Tag Archives: Questions Readers Ask

Write Like A Man!

When a female writer writes a male lead, there’s always a question: “How do you get into a man’s head?” (and vice versa, I’m just going to stick this way round to save a lot of s/he-ing!)

It’s interesting, because the same debate doesn’t appear to come up to the same degree with “How do you get into a Elf’s head?”, “How do you get into a murderer’s head?” etc. Even within the same sex, different genders don’t seem to cause as much of a problem – straight women writing lesbian characters, for example.

I suspect part of the problem is one of audience-accuracy. I find it fascinating, for example, that if I write a character I think seems “Canadian”, carefully using their words and syntax and customs, locals will pick up a lot of problems with it, and if the tables are turned, I rip their British characters to shreds in the same way. Similarly, I suspect a man reading a male character written by a woman, will pick up on things “no man would say”, whereas there are unlikely to be many elves or murderers reading those novels.

Nevertheless, it seems to me an incomplete answer. Lesbians definitely read books, so do murderers and cops and adulterers and all the other characters who get written about by people without first-hand experience. As a writer, I would definitely want a few guys to read my male-centric novels before sending them to publishers, and if I ever write from the POV of a lesbian, cop, etc, I would look for a proof-reader with that sort of expertise too.

But is there also an element of stereotyping? Do we feel more comfortable saying men act / think / feel a certain way than we do with other classes of character?

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Any resemblance…

All_persons_fictitious_disclaimer_English

We’ve all seem the disclaimer at the end of movies – covering the production team from any allegations of libel if someone thinks they have been portrayed unfairly. It’s a danger of any fictional work, of course, because as writers, we draw inevitably from our own experiences to a greater or lesser degree, and as humans, we are inclined to see ourselves in the stories we read.

To some extent, of course, it’s a sign of successful writing. All novels, most obviously those with a clear hero or heroine, play on the reader’s ability to empathise with the main character. Romances work because the readers fall in love with the beau(x), thrillers thrill when we feel the MC’s fear and tension.

But when you know the author, that’s when it becomes a potential problem. Suddenly, you’re reading about a villain who has one or two of your physical traits or quirky habits … suddenly you think the author is writing about you … you decide he or she has secretly thought of you as a villain, a philanderer, murderer, whatever.

Well, no. Here’s my disclaimer. All the characters I write are entirely fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is … actually, not exactly coincidental, but it is specific. I may well have stolen a trait, quirk or anecdote from you, and if that upsets you, let me know and I’ll do my best to remove it. However, one feature does not a character make – whatever I’ve taken from you to build this character, you can assume that’s all I’ve taken. Everything else about the character is either taken from someone else, or is entirely fictitious. Using specific elements from real life makes my characters feels more 3-dimensional; inserting real people into my stories would entirely stifle my creativity and exercising my creativity is the entire reason I write.

The best example I can give is a song. Two years ago, my husband and I did February Album Writing Month. I wrote the lyrics, he composed the music. For one comic song, I wrote lyrics some of which were based on my husband’s anecdotes of youthful drinking exploits. The bits that he recognises are about him, everything else is not. The father and son characters portrayed in the song are entirely fictional, the “banshee” wife is certainly neither me nor my lovely mother in law, and the song is a work of fiction.

So next time you’re reading something where you know the author, feel free to look out for something of you in the story, but if you find it, be flattered that they find you so interesting, and don’t worry that the whole story is about you.

And if you don’t believe me, I’ll leave the last word to Carly Simon

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Following up or digging deeper

It’s been a while since I featured any writing exercises or games on a Monday and I know they used to be popular. One which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is BeKindRewrite’s “Voice Week” which takes place in the first week of October. The idea is to write the same story five times, each using a different voice or point of view. You can find out more, and join in, here: http://voiceweek.wordpress.com/

I’ve decided to participate, probably using the story I wrote for Friday Fictioneers last week, because I feel it lends itself to further investigation, and Voice Week feels like one way to do that.

There’s another way, however, and that’s today’s game. Short stories – and flash fiction in particular – often invite the reader to make their own interpretation and impressions about what’s going on, what’s just happened, and what happens next. Among readers, it’s pretty common to see comments along the lines of “please write the next scene,” or “you could turn this into a novel”. Of course, the key to good short fiction is to tell a whole story within the confines of the piece, but that doesn’t mean these commenters have missed the point. After all, where does a story begin and end? And what is the story without a background to shape the character’s situation and the future to shape their hopes and fears?

