Category Archives: Novels

Right brain, left brain, no brainer.

Pre-1980’s research into the brain appeared to show that people fall into two distinct camps – left brainers and right brainers. The left brain was  supposed to be the logical, problem solving side and was claimed by people who were good at maths and unemotional, whereas the right side was for all those airy fairy, creative types.  I rather liked the idea of being right brain – I was bad at Maths and good at dreaming.  Now I had an excuse for failing my Maths “O” level.  I wasn’t stupid – I was a creative genius but apparently not.

Smugness always comes before a fall.  Recent research shows that to be good at Maths, you need to use both sides of your brain.  Then just as us so-called right-brainers consoled ourselves that we were still better at language, this too has been blown out of the water, with the identification of a large language centre in the left brain that interprets actions and the world around us

Twenty years ago, I did a study with a class of Creative Writing students on their preferred learning styles – did they learn best from seeing, hearing or doing.  The younger students had very distinct preferences for a certain style, but the older the student the more likely they were to use all of the styles, not showing a preference for any particular one.   The conclusion I drew was that the older you are, the more used you become to accessing all areas of the brain, probably through a process of trial and error.  Humans will usually find the easiest way to do anything.  There was one older student though, who was a visual learner only.  He was the best writer in the group and his novel was very visual but he found it difficult to edit.  He couldn’t see the structure of his work.

So how can we as writers access all the areas of our brains?    It depends how you write.  Do you have an outline or do you,  like Francoise Sagan with “Bonjour Tristesse”, pour it all out verbatim on the page as you go?  If you have an innate sense of structure and drama, then possibly you don’t need an outline.  For anything other than a short story, I do.   If nothing else, it stops me repeating myself!

It also helps me to have a clearer idea of the whole story, so as I write I can ‘see’ it in my head and know what bit is where and why it’s there.    It’s helpful to know about structure –  a bit more than beginning, middle and end – where one ends and the next section begins and what event marks that ending/beginning – three act structure and not only for scripts – you can use it for any story.

And most important of all character biographies – and we’re not talking about what they like to eat or what size shoes they wear, unless it’s crucial to the plot.  It’s the psychology of your characters – what drives them, what are their fears, what are their nightmares?

Here’s a short exercise to get you analysing – write a one page synopsis of something you’ve read or watched in the last couple of days or something you’re working on yourself.  Three paragraphs, okay you can have long ones, one each for beginning, middle and end.  To do it, you have to identify the key points that tell the story – and only the key points and identify when each section ends and the next one begins  and what action causes it.  Happy whole-braining!

 

 

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Whose point of View?

 

First person has its draw backs.  You can only see what the protagonist/heroine sees unless you adopt a structure for your novel, where the reader can see subplots or the antagonist/baddie going about their business or you can use letters or diaries written by other characters.

But first person can be more memorable:  how much less dramatic would the following novel opening be, if it were in the third person?

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.  It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me”  “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier.

It draws you like a sleep walker into the dream like  story and the sense of danger surrounding the heroine but even as you read it, you are the heroine, you are in danger.

When a character’s a strong individual, first person can work really well.

Veronica Roth is completely at ease in her heroine, Tris in “Divergent” and using the first person takes the reader straight into her life and her world.  No matter where she is, you move when she moves, you feel her fear, her pain, so effective is Roth’s style of writing. When she runs to board the train, you know exactly how her feet feel as she begins to jog alongside and you hear her thoughts as she has to increase her speed before she reaches up and clasps an outstretched hand.  You are Tris.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ heroine, Katniss is first person point of view as well, waiting  for the reader to step into her shoes. We’re inside her head, her feelings for Gale catch at our hearts, her love for her mother strikes a chord and as she fights for her life, we understand her choices in who she will save and who she must kill.

And if you’re still not convinced, Mslexia’s judges for their annual novel competition have just compiled their long list with comments on the factors that affected their decisions.  Amongst them was the following:

” … those written in the first person, with a strong and idiosyncratic voice, often grabbed their attention.”

But in the end, it’s the character who chooses the voice, in that moment when they pop uninvited into your head.

 

 

 

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Adapting screenplays and novels

On a writing forum recently, someone asked a question about why novelisations of television dramas and films were always so badly written. The answer is they were written by screenwriters, who aren’t used to writing description or thoughts and feelings.

Film scripts are economical – they have to be. The dialogue and the plot are in the hands of the director and actors and they bring it to life in how they react and interact. At most a screenplay will be 120 pages long – a novel can be as long as the market and the story requires.

