Plot, character and setting: which comes first?

When I’m talking about writing, explaining the balance between plot, character, point of view and setting is a helpful starting point for people who haven’t yet thought about how a novel is developed. downloadIn my West Cumbrian trilogy, the first novels I wrote, setting was the central ingredient. From my research about this amazing place and its history, I began to think about a key character who could carry the story. Having found her, I then had her interact with various other characters. There was some consideration of the plot in the first one, but mostly that developed as I went along, with a fairly quiet conclusion that I felt was an authentic way for the story to end. I didn’t really think about ‘the arc of the narrative’, or how my protagonist might have a ‘journey’.

At some point in those early years of writing I went to a workshop run by Matthew Hall and William Ryan, who had both come to novel writing from careers as barristers. Part of that workshop, introduced briefly but not fully pursued because of shortage of time, was the idea of the ‘Three Act Structure’ commonly used in films. Hall had spent some time doing film scripts and this was the structure he brought to the novel. I’ve included here a relatively simple representation of this notion: check it on Google and you’ll find various more sophisticated models.download

I was intrigued by the relative complexity of the ‘formula’ he presented to us, and read more about it after the workshop, but it always felt to me to be too ‘formulaic’, putting too much emphasis on plot structure, leaving character and setting as servants to the story. Or possibly I just didn’t have the patience to think the idea all the way through. My first interest was always in ‘where’ and ‘who’ rather than ‘how’.

When I moved into crime writing for the fourth book ‘Cruel Tide’, I revisited the thinking about the structure as ‘acts’ that build towards a climax, but still didn’t really reflect the formula in what I produced. Two more crime books followed, and the latest one, as yet untitled, is in production. Reflection on ‘structure’ as the first planning tool had faded almost completely over the intervening years. My books are well-received, within the limitations of that self-publishing brings with it. Many of my readers are Cumbrian, who are as interested as I am in the authenticity of the Cumbrian settings. Because I’m self-published I rarely get any professional reviews, or feedback from other professional writers. I rarely meet professional writers as I live in a remote place, a long way from the normal arteries of the publishing world.

Maybe that was why I suggested to the Kirkgate Arts centre in Cockermouth, an hour north of here in West Cumbria, that we should try to bring some Cumbrian writers together to talk about their work, and I would ‘host’ the event, interviewing the authors and sparking discussion among them. Long story short, the event happened last week was great success: three very different crime writers, all successful, with all sorts of exciting projects in the pipeline.

One of them was Paula Daly, from Windermere. 71LyA5zks6L._UX250_She writes what she calls ‘domestic noir’, and with such success that two of her novels have been adapted to a 6 part TV drama called ‘Deep Water’, which will air on TV here, starting in August. When the question came up of ‘where do a novelist’s characters come from?’, her answer was very interesting. She starts with structure – just as Matthew Hall had suggested in that workshop years ago. The ‘hero/protagonist’ is the centre of the action and the story tells her story, through various trials and tribulations to a final denouement. The characters all have a function, to support or to impede the hero’s progress, and their roles are planned early on. They are ciphers initially, created to serve the story. Only when the structure is clear are the characters then developed into three-dimensions, with their habits and mannerisms suggested by their preordained function.

Paula was really clear about this, and I was fascinated by her certainty about the importance of this way of working. Her plotting and planning is done in great detail, she said, and the writing itself is the least enjoyable part of the whole process. It sounded as if the actual writing was almost a chore, an anti-climax after the excitement of developing the narrative. She sees the story in a series of filmic episodes, and it could be written as a screen play rather than continuous prose.

Could I do this. Do I want to? The upside is that stories written this way are almost tailor-made for adaptation into films or TV. The setting is almost immaterial: you use whatever setting is most accessible and attractive to the film-maker.

I’m still thinking, wondering whether this approach is possible for me. Do I have the patience do achieve it, or sufficient ambition to follow the rules? Maybe it’s the idea of ‘rules’ that I have trouble with. I have always been a contrarian and maybe too old, or stubborn, to change my ways.

 

 

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How can I enjoy my writing more?

It’s some weeks since my last post, and I’m still debating whether I want to write another book. It could help if I could pin down why the prospect feels problematic. What is it that fills me with trepidation?

I’ve already accepted that my recollections of the past year have been coloured by my fall down the stairs just over a year ago and all its consequences – temporary immobilisation, pain, frustration, endless physiotherapy. I’m almost back to normal fitness now, but it’s been a long haul.IMG_1725

The content of last book was difficult too. I chose a backdrop – the catastrophic Foot and Mouth outbreak in Cumbria in 2001 – that required very careful research and a balance between authenticity and fear that the ghastliness of it all could overwhelm the ‘front story’. The research was painful, but I live in a farming community and couldn’t get the details wrong.IMG_0637

I was also working with a new editor, which was fine in the end but felt different than the well-worn relationship I’d had earlier. The new editor is very experienced in what makes for successful commercial genre fiction, but sometimes her expectations clashed with my obsession with authenticity. Yes, her ideas for a scene or the ending would be exciting, but if they felt ‘unrealistic’ I couldn’t go along with them. It’s quite a strain to pay someone for their advice and then decide to ignore it. And when I did agree with her, after the first draft, our shared view required a complete re-write of the first quarter of the book, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

For all these reasons, and probably others too, writing the last book rarely flowed easily. I had a deadline, and achieved it, but when ‘Burning Secrets’ finally emerged it didn’t excite me, even when it was clear that readers enjoyed and some think it is my best to date.

