Developing a #Plot without Flat Lining

Developing the plot for a novel should be like replicating a heart monitor. You want to see ups and downs on the screen, but you don’t want to see it flat lining. There’s nothing more likely to bore the pants off your readers than creating a story without any variation. Think of it in terms of real life’s ups and downs, except in fiction things need to be larger than life, however small they might be.

Huh?

Your story doesn’t need to be an action packed thrill ride; even small events can be brought to life by great prose.

Young European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus)....

Young European hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus). Français : Jeune Hérisson européen (Erinaceus europaeus). (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Plots can avoid flatlining with even the simplest of creatures at their heart.

I came across this news item, that frankly made me laugh, but I could see its potential in relation to the ups and downs of a plot. (FYI for US readers, crisp packet  = potato chip bag. In England they ‘re usually in a single serving size, not a US jumbo pack.)

Hedgehog Trapped in Crisp Packet in Weston-Super-Mare’

A baby hedgehog which found itself stuck in a crisp packet has been released after a three-and-a-half hour rescue involving six people.

The animal became trapped after it crawled into the empty wrapper in a railed off area near steps in Weston-super-Mare.

A shopkeeper heard rustling and saw the hedgehog – now named Crispian – stick his nose out.

Workers had to cut through the railings and help rescuers reach the hedgehog.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-20151566

What struck me was that they cut through railings to rescue it, and six people had been involved! Clearly this tiny animal had created an event, which produced substantial effort on the rescuers part. It went from being a simple rustle in the wind to a conflict that needed resolution.

If you were writing this scene how might you develop it?

The conflict begins when the shopkeeper hears the rustling, which poses a question i.e. what to do? Imagine the thoughts of the shopkeeper (inner dialogue) or perhaps she discusses it with a passerby (spoken dialogue), and they both go and look at the hedgehog. (Action) As a reader, I’d want to have some description of the railings, the railed off area and the hedgehog poking his nose out. Where do the steps lead? Was this the scene of a kidnapping a couple of years earlier, or had there been a fire, and the house subsequently torn down?

The middle of the scene then develops after the authorities are contacted. (Action) No doubt there are now two or three people waiting and watching until help arrives. Don’t forget there are six people involved in this incident! What was their interchange? (Dialogue or reported speech) Were there concerns about their ability to get through the railings? (Tension) Did they encounter any snags, like the saw blade breaking? (Building suspense) Would the hedgehog survive, even if they managed to cut through the railing? (More tension)

The climax of the scene is the hedgehog being rescued. (More description, dialogue/ reported speech) Is the animal going to live or does it stop moving? Is this the complete end of the story, or do two of the people find a connection and become involved in each other’s lives? Perhaps this is where a murderer first meets his next victim?

On its own, this is obviously a very simple scene. It could be made engaging in a myriad of ways from comedy to fable, the beginnings of a thriller to rich descriptive prose. Regardless of stylistic approach, there’s dramatic action, however small, which sends a character in a new direction. In this prickly tale (!), the shopkeeper was going about her business until she was on a mission to save a helpless little creature. To be successful, it needs to have ups and downs. The pitfalls encountered are dependent on the writer’s interpretation.

Simple story does not mean boring plot. Complicated plot does not mean interesting story. Getting the right balance is something an author needs to look at for each scene. And not all scenes have the same cadence or intensity. Some might give you some respite after one with high tension. Or perhaps towards the end of the novel, you might ratchet things up by piling on one crisis after another.

Balancing the tempo of each scene is a good start. Putting them together is like cooking a favorite dish: you combine the ingredients to suit your particular taste. But one shake too many of the saltcellar and the whole dish is ruined.

How does the plot progress in the novel you are reading or writing? Is it a slow build, or does it pack a punch from the beginning. Which to you prefer?

 

English: Close-up photograph of a Western Euro...

English: Close-up photograph of a Western European wild hedgehog in a semi-urban environment. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Run, Crispin, run!…………………..

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Time and Place: 1950’s USA

Screenshot from "Duck and Cover" fil...

Screenshot from “Duck and Cover” film, a 1952 movie. The ‘Duck and Cover’ propaganda movie was probably one of the most famous of all the pieces of propaganda during the early stages of the cold war. It was targeted at school children and was intended to install the constant fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English:

English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Anti- communist newsletter.

I’ve recently finished the first draft of my second novel, “Under the Bed”. It’s set in New York in both 1969 and 1952. Time and place are integral to the story; the commonality between the two eras is anti-communism in the USA. I’ll only deal with the 1950’s in this blog.

