Recently, the number three has been haunting my writing and reading: tripartite goddesses, ‘Love, Death and Robots’, Kathleen Jennings musing on story structure, three act plays, and so forth. I have been reading ‘How to write’ books by Diana Wynne Jones, Angela Slatter (rereading), Kate Wilhelm, among others, and I’ve come across a clever way to define a character, using the power of three – Three different viewpoints.
When you are first coming to grips with a character, have three different people describe them. The first one loves them, be they a lover, a child, a parent, a sibling, or a close friend of the character. Let this love influence their description. The second one loathes or hates them, and so they see this character from a different perspective, with their hatred colouring their description. Lastly, have someone meet the character for the first time character , and so they have little urge to have emotions tinge their opinions.
This contrasts to my usual technique, which is to ‘interview’ the character for their personality traits, like and dislikes, and personal history. This isn’t defining the character by their own traits so much as how others perceive them. So, you get less of their internal life and more of how they interact with other people. It makes my story telling flow better when I know how my characters interact. Feel free to try this out for yourself.
In 2014, I wrote a post about writing titles, based on a Facebook post I had written five years earlier. I think it’s time I did an update, as fashions in titles for genre novels has changed.
Longish titles are back in fashion. This isn’t to say that one word titles have disappeared. However, the longer titles are no longer as rare. Last year, among the most acclaimed speculative fiction genre novels were How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang; When No One Is Watching: A Thriller by Alyssa Cole; and The Southern Book Clubs Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix. As you can see, a long title is no longer an outlier on the bookstore shelves. Feel free to give your own stories detailed titles.
I said in my previous post: ‘What a writer wants from a title is a cluster of words that are memorable. Something that encompasses the theme of the work, without giving too much away.’ These longer titles may give away a smidge more of the story, but still are memorable and distinctive. And that’s what a good title should be – something that makes it easy for your audience to remember when they are looking to talk about it or recommend it to friends.
It used to be the Victorians who favoured long titles for their fiction. Not any more. Everything old is new again.
Recently, I’ve bought quite a few books about writing. I’ve always been a collector of writing-related books. One of my very first purchases with some Christmas money was a thesaurus I bought at age twelve. Yep. The word bug had bitten, and bitten deep.
I’ve still got a problem.
It’s not that I don’t have confidence in my ability to write. I just sincerely believe that there is always something new to learn. In particular, what gold can I glean from writers I admire and wish to emulate, hence the books by Alan Baxter, Sean Williams, Peter Ball, and Isaac Asimov. I do believe I’ve mentioned and recommended the Brain Jar Press book by Angela Slatter: You Are Not Your Writing. Of these books, the two that resonate the most with me is Ball’s and Slatter’s books. However, How Not To Write A Novel gets an honourable mention for being both funny and seriously informative.
I would recommend all these books to serious writers.
I am currently writing books aimed at middle-grade readers around ten years of age. Ten is an interesting age. Before a child is eight, they are still in the ‘dreamtime’ of their youth where fantasy concepts can seem as true as reality. Many younger children are either completely fearless or very fearful, depending on their nature, because everything is still ‘unknown’. A ten year old is still much smaller than an adult, but the world is no longer unknown territory. A ten year old has a pretty good grasp of the rules of the world.
Then puberty hits and messes up the world view again. But that’s another issue.
This makes writing for this audience tricky. They can tell if you’re talking down to them. They can certain sense insincerity. And they can most definitely tell if the writing and story telling is bad. So, it means you have to write with your heart as well as your mind; which is how we should write all the time, really.
I’m lucky. I still like many of the same things I liked as a ten year old: animals, comics, cartoons, fairy tales. It makes writing for this age group easier, because I can remember how it felt to be ten.
So, what do you so with those dead darlings? If you’re like me, you tend to put them into ‘edited out of the WiP’ folders. Sometimes they languish and die, unloved, unforgotten. However, as I am a lazy individual at heart, I tend to try and recycle EVERYTHING. Failed ideas. The dozens of rejected stories from DailySF and Furious Fiction and the like.
Sometimes they get completely rewritten until they are unrecognisable; sometimes a bunch of stuff will get mashed together. Sometimes the attempt fails and that story is stuffed into an ‘Edited until I killed it’ folder. Except, sometimes it works. I make something new and shiny. It gets accepted by another market.
