Why this blog?

November 24, 2008

Ian Bone Why write a blog? After ten years of writing books for young readers and young adults, and almost as long teaching creative writing in workshops and at university, I wanted to offer something back to the writing community. So this blog will not be about what I’m thinking or doing on the weekend… This blog is for anyone who wants to write fiction. I will post regular (as much as I can) articles and exercises that look at the craft of writing fiction, and hopefully there will be something in these blogs for you to try.

Happy writing!


Editing and Re-Writing

November 24, 2008

 

“I write to find out what I’m writing, and once I get the sense of that, the hard work begins” E.L. Doctorow

 

“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.” Robert Cormier

 

“Half my life is an act of revision.” John Irving

 

“Writing is rewriting. A writer must learn to deepen characters, trim writing, intensify scenes. To fall in love with a first draft to the point where one cannot change it is to greatly enhance the prospects of never publishing.” Richard North Patterson

 

 

 

(And to Richard North Patterson’s quote I would make a simple modification, that you probably should not fall in love with the second, third, fourth or fifth draft, either.)

 

I considered giving this little paper a fancy title, but in the end decided on the prosaic ‘Editing and Re-Writing’ because it reflects the fact that this is the no-nonsense, hard work, sleeves rolled up, fingers dirty, part of the business. That’s not to say that inspiration can’t come at this stage – those bright ideas that get your heart racing. Mostly, however, when you are reworking and self editing, you are refining something concrete. That is, a work that is heading towards what you want to say.

           

How many drafts do you consider are enough? Do you have a number in mind? Are you consciously aware of a limit that you reach when you revise your work? Or do you rework it until you ‘get it right’? Since the proliferation of computers as the main tool of writers (Yes, I’m old enough to have been a typewriter lad!) the whole notion of what constitutes a new draft has changed. It’s no longer necessary for the writer to sit with red pen in hand going over the manuscript and making changes, crossing out large sections, refining  words with a stroke of the pen, then sitting back at the keyboard to type it up all over again.

           

Now days you can boot up your computer and go over what you wrote yesterday, or that morning, and make changes on the run. Is that a new draft? Or is it simply fiddling with what you’ve started on? Do you consider it to be a draft once you’ve printed it out? (In much the same way as the papers coming out of the typewriter were a draft.)

           

Whatever you consider a draft to be, whether it is the total revision of a complete version of the manuscript or an ongoing process in Word, the art and the act of rewriting and editing your work is crucial to the production of fine writing. There is no other way. You will not hear too many absolutions from me, but this one is set in stone.

           

If you think you are genius enough to get the perfect story down in one draft, then please peddle your wares around to the publishers and leave the art of writing to us mere mortals. Even the most talented of writers have to redraft their work, although many seem to develop faulty memories around this issue and claim they can bang it off in one go! I would even hazard a guess that Mr Bukowski worked up many drafts of his work until he was happy with it, contrary to his assertions about what makes a writer.

           

The following is a no-nonsense outline of some of the things you should be checking on when you redraft and edit your work. This part of the job can be nit-picky and fine to the point of pedantry, or it can address bigger issues with your work and allow you to analyse, step back and see where the general direction is heading. Use the following points as a guide or a reference or as a checklist, it’s up to you. But please, whatever you do, work on adding skills and methods to your writer’s toolkit so that next time you sit to bang out the first draft, you’ll skip over a lot of the blind alleys and ‘mistakes’ that you find yourself editing out of your work these days.

           

You can only get better at this.

           

So, in no particular order, here are some of the things you should be considering when you self edit and re-write your work.

 

1. Balance of Narrative Techniques

In writing fictional prose we use a variety of narrative techniques to say what’s happening and what’s being spoken and what’s being thought or felt and what we want the reader to be thinking. The techniques are many, but the most commonly used are generally described as:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Inner thought
  • Thematic exposition, or authorial voice

 

Each of these can be broken down into subsections.

