Thursday, December 30, 2010

Advice and a Blessing for the Coming Year

If 'Phsician, heal thyself' is the best advice one can give to a doctor, then 'Writer, know thyself' might well be the best advice one can give to an author. Research may take you far and wide, but the heart of your story will be found within. It is through insight into yourself and your own experiences that you will find something of value to share with others.

May you have the imagination and playfulness to create great stories, the courage to look within to discover their meaning, the perseverence to shape and perfect them and the generosity to share them with the world. May your courage and generosity return to you a thousand-fold.

Friday, December 24, 2010

To all my blog followers, fellow bloggers and facebook friends

Thanks for your interest, comments and ongoing support. I wish you joy, peace, health and love in the coming year.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Writing Class: A question of timing

When should information be revealed? How much? How soon?

I have in my head an image of a man bending over a prostrate body of a woman. The man is wearing a mask and carrying a knife. The woman is bleeding, unconscious. Undeterred, the man plunges the knife into her flesh…

Can you picture the scene? What are you thinking? What is happening here? Have you understood that the man is a criminal, the woman his victim?

Imagine a story that begins this way.

Now imagine that as you continue reading, further details are revealed. It slowly becomes apparent that in fact, the man is not a criminal, but a surgeon. The mask is a surgical one. The knife is not a weapon but a scalpel. The man is not a murderer killing an innocent woman. He is a heroic doctor saving a life.

This is an example of withholding information as a plot device – the writer playing with, and deliberately misleading, the reader.

More commonly, information is withheld to create suspense or maintain tension. In a Whodunit, for instance, you won’t find out who ‘done’ it till the very end.

However, certain information should be given upfront; it forms part of the set-up. This includes all aspects of characterisation. (For a review of the difference between character and characterisation, see an earlier post.)

If your character has a stutter, a limp, wears glasses or is bald, this information should be given as soon as the character is introduced. It won’t do to let the reader know halfway through the novel that the protagonist has black hair. If you want to provide this information, do it before the reader has begun to picture him as a blond or a redhead.

Don’t wait till page 200 to tell the reader that your hero has blue eyes (unless it’s a plot device and you were deliberately misleading the reader into thinking he had brown ones when in fact he was wearing contact lenses all this time…)

Likewise, if you tell the reader in Chapter 2 that the protagonist has a sister called Mary and a brother called Jo, don’t wait till Chapter 6 to mention Alex (that is, unless you have a specific reason for doing so), since the reader will assume a three-sibling family.

In short, check your timing. Always be conscious of how much information you provide, when, and why.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Looking for some great YA reads for the summer? I recently read and recommend:

Letters to Leonardo by Dee White – so moving! This book begins with fifteen-year-old Matt Hudson receiving a letter from the mother he thought was dead. Determined to find out the truth behind the lie, he seeks her out – and discovers far more than he bargained for. If you like a tearjerker, this one’s for you, but have a box of tissues handy – I haven’t cried so much in ages.

Angel Fish by Lili Wilkinson – a vividly imagined account of the Children’s Crusade narrated by one of its fictional participants, the na├»ve and sensitive Gabriel. This is a beautifully-written novel that is as thought-provoking as it is insightful. It has a timeless relevance.

Six by Karen Tayleur – a well-plotted, well-written novel about a group of teenagers who share a horrifying secret. One of them dies in a car accident, but we don’t know who. This quick and easy read is a suspenseful page-turner with a mix of distinctive characters and a clever ending.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Writing Class: The function of subplots

A single plot, otherwise known as ‘the major plot’, generally isn’t enough to sustain a novel. Even if the major plot is strong, it will tend to fizzle out if not supported by one or more subplots.

Subplots perform an important role when it comes to pacing the novel. Interspersing the major plot with a subplot slows down the novel and increases tension. When you want to make the reader wait to find out what happens next in the major plot, you can simply move to the subplot.

