Friday, 23 June 2017

Writing for Beginners (32)

Don’t write yourself short

A dilemma common to many writers is one of size – and I don’t mean of screen, hard drive or their latest advance. I’m talking about the newly completed novel. It’s a belter, with fantastic characters, plenty of action and love interest, and the ending is a corker. Frankly, Spielberg would hyperventilate if only he knew it was out there.

The only problem is, it’s not long enough. Instead of being 90,000 words long, which the market might demand, it comes out at a rather wussy 60,000.

It’s like being made to wear shorts as a kid – they might have pockets and a zip, even creases down the front, but they’re still not real trousers.
So, how do you go about making a short book into a longer one without simply padding it to blazes?

To begin with, if you are convinced about the strength of your work, that it has ‘legs’ – in other words, it’s more than just a short story – you have to take a serious look at what makes it so good in the first place. Is it the theme? The power of the characters? The pace and tone of the storyline? The timing or relevance for the market? Could it compete with other books out there (assuming it catches and holds an agent’s or publisher’s attention)? And do you have such a genuine conviction about it that you can’t bear to chuck it in a drawer and forget it?

If so, then you have to look at ways in which you can use what you’ve got, and build on it.

It might end up bigger, as the actress said to the bishop, but will it be better?

First you have to step back from what you’ve written and look at how and where it could be expanded upon in a way that capitalises on its existing strengths. Don’t forget, you’re working with an already established storyline, and you don’t want to change it out of all recognition or water it down. Any scenes added must enhance the story and give it more depth. Similarly, whatever characters you bring in must add to the existing cast in a relevant way, rather than simply cluttering up the place like discount night at the local bath-house. 

Could the storyline stand a second strand or a sub-plot, strongly related to the main events but coming from another start-point? This would allow you to bring in other points of view, with characters coming together later in the story. In each case, you have to stitch the new elements into the back-story so that they are not seen as a bolt-on simply to fill out the pages.

Be warned, though: once you start adding depth, character or new strands, the word count will grow – often alarmingly. It takes discipline and careful editing to control it, but as long as your new characters or scenes don’t assume a greater significance than your original, or skew the story out of shape, it can be done.

Like how? I hear you ask. Taking an example right off the wall, let’s say you have completed a book based on the Titanic. Unlike the ship, however, your book isn’t big enough. It’s actually more of a dinghy. It needs more size, more content, more oomph. You can’t add more description, because there’s plenty already and anyway, describing heaving open seas (or bosoms) can be boring. More dances and events are simply colour, you’ve covered all the on-board relationships adequately, so more of same would be gilding the lily. This is a dramatic tale, not an advert.

If the story is about a huge ship’s invulnerability, you might have already covered the enormous iceberg or some other unexpected disaster which is going to befall this leviathan (now there’s a word I never expected to use in print). Big ship full of bright souls versus even bigger, unstoppable object equals drama. But what about bringing in another human aspect?

For example, the engineer who built the ship. Was he working to required specifications, or had he been forced to skip some details here and there on grounds of cost? Was the original steel supplied of the right quality – and is there someone, somewhere who knows otherwise? Is there somebody with a long-term plan who wants to damage the ship mid-voyage for various reasons, but goes too far - with disastrous results? Any or all of these could be fed into the mix – along with their back-stories, of course.

In effect, what this is doing is introducing other characters who are as closely connected to the ship as those on board (perhaps they are even on board, too, and therefore suddenly pitched into a nightmare of their own making).

This new cast of characters allows a greater exploration of the build-up to the event, introducing more depth and more points of view to what in real life was a very human drama.

TOP TIPS

  •         Bigger is not automatically better. Additional material has to fit in with and improve the overall work.
  •     Analyse which parts of your existing work could benefit from extra emphasis, characters or scenes.
  •     Weaving in another strand can add depth and contrast, as well as giving an alternative point of view.
  •         Avoid padding, such as unnecessary adjectives, adverbs or birds in the trees.

 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Latest article in Writing Magazine

Daydream Believer

The July edition of Writing Magazine is now out and about, and includes my monthly Beginners page - this one called 'Daydream Believer'.

No, nothing to do with The Monkees (although it does happen to be the title of one of my favourite songs), but rather about how the writing life is full of distractions. Doesn't matter what you do, noise, events, people - life in general, in fact - combine to intrude relentlessly.

There are ways of avoiding some of these intrusions - locking yourself away on a deserted island is one, albeit a little extreme. But is that really the best solution?