 

Action

  1. Pictorial description of action and of setting, where the use of language will delight the reader or evoke images that build on emotion and a sense of theme or mood.
  2. Straight-forward description of action, where what is happening is simply told.
  3. Rhythmic description of action, where you deliberately heighten tension by speeding up action and truncating gaps between time and events (good for describing dramatic scenes like a fight or an argument or a highly charged moment). Rhythm can also be used to deliberately slow the action down and linger over a moment or a detail. Once again, this can heighten tension used within a dramatic scene, or it can allow the reader time to think and breath.
  4. Symbolic, metaphorical or contrapuntal action. The action serves as a symbol or metaphor for the emotional intention of the scene, or as a harmonic counterpoint to the emotional intention.
  5. Incidental action, where the action is simple and merely serves as something for the characters to do whilst they engage in important dialogue.
  6. Character-centric description, where we are deliberately being given a skewed version of events.
  7. Narrative summary. Strictly speaking this refers to action and dialogue. This is where a part of the narrative is summarised for the reader, often to speed up the pace or to relay information that would otherwise be tedious to read in detail. Should be used sparingly.

 

Dialogue

  1. Realistic dialogue. This is a good tool as well to reveal character
  2. Stylised dialogue, which serves theme or voice more than realism
  3. Expositional dialogue. (Often called ‘maid dialogue’, as in, ‘There’s a man wearing a green trench-coat with a brown stain on the sleeve and an ugly scar on his face at the door sir. Shall I let him in?) Other than in parody, use this one sparingly.

 

Inner thought

  1. Simple description of what’s going through the character’s mind at that moment
  2. Emotional description. Deeper exploration of emotions that the character is experiencing or has experienced
  3. Commentary, where character comments on the outside action, often used for comedic purposes
  4. Contradictory or complementary thought that reveals what is not being said or done in the outside action

 

Thematic exposition, or authorial voice

Essentially, this is where the theme is explored or the author builds on issues and ideas within the text. Often used to tickle the intellect and add ‘weight’ to the text. A very important part of prose.

 

In going over your work, look for how these elements are balanced. There’s no rule to say that you should have an equal mix of all of them in any given section, however they do go towards shaping the reader’s response to the work. If you are leaning too heavily towards one or the other for no particular reason, it can become a bit numbing for the reader to wade through and you’ll lose any impact that the particular technique is capable of achieving. For example, vast tracts of beautifully written pictorial prose can wear thin after a while. Or dialogue-driven narrative can leave you wondering why the writer didn’t just make a script.

            The key here is making the balance work for you. If you want to push the reader into a particular corner, then playing with this balance can help you get those results. If you want the reader to move with the story and be engaged on many levels, then you’ll probably want to keep this balance fairly dynamic, but even.

 

2. Narrative Purpose of the Section

Some people really get off on reading long unrelated stream-of-consciousness tracts that go nowhere. Good for them! You, however, probably want to say something with your work. And believe it or not, your reader wants you to write words that have a purpose. That’s where this tool is a handy one for the toolbox.

            Essentially, every scene or section or chapter of your work should be there for a purpose. There are a variety of purposes within a scene that are useful for you to check your own work against. If you cannot find a reason for the scene other than, ‘but it’s my favourite piece of writing’, then either give it a purpose or cut it out. You must be prepared to murder your babies if they are slowing the writing down. Following is a (not exhaustive) list of purposes to use as a checklist:

  • Advance the plot or story
  • Provide character information or background
  • Explore theme or ideas
  • Set up a later chapter or scene with a signpost or signal or ‘time-capsule’ piece of information
  • Emotionally manipulate the reader, either by misinformation or presenting a one-sided view
  • Give the reader a breathing space (only if they really need it)
  • Resolve a plot line or point that would otherwise be left dangling

 

The list is fairly self-explanatory, and I’m sure there would be many other purposes you could add to it. However, don’t be too rash. A purpose, after all, actually has to have a purpose!

