How to write a novel (#1) planning to keep it up.

I keep coming back to it. I’ve irritated everyone who I’ve talked to about it. I totally understand the objections and why everyone howls with contempt whenever the subject’s raised. The fact is though that more novels come to a slow, painful death about ten chapters in than ever come to a satisfactory, readable conclusion. Yes, there are light ways of planning and their are weighty ways of planning, there are plans to keep in your head and plans to put down on paper. There are even plans that look best on sticky bits of yellow paper each with under headers like “inciting incident”, “threshold guardian delays turn to Act II”.  It’s something, as I’ve said in another post (on log lines and synopses ), that screenwriters can’t get enough of and novelists can’t stand the sight of. How much to plan? what to plan? what to get straight before the first dialogue or description? and what to leave to that divine inspiration that will strike while the coffee’s hot and the view over the peaks is at its dawn-iest?

And here’s the major  confession – I’m not at all the planning type myself. If anything I’ve always fought against it. But I have seen its virtues and have, like a kind of re-converted-smoker, finally seen the lighter.

Planning – how will it help me?

It’s not because there’s any one way to do anything or that I want to spoil the fun of boundless creative options – let’s face it, this is why a lot of people write. Yep, nothing more fun than that clean sheet of paper, those first few drips of ink or taps of mac-book, those first words that you’ve been dying to put down because they’ve been buzzing and humming and shaping and mutating in your head for months.

And then say you don’t plan. Let’s just go for it. Soon those first words are down and the character’s formed and what an astonishing opening it is. Creative, vital, inspiring. The trickiest set up for the attractivest character anyone could possibly have imagined. Let’s see how Darcy McWittgenstein gets out of this one…

Yes, how does he get out of this one?  (Reason to plan number one.)  Actions and events can easily just sit there either with no onward lead or with no effective resolution suggesting itself. Or endings just sit there waiting to see what comes before them. So, all of a sudden, fun bit over. And then a week’s gone by without touching it and then someone tells you a joke so the next few pages are how the girl tells the joke to the guy and then there’s another few pages so let’s have that really smart fact that Wikipedia or QI dished up recently while you were hunting for inspiration. Then, why don’t you use that  hilarious thing that happened to your dog in the kebab shop when you were twelve, everyone should be told that story and… and then give up for another few months because that once pristine idea is now a mess.

Before you know it the whole project goes limp because the sound and fury disappeared with those first eager  thousand words.

Light planning

There’s a need to keep going if you’re writing and there are a few different ways of giving some protection against giving up on  a large piece of writing, some of which it’s worth having a go with even if, ultimately, you know there’s only one way for you and you know you can get the job done.

Yes there’s a scale of values here, with no plan on the one hand and on the other hand … we’ll come to this in a minute because we’re talking about planning here and not structure, well not necessarily structure anywhere.

Even on our non-planning end of the practice there are a number of possibilities. There are those who, with Enid Blyton-style vigour have a set of principles to stick to and a way with a plot that is so ready-formed that it needs a bit of the spice of exploration. I’ve spoken to plenty of writers who have never planned but who seem to come up with well shaped stories, good character arcs and the rest. Of course there’s an in-built sense of what a story should be, the direction it should take and the whereabouts of the various ups and downs or shifts of pace. Many writers are happy to use this intuition to give the shape, waiting for the writing process to generate new considerations, turns and so on.

On the whole this wholly unplanned exploration will need hefty revision. If you’re unlucky it will involve the kind of revision that sends shockwaves through the novel’s plot lines. What if, for example, your character’s last change of heart has not been flagged up properly throughout. If so it will need some early evidence and the reworking there is likely to need changes at any number of points. After a few of these, instead of an engaging and satisfying arc, your story is looking more like a cardiogram – one with an unsatisfying deadness at the end.

Heavy planning

On this  scale between plan and explore, most writers will find their way between the two extremes, working differently when faced with different tasks, or  at different points in the project.

I’ve noted elsewhere the frustration for the prose writer from collegaues in the scripting business. As Blake Snyder fans will know, there should first be a good sense of the  plan around the turning points, the scenes, and get the kind of tight story that will definitiely work (test it in fact in short form) and only then do you start crafting the minutiae, the dialogue, the interactions, the ‘beats’ or steps that raise tempo and the system-values associated with the essential conflict. Phew!

