Sunday 4 December 2011

Sub Routines

Well hello again, blogging friends. First off, a confession that things have not progressed so well on the book this week. My 17-year-old stepson came out of hospital last weekend after an operation on his knees, however he picked up an infection while he was under - fluid went into his lungs - so he's been on antibiotics and has been pretty poorly. He's getting there now but will probably be off school all next week again while he finishes the course.

Today was a good day though - we took the kids to see Santa and got our first sprinkling of snow (nothing traffic-stopping - yet). We got Andrew all wrapped up and he had a great time. Still don't feel Christmassy, though - bah, humbug...

So, onto the topic of today's post. You might have guessed from the terrible pun in the title (and the picture) that I'm going to talk about subplots. I guess they're something I'm still trying to work out how to handle. Last week, when I was making better headway, I introduced two subsidiary characters apart from the main two. This was at about 13000 words in, which might seem a bit late - but I was really involved in setting the main story up and establishing those characters. When I was writing my first novel, I threaded through a lot more subplot elements on the second draft, once I knew the whole story.

If I was going to offer advice on the subject, I would say that subplots should always be related to the main story. Sounds obvious, but there are many examples where this is not the case. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck includes many stories taken from his own family's history which have nothing to do with the main plot. I have nothing against these stories - some are charming, others funny or tragic - but they slow things down and I feel might have been better as a separate book.

Subplots should offer clues to how minor characters relate to the main action, how they see things and so on. They can have their own stories, but there should be enough there for perceptive readers to see how they link to the central thrust, without being blindingly obvious. A difficult balance to achieve.

For these reasons, I think it's OK to write a lot of subplot material on a second draft, as I did. To know how all the jigsaw pieces fit together and lay them all down on a first draft seems to me an amazing feat. I wonder how many writers can do this?

And they're not always necessary. A book like Room contains zero subplots as everything is seen from the perspective of the five-year-old boy - having that one voice throughout makes for a great intensity. But multilayered books can, obviously, be very satisfying.

So how do you approach subplots? I reckon it depends on whether you know your story inside-out before you start. What do you think?

Sunday 27 November 2011

Should we get on topic?

There's been a bit of a debate raging on the blogosphere recently which you might already be aware of. I keyed into it via this post on Freya Morris' blog, wherein she unveils her new blog which goes along with the subject matter of her book. Follow the links back from Freya's post to see the discussions that inspired her. The blogger that started this advocates targetting your blog towards your potential readers by posting about material related to your book, rather than focussing on writing itself which would be of no interest to those readers.

While I can see the logic in her argument, I find it difficult to imagine how it would be implemented in practice - at least for me. Of course I wish Freya all the best with her new blog and hope it generates a lot of interest in her book. But it wouldn't work for me and here's why.

As writers, we tend not to be experts on whatever subjects crop up in our books. When it comes to research, we tend to learn just enough to allow us to get by and tell the story. The main topic in my story is amnesia, but I could in no way call myself an expert on this. I'm not a doctor. So to post articles on the subject would strike me as pompous, even fraudulent. For a lot of us, research is a necessary evil. We'd rather be getting on with writing. And when it comes to blogging, we want to offload about the ups and downs of our process, not raking over our research again. And I want to write about lots of different things. Will I need a blog for each one?

What if you write fantasy, for example? As this genre doesn't have its origins in the real world, but goes back to various folk tales, all you can talk about are your literary influences. So this would just come back to a discussion about the craft anyway.

Some writers, of course, have a particular passion that infuses their books, so it would be natural to blog about it. And the idea makes perfect sense when applied to non-fiction. But I would say that for the majority of us, our passion is the writing. People blog about what's most important to them; to do otherwise would be inauthentic.

The argument for the "blog on topic" approach states that the ordinary readers you are trying to reach won't care about your agonising over your craft. But I would argue against this as well. A lot of people who care about books may have more than a passing interest in how those books come into being, even if they have no intention of writing one. Why are there behind-the-scenes bonus features on DVDs, if film buffs don't care about the creative process? What about that quoted 80-90% of people who say they want to write a book? I don't know if those figures are true, but if my blog inspired just one person to start writing, I would consider that a triumph.

