The Truth About Storytelling

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Simple as that, really.

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The Chicken or the Egg?

You start from the beginning, right? Or do you?

Basically, I had an epiphany: I was doing it all wrong.

Being a rather inexperienced writer, at least in the full-length, 400-page-novel field, I’ve admittedly had some trouble in finding my ‘mojo’ in this process. Although my YA fantasy novel (yet unttitled) now amounts to just over 31,000 words, these are all scattered from page 1 to 400 (if that’s where I’ll end up).

Now, first of all, it ought to be stressed that there is neither wrong nor right in the creative process. ‘Each to their own’ has never been more applicable, and that’s the way it should be. Nevertheless, this revelation of mine might be of help to others with similar troubles.

Here it is: it is true – you start from the beginning. There is no other place to begin a novel. Blank sheet/screen/note book – that’s where it happens. Of course that doesn’t specify where the beginning is!

And the magic of it all? My beginning was the end.

For months I have struggled with the opening, the middle part, the opening again – trying to find the right words, the right scenes, for the novel to eventually end up where I wanted it to end up.

How silly of me.

Realising that it was all futile work, and soon turned out to be a lot of hours thrown into the sea of nothingness, I quite simply turned to the place which sparked the idea in the first place – the resolution. The whole concept came from the final scenes, and those were the ones I had vividly pictured in my mind. So I decided to put those on paper before anything else would occur.

3/4 final chapters are now fully written, and although they will need heavy (I mean body-building level) editing, I feel so much more confident about them than the earlier chapters. Problems remain, the economy of the world still needs to be fully fleshed out, and I doubt that the final piece of text will look anything like the one now residing in my laptop.

No matter. It’s under way, and that’s the important thing.

I’m not sure how other writers go about it. Anthony Trollope wrote from chapter 1 to the last, with strict discipline. He went for the egg. That’s one way of doing it, and maybe that’s how the next novel will happen. For this particular work, however, it seemed appropriate to me to start with the chicken. Because that’s where my egg came from.

Like the philosophical riddle itself, there are as many answers as questions, and each writer will have a strategy which works for them.

I guess the point with this post is that creative writing does not obey many, if any, laws, and the wonder of it is the possibility of breaking the rules once in a while, or all the time.

Find your way, and follow it. Chicken or egg, as long as the story comes to life – you’re doing it right.

The Failed Female Protagonist

As both reader and writer I struggle with female protagonists. They tend to bore me to snore-worthy levels and altogether fail to be compelling at all.

There are many memorable ones in literary history: Jane Eyre, and…well, that’s the only one I could come up on my own. Search engine browsing brings me Katniss Everdeen, Anna Karenina, Lisbeth Salander – and Hermione Granger.

Hermione, of course, isn’t the protagonist of the Harry Potter series and although she is indeed a strong character, would you read a complete novel revolving around her? I probably wouldn’t. She works well as the moral voice in and part of the trio, but hardly carries enough weight on her own.

For me at least, female characters seem to function best as sidekicks or background figures, and looking back at great novels, they tend to concern men. Off the top of my head: Gatsby, Frodo, Tyler Durden, Winston Smith, Bret. The list goes on.

In fact, the only novel with a female protagonist I find worth mentioning is the His Dark Materials trilogy by Pullman with Lyra (this one will keep popping up on this blog). Curiously enough, this one favourite of mine has a female heroine as lead, and Will, the boy, as her sidekick.

There is of course also an ocean of chick lit from for example Sophie Kinsella and Marian Keyes, all with comic female leads.

Why are male protagonists more compelling? Are they at all? Is that just me? And if not, how come there is not more literature with female main characters?

I can understand works set back in history, where, sociologically, women did not have as much agency as they do today. Let’s be honest: 19th century female existence largely consisted of book reading and park walking (there are of course books written about that, too). The Angel in the House heroine seems only to become interesting through cynical readings of manipulative schemes or homoerotics (eg Bleak House). But now, 2013, I see no reason as to why women cannot stand in the spotlight of any genre.

In the YA fantasy novel I’m currently writing, my lead is female. With my scattered mind I cannot recall how this decision came about, but somehow it did, and, even stranger it seems to me, the decision still feels right.

Perhaps it is time to revolutionise the literary scene? The Millennium trilogy put Lisbeth Salander in the focal light, and Pullman presented his Lyra some years back. There is an empty space to be filled for sure, and I will continue to work towards contributing to this void with my female heroine, and I look forward to seeing how that pans out.

