Claire King

Author
Claire King Edited Choices (10 of 10)

Archive for the ‘Day Job and Writing’ Category

How to Squash all the Bookish things into 7 Days

Posted on: November 14th, 2014 by Claire - 4 Comments

I spent last week in the UK, which is something I rarely do, especially on my own. Because of that it became a very condensed seven days doing all the bookish things I would do more often (but in a more spaced out way) if I lived in Britain.

On Thursday evening was my initial reason for the trip: a Newnham College alumnae networking dinner. My old college is great at finding ways to bring people back together, and this dinner was themed around literature. There were 15 of us, including authors, screenwriters, radio producers, journalists, publishers and editors and a fascinating talk was given by Cathy Moore on how she founded and developed Cambridge Word Fest, now Cambridge Literary Festival. I was reminded how lucky I am to be part of this network of accomplished women who have gone on, and continue going on to do diverse and extraordinary things in their lives.

On Friday I called by Bloomsbury to pick up some books they were kindly donating for my school visit on Monday. I have to admit to keeping the very sexy ‘Sleeper and the Spindle’ bag they came in. I also managed to snag an hour with my lovely editor Helen for a catch up, which generally means talking about what books we have read, the state of publishing, life in general and my writing. I was happy to be able to finally tell her that she’d be shortly receiving the MS of my new novel.

London2Coffee in Bloomsbury was followed immediately by lunch in the basement of Pizza Express in Soho. The lovely Gillian Stern had organised a “twunch” (yes, it’s a thing) where a whole load of lovely literary Twitter chums get together and talk writing, publishing, books and just get to know each other a bit better in the flesh. There were more than 30 of us there and of course I didn’t get to chat with with everyone, but I managed to catch up with some familiar faces and meet some new. Just as on twitter, there was a very diverse bunch of people (although Ben, Lloyd, Barry and Alexander had to hold up the side for the men), all with interesting stories and backgrounds and all willing to be open about their writing ups and downs, to offer cheers as well as sympathy and to network in the best sense of the word, sharing experiences and ideas. A really energising and fun do, and here are the last six of us to leave after managing to make a pizza lunch last four hours…@JaneRusbridge, @IsabelCostello, @EmilyBenet, Jackie Buxton (@Jaxbees) and @KnightJennyMrsLondon1

At the twunch, fired up by a glass of prosecco, good humour and dough balls, I started talking about my new book, Everything Love Is as though it was actually a thing. That might sound like a strange thing to say, but after so long writing and editing it, and all the doubts and uncertainties that go along with writing a novel on your own, I’d become very reluctant to discuss it. But since it had already been with my agent a week or so, and now I’d told Helen she’d get it next, it had suddenly begun to seem inevitable, regardless of what fate has in store for it. It was very encouraging that when I told people ‘what it’s about’ they seemed to like the idea (although small voice inside still whispers “maybe they were just being kind”).

Over the weekend I caught up with some of the friends and family I miss so much. It was absolutely lovely to spend time with some of the people I wish I saw more of – the major downside of living over here in France

Then on Monday I was up in South Yorkshire where I grew up, visiting Bawtry Mayflower Primary school where I had a chat with a group of year 6 pupils about reading and story telling. I’d been asked to do this talk because I’m signed up as a volunteer on the Inspiring the Future project – it’s not just for writers, it’s for anyone who’d like to volunteer, offering an hour a year of their time to go and talk at local schools about what they do. The idea is to inspire the children and expand their horizons. I’d encourage you all to please sign up for this if you can.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had no idea what this class of children would like, or be like, so I’ll admit to being a little apprehensive. I was delighted to find a really lovely friendly school, with bright, polite and engaged children, full of questions and enthusiasm for books and reading, which made my job a lot easier.

We all chatted about our favourite books and why we like them (Roald Dahl did really well, but there were some very diverse books discussed and I made a note of some for my 9yo), and then we talked about why human beings tell stories and what reading stories does to your brain.

Then we talked about metaphors in story telling and discussed the idea of G.K. Chesterton that “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

An interesting question that came out of that discussion was this: Why are children’s stories more fantastical whereas adult stories tend to be set in real life situations, with events that really could take place?

I thought that was a great question. We had the idea that perhaps children have more imagination, or that real problems upset children more than imaginary ones, or that children have very little power and fairytales can imbue child heroes with not only courage but also super human powers. What do you think, why do children’s books lean more to fantasy whereas in adult fiction it’s only one genre of many?