So here’s the latest writing game, and it’s one I plan to work on sometime when I have a week to dedicate to it: Take a short story or ideally a piece of flash fiction that fired your imagination, but left you with unanswered questions. It could be your own, or someone else’s (provided you get their permission and give proper credit to the original author). Write up to five different scenes from either before or after, which give the answers to some of the questions raised, or shed more light on the characters’ motivations, personalities or behaviour. These scenes could show what happens immediately before or after, or they could be separated by vast swathes of time and space. They could feature the same characters or other people. And they can definitely contradict each other.

For example, if I took A Mother’s Legacy as my starting point, I could write two scenes from immediately before – one showing a political catastrophe which causes the Mother to need to escape the country quickly; the other showing that the narrator is manipulating her mother to take control of the family inheritance. Then I could write one scene from years before, echoing this one but with Mother taking her daughter to the shore for some alternative purpose, perhaps a pleasure trip on her birthday. Finally, I could write 2 scenes set after the original story, one showing the narrator (this time a son) taking his mother to a literal boat which promises safety, and the other making it clear that the whole story is metaphorical and the mother is dying.

 

If you take a stab at this, whether now or in the future, I’d love to hear how it works for you, and to take a look at the results if you choose to blog about them. Feel free to post thoughts, suggestions or links below.

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Write who you know?

It’s an oft-quoted piece of writing advice to write what you know, but it’s as oft-flouted as it is quoted. After all, if writers stuck to it religiously, there could be no fiction at all, and certainly no fantasy, historical fiction or sci-fi.

The best writers draw on their own experiences, mixing them with research and good old-fashioned imagination. Emotions, for example, are extremely transferable and to some extent scalable. I’ve experienced the fear of hearing strange noises in the house or of seeing a suspicious-looking character walking towards me on a dark street, so it’s escalation rather than invention, to imagine how I, or my characters, would react if those fears turned out to be real, or to other frightening circumstances. If grief can be measured (as with love, I’m not persuaded it’s a ratio scale), I have been fortunate only to experience milder forms – for pets, grandparents and not-incredibly-close friends. But I know enough of it from both inside and outside to conjure some of the emotion that loss causes into my characters. It works like empathy – I can’t imagine how it feels to lose one’s partner, child or parent, but I can begin to, and that is why my heart goes out to friends, family and even strangers who have.

Emotions aren’t the only place where writers mix experience and imagination. We do it in every scene and virtually every sentence, as we craft a story which we want to ring true. Like watching a singer miming, readers pick up on inconsistencies in stories almost subconsciously. You can’t always point to the problem, but you know it doesn’t ring true.

to me, that’s one reason that writing realism can be harder than fantasy. If I write about a dwarf speaking to an elf, fantasy fans may say that my dwarf is not accurately portrayed, but what they are really saying is that my vision of dwarves doesn’t match that of Tolkien, or some other master of the fantasy cannon. Although I might be wise to follow the crowd (or to create  anew name for the race I’m creating from scratch), I cannot be “wrong” because I am creating something out of nothing. But if I write about two plumbers, discussing the nature of a problem in the pipework, I’d better be sure I’ve done my background reading, because plumbers and their wives / mothers / assistants / apprentices everywhere will pick me up right away if I muddle caulking with grout.

All of which is probably why a lot of writers pick a career and stick to it (Crime writers cling to detectives, John Grisham churns out lawyers…) or avoid involving careers as far as possible (who knows or cares what the majority of Stephen King’s characters do to earn their crust?). We also tend to choose a genre and a time period, whether that’s our own (Jane Austen, Jodi Picoult…) or a particular one we’ve researched endlessly (Catherine Cookson, Philippa Gregory).

And, most writers stick to the gender they know best, at least for the narrator or principal character. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is about a teenage boy, but the narrator and in many ways the main character is a woman, as is Lionel Shriver, and all her books, however well they depict men, do it from the outside.

Age is tougher, but also more flexible. Most published writers are over 25, yet young adult fiction is immensely popular and children’s fiction fills a huge area in every bookshop and library. But at least we’ve been there, and many adults have a pretty close view of childhood through their own families. And maybe age makes less of a difference than we would like to think. 60 year olds, 30 year olds, even 18 year olds don’t think that differently. Our hopes and fears change, as do our priorities, but the emotions that embody them aren’t so different however old we are.

But still … I look at my draft novels and I wonder why I’ve got a third person close narrative from the point of view of a thirty year old man, and a first person diary written by a middle-aged father. Do I just like to make things difficult?!

