The importance of ‘Chapter 1’

My temporary living space is looking pretty well organised now (check previous posts to see what this is all about). And my head is getting round the new situation too: instead of fretting about the necessary confinement I’m using the time to tackle something that’s been overshadowed by health issues for a a couple of weeks – starting the first draft of the new book.

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The outline is pretty well sorted, apart from the final denouement which I want to leave loose for now. So first thing this morning I split my screen, posted the outline of Chapter 1 on one side and pulled up a blank document on the other headed, ‘Burning Secret Chapter 1’. The title may change, but it’ll do for now.

Immediately at this point the writer faces a choice about ‘point of view’. Whose eyes am I looking through in this scene? Whose head am I inside, and what does this person see, hear, do and feel? What are the implications of this choice, and is it significant for the reader? It’s a chance to clarify who is at the centre of the story, or possibly to catch the reader off-guard. Do you remember the film ‘Psycho’? For the first several minutes of that Hitchcock masterpiece the viewer thinks they’re being told a story about Janet Leigh’s character having an affair. All the action is from her point of view, until in an iconic shocking twist her character is gone and we are jolted into another story. The decision about the first POV the reader encounters is one the writer needs to think carefully about.

For this book I’ve decided that POV should stay the same for the whole of the first chapter. The setting, both time and place, is quite complicated and one POV is probably enough for the reader to manage. Perhaps at the chapter’s end the hook to draw the reader forward could be the introduction of a new POV, as the story begins to unfold. Malice 51lsLKs+yCL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_

I read an excellent Japanese crime story recently, – ‘Malice’ by Keigo Higashino – at the end of which there was an interview with the author about the techniques he’d used. One of these was to give the reader an early memorable snippet of information about a key character that would be crucial in establishing whether the character was trustworthy or likeable. With that impression established, the reader would interpret the character’s behaviour through that lens. ‘First impressions count’ is the message, and those impressions are manipulated by the author.

So, the choice of character for the first POV, the information the reader is offered, the source of that information and what it signifies, are all Chapter One decisions. However well I’ve planned, much of this subtlety only presents itself when the actual first draft is being written. And that’s what I started on yesterday. I couldn’t write for long because of the sore shoulder, and I’m writing this post early so I can rest for a while before going back to Chapter One later in the morning. Pacing myself like this is useful as it makes me think more about what I’m doing and why, instead of just racing on.

For those of you who are new to this blog, I’m confined to the house having injured myself in a fall, and trying to use this as an opportunity for achievement, not just a source of frustration. It’s Day 2 of a ten day confinement: I hope the good intentions can be sustained. While the rest of country is starting the busiest holiday weekend of the year I shall be quiet in my small space and live inside my head. And if I need distractionthere’s a cricket test match to listen to on the radio. What more could I want?

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Murdering my darlings

I’ve reached the conclusion that time away from ‘the current work’ enables me to step back and view what I’m doing more objectively, and more clearly, but it has to be a certain sort of break to be most effective. Here’s how it seems to work for me. I’ve been writing outlines and planning the current book (number 4) for some months now. I knew I would be taking two months away from it early this year and expected that this would provide the space I needed to reflect on the project – characters, pace, themes, plot and so on – so that everything would be clearer when I returned. But that didn’t work. The time away was like being on a different planet, so exciting, varied, all-consuming, and exhausting at times that there was no space in my head to reflect at all about the book. After I’d got home and recovered for a while I just started the first draft as I’d planned to do, using the outline much as it previously stood.

Ten days later, into the first draft and rolling along quite nicely, I’ve just had another shorter break over the Easter weekend. Immediately beforehand I was up to my ears in writing and editing, working and reworking the original outline as the detail on the ground was revealed – as  I mentioned in my previous blog post. Maybe that was why, during four non-writing days, my head has been wrapped around the story to the point where I could hardly sleep. Two darlings have been ruthlessly put to the sword as a result. The first of them, the opening paragraph, was nudged towards its demise by my perceptive editor Charlotte who skims the drafts every now and then and always asks incisive questions. The old first paragraph which I’d polished carefully for months, is now dead, and the one will be sharper, clearer and more likely to capture a reader’s attention.

The second doomed ‘darling’ is a character from my third book, who was about to reappear in this one. I was looking forward to meeting him again, but yesterday, when I was half watching Wolverhampton Wanderers vs Leeds United on the TV, I suddenly thought ‘Why do I need him here? What’s he adding to this story? If he has a function, is that not already being played by another character? Why complicate matters unnecessarily?’ Scales fell from eyes and when the next stage of the outline is re-written, he will be gone. 

Have I ever mentioned the Faber Academy course I went on years ago called ‘Stuck in the Middle’? Just a weekend, but I still remember the shot in the arm it gave me. Gill Slovo and Sarah Dunant led it as a double act, a pincer movement of perception and experience that caught many of us round the table in the middle, making us look at our half-finished work from the outside rather than the inside. It was harrowing but salutary. I’ve thought about signing up again, but I don’t think I need to. I think I can be ruthless – no pun intended – all by myself. Maybe watching football helps. 

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.

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.

How do we learn to write?

Times have changed, or else my memory of childhood has faded. Was I taught to write at school? I must have been, but have no recollection of it. I remember writing, and loving it, but not being taught the mechanics of writing. My grand-daughter, well schooled towards her Year 6 SATS in England, knows all the conventions of writing. She explained to me very patiently the difference between a metaphor and a simile and I’m sure she was correct. And here in Winnipeg I spent yesterday working with teachers on the demands and implications of the English Language Arts (ELA they call it here) Grade 8 common exam. Here again were all the rules of the writing game to be learned and demonstrated, assessed and reported. I must have done some of this stuff, but when, and how?