 

3. Clarity

Ah, sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Clarity. A beautiful word. In this instance, I mean make sure that what you think you’ve told the reader is actually down on the page. Try to read your work as if you know nothing. Come at it as fresh as you can. Having a break from the work can help this. Asking a trusted reader to give specific feedback on what they understand and what they don’t get will help. And it’s not only the details, either. When you’re reading your work for the first time check that the pieces and sections you’ve stitched together do actually make sense, both in a narrative sense and an emotional sense. Don’t try this when you are tired because you will be too critical.

 

4. Show Versus Tell

No doubt you’ve come across this one before. Simply, make sure you’ve allowed for the intelligence of the reader to ‘get’ what you’re trying to say to them without having to be told. This is a good one to be used in conjunction with checking the balance of inner thought and authorial voice. If you are laying out for the reader too often what the characters are thinking or feeling, rather than allowing the reader to get it from your descriptive action or images or dialogue, then you need to re-jig the balance. Same for the authorial voice. We’re writing fiction here, not a dissertation.

 

5. Point of View

Be consistent with point of view, and if you do change point of view, make sure you know why you are changing it. Watch out for a full article on point of view, coming soon to this blog.

 

6. Character evolvement

We can never learn everything there is to know about a character in one sentence. So don’t try to give us all the crucial information about a character straight up. Tease it out. The reader will actually like you doing that. It allows them space to discover a bit for themselves about the character. Consider too how you convey this information. Will you use the authorial voice to tell us? ‘She was an over officious type who like to keep everyone organised around her…’ Or will you allow action and dialogue to do this? ‘The trio came down for breakfast to find little place-cards in their empty bowls with suggestions from Caroline about what activities they should engage in that day.’ There’s no right or wrong method, it’s just a question of balance.

           

Characters should also evolve over the course of your fiction if they are important to the plot. The change doesn’t necessarily have to be dramatic, but it should be clear to you, at least, what changes they have gone through. If you want them to remain unchanged, and that is your point, then be clear about that in the way you present it to the reader.

 

 

7. Emotional Progression

This is linked with the evolvement of character because characters are the most oft used portal for emotional involvement of the reader. (Some might disagree.) Be consistent with the emotional direction your work is talking. Try mapping each main character. Do they hop about emotionally? Or are they consistent? If they do hop about, is it believable? Is it in keeping with what you’re trying to do with the fiction? Or is it at odds? There’s a big difference between writing a fully rounded character who is sometimes contradictory, and writing a character that does things without any obvious motivation. The first version works within the narrative and serves its purpose. The second is convenient and is hammered into a round hole to try and fit what story you want to tell.

           

You can also map a scene, chapter or the entire work in this way. Does it head in the emotional direction you wanted it to head in? This should be used in conjunction with the purpose of each scene. In other words, a scene or chapter can have an emotional tone to it that creates a whole emotional picture of the work when viewed in this way.

 

8. Thematic Consistency

More important when working on shorter fiction. If you’re setting out to explore gender differences towards a marriage break up then make sure that is basically the theme you stick with. It doesn’t mean that everything has to slavishly fit into this box, but if a good section of your work is actually exploring the theme of male rage, then ask yourself how it fits into your overall theme. Have you gone off on a tangent, perhaps? Or, do you want to revisit what your theme is? (Not a good idea to change themes too many times in the life of a work.)

 

9. Grammar

You thought you were going to get away without this one, didn’t you! There are plenty of resources to assist with grammar: on the internet, at the university, in the English department. Aim to get as few red marks on your work as possible. Good grammar comes from practise. Check for these common grammatical tangles that can get in the way of your reader’s enjoyment:

