Monthly Archives: February 2012

What Writing’s Like

I’ve just realised one of the reasons I find writing so physically tiring. It’s not just about sitting up at the computer and looking at a screen (usually I hand-write new stuff in a notebook, lounging as comfortably as possible on the couch, and only type it when my manuscript draft gets too messy to read). When I’m typing I do make the effort to get up and move around, but I hadn’t realised I’m physically involved in my writing beyond the act of typing.

I’m currently writing a novella that alternates between the first person points of view of two characters, a fifty year old male professor and a twenty-seven year old female postgraduate student. I suddenly noticed that I take on the physicality of the character when I’m trying to write in their voice. It’s probably not something you’d notice from the outside, though I think I sit up straighter when “being” the professor. But in my body – in my chest, neck, stomach – I can feel different tensions, exactly as if I were singing or acting. Weird! Does anyone else find the same?And what about when reading? Now I’ll have to pay attention, and see whether my body unconsciously adopts the physicality of characters I’m reading about.

This observation fits nicely with something I was thinking yesterday afternoon, about what writing is “like”. For me it’s definitely like sculpting – when I’m nutting out the story in my head, or describing it to someone else, my hands push and pull and squeeze and smooth the air, as if I were working clay. It’s also like listening to music: I can feel some inner part that sits very still and “listens” to the rhythms and melodies, not just of the words but of the ideas underneath.

Then there’s the sense that it’s like weaving, again with the hands, or maybe tapestry – the characters and themes are threads, that need to be woven together to make beautiful patterns, and the threads need to be held and pulled with just the right amount of tension. Then again, it’s like dancing – a skip here, a gesture there, a lot of ground to be covered gracefully, a turn to be made on the spot.

And now I see that it’s also like acting, and singing, and speaking poetry. Who knew we were doing so much exercise when we sit down to write? 🙂

What other art forms, or other activities in general, is writing like for you? I’d be really interested to know if writing feels like something else you do regularly (eg. if you’re also a painter, does it feel like painting?), or something you hardly do at all (I haven’t sculpted with clay for years, but that’s the first physical sensation that occurs to me when I try to describe what writing feels like).

 

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Promises, Promises

In The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, Thomas McCormack talks about making promises to the reader. Of course we hear this terminology all  the time, but McCormack gets into a fairly technical explanation of what’s entailed in making and keeping such promises.

I was intrigued by the idea that a reader keeps turning pages, not so much because of what she’s reading right now, but rather what she’s being promised is still to come. Like the smell of coffee or the anticipation of Christmas morning, a promise can be so much more delicious than any reality. The reader therefore reads in a state of pleasurable expectation, and so long as reality doesn’t actually disappoint, she’ll finish the book having had a delightful reading experience.

I’m wondering if there’s something too stolid about the way I usually write, which is focussed on what I’m delivering on any given page, rather than what I’m promising.

McCormack talks about “prelibation” (I do love a good neologism!) It translates as something like “foretaste” – tasting in advance. McCormack says that the reader has “salivancy” – an appetite, a craving produced by the text – and the author must know both how to elicit this craving and how to satisfy it. Prelibation is the author’s intuition about what will satisfy.

“Implied prelibation” is when the text has set up an obvious requirement. Virginia Woolf praised Jane Austen for never failing to supply the “obligatory scene” – the scene we have to have. In a whodunnit, there must be a scene in which the detective reveals who the murderer is. Usually there must also be some kind of confrontation with the murderer – don’t you feel cheated when it turns out the murderer has been killed, or has run away to reappear in the sequel, without leaving so much as a taunting note?

I’ve realised there’s an obligatory scene missing from my current novel. Two characters who’ve been in conflict for two-thirds of the book make up awkwardly over the phone because there are larger issues at stake. This just isn’t good enough: the reader will be “salivating” for a proper showdown, which I’m obliged as the writer to supply. Implied prelibation is at work.

“Unimplied prelibation” is more subtle. The reader doesn’t know what she’s expecting next, but she’s expecting something. The writer’s responsibility is both to whet these inchoate appetites, and then to satisfy them with surprising and gratifying details, scenes, dialogue, etc. That’s writing, you say. Yes, but maybe it’s a common mistake of the novice writer to slave away, trying to deliver surprising, gratifying, original, amazing and beautiful words on the page, but not paying enough attention to the creation of expectations. The set-up, the promising.

The idea of promises is related to – possibly the same as? – tension. So that this post doesn’t go on forever, I’ll just look at two examples of the kinds of promises a writer can make, or tensions he can set up.

Here’s the first one-third of the first line of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – …”

What are you asking yourself as a reader? How many Lisbon daughters were there? (clearly at least three, sounds like more). How old were they? (the title and the fact they’re described as “daughters” sounds like they were very young) Why did they attempt suicide? Under what circumstances? How? (since Mary and Therese used sleeping pills) Did any survive? (the word “attempted”) Does Mary survive? Why are we being told this story? The author is promising to explore all these questions, if not necessarily to answer them. We can be pretty sure of finding out how many girls, their names, their ages, the circumstances, the methods, the outcomes. We expect to learn something about the Lisbon daughters, individually and as a family. We can be certain the “why” question will be asked, but we sense from the tone that we’re not being promised an answer, and this is a source of tension.

In the second sentence we get the information that the medics were, “as usual”, moving much too slowly “in our opinion”. The reader is promised something very unusual – a plural first person narrative point of view: in effect, a chorus. Reviewers have noted that the first paragraph of this novel also promises the setting (suburban America), the tone (“wry and voluptuous with glittering black jokes carried along like seacoal by the smooth melancholy swell”), and the idea that there is something allegorical about this story, that it takes place more in a mythic realm than a realistic one. These are all interesting promises, and we read on with a strong sense of curiosity to see where the writer will take us.

