Claire King

Author

Archive for the ‘Craft’ Category

Layers not Lines

Posted on: March 15th, 2011 by Claire - 20 Comments

I’ve been trying to explain how I write – without formalising a plot (I think this makes me what is called a Pantser) – to writers who are more used to devising their plot before they start (Plotters). So here goes.

Bedtime Stories are a good example:

If you sat down with your child – or somebody else’s child – tonight and they asked you to make up a bedtime story, how would you do it? At our house when we do this, there is no plotting, you just make it up as you’re telling it.

For example, “Once upon a time there was…” What? Quickly! A dragon who was afraid to fly? A cat with no friends? A little girl who couldn’t get to sleep? A boy made of jelly?

Once you have come up with that original character-based premise, the rest of your story can quickly take shape on the hoof – the action, the setbacks, the antagonists and the ally and of course the Happily Ever After.

Starting with a premise:

When I’m writing, I work in the same way. I start with a premise. So The Night Rainbow premise was essentially ” Once upon a time there was a little girl who had no-one to take care of her.” And then I started creating the world around her. Where does she live? What would she do when she wakes up in the morning? What does she want? What danger could she be in? How would she spend her days? Why is her mother not looking after her? And so on.

The answers to these questions did not come to me in a logical manner. They bloomed, one by one, and each time they did, they came with their own questions. I wrote it all down.

Writing in Layers:

Of course a novel is much more complex than a bedtime story, but the process of starting at page one and ending at the end is still counter intuitive to me. So when I started writing these things down, I didn’t worry about starting at the beginning, I just captured it all and developed it as fully as I could at that time. It fit everywhere and nowhere in the logical construct of a novel. For example I wrote the bones of the ending quite early on. Once I knew where the girl lived I drew a map, and it became more elaborate as her adventures progressed. I had to go back into the manuscript regularly to weave in the geography.

Throughout the whole process new ideas would come to me that strengthened earlier or later sections of the book and each of those had a knock-on effect on the rest of the novel.

The ‘first draft’ was finished when I seemed to have answered all of my questions – within the narrative or within the notes alongside it. And then I asked myself…

So what would be the best way to tell this story?

The implications of this question are huge – moving whole chunks of the book from one place to another, deleting scenes, adding new scenes, making the character development consistent, ensuring foreshadowing in the right places and so on and so on.

Thank goodness for word processing and thank goodness for Scrivener which helped me stay organised.

This process took a long time and resulted in the second draft, by which time I would say the plot was clear to anyone now reading the manuscript.

Another art metaphor – writing in layers compared to painting in layers:

Another way of explaining this is by comparing the emerging story to a picture.

Rather than the narrative emerging as though from a printer – one line of pixels at a time – for me it works more like an oil painting, one layer created at a time:

In oil painting most artists paint in layers.

The artist often starts by sketching out the composition onto the canvas.

They might then proceed by painting in different colour layers working from darkest to lightest.

Entire layers can be removed if the artist isn’t happy with them.

The borders of the colors are blended together when the “mosaic” is completed.

Details are applied at the end.

 

And finally

This is just how I work and everyone works differently. So here are some interesting links:

A discussion here about Plotters versus Pantsers

The snowflake method by Randy Ingermanson

Everything Speaks: The Intention in Our Words

Posted on: February 25th, 2011 by Claire - 28 Comments

Further to my last post where I wrote, tongue in cheek, a list of rules *they* would have us follow when writing, a lot of discussion has taken place on the blogosphere. Are there rules? Guidelines? How does it work? Debi Alper will be speaking on this topic at the York Festival of Writing this year, and in responding to this question on her blog I crystallised the only ‘rule’ for writing in which I truly believe:

Everything speaks – so write with intention.

‘Everything speaks’ is a principle that I have been using in my day job for some years. There it refers to the environment into which we welcome our clients, the way that we present ourselves and interact. From the books on the shelves and how they are arranged to the speed at which we move – everything gives a message to others. It can either be put there intentionally, or can exist unintentionally, but the message will be there nonetheless.

 

I was recently reminded of another way in which this axiom is relevant in a brilliant talk by Author Sarah Dunant. She was presenting the Italian art which had inspired her renaissance trilogy and used the painting Venus of Urbino as one of her examples. I don’t have one I can publish here on the blog, but a quick google and you can have a look at it.

I am utterly ignorant in art history, although Sarah’s talk was very accessible. She highlighted the detail in these paintings which provide clues and messages for the viewer. The painting is not just a pretty picture, it is dripping with symbolism. Everything speaks.

For example, Venus is staring straight at the viewer. This is a remarkable departure from the way women had been portrayed (beautiful, madonna-like, eyes turned down). In the background is a sleeping dog, likely symbolism suggesting unfaithfulness. The pot of myrtle in the window: a symbol of constancy. And what are those maids doing in the background? Is the chest they are rummaging in a marriage chest? Look at that screen behind her – bisecting the painting and pointing right down to her loins, which occupy centre stage in the picture…it’s a story all in itself.

