The Rules of Vonnegut / 7
‘Write to please just one person. If you open a window on the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.’
Choose a reader, someone as like you as possible (same gender, same education, same temperament) and write for her – you may be a her: if you’re a him, take it as read that you’re included. Please her, enthuse her, keep her turning the page. Explain things she may not know but don’t talk down. And never assume your readers can read your mind. All they can know is what you have put upon the page so give it to them straight, clear and simple. Bear in mind what you’re going to say to the proverbial literary agent you’ll meet at a party once your novel is written; make sure while you are writing that you are doing what you set out to do, are sticking to the point and cutting to the chase. There’s a whole wide world out there, of course there is, but wise novelists set out to cover a little segment of it, and they keep the power of invention flowing strongly down a contained river bed, not breaking its banks and spreading wide and stagnant over adjoining fields. Lose the point and you lose the reader.
This party where you meet the agent is likely to be full of would-be novelists like yourself (or you wouldn’t have been invited in the first place), so there will be a lot of other people trying to bend the agent’s ear. It’s a buyers’ market. He or she will not be as interested in your novel’s fine literary quality as in it’s genre and its appeal to a certain market. Literary quality is an optional extra, though one I very much hope you are aiming for. You will say something like ‘I am writing a psychological thriller set in a market garden which will appeal to the 65% of readers who love gardening,’ or ‘I am writing a novel about body image. It concerns a slim girl who can never forget that once she was fat. Anyone who’s ever been on a diet will want to read it.’ Or ‘I am writing a novel from the viewpoint of a blind dog, based on recent research. It’s really cheerful, and dog owners everywhere will be fascinated.’ Or even ‘My novel? Oh, it’s mass market, about a love affair, perhaps better described as a liaison, between a pretty masochistic girl and a handsome man with very sadistic tastes.’ Only then go into the ‘There’s this man and she said that and he did this’ detail.
If you work out some such account of your novel and keep it in mind even as you write, it will keep you on track and remembering there is an actual reader at the end of the process. Also an actual agent. You might even have her as the one person you aim to please, as Vonnegut would put it – vile commercialism, I know, but a writer has to pay the rent. And you are at the same party as the agent, so probably have quite a lot in common.
Finding out what your novel is about, not just what the plot is, can require some quite painful introspection. Why have you chosen to write this particular novel at this time in your life and no other? Have you chosen the to validate some obsession of your own, whether it’s ‘I hate my mother and feel really bad about it’, or ‘I want to be revenged on climate deniers everywhere. I’ll soon show them what’s what!’ or ‘I deserve to be loved totally and overwhelmedly so why didn’t you?’ Whatever. The story of the novel is your story: however heavily in disguise: the plot is the sum of the events that prove your point. Understanding your story is what keeps your plot on track, and the reader hooked, which is why it’s important not to go wandering off into irrelevancies. Stick to the point. Irrelevancies may be torrid, erotic or lyrical scenes which flatter your literary skill and so charm and please you, but you’ve lost your reader.
Be businesslike. See yourself as writing so many novels in the future you could be in danger of running out of the source material. You only have so much life experience to call upon. Eke out what you have. These random scenes and sub plots may well may well belong in the next novel. Never delete – just keep them in an offcut file. You never know.
The Rules of Vonnegut / 6
‘Be a sadist. No matter how sweet or innocent your leading character is, make awful things happen to them in order that they reader can find out what they are made of.’
Don’t be too preoccupied with your own skills as a writer, or achieving a publishing deal which will bring you fame and fortune. Think about your reader. He or she has bought your book. Readers prefer your company to their own, or hope they will when they hand over their hard earned money. At stake is not just money; they are trusting a patch of their precious life to you. That is really flattering. The readers want a little relief from their own life – whether too boring, tragic or troubling – so do them proud. They want something from you that their own life isn’t offering, be it entertainment, explanation, understanding, sympathy, fellow feeling, a sense of order and of justice. Real life is chaotic and without apparent meaning. Fictional life is ordered, structured and finite. ‘The end’, you write, and that’s that, safely locked up and put away: an alternative universe understood and completed, one to treasure. The stronger the events in it the better. Let you characters triumph over unimaginable odds or miscomprehension and misunderstanding. It would be possible to fit in a whole novel, I know, between someone putting the milk on the stove and it boiling over, to have the saucepan either snatched away in time, or not – but there are easier ways of making your point. Let volcanoes erupt, memory be lost, war divide families. Let something happen (and do always try and get out of the kitchen, out of the house.)
Just don’t disappoint your reader. Your novel is more about her or him than about you.
The Rules of Vonnegut / 5
(Sorry to have been so long getting round to this if to this. I’ve been busy writing a novel, as I hope you too are doing. The rules are not commandments, just a check list against which you can test your own work.)
‘Start as close to the end as possible.’
Counsel of perfection: let your novel start with what happens one Saturday and end it on the following Saturday, by which time the problem you set up has been solved for good or bad, and the conflicts of years – brought to our attention by way of backstory – have been resolved. (Keep the back story chronological or your reader will get confused.) Your reader will stay with you with bated breath for the few hundred pages in between, and then close the book with a satisfied ‘Oh, I see’ – waiting for the next book you write, having waited for a good two hundred pages to see how that initial scene would work out and having trusted you to resolve it. And you didn’t resolve it in a single liner, either, did you? That will work for short stories – the twist at the end – but a novel needs a well-paced and considered scene which you have been working towards throughout the novel, in which the knots of all its strands can finally be untangled.
Your novel may cover a period of five years – but start it four years and fifty weeks in, and you will help yourself. There are a hundred other ways of writing novels, of course there are. But starting near the end is a pretty good one. ‘Something happening’ is what novels are all about, why readers read them in the first place: to find out how characters deal with the events the writer has chosen to dole out to them.
And please, please, don’t wilfully keep facts from your reader. Don’t trust them to keep in their heads some mystery you have hinted at but not yet explained. They won’t like you for it.
