. Both are loved, but I’m not sure if both are loved by the same reading public.

 However, there is a ‘middle way’, especially useful for students who are still attempting to become published writers. I recommend this as a compromise. In this writing structure, the writer is simply always aware of what is happening as they commence a new story, always asking themselves…is this story plot-led? Is this story character-based? Whichever the answer to that question, it is on the other side of things that the writer focuses attention, working hard to make sure they concentrate on the weaker side in at least equal measure to the stronger.

Charles Dickens was clearly a characterphile; his characters have lived in reader’s imaginations for almost two centuries. His friend and peer, Wilkie Collins, must have been a plot junkie. After all, he almost invented crime fiction, and his plots are involved and complex, with amazing twists at the end.  Apparently, the two friends constantly helped each other’s writing; Collins suggesting better plot devices to Dickens, and Dickens helping Collins to enrich his characterization.

Do you know which you are? A plot junkie or a characterphile? Maybe you too can find a writer who is on the opposite side of the scale, so you can help each other.

Failing this, be sure to bolster the weaknesses of your tendency, while working to its strengths.

Characterphiles should put time aside to work on the plot, using whatever methods they find most useful, such as brainstorming and ‘what if’, plus index cards, ‘timelines’, and other plotting techniques (see below). They should also tap their writer’s imaginations to discover how their character can find opposition, face drama, be blighted by conflict and face up to causality.

Plot junkies should put equal time aside to really get to know their characters. This can be done by allowing the character to invade your brain, becoming more real, and by using exercises that reinforce characterization, such as character diaries, character profiles and character histories.

Once you know which sort of writer you are, you can try one of the exercises to your left.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

What Writers do on Holiday

Ernest Hemmingway used to drink at the
Foreigner’s Club in Sorrento
I've just had a lovely holiday in the Bay of Naples and the al fresco dining was fantastically social; huge groups of us chatting the evening away over Lachryma Christi wine and Lemoncello liqueurs - all of us animated and affable, British tourists soaking the Italian dolce vita. But every so often, I could feel my eyes slide away from the company. My mind quickly followed. An issue we were discussing...the body language of a companion....the view of Vesuvius or the glittering sea...something falls into place like a cog and I was away...into the land of narrative dreams. 

I've noticed this about my fellow writers, too. They are often said (not always, of course) to enjoy their own company, perhaps a bit too much. But in fact, it's not their own company they are's the company of a myriad of characters, settings, situations and dramatic events....story...of course.

For all their concentration on inventing vibrant characters who move through convincing (if surprising) lives and react in ways that make the reader truly identify with their plights, the writers who create them do not necessarily like people all that much.
I'm not suggesting for a second that writers are all sociopaths who go through life sucking their stories from humans like vampires with a perverted desire for ink, their eyes filled with demonic delight as they manipulate real, observed events into gripping and saleable stories, but I know that I fall just a little short when it comes to a desire to stay in the moment with my friends whenever there's a danger that they may tell me something that's perfect for a plot.

'Going all dreamy' is part of the writing condition, I think. All
artists must have moment when their eyes swivel away from the day in hand and their mind goes somewhere else. Perhaps what we are visiting is our muse...and what better place for me to do that than the slopes of Sorrento, or the little square in Amalfi, or on the deliciously silent chair lift from Anacapri. 

Sorry, folks. I'll be back in a mo. Keep the wine chilled.There's a late sketch by Boz of Dickens sitting in by his fireside while, in the air around him, the characters that peopled his novels float, as they had seep from his mind while he dozes. It's a nice idea, and a fantastic sketch, and at least partially true. It is what happens in writer's minds  - especially when they are alone, but (depressingly) even when they are partying. I reckon that to some writers a holiday is not so much a chance to to see the world, meet new people, pursue a hobby, get a tan, get wasted, get laid, as much as it is a wonderful opportunity to find new story, and new characters to fill it. 
My own short story The Tomb of the Tomb Builders (shortlisted for the Derby Prize but not so far published) came out of all the lovely tour guides I met in Egypt...and a single encounter with a tiny village child. And my most recently published story The Library at Alexandria, read it here was also inspired by that holiday.