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Planning 101

As promised, in previous posts (see https://elmowrites.wordpress.com/2012/02/20/planning-by-the-seat/), I’m going to try to lay some groundwork here about the planning process for writers who choose to plan in advance. I am not advocating planning as the only method of writing, but when the project is big, or time-pressured, or simply when the writer has a good idea in advance of where the story is going, it can help to get that down on paper before the writing starts in earnest.

Today’s post is about Plot planning, there are other kinds of planning which I’ll deal with another time.

Some of these ideas are based on what is known as the Snowflake Method, which you can read about in more detail here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php

Stage 1: Elevator Pitch

When the novel(1) is finished, the writer may want to pitch it to a publisher, agent or editor. But even from the beginning, it’s a great idea to have a clue vision of the basic premise of the story. Ideally, we’re going for no more than 25 words and a single sentence.

EG “An old woman looks back at a love affair from her youth and the disaster which separated her from her lover forever.”(2)

Stage 2: Paragraph Pitch

This stage is in many ways just a part of Stage 1. The idea is to expand the single sentence pitch into a paragraph, but it’s still very much a pitch. It will still leave the reader guessing about a huge number of things. It shouldn’t be more than about 100 words and 4 or 5 sentences. It will start to identify the themes and focus points of the novel.

EG “Four boys facing challenges in their daily lives, learn the location of a body in the woods. Set out on foot to see it, but a rival group of older boys is heading the same way. On their journey, the heroes face experiences and dangers which test not only their friendship but their own strengths and personalities. The boys who find the body are not the ones who set out to look for it. This coming of age drama tells the story of childhood friendships and innocence on the verge of discovery.”

Stage 3: Paragraph Story

This is where the plotting really starts. Stages 1 and 2 did little more than identify the  themes and ideas. They were deliberately vague and enticing, but this is the time when that stops. From Stage 3 onwards, the plan is not for the eyes of anyone except the writer. It absolutely should contain spoilers and answers to the questions the first two stages raised. This paragraph should be around the same length as the previous one, but this time be clearly plot driven. The first sentence should deal with the opening scenes, the last sentence with the ending, and the middle of the paragraph three key events that happen in between.

**SPOILER ALERT: This example contains spoilers for a film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard.**

EG: “A 19th century village, surrounded by woods populated by scary monsters that keep the inhabitants trapped in their otherwise idyllic lifestyle. A young couple falls in love, but a mentally handicapped boy who had hoped to marry the girl himself stabs the lover repeatedly in the chest. The girl’s only hope of saving her fiance is to travel through the woods to the nearby town to get medicine. Giving his blessing, her father admits to her that the monsters are not real, created by the elders of the village to protect its inhabitants from straying to the tempting but dangerous town. When she travels to the town, the girl realises that she and the villagers have in fact been living in a secret enclave in modern America, set up by the elders to escape the dangers and excesses of 21st century society.”

Stage 4: Expansion

From here, the process is simply one of expansion. Each sentence in that paragraph can be turned into a paragraph of its own. Each of these new paragraphs into a page, and so on. In some ways, this process could be repeated forever until the story was novel-length, but it is my view that to do so would be to create a much flatter story than is possible by writing more organically. Therefore once I have a collection of about 25 scenes, I tend to stop and write from scratch, using this plan as no more than a guideline. I might add in more scenes, or flesh some out more than others, depending on the flow of the writing and the scenes which lend themselves more to tension or action.

Taking the example above, this film incorporates a huge amount of set up; the first sentence alone takes up something like half the length of the film, with the second sentence creeping in and taking up most of the rest. The third and fourth are brushed over relatively quickly and then the final sentence is the denouement and ties together all the threads that have been spun out by elements either only hinted at or not mentioned in this summary.

Expansion is over when the writer says it is. They may do little more than chapter headings, or they may write a page or two of notes for each chapter. They may even not break the book into chapters until after it is written.

 

Footnotes:
1: For convenience, I’m referring to the story / work as a novel. This could equally apply to a shorter story, a memoir or whatever piece of creative writing is being carried out. I’m not sure it works so well for non-fiction, but I imagine it is quite easily modified to do so.
2: Feel free to play the game of identifying the famous books or movies I’m using for my examples.

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It’s Alive!

In response to my introductory post about planning last week, Ivan commented that as a reader he couldn’t understand writers who say that characters take over – surely those characters are our own creations and will do anything we want – no more or less?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a satisfactory explanation of this, which makes me wonder if it’s possible. But I am going to try my best here, and I welcome the comments, thoughts or disagreement of other writers and of readers too.