Never cheat the reader with gratuitous puzzles. It isn’t fair to do so. Play it straight. If you’re writing out of a character’s head remember you’re not in a position to censor what is in that head. If your protagonist murdered someone years ago it will crop up in his train of thought, as a source of anxiety, indifference or guilt. It will annoy your reader if having hidden the fact you then use it as a plot point.
And remember the convention that only one person in the scene has the feelings and reactions – and that’s the one out of who’s eyes events have been unfolding. He or she will only know what is going on in others heads by observing their reactions. All others must be seen to react. Thus: At this news Bill felt a pang of fear. Bill saw Edward turn pale and realised that he too was frightened. It is a convention which people break all the time, but be aware of it.
The Rules of Vonnegut / 4
‘Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action.’
If it’s not, what is it doing in the book? Cut it. It’s no use just ‘expressing yourself’. You’re writing a novel here. No-one wants to know about your hopes and fears, your likes and dislikes and the changes you want to bring about the world, they want to know what will happen next to your protagonist, and how the mise en scène you started with develops.
Sure, write a (fairly) long description of a beautiful sunny day because that effects the mood of the character or how some action spoils it. Put in a whole political manifesto if you have to, if the detail is really relevant to your story. But don’t just wander off into masses of irrelevant text – however much you admire your own writing (or if you’re in some kind of workshop group, how good your friends and fans say it is.) The section may be good if read out of context, but fitted into the whole it will just stick out like a sore thumb.
You’re writing a whole novel, not just cherry-picked parts of a novel: everything needs to converge towards the end. I know this can be a problem if you don’t yet exactly know what the end is, but even if you’re making it up as you go along (and novelists have been known to do this) trust the very sense of convergence to lead you to it.
The same thing with ‘foreshadowing’. If an idea jumps in to surprise you by coming before you’ve consciously thought of the actual shadow, don’t ignore it – just in case it it’s your deep unfathomable unconscious telling you something. Don’t delete, just move it to the end of your text for further reflection. A bit of foreshadowing never goes amiss so long as you see it through.
Look especially hard at any dialogue scene which begins with a hello and ends up with a goodbye, and you haven’t put any reported speech in the middle to break things up, so everything happens in real time. Read that scene aloud. Two pages will take you less than a minute. But in real life it’s a rare thing for the time between saying hello and saying goodbye to be less than a minute.
Look for solutions. ‘Sipping his wine’, unless you give a history of the wine and it’s vintage and cost and thus throw light upon character, is mere temporising. ‘After they’d taken the dog for a walk’ gives more opportunity for time to pass. And do remember that you can can cut into the middle of scenes so that the passage of time is unspecified: ‘Only after the dog had been fed and watered and they had settled down into their cups of tea and exchanged pleasantries did he say:…’ will save you and your readers ten lines of boring direct speech, every word of which will have increased their doubt as to whether people do actually speak the way you’ve made them speak. Keep dialogue as brief as you can for this reason: dialogue is the writer’s Achilles’ heel, where revealing character and/or advancing action can sound forced and artificial.
Of course you’re going to express yourself one way or another but do it tactfully. Hard sell won’t work, only your art of persuasion. Of course you want your reader to end up thinking and feeling and acting like you do: just don’t let it show.
The Rules of Vonnegut / 3
‘Every character should want something, if only a glass of water.’
Your main characters need to want something important – whether success or true love, revenge or forgiveness, peace of mind or excitement: should their desires conflict, so much the better. Then you can spend the whole middle of the novel working out their predicament. You can either give them what they want (happy ending) or deprive them of it (unhappy ending) but your readers will identify the more, care the more. See how minor characters will come to life if you give them needs. Let the postman who trudges through the snow to deliver a writ to the door desire new boots, let the passing hill-walker be thirsty for a glass of water. Your characters will then not live in isolation but in a real, albeit fictional world.
People your novel with needy characters who will then seem familiar to your readers. Feel generous both towards characters and readers. It may be only an extra sentence or two out of your busy writing life, or the odd adjectival phrase, but it’s energy and life to the extras who wander in and out of your novel. And remember to remain observant in your fictional universe: see what the sky and the sea look like, the local flora, feel the hot days, shiver in the cold, taste the food, long for a cigarette, even give them a cold in the nose from time to time.
Remember that what makes the reader want to turn the page and find out what happens next is indeed ‘suspense’. But also remember the rule that while suspense is good, puzzle is bad. By puzzle I mean not telling the reader clearly and vividly from the beginning what is going on, however fantastical, but dropping in clues from time to time on the grounds that readers ought to be interested enough to solve them and find out for themselves. Because on the whole, unless you are an experienced writer of great genius, the reader will take you for an amateur and close the book. (In detective novels alone, whodunits where there’s a game of cat and mouse between reader and writer are clues welcomed and expected.) Suspense for the reader, is wanting to find out if the writer is going to give the characters what they crave. Or not.
Readers miss things. They don’t necessarily read every word you write, more’s the pity. Writers write steadily along the line, word by careful word, and assume readers read the same way. But readers don’t, or only do if they’re still children mouthing the words. Adult readers absorb words in blocks of text, noticing unusual or unexpected ones, making sense of those, and passing over what is obvious and expected.
The brain plays strange tricks at the best of times. Try counting the number of ‘f’s’ there are in the following sentence: ‘Finished files are the result of years of scientific study combined with the experience of years.’ You probably said three or four. Actually there are six. You simply did not notice all the ‘of’s. So don’t rely on the reader to pick up every single thing you have said. ‘Suspense’ does not lie in a single sentence, in something you said on Page 37 /line 15 and is easily missed so the reader has to go back and check it out – that’s puzzle. Suspense good: Puzzle bad.
A good book takes longer to read than a bad one. You can skim through Shades Of Grey: Vanity Fair takes longer. Why? Is it that ‘bad’ writers are dealing with the obvious, ‘good’ writers with the unexpected – so the mind takes longer to work out what is going on? Is it that the minds of the former are not worth following but the latter are? And why in any case are we differentiating between good and bad? Bad books have their place in the world. I’m not knocking them: we need our entertainment, our relief from grim reality – sometimes we just don’t want to think.