There are clear parallels between artists and writers. Just as the painter chooses a palette of colours, a composition, the elements of the painting, so, as writers, do we:

We choose the point of view according to the focus we want to give to our story, the perspective, the light and the shade.

We choose the tense that will give us the feeling we want, that will best add to the reader’s experience.

We choose the setting, the palette of colours, the scents and sounds of the backdrop to highlight themes, to evoke emotions in the reader.

We balance the action and the description, choose the moments of tension and release…In a nutshell, every line of dialogue, every apple on every tree, every pot boiling over or empty letterbox, every character flaw – everything in our writing speaks. And at the expense of any rules that *they* may set, it is this that we should always remember.

In this case, the best we can do is educate ourselves about the craft of writing: through reading, through learning, through experimenting and practicing. In this way we build the resources available to us so that ultimately we can write consciously, with intention, and achieve the result we want.

15 rules for writing novels.

Posted on: February 23rd, 2011 by Claire - 66 Comments

no-no-noAll the other writing blogs have lists of mistakes you should avoid making when writing. So here is mine.

1. Never write using a first person point of view

2. Never write in present tense

3. Don’t tell. Show (see illustration).

4. Don’t write dialogue in dialect.

5. Clichés are old hat.

6. You never write in second person POV. Dear God, I mean, not ever.

7. Don’t use adverbs. Or, if you must, use them sparingly. But never use ‘suddenly’ no matter what.

8. Don’t use prologues.

9. Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Even ‘says’. If you find you have used ‘says’ as a dialogue tag then you are writing in present tense. See (2).

10. Don’t write what you know. No do. No don’t. Um. It depends what you know really.

11. Using the passive voice is not recommended.

12. If using the third person POV, which obviously one is, avoid use of the omniscient narrator.

13. Make sure you read widely. Also, focus on reading books similar to your own.

14. Network like crazy and build your platform.

15. Don’t procrastinate. Shut up and write.

Once you have rewritten your manuscript according to the above rules it will be ready to blend in with others on the slushpile. Next week we shall discuss how you can make your work stand out by use of the query letter in ‘100 things not to do when querying literary agents’.

Misery Loves Company

Posted on: February 17th, 2011 by Claire - 15 Comments

Meet Mr X.

He could easily be described as too content. He has a kind of Panglossian optimism that drives most people around him crazy. In a nutshell, he’s happy.

It’s challenging throwing decent obstacles at this guy, because he takes them in his stride, looks on the bright side and carries on as usual. Of course I plan to crack him. In the next 80,000 words I’m going to make him miserable and then pull him out of the other side. Why would I do this to him? Well, because it’s fiction, and that’s what we do to our characters. No-one likes to read about people who start happy, end happy and are happy during the middle parts too. Right?

Today I read a blog post along these lines, which asks the question ‘Are happy characters boring to read?’ Why do we feel the need to drag them through conflict situations in the name of good fiction?

1. Why do stories need conflict/unhappiness?

Because misery loves company. Our lives are not, in general, blissfully happy. Hearing stories about how others overcome problems helps us understand we are not alone, perhaps learn ways of managing difficult situations. Not only do we take vicarious pleasure in others’ suffering but it is good to hear that others face conflict and prevail. There is hope for us too. The troughs of unhappiness emphasise the peaks of success.

From a very early age, in the stories we tell to children, we introduce danger, evil and conflict and we show how it can be beaten, how even the most unlikely hero can triumph against all odds.

2. What kind of conflict?

While I was thinking about conflict I pulled out Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. If you’re not familiar with this theory you can read a summary here. My character, Mr X, has met his physiological and safety needs and he’s not particularly interested in moving higher up the pyramid. He’s content at a fairly basic level. My challenge, in introducing conflict, is either to take away some of his safety/physiological satisfaction or to make him aspire to the other elements on the pyramid. Whilst I was plotting this out, I came up with a hypothesis. It’s a great generalisation, but I’d love to know what you think:

When you read a book where the conflict in concentrated in those areas (family, sex, love, self esteem, confidence) – who tends to have written those stories? Would it be too much of a generalisation to say women writers have a strong focus in these areas?

Now, look at the top tier of the pyramid – the self-actualization – and the bottom two. Would it be fair to say that male writers tend to focus conflict in these areas?

And if we can (if we can) make those generalisations, can we follow it through to conclude that an audience of female readers enjoy books whose conflict/conflict resolution is in the ‘female’ areas? And male readers in the extremes of the pyramid? I know this is not a very politically correct hypothesis, but there it is on the table.

What do you think?