Children holding books

As part of the discussion we used the books donated by the lovely people at Bloomsbury Kids and it was brilliant to see how excited the children’ were about receiving these books for their class.

At the end of the session one of the girls asked about my writing, and when I mentioned The Night Rainbow she said “My mum has that book!” This was followed by a flurry of requests to sign autographs on scraps of paper. I’ve never been asked for an autograph before. I suddenly felt quite the star!

Tuesday and back down in London to meet my agent and find out the verdict on The New Novel. But first, since it was armistice day, I got up early to see the poppies at the tower before it got too busy. Even at 7:30am there were lots of people. London3The installation was stunning, inspiring and an invitation to contemplation, not just about the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives in the UK in the first world war, but about all those other lives lost across the world, then and in subsequent wars. About the families left behind. About the wars which are still raging today, and what is behind them, and how peace still evades our species and why. This is what I think the arts do best: yes, they can be beautiful, entertaining or relaxing, but most importantly they turn the questions back on ourselves and provoke us to think.London4

The previous day, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan had made a speech advising teenagers to steer away from arts and humanities subjects if they wanted a better range of job opportunities. That maths, science, engineering and technology would be more worthwhile. Putting economic arguments aside (but not because I believe for a minute that devaluing the arts wouldn’t harm the economy), how can we reconcile the idea of the arts being less useful with the amazing response to the tower poppies? People flocked to see them, to be moved and reminded and challenged intellectually and emotionally. The arts and the humanities are needed to balance out the STEM subjects. They make the human race human.

Some of you may know that I do also have what I call a “day job” (my day job colleagues consider that I am “also a writer”), and after seeing the poppies I popped into an office in Old Street to catch up with a few people there. And the most beautiful surprise, out of the blue I was given this beautiful leather bound copy of The Night Rainbow as a present. I now feel as though I’ve won the Booker. And it smells so good!London5

Book shopping! One of my highlights of trips to the UK, as I just love browsing in bookshops, but I do read mostly in English not in French, so it’s not as much fun over here. Right by the office I found Camden Lock Books, a gorgeous little shop with books piled high around the base of the shelves and creatively stacked to fit as many in as possible. Obviously I bought some, including a couple of Michael Morpurgo’s I hadn’t heard of for my daughters.Londonz2

Then it was off to Covent Garden to meet my agent…

Hallelujah, she loves the new book. Much rejoicing over fish pie and a cheeky lunchtime glass of wine, followed by the crossing of fingers over coffee.

Then on Wednesday it was back home to autumn sunshine, the first snow on the mountain and best of all, my lovely family. What a whirlwind of a week.

Since Helen is going to need some time to read and consider Everything Love Is, the waiting game starts here. I’ve decided to take a writing break until the new year, to refresh and catch up on reading. I’ve just read The Rosie Project and The Kite Runner, and I’m in a pause midway into The Luminaries, and now reading Carys Bray’s A Song for Issey Bradley. I bought Roald Dahls short stories in London too (it seemed appropriate after his popularity on Monday). I fully intend to gorge on books between now and Christmas.

My other plan is to do lots of “spring” cleaning as the house has suffered rather a lot during the last couple of years of writing, and to get stuck into some of the DIY that’s been waiting around. I find that smacking things with big hammers is great therapy for nerves…

A writing retreat with the whole family?

Posted on: June 26th, 2012 by Claire - 15 Comments

Our travelling companion  – Jung.

So, I’ve been working away from home a lot for the first six months of this year. It’s my job, it’s a good job, maybe one day it will give way to actual income from writing but for now that’s how it is.

Summer, though, is about spending lots of time with my family. That’s the payback. And summer is here and we are all very happy about that. We never go away on holiday, because summers here are very smashing, so we do things in the region instead: visit places, have day-trips, that kind of thing.

But…summer is also the time when I can really get into the zone with writing. And this year that means editing the manuscript of my second novel – Candice – which I want to have with my agent by autumn.

The Canal du Midi and a houseboat upon it feature prominently in this novel, and whilst I had done plenty of research I had not actually set foot on a houseboat in over 20 years. And never one in the south of France. I was missing something – the smells, the textures, the sounds, the sensations, the peculiarities that an author needs to know about if you are really to transport someone into that world.

So, somehow I had to combine my need to get myself away onto a canal boat for a couple of days (and be inspired and make notes) with my need to spend time with my family (and just having them in proximity while my husband babysits doesn’t count)…

I needed to organise a writing retreat with the whole family.

Cue the Magical Mystery Surprise Family Weekend Away.

