Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Time Lines

There comes a time in the writing of every novel when I realise I need a timeline. This is when I get tired of flicking from page to page trying to figure out how old a character was in 1992,  or how old they are when their mother dies.

Making a time line is not an easy thing to do when you’re crap at maths.

I sat there with my calculator figuring out birthdates back from 2013, where the story ends.  I got to the end and realised I’d missed out years or added in years and I had things happening all over the place. I kept at it, though, donating a couple of writing days to the process.

It’s done, though. I’ve added all the details of schooling, deaths and marriages.

Now it’s much easier to write through. Because it really does make a difference if a character is 13, 23 or 33 when their mother dies.

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Early Beginnings

How important are the early stories you write?

I just excavated a box of notepads containing all sorts of scribbles and notes from stories I wrote between the ages of 14 and 18. Unfortunately, most of them were destroyed by possums and by the dead rat who snuggled his way in to die between the comfy pages of my early work!

I rescued one notepad though, which was on the top and not too damaged. The others I had to toss without even re-reading them, and that really did hurt. There could have been gems there, treasures!

The notebook I saved contains the beginings of a time travel story (Mr Josef found himself wondering what wives were like 2000 years ago, of if there was wives at all) and one called “Kid Gloves” (For there first time in a long while, the tension was almost tautened to breaking point. The year was the future and the time was incredibly early, incredibly cold). Neither excerpts worth saving!

However, this little piece of philosophy I found interesting: No one will or can ever be wholly satisfied with themselves or their lives – or else there will be nothing to live for. Conversely, satisfaction breeds dissatisfaction.

I was calling myself “Kaz” then. It never took off. I don’t think a single person ever called me Kaz.

Anybody else have childhood writings they just can’t let go of?

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Odd old reads

My latest odd old read is The Cobweb, by William Gibson. Not that one! This book was written in 1954 and I bought it at our local tip, a place of much wonder and joy.

I picked it up because of the author’s name, thinking perhaps it was an early book by that other William Gibson. Then I was intrigued by it. It begins, “The trouble about the living-room drapes arrived in the shape of a fat brown envelope in a bagful of mail on the Friday morning train.”

A novel about living-room drapes? Surely not. And of course it isn’t; it’s about what happens to a group of people involved with a psychiatric clinic over the course of a few weeks. All of it stems from the drapes and the many different ideas as to how they should be installed. Do you install a drape? I’m sure there must be a better word than that.

It wasn’t an exciting novel, and I really only persisted because Gibson manages the sense of impending doom so well. I knew something was going to happen because of his language.

He’s very much into detail. That first sentence was not out of place throughout the novel. Details about colours of envelopes or shoes or cars, details about how exactly someone moved through the house, including the furniture they pass, how the carpet feels on their feet, what object de art they notice.

Very, very detailed. I talked about this at dinner with my husband and kids and it turned into a meme.

Son: “I am now picking up my bright green glass and drinking the last sip of my raspberry cordial. Now I am putting the glass down on the slightly old dining table and leaving a round circle of a mark of cordial.”

Daughter: “I am getting out of my blue cushion chair. It makes a scraping noise as I push it back. The noise makes me think of other chairs pushing up and also the gate when I open it. Now I’m walking to the kitchen which we just got fixed up.”

Etc. It went on for some time.

I was curious as to why someone would write this way throughout an entire novel, so I looked Gibson up. He was a theatre writer! Used to giving specific stage directions! That answered the question. He didn’t translate well from theatre to novel. His editor should have said, “We don’t need to know how many steps it took from the bathroom to the bar.”

Still, it was an interesting book.

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When you have a couple of computers on the go, keeping track of the latest draft can be tricky. Have you ever had that moment when, an hour into a final read-through, you think, “Hey, I’m sure I changed that last time,” and you realise you’ve been working on the penultimate draft?

I had this yesterday. It lead to a great shared experience with my ten year old son, though.

I’m working on a YA novella, and realised I had two drafts going at the same time. So I asked my son to read through one draft, while I made any changes to the other.