Pub/Lit Roundup

Posted on: February 9th, 2011 by Claire - 7 Comments

I’ve decided to keep a log of the best links I find and post or retweet on Twitter and I will post them here periodically. Here is the first batch of twenty:

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Literary Agents and Publishing

Questions to Agents (and replies) – Jennifer Laughran (Literaticat) Open Thread

The self publishing Hoo-Ha – Chuck Wendig

On deciding to self publish – Robert Chazz Chute

The speech that all writers need to hear (on rejection, success and living your life) – Jane Smith

How much editing does a contracted book need? – Jody Hedlund

Are e-books killing the literary novel? – bnet

Bloomsbury Restructure along global lines – Publishers Weekly Feb 8th

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Craft/Writing

The four most common mistakes fiction editors see – KM Weiland

What point of view do you use? – Patty Jansen

The lies writers believe in (are there really any rules for writers?) – The Literary Lab

Anxiety and The Modern Writer – Amber Sparks

Maximising Pay-Off with a Character Fix – Novel Resolution by  Lydia Sharp

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Writing Competitions

Why writers should enter competitions – Jody Hedlund

Yeovil Prize

Putting rejections into context – Nik Perring

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Things to Read – Short stories, new short fiction

Sparks – featuring flash by Jon Pinnock, Vanessa Gebbie and More

Horizon Review – Edited by Jane Holland

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Literature

Is there a Literary Glass Ceiling for Women Writers?

Mariella Frostrup talks to Sebastien Faulks on Heroes/Heroines and the great british novel – BBC Radio 4

The dangers of a single story – a TED talk from Chimamanda Adichie

Zen and the Art of First Draft Writing

Posted on: February 5th, 2011 by Claire - 28 Comments

What do meditation and novel writing have in common?

When I was taught to meditate, the very first thing I had to learn was how to stop distractions, to clear the mind, by turning my attention to my breathing. The aim is to become aware of the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your body, and then to concentrate on it to the exclusion of everything else.

When I first tried this I became instantly and acutely aware of the cacophony that is going on inside of my head. The thoughts, the questions, the wondering if I should have cheese on toast for tea…and how easy it is to follow those thoughts skipping off through my brain. Ooh look, badgers!

My teacher described these thoughts, and how we should deal with them, as like puppies that we have to train. There are many, many puppies. They are interesting and fun. It is tempting to follow them as they gambol off down the garden, trailing your toilet roll behind them. Ooh toilet roll, I must add that to the shopping list. Oh, and coffee. Ooh I could just do with a coffee actually. I’ll just go and…

Sorry.

So the idea is to train the puppies. When you notice a thought popping up which is not the ‘in and out’ of breathing, you do not pick it up and cuddle it, let it lick your nose. No. You say ‘Hello, puppy. I’m busy right now so sit down. We’ll play later. Sit. No, sit. Sit!’ And you go back to thinking about your breath.

The puppy will sit for a while but will either get up again after a few seconds, or else a new one will bound over. Perhaps two. They run in packs, you know?

But if you are firm with the little darlings, repeatedly, eventually the puppies get bored and they stop bothering you. And then there you are, with a clear and lucid mind. You are meditating, you have a sense of inner peace and relaxation. It’s actually very refreshing to get a break from all that noise…

What was I talking about? Oh yes, first drafts. So, when I start on a novel, it tends to take shape in this way:

First there is an idea – it can be a character or a setting or a conflict – that starts to grow. I ruminate on it. I take notes. I indulge in literary doodling. I draft out characters, I explore scenarios. Mull over plot points. I form pictures in my head of the characters and the overall ‘feel’ of the book. I write sample dialogue. I write sample settings. I test out voices. I have no idea if this is a normal way to go about things, but this is what I do.

At some point there is a tipping point, where I’m happy that I have enough of a framework, sufficient material to work with, that I need to commit myself and just start the process of writing – the rhythmic, day-in-day-out storytelling that will add up over the next few months to a first draft.

I arrived at that tipping point last week. I sat down with my notes and doodles and draftings and various other musings, ready to get cracking on the actual first draft of my next novel (it has to be written before the summer holidays, you have permission to nag me about word count). I open up my new manuscript project, set the word count target and…

Here come the puppies!

I shall name a few of them. Have you met?

Research Puppy (Shall we just research this element before we start? It could be important.)

Perfect Tense Puppy (Is this the right tense to be using? What about all the downsides? Maybe we should think about it some more?)

Point of View Puppy (You know, once you’ve started writing in First Person it will be a pain to change it to third if it doesn’t work? Maybe you should think about it some more? Best to be 100% sure.)

The Puppy of Perfect Beginnings (You know, an opening line has to be an attention grabber. Everything rests on that first line, that first paragraph. Let’s just work on getting that right today).

