Archive for the ‘writing method’ Category

Ticking Things off a List and other Motivators

Saturday, July 30th, 2011

Now I am a respectable way into my second draft I am ready to report back. The feeling of the writing is very different, as I expected it would be. The white-heat of putting down the first draft (about five months for me, which is the quickest I’ve ever done it – perhaps because this bout of frenzied writing followed two months of detailed planning?) is as different from this slow unravelling, unpicking, putting back together again as it can be.

It is harder to keep track of the progress I am making though. I posted my word-counts every few days on Facebook while I was doing my first draft. Got slightly told off by one friend, who rightly pointed out that it is quality and not quantity that count. But the telling off missed the point a little bit too. I was never trying to write the biggest novel there was. Just get my first draft down, create that initial block of pages so I could play around with it later. Which is what I’m doing now. First drafts are harder for me and making myself notice the growing word count was motivating.

But now I’m editing I could be deleting and rewriting and reordering and end up with less at the end of a good few days work rather than more. The word count has crept up by 3000 since I started this second draft, but I think I might have written 8000 new words. I’ve sorted out the chapter breaks, and smoothed out some bumps in the time-line. Continuity errors abound. I’m a taker-outer and not a putter-inner, so my second draft will shrink before I’m done, I am sure.

Instead of posting word counts, I’ve got a list of chapters (19) stuck up over my desk. Once I’ve edited a chapter, I get to tick it off the list. I’ve edited five chapters now. Not bad going. I’m on schedule and under budget. I did this in the final stages of Cold Light – not so much with chapters, but with jobs that needed doing. Made a list of jobs, scheduled them into my diary, ticked them off when they were done. Knowing what job I need to do when I sit down at the computer every morning helped last time, and it is helping this time too.

This all sounds like a very inartistic and unromantic way of writing a book. I am pulling back the curtain and revealing the Wizard of Oz, who is eating satsumas, writing in bed-socks, checking facts on google and inching slowly, slowly onwards between the hours of nine and one every morning.

Guest Tips #4 R. N. Morris (Part 2)

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

photo by Simon Nicholls

Generating Mystery and Suspense

Part Two (you can read Part One here)
When I’m thinking about suspense, I picture a tightrope walker.  The tightrope walker keeps walking forwards, doesn’t look down, and doesn’t look back. Imagine, however, that you’re a tightrope walker crossing a high wire suspended between two walls. You can’t see what’s behind the wall ahead of you (or the one behind you for that matter). You’ve got to keep moving and you’re in trouble if you fall off. But you have no idea what it is you’re moving towards.

The tightrope walker is the reader, of course, not the writer. The writer constructed the walls, and knows very well what’s behind them.
One of the simplest and most effective ways of creating narrative tension is to obey the often cited directive “Show don’t tell”. What I mean is if you write what is happening but you don’t explain why it’s happening, you immediately create tension and suspense in your writing that will keep the reader reading.

The very nature of linear narrative storytelling works in your favour. Think about the way you construct a sentence. The meaning of that sentence isn’t fully grasped until the reader gets to the end. And a skilful writer will arrange the words so that the punch is delivered towards the end. Writing is by its nature a series of revelations, a gradual unfolding. You can’t blurt it out all at one. You have to weave a thread.

It’s up to you as a writer to decide how much you tell the reader, and when. Of course, readers don’t like it if they feel that they have been cheated, that something crucial was withheld from them that could and should have been shared.  But there’s no reason at all to do that. I’ve just finished Lee Child’s 2010 novel, Worth Dying For, in which a mysterious consignment is being smuggled across the Canadian-American border. We’re not told what’s in the container, only that it is something very valuable to certain criminals. We can guess, in fact that’s what we’re invited to do, and there are certainly plenty of quite legitimate clues dropped. It would be cheating if Child misled us, or if he hadn’t mentioned the consignment at all and it turned out to be crucial.

The way to do it is through point of view. There are characters who don’t know, fully, what’s going on. If the reader is linked to them through viewpoint, they don’t feel cheated, because they are as much in the dark as the protagonist, and may even get there first. When you are writing scenes in which characters who do know the secret are involved, either stay away from their viewpoint, or restrict their focus, so they are thinking about something else at that moment more urgent, such as staying alive! Showing and not telling comes to your rescue again.

