Point of view and ‘peripheral vision’

I had an eye test this week. ‘Excellent peripheral vision’, said the optician after I looked for the flashing lights at the edges of the screen, pressing the button whenever I saw one. Have you done that test? It’s like a game.So, that means that I can see what’s happening away from the centre of my vision. Maybe that extends to my writing too.

As I carried on ‘plotting’ over the past few days, I wondered whether I am too interested in the ‘peripherals’, that is what’s happening away from the main action of my story, at the expense of the principal storyline. That was the problem with the first novel I ever wrote. What about ‘point of view’? said my ‘professional critic. And it was a fair question. In every scene, what caught my eye was someone at the edge of the action, watching, listening, thinking, reacting. That felt right to me as the writer, but I was persuaded that the reader might find it confusing. So I try now to decide at the beginning of each chapter, whose shoulder am I sitting on in this scene? Sometimes the POV might switch from one paragraph to the next within a single chapter, but that would be rare and deliberate, not continual and accidental as it had been in the first draft of ‘A Good Liar’. I think maintaining that discipline has probably been helpful, but I still yearn for the ‘triangulation’ you can get when the same events are witnessed and commented on by a range of people.

As I prepare to start writing the first full draft of Book 5, I wonder whether I can experiment a little this time: have my previous four books given me permission to push against the constraints of style without losing my readers? Life is complex: the same events can be perceived quite differently by different participants.

We’ll see. As the starting point of writing gets closer I find myself itching to get going, now that the planning and research is almost done. And you know where my cursed peripheral vision is taking me now? Even before I’ve started on writing Book 5, I’m thinking about Book 6.

Stop it, Ruth. Focus. Focus.




My first writing workshop, Jan 17th, Kendal Library

Well, actually, it’s not quite my first. That was at the Borderlines Festival in Carlisle in September – which was a great book festival, by the way – but it was only an hour and a half, not long enough to do anything substantial. Even so, I enjoyed it so much that I really want to have another go, for a few hours this time. I picked the middle of January to connect with people who feel that writing fiction is on their New Year’s resolution list, or whatever intellectual bucket list they carry in our heads and hearts. For me it was the approach of a big birthday that made me think that life is short: instead of just thinking about writing a novel it was definitely time to get started.

So Saturday January 17th was my pick for a date, when 2015 is beckoning. What about a venue? I’m not sure how many people may be interested, so I didn’t want to commit an expensive venue with the pressure of a deadline. Cumbria library service has been very supportive to my wring and publishing, and Kendal library has a good space and helpful people, so that was the decision. Despite all the uncertainties of an untried enterprise, I’m really clear what I want to do during those few hours. Looking back on my own choices, what has mattered to me most as a writer in the past five years has been balancing character, plot and setting and do justice to all three. I’m a good teacher, so with those goals in mind I can put together a learning experience that will – hopefully – motivate, inform and encourage people who like me feel they have a story to tell and need a place to start. And then there’s the business of getting published: I have plenty of advice to offer about that, from hard personal experience. The workshop is called ‘Writing and Publishing a Novel’, and I’ll be interested to see how much time participants will want to spend on each of these two aspects. For me, logic dictates that writing something of real quality has to come first: what’s the point in self-publishing something that isn’t as good as it can be?

So, Kendal Library it is, on Saturday January 17th, from 9.45 to 3.15 with a short break for lunch. Five or so hours is not much but it’s start, and we’ll see how it goes. When it came to a decision about a fee, I had some interesting choices to juggle. To get something similar in London would cost a lot, and with travel on top, but that would be led by a recognised ‘name’ in the business. My books sell well across Cumbria, but I couldn’t call myself a ‘name’ even here, so why would anyone want to come, and how much might they be prepared to pay? In the end I opted for £30, and bring your own lunch. Apart from the cost of a catered lunch you get into all sorts of paperwork about dietary needs and options, and it would be so much easier and more convenient to ask people to bring a sandwich, or a salad, or some leftovers for midday nourishment and let the real business of the day be about the writing, not the eating. Will anybody come? Some will, they’ve already signed up. The main problem will be letting people know that it’s on, and you can help if you read as far as this, if you know someone who lives within reach of Kendal and might enjoy the experience.