The Naming Puppy (That character’s name just doesn’t sound right. We should re-think it. Let’s Google some names.)

There are more.

Fortunately I am wise to their game, and they are currently sitting in a nice row while my word-count-ometer ticks satisfyingly upwards. But I know they’ll be back…

Who are you, anyway?

Posted on: January 27th, 2011 by Claire - 10 Comments

When we write fiction, we create characters that are different to us. Right? At least that’s the idea.  Sometimes though, it seems that our own personality traits can slip through onto the page, and we find our character behaving how we would behave, rather than how they ought to.

This got me to thinking about our characters’…well, their characters.

Have you ever been personality typed at work? Or completed a ‘Cosmopolitan’ style multiple choice questionnaire to see who you really are?

In my experience the results are very rarely surprising (particularly when we complete the survey ourselves). But I wondered what would happen if I completed a personality test for one of my characters.

Are her actions congruent with the personality I intended to give her?

Myers-Briggs is one of the most used and trusted tests. It divides people into one of 16 different broad ‘best-fit’ personality types. I found a synthetic online version here. There are only four choices to make so it’s pretty fast. Try it!

I answered the questions first for myself and then for my character. I’ve posted the results below. I’d be inclined to say that they’re pretty accurate for both of us.

For writing a new character, when I’m just getting to know them, I think this short, fast summary could be a useful reference for deciding how they should behave in a given situation.

Why not try it for one of your existing characters, or one you intend to create? I’d love to hear how you get on.

**************************

Claire – ENFP

Words, ideas and possibilities spew effortlessly from them. Words are their best friends. They dance around ideas, the more, the merrier. Imaginative, spontaneous, original and enthusiastic, they have a knack for seeing other possibilities, other dreams and options. The world is never as it is but as it could be, as if it were but an artists sketch begging for colour. They initiate change and often are prone to trespassing a few known boundaries to take themselves and others where no one has been before. The status quo tends to lack inspiration.

When inspired, they are fearless and tireless. Their energy will know no limits unless red tape takes over. Routine drags them down. Their faith in possibilities and belief in the benefit of change often inspire others to follow. They are challenging, ingenious and innovative. They will give their best to what appears to be an impossible challenge, a place unknown to man or beast.

They use metaphors, stories, images and analogies to make their point.They love theories and often shape their own. They see patterns emerging. Keen improvisers, they are rarely caught off guard, there is always something up their sleeve. The sky is the only limit.

They are sometimes entertainers, artists or otherwise engaged in public demonstrations that allow their ideas to bloom. Their greatest difficulty is not in initiating projects but in choosing among so many possibilities, setting realistic boundaries, establishing priorities and correctly assessing resources.

Main Character – INFJ

Without introverted intuitives, it is said that Israel would have had no prophets. Under deceptively conventional appearances lie perceptive minds that travel the breadth and depth of universal mysteries, contemplating its multilayered complexity, seeking the trends that will define the future. With time, clarity of vision comes. When it comes, they are propelled towards the vision and all their actions lead to it. They are perseverant behind a quiet exterior and will often come back with their vision long after everyone believes they have let it go.

What they see is so clear and obvious to them they are often surprised to find that others cannot see it as well. They may find it difficult to articulate the necessary steps towards implementation or to explain how each goal fits into the larger picture.

Their mind usually travels from the past to the future, seeking to fit a particular situation in a large context. It picks up patterns, symbols and images from different seemingly unrelated fields, identifies similarities and provides meaning. This can help solve problems by juxtaposing ideas, finding analogies or simply by rooting out the quintessential reality, discovering the origin in universal stories and human experiences, culling wisdom from the infinitely small to the infinitely large. Their mind naturally travels from the microcosm to the macrocosm.

They regularly have to face the difficulties of bringing dreams into reality. The time and effort it takes is always more than what their intuition initially suggested. They are determined perseverant, inspired and often see things just around the corner, into the near or far future.

Dirty Windows

Posted on: January 21st, 2011 by Claire - 5 Comments

Today’s question is: Who knows what, and when?

Sometimes concepts from my day job cross-over into my writing. This week another one cropped up – The Johari Window.

It’s often used for improving communication, team building, and personal development. I think it also has a direct application to creative writing:

The four-panes of the window map out the information that is known to an individual and/or to others. Or, in the case of fiction, what is know to a character and what is know to the reader. It is a simple square divided into four quadrants, as so:

  1. The things that known to both the reader and the character: Known as the open window
  2. Things that are known to the reader but NOT the character: I call this the secret window
  3. Things that are known by the character but not to the reader: I think of this as the mirrored window (those on the outside can’t see in)
  4. Things that are known by neither the reader nor the character: I like to think of this as the dirty window

1. The Open Window

The Open Window starts off pretty much non-existant, since when you open a book you have no information about the character. Some books immediately start trying to help you out with this:

“Jenny ran her long fingers through her blonde hair as she studied her tall, slender frame in the mirror”.