I might have taken the idea far too literally. I'm eager to hear more opinions on it. Personally, I'm quite happy to carry on blogging about writing and making connections with kindred spirits. It's a lonely job and we need people to vent with. What do you make of the on-topic argument? What do you blog for?

Sunday 20 November 2011

How well do you know your characters?

Last week I talked briefly about characters and how often, in my case, they don't learn from the events of a story, although it may affect them in other ways. I'd like to go a little further into this topic in response to my experience with writing my book this week.

Clearly, the more we write about a character, the more we get to know about them. Or at least that's the idea. And we might not always like what we find out. To us, they seem like real people - or they should do if they're to be at all convincing. And all real people are a mass of contradictions, shortcomings, insecurities and prejudices, with usually the odd redeeming feature in there somewhere. (OK, maybe not in every case.)

But above all, real people tend to be intractable buggers. I don't know how much anyone has the power to change. In terms of fiction, this might go against certain rules, but I'd rather my stories were believable. What's more interesting to me is how unpredictable people can be, and it's fascinating to observe this in our characters. Just because their nature isn't changeable, it doesn't mean they can't surprise you. After all, you're just getting to know them.

My work in progress features a woman as the protagonist. Some might consider this a brave move, but so far everything I've written has been from a male perspective, and I wanted to try something different. It might be a complete disaster, but we'll find out. I'm about 11000 words in, and I'm just at a point where this character has got herself into a bizarre situation and I don't know how she's going to deal with it. How the story pans out will reveal more about her character, I guess, and hopefully something of her motivation. She might turn out to be completely psychotic.

How about you? Do you know your characters before you start writing, or do you find out about them during the process? Can you ever know everything about them? Do you like them? Tell me all about it.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Painting with words

It's me again. I'm back now from my holiday in Skye - well, I have been for a few days, but things have been busy after our return, so apologies for the lack of updates. First of all, I'd like to say a big "Hola" to my new followers. This blog might not be much to look at now, but I'm hoping it will go on to great things, so stick around if you will.

The holiday was amazing - it's certainly the most beautiful place that I've seen in the UK. Not everything that we wanted to see was open, as it was a bit out of season, but everyone we did meet was exceptionally friendly and accommodating. If you're ever up there, make sure you check out Jann's Cakes - it's a tiny place but full of gorgeous cakes and chocolates, all made singlehandedly by the owner. Incredible!

The cottage was fantastic too. With the view overlooking the loch and out to the sea, I would have bought the place if I could. There are seals to be spotted too but we didn't manage to - probably just the wrong time of year. This is a view of the sunrise from the kitchen, but the same view could be had from the upstairs landing, which has a small sitting area with a window sill deep enough to function as a desk. I could have set up shop there quite easily.

It occurred to me while I was away that anyone visiting this blog would have no idea what sort of stuff I actually do. This is probably because I find it so hard to categorise. I suppose I would say I write contemporary stories usually revolving around the foibles and flaws of one central character. They don't necessarily change for the better by the end - I think it's more realistic that way. To give you more of an idea, I thought I would put up a link to one of my stories, as I feel the best way to get a picture of a writer is to read some of their writing. This story was previously published in the excellent Writer's Muse. The editor, Jim, is a diamond geezer, and is on an open call for submissions, so short story writers check it out. Anyway, the story is here.