  1. Tense. Make it consistent, especially if you are telling a ‘back-story’ within the story. I can provide handouts on tense if needed.
  2. Sensible sentences. A sentence mostly contains a subject and a verb. That’s about as simple as it gets. You can use ‘non-sentence’ sentences now and then. They can be quite dramatic. But you must ration them.
  3. Overstuffed clauses. Complex sentences are made up of clauses. Each clause contains a thought and the progression of clauses within a sentence should logically flow from each other and not be separate thoughts. The sentence I just used contained three clauses. I stuck the clauses together with the word, ‘and’. Watch out for sentences with a multitude of clauses jammed together using ‘and’ and ‘but’ and ‘or’ and ‘as well as’ etc. They can become very tiring for the poor old reader. If you want to explore this style of writing then make sure your writing flows and is not a long list of clauses. Otherwise, consider cutting some long sentences short.
  4. Semi-related clauses within a sentence. This is where you throw in an aside thought – I knew a writer who did this al the time – that is only partly related to the sentence. And yes, I deliberately threw one in as an example. They’re not so hard to pick. They are basically an aside. If in doubt, take it out. Does the sentence still make sense? You can use parentheses ( ) or the good old n-dash to stick an unrelated clause into a sentence.
  5. Commas. Please don’t overuse these. Read your work out loud and deliberately give the comma more pause to accentuate them. Are they necessary? At the same time, if a sentence calls for a comma then use it. There are rules for the use of commas and a whole host of very pernickety people have written them. Seek them out!
  6. Apostrophes and quote marks. It irks me that I should even be saying this to second year university students… However, there are also rules for the use of these important little squiggles as well. Acquaint yourselves with these rules.

Add to Technorati Favorites


Characters

November 16, 2008

 

 

‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away, even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’
Kurt Vonnegut[1] (Vonnegut, 2000)

 

 

If you consider how a reader accesses a piece of fiction – how he or she is drawn into the story, the drama, or the emotion so that they want to know what comes next – then the role of character soon emerges as a crucial one. Ask anybody about their favourite book and soon they’ll be talking about the main character or characters. They might limit their discussion to what happened to the character, or they might make emotional statements about the character such as, ‘I loved them’ and ‘He/she irritated me at times’, or they might even say they saw themselves in the character.

 

The age-old theatre joke about sincerity being the key to all good acting, and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made, is also pertinent to the writer of fiction. As a writer you are the biggest faker. You are creating people who have never existed and will never exist, then asking a total stranger to feel anger, fear, love, terror, outrage in harmony with that fake person.

 

The typical assumption by the non-writing public is that writers draw their characters from real-life people around them. And there have certainly been many successful novels with characters based on real people, sometimes to the detriment of the writer’s relationship with the model in question. But there are just as many (if not more) writers who do not base their characters on real people. However, the common factor within the two ends of this spectrum is that all writers base their characters on the truth of being human.

‘For me, what happens to characters as a story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along – how they grow, in other words. Sometimes they grow a little. If they grow a lot, they begin to influence the course of the story instead of the other way around.’

Stephen King[2], On Writing (King, 2000)

 

As a writer you sometimes have to be a mini-psychologist and therapist and megalomaniac and meddler rolled into one. To begin this near-psychotic process, you need to build an understanding of the peculiar habits and characteristics of humans. Everything, from small details such as how someone acts and behaves when they walk into a room full of strangers, to the subtle plays that go on between two lovers trying to have a discreet fight in public, to a mother’s response to losing a child, to a survivor’s life after trauma. You then need to translate this observation into truth on the page, so that when your characters avoid the truth, or cry over their child’s grave or laugh too loudly, it strikes a chord with the reader, who gets it.

The character is the reader’s way into fiction. So introducing main or important characters is a fairly crucial task when writing fiction. There are many ways we can introduce a character, and provide information to the reader about a character, in fiction. Everything from a character’s physical description, to the way they speak, to the way they walk, wake, eat, interact with others, helps the reader know a character. These are the tools that fiction writers use all the time, and they work! But we can also provide information about a character using more subtle tools, such as imagery, metaphor, scene setting, authorial voice and pacing. 

             

Exercise – Bring a Character into the ‘Room’

In this exercise, you’ll write a short snippet of fiction – around a page. If you are inspired, or you find yourself writing voluminously, DO NOT go over 1000 words. We need time to read everyone’s exercise.

 

Decide on a character and a setting. Bring the character into the setting. (Although the title says ‘room’, you can choose any setting you wish – a garden, a boat, a rock concert, a parade, a protest, a lecture theatre.) Use the setting as a means to introduce the character to the reader and bring him or her to life.