Looking back, I think I was so taken up with the research that I didn’t spend long enough on the structure before starting the first draft. So the writing stopped and started, got stuck and had to be rescued, and in the end had to be hammered into submission by some agonised re-thinking of the final scenes. Very stressful. If I could summon the patience and imagination next time to create a better detailed outline, that would definitely help to enhance the writing experience, and avoid painful rewrites further down the line.

Now I have the Arvon writing course to look forward to, which starts on September 10th. I signed up for this particular as the focus seemed to be on structure and plot, which is exactly what I need. I’m going with an open mind to see if help, advice and an undivided focus will clarify the future enough for me to stop writing without regret, or carry on.

In darker moments I think about the boxes of unsold books stored in my writing shed. While I have a new book to promote, sales of all the books tick along nicely. If there’s no new book, will I still be able to sell the backlist? I don’t necessarily need the money, but those boxes could haunt me for a long time.

My first full day writing workshop

I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, and anxious about it too, and last Saturday, January 17th 2015 at Kendal library I led my very first full day writing workshop. And I really enjoyed it, although I was pretty exhausted when it was over: partly the several hours of concentration and partly lack of sleep the night before.

There were eleven in the group, small enough for conversation and large enough to benefit from a range of people. The range was hard to deal with too, as each person came with different prior writing experience, and therefore a range of wants and needs. It was quite a short day as the library didn’t open until 9.30am and closed at 3.30pm. We took a short lunch break but even so it was only about 5 hours once we’d got organised and started, and the challenge was trying to cover the long list of ‘aspects’ that I’d made. Some things went by the board when they didn’t appear in the group’s list of priorities: we mentioned ‘dialogue’ only briefly, for example, even though to my mind it’s essential to the pace and depth of a novel, to drive the story and to reveal character. I could probably have skipped or truncated the focus on the interaction between character, setting and story, but that was the first session and it was only at that time that the importance of the prior learning became obvious. Or maybe we needed to start with relatively familiar stuff just to get warmed up.

What really delighted me was everyone’s willingness to contribute and be honest about the struggle of both writing and getting published. I felt as if I was among friends, and in that safety people were open to new ideas and developing their story plans really quickly given the stimulus of good ‘what if questions’. We laughed and encouraged each other, and that was great.

The part of the day that seemed to resonate with all of us was about ‘structure’, not just the protocols of the 3 act structure which I didn’t do well explaining I fear, but the business of seeing a full-length fiction as a whole before starting to write the first draft. That doesn’t mean that every last detail is mapped out and immutable, but it does give you as the writer a view of the landscape before you start your journey. Maybe I enjoyed discussing this because it was what I lacked so woefully when I started my first novel, and was probably the reason why it took four years to complete. I learned the structure lesson the hard way, and took much more care with planning the second book. Now on book 4 I’m planning ahead in even more detail, but this is the first foray into crime fiction and the intricacies of the story are demanding more care at this early stage.

I suggested that we need to see the shape of the work all at once, rather than sequentially. To this end I put my early draft outline on paper or cards and lay them all out on the floor, or pin them on the wall, taking in the picture all at once, moving pieces around, seeing connections and possibilities that I hadn’t seen when the work was on screen or in one continuous piece. ‘Simultaneous visual display’: maybe it depends what kind of mind you have. I’m an abstract random thinker by preference, at least in the first instance, and need that overall picture before I can sort the pieces into an order.

Most – but not all – of the group wanted to talk about publishing, and I’d forgotten how depressing the conversation can be as one by one we told our stories of disinterest from agents, prejudice against self-publishing, the financial considerations, the time and the waiting, ineligibility for competitions and so on, and so on. I don’t regret the decision to self-publish and to invest my time, energy and money in the process but for people with less to invest it looks a pretty bleak picture.

As we concluded, however we want to get into print, the most important starting point is to have a really high quality piece of work, and for that we need to welcome editing. Family and friends mean well but their feedback isn’t enough. Getting professional critique seems to cost so much that it becomes another hurdle that blocks progress. One or two people asked if I would offer a critique, and although I have a professional interest in feedback my own experience of writing is still limited. So I agreed, but won’t charge anyone until I feel I can offer a service worth paying for. Already I fear the siren call of writing-related activities – running workshops, critique and feedback, advice on self-publishing – when what I most need and want to do is write my own stuff.