For the proficient film script writer there’s no sprawling exploring that includes a batch of near-complete dialogue. In fact this talked of as the worst trait of the amateur scene writer. How many people have lovingly crafted their James Bond scenario, skidoos and grenades and that witty one liner as he drills the bullet past the fur-wrapped KGB girl who says…. Months going back over the one scene and… and when this scene is done, what? Screen writing coaches have seen too many people fail this way. They will always recommend an exploration in major turns, saving all those details like dialogue until after the plan has been thoroughly drawn up.

But my novel isn’t about a story…

There’s always some earnest wordsmith in any class who points out that story is only for populist, unchallenging works. While not at all true, you can see where this through comes from. For prose fiction writers the work can start in a number of ways that have very little to do with shaping the plot. The novelist is often feeling for the voice of their narrator, or implied narrator. Or, the roman à thèse wannabe is wondering how that vibrant political standpoint is going to be expressed in lucid, compelling prose. Or the character builder is wondering how staccato sentences can reveal a deteriorating confidence in the speaker’s reliability or how cunning their metatextual jokes are going to be.

In short, the novelist often feels their novel does not have its source in a story as such. If it does it is often a vague story. There are reasons for this. It is another difference between the novelist and the screenwriter, one which makes the latter more similar to the writers of short stories. The scope of a novel, allowing as it does, even encouraging, digressions, philosophical discussions, descriptions, contemplations. Many respected novels have very sparse plot lines, especially those deeply unreadable early twentieth-century gems, and this gives encouragement to anyone who fancies groping forward in the dark, wondering where their characters will lead them.

Also, and much more common in the first novelist or early career writer, is that the novel pretends to be about something other than story because there is no story. Instead there are excuses:  a half decent set up, a dramatic starting point, “inciting incident” a few James Bond one liners and then little is known about what might happen next.

A word of warning. If you’re waiting for your characters to guide you towards a conclusion, there’s a better than average chance that you won’t keep the project up. At some point the characters will turn back towards you and shrug their shoulders. Or they will sit on the side of the road, wistfully contemplating their own backstory with its heavy-laden childhood incidents and early relationship angst.

So what should I plan?

It takes a while to understand exactly how you yourself will work best as a prose writer. A working regime will emerge, perhaps involving a wedge of notes and scrawls, some practice scenes, an ideas sheet, a character directory. Maybe you’ll be a chart-maker and excel-user or a post-it fetishist.

If you haven’t got your own methods and means as yet. Here are a few ideas that have come from the people I’ve met along my own journey towards some half-decent ways of working:

The comber: Setting off with a hurried trip through a story, getting the broad movements of characters and a sense of each turn in the structure as it moves. Sometimes a sentence to remind you where a whole scene will go, sometimes more detail. Then, regularly going back over what has been written, combing through, taking out the knots making it sleeker. Forward then back, each time edging a bit further forward.

The painter: I call it this because art school studies pushed this as the traditional way of painting pictures. It works for writers too, a bit. A painter of this sort starts with the initial bold strokes, structures the canvas, and then begins to work up the next level of shape, gradually developing from the general elements towards greater detail and greater refinement of each area. The job is completed with a few choice brush strokes to lift a contrast or expose a feature. The advantage is a good sense of direction and overall structure and keeps you constantly in touch with the whole.

The lacemaker: Inch by inch, making each portion perfect before moving on. Some painters, too, have become famous for working this way.  Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite founder member, went over the canvass inch by inch making each  as fully detailed as possible before moving on. Stanley Spencer worked like this, too. The advantage for writing this way is that you have something complete, something that will represent the finished work in all its detail. It helps with confidence if you can read a page or two back and they’re good. You can move onto the next inch or perhaps pick another inch altogether as long as there’s some shape that’s been sketched in advance.

The sculptor: A marble worker needs their block of marble and then chips away at it. Writing this way is to get a wedge of writing in place a basic lump of solid unformed material. A shitty draft if you like. Then when there’s something on the page you begin to chip away, moving through the work but taking out rather than adding in.