But good books count as that mysterious thing, ‘literature’: they inform, absorb, hold you: they invite your emotional involvement, excite your intelligent participation and they are hard to forget. A pity that bad books (you can tell them because they’re so littered with adjectives, adverbs and strong verbs – ‘her glossy chestnut hair tumbled lazily in luxurious curls around her slim white shoulders as she dimpled suggestively up at him’) sell better than good books. Oh well. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.
The Rules of Vonnegut / 2
‘Give the reader at least one person he or she can relate to.’
The reader really wants to read about himself, herself: so make it possible. Have one admirable person amongst your den of thieves, one firm apple in the barrel of bad soggy ones. Keep your characters psychologically plausible – that is to say miserable and screwed up from time to time – by all means, but a few simple good folk on the page do not go amiss. A reader likes to identify: what happens to me, me, me? It’s what keeps him or her turning the pages. Acknowledge the flaws your protagonists have, give them a few trivial worries to overcome, let your heroine worry about losing weight, your hero about his inability to put it on: nothing wrong with a wounded hero. Let your unhappy endings be few and your happy endings be many: or else, fearing depression and bad news, readers will flee.
Make your goodies and baddies easy to spot. This can be done in the first few frames in a film so that everyone knows the score. The goodie rescues the kitten from the branch, or the baddie kicks the cat out of the way. So it’s simple for screenwriters, more complicated for novelists. Screenwriters have actors, directors, cinematographers, designers to pave their way. Everything is show rather than tell. The first few frames show the viewers everything they need to know, other than the actual story. Music and lighting define mood: before the actors even open their mouths viewers can see for themselves all the things the writer is condemned to describe or infer – gender, race, looks, age, class, income, education – before the story proper can begin. It is amazing how often young writers who’ve been reared on fiction unfolding on a screen forget to address these things have to be reminded that scenes have to be set, people have to described, backgrounds delineated, before readers have a hope of following what is going on.
It helps to make the ‘person you want your reader to relate to’ likeable. Even Kafka’s black beetle had his good points. No one wants to spend too much time with people or creatures they don’t get on with. See your novel as a bedtime story writ large and long. The child wants to go to sleep feeling that when the light goes out, some order has been made of an otherwise chaotic universe. The good have been rewarded and the bad punished.
The wise psychologist Donald Winnicot saw the bedtime story as another of the small child’s ‘transitional objects’ – like the old piece of blanket the toddler wails and wails about if any attempt is made to part them. The parent dare not get a word wrong when the familiar story is retold, because, Winnicot said, the child is busy working out the difference between reality and illusion. The adult novel is another, more complicated, version of the bedtime story in which right is rewarded and wrong punished: the story we all want to hear, in which heroes win out and heroines find true love. Novels are the little rectangles of compacted paper covered with little squiggles of black and white we carry about next to our hearts on trains and in quiet living rooms and hate to be parted from. Finish one, start another. Or even write one of your own.
The child returns again and again to Pooh or Horrible Henry or Curious George or Orlando the Marmalade Cat, or growing older, to Harry Potter, he of the large be-spectacled eyes. All vanquish their enemies, are us yet are not us. Remember this while you write, solve your readers’ moral dilemmas for them and they will be grateful. Reward the good, punish the bad, and you will have returned at least some reassuring order to a chaotic universe.
The Nine Rules of Vonnegut / 1
Bless’d be his name!
Kurt Vonnegut [1902-2007] was an American author who wrote fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction in his lifetime. A hard worker, a good teacher and a fine writer: his name lives on. I am a great fan, if only because reading his novel Slaughterhouse Five  taught me how to be adventurous, how to get out of the house, how to move about on the page in time and space to good purpose, and I recommend the book to all of you. You may not ‘like’ it, as satire is often not exactly likeable, but it’ll certainly put you off war.
Vonnegut introduced an entirely new genre into fiction – what I’d define as mordant-ethical-pop. He used the rules of popular fiction to sell ideas – promoting an idealistic view of a universe which was at once absurd yet essentially hopeful, and which sold like hot cakes. But more importantly to this column Vonnegut was one of the first to realise that creative writing was a teachable subject. He gave a talk in Paris in 1968, in which he recommended nine rules for aspiring novelists.
These can be a little puzzling: Vonnegut refused to take anything seriously, seeing all things as being rendered trivial by the antics of creation itself, but I will examine them in true Bokononist style in order to spread the foma – Bokononism being a fictional religion invented by Vonnegut: foma being the ‘useful lies’ of which all novels are composed.
Here is his Rule No 1. ‘Use the time of a stranger, your reader, in such a way that he or she will not feel their time wasted.’ The stranger is your reader: you know nothing about her or him as an individual, so even before you start writing look for something you have in common. At the very least it will be the human condition, the human predicament – namely, we love, we hope, we grow old and we die. ‘Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others care about,’ suggests the blessed Vonnegut, ‘then speak to him or her, using language as direct and simple as you can.’ If the caring is genuine, he tells us, that will be the most compelling and seductive element in what you end up writing, rather than any stylish or linguistic games you might contrive: don’t ever use three words when one will do: keep it simple. ‘Simplicity of language is not only reputable,’ writes Vonnegut, ‘but perhaps even sacred.’
‘Use clean, short, understandable words. Be incredibly clear. Don’t write “utilize” when you can say “use,” or don’t write “tenebrous” when you can say “dark.” Use clean, short, understandable sentences. Don’t fear periods, go easy on the adverbs, and avoid the passive voice…’ http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/kurt-vonnegut-guide-copywriting. I quote these last four lines from a marketing meister in the US called Eddie Shleyner, who by a very Bokononian co-incidence has at the very same time I was writing this piece on Vonnegut’s Nine Rules of Novel Writing posted a blog on Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Copywriting, which Eddie quotes from How to Write with Style (an essay Vonnegut published in the 1985 anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word.)