Which brings me to the thorny issue of marketing, the self-publishers hardest task. Some local bookshops will carry a poster but others will not. The libraries will advertise, but BBC Radio Cumbria can’t do so, except for local community events, and this workshop doesn’t qualify as that. The local papers might carry something, but if it’s too early it’ll get swallowed in the tide of Christmas stuff. So I think I need to wait until after Christmas, when people are beginning to think about the year ahead. Will it work? I don’t know. I know I can help adults learn something new, because that’s my life’s work, but the business of marketing is still a learning experience for me. I’ll have to be prepared to fail before I succeed – that’s how learning works. If you want to come, by the way, you can go to the ‘Events’ section of my website, sign up and pay online with Paypal. Or you can email me direct on ruth@ruthsutton.co.uk. Couldn’t be simpler, and it could be the first step on a road that will give you as much pleasure as it’s giving me.

Character, Complexity and Point of View

Weeks ago I thought the outline for Book 4 was almost finished: just the odd twist here. or an extra chapter there and it was done, waiting to be fleshed out in all its detail in the first draft. Then I had to step away for a while to focus on another project and when I returned to it, I lost confidence. Everything looked trite, predictable, and some of the characters felt wooden and two-dimensional.

So I controlled my impatience to get started, ready or not, and went back to basics, taking each of the characters and writing character studies: what does this person look and sound like, how do they dress, walk, eat? Where were they born and raised, what motivates them, what do they aspire to or fear? What will they do in certain situations, and ow will they relate to the other characters they encounter?

That’s a really useful exercise, but these deeper rounder characters are now so engaging that they demand many more pages to do them justice, and each wants their own voice, or ‘Point of View’.

I love the idea of multiple points of view, with even minor characters able to provide their individual perspective and version of events, but I’m wary of going down this road given the strict advice that accompanied the one – and only – professional critique of my writing, way back when the first novel was in its first iteration and I was floundering. ‘Keep it simple’ was the advice. Only two or three of your characters can be given a ‘Point of View’, so decide who they are and stick to it. To do otherwise runs the risk of confusing your readers and slowing down the plot.

Book 4 is my first attempt at a crime novel. I’ve taken the conventional stance – so far at least – of having two main characters on the side of ‘order and honesty’ but as time goes by I’m getting more interested in the ‘baddies’, without whom there is no tension, wrong-doing and resolution. If the ‘baddies ‘ are two-dimensional, the plot fails. Patricia Highsmith understood this: now I wonder whether I could take the risk of appearing amoral, as she can be described, by making the character of a central ‘baddy’ the driving force of the plot and its most engaging voice. I’d love to do that, but it could be a step too far for a first foray into a new genre. My readership so far trusts me not to shock or outrage them: they’re curious about my characters and want to like them. Would they feel betrayed by a detailed depiction of the despicable?

I think I’ll probably opt for safety this time, with two honest characters at the heart of the story, but I’ll also give depth and voice to at least one of the dishonest characters too, letting us see the complexities and ambivalence, and the flaws in our national life at the time when the story is set, which of course are still with us today. I want this book to be the start of a series, and that adds some pressures that I’ll explore in a future post. I’m still thinking about it.


Writing a novel: where to start?

I suppose I’ve learned quite a lot about writing a novel over the past few years. A long time before that I learned how to write sentences and string them together into paragraphs that followed each other and made sense. I can recall some quite good writing in my school years, and at university, but that was mainly explaining ideas, or recounting other people’s ideas. Writing a novel is different, as different as painting a full canvas is from doing a doodle in the corner of a page. I didn’t realise that at the beginning. I thought that writing full length fiction was not palpably different, just more of the same, and I was wrong.

Now I’m wondering if I can help others through some of the stages I have been through myself. Ideally, as many of the best writing courses do, you would take people through stage by stage, with time intervals in between for practice and reflection, watching the improvement as time goes by. But those courses are expensive, and require high levels of expertise and confidence from the ‘providers’ to reassure the clients they are not wasting their time or their money.

What would I have to offer, having written only three works of fiction so far, which I have published myself. The feedback has been good, and the sales tick along nicely, but do I really have something worth sharing? And given I’m a relative novice in this business, would anyone want to put themselves in my hands even for a little while, and pay for my help? The experience of writing may be slender, but there’s one thing in all this where my experience is deep and trustworthy: I know how to help adults learn. I’ve been in the adult learning business as a freelance education consultant for over twenty years, all round the world. Most of my clients have been educators, but very varied in style, age, nationality, motivation and potential. I’m pretty good at meeting these various needs, as I should be after all this time.