Suspense is also created out of a sense of inevitability – the best plots combine inevitability and surprise. The reader knows that something bad is going to happen, but is not precisely sure what form it will take. As a writer, you can play with this, setting up expectations, and subverting them to create surprise.

In my first novel, Taking Comfort, the central character Rob is drawn into collecting mementoes from scenes of tragedy and disaster. I aimed to create a sense of inevitability in the downward spiral of his obsessive behaviour, the progression from accidentally finding things, to seeking disasters out, to – possibly – initiating them. But I also hoped that how this spiral played out would be totally unpredictable.

Of course, when you surprise yourself, you know that you’ve really succeeded. To do that, you have to dig deep into whatever part of your subconscious it is that contains the story waiting to be told.

R.N. Morris is the author of four historical mysteries published by Faber and Faber: A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, A Razor Wrapped in Silk and the forthcoming The Cleansing Flames (due out May 2011). A Vengeful Longing was shortlisted in 2008 for the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel, and runner up in New York Magazine’s Culture Awards for best thriller. He has twice been highly commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical crime. His first novel, written as Roger Morris, was the contemporary thriller Taking Comfort, published in 2006 by Macmillan New Writing. He has run workshops on mystery and suspense for City University MA in Creative Writing. He has also written the libretto to an opera.

This post is part of the Guest Tips Series, a collection of pieces of advice and personal experiences from writers who are not me. Bits of advice or ranting from writers who are me can be found here, in the Tips for Writers bit of the blog. If you fancy writing for me, you can find out a bit more about the hows and whys and wherefores here.

Guest Tips #4: R. N. Morris (Part 1)

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Generating mystery and suspense

Part One

The Roman God Janus was depicted with two heads, one looking forwards and the other looking back. It’s a useful image for thinking about the differences between mystery and suspense, and how they work in narrative.
Mystery essentially looks backwards towards some buried event in the story’s past. It’s the desire to discover the truth about this event that keeps the reader reading.

Suspense is the dynamic force that pulls the reader forwards. It operates in the story’s present.

A narrative moves away from its starting point towards its outcome. If both the starting point and outcome are withheld from the reader, you have generated mystery and suspense.

But – I hear you ask – surely it’s impossible to withhold the starting point of a story? The story begins with the first word of the story.

Well, no, not really.

Russian formalist critics distinguished between two different versions of any story. The first they called the fabula, which is the ‘real’ timeline of the story – everything that happens in the story laid out in chronological order.  The second version of the story they called the siuzhet, which is what you get once those events have been subjected to the artistic manipulation of the author. This is the story that the reader experiences.

I always construct two timelines when I am planning my novels. One timeline begins with the event that precipitates the events of the story. It’s the beginning of the fabula. But it is, generally, the last thing that is revealed in my second timeline, the timeline of the events as they unfold for the reader, my siuzhet timeline. The beginning of one version of the story provides the ending for the other.

When I’m thinking about mystery, I’m imagining a shadow play. The hidden events of the past cast a shadow on the present. The reader sees the shadows, but doesn’t understand what’s creating them.

The first shadow may be the presence of a dead body. In A Gentle Axe, the first of my St Petersburg mysteries, there were actually two dead bodies, found together. A dwarf inside a suitcase with his head smashed in. And a burly peasant hanging by the neck from a tree with a bloody axe in his belt. It immediately set up a series of mysteries, the most interesting of all, I think, was: Who are these men and what exactly is the relationship between them?

As the writer you have to know what is casting those shadows. You have to have a very clear understanding of events that may never directly feature in your narrative, but which give it its shape.  It’s all very well to confuse and mystify the reader, but you can’t afford to be confused or mystified yourself.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb, the narrator Dr Watson compares a newspaper account of a case to his own version: “… like all such narratives, its effect is much less striking when set forth en bloc in a single half-column of print than when the facts slowly evolve before your own eyes, and the mystery clears gradually away as each new discovery furnishes a step which leads on to the complete truth.”

