Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Three Ps of Writing Fiction (People, Place and Plot.) Part I. People.

I'm putting together workshops for my new course and it occurred to me that when writing fiction you need three basic things: the people (your characters); the place (your chosen setting or settings); the plot (the structure and theme.) I've put some of my thoughts together as three blogs and I trust my students will forgive their workshops being slightly second-hand.

Part I: People.
Your characters are the thing that makes your story live. There are only a few plot lines in the world and it is your characters that make people want to read your story. Nobody wants to spend their leisure time with somebody they find boring and it's the same with readers and characters in stories. If your central characters are warm and lively (and personally I like a good dollop of humour too) then the reader will want to spend time with them, even if at that point in the characters' lives they are having a tough time.
Your characters will be different depending on the viewpoint you are using. 1st Person is more immediate and, especially when teamed with Present Tense, it is amazingly effective, but it's not an easy combination to use. 3Rd Person, Past Tense is usually easier to handle (at least most people seem to find it so). 3rd Person can be very close, following the character's internal thoughts, or it can be more distant, recording what they do and say. The risk with the latter is that the character can seem very distant and the reader won't get involved. The only way to find out what suits you is to play with Person and Tense, and even then, what works for one story may not work for another.
One of the trickiest things when creating characters set in the past, is to convince your reader to accept attitudes and behaviour that we cannot relate to or even find objectionable today, and still make the reader care enough about the people we've created to keep on reading.
In a novel you can have a wide cast of characters, but in a short story it is wise to limit the number. If a character is not useful, no matter how much you like them, they have no place in the story. But don't delete them, cut and paste them into a file to use in another story at a later date.
There is an on-going debate amongst writers about whether characters 'come to life' and take over the novel. When put like that it sounds really pretentious, but characters do take on a personality of their own, and if they don't the writer has failed in a fundamental part of their job. I love it when a reader feels they know my characters. When discussing The Terminal Velocity of Cats a reader commented to me, 'It's typical of Mia, to make a joke even when she's really scared.' I thanked the reader and thought with glee, 'My work here is done. I got it right.'
When I was an inexperienced writer, I spent an entire book trying to force a middle-aged woman, who had taken refuge from an abusive marriage, into bed with another (perfectly pleasant) guy. Whatever I did it wouldn't work until I faced the fact that of course she wouldn't do that. It would take years before she'd trust another man in that way. Apologies to Gina (my character in the book), it won't happen again.
When writing, respect your characters and don't be afraid to let them lead you, at least some of the time. Consider it as getting to know a friend a bit better every day. It doesn't mean you're losing control of your book, just sharing it. After all, your characters have a stake in what happens as well.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

The history and power of a name

In the poem Choosing a Name, Anne Ridler wrote:
'I love, not knowing what I love,
I give though ignorant for whom
The history and power of a name.'
She continued to describe herself as one 'summoning unknown spirits,' and that the child will take the name and tame it, changing and defining the name just as the name influences and defines the child.
The same is true of the characters we create. We choose their names, crafted to our requirements for the story we are creating and those names are fundamental to our characters' lives and actions. In that way we are a parent and sometimes fool ourselves into believing we are in command of our creations. Then there is the point in which our characters escape from our control and rebel, like adolescent children, or crossly remind us that they are grown up now. Of course some writers say that they will not let their characters take control but for those of us who are happy to run with it, the results are great fun and incredibly satisfying. And, perhaps, for some readers the characters and the names 'exchange a power' and our fictional characters gain a resonance of their own. I know several people called Andrew or Andy but if somebody threw the name Andy at me, out of context, my first thought would be of Reginald Hill's magnificent creation Andy Dalziel.
Of course, when choosing names, there are rules you have to accept. It doesn't do much for your credibility if you pick a name for your Regency heroine that hadn't been invented until the 20th Century. And it's not fair to the reader if you use a lot of names that look and sound alike, unless you're using it for a deliberate purpose. Life is too short for the reader to spend time distinguishing between Dan and Don and Tim and Tom and many people will simply stop reading. It's an incredibly easy error to fall into and I'm as guilty of this as anybody. To pick up on such problems before it's too late is what you need a good copy editor for. My colleague who is copy-editing my soon-to-be-published book, About the Children, pointed out that I'd got three characters whose names were all the same length and all began with L. For various reasons two of the names were non-negotiable, so sorry Liam, you're about to be re-named. That brings me to the good thing about choosing names for characters; they aren't real children and, in the preliminary stages, you can change their names without any expensive legal formalities, just press Find and Replace. I was several chapters into writing The Terminal Velocity of Cats and conscious of a vague dissatisfaction with the viewpoint character's name when I realised that I wanted to call her Mia. Amazingly, when I re-named her, changing from a more traditional and solid name, not only was the character easier and more fun to write but, in that moment, she lost at least seven pounds in weight.
I do use the Internet to find names, especially when hunting for foreign names, but I still believe that every writer should have at least one book of names on their bookshelf, and, without getting up from my computer, I can see that I've got at least seven names books very near to hand. I guess this is the point at which I stop distracting myself and take one from the shelf to start on the search for names that don't begin with 'L'.