So, could the experience in adult learning make up for relative inexperience as a writer? I think it might just do so, and in a couple of months I’ll get the chance to find out. I’m planning a writing workshop, for a Saturday in January, at one of our local public libraries. ( For those of you who know Cumbria, it’s in Kendal.) I want to find twenty or so people and work with them for six hours, embarking on the very early stages of ‘Writing and Publishing a Novel.’ I’m not going to start with ‘how to write a good sentence’, heading instead straight for how to find a setting and some characters, give them life and write a story that readers will enjoy. Already ideas for useful activities that will meet this purpose are beginning to bubble up, drawing on many of the best activities I’ve experienced in my own learning so far. The starting points will be setting and characters: once we have those, things begin to take off. Tackling the thorny question of getting published may be a lot to take on in a shortish day, but I know it is of interest to most aspiring writers, and here again some practical advice may be helpful.

Now I need the publicity that will bring in enough people to make it work. We’re working on the website link, but it’s likely that most people will hear about the workshop through the local libraries and media. I do hope some people come: I really want to see whether the ideas in my head will stimulate potential writers to take the plunge as I did six years ago, and am so glad I did.

‘Writing a novel starter pack’ : what to include?

I love teaching, always have, and since 1982 I’ve been working with adults as learners rather than younger students. Having recently struggled myself to learn the basics of starting, finishing and publishing a novel, what I’d love to do now is ‘teach’ some of that to anyone who’s embarking on the same journey. It’s making me think: what would I put in my ‘writing a novel starter pack’?

I’m going back over all the courses I’ve been on in the past six years, to identify the most useful elements and processes and then knit those bits into a structure and time frame that would suit a beginner who might not want to embark on a long commitment, but wants to get a taste of what may be involved before they delve deeper.

From the very first Arvon course I went on in 2008 I learned how to expand the germ of an idea into the start of a story, capture a fragment of that story in a scene, write it as well as I could, read it to others, get feedback and see how that felt. We also learned about dialogue, and a bit about structure. We did the inevitable writing exercises, too, just to get us going and sharing. I could have done with more about structure and Point of View, and maybe fewer of the ‘exercises’ but it was still a wonderful week and I’m still drawing on it years later. Best bits? Dealing with dialogue, and writing a scene for reading out and critique.

At a Faber Academy course called ‘Stuck in the Middle’ I picked up the usefulness of capturing the essence of your story, expanding it into a short synopsis and then have others ask questions and make suggestions. When the people grilling you about your story are as skilled and insightful as Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant, it’s both intimidating and exhilarating, and I learned not just about the elements of a good story but about myself too, and the confidence it takes to benefit from critique.

Some of the courses to do with publishing have been disappointing: my main memory of a Guardian event at Kings Place in London was of being lectured and feeling patronised by a prestigious agent who, as the New Zealanders say, was seriously up herself. If I had to deal with people like that to find a publisher, I said to myself, self-publishing may be the way to go. Another element of my ‘essentials’ package therefore would be something about the ‘costs and benefits’ of self-publishing, and some guidance about how to set about it if that’s your choice.

My own novels so far have used a strong sense of place, and in my head for this notional workshop is a Venn diagram of how ‘setting’, ‘characters’ and ‘events’ interconnect and overlap to create the basic structure of a story. Maybe I could use that simple idea as the start of an exercise to create an outline, share the ideas, refine them through discussion, build a character or a scene in greater detail and write, read and re-write to see how the editing process works. We could something on Point of View, dialogue, or the 3 act structure, or opening paragraphs, or just flag those up as areas to be worked on at the next stage. Then we could discuss the process of getting from manuscript into print or ebook and how to get people to buy it, if that’s what you want.

Sounds like a plan. Like most first drafts of a teaching plan, there’s probably too much in it, but much will depend on the size, composition and starting points of the group, and the length of time they will spend with you. That in turn is set against how much time and money people can spare for such an experience. I’m sure you could find workshops like this in London, or Manchester or Newcastle or Glasgow but in rural areas like Cumbria we can be frustrated by the time and money it takes to access the learning we want. Going to London by train from the west coast of Cumbria means travel to Carlisle or Lancaster and then a 3-4 hour train ride, too far to travel there and back in a day so the overnight costs are added to the cost of the workshop, taking it beyond reasonable outlay. Key criteria: accessible, practical, experiential, and with a tangible ‘product’ to take away and work on.