That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s the writer  pulling down the sash, pretty brutally. Of course, increasing what a reader knows can be done much more subtly, through dialogue, clues, the character’s actions and through a drip-feed of pertinent information. Even if you feel you know your character well, the reader’s intimacy with the character should increase gradually over time.

2. The Secret Window

In the secret window, the reader has information that the character does not. This can be simple information (Jenny is being stalked!), or can involve deep issues which the character can’t face, and yet can be seen by others. For example the reader sees Jenny’s drinking habits and realise she is an alcoholic, but Jenny has not understood this herself. Information kept in this window can be used to build tension (as with the stalker), or empathy, making the reader want to reach out and help the character…

3. The Mirrored Window

This is information that the character knows about him/herself that readers do not. Perhaps she lost her parents in an accident, perhaps she is really a man. Perhaps she likes chips for tea. Perhaps she lied when she said she loved Geoff. The writer will choose how much of this information to share with the reader throughout the story, but the information will always affect the character’s actions.

4. The Dirty Window

The reader doesn’t know, the character doesn’t know, so who does know? Ah yes, that would be you, the author. For example, Jenny is pregnant, but she has no idea. Or she is courageous but has not yet had a chance to prove it. Or, subconsciously, she still not forgiven her father for not taking her to the circus in 1975. Information in this square drives  your character’s actions and through character development and plotting, more information becomes known to the character herself.

So at the end of the story, the open window is bigger and the others have shrunk. We feel like we’ve got to know the character better, and the character has grown as a person. Critically, though, the other windows have not vanished all together. If we want to write a sequel, maybe Jenny will still be unaware she has a stalker, and unless it’s really important to the plot, we may never find out that Jenny likes chips for tea.

Keeping track of who knows what is particularly important during the editing stage of writing a novel, when whole chunks of action can get moved around. What do you think, could using this idea help?

A River of Stones

Posted on: December 28th, 2010 by Claire - 4 Comments

I came across this today and it strikes me as a perfect way to start the new year.

The child narrator of my debut novel ‘The Night Rainbow’ is very much centred in the moment. She pays attention to things that adults skim over or take for granted. This is one of the things I love about her character and something I wish I were more adept at myself.

I heard about ‘The River of Stones’ project which aimed to get people doing just that –  noticing one thing properly every day (a bird eating berries, a child playing in the street) and writing it down. Although at the end of the project a book will be put together which you can contribute to and buy, there’s no obligation to do that. People from across the world will be joining in, just for the experience.

31/01/11 Update:

I really enjoyed my month of small stones. Looking back – over a period of time which can often seem to fly by leaving me wondering where the days went – these stones remind me of the moments we often brush past. Time slows a little.

Here are my small stones:


 

January 1st 2011

 

 

 

 

An e-mail arrives: “When you said the risk would always be there does that mean you definitely won’t leave (him) and we should just keep going as we are as long as it lasts?” Somewhere another Claire King is cheating. I feel sad for these strangers. I do not reply.
*


 

January 2nd 2011
January 2nd 2011

 

 

 

After two weeks under low, white skies, we are woken by luminous blue. Through open windows a kindly warmth rides in on the back of winter. Our eyes stretch up and out towards infinity as though waking from a cramped sleep.
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January 3rd 2011
Out in the ink-black of 6am, under a scattering of stars, a woman brings firewood. She will warm her tiny corner of Earth.
*