Writing a novel from a screenplay needs a completely different set of tools and skills than the screenplay requires. Fewer characters, perhaps fewer locations in the screenplay but the novel allows as many characters as the reader can deal with, because the brain takes in the information differently. The novelist isn’t hampered by budgetary constraints either – characters can go to Mars, travel back 500 years and as long as the reader believes them, the cost is the same as placing their story in the 21st century in a supermarket.

There was a trend in the 80’s for books the size of doorstops with so many characters there were lists of them at the beginning, to help the reader identify who was who. It seemed like people had forgotten that the human brain could only hold so much information and keeping it simple worked. When stories originated they were drawn on a cave wall long before they were spoken – woolly mammoth and man with spear – job done. Even when storytellers gathered around campfires, there were likely only a few characters, if that, in their tales – look at the traditional stories:  Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel.  Walt Disney and Pixar might have had a problem with their multi character casts.

There are some on-line blogs that start off talking about adapting a screenplay into a novel but half way through drift into talking about the reverse process, which has been the accepted trend for years.  Advice is that you choose the major characters from the novel and the stand out scenes and write your script around them, keeping in mind the end of the story.   You can turn this advice around for the reverse process but you could end up with a scaffold of empty rooms through which the characters move.  Adapting a screenplay to a novel is like moving to a different country and setting up home there.  To be able to write well in both mediums is a formidable talent – as Graham Greene displayed in The Third Man, both screenplay and novel.

Prose has to paint pictures for the reader and this is something that screenwriters aren’t used to doing.  The script is a tool to produce the entertainment, the novel is the entertainment.

 

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Filed under Adaptation, Novels, Writing and rejection

The trouble with not writing is you can’t stop thinking about it.

So the 80,000 word first draft is in a binder behind me on the bookshelf – well it is physically, but it may as well be in my hands as I try to get on with some other stuff – other stuff being not the novel that’s preoccupied me for so long.

Now’s the opportunity to write one of those short story ideas that have plagued the life out of me for the last six months and been slapped into place on the to-do list (the one in my head) because I needed to do one thing and one thing only – get to those two words that have beckoned on the horizon, glimmering in a literary, glowing, writers’ Shangri-la way – THE END.

Except the book won’t go away – it’s neither the characters nor the story – they’re lost somewhere in a mist. Instead in my brain the book is a solid object, with no name. It can’t be opened – it just sits there, a massive block of imaginary concrete that’s infuriating me and stopping me going anywhere, creatively anyway.

There’s always research – may as well check out those facts I wove into fiction – and there’s the concrete block again. Free range reading’s out – skimming, scanning and recording’s in. Everything to service the book again.

The deadline looms for the first edit. I console myself – who was it said “The first draft is always s**t?”

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The magical, wonderful world of children’s writing

Once upon a time in the world of publishing, there were adult books for adult readers and children’s books for children and never the twain crossed. Then Harry Potter was born and suddenly both children and adults were reading the same book or as it turned out, books as long as they began with the words “Harry Potter and …”

Suddenly it was okay for adults to read children’s books. Filmmakers tapped into this appetite for fantasy and fairy tales and plundered Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson in search of magic. The same adults, who wouldn’t have touched the books, found it okay to go and watch the stories on the big screen.

And the totally cross over market emerged. Children’s publishing which had never reached the figures of the adult market was suddenly booming. More books than ever were being published for children. It was adults who were buying them for their children and grandchildren but it was adults who in many cases were also reading them.

A children’s novel, The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge has just won the Costa Book of the Year while another children’s book, The Fox and the Star has become Waterstones Book of the Year. This is only the second time a children’s book has won the Costa and the first time one has won the Waterstones. What is it then that raised them above the other novels, mostly written for adults? Could it be that they fulfil a desire for wonder, excitement, the unexpected and the need of our inner child to truly suspend our disbelief and go back to those strange worlds that captivated us?

Those worlds where anything is possible, where you can fly with the help of a friendly dragon, restore order or defeat evil with a spell from your magic wand and combat and win against almost unassailable, overwhelming odds – how could anything grounded in reality compete with the chance to become a child once more. I don’t know why there’s so much fuss about the news – but I suppose some people are born grown-up!

Oh yes, and to celebrate Libraries Day today – five out of ten most borrowed books from UK libraries were children’s!

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The character you never invited.

The story’s coming together, you know who’s the hero and who’s the baddie.  You’ve got all the ancillary characters, the locations, you’re sure of the theme.  You’re ready to get down to the scene by scene and then suddenly from nowhere this character appears.  You’re not quite sure how they’ve got there but suddenly they’re in the scene and they’re part of the story and if you tried to take them out, you’d find yourself with a hole in the plot.  Your uninvited guest has made themselves at home.