 

Halfway through the piece, bring a second character into the setting. (Restrict yourself to the interaction between main character and second character. It’s a challenge!)

 

There are two aims for this exercise:

  1. Use setting, action, imagery, metaphor etc (as opposed to describing a character) to bring your primary character to life
  2. Use another character to assist with the bringing to life of the primary character

 

‘(The writer) is required by the very nature of drama to enter into the spirit of opposing characters.’

Peter Brook[3], The Empty Space (Brook 1968)

 

How you decide to bring your character to life, and how your character reacts with the second character is entirely up to you.

 

In the first part of the exercise, try to use minimal physical description of your character. (Or none – be brave!) Instead, rely on action, setting, imagery, metaphor etc to bring that character to life. As Vonnegut says, at the very least, a character is going to need a glass of water at some stage. How they go about getting that glass of water tells the reader a lot about the character.

 

In the second part, determine how the interaction with character 2 will give your character depth, or perhaps show another angle, shade or aspect previously not shown. As Brook says, drama is centred on the principal of opposing forces, and two characters provide the chance of opposition.  This does not always mean conflict. Sometimes a seemingly cooperative character can provide opposition.

 

What do you know about your character in the scene? Can you picture the character? Can you see how they move? Where they sit? What are typical actions of this character? Is this a sympathetic character? Flawed? What impact will the second character have? How will you time their entry? Will they be there all along, but in the background?


[2] For information on King: http://www.stephenking.com

[3] For information about Peter Brook: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Brook


The Children’s Writer and the Market Place

November 13, 2008

 

The Writer.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

Stephen King, “On Writing”, Hodder and Staughton, 2000.

 

A writer writes.

And writes, and writes and writes.

Ask yourself these questions:

·         If you had to stop writing tomorrow, couldn’t pick it up again, how much would you miss it?

·         Do you ever have an idea for a story at the most inappropriate times?

·         Have you ever found it hard to go to sleep because you have a plotline or idea running through your head?

·         Do you feel excited by the thought of starting a new story?

·         Do you enjoy talking about the craft of writing with other writers?

 

A writer writes because they like/love writing. Sure, there are times when it is difficult, when you stare at a blank screen, or bash your head trying to work your way out of a dead-end in your plot, or find that everything has ground to a halt. No-one ever said it was easy. But, a writer writes because it’s something they like/love doing.

 

Stephen King puts it another way. When asked by people why he’s a writer, he says that he can’t not write.

 

Why do you write?

Do any of these ring true for you?

·         Artistic expression

·         To give voice to inner feelings

·         To tell a good story

·         To create stories that no-one else is writing

·         Because there are no good books out there

·         Because you just know you can do better than some of those idiots who get published

·         To work out your childhood.

 

You may not relate to these reasons for being a writer. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a legitimate reason for wanting to be a writer. Sometimes a simple grunt is all the reason you need for the moment.

 

But, if you do have a notion of what it is that spurs you on to write, then it will help you see if any particular area of writing is for you. So will doing a course like this!

 

 

Why write for kids?

Ask 100 children’s writers why they write for children and young adults and you will get 100 different answers. Here is a sample of possible answers, taken from real-life conversations.

·         Because I can exercise my stupid sense of humour

·         Because I love reading children’s literature

·         Because I love plots and characters and they’re both essential to children’s books

·         Because I read to my kids and think most of the stories are crap

·         Because adolescence (or childhood) was an important time for me

·         Because I had an unhappy childhood

·         Because I escaped into the world of books when I was young and want to recreate some of that

·         Because I’m a story teller and kids love story

 

What makes a children’s book?

The boundaries between children’s books and adult books are blurring each day. Young adult fiction has many examples of ‘cross-over’ books, which appeal to teenagers and people in their mid-twenties. Most publishers in this field will acknowledge that Young Adult readers are also adult. In fact, they often break up the Young Adult field into teenage and YA. Picture books, with amazing artwork by illustrators such as Shaun Tan and Graeme Base, have equal appeal to adults and children.