Of course, on a basic level, we control what the characters do in the stories we write. We can choose to write something down any way we please – even at its smoothest and most inspired, writing is not automatic writing. But that’s not what we’re talking about when we say that the characters take over.

Sometimes, writing is like transcribing the movie in your head. The story flows as naturally as a dream, and the writer merely watches it and describes it on paper (or keyboard). Of course, it’s a waking dream, so we could step in and change the events, but how often do you feel in control of your daydreams? If you picture yourself lying on a beach, watching the waves lap on the shore, you certainly could consciously decide to have a waiter appear at your arm with a pina colada, but it’s more likely that this will happen unconsciously as your mind builds its image of escape.

But a lot of writing isn’t like that. it’s more conscious. The art of writing is not precise. Even a writer with a detailed plan will be filling in details as he or she goes along. You might have planned that your main character (MC) goes to a high school reunion and meets an old flame there, but when you write the reunion scene you will be adding other characters – teachers and students from her past – and having to flesh out their history. In doing so, you might “discover” (by which I mean create, more on this in a moment) that your MC got a detention from her Science teacher for something she didn’t do. This new information feeds into your picture of your MC, so that suddenly the argument she had with her teenage son three chapters ago about doing his Science homework takes on a new significance. When you wrote it, it was just an excuse to get the son to storm out of the house so that you could have her home alone when her lover phoned. Now, out of nowhere, Science is a feature and you will want to return to it later. Her experiences will also influence how she goes on to deal with her son’s problems in school for the rest of the novel. You might even have to go back and change how she dealt with her daughter getting a detention in Chapter 1.

What I am trying to show here, is that while we do control what we write, we don’t make all the minor decisions in advance, and we don’t necessarily even make them with a great deal of awareness. In the planning stage, we knew that MC was going to meet her old flame at the reunion. We knew that she would have to go through a bit of mindless small talk with the other people at the reunion to build the tension and suspense before she caught up with him. But what that small-talk was going to be didn’t seem to matter until we started writing it. We just threw a few bodies between MC and the ex-boyfriend. Those bodies needed form and something to say and, being a reunion, they needed history. So we created one, but really, we looked into our minds (or muses or our own memories or wherever else we search for extras in the cast of our novels) and discovered something at random.

These apparently minor decisions about something that happens to our MC or about something our MC thinks or feels can have a profound effect on how we view her. And then, when we come to the part of the story where the MC makes a life-changing decision, we come to realise that she wouldn’t go the way we’d planned all along at all. She would pull the trigger, or say yes or whatever it is. And bam, you’ve got a completely different story on your hands from the one you planned.

Sometimes, the extras (whether they are people, events, places or whatever) in a novel as just that, extras. They float in, pad the scenery, and then they float out again without ever really having done anything. But other times, they sneakily become pivotal. They get ideas above their station and they flap their wings like a butterfly in an English meadow. And before you know it, there’s an earthquake out in California and you’re wondering how it got there.

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More on Inspiration and Murderers

Less than a week after writing my previous post, “Where do you get your ideas?”, I was sitting in a juice bar waiting for my husband.So I picked up the book he’d been reading and started leafing through it. To my surprise, I came upon the author’s views on just this question – the writer’s top FAQ. It made me realise there was something else to say.

In the Preface to “What the Dog Saw” (Little, Brown and Company, 2009), Malcolm Gladwell attempts to answer the question first of all by giving some specific examples of where his ideas came from, but then he summarises, “The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell.” He goes on to correct himself, calling this trick a challenge.

Gladwell is a reporter; he writes factual books and articles about interesting psychological and societal phenomena, but his remarks gave me pause. Because he is right in a way, but I wouldn’t call it a trick or a challenge, more a worldview. A way of looking at things. And maybe that is what makes me a writer of fiction.

Last week the Friday Fiction picture was an airport (you can see the picture, and my response at https://elmowrites.wordpress.com/2012/01/20/flash-fiction-9/). And yet only maybe 20% of the responses featured an airport. The rest spanned heaven and hell, ancient sailing ships and moderns cruise-liners, shopping malls, alien space craft… we couldn’t help it. We couldn’t just see the picture and think “There’s an airport concourse [full stop. no story there.]” any more than we could look at an acorn on the ground the week before and see nothing but an acorn. We all saw something else. Characters. Drama. A story.

So perhaps, as a fiction writer, when faced with the question “Where do you get your ideas?”, there is only one answer, “I’m a writer. It’s not a question of where I get them, it’s a matter of how I get rid of them.” And that, of course, is by turning them into stories.

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