The architect: There are some foundations, but the real point of the architect is that the whole structure will stand firm before any details are added. The cladding, the fittings, the doorways and even the roof all come after that solid set of rivets and girders that guarantee the architecture.

Of course once you’re in the fiction frame of mind then inspiration comes from all sorts of fantastic places. Which planning method you chose might depend on what you have to begin with. What is that first little idea that needs some work in the kindling? Some little character points, perhaps, an ironic turn of events, an illustration of some human trait, a setting. The sketching in rough might help tease out this idea. It might be a while before the plan is ready to take shape. Some good advice I once got was not to see these early explorations as anything to do with the first drafting proper.

Plan to keep it going

There’s usually some kind of plan. Unless you’re an automatic-writing or dice-spinning, randomiser-type writer then you’ll have something in mind, some sense of what will drive you forward. And to be honest if you haven’t got it, how are you going to give it to a reader?

There are some easy ways to  fail – and I don’t mean fail as in not write a great book or fail to get published or fail to find readers, I mean just fail to write what you’re capable of or what you’d hoped to, even just fail to finish what you’d started hopefully… not even that, what I mean is fail to keep travelling hopefully, never mind the finishing, we’ll deal with that another time…

No, there are easy ways to fail, and through the chat above we’ve hinted at a few of them. It’s so, so common to resolve an early crisis and discover there’s nothing more to keep you going as a writer without climbing another mountain of conflict-building. (If that’s how you’re feeling as a writer, imagine the poor reader). You owe it to your story not to let this happen.

You can come to an early conclusion: you can end chapters on a closure – each of these essentially suggests that your current thread of interest has now reached completion. If you’d planned better, maybe this point would have been recognised and you’d have have been able to solve it with a push at a greater problem or a build towards a separate thread of interest, sparked by the one you’re about to close.

Related to this, your characters’ problems need to increase in intensity – the stakes need to increase, the pressure on the character to succeed needs to increase, the challenges don’t just need to vary in type, they need to increase in difficulty.  Another easy thing to avoid with a bit of planning is that realisation that you have blown your most intense scene early. It’s easy to insert scenes if you’ve planned that they should exist – make a note that character x must do y with character z then go back to it when you feel ready to write that scene/chapter/section. It’s a lot harder to crowbar that scene in if it was never planned to exist. How many people suddenly realise they need a halfway step for a major plot arc and then have to perform major surgery on three dozen pages to get it in properly.

Another thing you can avoid with a bit of forward thinking – and however keen you are to get going and get some words to fill that page this perhaps the best thing you can do – plan  your character revelations. Unless you’re completely new to writing you’ve probably become very aware that character exposition keeps going right the way through a work. One of the major give-aways for beginners is that massive character description that keeps going and going  and takes up 85% of the first 5,000 words. When children write their biggest flaw is often a succession of major action points. The next stage is when the young writer wants to avoid action points and instead sees their writing as digging for psychology. The worst-case symptom is that paragraph that begins “she dwelt again on that awful time in childhood  when…”  Ooh, nasty. Expect a rash of miserable little backstory mini-plots none of which help us forward or get us engaged.  This is where sickness sets in and in some cases is incurable. A  bit of planning could have helped the plight of many a maudlin navel-gazer character study.

Yes, plan, plan like your life depended on it, plan to avoid splurging on a character analysis in the first fifteen pages.

Instead, how about planning what to reveal and when. Plan the steps with which you show the girl is gullible or the boy’s a bastard. Is this three gradual steps or a sudden revelation? Is it better for them to seem the opposite for a while. Where in the story does that skeleton need to scratch at the inside of the closet?

Plan to keep going in the middle ground. Saggy, baggy middles are endemic among both weary writings and beery writers. On the whole, middle acts will show the increasing disintegration of hope and opportunity and (unlike middle-age) will prepare the means for the eventual attempt to counter this [more on plotting another time].

It is very common to have a great beginning and a great end and then to find there’s nothing much in the middle to read for – find your own metaphor , there’s plenty of stuff in the world that has no stuffing. If you’re struggling with this then there’s a stack of books that can help, but again, planning how this section will develop is the only way to guarantee you’ll have something to write when you get to it.