Friday, 27 May 2011


How is your hand-to-draft-co-ordination? I know so many writers who believe they can only get that first draft down if holding a pen, or tapping a keyboard, or using a certain notebook, or writing in a certain place in their house. Some writers find it hard (some find it impossible, but I guess they aren’t doing much writing) to overcome the first attempts  at drafting something new. 
We all have your own hand-to-draft co-ordination, and understanding this may help make the best of our long as we fully understand that it’s only a part of the creative process and not a block that prevents us from ever attempting something new. 
One of my students, Josephine, recently wrote to me...
I firstly hand write so the process can be spontaneous.  These first attempts are always terrible but I carry on knowing that it is only for me.  Then a pause is necessary for the story to start reforming in a more understandable narrative.  Then I can draft and redraft on the computer.  Each process is different, and all absorbing.  During this time I allow myself to change my mind, while I feel it organically taking shape.  I chose many names for the two protagonists...until my choice works.
I personally find writing by hand very difficult nowadays. Clearly, my ‘hand-to-draft-co-ordination’ has a direct link from my ten touch-typing fingers to the writing part of my brain. But we’re not  all the same. I know writers who must ‘talk’ their first draft into a tape recorder and others who have to sort of ‘sketch’ out their idea, because they see it so visually at first. Film directors in the making, I suspect! But Jo likes to write by hand and that process is undeniably organic and active.
I loved the way Josephine openly confessed she thought her first attempts are ‘terrible’. I bet they aren’t as terrible as she thinks. We are usually our own worse critics, as Gustave Flaubert pointed out in Madam Bovary...The human word is like a cracked cauldron upon with we beat out melodies fit for making bears dance, when we are trying to move the stars…If even Flaubert thinks his writing isn’t up to much, I’m sure the rest of us can relax about our lack of self-confidence.
Anyway, Jo has got that covered, because she knows this first draft is ‘only for me’. What she is sure about is how to move on from ‘terrible’ to something she is pleased with. She has a routine she can move along, and that can be very helpful for any writer - it prevents us floundering around in a slough of writerly despondence. What Jo choses to do is sensible. She puts the work away for a while. This allows it to continue to brew in her head, which often picks up the underlying problems and begins to solve them, almost subconsciously. It also allows the piece to feel ‘new’...almost ‘someone else’s work’ when it is read after the resting phase. 
There is probably an equation that gives the appropriate length of time this brewing process should take. Let us say; at least a couple of days for something quite short; at least a week for a short story proper or a new novel chapter; at least a month for an entire full-length piece.  Jo uses the ‘putting away to brew’ technique quite early on in the writing process; I tend to do this much later on, say when I’m half way through a final draft of a novel...or when I’m pretty happy with the draft of the short story I’m writing at the time.
This might be the most frustrating part of Jo’s process, but it’s well worth while. And putting things away does not mean that she can’t go on writing. If she can’t manage two projects at a time, I’d recommend she writes a diary, a blog or letters to friends to keep going - or tackles something completely different, such as ‘filler’ articles for magazines or letters to the editor. This will keep her writing brain well-oiled without constantly scratching at the item that is being brewed.
Finally, Jo recognises that things must change. She looking for ways of reforming until she has ‘a more understandable narrative’. During that almost subconscious spotting and solving of problems, radical ideas might enter her head - ideas she should consider, and only dismiss when she’s sure they are wrong for the work. Changing the names of the characters can help a lot, but it should be only a small part of the things she’ll be asking. Major questions to tackle would be...does the story feel plausible all the way through? Does the beginning draw the reader in, or can I omit the first line...even the first paragraph or page? Do the characters start out with an aim/difficulty/need/blockage/desire? And if so, is it resolved well? In fact, are my characters right for this story...or is my story right for these characters? Will the reader feel satisfied with the end - surprised or engaged? 
By the time this process was over for Jo, and she’d sent her work to me, she had created a solid piece that she could be proud of.  
Have a look at your own hand-to-draft-co-ordination. Ask if it’s working for you, or if you need to change it. Sometimes two heads (or lots of heads )are better than one, and you might like to make a comment on your own early writing process below this post, and see what others come up with.
Thank you Jo, for letting me quote your letter, and I’m sure your co-ordinated writing process will constantly help you in your writer’s career.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

How to Improve your Handwriting...

Nina, said my English teacher. Your handwriting is abysmal – no one can read it, even you. Your spellings seem to have arrived from the planet Urgh. And your presentation is dreadful – ink blots, scratchings out and no hint of a margin on either side your page. So I’m setting you some homework this summer holiday, and I want to see it on the first day of the new term.
First year of senior school. I was far too busy with other things to worry about the presentation of my work. Friendships, for instance, took up all my waking moments. Girls were starting and dropping friendships like they were fashion accessory items and I wasn’t getting the hang of this at all. 
Even my oldest pal from primary school had already ‘gone off’ with someone else, and I was left to choose from Denise Winters, who had goofy teeth and a strange scent emanating from her clothes, and Shirley Court, who was scarily lesbian at a time when I didn’t even know what the word lesbian meant. Then there was the gang of girls who hung about in the lane that led from School Road to Cow Horn Hill. They all snogged boys and were into tattooing themselves with needles and ink. If you cut off the corner by going down the lane, they’d stand across it, their needles at the ready.
And when I wasn’t working out how to keep friends and keep away from foes, I was dreaming, building worlds of fiction and wonder, in which the relationships that were so disastrous in reality worked out fine.
My handwriting has honestly not improved a jot
Taking home an empty exercise book for the summer holidays was hardly a punishment; it seemed a wonderful thing to do. I wanted it to be far more than a handwriting project. It would be an illustrated anthology, I decided, of all my favourite authors. 
Things quickly deteriorated on the presentation front. I’d forgotten my artistic skills were not up to illustrating anything more complex than an Easter Friday boiled egg. And I quickly forgot that the point of this exercise was to improve failing handwriting, rather than seek out excerpts from all the wonderful literature of the world. But I did have fun, that summer holiday. I started with my own bookshelves. They were rather overfull with Enid Blyton, so I chose a single story – The Island of Adventure – and wrote a ripping summary. Then I picked the bit from Anne of Green Gables where she tells her new guardians about her belief in God. Next came Alice in Wonderland and Little Women (the bit where Meg dies, of course!), followed by the lovely moment in Secret Garden, where Mary gets into the walled garden for the first time, and the bit about Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 
Then I started rummaging through my parent’s books. Mum’s favourite was Lorna Doone; Dad’s was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I found that hard-going, but loved falling into Lawrence’s hot, dry world. At the library, I pulled out books on astronomy, photography, history. I also took out Lady Chatterley’s Lover on my father’s ticket; not fully understanding what the word ‘abridged’ meant. Finally, as I neared the end of the exercise book, I fell upon a book no one had ever told me about, but that I have loved ever since those early days...
She stood there staring, poised like a disturbed marsh bird for instant flight. But his voice was deep and kind when he spoke to her, ‘What is it, child?
She stood her ground, and then edged timidly forward. The thing she carried in her arms was a large white bird, and it was quite still. There were stains of blood on its whiteness and on her kirtle where she had held it to her.
The girl placed it in his arms. ‘I found it, sir. It’s hurted. Is it still alive?’
‘Yes. Yes, I think so. Come in, child, come in.’
Rhayader went inside, bearing the bird, which he placed upon a table, where it moved feebly. Curiosity overcame fear. The girl followed and found herself in a room warmed by a coal fire, shining with many coloured pictures that covered the walls, and full of a strange but pleasant smell.
The bird fluttered. With his good hand Rhayader spread one of its immense white pinions. The end was beautifully tipped with black.
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico
This book is still on my shelves, it's dust cover slightly ripped, but the lovely line drawings still takes back to those days.