It was enlightening to hear the words read with his voice. There were sentences which didn’t work, others which did. He said at the end of it, “When can I read the rest?” which is what you what to hear from a reader!

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My coping mechanism for a very slow internet is to have a book by my computer and read while I wait. At the moment it’s “Clarice Bean Spells Trouble”, by Lauren Child, a cute and funny kids’ book.

I didn’t expect to be made to think while reading, but that’s what’s happened.

Clarice Bean is no good at spelling or at many other things, so she’s looking for her speicality. She takes up drama class, hoping that might be it. The teacher tells her: “The very hardest thing to do in acting is react”. As the teacher does this, she suddenly raises her arm as if to pinch someone. The children all react.

She says, “You see darlinks, how you all reacted then? Well, can you do it when you know what I’m going to do? It’s much harder to act surprised than be surprised.”

This is true for writing, also. You know what is going to happen (usually!) but you have to remember that the character doesn’t, and write their behaviour accordingly. A most egregious failure to do this is in “Nancy Drew: the Chocolate Covered Contest” by Carolyn Keene. I’m reading this one with the kids.

In it, a character wins a million dollars in a chocolate bar competition. Everyone reacts as if it is no big deal. Some go off to have lunch, others go for a walk. The winner herself professes to be stunned, but no one around her does anything but act as if she has just found ten cents on the ground.

The thing is; I knew there was something up, and I don’t think I should have at that point. She doesn’t get the million dollars, and the author knew that. So she didn’t write the correct reactions of her characters. She wrote them as if they knew there was no million bucks coming.

I started off this post thinking it was about surprise, but it’s not. It’s about reaction, which isn’t always surprise.

I’m not a big fan of the traditional surprise ending. I do think you should work hard to have an unexpected ending. Don’t just tell the story as it is likely to be told; add some angles to it which can send it off in other directions.

But the traditional surprise ending (it was all a dream, it was a boy not a girl, it was a dog not a human, she is actually dead all along, she killed her husband before he killed her, they are both killers…I could go on for while) destroy story for me for two reasons.

Firstly, the whole story has to be about the ending. It is the big idea and all else falls victim to it.

Secondly, you have to trick the reader in order to keep it a surprise, and I don’t like that. The reader needs to be taken along with you, not tricked by black covers over things which shouldn’t be covered.

I tend to put my surprises early. In “The Wrong Seat” we find out in the first sentence that Myra is dead. My grandfather thought this was very wrong. “You shouldn’t give away the ending,” he told me. “You should keep it as a surprise”. I said that the death was the beginning of the story, not the end, but he just shook his head as if I didn’t understand.

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I have five stories to write.

A scary historical one.
A cultural one.
One based on a song.
One based on an ancient goddess.
A Christmas one.

Five very different stories. I’ve done a lot of research, taken a lot of notes, and two of the stories have fallen into place.

The other three just haven’t jelled. I know it’s all in my head, so this week I’ve set myself a way of bringing it out.

One device I use when I want to write but I’m not sure what to write about is called ’50 Bits’. In an exercise book, I write 50 simple sentences. I completely brainstorm it, try not to think too hard. This is a list from my last book:

1. Wearing too much eye shadow
2. Losing an eye
3. Painting a mural
4. A torch fails

Then, on just one page in the exercise book, I write whatever story comes out. It might be a description, or a conversation. Sometimes it really is a story. More than once I’ve cracked a good one, and I’ve expanded the page into a proper short story.

So I decided to try it to crack the three stories I’m struggling with. I called this one “23 bits” because I only had a 48 page exercise book. I really love exercise books. Instead of simple sentences, I went through my ideas notebooks and wrote down 23 of my ideas.

Now I’m at work, expanding each idea onto a single page.

It’s working; I’ve cracked one story, got a nibble on a second, and thought of another story altogether.

It’s a really satisfying thing to do, because I feel like I’ve achieved something, and I haven’t had to struggle to do it.

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