A mystery story is a succession of revelations, but to sustain itself over a novel, I think each revelation has to give rise to, or be replaced by, a new question, or mystery. One of the things I do when I have a reasonably evolved storyline, broken up into notional chapters, is to look at each chapter, or sequence, as a series of questions. For example, my question sheet for the third of my St Petersburg Mysteries,  A Razor Wrapped in Silk, reads as follows:

  1. (a) Who is in the carriage? (b) What happens to Mitka?
  2. (a) Why have so many children disappeared without trace? What is the significance of the foreign factories?
  3. (a) Who has killed Yelena? (b) Why was she killed? (c) How is this connected to the disappearing children? Etc..

To be clear, these questions are not answered in the chapter, but they are the questions that I think the reader will be asking themselves at that stage in the story.

Of course, the most important question of all is, What happens next? If you’re doing your job in terms of creating suspense, that’s a question the reader will be asking all the time.

(part two of this guest post will run next week)

R.N. Morris is the author of four historical mysteries published by Faber and Faber: A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, A Razor Wrapped in Silk and the forthcoming The Cleansing Flames (due out May 2011). A Vengeful Longing was shortlisted in 2008 for the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for best crime novel, and runner up in New York Magazine’s Culture Awards for best thriller. He has twice been highly commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Award for historical crime. His first novel, written as Roger Morris, was the contemporary thriller Taking Comfort, published in 2006 by Macmillan New Writing. He has run workshops on mystery and suspense for City University MA in Creative Writing. He has also written the libretto to an opera.

This post is part of the Guest Tips Series, a collection of pieces of advice and personal experiences from writers who are not me. Bits of advice or ranting from writers who are me can be found here, in the Tips for Writers bit of the blog. If you fancy writing for me, you can find out a bit more about the hows and whys and wherefores here.

Cloud in Trousers

Friday, February 4th, 2011

A novelist (or at least the kind I aspire to be) is a cloud in trousers; ie, someone with no very fixed sense of identity, or with multiple personalities and views all shifting in or out of focus.

Amanda Craig.

When I was saying this, that is what I meant. Picture nabbed from the exellently named Cloud Appreciation Society.

Writers and their methods will be as various as the clouds themselves, but I read what Amanda said and nodded. How can I put myself in the shoes of all the people I want to write about (especially as it seems I can’t stop writing in first person) if I’ve solidified what I think about everything?

Does this make me an unfit member of society? Very possibly.

Does not play well with others + Northern Lines

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

This is a quote from a school report of mine. From every school report of mine.

And yes, writing is a solitary activity but being a writer does not happen in a vacuum. My most unpleasant learning experience over the past three years was realising that ‘writing’ as a ‘career’ involves other writers, live lit nights, festivals, emails flying back and forth. Being followed and unfollowed. Friends, unfriends and de-friends.

I thought I was choosing a ‘career’ where I could do what I liked best (be alone, make things up) and ignore all the parts of life I didn’t like (small talk, other people). I discovered that was not possible. In writing, as in every other career, there are in and out crowds, gossip, flavours of the month, scandal, patronage and shifting allegiances.

I don’t like that side of it. Me not liking it does not mean that it will ever go away. It doesn’t mean that I don’t ever participate in it, either. But still, I find people, in their networking aspect, frightening, mysterious and difficult. It still distresses me and drains me.  Although I prepare better for it than I used to and have healthier strategies for shyness and anxiety than booze which, for a while, was my default defence.

I still like the odd gin, but decapitation works better for me now.

Like this: I have a work head. I put it on, like Worzel Gummidge, when I leave the house, and leave it in the hallway when I get home. Work Jenn is someone different. Blog Jenn is someone different. Blog Jenn who admits to being someone different is also someone different.

You see how tiring this can be? Someone could very rapidly vanish up their own fundament. If that someone weren’t careful. Taking refuge in third person sometimes helps.

So I say all this as the preamble for a post about a group I am a part of. Earlier this year, as I finished a productive, demanding and life-changing relationship with a writing mentor and I decided that to be the best writer I could be, maybe I did need other people after all. You can’t be mentored forever. But co-mentoring, or a group? That seemed to be the next step forward.