Conscious that one must always acknowledge one’s sources – otherwise one is merely stealing from another writer, and pool-pah (Bokononian for the wrath of God) will strike – I had set about checking the reference, and lo – we were karass! (Look it up: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bokononism) So hi there, Eddie Shleyner! It’s cheering that we share the same enthusiasms, and the same obsession to instruct at all costs. Kurt would be proud of us…
Back to Rule No 1. You’re asking the reader not just to spend money on your book, but to spend hours of their time reading it. Time is far more valuable than money, and it could be spent on actually living rather than reading. Take the reader more seriously than you do yourself. Don’t waste their time. Make sure they close your book satisfied. You should by now have the skill of writing at your fingertips: use it to the best of your ability to transfer what is in your head into that of your reader, by virtue of (Vonnegut’s words) ‘mak[ing] people laugh or cry about little black marks on sheets of white paper.’
Vonnegut’s Rule No 2 next week …and, meanwhile, here’s another rule for luck: ‘Do nothing that is not useful’ – from the 17th century Japanese samurai guru Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings.
The story so far
Should you be in the middle of writing a novel it’s good idea to stop every now and then and devote a hundred words or so to writing down ‘the story so far.’ It focuses the mind on what you’re doing and where you need to go next. It’s all too easy to get lost in one’s own verbiage, and the drive forward is lost.
I don’t just mean plot points, ‘he’s done this’ and ‘she’s done that’, but where we are in the story as a whole. By ‘plot’ I mean the events which move the story along: rather like what you’re shown at the beginning of an episode in a TV serial, which brings you up to date with what’s gone before, mood, characters, events and all. TV is heavy on plots, but in a good novel they’re just the thread running through the whole: important, because it’s what keeps the reader turning the page and wanting to find out what happens next. But other things are important too – characters have to change and develop as time goes along. It’s not just ‘and then, and then, and then’. You will be paying proper attention to your initial idea (the ‘story’ as opposed to just the ‘plot’) and remembering to keep to its point – and what your reader knows and doesn’t know. You will be conscious too of form and structure; you will be using the resonance of language and grace of expression to heighten the impact of the story you are telling. See your plot as what enables you to best say, by using event and character, what you are trying to say, the point you’re trying to make. Which you can probably boil down into a single sentence. Such as ‘All men are wicked’, or ‘thus conscience doth make cowards of us all’ or ‘Because someone’s a victim doesn’t make them nice’ or ‘Stepmothers are more to be pitied than stepchildren,’ or ‘having children is a real pain’ or some other example of what I’d call a cosmic statement. You need to make sure before you begin that your plot and your ‘cosmic statement’ are not pulling in different directions. It’s when they do that the task of writing gets laborious. All good novels have good plots, but a good plot alone does not necessarily ensure a good novel, for other factors intervene.
Be glad to be writing when you are. There are fashions in what makes a good novel. In ‘literary’ novels of the past plots were kept obscured: what happened to characters wasn’t as important as what they thought and felt. ‘Genre’ novels – romance, sci-fi, thrillers – have only lately begun to get critical attention, more so perhaps due to the rise of the e-book, but all that’s another story.
Of the novels in the canon that have come down to us from past centuries, many were written as serials. Perforce the reader had to remember them from month to month, even quarter to quarter. Plots had to be really evident. Characters had to be memorable Each episode had to finish with a cliff hanger. Put the episodes together as a novel and you get Dickens, Thackeray, Conrad, Flaubert, Dumas, greatly respected now but at the time rather dismissed as commercial fiction, written with sales in mind.
Once upon a time, back in 1988, I was asked to write a serial for Woman, a leading women’s weekly at the time, not a glossy, the opposite, with rather down market recipes, knitting patterns, how to line the curtains, and catch your man. – and every week two or three romantic short stories of a Mills and Boon nature. Readers would check the end sentences to make sure it ended happily. Now the editor had the bright idea of a serial to be delivered, to fit the space in between the ads, either 1,000 words or 2,000, depending, to be delivered by me on the Thursday, to be published in the next weekly issue. He envisaged perhaps twelve episodes. Starting as soon as possible. I said yes. And as it happened it ran for 50 weeks or so before the Editor said that’s enough; my other writers are complaining you’re taking up too much space. It was, I may say, a great training. On a Thursday I’d get the early train up to London where my typist would be waiting (it was the days before the computer, let alone the internet), a two-hour journey – and write the episode by hand. The motor cycle messenger would call to collect at lunchtime. I allowed myself no time for editing or rewriting, let alone second thoughts. A deadline is a deadline and has to be met. That was a year of no holidays, no illnesses, just the discipline and the fun, I must say, of The Hearts and Lives of Men – the title I gave it (it was a ‘woman’s magazine’ after all.)
I think the Editor must have thought the novel was already written and that I was doling it out meanly week by week, not that I was making up as I went along. Perhaps he wasn’t thinking at all. But he never asked and I never told. And necessity, indeed, is the mother of invention.
It was only when I started to write that I realised the full structural implications of what I had committed myself to. I would have to start in the past or else I would end up writing in the future. It made sense to start with a child’s adventures and grow the child up through the episodes. Dickens came to mind, of course. And the first sentence became ‘Reader, let me tell you the story of Clifford, Helen and Little Nell.’ It what s what I would call a Dear Reader novel; they’re easier and simpler to write. The Victorians did it a lot. The Dear Writer becomes an another character in the book – you can give her a personality which has nothing to do with you the real writer; you can digress at will and make comments on the way your characters behave. You can comment on the day’s news or tell your heroine how to behave to win her man or how to improve her cucumber salad , all on the way to your cliffhanger ending. Which in an emergency, and I can tell you this piece of writing was full of emergencies,can be useful. You could use a whole 1,000 words in Nell’s recollection of what had gone before, and then do a new cliffhanger ending in one line.
And every week there’d be a ‘story so far’ in the magazine to remind readers, and myself, what had gone before – just as in a TV serial you get the same developing intro every week using some old shots, some new ones every week. Do, when you’re writing, think of making things easy for yourself. Don’t give yourself too many characters to deal with, too many subplots: solve the world’s problems one at a time, not all at once. Remember you have a whole lifetime’s writing ahead of you, leave some material in reserve for later on. And do bear in mind that it’s no use writing a series of 1,000 word pieces, no matter how brilliant, if they have no relationship with what went before. Writing ‘the story so far’ compels you to bear it in mind.