I think I learned to write through reading and analysing – subconsciously? – how the words created images or conveyed information. Reading aloud seemed to convey more to me than reading to myself. I loved the sound and rhythm of the words, and the way that punctuation affected the pace. English lessons in the sixth form were a disaster: the teacher read his own notes on the set books and we wrote them down. We were supposed to replicate his commentary in our carefully balanced essays, but even at that age I balked. My view of Emily Bronte certainly didn’t square with his.

The other clear memory from school of using language thoughtfully is in translating from French into English, trying to convey not just the technical meaning of the words but the feel of them too, saying a phrase over and over to find the right cadence. Maybe that’s why the poem that I wrote many years later for my daughter’s homework project got an A. I was proud of that poem, even though it had her name on it.

Now I’m thinking about the writing workshop I have planned for January. It’s just a day, and will focus not on the language, the shape of a sentence or the choice of a word, but on structure. That’ll be all we can manage, albeit superficially. But how would I set about teaching someone to write? Read, read, read would be the first advice, and consider the various facets of what the author has intended and achieved. Look at the balance of the sentence, its length, shape and flow, the sound of the words. On the first Arvon course I went on we did all the usual exercises, which were necessary I’m sure, but I was more interested in how a longer form of prose might be put together. I learned so much that week, but still keep learning through reading as much as writing. And I’ve learned that my first draft might be OK, but it can be so much improved through re-writing. Maybe that’s something I can teach people at my workshop, using iterative examples of the same opening paragraph, for example, to show what a difference our choices can make.

Nearly 40 years ago, in 1976, I did a year’s teaching in a massive senior high school in Ohio. There were 3,700 students aged from 13-18, and I was one of twenty teachers in the Social Studies department, and the only woman. That’s a story all on its own. Many of my students took a course called ‘Senior Composition’ in which, ostensibly, they learned to write. It became clear to me why many US non-fiction books were so hard to read. The rules of ‘Senior Comp.’ were rigid. and the students’ products were consequently dry, formulaic and lifeless. I was a young teacher, and a foreigner, so what did I know? I knew enough even then to know that writing needs to reflect the mind and spirit of the writer, not a set of rules imposed from without. Of course there are conventions to be respected, but they are to be employed not revered.

Read, read, write, read aloud, re-write, get good feedback and pay attention, re-write again. Sounds laborious, but what finally emerges is recogniseably yours, as unique as the person who wrote it.

For a while I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a Creative Writing degree. I think I’ve just talked myself out of it.

What do readers want to read in a blog, or a novel?

I probably know the answer to this question as well as you do: any mention of SEX usually creates a spike in the visitors to any web site, but you can’t talk about SEX all the time. So in between we bloggers have to talk about less stimulating – sorry – things such as genre or structure or titles. Last week’s post about the structure of a trilogy appeared to go down like a lead budgie, even though it was on my mind and I wanted to write about it, so I did. What’s currently on my mind may be unattractive to the average blog reader, but it’s interesting to me, so here goes.

In the past few days I’ve been thinking about the link between visual images and what I write, and I’m asking myself  “Is my best writing ‘filmic?'”. When  I look at other authors’ writing I most enjoy, they seem to create strong visual images. I can see, not just feel or understand, what the writer is presenting to me. The first paragraph of Dickens’ Bleak House and its depiction of London fog for example, or the opening of The Road to Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, about the grasslands of Australia. Just a few nights ago, I dreamed very vividly about the opening scene of book that’s currently taking shape in my head. It was intensely visual, like the opening scene of a film. I could see how the camera would pan, the close-ups and the wider shots. It woke me up, a sign that this scene was in a sense ‘cooked’ and ready.

The problem with the description I’m looking for is that it can cut across the dictum about ‘show don’t tell’. You can’t represent the visual image I have in mind through the speech of one of the characters, without defying every rule of authentic dialogue. A passing by-stander wouldn’t say to herself, or her dog, ‘Look at the green of the samfire and how it’s growing in the mud round our feet,’ or ‘I’m struck by the pale gleam of the rising sun on tide-washed sand’. If the reader is to see the scene as I see it I need to describe it, in my authorial voice, the voice I’m trying to use as little as possible.

Maybe my aversion to this authorial intervention is misplaced and needs to be re-considered. Sadly, I’ve received very little detailed feedback about my writing so far, but  I was once told by an author I respect that what she loved was this – the opening paragraph of Chapter 5 in ‘A Good Liar’.

“August. A hazy Sunday. Breeze from the south, hardly stirring the heavy trees. The land breathed slowly, imperceptibly, as if asleep under the sun. Tides crept up and down shingle and sand, silent save for a creamy whisper at the edge. On the beach the air shimmered over warm stones. Fields and valleys smelled of grass. Sheep crowded into shade, panting.”

There’s no action in this piece, except the movement of the tide. There’s no dialogue. I needed this scene-setting passage to explain a significant encounter for one of my characters. And the opening scene of the new book will need the same sense of place, as the setting is almost a character in itself, influencing both the people and the events of the story. What I really want is to find the words that will share the image in my head with the reader in an unforgettable way, that the reader will want to read again and again and share with others, like a poem.

So maybe I’ll think again about ‘show don’t tell’ and allow myself the indulgence of  carefully worded description every now and then, something I’ll enjoy reading out loud, to myself and to others.

 

‘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.