If you can think of any other compelling female leads, please comment and share. This post may say more about my literary habits than anything else!

N.

Bullying the Word: ‘Actually’

There are several words about which I feel less thrilled than others, and which I try to avoid when possible, but there is one in particular:

‘Actually’

Why? Fair question. Admittedly, it is more because of a gut-feeling than anything else, but here goes.

I dislike ‘actually‘ with that extra fervour due to its charge: in almost whatever way it is used, it suggests some sort of superiority on behalf of the speaker. Let me illustrate.

If used as a reply to somebody’s claim, the derogatory sense becomes obvious. By meeting an argument/assertion with ‘actually‘ you immediately sign post that the person is wrong in one way or the other, and you know the correct information. Even if this is done in a positive light, say in response to someone’s negative assumption, for example that the world is going to, de facto, end tomorrow. ‘Actually, it’s not’ undermines the claim, puts the used on top of the subject, i.e. suggests superiority.

If we instead place it the middle of the sentence: ‘Jackman is usually not my favourite, but I actually liked him in Les Mis’ we are instead faced with an anomaly, something that ought to be acknowledged, elevated, noted. Compare this sentence to if you use ‘really’ instead or simply remove the horrendous word altogether: ‘Jackman is usually not my favourite, but I [really] liked him in Les Mis’. Much better. Much less ‘in your face’.

And then there’s the worst kind. The one which will trigger eye rolling all around and that burning zest of annoyance within. The ‘Actually‘ at the end of the sentence. ‘I didn’t like him, actually.’ Oh dear me, the finalising part like a slap across the face, like a boxing glove of ‘I need to oppose any opinion and be unique.’ Without it, like above, it is a harmless and perfectly all right statement; with it, it gains emotional charge, a magnetism of such strong force it will inevitably clash with something sooner or later.

What has this to do with fiction writing? Well, except that I do all I can to avoid using this word in narrative parts, it is available for characterisation in their speech! Got an annoying character and you want to eccentuate his personality? Think about what annoys you, what would annoy another person. For me, that would certainly mean using the word ‘Actually‘ in his/her speech.

Then again, perhaps that’s just me. I can be little bit snobbish at times when it comes to linguistics.

N.

Rowling: Really Rubbish?

One thing I’ve noticed as a common denominator in the writing department at my university is this: the black disdain for J.K. Rowling.

From year one my professors have, individually and at separate occasions, voiced snarky, demeaning, derogatory comment about this one (in my opinion) genius, and one of my absolute inspirations.

It’s gone so far as to become something of a sign of idiocy to admit that you like her fiction in a public place. I committed this crime a while back, but no, I won’t take it back.

Today showcased the latest in such a line of raving criticism. “If she can be called a novelist” were his exact words.

Let me help.

Yes, yes, she can be called a novelist. She wrote novels, see.

But apparently there is, as it was in Dickens’s time, some kind of huge gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature, and Rowling obviously doesn’t qualify for the former – and not even the latter, according to this particular person.

Interestingly, she has indeed been called ‘Dickensian’.

I read that one critic says she writes in cliché and tired metaphor; another that she has simply patched together conventions of past children’s literature.

Well, here’s what I think: there is a petty elitism, and an arrogant sense of what ‘literature’ should be, still lingering on in the writing world, and much according to the same haughty opinions as in the nineteenth century, and which was voiced against Dickens.

‘High’ art cannot be popular; popular art cannot be ‘high’.

Rubbish. I’m not saying all popular literature is brilliant and of the highest quality, but there is something about it that captures people, even if it’s the glimmering chest of a sexy vampire. I’m no fan of the Twilight saga (and I certainly don’t level it with Harry Potter), but that, Fifty Shades of Grey, and other ‘low’ art, has something within it relating to our time which George Eliot would not be able to replicate if it was republished today.

I won’t go into all the brilliancies of the Harry Potter series, as that would both be futile and take up too much space, but I won’t succumb to this expected dislike for it that seems to contaminate the ‘finer’ rooms of writing.

The series is, in writing myself, an inspiration, and one of those almost-deities of fantasy, whose absolute success is both bringing awe and admiration for the creator herself: J.K. Rowling.

N.

Being Read(y): When is it Time?

I’m sure it’s not as rubbish as you think.

Those were my supervisor’s words in reply to my pitiful e-mail to him stating that I had indeed written over Christmas like promised, but I still had nothing to show him because it’s all, if you’ll pardon my French, crap.

He’s right of course. It rarely is as bad as you think it is. Most people (god knows I’m in this category) are their own worst critic.