A ‘McGuffin’ was what Hitchcock called the mysterious object in a film that sets the whole chain of events into motion and can be used to bring it to an end. I had stipulated four week’s notice before I got told to bring The Hearts and Lives of Men to an end, and had had the forethought to bring my McGuffin at the beginning. I used a locket, worn by Little Nell, kidnapped at the age of three, whose fortunes I was to follow until she was reunited with her parents some twenty years on, and could prove her identity by producing the locket. These days you could simply use DNA, but not then. I had my cosmic statement buried in the second sentence: ‘Clifford and Helen wanted everything for little Nell, and wanted it so much she was in danger of losing everything, even her life.’ So I had to keep putting Nell’s life in danger as a result of her parents’ inability to get on together, and ‘the story so far’ kept me on the straight and narrow. When it was finished I simply left out ‘the story so far’s and it was published by Heineman like another novel,and is still in print.
All novels are written in different ways and all writers use different means to bring them about. The beginning and the end support a novel as do the abutments, the supports, support a bridge. Make sure they’re firm and solid enough to support the structure. The bridge can come in all shapes; it just needs to get you across the water. See it as a structure, and don’t let it get too thin in the middle. The Hearts and Lives of Men went on for so unexpectedly long I had to get Clifford and Helen to divorce and remarry in order to keep my McGuffin intact. An extra stanchion was required. But ingenuity will usually provide the answer.
The Cosmic Statement
Picture yourself as halfway through your first novel. You meet a literary agent at a party, and she (usually a she) asks you, ‘And what is your novel about?’ You have a glass in your hand, it is a social occasion, she obviously needs a swift reply. What do you say? There’s no time for an elaborate narration of the plot – ‘there’s these two people and he thinks this and she thinks that, and they do this and they do that.’ She wants to know how your novel is positioned in the world of human affairs and in particular in that of book marketing: who is going to buy it? She needs you to tell her what Elizabeth Bowen calls ‘the poetic truth, that which is played out in the ensuing novel in a non poetic way.’ (Find the reference her fine essay Notes on Writing a Novel, written in 1946 and collected in The Mulberry Tree, Vintage, 1999.)
‘The poetic truth’, the heart of the matter, what I tend to call the ‘cosmic statement’. It is this truth the writer has to find and describe to the agent at the party, and often finds great difficulty doing so. It can seem too simple, almost naïve. But, again quoting my heroine Elizabeth Bowen, it is there to be found – ‘what is left after the whittling away of alternatives’, the essential, the ‘what is to be said’.
If the agent asked Dickens at a party ‘What’s your new novel about, Charles?’ he would say ‘Oh, it’s about how things can seem the best of times when they’re actually the worst of times. It plays out during the French Revolution. I’m calling it The Tale of Two Cities.’
Or the agent: ‘I hear you’re writing a book, E.L. What’s it about?’ And E.L. will reply: ‘Oh, it’s about how women love to be dominated. I reckon there’s a market out there. I’m calling it 50 Shades of Grey because in this world things are so seldom black or white, good or bad.’
Once you’ve worked out what your novel is about – it’s surprisingly often about your own family situation, though you don’t realise it – and faced it, the writing gets surprisingly easier.
Indeed a practical writer might well begin by seeing their own novel in the form of a school science experiment before they even began. Instead of ‘poetic truth’ or ‘cosmic statement’ they would look for their hypothesis; not just ‘what is to be said’ but ‘what is to be proved.’
Thus, crudely –
Hypothesis: The rich despise the poor, the poor envy the rich, both deny it.
Ingredients: Your brain and laptop.
- Choose characters who will further your argument. (Say – boy with a public school background: check-out girl from local comprehensive, titled therapist to chart their discontent, store manager stalker.)
- Choose events which will prove your point. (They fall in love, but love is blighted by their social and cultural expectations of one another. Love is not all you need. They go to marriage guidance; boy runs off with his titled therapist. Girl finds true love with store manager.)
QED: That which was to be proved. The rich despised the poor, the poor envied the rich, both denied it.
In essence that’s all a novel is. Something to be proved, which, once proved, satisfies both writer and reader. Forget that the reader has invented the whole thing, every step of the way. Again, Elizabeth Bowen. ‘The novel lies, in saying something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.’
Anyone who wants can take that plot.
Novel, or screenplay?
Are you writing a novel, or is it more like a screenplay…?
I’ve been silent for some time on this blog; but then I’ve been doing what academics do at this time of year – marking. For me it’s creative writing from post-graduate students whose finals are looming. I’m perfectly happy doing the actual marking, for by the time students have got through to this stage they are – well – impressively creative, and efficient at what they do, and I am, for the most part, full of admiration. It’s the vital, constant checking of the self to make sure the right mark goes to the right student, the to-ing and fro-ing between first marker, second marker and moderator that can be agitating and exhausting – the demands of the digital. But this year, gratifyingly, there were lots of A’s and a few high B’s.
What is of interest to my would-be writers varies from year to year. Fashions seem to change. This year no-one believes in love – romance is out of favour. But on the other hand, no-one seems to be writing about their divorces. And not a detective story or a gritty thriller in sight; but lots of dystopias. This year the paranormal looms large – alternative universes and the slippage between them are all the rage: shape-shifting requires and gets skillful writing to achieve suspension of disbelief. The savagery of the past also gets quite an airing: plenty of limb-lopping, horse-rearing, castle-wall-climbing, and with women, not men, as the protagonists. Next year all may well change again, and we’ll be back to goings-on between mums and dads at the school gate, which can be as interesting and provocative as anything else. It’s not what people write about so much as how they write it which commands attention – I sometimes think you could write a novel about the milk boiling over and have it succeed if you did it properly, with enough conviction, and enough attention to the power of language.