I hate groups. I hate clubs. I don’t join in with things. And because honesty is so important to me, and because I am the most inconsistent and dishonest person I know, in May (ish) of this year I started a club. A group. An exclusive writing circle. A clique.

The Northern Lines Fiction Workshop was modelled after the famous writing group that spawned Tindal St Press. I was in touch with a couple of their members, picking their brains, asking for advice and the benefit of their experience. Exclusivity seemed important to them, and became so to me.

I wanted to work with people whose writing I admired and was curious about and who I knew would be as committed to the venture as I was. I wanted to be able to meet in person once a month or so, which meant people local to me. I wanted not only to work with talented writers, but writers who were ambitious, who wanted to get better, who cared more about the quality of their work than in being stroked.

I wanted to talk about writing with writers who cared more about writing than in talking about it.

We’re going to perform together soon. And publish things. I am really excited about doing something small and loved and handmade.

We meet every three weeks. We take turns. We started off tentative but I notice us getting more demanding of each other, more rigorous – because we know each other better, because we trust each other more, because we care about each other’s work more. I think it makes us more demanding of ourselves too. As readers and critics and editors and as mentors and as writers. A loop. It works.


Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Things I am interested in:

  • how writers turn autobiography into fiction
  • the idea that remembering is the same as making things up
  • using techniques of fiction making in memoir writing
  • the effect following a particular religion has on your voice
  • how the passing of time works in books of fiction and long, creative non-fiction
  • how writers use other people’s stories in their fiction and the ethics of this
  • Crufts and dog breeding and training generally

Book recommendations welcome.

I am learning to like the ‘research’ stage of a novel – although still finding it difficult to apply the things I read and discover to my own writing. Writing, for me, is a skill and a craft and while theory might be interesting I’m not doing an essay. I don’t need to back up everything my characters say or think with footnotes.

Method so far is: read a lot, think a lot and letting it all simmer for a while. When something snags my attention, follow it.

Current Reading:

Jonathan Franzen, The Discomfort Zone

The Journal of Discourses

Stephen King, Full Dark, No Stars

Don’t need to know why or be able to explain my intentions to myself until much later, if at all. The answer to why I am interested in all these things is only: because I am. Because they appeal to me. Then scribble and scribble and scribble.

Then a book comes out a year or two later. In theory.


Sunday, October 31st, 2010

People who are interested in knowing a bit about the thinking that goes into planning a novel might want to read the post I wrote during the summer here, as well as the comments. This post is a kind of reply or sequel to that post.

Thinking more about NaNoWriMo. The very reasonable comment from Paul that slapping down a load of words is more stunt than craft. Me being determined to be more thoughtful. To make decisions, to be less trial and error about it all. To make lists and chapter plans. And then finding I am paralysed and might need the stunt of an arbitrary word count to get the engine turning over.

I do have a plan. And I am anticipating the problems. Here they are:

Writing more autobiographically than I have done before – none of the characters are me or anyone I know, but two or three of the scenes come from my life, and I’m writing about a topic very close to my own upbringing. There are worries associated with this. And it triggers interesting thoughts. How even-handed do I have to be? What are my motivations? People who want to find things out about any topic won’t turn to a novel for it, so factual accuracy is less of a priority than authenticity. Authentic is really, really difficult. Especially as most of the time I’m unsure of my own opinions about anything. Hence, I think, the narrative vehicle of lots of narrators.

Five first person narrators. Possibly six. Each of them very different. Wanting to capture their voices. Wondering if I am up to the job. Wondering if this kind of ventriloquism is a cheap trick (Martin Amis mentioned something like this in his Paris Review Interview and reading it stung me a little). It feels (impersonation, inventing narrators, first persons) like it’s something worthwhile to do for me because it involves me forcing myself to grow empathy and understanding for points of view I don’t agree with. Very difficult.

That is where I am up to so far. I am looking forward to giving myself the room to bang out a short first draft and see what it looks like at the end of November. Posting might be erratic during the next four weeks.


Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Progress on novel 3 goes slowly, combined with checking the proofs of Cold Light and planning a series of poetry workshops. And I’ve been reading! Joyce Carol Oates: My Sister, My Love (so far I am kind of agreeing with the New York Times review of it, but I’m persevering) and Sarah Hymas: Host and Emma Donoghue: The Room.

I think my problem with novel 3 is that I’ve been editing Cold Light at the same time as trying to write it. It’s too easy to look at my polished, finished Cold Light pages and all the other good books I’ve been reading and expect that my first couple of chapters of Number Three should look like that too. It is also easy to forget the three years and countless drafts, deletions, additions, rephrases, temper tantrums, weeks off and informed advice from two editors and my writing group. Of course Cold Light is better.

I’ve been going slow because I’ve been trying to write final draft, first time. I know this is a problem for lots of writers. Perfectionism is okay but not for first drafts. It’s something I try to address in all of my workshops – setting timed writing exercises, telling the participants it is okay to write rubbish, it’s only fifteen minutes, the important thing is to get the page dirty and we can sort out the mess later. That’s not the way to write a perfect poem, or story, or novel, or a perfect anything at all. But it is one of the perfect ways to make a start. To get over yourself and get on with it.

Which is one way of justifying me signing up for NaNoWriMo this year. November. 50,000 words. I am not so concerned about getting 50,000 words down and I know, with mothering being the way it is at the moment, it might not be possible for me. But I want to devote November to getting down as much of a first draft as I have.

I know lots of proper writers get sniffy about NaNoWriMo. ‘That’s not the way to write a real novel.’ Well no, it isn’t. The proper way to write a novel is to get the page dirty, give yourself thousands of words, and then edit them until your eyes bleed. One of my main tasks as a teacher is to convince new writers that first drafts aren’t writing: editing is writing. I know this. But my fast-typing muscles need a kick up the bum. Perhaps NaNoWriMo during November is just what’s needed.

For the daily dose of plugs,you could check out a really nice review of A Kind of Intimacy over at A Work in Progress. For a double dose, Jess Haigh has included it as one of her three favourite Scary Books at For Books’ Sake.

I have also been updating my links. I meant to import my best links from my old blogger blog over here but it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped and it’s taken me this long to sort it out. Click through to have a look at what I’m reading blog-wise these days. Recommendations are always welcome.


Sunday, August 22nd, 2010

I’ve been working, as I might have mentioned once or twice (cough), on a final list of tweaks and edits to Cold Light – the last hurrah before it is off to Sceptre for them to work their magic and turn my story into a book.

The work hasn’t been extensive but it has been slow and painstaking – mainly because I want to check time-lines and continuities, (I have a chart and everything) and because it has helped me to look at the novel in an entirely different way which has involved lots more tweaking. And the fellow writers amongst you will know, once a novel is nearly finished altering one sentence in an early chapter has knock on effects and often means you need to rewrite a paragraph in a late chapter. Which is as it should be – it shows the whole thing is knitted together, is all of a piece.

I’ve already blogged a little bit about the way the first glimmers of the story for Cold Light came to me. It was similar for A Kind of Intimacy – where I had the idea of neighbours and envy and tea parties right from the very start. I like this part of writing – the inventing part seems easier. I always have lots of tall tales up my sleeve. I can create a mess of a first draft in a couple of months.

Editing is very different though. By editing I mean anything from a second draft to a seventh, and the final tweaking which I am doing now. A Kind of Intimacy was seven drafts – Cold Light has been about the same although because I don’t tend to start at Chapter One and end at the Epilogue the lines between what counts as one draft and the next are always very blurred. Editing means turning the shapeless mass of the first draft into something that runs from page one to page – let me check… 337 at last count – with some kind of drive forwards and coherence.

What has helped me this time is to think of the novel as an attempt to solve problems that were thrown up by my original idea. In my mind, it works a bit like this:

What happens if you’re always the one left out and all the interesting things are taking place when you’re at home or distracted by other, more mundane events? What happens if you desperately want to be included, but almost never are?

This translates into a problem – of telling a story where the narrator didn’t witness any of the dramatic, plotty-type things that happened. Hmmm.