What not to plan

If you’ve ever done teacher training or marketing or travelling then you’ll know the type, the over-planner. There are plenty of mean-spirited stereotypes of the over-planner but I don’t want to be mean-spirited. We’re talking about the person who won’t take the detour to see the street theatre because it’s not on the list, we’re talking about the person who has to hurry those unexpected questions because it’s time to move on and the smart kid at the back can jut shut up and do what’s on the sheet… It’s another way  to fail and although not as common as under-planning, we should be wary. If you’ve planned it so that everything is an action waiting to be done then you risk writerly liveliness, you risk the verve, the sudden quick sprint or telling pause, you risk the chance to spin or follow a hunch or trace a casual invention down an occluded alleyway. Only a fool destroys a happy accident, said Joshua Reynolds to the academy and the same holds for writers. Make sure you’ve left all the space you need for that important freedom for the voice.

There’s a time to plan, time to act, time to explore etc etc.  You can spend so much time planning that you never do any writing. You can still be in the planning room while everyone else has boarded the ship.Don’t let planning be an excuse not to write. It is for some people and sometimes you do have to leap in.

And the over-planner has their quote ready prepared to use in any situation whether or not it’s called for, while the under-planner throws a quote in when the going gets tough. Not sure which this one  is, but the last word can go to Brutus.

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.  Julius Caesar Act 4, 4, 218ff 


Tips for writers

  • Try some different methods. If you like free writing try a plan and vice versa. Expand the arsenal.
  • Don’t be scared of shaping, thinking ahead. Not every day can be a brilliant prose day. Planning is something you can do on the days when inspiration is not doing its stuff.
  • Give your writing month a plan, when to go hunting inspiration, when to write scenes, when to do plotting.
  • Break all plans sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
  • More on how to write your novel on the University of Brighton Writer in Residence blog

 

 

 

THE ANIMA: periods, mood-swings and other gifts a Fairy Godmother doesn’t give Cinderella

Ah Pantomime, a British favourite that is as inexplicable to foreigners as the seasonal World Championship TV Darts. Here we have stories that are hard-wired into the global consciousness, spattered with the all the ribaldry that cross-dressing, double-entendre and pop cultural references can provide. Characters, too. In the best traditions of Nicholas Nickleby, Old Curiosity Shop and so on, the principal good guys are as bland as possible while the principal baddies get all the laughs, all the drama and a good 75% of the applause.

It’s hard to sit through a performance of Cinderella without that visceral conflict between, on one hand, the warm satisfaction of a boy-meets-girl happy story, and on the other a slightly uncomfortable sense that humble, kind, decent girls are not supposed to exist as role models any more. We, an enlightened society, should be immune, surely, to the likes of Cinderella, Chaucer’s Griselda, Snow White, Cordelia and so on, preferring the post-post-feminisit/ post-ladette / slightly-ironic-kick-ass-but-can-still-raise-a-family-single-handed while-running-a-global-business sort of girl. Just as we hate to love the trad male hero, the provider, the defender, the man committed as much to his only love as to his bench-press.

How we treat these classic types or archetypes, how we use the audience reaction to them and how we spike the realism with just enough of those traditional elements to get the optimum, joyful brain-reel, this is where we make our writerly decisions. This is how we use our cultural background to best effect. What do the traditional types provide and what is our path to understanding them, using them without abusing them?

 Rags-to-riches

There is something about this visceral appeal of the rags to riches story line, however, especially as it concerns the hero and heroine, destined, through their own inner decency to find each other at last and end the story with the kind of symbolic union that needs no sequel to ruin it. That of course is half the point. The ending is an ending. It’s a closed story and not just in terms of the means through which conflict is resolved and all proairetic and hermeneutic threads satisfactorily tied. It’s closed in that there is no future for these characters, we don’t want Cinderella 2 (The Unwanted Wedding Presents) or the Return of Cinderella (Now with Bigger Balls). We don’t want it and, more importantly, it doesn’t exist – at least it doesn’t exist until Disney wants a re-franchising exercise. We don’t walk out of the panto wondering what became of the happy couple, whether it will continue to grow as a satisfying relationship, whether there are twists, arguments and increasing accommodation troubles at the palace. The reason is, of course, that these are not people, they are characters and at the close they cease to be, but in a way which is not entirely in the consciousness of the audience.