But this year one thing did come up time and time again in the feedback: I found myself telling a wide range of students that they needed to remember they were writing novels and not screen plays. It was what my mother told me. She was a novelist herself, as was her father before her. She would read what I’d written when I started writing novels, and reproach me for not writing ‘properly’. ‘Set scenes,’ she would say: ‘This is all very well but you have to learn to set scenes.’ I, with a whole history of effective screenwriting behind me, couldn’t understand at first what she was on about. It was that you need to describe people and places – not necessarily by whole paragraphs of description, just a few carefully placed adjectives will do – so that readers can visualise what’s going on. It’s all too easy to kid yourself there’s a camera there to do it for you. I soon learned better – that if there’s no camera involved all the hard work of director, designer, lighting people and actors has to be done by you. You have to get the vision you the writer have out of your head, and into your reader’s, using only the words you’re writing on the page. It’s hard work.
For most people nowadays fiction unfolds on a screen – it is all too easy for aspiring novelists to find themselves ignoring their ‘setting scenes’ obligation. The advice came down to me from my grandfather to my mother, and thence to me, so it seems the least I can do for you is pass it on: set scenes!
Only last night, as I caught up with a backlog of things the marking had delayed, I found myself writing to a successful film-maker friend who was attempting a novel:
‘It’s clear this is written by someone more accustomed to writing screenplays and watching film than writing or reading novels. This is no bad thing in itself, other than you have to remember you are writing for an audience who is reading not seeing, so you can’t leave it to the camera to describe – but need to do all the describing yourself. Point a camera at something and the viewer needs all that needs to be known in an instant – the scene is pre-set. Town or country, rich or poor, gritty or glamorous is all made obvious and if there is anything left to doubt, the first notes of music will clear everything up: comedy or tragedy, thrills or spills. The screenwriter wrote just a couple of lines of text which were enough to instruct director, casting director, actor, designer, what to do before getting on with the shooting script, and did so simply and quickly by virtue of describing how anything deviated from the norm. The novelist has to use words to set up scenes and characters, replace music with words. I know from your text what everyone’s thoughts and actions are, and very interesting and compelling they are, but if I knew what anyone looked like, I as a reader would be in a better position to visualise what was going on. The reader knows only what the writer puts on the page; he cannot read the writer’s mind.’
On creating character
I’d written some 25 novels before I went anywhere near a creative writing class, and then I went as a tutor not a student. So I missed out on the conventional terminology – I still have to look up words like ‘unreliable narrator’ and ‘foreshadowing’ on Wikipedia to understand exactly what they mean. Most turn out to be tools novelists have been using forever anyway, without knowing the jargon.
There is an endless source of information out there on the web, much of it very useful, but some of it rather odd. When it comes to fictional ‘character’, it is supposed to matter very much that the reader should ‘care’ about the protagonists. This often gets misconstrued by today’s novelists, so many of whom go to creative writing classes: they assume that they ought to make their characters nice.
I care about real living people for all kinds of reasons. I care about some people that some other people think are perfectly horrid. You don’t make best friends at school with the nicest, best-behaved girl in the class – she’s usually a bit boring. You make friends with someone who makes you laugh, or sparks up your own ideas, who knows where you’re coming from, with whom you have something in common. Why should readers be any different? Everyone remembers Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair – she’s spiteful and dangerous: people tend to forget Amelia, who is so nice and good.
Don’t keep your protagonists reactive, keep them active. Give them faults, the kind your readers can identify with. Give them terrible troubles, by all means – so we can see how they face up to them. Above all, make things happen. Don’t take up a whole novel making your protagonist learn a lesson, be a nicer person. Is Pride and Prejudice a novel about how wrong Elizabeth was to judge a suitor on first impressions, or more about how she snaffled the best man in town by being impertinent?
If you look on Google you will find sites telling you to make a character profile of your protagonists before you begin writing: thus you will ‘know your character’. It’s not how I would ever set about it: it’s the kind of thing TV script editors insist on – but that is so that more than one writer can work on a running script, and thus keep the stories consistent throughout a series. I wouldn’t have thought writing a profile for a character in a novel was at all advisable. In a lifetime of novel writing I have never done such a thing. (Which isn’t to say the novels mightn’t have been better if I had – just that it never occurred to me, anymore than would writing profiles of friends or family. The complexity of it would defeat me.) Of course, all novelists go about things differently. There is no one way of doing anything. But my training – and I did have a training, and a rigorous one, even though not in a creative writing class – led me to set about things differently. By the time I started writing novels I had had more than enough experience in the creation of character.
I started out in advertising as a copy-writer. Most ads in those days were little stories told in a few lines, and a big illustration above, selling a product. The characters would be stereotypes – there was no space for anything else – happy housewife, anxious girl, angry husband, man with headache, wise doctor, foolish friend. The art director needed two or three words of description to do the illustration, no more. When I branched out into writing TV commercials, there’d be a casting director. You’d task them to find a pretty girl with long legs, or a loving young mother with a cute baby – still only a few words of description, but still the stereotype, and the commercial was 15 or 30 seconds long. If you were very lucky you’d have sixty seconds in which to tell your story and sell your product. Moving on to the more fertile ground of stage plays and TV dramas, in which one was selling ideas, not product, I had a few more lines to offer in which to branch away from the stereotype, and offer everyone involved a guide to what the writer had in mind.
A stage play or screen-play is a blueprint from which everyone involved in this group activity has to work – lighting man, producer, props, director, actor – so you keep instructions as brief and telling as possible. I realised soon that what you needed to describe was how a character deviated from the norm. The casting director’s nature was to cast everyone middle: middle height, middle class, middle looks, even temperament unless you mentioned otherwise. If you wrote ‘tall’ or ‘short’ or ‘wall-eyed’ or ‘bow-legged’ or ‘bad-tempered’ they would oblige you: otherwise it was just middle. And that is what you do in a novel: if characters have normal eyes you don’t mention them, if they are startlingly blue you do. If they have a wooden leg you mention it, or if they have been married five times not the normal one or two. Otherwise your reader, like your casting director, casts ‘middle’ in their head, and gets on with it.