What happens if the effect of one winter in your teens totally derails the course of your life? And what if that life is stunted – if you grow into an adult who still acts like a fourteen year old? What if I want to write a story about people who get stuck, who don’t change?

One of the members of my fiction group translated this into a problem perfectly – the characterisation is static, the action in this part of the book is static (to be specific, adult Lola spends a LOT of her time alone in her flat watching television) and this works against narrative, which has forward motion, is about change and development.


So my editing this time around has been structured by me knowing I wanted to tell a gripping story about a crime with a few spanners thrown in the works (the narrator leads a life that would be boring to read too much about and is remembering a time and a series of events that she doesn’t funny understand and didn’t fully experience).

It isn’t up to me to judge how well Cold Light has solved those problems, but it has turned into the sort of book I’d like to read. I’m looking forward to seeing what people think. (Actually, that is an out and out lie. I’ve been composing scathing reviews for myself in my head for weeks).

I know this is itself a very partial, over simplified, craft-oriented way of thinking about writing and editing and checking if a novel ‘works’ or not. It is not dissimilar to the idea of ‘plot’ being nothing more than characters overcoming obstacles to get at something they want or get away from something they don’t want. ‘Story’ as problem solving for characters and structuring a ‘plot’ as problem solving for writers. Which works as a way of thinking about stories a lot of the time, but not always. And I don’t know if it would work like this for poets. It seems to be more of a way to think about how to do a plot than how to do language.

I’m looking forward to the next novel too (no working title yet. Just Number Three). I am wondering how my very specific requirements about structure: five first person narrators all narrating, partially and unreliably, the events of one twelve hour stretch of time are going to throw up problems for me, and what tricks I need to learn to solve those problems and tell the story. I’m excited to find out. I like the realist novel. I don’t think it is dead.

Who needs a blindfold?

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

On her blog, Elizabeth Baines* reports that Jonathan Franzen claimed to require blindfolded solitude in order to complete his novel. A requirement, like all the best stories about authors, that turned out to be apocryphal (i.e a lie).

It reminded me of a game I did in the last workshop I taught before the summer – one designed to help people get going with their novels, get unstuck with half-finished works or get the courage to turn their never-spoken-out-loud-before idea into a pile of paper. One of the common things that I’ve discovered stops people getting started is feeling that they need something they haven’t currently got – a real office, a better computer, two days free every weekend, older children, new pens… they wait for this magical blindfold-thing to appear, and wait, and never write a word.

The task I do in the workshop is to get all the participants to contribute to a list of things they ‘need’ in order to get started and then we have a discussion around the items on the list – what are real ‘needs’ and what are excuses for delay and procrastination? No-one ‘needs’ a real office or room of their own, even though it’s nice to have, but perhaps spending an afternoon clearing off the table in the hall way would be time well spent. A pen and paper, some privacy and access to a computer are reasonable requirements for getting started. Three afternoons a week in a café for fag smoking and beard-stroking? You should be so lucky. And blindfolds? Days or weeks of silence and solitude? Not if you live in the real world, or with other people, or need to go to Morrison’s now and again and don’t have anyone to heat your beans up for you.

Silence and long periods to concentrate in are brilliant. I snatch them when I can get them. I’d love a room of my own but for now I’m happy to share and I don’t think the stories are poorer for it. These things are lovely, and they help, but they shouldn’t stop you starting and not having them doesn’t make you a pretend-writer. What about the novels written on trains, in cars during lunch hours, in prisons, on the kitchen table while babies scream overhead? When you’re reading a book can you tell if it’s been written in silence and calm during a series of expensive retreats, or in two hour bursts between the requirements of a job and the school run? A blindfold might help some writers, but I think it hinders a lot of other writers who get luxuries mixed up with necessities and swallow the story that the business of writing is somehow more mysterious than other jobs – that writers are allowed to make claims that bus-drivers and child-minders aren’t (I need a blindfold, I need to be in the mood, I need a special room to do it in).

What do you need? Do you have it yet? Is your writing the better for it?

*whose book, Too Many Magpies, I read recently and is a beautifully brief, eerily spare account of an affair, among lots of other things.

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