January 4th 2011
Beatrix is allowed to wear her party shoes to school. When teachers and children ‘Ooh’ and ‘Aah’ she closes her eyes so no-one can see her smile.
*
January 5th 2011
White roses and peonies, my past and my future, arrive to mark the passing of time. As I bow into their scent my mother calls. She is worried to find me crying. I explain it’s because I’m not alone.
*
January 6th 2011
The soporific blow of the gas fire, the Doppler effect of an ambulance passing the house, the echoes of my inbox which does not ping.
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January 7th 2011
A damp-dog walk in white mist, by verges ragged with dried-out dock and russet branches of leafless vines. I try to be present and concentrate on their beauty but instead am filled with the desire to see springtime poppies bloom.
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The best pain au chocolat pic I ever saw! By www.rkhooks.net
January 8th 2011
Three of us in pyjamas around the wooden table, because there’s no hurry today. Pops and cracks from blazing logs in the hearth. Hot, hot tea to drink in my own time. Silence from the children, intent on mining the warm chocolate from its soft pastry bed. Buttery flakes tumble onto the tiles and are investigated by purring cats.
*
January 9th 2011
The eve of a trip away from home to work. Moments spent with family are amplified and heavy with love.
*
January 10th 2011
I stare out of the window, squinting into the morning sunlight as we scrape and rumble along the tracks. Flamingos graze in the lagoon by La Franqui. From behind the glass I conjure the salt smells of the étangs and the sun-warmed pines. I think of my children’s faces this morning as we kissed goodbye, trying to recall which emotion filled their eyes.  There is no good answer.
*
January 11th 2011
Built to look like a kindly faced whale, one hundred and fifty tonnes of metal sail through the sky. The Beluga comes in to land, soft as snow.
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January 12th 2011
With the click of the brown glass door I close myself into the small, parched box. I want to breathe the cedar-smell deeply but swallowing scorches my throat.  I curl, foetal on the burning bench and wait for the blurring of boundaries between steam and skin.
*
January 13th 2011
I say, “Bonsoir.”
The manageress of the café looks down at my book and says, “Good evening, Madam.”
Cogs turn as I juggle linguistics and social niceties. I opt for, “Good evening.”
“Vous desirez à manger?”
Oh. I back pedal, revert to French, stumble over my words. “Er, ah, oui, je veux bien.”
“What would you like?”
I stare at the manageress and she smiles an enquiring smile.
*
January 14th 2011
At Carcassonne we sigh to a halt where the tracks cut through higher ground. I lift my head to see gravestones slipping sideways, mossy tombs. The thought of bones suspended in the earth above me brings a shudder of vitality.
*
January 15th 2011
Cast as the evil and stupid witch, because Amélie is a princess, Beatrix is a fairy and “…every story needs to have a baddy, Mummy, so she can get beaten. And it has to be you.”
I cast my best spell, putting them to sleep for a thousand years. There’s no need to worry. Later Daddy will wake them with a kiss.
*
January 16th 2011
We go to bed late. ‘I can’t sleep here,’ I say, ‘the bedclothes smell of lamb.’
‘That can be your small stone tomorrow,’ says my husband.
We laugh like teenagers.
*

January 17th 2011
One minute’s silence for Vincent and Antoine, a colleague and his childhood friend murdered in Niger.  I stand at the window. Beyond the concrete and glass where we in our thousands work on, cars speed through my reflection. On the wall is a photo of a sandcastle. I had put it up to remind clients that everything we achieve risks being short lived.
Death is visited upon my day. I spend the afternoon in the long shadow of worry.
*
Photo by Richard Heeks http://www.flickr.com/photos/11164709@N06/
January 18th 2011
I have blown this bubble, slowly, carefully, taking care not to burst it. But today its time is here to become something else. A word, a keystroke, changes physics forever.
Pop, pop, pop, a ring of rainbow-lit daughter bubbles are born.
Pop, pop, pop, grand-daughter bubbles, one hundred, probably more. Shifting, bursting, spreading.
I am elated.
*
January 19th 2011
Dangly knickers. The smell of grilled cheese. Leopard skin leggings pegged high. The entire back wall taken by a photograph of Venice. Students with thin moustaches and insouciant scarves. A child’s T-shirt, with spangly fish swimming across the front. A harried waitress. A pair of socks. Railway Pizzeria.
*
January 20th 2011
A champagne moon, a wolf moon, fat and benevolent in the half-awake sky, hangs low over scurrying cars and yawning office blocks.  The woman-worker walks slowly, enjoying her insignificance, reluctant to assume the importance that waits beyond walls.
*
January 21st 2011
Her skin is soft and lemon-sweet. Her breath is slow and warm. I smooth her hair back from her cheek and curl close as long as I dare.
*
January 22nd 2011
Outside an icy wind blows down from the mountains. Inside we flop like a pile of puppies on a giant beanbag, sharing warm popcorn and wondering if Alice will ever find her way home.
*
January 23rd 2011
Sunny morning meadow. Cow bells tongka-tonk and the stream gulish-a-loshes. A small soft hand in mine and whinnies from Amélie’s imaginary horse. January would have us think it’s spring.
*
January 24th 2011
Moscow bomb recalls years gone by. There but for a fluke of timing go I.
*
January 25th 2011
Standing in the chill air, naked, waiting for the shower to run hot, I feel absurdly present.  Here I am on the fourth floor of the hotel. Below me others are standing naked in showers, to the left and to the right, behind partition walls we are cleaning ourselves.