Regarding book news, I've been sadly unproductive since getting back. I'm going to give myself a metaphorical kick up the jacksie and get a good portion done before Christmas. But, as I said, I have been busy since Tuesday - my lady wife and I decided that the time was apposite to paint the living room, a job that was needing doing, as we were getting new sofas delivered. The painting took long enough, and when the sofas came it took an hour just to unwrap them. The amount of packaging was ludicrous; by the time I'd piled up the earth-damaging layers of cardboard, polystyrene and polythene in the hall, we were effectively trapped. But back to the painting. It struck me during the job that painting a wall is like writing a book. You start off with broad brushstrokes, getting all the material down, then you stand back and have a look and see a load of blotches and imperfections. So you have to do it all again, and do all the fiddly filling-in bits round the edges of lightswitches and so on, much like making sure all the little scenes in your novel fit together and add up. Then it still looks awful, you start to panic and have to ask someone for help...

That last bit may or may not be the case. But both jobs require several different stages if you want a half-decent result. What about you? What would you compare your writing to?

Tuesday 1 November 2011

The Science of Fear

Happy Halloween! Well, this post is a day late, but given the date I think it's a timely delay. Going to try to get this in before midnight. Talk more about scary stuff in a minute, but first a quick book update.

I'm a thousand words up from last week, which is pretty negligible, but better than nothing. This was achieved on Wednesday, playgroup day. Every evening I've fallen asleep before I got a chance to get started. I know that sounds pretty pathetic, but sleep has been pretty broken as teeny has had a bad cough at night. Also October is our busiest month of the year, Birthday Central, with four including mine. We've just had Emma's 11th birthday party on Saturday, and it's all topped off with Halloween. Our street is full of kids and everyone knows each other, so I take the kids round and into everyone's houses. Nice, but as I sit here in the kitchen with rubber spiders hanging from the walls, I feel tired.

Before we get down to business, just a quick notice that we're away to the beautiful Isle of Skye with my parents and Eve, the three-year-old, from Friday to Tuesday, so no post this Sunday. Should be inspiring, I'm hoping for an aesthetically pleasing sprinkle of snow, but no more than that or we might not be able to get back! I'm going to make a big push to get more done on the book in the next few days and hopefully squeeze in another post before I go too.

So, Halloween. This date has a firm grip over the imagination of children, with its witches, wizards, ghosts, ghouls, goblins and the occasional mad surgeon (that was me). This got me thinking, where does the impulse to scare ourselves come from in the first place? If you like horror stories or films, a lot of the pleasure comes from the anticipation of that moment when the machete-wielding maniac jumps round the corner (and trying to second-guess when this payoff moment will come). Suspense is such a tricky thing to pull off in the horror genre and I admire anyone who can do it well.

We like to feel something visceral when we read, to feel like we are living the story ourselves. By playing on our nerves and by using peril to evoke our deepest sympathy with the characters facing it, horror is the genre in which this can be most effectively achieved. When it's done well, as in not an endurance-testing slashfest.

It's been suggested that when we watch or read horror and get that adrenaline rush, we are getting in touch with a basic part of our animal make-up. We used to have to fight to get food every day, run from predators or do battle with them, fight other tribes for territory. In the fight for survival, all our senses are heightened. Without this hormonal reaction, we wouldn't have lasted very long. However, we don't often have a need for it in our everyday lives now, so it finds an outlet in our relationship with horror movies or books. Or bungee jumping, etc. We know we're not in real danger (well, maybe a little bit with a bungee jump), so we can satisfy that animal instinct in a controlled manner.

Do you enjoy reading horror stories and novels? What is it you get from them and what makes you read them? What makes them not work? Looking forward to your thoughts. Sweet dreams!

Sunday 23 October 2011

What's in a Name?

My loyal followers (both of them!) will have noticed that this blog has undergone a change of name. The original one may have been offputtingly bad. My new title might not be any better, but I liked the alliteration, so have kept this theme going. Feel free to offer any opinions, good or bad...