The subplot must relate to the major plot in a critical way. While this relationship may not be obvious at the start of the novel, it must be apparent by the end. Subplots aren’t merely digressions into other, unrelated stories. They must be linked in some way to the major plot. The best subplots are those that are also thematically related to the major plot, perhaps highlighting another aspect of the theme, or approaching it from a different angle.

Subplots usually tell the stories of the secondary characters. Like the major plot, each subplot must be a complete story in itself, with a beginning, middle and end and an arc of its own.

When recognizing that their novel needs further development, novice writers sometimes make the mistake of adding more characters and too many subplots. This results in too many under-developed stories, and weakens rather than strengthens the novel as a whole.

It is therefore best to limit your subplots to two or three, and don’t add characters just to flesh out your story. Rather, develop your characters and their stories, and always make sure your subplots complement your major story.

Friday, December 10, 2010

More gems from one of my favourite blogs, Glass Cases...

Click here to be inspired by Sarah's small tribute to John Lennon and what he had to say about writing.

Writing Class: The Plot Thickens - or if it doesn't, it should...

When first attempting a novel, many writers have a great idea. They know how to begin their story. They may know how they want it to end. It’s just the middle that is problematic – the 200 or so pages that take the reader from start to finish.

Most writers know they need a conflict, for conflict is the fuel of story. There is a character with a want or need, and an obstacle preventing that character from fulfilling that want or need.

Some common examples:

· Girl wants boy, but she is shy, and boy doesn’t know she even exists.

· Boy wants girl and is about to ask her out when he loses his job, and no longer thinks he’s worthy of her.

· A piece of jewellery is stolen from a woman who wants to find the thief and get it back, even though this may be dangerous.

· An athlete has his heart set on winning a particular race even though he’s lost months of training due to an illness, and his odds aren’t good.

So far, all this information is contained in the set-up. But what happens next? To keep the reader hooked, you’ll generally need to complicate the plot – to heighten the conflict and increase the stakes. The above examples may look like this:

· The more shy girl sees of boy who doesn’t know she exists, the more interested in him she becomes. She keeps her feelings to herself, not even confiding in her best friend, Jane. Increasingly aware of his positive qualities, she decides to overcome her shyness and approach him but just then Jane tells her that she’s noticed this guy (same guy, of course) she thinks is cute, and has decided she’s going to ask him out. Girl secretly hopes that boy will refuse, but pretty soon he and Jane are an item…

· Boy loses his job just before he asks girl out. Landlord puts his rent up so not only is he jobless, he is also in debt. A slump in the economy makes finding another job particularly difficult. Girl appears more beautiful every time he sees her. Meanwhile, he knows for a fact that lots of wealthy guys are asking her out. A chance encounter with her reveals that she is even kinder, sweeter and more understanding than he’d ever imagined, and she takes up permanent residence in his head, but his debt is rising…

· The woman whose ring has been stolen is determined to get it back because it was given to her by her grandmother, and has a great deal of sentimental value. During the course of tracking the thief, she discovers that he is not only a thief; he is also wanted for murder. In the meantime, she finds out that the ring is actually worth a great deal of money…

· The athlete trains with persistence and determination and feels he just might be getting somewhere. But then he has a relapse and another precious week of training is lost. Meanwhile, he discovers that winning the race will mean a scholarship to a university, and is his only chance at tertiary education. He’s hopeful that with renewed perseverance he might have a hope. Then he finds out that he will be racing against the formidable X, who has never ever lost a race…

In short, the obstacles become greater, the stakes higher, so that much is to be gained if the characters achieve their goals, and a great deal to be lost if they do not.

Of course, not every novel will look like this, but most popular, commercially successful novels will. Generally speaking, giving your main characters a hard time will elicit sympathy from the reader and generate respect when your characters finally overcome seemingly impossible obstacles to achieve their goals.

If you're editing a first draft, make sure you've complicated your plot, increased the obstacles, and raised the stakes. A good question to ask yourself is this: Have I made things as difficult for my character as I possibly could?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Recently read and highly recommend...

Adult non-fiction: Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander - a witty and wonderful book about how years of 'theological abuse' left this author scarred for life. So insightful, entertaining and brilliantly written.