McCarthyism”, which was at the heart of the anti-communist movement, started in the late forties. You may be aware of the havoc and horror the Hollywood blacklist had on the lives of actors and screenwriters, many of whom were banned from writing or acting. Their careers, and often their entire lives were left in shambles. A number also went to jail. Dashiell Hammett is one of the more famous names of people who served time. He died a year after his release. Lillian Hellman, was also brought before by the House Un-American Activities Committee  – HUAC. She took a landmark stand, later known as the ‘Diminished Fifth’, in which she was willing to talk about her own activities but refused to talk of others .

Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin were also victims of the HUAC. Chaplin, who was born in England, was refused re-entry into the USA in 1952, and ultimately never returned to America. Paul Robeson’s passport was confiscated, leaving him unable to work abroad – he was already blacklisted from working in America. His career as a singer and his International Human Rights advocacy work were severely curtailed.

 

Paul Robeson,American actor, athlete, bass-bar...

Paul Robeson,American actor, athlete, bass-baritone concert singer, writer, civil rights activist, Spingarn Medal winner, and Stalin peace prize laureate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee, reached far beyond Hollywood into many professions, including those in public service. University professors and elementary schoolteachers  were asked to sign an oath swearing that they were not, nor ever had been a member of the Communist Party. Those who refused, which many did on principle, lost their jobs.

All serious stuff – but in researching the period, I came across some hilarious footage from the public service announcement of the ‘Duck and Cover Campaign’ that told people, and especially schoolchildren, what to do in the case of a nuclear attack – “Why, duck and cover of course!”.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89od_W8lMtA

Its simplicity might seem ludicrous to us now –  perhaps it did to many people at the time  –  but it gives us a certain insight into an era of fear, tinged with naïveté , in the USA of the 1950’s.

I love the whole idea of exploring different time and place in writing. They’re usually the two challenges I first  set myself when I start a new project. It’s so important in a novel in setting the tone.

Where do you set your work? Is it is always in the present, or in the town or country where you live? How does time and place affect your choice in the novels you read?

Let me know – I’d love to hear from you.

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin

English: Portrait of Charlie Chaplin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

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What is Your #Point of View?

Rape fields in bloom on South Downs

I went onto the Sussex Downs at the weekend and was in awe of the beautiful rolling hills punctuated by the brilliant yellow of the rape fields in bloom. I mentioned to a friend how beautiful they were and his response was tempered by the fact he was allergic to them. We had a different point of view on how great they were. Different opinions.

In writing, Point of View or POV, refers to who is ‘speaking’, or from who’s ‘vantage point’ the narrative is written. Before I became a writer, I hadn’t paid much attention to this. Waiting for me was the mine field of ‘Point of View’, with all it pratfalls.

Prior to the 20th century, the ‘omniscient ‘ POV was the norm. The omniscient author, who knew everything about the plot, the characters, and was often free with their opinion, told the story. Think of this wonderful opening line:  

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

‘Tale of Two Cities’  by Charles Dickens

-Yeah it was, but says who? The author of course.

Because omniscient authors are god-like, they know what’s in everyones mind at all times, which they may or may not share with the reader. The author can choose to have a ‘limited omniscient’ POV, and in that situation the author focuses on only certain characters, and their inner thoughts.

The other end of the spectrum is first person – the story is told, not by the author, but by a character in the novel. While they can act as a narrator, more often than not they are the main protagonist.

In first person, the reader is in the mind of the person telling the story at all times. It’s sometimes considered an ‘easy’ way to go for a debut novel, as you only have one POV to put forward. But the main drawback to first person POV, is that the reader is limited to the  experience of the character telling the story. We can only know what they know.

‘I’ = first person POV

There are ways around this e.g. someone else recalling an experience to the character. Murakami usually writes in first person, and uses this technique of a separate individual telling a tale in the ‘Wind-up Bird Chronicles’. We’re taken from the world of Murakami’s quirky narrator who enjoys cooking and music, to a Japanese soldier’s recollection of wartime Manchuria. For me, the latter was in some ways the most memorable part of the novel, in part because of an exceptional, albeit graphic, portrayal of a brutal scene.

 First person POV is often used when the protagonist has a very strongly defined character. Catcher in the Rye is a perfect example of first person, prominent protagonist. We immediately catch a glimpse of the kind of strong character Holden Caulfield will be. Not all first person novels have protagonists with such a striking personality, but the POV certainly lends itself to doing so.

 ‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

‘Catcher in the Rye’ by J.D.Salinger

‘You’ = 2nd person POV

 

 

In second person POV, the author tells the story. It’s a very underused POV, but it too can have an intimacy to it – as if we’re being told secrets by the author that only we the individual reader will know. It’s more often used in an instructional way, like in a ‘How To Book’.