This kind of development happens more to me in prose than it does in scripts and it may well be that prose at the early draft stage is more relaxed and open to experimentation..  Also it could be novels allow the reader to handle more characters than drama – there’s time for the reader to wander down meandering roads.  The novel is not the tightly constructed screen play, where, if you follow the Hollywood model, you’ll know exactly where you are and if you’re not, what you need to do to get there.  Films need a story as tightly nailed down as a short, short story.  There’s no room f.or uninvited characters.

Yet just because you didn’t know they were coming, until you opened the door on a scene and there they were, doesn’t mean that your uninvited characters are going to change the story you want to tell.  You could suddenly find that your story expands or gains depth through the new character providing a storyline that has resonance for the hero.

In the children’s novel I’m working on at the moment, I was writing a scene where a lieutenant has to report to the arch villain, Jeremiah, who’s evil and cruel.  Writing’s all about show not tell as we’re continually told, so to leave the reader in no doubt as to Jeremiah’s despicable nature, I wrote a scene where he’s interrogating a poor snivelling wretch.  Even poor snivelling wretches if you give them dialogue have to have names but beware, as soon as you give them one, they’ll come alive and start offering you insights into how they could add a bit of variety and humour and even allow your main characters to show who they really are.  Still you should think carefully before you christen them; will Snivelling Wretch No. 1 become a monster and try to take over the show.

So Edwards, as he is now, is part of The Curse of Millie Hapless.  He hasn’t taken over the show, just fitted in nicely.  Millie is a 12 year old girl who accidentally travels back in time and discovers that her ancestor, a famous lady smuggler and spy has been wrongly accused of betraying England, a slur that has echoed through the centuries and impacted on the modern day Hapless family. Millie naturally sets about overturning this injustice.  It was only when I wrote Edwards into that interrogation scene that I saw how he could add to the twists and turns of the plot and even help to save Millie’s great, great, great, great grandmother, Lucy from the gallows.

I’m not saying that all uninvited guests shouldn’t be shown the door but just occasionally it’s worth offering the odd one some hospitality for they could repay you handsomely.

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Filed under Character mapping, Characters, Children's writing, Feature films, Film writing, Novels

Digging up bluebells

Forty years ago my front door bell rang. It was my next door neighbour bearing a bulging shopping bag.

“Fancy some bluebells,” he asked, knowing I was on the lookout for anything to go in my new garden. I was only too grateful and spent the next hour planting them and looking forward to the coming Spring. I wasn’t disappointed – the bluebells sprouted and suddenly my barren garden had been transformed into a magical woodland – well almost. Yes, I know, I knew very little about gardening but I have a vivid imagination. It was just a pity that I didn’t know a little more about bluebells for these lovely, nodding heads held on tall stalks were quickly followed by long, green, glossy leaves that swamped everything within twelve inches. Never mind, I reasoned, they can be quickly pulled up and tidied away, not too big a job.  I’ll get round to it some time.

Then I rented out my house and went to live in Canada. Four years later when I returned with my small son and my cat, I looked forward once more to spring and the bluebells. It was just in those four years they had taken over the entire garden. They were everywhere – they didn’t behave like well mannered daffodils and just stay in one place. They forced their way between paving stones, sprouted out of the foundations and hid in the middle of bushes. “They can’t get much worse,” I told myself, ignoring the fact that they’d colonised my neighbours’ gardens as well and they were not best pleased.

You’re probably wondering what bluebells have got to do with writing, well there is a tenuous link, because if all that time ago, I had dug up those dratted bluebells when I realised my mistake, I wouldn’t be faced with the monumental task I now have to shoulder. My bluebells are Spanish, and in the mild British climate, are romping away, threatening the native English bluebell, a smaller, more beautiful, to my British eye, and sweetly perfumed plant, which fits into the British landscape and doesn’t look out of place. So now I’m spending hours digging up these foreign invaders and consigning them to the bonfire.

And the tenuous link? A third of the way into the children’s novel I’m writing, I made a decision to have my two characters time travel and arrive together and in order for them to meet their antagonist, took them on a long, convoluted route through the story. The whole structure creaked but I persevered, determined it would work but it didn’t and impacted on all the other characters and on the plot.   It took my daughter to say “I don’t believe this bit,” to make me take a long hard look and agree.   I’d taken the easy way out like I did when I turned a blind eye to the bluebells.  I thought I could just tweak my story here and there like I thought I could control the bluebells by pulling up the leaves and leaving the bulb to work its way further and further into the ground.  It was time to rewrite – time to dig up the tortuous plot that had no business being there.

I know writers who’ve pressed the delete button on far more words than I had to, so I’m not awarding myself any medals. I’m going to make sure in the future though, whether I’m writing or gardening that I’m planting the right bluebells.

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Filed under Characters, Children's writing, Constructive Criticism, Novels, Rewriting