I’m taking a break from everything for the next two months to pursue a long-standing travel ambition, so I’ve got some time to think about it. When I get back in mid-March it’ll be straight into the first draft of book 4 (as yet untitled) to meet the deadline of August that I have set myself. So I’m disappearing from Twitter, blogs and all that for two months at least. I’m not sure that anyone will notice!

‘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.

Talking about my books

Tomorrow evening I’ll be talking to the ‘Friends of Whitehaven Museum’ about the Jessie Whelan trilogy, which has the overall title ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’. It could be quite a large group, some of whom may have read all three books and others may not even know of their existence. My appearance is part of their regular programme of speakers, and I guess I’ve been invited not as a writer but as someone who has researched and recorded slices of local history in fictional form.

So, I’m thinking: what should I talk to them about? The one thing we all have in common is the setting, and the meeting will take place just across the harbour from the site of the major backdrop event in Book 2, ‘Forgiven’, the explosion in the William Pit in August 1947 that claimed the lives of 104 local men and boys. Think of the impact of that on the local community: all those funerals, day after day, and the thousands of people whose lives were affected, children left without fathers, wives without husbands. I’ll tell them how I tracked down the transcript of the NCB report on the accident, including the accounts from the three men who survived, and how I researched another facet of ‘Forgiven’, the lives of the Displaced Persons in their camps in Cumberland in the years after World War Two. Book 3, ‘Fallout’ was set at the time of the nuclear reactor fire at Windscale, just south of Whitehaven, in 1957, and in doing the research for this book I accumulated far more detail than I could possibly have used in the story, much of which was not clear at the time, even to those who were working at the plant. That too will probably be part of what I share with the group. People are usually interested in the past history of where they live, especially when that history is as rich as ours.

As a writer I should be discussing the triumvirate of character, plot and setting, but talking about setting alone would take us far longer than the limited time I’ll have, and I must find time to say something about the process of turning local history into fiction, which presents another set of challenges worthy of conversation. I’ll try to explain how the characters were born and developed as I wrote about their lives, and how I have tried to have both setting and character drive the plot. Looking back, the process of writing looks far more rational and ordered than it felt for me at the time. I’m now learning more about how to structure and plan a work of fiction, but – in the words of the metaphor – the stable door is banging in the wind and the horse has long gone. Maybe it’ll make for a better effort for the next book. In the meantime I’ll reflect on what I thought and did at the time and not pretend that I consciously followed rules that I was mostly unaware of. Considering that admission. the books turned out better than they might have been.

I’m doing many talks to various groups around Cumbria over the summer, and each one will be different, which sounds inefficient but it’s the only way to keep things fresh. If the people I’m with seem willing to talk I’ll ask them right at the start to help me frame our discussion through their questions and interests. Managing those unanticipated expectations, adding important bits of my own and doing it all within a short time frame is enjoyably risky. It’s like really good teaching and I love it.

 

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.

How long is a piece of string…or a novel?

There was an interesting piece from Cath Staincliffe recently on the usefulness, or not, of word counting. I hadn’t realised that some writers do this constantly, to regulate their writing, or to reward or chastise themselves for their workrate. Cath’s view was that it was a fruitless and potentially damaging exercise, and I’ve been thinking about it.

I don’t think a poet would judge the quality of her work by the number of words, as one of the goals is to distill rather than to expand, in pursuit of the essence of meaning. Similarly, the best editing for me is when I cut rather than add: unnecessary adverbs, cliched adjectives, they all have to go, ‘decluttering’ the text. In my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, started to celebrate my 60th birthday, my fear was that I would not have enough to say and I wrote initially far than necessary, leaving myself with a massive ‘slaughter of the darlings’ in the final edit. It was a better book for the cuts, but how much better it would have been if I’d been more sparing, more discriminating, from the very start. That first book was written ‘from the outside in’ from a rambling ill-considered structure through cuts and re-writes to the final product. The process was difficult and frustrating and I vowed I would never try it again.

Book 2 ‘Forgiven’ was approached with a much firmer structure, holding back on the first draft until I was clear what I was doing. Much more satisfying, in terms of both process and product. Book 3 ‘Fallout’ is underway: no prizes for guessing how I am setting about it. I’ve learned that going from the inside out, from the core to a gradual expansion of the draft, works for me, and word count doesn’t really matter at all.

Which raises the next question: how long should a novel be? My first writing course, succinctly entitled ‘How to write a novel’, suggested 80,000 – 90,000 words, which has felt about right in my two efforts so far. But Julian Barnes has won prizes with far fewer than that, and I’m just embarking on 800 pages of ‘The Luminaries’ with no thought that this will be ‘too long’. In fact the first few pages promise so much that I’ll spread out my reading as slowly as the library will permit.

No easy answers to the word count issue. As with most things, the best – if banal – advice is to do what suits you, and aim for quality rather than quantity.