If there is one thing I’ve learnt, it is that you should NEVER give up … on an idea, on writing, on a dead darling. I’m a necromancer, making the dead live again! I’m the new Doctor Frankenstein, and my monsters LIVE! Watch me turn a dead darling into a zombie story …
A flash of inspiration has struck you! What do you do now?
If you’re me, you’ll write it down before you forget it. I have a huge collection of notebooks for that very reason. I have let too many ideas disappear because I was confident I’d remember them later.
So, now I have an idea. SHINY! I tend to let them ‘rest’ a day or longer, because my enthusiasm will be at manageable levels and I will be able to assess the idea with some confidence. However, if it is a ‘whole story just dropped into my head’ situation, I’ll write that down without pause. They have turned out to be some of my better stories.
This creates a file of story ideas, which I often dip into it when I suffer from writer’s block. Most ideas don’t get to sit in the file for long … because even after a ‘rest’, I’m still white hot to write that story.
That is a sentence I’ve heard many times, and I know every other writer gets the same query: Where do you get your ideas?
I’m going to give you an answer. However, this is just one answer to a process that has a multitude of answers, all of them correct. Every writer will have their own process, and if they are anything like me, they will have more that one way of getting a writing idea.
Inspiration: Inspiration can come from anywhere: a dream, a news article, song lyrics, something you read in a book that set off a new train of thought (another reason for reading widely). Let’s assume that the shiny pretty distracting you from your writing is just that, a snippet, and not of those lucky instances of a story dropping into your head fully formed. So, you have a glimpse of a story idea.
I always study a new idea, turning it this way and that to see how it holds up. If it seems like a solid concept and not a cliche, I will write it down. For me, the process of writing it down will start my muse working on fleshing out the story. I always have a notebook with me, or I will make a note of it in my computer files.
First Thoughts: First thoughts are the magic beginning to happen. I may have had other ideas that relate to this new one. I look them up, and list them under my previous notes. I might fall down the rabbit hole of research online. I never make any judgement calls at this point, because I never know when two trains of thought might smash together and form art. The goal is make a big pile of ideas – what Neil Gaiman calls compost. I think of it more as a bouquet of random flowers, and I pick my blossoms with enthusiasm.
Working It: This stage is when I will start working on the plot, and cull the unnecessary ‘flowers’. This will result in a very simple and rough plot. Generally, I am a ‘Plot First, Characters Second’ Planner. However, once I’ve developed my characters past the two-dimensional stage, the plot will flip over and start evolving around them. The characters will drive the plot along and not the other way around. Settings will start to present themselves for consideration. I rarely am inspired by a character popping into my head, which is probs why I am a genre writer and not a literary writer.
At this point, I might let an idea ‘rest’. After all, I was working on other projects when the new shiny distracted me. It doesn’t hurt to give your muse a chance to mull the idea over. I’ve got a current short story I’m working on that was much improved by the sudden realisation that the dead woman was the protagonist and not the victim of the narrative. I think the story has gained ‘legs’ with this realisation. If I had rushed to write the story as I first conceived of it, it would have lost this deepening of character and plot.
In Summary: I leave myself open to any kind of inspiration, and then I work the shiny concept up into an idea. Ideas don’t down sleet down from above; they take work. Sorry to disappoint those who thought there was some sort of secret to getting good ideas.
Just to shake things up a bit, I’ve decided to do a masterclass online with Neil Gaiman. He is a writer I admire, with a lush writing style. And I’ve saved a bit of money by not going anywhere…
If you’re snoozing, you’re losing. I don’t think a writer can ever say there is nothing new to learn. I’ll report back on what I’m learning … without giving away Mr Gaiman’s hard work. My favourite gold nugget for getting a story started: “Let me tell you what happened to me.” It’s immediate, and already you’ve made a connection with the reader. The answer will be different for every storyteller.
I tend to write with my eyes. What this means is that – when I started out – I tended to see my characters and see the action. I didn’t hear their voices, or smell the air and feel the textures. It took years of training to learn to ‘hear’ and ‘touch’, smell and ‘taste’. Other beginner writers have problems visualizing a scene, but can write dynamite dialogue.
This sensuous writing might seem like a basic tool in the writing kit, but it is surprising how many people forget that writing – like all skills – is a mixture of training, talent, and practice. Lots and lots of practice. Teaching yourself to notice details. Trying to think of unique ways to describe an experience. Getting out and having experiences so you can describe them!
So, next time your a reading a descriptive passage, don’t dismiss as ‘purple prose’. Some hard-working person has put some thought and effort into that paragraph!