But how do you know when it’s good/’unrubbish’ enough to leave the writing desk and be read by an external eye? Sure, constructive feedback is always good, but there is a point in the process where the text is too raw and too unfinished to be read. That point in time could be anything from a first to a fifteenth draft, depending on your own process.

Me, I go on instinct. I simply ask myself: would it feel right for somebody else to read it? Usually the answer is no, period, so then I’ve got to separate the Goblin from the encouraging Angel and see who speaks the loudest. If it’s the Goblin, well, off it goes to someone whose opinion I trust.

And if I can’t decide, then I pull out as much of my efforts, my heart and soul and lungs and veins, and put it into my work, until I don’t know what else to give. Then I offer up this verbal patchwork and ask someone to reflect on it. Usually, things become a lot clearer after that.

It’s impossible to say that at time X it is ready, whereas at time Y it is not: it’s not a gratin we’re talking about. I suppose there are as many answers as there are ants in the stack, but I wonder if there is a ‘recommended’ point.

Someone once said (I can’t for the love of me remember who) that at first, one should write with the door closed, closed off from the world and not invite anybody to the sacred writing haven. Then, slowly, gradually, you’ll reach that magical illusory point, much like that mythical treasure island: “it “cannot be found except by those who already know where it is.

Even if you don’t realise it now, I guess you know its precise location. Or, rather, you recognise it as soon as you get close. An inner compass, of sorts, will lead you there, whether you like it or not, whether the Goblin wants to or not (and boy, will he try to steer you off).

Because in the end, fiction writing is crafted for a readership, whether it be one person or a million. Deny that, and you might as well put down the pen right now.

N.

Writer’s Block:The Goblin Cousin

At the other side of the spectrum from ‘I Wish I’d Written That’ is its less popular cousin ‘I Could Never Write That’. Ever met him? He’s sort of goblin-like, slightly furry but not in the ‘hot Greek’ way, and will every now and then poke his furry fingers in your ear just to provoke.

As a matter of fact he’s sitting on my shoulder right now.

After about two weeks of no writing at all I decided I need to get cracking. Mostly because I honestly do look forward to writing this story, but perhaps mostly because I promised my supervisor a draft ‘I am happy with’ right about, well, today. Let’s just say I have a draft, true, but I’m certainly not happy with it.

Unfortunately for me,this cousin of dark corners has blessed me with his presence. Beside me is a copy of Northern Lights and I’ve read and re-read the opening chapters, concluded twice or thrice how brilliant it is in setting up character, plot, and burying the leads for the rest of the novel. It’s simply genius.

That makes me mad.

It’s almost too good. ‘I Could Never Write That’ whispers the Gothic goblin in my ear. ‘So why bother?’

I’ll tell you why bother: because nobody’s asking me to write Northern Lights. In fact, if I did, it’d probably be a mild case of plagiarism. Of course I know what he means though. But the same idea applies: I’m not meant to write it. Not everyone can write books like that. Perhaps the literature scene would be a rather remarkable thing to look at if they did, but it’d also be rather boring don’t you think?

Everyone has their own voice, their own special qualities and specialities. You just need to find yours and utilise those best you can. Easier said than executed, and I’ll probably publish this post and go back to slight panicky hair-tearing and pen-stabbing (into a note pad, I’m not self-destructive like that), but I guess that’s how my story goes.

One of my good friends, a brilliant, brilliant person in every way, and although I haven’t read anything by her, I’m sure a terrific writer, has written half a novel on a very interesting topic. Then she stopped writing and I’m trying to urge her to finish it. But what she said stuck with me, and sort of relates back to what I said in the first Writer’s Block post. This is what it all comes down to, and it is the force which will demolish all blocks, obstacles, or brick walls in blocking your creativity. She said:

“If I care enough to finish it, I will.”

N.

The Sheet

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Above is a spread sheet by none other than J.K. Rowling for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Ever since I came across it, it has become something of a talisman, a treasure I keep close whenever I write. It’s a little piece of the process of writing from an (in my opinion) absolute genius and it is, like the ‘I Wish I’d Written That’-work itself, something to cling to, and learn from.

Currently, I’m stuck. There, I said it. I haven’t done any writing in about a week and opening up the file seems too intimidating. Each idea I have is followed by one of those bells that sound whenever anyone gets it wrong in a quiz show. ‘Maybe she could…’ BELL! ‘Ok, but perhaps if he…’ BELL!