Actually, titles are the bane of my life. I have a terrible time with them. But before we get into that, a quick update on the book, as promised. Well... it's actually been in a bit of a mire this week. Anyone who lives with children in Scotland will be familiar with October Week. It's roughly equivalent to half term for any non-Scots reading (I hale from Brighton, and still don't feel I've got to grips with all the ins and outs of the Scottish education system). Anyway, the point is my late-night writing shift (as detailed below) is hopelessly disturbed, because bedtime has gone out of the window. The kitchen table forms my office, and I need silence in my office, not two girls wandering in and out complaining that there's no cereal left so they can't have their eighth bowl of the day. For the same reason, the summer holidays equate to seven weeks of enforced drought. Don't get me wrong, I do love them, but they have no concept of the magnitude of the work I am creating. (Tongue in cheek here.) I'll either have to learn to write with distractions, or build myself a soundproofed shed.

So, back to titles. By the way, rest assured that this blog is not going to be all about moaning. I'm just getting it out of my system.

Titles do not come naturally to me. My first novel went untitled during the entire almost three years it took to write and redraft, with not even a glimmer or the smallest inkling of any idea of what it could be. When we tell someone an anecdote in everyday life, we're not worried about giving it a fancy title. Many writers say that the title suggests itself naturally either during writing or when you look back at it as a whole, but I've never had either experience. I have found it slightly easier with short stories, but even there I've never come up with a title I truly felt happy with. There's a couple of unpublished ones that still remain nameless.

This is unfortunate because the title is the very first thing agents and publishers will judge you on. For all we know, it could stop them reaching the first line. This may have happened with my book, which was rejected by 15 agents. I eventually came up with Unwanted Truths, which did reflect the story - inconvenient truths emerge which wreck the characters' lives - but couldn't help sounding hopelessly contrived, which of course it was. It turned into an unwanted book.

I decided to have a think about the techniques that others might have used. Alliteration clearly worked for Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility). Nabokov clearly thought his prepubescent heroine's invented name was good enough for Lolita and even devoted the opening line to describing how it rolls off the tongue. You can use wordplay (Double Fault by Lionel Shriver, which describes the relationship breakdown of a tennis-playing couple). The book I am currently reading, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, uses a single line describing the protagonist to make a strikingly unusual title. Maybe I should try out some of these techniques for my new book.

So, how are you with titles? Come naturally, or like pulling out fingernails? Somewhere in between? Let me know.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Home Alone

No, this isn't meant to be a film blog, and I wouldn't call the above film one of my all time favourites, but it seemed apposite as the title of my second post. I'm also around the same age as Macaulay Culkin, which is a strange thought. This week, I had the house to myself for the first time in what seemed a very long time, as my daughter (just turned three) started a bigger playgroup, where you are obliged to drop your progeny off in order to intermingle with their peers, without parents ruining their street cred.

Once the abandonment issues had ebbed - it did feel strange - I contemplated a good hour and a half of uninterrupted writing. I haven't had mornings to work for about two and a half years, but I feel it's my best time. Everything seems fresher, and I like having daylight and something to look at outside, even if more often than not it's rain at this time of year in Scotland. My recent shifts have been from 11pm, after everyone has gone to sleep, up until 12 or 1 or whenever I've achieved 500 words (I'll do double that in a good morning) and when you need to be up at 5.30am to get four kids ready for school, things can go downhill pretty quickly. Teeny's starting nursery five days a week from January, and it sounds like a blissful utopia. Not that I want rid of her, of course. But I'm definitely looking forward to a bit more sleep, hopefully with the added bonus of the pace picking up on the book. It feels like a chore at the minute, which is not the way it should be.

I'm up for a bit of debate on here, so I'd like to throw it open to anyone who's passing by. Do you have an ideal time to write? Do circumstances prevent you from working at that time, and if so, what is your alternative? And do you think this has an impact on your writing?

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Hello and welcome!

Hi, my name's Nick and I've set up this blog to detail my struggles as I write my second novel and help bring up four kids. I intend to track its progress all the way through to publication if things ever get to that stage! (My first book is on the back burner.) I've had a few short stories published, though, so am half confident that it's possible I can release a book. Well... maybe 40%.

If anyone wants to accompany me on this expedition you are more than welcome. Tea and crumpets?