List of things required:

  • Internet to find suitable boat owner willing to accommodate leggy, exuberant family of four.
  • Own chequebook and email account for secret booking of smashing weekend on the canal.
  • Teasing build up to surprise trip, including maddening hints and knowing smiles.
  • Something for everyone to do:
  • Claire – Pencil, Paper, 5 senses.
  • Husband – Camera.
  • Small daughters – pencils, paper, puzzle books, reading books, travel board games (draughts, chess, back-gammon, cards etc)

And off we go.

It was brilliant! We had an absolutely wonderful and relaxing weekend, taking the boat down the Midi and onto the étangs (salt-water lakes) of the Mediterranean where we moored in a little port for the night, and back again. We spent much more time with the children than we would on a normal weekend, and yet I got much more writing done too. Our hosts were friendly and laid on wonderful food and good conversation. We all came home inspired, zen and somehow exhausted. I declare a success!

What are you writing about now, and how do you fit in research with your other commitments?

Want to see our photo album?

5km an hour is fast enough. You have to imagine the cicadas and the smell of the pine.


Yes, I am writing.

Like mother, like daughter.

Fresh water on one side, salty water on the other!

Arriving at the étangs.

Moored in a port for the night, playing hangman and drinking aperitifs on deck.

15km of oyster beds on the étangs.

Nothing to see here.

Captain Jean-François allowing a 4 year old to take the wheel.

And the 6 year old!

(In fact, the forty-somethings also got to drive, but we’re not quite so picturesque)…

Thanks to the photographer!

Note: If you’ve come across these photos through a search and would like to use any of them, please ask us via the contact page. Thanks.

Note 2 (tiny plug): If you like the look of our region, come and stay. We run gîtes, excellent for writers wanting to retreat, discounts given to readers of this blog.

£12.99*

Posted on: August 2nd, 2011 by Claire - 41 Comments

Here are five questions for you. Answer fast. No need to write them down:

 

1) What is your favourite beer/wine/fizzy drink?

2) What toothpaste do you use?

3) How do you choose what films to watch?

4) If you could eat out tonight (at your own expense) where would you go?

5) What does the price of a book tell you?

 

Got the answers? Good, because today I want to talk about authors as brands. Not about your ‘social media strategy’ or how you wear your hair at book signings. No, I want to talk about what messages you want to send out about your work to people who might want to buy it.

I’m neither a publisher nor a book marketeer, but I do know something about brand management. Once upon a time I used to work for these people:

And what all those brands have in common is that they aim to stand out in some way. We call it product differentiation: They make your clothes softer, your shave closer, provide greater protection for your baby’s delicate bottom cheeks against the evil of poo. They bring health to your teeth and the appearance of health to your hair. It takes fewer sheets to wipe up a spill, or indeed to, well, wipe. In this way you are better served by the products, your life is made more comfortable or pleasurable in some way. This does not just happen because the TV commercial tells you so, but because a lot of clever people have been working hard for a long time in order to try and make it that way. It is product differentiation that leads you to be able to answer questions 1-4 above with anything other than “I don’t care, whatever is cheapest.” Did any of you say that, by the way?

Delivering product differentiation comes at a cost, of course. Cost of materials, research, packaging design, advertising and marketing costs, paying the sales people who ensure it’s available to buy wherever you shop, etc. etc. Which is why you’ll not find these products at, say…99 cents.

In the world of publishing, how do books differentiate themselves?

  • Author credentials (she’s always really funny/moving, he’s famous, her books are always page-turners…)
  • Publishing house credentials
  • Literary prize endorsements
  • Reviews
  • Word of mouth
  • Retailer credentials?

You tell me. What’s clear is that differentiation is an evolving strategy. It’s a busy market, competition is fierce. You have to keep improving, keep innovating, keep surprising and delighting the people who buy what you have to sell. This is a GOOD THING. And in that way you have the right to sell your product – your books –  and for a decent price, in a world where choice has gone crazy.

I’m interested by choice. In developed economies it overwhelms us at every turn. People think they like choice, but in reality they don’t, not so much. Choice is complicated. Packed supermarket shelves are stressful and time consuming. Shopping where you have the choice between apples, oranges and peaches is far less stressful than a choice of a hundred different fruits. And when consumers are faced with a choice where they don’t have the information – or time –  to decide, they tend to use price as a measure of quality.