My early novels were novelisations of my TV plays – I had the plot, structure, the lines all worked out, I’d left it to the actors to develop character, and some very good actors at that. I use characters to work out my own ideas about what life is like. They represent different trends in contemporary society. They tend towards the stereotypical, I admit. But it’s deliberate because this is part of a fictional character’s appeal: the part the reader recognises, identifies with, the aspect the reader responds to, and so worries how they will get out of the situation into which the writer has cast them. Your character doesn’t have to be nice and good to be empathised with: he or she has to be recognised as an identifiable, noticeable individual, with certain personality traits.
I see the novels I write as fictionalised essays used to prove a point I want to make. I am by nature a didactic novelist, while joking away to hide it as best I can, if only so as not to frighten the reader. My characters exist to carry through a plot; I’m not bothering all that much whether they’re ‘rounded’ or not. I give them quirks and fads and foibles but I never let them run away with the story. They are mine and they do as I tell them.
If I examine my protagonists I can see they tend to be one quarter stereotype – as in those early advertisements – for rapid identification and recognition: one quarter myself – I am the one doing the writing after all, and autobiography can never be far away: one quarter a mélange of all the people I’ve ever known: and the final quarter is sheer invention – where I take the most liberties, have the most fun, summon up someone from the depths of the group unconscious who had no reality before. The character grows as the story grows. He or she can hardly be ‘profiled’ in advance.
I like to know all kinds of trivia about my characters, what they put in their fridge; whether they prefer showers to baths; how they get on with their grannies; the conversation between their parents when they were born and got the names I’ve given them. These things I write as I discover them, as I look inside their fridges, overhear their conversations – not before they begin: I am the fly on their walls.
I know the situation my character is going into rather than exactly who the character is. Then she – it is usually a she – emerges. She starts off is a stereotype. Little by little features and characteristics emerge. I look into her fridge and find out her eating habits. I look into her knicker drawer and find out about her sex life. I feel I am as much friendly spy as creator.
Notes on structure
All art forms have a structure. Basic rules apply. A novel’s just two or three hundred pages covered with words unless it has a shape, a form. It can be full of characters and events, and people changing their minds (and so their fortunes) but without a structure it has nothing. Structure is different from plot and from theme, but is master of them both. It is the way you weave all the strands of your novel together to bring them to a satisfactory knot at the end. You don’t have to feel oppressed: there are no right or wrong ways, there are no fixed rules, it’s just that the audience, your reader, needs to feel you know what you’re doing: if they lose faith in you they will close the book. Equally your novel cannot be full of spelling mistakes or obvious errors: the reader has to trust you.
A novel is like a house: it can be built in all kinds of fashions and styles, but it has to have a roof to keep the rain out and windows to look out of. If the reader fears the roof is going to fall down she’s going to get out of there as soon as possible. You’ve taken her money on false pretences. It may be a his, of course, not a her, but not so likely. There are twice as many women novel readers as there are men, and four out of five novel writers are women.
If you writing within a genre, the rules of structure are tighter. You have to acknowledge them before you break them, in the same way a painter needs to know how to paint before he starts on abstraction. If you fail to solve a mystery in a detective story, it is only courteous to tell your reader near the beginning that there no solution; if you are to make your romance end as tragedy, explain to the reader that this love affair is never going to work: if you are writing traditional sci-fi apologise for bringing in human emotion.
Look up structure/novel writing on Google and a wealth of information is open to you. There are all kinds of interesting sites, offering advice. Take your pick.
One writer describes the novels he writes as ‘three disasters plus an ending.’ Well, that’s simple.
Someone else offers the suspension bridge image. Two pillars and a rope in between.
At the first pillar you introduce your characters and their situation: one fifth of the way along you reverse the situation, two fifths the journey to a different destination begins – and so on. But you begin at the beginning and go on to the end: a simple ‘and then, and then, and then’ progression, providing a series of crises, bumps and humps along the way. This is the system favoured by writers of serials: Dickens, Thackeray, who start with their protagonists as children and then chart their adventures. If you are writing in a serial which is published as you go along, there is little alternative. You can’t change your mind about anything. These writers use fiction to make their point – Dickens, the vitality of the working classes and the respect due to them: Thackeray – the vulnerability of the male to the ploys and foibles of the female.
The contemporary writer plays about with the time line, tending to use any variation of the basic three-act structure. Act 1, Beginning – character and situation; Act 2, Middle – diversions along the way; and Act 3, End – climax and denouement. You can start your novel at any point, but must bring in the Act 1 material as soon as possible, and in Act 2, some foreshadowing from Act 3.
In a novel the beginning must be included in the end, the end in the beginning. That at least is fairly basic. Conceive your novel as a whole: not in detail but understand where you are driving. A novel, certainly one which has any ambition, needs to do a little more than just serve the genre; it needs to have a purpose as well as a plot. It may be useful to look at these websites and see what it is you’re doing, less useful to use them as a guide to writing your novel.
Or there’s ‘Write your novel in 30 days’, which seems too like hard work and also attracts virus warnings on your computer, so I imagine is rather popular.
I rather favour the article method. You see your novel as a fictionalised article. You tell the reader what you’re going to do (Act 1), do it (Act 11) and then tell them you’ve done it. You choose your characters and their conflicts to prove your point, But I see the novel as an act of persuasion, bringing the reader round to my point of view, but not every author would agree with me.
I started out by novelising my own TV dramas, setting clearly delineated scenes, starting the action mid scene, using the actors to flesh out the characters, moving the action on in every scene as I did on TV, and getting out and on fast, never letting anyone say hello or goodbye. I trained as an economist, never studied literature; ‘creative writing’ had not been invented. I had only first principles to work with. I could see the limitations of what I was doing and how I was doing it and branched out as the novel allows one to more easily than TV, into experiments with structure, time, form and theme, and have continued to do so.
Different stories require different structures: in some novels I am an omniscient narrator, in some an unreliable one. Some, which require little refection and more action, I write in the present tense and first person, some in the past tense and third person. Occasionally I write metafiction, a kind of ironic alienation device in which one draws attention to the fact that what is being read is only fiction. Over a lifetime of doing it I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no rules, only what you can get away with. But the most important factor of all remains the reader – you’re in the business of communication, not self-indulgence.
