Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Your questions answered

KATE ASKS: I am a writer by trade but I would like to try my hand at this 'creative writing' business. I am not sure where to start -- I have story ideas but they are vague and nebulous, and I fear I don't have the discipline to get them onto the page, or the in-depth understanding of tone and pace and rhythm and exposition and so on. Can I be helped by paying people massive amounts of money vis a vis a creative writing course? Or should I pursue some other option?

Charlotte says: I find it helpful to write out a scheme of one’s tale, complete with instructions to oneself, as with this relic from 1843 which I scribbled on the cover of my German exercise-book while improving my French and German in Brussels, and which may perhaps remind you of something:

Time – from 30 to 50 years ago
Country – England
Scene – rural
Rank – middle
Person – first
Subject – Certain remarkable occurrences
Sex of writer – at discretion
No. of characters – at discretion
Plot – domestic – the romantic not excluded
Opening – cheerful or gloomy [! -- PC]
Occurrences –
1st, reverses of fortune
2nd, new arrival
3rd, loss of relatives
4th, crosses in the affections [she means unrequited love or similar, as in
‘crossed in love’ – PC]
5th, going abroad and returning
6th [left blank]
Characters – Hero – heroine – family of do. [a 19th century convention, contraction of ‘ditto’ – PC] Rival or rivaless – villains. N.B. Moderation to be observed here. Friends – avoid Richardsonian multiplication.
P.S. As much compression – as little explanation as may be.
To be set about with proper spirit.
To be carried out with the same.
To be concluded idem.
Observe – no grumbling allowed.

PC adds: If you don’t know where to start, there are two possible courses of action. Either sketch out the story as Charlotte does above (though with perhaps less of the tongue-in-cheek and less of the self-admonition), or as you would for a movie, with a storyboard, and do the logical working-out of the chronology at that level first -- or alternatively just plunge in and see how you go. Whatever you actually write first won’t necessarily end up at the beginning of your novel.

Re the massive amounts of money: I would go out first and spend a very modest amount of money on (since it’s novels you seem to have in mind) Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book, which will answer many of your questions.

If you’re the Kate I think you are, then you are a genre fiction fan – look at some of your favourite novelists and work out how they do tone and pace and rhythm and exposition and so on. (NB -- knowing that these things matter takes you about three-quarters of the way towards dealing with them.) There’s a lot more attention paid to structure and technique in good genre fiction than there is in bad ‘literary’ fiction, usually.

THIRDCAT ASKS: I suspect this is a 'how long is a piece of string' question, but anyway...how do you know when you've given a particular story and particular characters a good enough go? Or, to put it another way: will I know when I'm flogging a dead horse?

Very useful suggestion from Elsewhere, who teaches creative writing: Putting things to bed for a while can help in gaining perspective when you come back to them later and also in being more merciless in the revision process.

I've heard others say that you should look at your MS at the 30,000 wd mark and see if you think there's truly something in it before forging on.

PC adds: I’m not getting anything from the Sisters about this. They all worked within such strong narrative structures and had such extraordinary self-belief that I doubt if this question ever crossed their minds, though in the case of Charlotte’s The Professor, perhaps it should have.

Also, they had each other as like-minded and in-process critics. Now this is one of the things for which a Creative Writing course is invaluable, because in it you are surrounded by fellow-students in the same boat and by teachers (or at least one teacher) whose job it is to help you with exactly this kind of question, and who, unlike one’s friends and/or partner, aren’t so close to you personally that they can’t bear to hurt your feelings by being straight with you if they think something’s not working.

Or if it is working. I tend to do the other thing and give up tickling perfectly healthy horses with feathers after about thirty seconds. I’m not sure which is worse.


Katherine in GA said...

Dear sisters,

Do you have any plotting advice for me? I'm planning a large project, and my planning is going very slowly.

BK said...

Many thanks for the book suggestion, PC. If anyone else is interested I found it here.

I have a number of half-baked ideas and a Palm full of notes; I think buying Grenville's book will be the impetus needed to finish at least one of them.

elsewhere said...

Can I recommend Linda Aronson's _Scriptwriting Updated_ for plotting? You can buy it for about $50 from AFTRS or get your library to buy it for you. It gives a rundown of different narratives structures for film, which is very instructive and can give you lots of ideas for structuring narrative in general.

There are a lot of self-help creative writing books that also give overviews of classic plot-lines -- the three-act structure, the seven-step story line, etc. I think these things are good as a diagnostic tool (to ask yourself questions about where your narrative is letting you down, etc) but I wouldn't get too bogged down in them, not at the start anyway. In a novel, the plot should probably grow organically from the tension between the characters. I think that in some ways questions about plot are a meta-level, second draft revision consideration. There are also other ways of structuring novels -- e.g. round time periods or different points-of-view. There is an excellent article by Carol Shields, 'Framing the Sturcture of a Novel', The Writer, vol 111, no 7, July 1998, about how she develops structure organically for each novel.

genevieve said...

Nyahahahah. Brontes as Yorkshire creative writing school. 'The first thing we do, let's make our own books.'
What's not to like?
This is going to be a fab blog, PC.

Toni said...

Dear Kate (& PC)--Your letter sounds exactly like it could have been written by me 3 years ago. I also write for a living, but I write moisturiser ads, government proposals and articles on salad dressing. But I wanted to try creative writing. Things I learnt: (1) Writing creatively helped my day job. I also knew nothing about the pace and rhythm of fiction, but as my understanding grew, all of my writing improved. (2) The discipline is the easy part, once you discover how much fun it is. (3) The same skills you employed when you learnt writing as a ‘trade’ will kick in as you learn creative writing. And it’s a great excuse to daydream and read more books and fascinating blogs like this one. (4) The creating writing community is the most generous ‘industry’ I have ever experienced. I have received so many kindnesses from writers, publishers and editors, even at the beginning when I knew next to nothing about book publishing or fiction. (5) Beware: creative writing is addictive. Now that I have (almost) finished my novel with only the copy-edit left, I am itching to start another.
Come on in Kate—the water’s fine.

jackpayne said...

Plots are character-driven, most say. Characters are plot-driven, some say, including me. How will they act? React? It's the situational aspects of a novel that mold character. I think a good writer can make such profiles spill out, almost automatically as the story progresses. A style especially well suited to the legal thriller.