So I’ve left it. As soon as I realise how silly that strategy is I’ll probably use Rowling’s mapping as a template and flesh out my story so I can get cracking and spill the words. As it is it’s doing no one any good.

Do you use sheets like this while planning? Or do you keep it all in your head, neatly organised? I wish I could! And, most pertinently of all, what do you do when the bell won’t keep quiet?

N.

The Pillow Book

Hokkaido mountain top.‘In spring, it is the dawn. The sky at the edge of the mountains slowly starts to brighten with the approach of day, and the thinly trailing clouds nearby are tinted purple.’

                                                                                  Sei Shônagon, The Pillow Book

Sei Shônagon was a 10-11th century Japanese lady at court and author who is most famous for her collection of notes, published as The Pillow Book. Without exaggeration or understatement, it is a compilation of notes, anecdotes, lists, and other general bits and bobs which came to mind for her. The original was supposedly written on sheets she kept under her pillow, hence the name.

Today, unless you’re already a celebrity of some outrageous measure, you’ll find it hard for anyone to be interested in your nightly scribbles, should you produce your own Pillow Book. But the idea is worth lingering on. For what is fiction, or writing altogether, but an image of life in one way or another? It might be a negative photograph of life, or completely removed from reality: but even such a relationship requires in the first instance a reality to detach from.

This means that whatever occurs around you might be of use to your writing. And you need to note it down, quick. Yes, I’m encouraging you to eavesdrop. Go ahead! Listen! And do write your own Pillow Book: not with the intention of publishing, or even for anybody to read – but for your own flowing spring of ideas. A dream, an overheard conversation, an absurd complex of thoughts.

For me, it’s often when I read – books or critical journals – that ideas come to mind (that’s how developed my focus is), and I jot them down and return to them later. Sometimes it’s rubbish, but every now and then there will be a glimmer of gold in the piles of sand. I believe that the reading of something else works as a suit of armour, a protection from the pressure of a blank screen or an empty spread in the note pad, and it allows the mind to move freely – like when dreaming.

And that’s why you should immediately place a note pad under your pillow. Go on. Done it? Good. Now it’s there, ready to take down dreams, thoughts you had while in the dream, or the moment you wake up, or just before you fall asleep.

Because one morning those ‘thin trailing clouds’ you’ve noted down may begin to take shape, to rise above the mountaintops, and ‘brighten with the approach of day.’ And so the story begins.

N.

‘I Wish I’d Written That…’

You know the feeling. The pages swoop past like they’re in an awful hurry and all of a sudden you’re slapped by the emptiness of the back cover. All you’re left with at that point is post-novel depression: a catching-up-of-breath-while-leaning-back-thinking ‘Wow, I wish I’d written that.’

I’ll be honest: my reading is rather mainstream and there are no shocking presences in my leisure bookshelf (academic, that’s another question). My little friends up there are more likely to have topped the best-seller list than not. Think what you will of that. The ‘I Wish I’d Written That’ works are (among others) Rowling’s Harry Potter, King’s ‘Secret Window, Secret Garden,’ and the 19th century children’s novel The Wind on the Moon by Linklater.

Pretty standard, right? Besides all these, however, there is one particular work I admire above and beyond anything else. It’s not any more gobsmackingly unusual than any of the above, and there is no need for you to sit down, but it nevertheless sticks out in my world: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

These three novels – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass – invite their readers to experience fantasy like I’ve never seen done before. The creativity, the originality, the complexity of the plot – everything about it is astounding. Forget dry dwarves, dreary dragons, and weary wands (don’t get me wrong, these are not necessarily signs of unoriginality) – say ‘howdy’ and ‘how d’ye do’ to Spectres, daemons, and harpies instead! There are witches, granted, but what wonderful witches they are!

This is not just a post where I share my reading delights, but rather a way of making the most of these. As a literature and creative writing student, you learn to really pick a work apart: see what works, how it works, and, most importantly, why it works. That’s what you should do with your own wordy friends.

It’s not a matter of copying a style, not at all. But there is a reason why these particular novels/stories have tickled your approval and finding out that reason can direct you in your own writing. If my admiration for Pullman’s invented worlds is his striking originality, perhaps that’s what I should focus on; if it’s instead based on his strong foundation of scientific fact, there’s another clue.

Just make sure you’re not too inspired. Last year I planned out a full-length novel and was about to start writing when I realised it was more or less a shadow of another work. Needless to say, I put it aside. Inspiration is good, stealing is not, no matter how subconscious/unintentional it is.

What are your ‘I Wish I’d Written That’ works?

N.