                                                                                 

 “Rub a little on the back of your neck, your forehead and your wrists before you start fishing, and the blacks and skeeters will shun you. The odor of citronella is not offensive to people. It smells like gun oil. But the bugs do hate it.”

 Camping Out.’ by Ernest Hemingway

 

The most commonly used POV is third person. The narrative is told by the author, but from a particular person(s) point of view. Third person has the most variety of possibilities of all POVs and though the term suggests objectivity and distance, it doesn’t necessarily mean the reader is remote. We create distance or closeness in the way we write. Closeness can come in third person by the description of concrete things and letting us hear a character’s thoughts.

“His chest was heaving. He could smell Jack –the intensely familiar odour of cigarettes, musky sweat and a faint sweetness like grass, and with it the rushing cold of the mountain.”

 ‘Broke Back Mountain’  by Annie Proulx,


 Using more than one POV, once considered radical, has become more commonplace. Innovative novels such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Oryx & Crake’ used this technique. It lends itself to interesting work, if it’s well written.

Generally speaking, switching POV’s is most successful if the entire chapter is in one POV, or at the most, only changed paragraph by paragraph. A classic novice mistake is to change the POV in the same sentence without even noticing e.g. ‘I was two hours late, and ran upstairs to avoid my mother, who was more relieved than angry.’ – In this first person excerpt, how could the narrator know what the mother was thinking?

Though it’s more usual to have a novel written in one or two POVs, modern fiction constantly challenges the so-called rules. However, if there are too many POVs for the content to support, then it becomes an unconvincing piece of writing. In ‘The Sacred Art of Stealing’, a satirical thriller  by Christopher Brookmyre, there are five POVs. It was a humorous read until the author turned to lazy writing, adding in POVs merely as a convenient way to move the plot along, without any of the initial punch of the novel.

Literary agents typically want to know ‘whose story is it’? So then it’s a tough call for an inexperienced author to give multiple POVs without making sure there is one clearly rising above the rest. I sometimes question if visual entertainment can successfully have an ensemble cast, then why can’t novels do the same?

Trying to convey a theme, or premise can be done using any Point of View. But deciding which POV is best to use to present your premise, is one of the biggest challenges a writer faces, and will most likely determine the success of the novel.

What POV do you prefer either as a reader or writer? What problems or frustrations have you had with this issue? 

 

 

Footnote: This post is dedicated to the writer Ged Duncan. He and I have  spent countless hours over the past few years discussing POV. He’s also allergic to rapeseed flowers.

 

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#Authors – An Infinite Writer’s Resource

Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Writers are always looking for resources, whether it’s for technique, style, how to get published, or ideas for a story. The single best resource is using other authors as a reference for better ways of working.

During my Creative Writing Certificate course at Sussex University, we spent one semester on  ‘Special Author’.  We each chose an author, and a particular novel, whose work we thought would most benefit our own. I chose The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. We looked at all aspects from first encounter, tracing sub-plots and the climax of the story to name a few.

At the end of the semester we each gave a verbal presentation to the class, which forced us to study the work, and think about it in a critical way we’d never have done otherwise. We were lucky to have Susannah Waters as our tutor – a stickler for precision in technique and critique skills,  with an incredible passion for the process. (FYI Susannah does independent mentoring and manuscript assessment, as well as  teaching at Arvon. See *below for contact details)

The purpose of the course was not to necessarily emulate the author, but to look at how they might deal with different aspects of writing from dialogue to creating suspense, character and setting and thereby learn from them. A simple example is in my novel Radio Echo– the first scene in Bologna is set in a graveyard. I’d had no thought of using that location until our tutor asked us to create a scene in a setting used by our Special Author.

As an example of how to learn from another writer’s work, I’ve chosen two pieces of text from The Blind Assassin to look at dialogue and description, and see what Atwood does with them. The sparingly used dialogue in Atwood’s novel, functions as an insight into character relationships, rather than moving the plot forward.  The immediacy is emphasized by the use of present tense. The dialogue is tight, short phrases back and forth, rarely interrupted by gesture. This accentuates the intimacy and envelopes two individuals in their own world during the scene. It’s the lover’s first sexual encounter; this is never stated, but just enough information is given to spark the reader’s own imagination.

 

Don’t worry so much, he says. Lie Down.

Don’t you’ll tear it. Wait a minute.

She hears her own voice. It isn’t her voice, its too breathless.

 ….Smoke  taste on his mouth, salt in her own; all around, the smell of crushed weeds and cat, of disregarded corners. Dampness and growth, dirt on the knees, grimy and lush; leggy dandelion stretching towards the light.