So, I shall keep working on my plan to offer a writing workshop in Cumbria with the basic ingredients I’ve found most useful, for a smallish group of people seriously interested in writing a novel, sometime over the next few months, just to see if I can do it and if it works. If I can and it does, I’ll learn how to make it better and do it again. In the meantime, if anyone who reads this would be interested, let me know.

Can you teach someone how to write fiction?

There was such a huge response to my post on the question ‘Can you teach writing?’ that I decided to add some more, so here it is. I didn’t make this stuff up: I learned it from my own painful experience, and from great guides like Andrew Pyper, Matthew Hall and William Ryan, whose ideas I have shamelessly plundered. Here goes….

There are a number of aspects of teaching how to write fiction. Let’s divide the process up and pay attention to at least some of them…

  1. Translating thoughts into words and sentences. This is about vocabulary and rhythm, the sound, imagery and flow of the language. If you need to pay attention to grammatical accuracy, this is where the conventions need to explained and practiced. Some of the rules of these conventions – the use of the apostrophe, for example – might need to be ‘taught’, but the best learning is from reading and speaking words aloud, analysing the ‘poetry’ of others’ language and how the full meaning is conveyed, and then bringing those insights into your own work. Working with others encourages you to hear your language, get feedback on it, and refine it constantly to achieve the effect you are striving for.
  2. Finding and developing ‘characters’. People are the essence of fiction, who they are, how they react to the world and others to them, how they speak, walk, dress. There is no easy way to develop the characters who will inhabit and drive your story, and every writer will have their own way to find and flesh out the people they need. You can start with an image, from life, from a picture, or in your head. Then you think and ask questions of this image until it develops dimensions and warmth. What motivates the person, how do they look and sound, what are they afraid of, what and who do they love, – the questions are the ones you use to check out anyone who does or will mean a great deal to you. All and any questions are relevant here, some of them very personal. Even if you never use the answers to all the questions in your story, it helps to deepen each character in this way. Once you have the details, add things like birthdays, favourite colours, hair style, etc and make a separate file, or file card, for each character to help continuity and consistency. It’ll save so much time later. This process can be both taught and practised to great effect, before you embark on a first draft of anything.
  3. Plot, and the ‘Three act structure’. You can research the theories of plot and structure online to great effect, and as much as you want. The three act structure is most commonly used in films, or in crime fiction, but you’ll find it in all forms of fiction, back to Dickens, Jane Austen and other classics that were around long before such a structure was given a name. Most fiction starts with a question – ‘What if…?’ – or a crisis, to kick start the action and grab the reader’s attention. Much of the plot will then evolve from the interaction between the characters and the events, to drive the story forward. Action is generated by both external events and internal processes, such as the emotional reactions of the characters, and their development and changes over time. We want our characters to have an impact on the external events and also be affected by them, creating tension on a number of levels to keep the reader engaged. The relationship between character and plot, between internal and external can be as complicated as you can handle, and as the reader you have in mind will be happy with. My advice would be to keep things relatively simple while you’re learning the craft.
  4. Point of view: whose shoulder are you sitting on, seeing and hearing what they see and hear in each scene? Do you write in the first person, or the third person? In the present tense, or the past. The ‘costs and benefits’ of all those approaches can also be ‘taught’ and rehearsed, leaving you the writer ultimately to make the best choices for the effect they wish to generate.
  5. The idea of a ‘theme’ that runs throughout your work. I’m not certain about this for a beginning writer. It could lead to some pretty pretentious and self-conscious stuff, and needs to be handled lightly, but this too – like keeping notes on the details of your characters – can help the continuity of longer works of fiction and add to the shape and structure of what you write. You should be able to answer the question ‘What’s your story about?’ without just recounting what happens. Incidentally, the answer to the question will also help in ‘pitching’ your story to an agent or anyone else in the book and film business. In the scale of what can be ‘taught’, the issue of ‘theme’ might not be the first thing I would ask the apprentice writer to tackle, but it would be something to work on before you start to write in earnest.
  6. Planning and thinking before you start to write: learning patience, when all you want to do is get writing. I paid a heavy price for my impatience in writing my first novel, embarking on the first draft way too soon and getting into all sorts of trouble that took years – yes, years – to untangle. What I’ve learned to do – having been well taught in various workshops – is to start with an idea or a question, and gradually expand to a page of the overall shape of the plot, then expand again, and again, and again, into ‘Acts’ or stages, then into sections, then chapters. I call this working from the inside, out.
  7. Displaying your plan. By this time you’ll have an outline for most of your sections or chapters. Now pin them up somewhere, on a wall, or lay them on a cleared floor, and look at them. Take in the big picture and start moving things around, adding bits, changing bits. You can’t do this by reading sequentially on a screen: you have to get a ‘simultaneous visual impression’ of the shape of the whole work, before you start to write. This is your map of the territory. You may change your mind about the route once you embark on the trip, and you may even change your destination, but the map is always there to ground you and to keep you going if you start to feel lost or stuck.