Friday, 3 January 2014

What do you do when you can't go over, under, or round?

There's a lot of wisdom to be found in children's literature. In We're Going On a Bear Hunt, Michael Rosen offers us the valuable insight:
'We can't go over it, we can't go under it.
Ohhh NO!
We gotta go through it

That's true of life and writing. In both there are things you can side-step but there are lots of things that you know you've got to go through because they matter to you. In my life I will prioritise the needs of my children and grandchildren above all things (thus the blogging silence over Christmas); especially the education and care of my autistic grandson. Autism would make a good obstacle in a Bear Hunt. It's a deep, thick swamp, with unexpected pot holes where you go down over your head and wonder if this time you're going to come up again. That said, he is the adored heart of our family; the funniest, sweetest and most loving little boy, and every achievement he makes lightens and warms our lives.

In writing there are also things you have to go through in order to reach your goal. Who hasn't muttered about the need to write or edit when there are so many other things to do, or when the task seems endless and it would be so pleasant to curl up in the armchair and watch TV. However, at the end of the day, there's nothing to compare to the feeling of triumph and fulfilment when you've got your chunk of writing, even if it's in desperate need of editing and polishing. Of course, there's the other writing quagmire to go through, submission and rejection. However with all the new independent publishing options, it is now possible to go round that particular alligator filled swamp.

For me there's the added writing deadline of monthly articles for Mystery People on the topic of authors of the Golden Age of Crime. It's on my list to put my past articles on my website (www.carolwestron.com) but, for the moment, check them out on www.mysterypeople.co.uk/. Before I get started, the prospect of researching and writing the articles seems like an immense mountain to climb, but as soon as I'm into it I'm totally hooked. It has benefited my own reading and writing, and I've discovered some incredible authors that I hadn't encountered when I read the standard Golden Age novels as a teenager. If I'd gone over or under instead of through the article writing I might never have read the incomparable Edmund Crispin... scary thought!

Of course, there are the things that don't give you an option of going over and under, like the stroke I suffered on New Year's Eve 2011. When I woke to find my right side paralysed and my speech a muffled mess, I only had one choice, go through it and keep on hoping. I was fortunate in recovering pretty well, but nobody knew just how terrifying each step back into the world was, especially, less than six months later, when I made my first public appearance as the moderator of the Deadly Dames. Even worse was the fear that my brain, with a proportion of my 'little grey cells' eliminated, wouldn't be up to the creative task any more. Fortunately it is, although probably creakier and less confident than before. Ironically I have probably done more in the past two years because of the stroke than I'd have done without that kick into action, including moderating several panels and giving presentations; returning to teaching Creative Writing; editing and, last but by no means least, setting up, in collaboration with two good friends and colleagues, an independent, co-operative publishing company, Pentangle Press. My first contemporary crime novel, The Terminal Velocity of Cats, was published in July 2013. It's selling steadily and has got some great reviews. My second police procedural, About the Children, is due to be published later this month, so I'd better stop writing about it and get on with that final edit.

With life and writing, there are lots of things to get in your way, but it's all down to hard work, staying focused and going through all the things that get in your way.