 

Generally speaking, a children’s book can be categorised as a book that:

·         Has subject matter, characters, plot and style that appeals to children

·         Deals with children or childhood from a child’s perspective

 

These are obviously broad, and there’s plenty of room for contradictions, but that’s what makes writing for this field so exciting. There’s lots of wide open spaces yet to be filled.

 

 

The Marketplace

Publishers

Children’s publishers in Australia work in a tight, competitive field. They all know each other, and chances are they’ve worked alongside each other at one time or another.

Some of the major publishers of children’s literature in Australia are:

Penguin Books

Pan MacMillan

Scholastic Australia

Omnibus Books

University of Queensland Press

Allen and Unwin

Walker Books

Hodder (Hodder Headline)

Harper Collins

Angus and Robertson

Fremantle Arts Centre Press

Random House

 

Each of these publishers will put out a range of books per year, from picture books to junior novels to young adult novels. None of them will care if a 12 year old reads their picture books, or if an 8 year old loves their young adult series. They create books to be popular, to sell, to make profits for their shareholders, and MOST IMPOTANTLY, because they love working in the field of children’s literature. The people who work in this field will be typically female, will work long hours, will be dedicated, will read widely and extensively in the field and will be paid fairly poor wages for their labours.

 

Categories of children’s books

For each category created for kids books, an equal number of anomalies are also created. It is not an easy field to categorise. As already stated, Young Adult fiction has teenage books, appealing to readers around 12 – 16 years old, as well as older Young Adult fiction, appealing to readers from 14 – 25 years old. Picture books can be created for pre-schoolers (2-5 years old), early childhood (3-7 years old), junior primary (5-7 years old) or everybody (0-99 years old).

For the sake of starting somewhere, this course breaks children’s books up into four broad categories.

·         Picture Books

·         Story Books

·         Junior Novels

·         Young Adult Fiction

 

Each of these categories, as already stated, can have a wide range of books within it. For example, junior novels would cover Omnibus’s Solos series, Puffin’s Nibbles series, Puffin’s Bites series as well as many other stand alone novels in the field.

 

These categories will be discussed in more detail as the course progresses.

 

 

The Writer meets the Marketplace.

A writer writes what is meaningful to them. A writer writes from the heart, or the gut, or the brain, or whatever organ happens to work for them! But whatever a writer writes, if it isn’t hitting some truth within them, if it isn’t creating some satisfaction for them, if it isn’t making their heart rush just a little as they get it down, then it probably isn’t going to be compelling writing. It might be technically slick, and read well, but will it have depth? Will it move the reader? Will they want to put it down?

Writing is an artistic endeavor which has to work within the economic and financial imperatives of the publishing marketplace. And that isn’t always easy.

Whatever you write for children, you have to be aware of certain ‘gatekeepers’ who will make decisions about whether or not your writing:

·         Has appeal to kids

·         Is suitable for kids

·         Is morally acceptable

 

Who are these gatekeepers?

Typically, they are:

·         The publisher

·         Librarians

·         Parents

 

But you won’t get to the librarians or the parents if you don’t get past the publishers.

So, what appeals to publishers?

Another way of asking that might be:

 

What works in the marketplace?

Here’s a starting point. A list of what publishers look for when considering a manuscript to be published in any category of children’s literature.

·         Originality

·         Innovation

·         Stories with grunt

·         Characters that live (not stereotyped)

·         Writing that moves the reader

·         Writing that creates strong empathy

·         Great language

 

 

Here’s what publishers, and therefore the marketplace, are NOT looking for:

·         Derivative stories and ideas

·         Stories with a message

·         Writing that preaches

·         Writing that is didactic

·         Stories that condescend

·         Stories that are inappropriate for the age group/or children.

 

Remember, a writer writes. If you have no idea what category of kids literature interests you, then read, read, read, and write, write, write. Start stories, start novels, fiddle around with picture book texts, play with the genres. Have fun.