I’ve written this pretty fast – it’s a blog post of a thousand words or so after all, not an essay. There’s loads more you could add, and heaps of great books and advice available. But this might do for a start. I wish I’d thought about these few things before I started. I haven’t even mentioned dialogue, which is definitely something you can be taught, but if you get the characters rights, and the setting, and speak out loud whatever you have characters say, you can improve the quality of dialogue immeasurably. And then there’s the challenge of the opening paragraph. Bets way to learn that is to look at opening paragraphs, consider what makes them work, and then write your own. See what I mean? So much to be learned, and all of it can be taught, if you have the right teacher.

Looking for recognition

I have two places to work. If the weather’s really good, or if I want to immerse myself with no distractions at all, I pack up the laptop and whatever materials I need and walk the 50 metres down the garden to the writing shed, the one I blogged about earlier. If it’s hosing down or very cold and windy and I don’t want to venture outside I use the alternative indoor space, facing into a cupboard in my bedroom that I’ve arranged as an ‘office’ with a computer table and book shelves. It’s where I’m sitting now. Behind me is a spectacular view across the Esk valley and west towards the sea. Facing into the cupboard I can’t be distracted by the glory of the Western Lake District – or at least that’s the theory.

Pinned on the wall of this tiny space, directly behind the monitor, is the only letter I’ve ever received from a famous author. It’s quite old now and the ink is beginning to fade from black to brown, but it’s important to me, not just for what it says but more for the fact that the famous author took the trouble to write it.

Plenty of people have read my books over the past two years. Those readers who’ve spoken to me about them have been very positive, but the feedback has usually been about the overall impression, ‘couldn’t put it down’ and such like, which is gratifying but non-specific. The letter in the fading ink is more of a critique, and not all of it complimentary. The author was someone I had heard of and read, and who lives locally for part of the year. I got her address from a friend and wrote to her, unsolicited, asking her to read my first book and to say what she thought of it. And she did, good and not so good. It was my first novel and I knew that it wasn’t good enough, but after four years I had to decide to ‘finish it’ or throw it away, and finishing it meant getting it into print, which I did, and I’m glad I did, even though I still wish I could have managed yet one more draft.

The author’s letter was dated May 2nd 2013, less than a year ago, although it feels much longer. Since then I’ve written and published a second novel – which was much better – and the third goes to the printers tomorrow. There have been ‘reviews’ in the sense of articles in the local press about the details of the plot how the books came to be written, but nothing that could really be called a ‘review’, written by someone as knowledgeable as the author of my fading letter. It’s rare and difficult to get a self-published book reviewed, or so I’m told. Local media say they don’t have the time or the staff to do it, and national media seem to focus only on conventionally-published books.

I suppose what I really want is recognition from a professional writer or reviewer who is prepared to read my books and take them seriously, not just as a slice of regional life but as a literary work – or is that too pompous? There is a person, another writer with northern connections, who has said that she will read and review the whole trilogy, which would be wonderful, but it’ll be a while yet before that can happen, and I’ll just have to hope that she follows through.

The ultimate frustration came in a conversation with the books editor of a national magazine who said she couldn’t review the forthcoming book because it is part 3 of a trilogy, and she couldn’t review the trilogy because the other two parts aren’t ‘new’ publications. Maybe I should give up yearning for any professional feedback and be content that so many people have read and enjoyed the books so far. I wish that was enough, but I fear not.