A different kind of promise is offered in Justin Cronin’s The Passage, through the structure of the book. Again there’s a mythic note struck at the very beginning, telling us “Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy”. The first chapter goes on to tell us briefly and fairly realistically about Amy’s early childhood. The second chapter consists of emails between Jonas Lear and Paul Kiernan, concerning mysterious but horrific events in a Bolivian jungle. The third chapter begins in a prison for men sentenced to death, and focuses on inmate Anthony Carter. Halfway through this chapter we jump to a federal agent, Brad Wolgast, driving along a Texan road reminiscing about his childhood. The promise is that all these people and storylines are moving into alignment, that they will come together and set in motion other trains of events.

Promises, tension, mystery, suspense. A writing exercise? Ask a trusted reader to look at the first paragraph of something you’ve written. Ask them to tell you as they go along:

1. What questions am I asking as I read this?

2. What do I expect from the rest of the story?

Leave the questions as broad as that – see how much they can tell you about the possibilities opening up in their mind, stimulated by your words on the page. Take notes – do any of their questions and speculations surprise you? Do they imagine a whole storyline worlds away from what you’ve actually written? Or do they struggle to articulate any sense of anticipation or curiosity? (in which case, you might want to reword this opening para).

If you’re very brave, you could allow them to go on reading, and describe for you as they go along which possibilities are opening out or collapsing, and whether they’re happy with the realities that take their place.

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A Cage in Search of a Bird

Here’s a lovely peer-provided service: UK writer Alice Slater shares with her fellow writers upcoming competition and submission deadlines, among other fun things. She’s very diligent at searching these out (me I’m a bit more erratic, but will share things when I find them!)

Alice blogs at:

http://acageinsearchofabird.wordpress.com/

 

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Relative status of characters

I used to be an improviser. I started with Theatresports, then branched out into other forms of performance impro. If you have a good coach, you can learn a lot about storymaking through theatrical improvisation. (If not, you’ll just learn to gag, block, and cheat the audience out of wonderful experiences they don’t know they could have had – but meanwhile back at the point…)

I did have a good coach, in Keith Johnstone of Loose Moose Theatre Company, Calgary, Canada. One of the key story drivers Keith emphasised was status. Improvised scenes for performance tend to be short, so you need a reliable means of engaging the audience and making sure the story goes somewhere. A good way to do this is to play with characters’ status, and we used to play status games to develop these skills.

In one game, A starts with high status and B with low (eg. school principal and student, queen and butler, police officer and criminal, etc.) The events of the scene must cause the high status character to lose status, and the low status character to gain status – that is, by the end, the status positions are reversed.

In another exercise, two characters each try to get higher status than the other. For example, A shows off an expensive watch, B claims to have three just like it, A shakes her head pityingly and asks if B is still having trouble with those old delusions, B says not since she invented the world’s most successful anti-psychotic and became a billionnaire, and offers to take A out to dinner to tell her all about it, and so on. Or, the two characters can work to get lower status than the other. Experienced improvisers play a version where they try to maintain equal status – Keith points out that this is what we usually do with our friends.

In writing fiction, it’s quite useful to bear in mind the status relationships between characters. Improvisation scenes often suffer because two characters have the same status (two students, two road-workers, two friends at a nightclub) and although the improvisors are struggling to create a story, they won’t let anything happen that changes the status relationship. Inexplicable torpor or “flatness” in a piece of fiction is sometimes traceable to the same problem.

Status can be conceptualised in terms of power, social standing, respect accorded the character by others. A character whose job or social position might be seen as low status (eg. a swagman) can be high status in a given situation (when he is the only person who knows how to treat a snakebite), or he might just “play” high status and be accorded respect as a result. And, of course, vice versa – the British comedic tradition, for example, is full of put-upon lords and ineffectual politicians who think their position entitles them to a level of respect they don’t actually deserve or get. Humorous effects can be obtained when a character thinks of himself as high status when everyone else sees him as low (common in the commedia dell’Arte), and touching moments can result when a character who sees herself as low status is suddenly elevated to high (a stock technique in romantic comedy, the Cinderella story arc being a classic example).

I’m just beginning a new novella, where the whole story will turn on a change in the status relationship between my two main characters. I think this is very common, but I don’t often hear it discussed in the terms I learnt from Keith Johnstone. So if this idea of status, status hierarchies, status battles, and changes in status relationships, is useful to you in your writing, by all means go ahead and use it. (I was fascinated to discover just now, looking up Keith’s entry on Wikipedia, that his teaching on status seems to be considered his most influential contribution to theatrical storytelling. Pop over and have a look here).

An exercise: read through a piece you’ve written, and analyse what happens to the relative status of the main characters in it, particularly the protagonist. Does the status of the protagonist change – in her own eyes, in the eyes of the people in her world, and/or in the eyes of the reader, over the course of the story? How does that come about? Does another character start out higher status than the protagonist, and end lower, or vice versa? Does a battle for higher (or lower) status drive some (or all) of the action? What are the emotions, conflicts, tensions, which contribute to and arise from that battle? Would more careful attention to status and status relationships enhance the story at all?

 

 

 

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Great links

If you haven’t checked out Fish Publishing’s “Links” page, do – there are lots of interesting and useful links here.

http://www.fishpublishing.com/links.php

A lovely link for short story writers, readers and advocates is

http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books-and-reading/short-stories/

There’s an extensive list of short story competitions, high-quality short stories to read, writing tips, and lots of other goodies.

If you find useful sites you think others might not be aware of, please feel free to put them in a Comment and/or let me know so I can post them.

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