There is an implied value in certain prices. If you see a packet of sausages on sale for 50 cents and another on sale for 4.00€, and you’ve never heard of the manufacturers, chances are you will make a leap of logic as to which will have the more quality ingredients. Which will taste the best. Which will not only satisfy your hunger but also nourish you. In general:

  • Very low price = utter rubbish. Does not work, falls to bits.
  • Low price = low quality. The thing works. Often sells in bulk.
  • Mid price range = mid quality. Mass market. Nice. Towards the bottom end of this range are cheap brands, towards the top end are pricier ones.
  • High Price = high quality. It’s durable, or niche, luxurious or has a monopoly on the market.
  • Very high price = status symbol.

 

So what did you answer to question number 5? What does the price of a book tell you about the book and/or the author?

As with any market, I think it’s clear that there is room for a broad spectrum of prices. OK, I took a pop at 99 cent novels earlier, but I imagine there are many people who simply can’t afford full price books. A 99c e-book could be an affordable way to satisfy a thirst for reading. I would like here to mention libraries, but fear that is for a different post.

I will mention J.A. Konrath, though. He sells his ebooks at $2.99 (about 2€), which he has identified as the sweet spot between low pricing and high volume of sales. He’s a smart guy – that strategy is really working for him. However he recommends that all authors self-publish and keep pricing below $3.00 for e-books. He acknowledges that not every self-published author will earn the revenues he does, but that if you choose any other way to take your brand to market you are effectively losing money. Is he, in effect, advocating the collapse of differentiated pricing for books? Or that some authors should sell their novels at 50 cents a pop?

There is (usually) a massive amount of effort goes into writing a book. Effort and time. How much time? What is it worth to you? Would you say you put in a year’s work? Half a year? And on top of that are there costs such as editing, copy editing, cover design, sales effort, marketing effort… how can that all be represented in such a diminutive price tag?

The other problem that I have with Konrath’s model is the assumption that there is a market out there for most unpublished authors to make an average writer’s income.

 

The thing is, the global market for books is estimated at 80 billion euros and is not expected to grow significantly:

“On aggregate, it looks likely that the €80 billion number will remain relatively stable, as lower e-book prices are compensated for by increased purchases on the part of book buyers as they adopt more tablets and reading devices.”

So the pie, in terms of money, is not actually getting bigger. Which means thousands more authors get a little slice of the pie, but there’s only the same amount of pie to go round. So in the end we all earn less for our efforts.

That is BAD.

One last word about *promotions*.

There’s a big difference between pitching your books at a permanently low price, and running price promotions. A promotion can do a number of things: Get people to try you out, boost your sales (a lot in the short run, a little in the long run), tactically swamp the market with your product in order to push out competition…99 cent promotions – go wild! Use them wisely, reap the rewards.

But I still feel strongly that a permanently low price for high quality writing sends out all the wrong messages. I have been wracking my brains trying to find an example of a successful product or service launch – in any market – that chose the strategy of a permanently low price point for a high quality product. So far I am really struggling. Can anyone help me out?

 

*£12.99 is the RRP of The Night Rainbow in hardback. I hope, when the time comes, you’ll consider that it’s worth it.

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.

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?

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?

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.

You can’t get there from here…

Posted on: May 13th, 2010 by Claire - 4 Comments

One of the axioms I use frequently in my day job (helping people collaborate to achieve their goals) is this:

“You can’t get there from here, but you can get here from there.”

What it suggests is that if you want the future to be a certain way, you have to picture yourself already there, and then work out how you got there from where you are now. Until you have that vision crystallised, until you can feel and smell and touch and taste your future…your path is foggy and directionless. Until you have anticipated the obstacles that lie between you and what you want, and have thought of a plan to overcome them, then you risk getting derailed at the first sign of trouble.

I fell off horses a lot when I was a child, because I was planning on being an olympic show-jumper one day. These days it’s a fabulous book deal I’m picturing in my future… OK, so I don’t have a crystal ball, and we all know the odds are slim, but trying is fun (if sometimes painful) and even if you don’t quite hit the exact goal you’d pictured*, I think you manage to get much further towards it than if you’d never built that beautiful future vision.

For me it’s the same with my writing. I almost always have to start by writing the end. I need to know and feel where I’m going with the story. It’s the feet touching moondust, looking back at a tiny earth. It’s the point to which everything leads. And I can’t get there from here. I have to get here from there.

Of course other writers do it completely differently. Many start at the very beginning and write in a linear way, seeing where it takes them.

Are you for visions, serendipity or a bit of both?

(*I did pretty well in riding competitions but never became an olympic show-jumper)

Archives

Feeds