Young Adult: Hush by Eishes Chayil - had to read this one because of its similarities to Dancing in the Dark. It too is set in a haredi (ultra-orthodox) community, though it's much darker, as it deals with incest and sexual abuse. Desptie the gravity of its subject matter, it's a very easy and compelling read.

Young Adult: Mice by Gordon Reece - a powerful, thought-provoking psychological thriller about what happens when a teenage girl and her mother retreat to a house in the country to escape further bullying by culprits who got away scott free. A real page-turner!

Young Adult: Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell - as beautiful as its title suggests, with flawed, relatable and endearing characters you'll always remember.

Children's Fiction: Darius Bell and the Glitter Pool by Odo Hirsch - adorable, clever, delightful, and beautifully written. This is a book full of heart. It's one of those rare gems that remind you why you liked reading in the first place. 

What have you read lately? And what do you recommend for the approaching holidays?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Writing/Editing Class - pacing your manuscript, beginning with the very first chapter

Problems with pacing generally fall into one of two categories:

1) the story is too fast
2) the story is not fast enough

When the story is too fast, too much is revealed too soon. Often, this will detract from the steady build-up of tension that stories require.

When the story is too slow, you will probably lose your readers well before they finish the novel.

When checking your manuscript for problems of pace, bear in mind that you need to pay special attention to your opening chapters, and in particular Chapter One because: a) this is the chapter that will determine whether your reader will read on, and b) mistakes made in Chapter One are often indicative of mistakes made throughout the manuscript.

The first chapter needs to hook the reader, and in order to do this, it’s important to raise questions that won’t be answered right away. Common hooks include:

· the arrival of a letter – what portentous information does it contain?
· the discovery of a dead body – who dunnit, how and why?
· a stranger’s arrival in a close-knit town – how will the dynamics of the community change
· anything that is out of the ordinary, that will effect a change in the status quo.

Whatever your hook, make sure your story doesn’t give away too much too soon. You want to keep your reader invested – guessing, wondering…

Yet while delayed gratification is crucial, it’s important to plunge your reader straight into the story. Too many would-be writers make the mistake of delaying the start of the story until after they’ve completed a lengthy set-up, including detailed descriptions of the characters and their backstories. This is not only unnecessary but counter-productive. Characters and the world they inhabit should be revealed as the story unfolds. Readers don’t want a character study; they want a story. And you don’t have a story unless something happens.

So when reading over Chapter One, ask yourself the following questions:
What happens in this chapter? (Something must.)
What is the hook?
Are readers left with unanswered questions? (They certainly should be.)

If you are satisfied that Chapter One is working, keep reading. Check the pace of the entire manuscript. If it feels too fast, it could be that there is:

a) not enough description
b) insufficient character development, or
c) insufficiently developed sub-plot/s.

If this is the case, your readers will probably feel dissatisfied, though they may not know why.

To slow the story down, increase tension, and provide a more satisfying reading experience, you may wish to:

a) add description
b) develop the characters, or
c) develop the subplots.

On the other hand, your story, or parts of it, may feel too slow. In this case, the culprits could be:

a) repetition
b) long-winded description
c) lengthy dialogue
d) too many sub-plots
e) overindulging in internal monologue
f) digressions into tangents that are not essential to the story you’re telling.

For all the above, the solution is the same: cut, cut and cut some more.

The beginning of a novel is a promise to the reader. Make sure you deliver, but slowly, so that your promise is not entirely fulfilled until the final sentence.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Moving From the First Draft to the Second

Congratulations to all who completed NaNoWriMo and now have a first draft ready for editing. Throughout the month of December I’ll be posting titbits on what to look for when going through that first draft, and how to improve it. I’ll be giving tips on pacing, story, major plots and sub-plots, voice, character, point of view, etc., though not necessarily in that order.

To start with, here is a link to K.M. Weiland’s 7 tips for editing – well worth reading whether or not you’ve already begun the editing process.

Good luck writers, and hope to see you back here soon.