In apartment blocks down the street, hundreds of naked people in showers. All across the city. Across France. Across Europe. We are naked, we are washing.
Some are not washing in showers. Some cannot move for grief. Some have babies that won’t stop crying. Some have no water at all. Others have decided to call in sick to work and spend the morning in bed making love.
The water runs hot and the thought is lost.
*
January 26th 2011
On the pavement there is a woman’s shoe – soft black leather, a ballerina pump with a tiny bow. It looks almost new.
People are hurrying, stepping around the discarded footwear that litters their path to work.
But where is this Cinderella now? Is her foot cold? Is she waiting for her prince?
*
January 27th 2011
His familiar face welcomes us to the red lights where our impatient cars bunch together, idling. Spidery biro on the torn cardboard he holds tells drivers of his plight. Three children and no home. Please spare a coin. I have seen him here at rush hour in every season for three years. His clothes are clean and warm, his hair is brushed. Through my closed car window I smile at him and he smiles back. What do they mean, our smiles?
*
January 28th 2011
Beatrix, aged three, likes to fasten her mummy’s coat. Her small, determined fingers reach up, grasping the toggles – shiny, brown and not brown – concentrating hard on their pointy ends. She pushes them precisely through the loops. When she has finished she looks over her work. It is pleasing.
‘There,’ she says, patting the last toggle. ‘You’re all set.’
*
January 29th 2011
I wake in the night, finding myself in the comfort of my own bed, wrapped in warm arms and soft duvet. I turn my pillow over, rest my cheek on the cool side, and sink back into dreams. There are still hours left to sleep.
*
January 30th 2011
Finally, after months of missing each other, we manage to catch up with friends over Sunday lunch. I apologise for the house, which borders on slovenly. Michelle looks past the unkept sofas and unswept floors and out of the window.
‘The mountain looks beautiful today,’ she says.
*
January 31st 2011
The doctor peers suspiciously at my arm. Pokes it.
‘Ow!’
‘You fell on it when?’
‘Four weeks ago.’
‘You need an x-ray, it’s probably broken.’
I regard the sulky bruise that has not healed. I have not paid attention to myself.
***

Characters, Conflict and Psychology

Posted on: November 8th, 2010 by Claire - 1 Comment

Brad and Lolita stood side by side on the hotel balcony, looking up at the stars.

“I’m cold,” Lolita whimpered.

Brad took off his tuxedo and draped it over her shoulders.

One of the great pleasures of writing fictional characters, for me, is figuring out what makes them behave the way they do, and then developing that consistently throughout the story. So, I’ve brought you here today to talk to you about psychologist Dr Eric Berne’s theory of Transactional Analysis (1958).

From a personal point of view, Berne’s theory can help us understand why our communications with others don’t always go smoothly, and can help us ‘re-programme’ ourselves to be more conscious (and hopefully therefore more successful) in our interactions.

From a writer’s point of view, Transactional Analysis can help with both character development and motivation, as well as form the basis for conflict in their reactions with other characters.

The theory, in a nutshell, is that we all have three ‘ego states’ based on the concepts or truths that are ‘recorded’ onto our brains, as shown in the diagram below:

Parent: concepts taught to us in (roughly) the first five years of life. Learned from parents but also other adults, teachers, television etc. These can be things like ‘Always look left and right before crossing the road’ or ‘I am a lazy person’.

Adult: learned concepts from evaluating experiences or information. These responses can start around 1 year old and can include things like ‘When I tip my drink on myself I get wet’ or ‘The boss was right, carrying business cards is important’.

Child: felt concepts, emotional, experienced internally. Examples could be ‘I was scared by the barking dog’ or ‘My husband drives me nuts’.

We all play all of these ego roles during our daily interactions (stimulus/response) with others, moving between them frequently, depending on how we are feeling, who we are interacting with, the situation etc.  And so do our characters.

Character Development

When we understand (or create) a character’s Child and Parent ‘recordings’ as background to our story, we can then show/imply a lot of backstory without actually telling it. And we can show character and relationship developments as the interaction types change.

Conflict

Even more exciting are the interactions between characters. The simplest interactions are Adult talking to Adult, which may explain why in a conflict-rich narrative we don’t see very much of those. A common interaction played out in a lot of fiction (and a lot of real life relationships) is the Parent talking to Child/Child responding back to Parent.

For example, in the short scene at the top of the page. Brad is complicit in this interaction – the communication is smooth – Lolita’s Child speaks to Brad’s Parent and Brad responds with his Parent back to Lolita’s Child. So the interaction is a complimentary one. It tells us a lot about the situation but there is no conflict.

But I could have decided to have Brad decided to respond like this:

“I’m cold,” Lolita whimpered.

“Jeez. I can’t do anything to make you happy!” snapped Brad.

This is what Berne called a ‘crossed transaction’: Lolita sent her communication to Brad’s Parent, but Brad’s response came back from his own Child. Et voila, conflict.

It could be that by consciously recognising and writing the stimulus and response types in our characters’ interactions, we have one more tool in our toolbox for writing authentic characters.

For more information on this, read Dr Eric Berne’s book Games People Play or see the original article here on his website.