I was so proud of my book full of the golden nuggets of  literature, but I bet you won’t be surprised to hear my English teacher was not so impressed! My handwriting had deteriorated even further over the summer, as I’d discovered more and more wonderful writing and scribbled extracts into my exercise book.  In fact, my handwriting is still as bad as ever...but I’m still dipping into books and love to share my finds with other readers. Go to to see what I’ve been reading more recently...

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Write What You Know?

A student wrote to me recently, saying…They do say ‘write what you know’. However, having recently read an article written by Susan Hill in a writer’s magazine, I was thrown into a bit of a turmoil. I began to question what I am writing and wondered if I should hang on to the belief of writing what I know. She said that writers should use their imagination and make things up – not write about what they know. Having thought about it in some depth, I am not sure I actually agree with her entirely. Really I am not writing about me. I am writing about a character who is loosely based on someone I know…well, someone I kind of know through someone who I know very well…Hopefully you will understand what I am trying to fathom out.
I certainly did have sympathy with Amanda – and I’m sure a lot of writers will too. Write what you know is one of the oldest pieces of advice offered to writers, but confusion does arise about this – the advice seems contradictory. Many writers create vivid pieces after researching a subject from scratch. Writers of fiction invent new worlds, or set stories in historic periods they can’t experience.  How does this fit with the notion of writing only what you know?
Jean Burnett in her study
For me, ‘writing what you know’ means drawing on your own experience, memories, knowledge and passions, then taking your imagination and powers of invention to create something entirely new.
Struggling with subjects that have no interest for you will result in work that is flat and stilted – the lack of passion will show. The very act of researching new ideas will be made easier if you can summon up a sincere interest. But no one is going to know everything (well okay, some people can retain amazing amounts of fact/memories, but they are not your average dude), so some research is always necessary.
My friend Jean Burnett has recently placed an historic novel (The Bad Miss Bennet) with Little Brown for publication next year. She knows quite a lot about Regency England, but that didn’t mean she could skimp on the research, and doing it threw up some interesting details that enriched her story. However, Jean’s passion for the period is what gave her that extra mile while writing…and you really feel you are in Brighton and London after the Napoleonic wars as you read.
‘Writing what you know’ also relates to the people you write about; your fictional characters. You can use  things you understand about your own psyche, and what you remember about your own past, as well as what life has taught you about other people, to enable you to get under the skin of almost any character, however different they are from you.  
As a children’s writer, I have often step into the shoes of characters that are nothing like me…children from other lands and cultures…children who are experiencing things I’ve never undergone.  As I write, I try to recall how I felt when I had experiences of my own that made me at least feel as they would be feeling; scared, excited, frustrated, moody, tearful. Dropping your own emotional familiarity into the character’s mind and body allows you to write with confidence on things you know little or nothing about.
Sometimes amazing, invented settings come out of what we already know. What would Middle Earth have been like if Tolkien had not witnessed the mud and slaughter of the First World War? Would Alice every have fallen down the tunnel if  Charles Dodgson hadn’t seen the private tunnel that leads from a Brighton garden down to the beach? It's sometimes a suprise, but 'writing what you know’ can lead to startlingly varied and imaginative worlds.
My advice, is don’t lose sight of what you know and what you have a passion to find out. But as you write, ask one question of yourself all the time…WHAT IF? That’s the question which turns what you know into new and exciting worlds of fiction.