Not only does the narrative have this bounded, neat and implicitly satisfactory existence, the characters both draw attention to and distract attention from the fact that they are characters and not people. It goes against the grain to the audience who invest in a book, play, film or story, of course. Unless an author wants to play invasive games, then our favourite way of enjoying a story is to lose the sense that it is constructed and, importantly, that it is constructed of characters that are in no way real. As Robert McKee wittily points out, the characters in a story are no more real people than is the Venus de Milo. For some reason though, unlike gallery-imprisoned sculptures, this fact is harder to be aware of while still enjoying the narrative experience.

(At least it’s hard for those who want to enjoy the story; on the other hand  it’s standard practice for dispassionate literary critics – always among the coldest dealers in textual engagement as is nicely hinted at by Stephen Fry in his Michael Young character in Making History – the point there being that it’s easier to study history because you don’t weep at the plight of Talleyrand or Lenin, but you do, or should, if you’re swimming through the warm waters of a marvellous story with Jane Eyre or Sebastian Flyte.)

Often we’d like the characters to be ‘real’. In fact some apprentice critics are happy to treat literary personages as though they are, calling up motives and psychological drives as though they were flesh, bone and brain. The fact is they are not – or not entirely. Against this brake on our engagement with literary characters as though they were friends we do note the alternative reality of narrative engagement as we follow what Brook calls “the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” (Reading for the Plot, p.22.) Narrative represents the real, and deals with it in ways that are in some ways more real in that they are more distilled, more clear, more invested with an archetypal truth that we are aware of as real human beings but which we have limited opportunities to access for ourselves.

Another angle to look at this from is nicely cued up for exploration by H Porter Abbot, who, in a very readable set of chapters on narrative, truth and reality, shows with illustration from a range of erudite sources how gaps in fiction almost demand filling with readerly assumption. “Are real people characters? Or is character something that only exists in narrative?” (Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2nd ed, 135ff.)

Making use of archetypes

It’s important as a writer to think through what you are creating or constructing as you set about your work, and there are lessons to be learnt and profit to be made from our most ancient archetypes.

Cinderella needs to have exactly the set of traits she is given year after year in the pantomimes, exactly the traits she has in the traditional stories. Even in contemporary workings of the story, in Richard Curtis’s Notting Hill (1999) for example, an odd character-point of short temper or feisty urban-survival skills do not interfere with the underlying nature of who this female character is and what the union with the love interest means to us as an audience.

There are plenty of great ways to fracture the model of course, Jeanette Winterson-type reworkings of fairy tale, with the humorous and cunning reversals that serve to displace the archetype and make us question it, but perhaps serve also to bolster the mission of the archetype even as it enjoys rebirth in new guises, new genders, new love-propensiities.

As far as the recognisable Cinderella, the un-tampered-with Cinderella, there are ways to appreciate what she does for a narrative. Of course, watching or reading through stories with characters who are so wholly un-rounded can cause an odd wince, but this rarely spoils the pleasure of the experience as long as you go in knowing what you’re getting. The most enjoyable narrative experiences trade on the universally understood value of the archetypes, the basic plots. Here is a pattern that helps us understood what is at work when the same storyline is staged with more rounded characters. Does someone win love through actions that are based on selfless virtue, are they kind, supportive, open to possibility? If so then you have chosen to write on a principle that is established here in the fairy tale, get out Vladimir Propp and study hard.

The presence of these archetypes fulfils a primal need for us as readers. While at many turns realism is suspended and we would like to think they may have other facets behind our immediate perception, the fact is that Mr Darcey does not fart on first dates, does not fart at all, in fact has as much tackle for farting or fornicating as the average action man. There’s something about this that we need, something in this non-human idealism. Cinderella mustn’t have her archetypal status brought into questions by any human failings – so, sorry but no periods, mood swings and no shagging on the kitchen table however fit Buttons happens to be. It destroys everything and we’re left without the story that we set out to enjoy.