Below where they’re lying the ripple of a stream. Above, leafy branches …the blue sky in splinters. Hard dirt under her back.¹

 The text shows Atwood’s excellent use of metaphor and simile. Her descriptions are not elaborate: they simply use evocative words to show what’s in the scene. Once that is established, she then places the character, in a physical sense, into the scene, which highlights the physical nature of the encounter, but also grounds the reader.

The second text shows description of setting that also conveys the mood of the scene. It’s the last time the lovers meet and the scene depicts resignation, a bleak encounter in a rundown motel.

A carpet once dark blue and red. A pathway strewn with flowers, worn down now to the roots.

I’m sorry, he says. It could be better. ²

 

Painters are renowned for learning from other painters – “learn from the masters”. So why should it be any different for writers? We’re not talking plagiarism, but simple learning by example.

At the end of the course I realized as a writer I’d always have an infinite resource if I was stuck and wanted to know how to deal with a scene. Looking for a spare style?  – go Raymond Carver, or Cormac McCarthy. Want to portray a character who’s fraught to the point of despair? – go to the scene in ‘Anna Karenina’ leading up to the suicide. Write text that will push emotional buttons? – Jodi Picoult.

Etc. ad infinitum.

We first learn to love books by reading them. Learn to love writing from the same source.

Who or where do you go to when you’re stuck? What authors would you recommend for particular styles?

Let me know. For me, learning is an ongoing process.

 

 

Excerpts from The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Paperback 2001 Virago press

¹Pg 32 -33 Chapter – The Lipstick Heart

²Pg 563 Chapter – The B Rage Room

 

*Susannah Waters:-

susannahwaters@yahoo.co.uk

Literary Mentoring and Manuscript Assessment.

 

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#Editing Forward

How many times have you groaned about having to go ‘back’ and edit a piece of work? And yet all writing is rewriting. I’m fortunate that for the most part I enjoy editing. In fact I often view it as a way of ‘keeping in touch’ with my work when there’s not a lot of time. Edit a short passage – even a sentence – rather than wait for the 2 hr stretch that won’t come along so easily – and it keeps your mind from losing the plot so to speak. Makes it easier to get started the next time you come back to the work. In short I’m a big advocate of little and often. But hey, no one’s perfect, and I can get ground down and see editing as something that’s dragging me back, stopping me moving forward. But no more. This afternoon I had an epiphany!

Today is the start of British Summertime. The clocks went forward – which is what prompted my train of thought. It’s been a lovely weekend in Brighton, on the south coast of England, and yesterday I went down to the seafront. It could have been the start of summer. The stripy deckchairs were out, seaside kitsch was back on sale – bags of shells, flip-flops, small containers of shrimps and half shells of freshly caught crab. Men had taken off their shirts, women wore bikinis – generally a lot of pale skin that hadn’t seen a stroke of sun for many months.  There were even some people with a couple of toes in the water. And not the hardy 365 days a year swimmers.

The Wurlitzer carousel, built in 1888 has been reassembled into its circle, though when I was there at 10.30 the horses were still wrapped in a giant tent of tarpaulin. There was a sense of emergence in the air, a new season, a new beginning.

It was only today when I sat down to do a bit of editing, secretly wanting to press on with where I’d left off, that I realised the problem was that I was looking at editing from the wrong perspective. Editing is not going back but going forward. As you may have seen in my last post I’ve changed the title of my first novel to ‘Radio Echo’. I’ve also recently re-edited the first three chapters (rewrite 28?). Both things have been very positive in my approach to the work. When you edit a section, it’s done to make it better. You might be approaching it with some feedback from other people, or with merely a keener eye from yourself. But the chances are very good that you’re going to make the work better. So in what way is that ‘going back’? The answer is it’s not. It’s moving forward.

I’m not being Pollyannaish about this, it’s simply a fact. You are moving your work forward every time you edit. There is no going back about it. So if we keep this in mind, then maybe it will help to take the groan out of having to edit. When you’re sitting down to edit a 60-100,000w bit of work, it’s going to be more than a quick ten-minute task. Inevitably there’ll come a point – or several points, where you feel jaded, bored – whatever you want to call it. But more often than not, we’re editing smaller chunks – a line, a paragraph, or a couple of chapters. All of this is moving the work forward, which is a good thing. To be a writer you have to enjoy rewriting. That’s the fact of the matter. If you don’t, then you’ll rarely get past one edit without it being an unpleasant gut-wrenching task. It’s impossible to edit everything as you go along. The work needs distance. Then you move forward. You edit.

I hope that looking at it as editing forward, rather than going back to edit is of some help to those of you who dislike the task. We all have different writing habits, methods, rituals that work for each one of us. How do you approach your editing? Are there ways you make it go faster or are more economical with your time?

Let me know what you’re approach is, bad habits you’d like to get out of or any good habits you want to share.

I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

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