Gone Fishing

Posted on: September 16th, 2010 by Claire - 11 Comments

I realised today that most of the thinking that went into formulating the plot and characters of my last novel took place years ago, before my brain was hijacked by small people (children, not pixies). In the Before Time I would walk in the mountains for miles and miles every day, letting ideas float in and out, picking up a few of them and playing with them as I walked. I would usually get home with a couple of well developed ideas or images as well as a few random phrases or questions to jot down and pick up later.

I finally sat down to write the novel at the end of last year. I wrote when the children were sleeping (by which time my brain was usually quite frazzled), and on trains on the way to my day job (when I was also trying to get my head around the complicated problems I had to help people tackle when I got there). I was lucky to average a quality hour of writing a day. But as you will know, the hours quickly add up. And all that thinking time and note taking and upfront preparation was a great springboard into the first draft.

This summer, with the submission packages posted and the waiting game begun, I started to think about my next novel. As per my recent routine I used the kids sleeping time (in the summer holidays, this is slim pickings indeed) but despite my very scenic garret my thoughts seemed hemmed in. Where was the spark of creativity?  I decided that I was just too tired by the time the house went quiet. I should try during the day. Big mistake (I already knew this, I blogged about it here). I found myself actually using the phrase ‘I can’t hear myself think!’

Thank goodness, then, for ‘La rentrée des classes’. This month my youngest started école maternelle. The first thing I did with my rediscovered me-time wasn’t sit down to write solidly all morning, but to take my dog yomps back up with a vengeance. That’s an hour an a half, four times a week, with no-one to talk to, just tromping around the scenery and thinking thoughts. And oh, the thoughts you can think when no-one needs your urgent attention.

I had forgotten how much my brain needed airing. All of this exercise and time to think is doing me and Novel #2 the power of good.

I do know I’m lucky to have the mountains to yomp in, and a sporadic day job that allows me my yomping time. So I’m curious, how do you fit it in? Do you have distinct thinking time when you are not actually putting pen to  paper? How does it work for you?

First person, present tense: Snog, marry, or throw off a cliff?

Posted on: September 8th, 2010 by Claire - 19 Comments

It’s all me, me, me and now, now, now.

I recently finished writing a literary novel, which I wrote in first person, present tense. I can already hear some of you wincing. So before we look at first person, present tense (let’s call it FPPT), I would like to explain why I chose to write in that way:

My main character is a five year old girl. The only authentic way to view the world as she sees it is in the first person. This is critical to the plot, to the characterisation and everything about the book. There was no debate about that.

I chose present tense, rather than past tense, because although I have heard the opinion expressed that FPPT is often difficult both to write and to read, every moment is important to this little girl. Five year olds usually dwell very little on the past and rarely consider the future. Everything is about what is happening right now. The fly that has landed on your arm. The smells coming from the kitchen. The narrator is purely in the moment the action is talking place, not not weighed down with hindsight or reflections.

However, even in the last couple of weeks I have seen a proliferation of blog posts and tweets saying ‘agents hate FPPT, publishers hate FPPT, readers hate FPPT – don’t write it, you’re wasting your time’.

OK, many of the posts are less black and white than that. Here is the general concensus:

Where FPPT is “acceptable” – Young Adult Fiction (egos, urgency); Short stories (less need for reader stamina); Blogs.
Where FPPT is considered wrong, usually – Adult novels.

But there are exceptions of course. Do they prove the rule?

One of my favourite contemporary books, Audrey Niffeneggers ‘The Time Travellers Wife’, is written in FPPT. It found an agent, a publisher and a very wide readership.

I am currently reading ‘Room‘ by Emma Donoghue. It was published just after I began submitting my MS to agents and I bought it out of morbid curiosity – would reading this Booker shortlisted book, not only written in FPPT but from the point of view of a five year old child, show up fundamental problems with the way I used FPPT? Was I going to be encouraged, or shown up?

The answer is that I have been encouraged. I found the voice of Jack in ‘Room’ quite hard work to begin with. This worried me, because you really do need an engaging narrative voice if FPPT is going to be successfully used. In novel length fiction the reader has to want to spend a lot of time with this character. But as the relationship grows between reader and narrator, which Donoghue manages swiftly and skilfully, the book flows perfectly. FPPT gives a sense of intimacy and urgency to her excellent novel.

Another argument is that using FPPT is that it limits your POV – you can’t observe things that the narrator doesn’t know or can’t experience; you have to tell the story entirely from his or her POV. But this can work to your advantage if you want to keep certain things hidden from the reader or to examine a subject from an unusual vantage point. In the case of ‘Room’ it is used to throw the spotlight on the behaviour of adults as seen from the point of view of someone who has never been one, and up until his sixth year had only ever known two of them.

What is your experience of first person, present tense? Do you avoid books written that way? Do you even notice? If you are a writer how do you choose to use it, or do you follow the bulk of advice and avoid it altogether?

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