If you’re going to subvert the archetypes, this is something to flag up early rather than a late surprise.

And, let’s say it again, these are not real people. These are characters. What we can take from this is that you should be prepared to prune your characters of their humanity wherever necessary. Sometimes a bit of that archetype can come through, even as you’re trying to establish their believable realism. Be critical in your decision making here, and don’t be afraid to ask what the character is there for, what is their purpose in the plot. This is especially true if you’re trying to sneak someone in from your own experience of real life, trying to get your own back on that bastard at school who put you down. The chances are that 14 year old bastard has actually become as much a pantomime baddie in your own mind as anything you’ll see in a black costume over Christmas – so, think carefully how you’re going to deal with his reality and his status as an archetype.

You can test the reality of your characters, but don’t worry if they seem to lack reality in many ways. They should. They’re not real. There are things they don’t need to fret about, things they don’t need to do.

Do your characters even have a faee?  Again this seems an obvious point, but one that we are slightly uncomfortable with. Even rather closely described characters don’t come with a proper face. How many story characters are just a moustache or just a slash of lipstick – synecdoche is an obligation, but it’s also the writer’s best friend. You may find your characters are just a set of emotions or a set of actions. Be happy with it. Of course it’s also a large part of the disappointment many people experience with film versions of a favourite book. That disappointment can be carried back into the book, where an actorly face now haunts what was a more personal engagement with a less precisely defined character.

What are we constructing? How human is it? What deep primal need does it fulfil?

Anima

While we’re fiddling with Cinderella, it’s worth looking into what we can usefully call the ‘anima’ but holding onto some differences in the way writers will use this term compared with Jungian psychologists.

The anima for Jung is that subconscious female element within men [women have the animus although they’re not quite in parallel]. It evolves and conditions perceptions of and engagement with the opposite sex.  As a word it comes from a Latin word for ‘soul’.

For writers it is a character with a function in plotting, a character which seeks out union with its other half.  In tragedies this search will be thwarted; in happy-endings that union will have some statement of success (often marriage or some other token of physical togetherness that suggests irreversibility).  The anima is best recognised in the forms which, like Cinderella, are predominantly nurturing, kindly, innocent in that they have no quest for power over others. Often this is the source of most open creativity. Invariably there will be an association with truth, both true to self and true to others. It is regularly a young person, sometimes a child, invariably but not necessarily female.

Brooker develops this understanding of the anima throughout his masterwork The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004). We become increasingly conscious that the anima is not an ideal woman or even a real woman, but a representation of something other, something impossible and something which we are only partially conscious of but would like to believe existed in ourselves.

“ultimately she stands in both a personal and a universal, supra-personal way for the heart and soul of man… that mysterious ‘other half’ who enshrines both the centre of  man’s identity and tens essence of life itself.” p.300.

This is the importance of the archetype and the basis of that warm satisfaction in plots such as Cinderella where delightful heroine marries delighted hero. It is not a real situation, not a prescription for real life nor a dissection of it. It is something that needs to happen for the reader because it represents a union within the self and (I urge anyone to read The Seven Basic Plots for this) is part of the reach towards universal being that transcends the individual.

As far as archetypes go, we can drag them which way we chose for our own purposes, but the fact remains that they have a clear functionality and are worth being aware of for this reason.

We don’t care what happens after the marriatge (and as I said, this is what makes sequels so thoroughly obnoxious) our characters come together in a marriage for reasons other than those with which real people come together in a marriaae. To impose our reality on them is at best to miss the point.

 

Tips for writers

  • Don’t get bogged down with how real your characters really become in your hands. They are something for others to hang their meanings on.
  • Don’t walk characters through your head, writing down their dull actions as you go along. These characters have a purpose to make your/their story engaging.
  • Seek out what is archetypal about your characters and your plots. While this will never be reproduced ‘raw’ there may be interesting things to learn.
  • Readers do like archetypes, even sub-consciously. If you’re going to subvert the archetypes, this is something to do carefully not glibly.
  • Write yourself a practice tale of simple archetypes every so often. You’ll be surprised what you learn.