In my experience distractions can be useful. If permitted to intrude with a certain measure of control, they can even be beneficial. The odd break away from your PC or pen can allow you to see things a more disciplined mind might ignore. And with too much focus the brain can become stale, which is surely not what creative writing is all about. Ideas breed ideas, and so on and so forth.

The short answer is, don't cut yourself off completely. Allow some outside stimulus, even if it is a simple walk round the block (or island).

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Thursday, 8 June 2017

Writing for Beginners (31)

Thinking of the awful events in London and Manchester recently, and the sadness heaped on residents and visitors alike in both those cities, I couldn't help but be reminded of an experience I once had which serves to remind me of the beauty rather than the horror to be found in our cities at night. (I hope nobody feels I'm ignoring what happened - I'm not. Simply finding an alternative image).


It's not often I find myself in London, and even rarer after dark, but a few years ago I was a member of a cycle marshal team in a night-time charity walk around the city, along a route of 26 miles and with approximately 15,000 (mostly lady) walkers. My job was to encourage, help and watch over them, my writing hat parked on its hook for the night in favour of a crash-hat and a supply of water and emergency chocolates (well… nobody said we all had to suffer…).

I was therefore thinking of things other than storylines, plot points, deadlines, editing and how to get biscuit crumbs out of the keyboard – a sort of alternative writer’s retreat, if you will.

Part of my job was to keep a roving eye on traffic conditions, single walkers, limping walkers, walkers going off-piste, leery drunks, clubbers falling out of doorways and finding themselves face to face with a phalanx of ladies in decorated bras - more scary than you might think, even sober - and generally not doing a prat-fall off my bike in front of everyone.

In this fairly relaxed state of mind, I couldn’t help but notice some unusual, albeit unforgettable sights. There was the stern lady walking resolute but alone, whose face lit up when an elderly gentleman stepped out of a doorway as she approached and smilingly doffed his baseball cap; a pair of young tourists, luggage in hand, who stared in wonder as the walkers trooped along the Embankment and past the London Eye at two in the morning; two mallards in St James’ Park, standing quietly side-by-side as the human tide went by, totally fixated and therefore somehow part of the event; a policeman in Horse Guards Parade, gun held across his chest, alert yet nodding occasionally in approval; a young WPC on traffic duty, looking on wistfully as the column crossed the road under her direction; and a young man (very drunk) at three am, who asked me what the *@!* was going on. When I explained, he became suddenly sombre, before waving his friends away and staying to add cheerful encouragement to the walkers. (We didn’t understand all his words, but we certainly knew the tune).

I watched an urban fox near Vauxhall Bridge taking advantage of sandwiches left in bins, and some cheeky pigeons, ignoring the official mayoral line about not feeding the birds, picking up their share, too. The edifice of the MI6 building, sprouting cameras and spiked fences, loomed sinister and forbidding in the dark, yet improbably, within touching distance of every walker who passed by.

Buses filled with night travellers were the target of walkers, the passengers encouraged to wave back and show their support, and even emergency vehicle crews speeding by seemed aware of events while forcibly concentrating on other things.

There were many more such sights which came and went during the night, some poignant and human, others inanimate and fixed, all there to be looked at and stored in the mind or forgotten at will.

And suddenly I was in writer’s mode again, spotting scenes where others might not, noticing faces looming out of the dark, some smiling, others creased with effort, each no doubt with their own tale to tell, their own experience. hopes and fears.

Amid all these images and sounds was a welter of material, ideal colour for any genre, from human relationship dramas through to crime thrillers. All the elements were there for me as a writer to use, colourful and sharp; all I had to do was pick them up and let my imagination do the rest.

Oddly enough, what I recall most vividly alongside the above are flashes, mere glimpses of things seen and heard which have stayed with me ever since:

The dark, chilly recesses along the Thames; how my skin felt stretched and cold; the taste of tiredness in the mouth; the wind rustling discarded paper; ambulance lights bouncing shadows across shop fronts; the throb of an unseen helicopter high in the sky; a shop alarm in the distance; a figure in the bushes of Battersea Park; a pale face in the gloom by a darkened building; a siren from a riverboat, hauntingly atmospheric; and a mournful howl from an inmate of Battersea Dogs’ Home, no doubt sensing that while he was locked up inside, we lucky humans were outside having all the fun.

More than anything, however, especially right now, it's my reminder that there is true beauty in our cities, mostly unseen because we're in too much of a hurry, too anxious, too focused on where we're going, to take real notice. Hopefully, in time that beauty, whether in London, Manchester or any other place visited by the darker side of life, will rise up and help people recover.

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