An old-fashioned feel?
If you’re an older writer – or sometimes when English isn’t your first language – everything you write can seem to you to be faultless, flawless, and the grammar perfect. But others complain it seems to come from another age – it’s so stiff and careful. Times move so fast; they may be right. Perhaps you are indeed writing out of another slower, calmer age to readers who are so rushed and hungry for plot they don’t have time to work out what a long sentence means. They take no notice of subordinate clauses – they’re racing to finish a sentence before the train gets to the station, or it’s time to pick up the children from the minder. They’re not bad readers, and are just as hungry for information and understanding as they ever were: but they’re just in a hurry. It’s easy enough to oblige them, and may even be sensible if you are at all sensitive to the ‘okay but old-fashioned’ complaint.
Three easy steps:
1) Relax your prose. Write he’d not he had, can’t not can not, wouldn’t not would not. Spread you’re apostrophes around like manna, tokens of immediacy and acceptance.
2) Go through your text and delete every present participle, all the ing verbs. Be precise in your timing. Do not have two things going on at the same time. They seldom are: old fashioned writers do not have the same nose for exactitude as contemporary writers. Do not write ‘Crossing the room, she pulled the curtains’. Write what actually happened: ‘She walked across the room. Then she pulled the curtains.’ Better – ‘She happened to be looking out the window when she noticed two men advancing across the fields’, than ‘Looking out the window she saw two men advancing across the fields’. Let ‘hoping for better things he took a job in the café’ become ‘He hoped for better things, but took the job in the café’.
Keep it up and then you seem to be writing for today’s world, not yesterday’s. I can’t tell you exactly why, other than that ‘and then, and then,’ in exact order, whether in thought or deed, makes a reader feel the writer knows exactly what is going on, not making a muddled and amateur stab at it.
3) If you can make two sentences out of one, do so. Write short sentences. Use them for effect. Not too many, or you might end up like Lee Child – though that’s not a bad way to end up: you get readers by the million if not much literary credibility. It depends what you want. But two short sentences for every three long ones is a good proportion. Jane Austen tended to do it, by instinct, not because anyone had ever told her how to write.
But is it going to ‘work’?
I worry about students writing novels who say:
‘It came to me in a dream.’
Inspiration’s all very well but it does need to be tempered by reason. Be careful you’re not writing a novel which makes sense to no-one but yourself. Dreams are as likely to come from hell as heaven, depending on the state of your unconscious. Of course you must take notice of your unconscious – it probably has more say in the writing of your novel than even you realise – but dreams? They may well be trying to tell you something but your reader is not you, and you will need to do a whole lot of dream interpretation and soul searching before passing them on. No matter how vivid and coherent and full of meaning, your dreams are not likely to strike the reader in the same way they do you. Writing is not a magic wand.
The same applies to thoughts you have waking up in the morning. These can offer an apparently brilliant solution to some hole you wrote yourself into yesterday; on occasion you may indeed have found a way through – but mostly such ideas don’t stand up to the glare of morning light. Like dreams, they are creatures of the dark: succubi, leading you on. You can waste an awful lot of time pursuing false leads in this business. Sheer folly can pose as inspiration.
Or perhaps you’ll say:
‘I’ve just had this great ‘what-if idea.’
Another cause for alarm… What if a dead man walks, what if you wake up as a black beetle, what if you write a novel not using the letter ‘e’ (a lipogram)? If you’re Meyrink or Kafka or Perec the great idea may just about work. But you’re probably not a genius, and the trouble with what-if novels is that even though the idea can sound so good and so high-concept that gullible editors commission you – you then have to write the thing and though the beginning’s brilliant what do you do for a middle and an end? It’s when writing what-if novels that students find themselves saying ‘I’ve written three chapters and I’m stuck’, to which the brutal answer from me is usually ‘you’re not stuck you’re finished’. It was a short story not a novel. You have said all you have to say.
On occasion all is not lost. There may be some ingenious way through, such as introducing some relevant sub-plot on the first page, and feeding that in throughout, or realising that the what-if concept was actually the end of the book, not its beginning. It was a really ‘so-that’s-how-it-turned out!’ novel all along. Ingenuity is the novelists’ best friend.
I tell you this story as a warning. Once, back in the eighties, I had a brilliant what-if idea. It was about cloning and its reverse: one shared personality spread out between too many bodies, or too many personalities crammed into one body. I had ’flu at the time, but not alas badly enough to stop me covering sheets of paper with words – in those days hand-written. I posted off the idea in four different directions – novel, stage, TV and radio. All were commissioned. It was four whole years by the time I’d worked through to the end of all of them. All those middles waiting to be found, all those conclusions waiting to be reached, ingenuity stretched to its furthest limits. Aarrgghh…
Or you may say:
‘I’m three chapters in and it’s just so hard to write!
I have learned to write my own first pages six, seven or more times, changing tenses, voices and mood each time until I arrive at the version in which all the ingredients seem to meld together properly and the novel seems simple and obvious and something I look forward to writing. I will have come to various decisions. I will have shifted and changed through many possibilities before I set out. How am I best going to deliver this story, make my point, persuade others to my point of view? Do I know more or less what and who I am writing about? Does this work best as a dear-reader’ novel (in which I as the writer show my presence, talk to the reader conversationally, seemingly taking them into my confidence) and to if it is to what extent will the ‘I’ be fictional or my real self? Or should I keep out of it and just tell the story? Is my protagonist interesting enough to sustain the first person? Is enough going to be happening to get away with the present tense: or perhaps anyway I need the objectivity which comes with third-person past tense: ‘she crossed the room’, rather that ‘she crosses the room’. Out of whose eyes, and how many, do I intend to look? How do I envisage my reader: looking at an e-book or turning pages? Am I taking this lightly or dead seriously? Only when I have briefed myself properly on what and how I intend to write will I carry on – referring to my first page from time to time to reassure myself I am still on track. It will be my bible. I may tell myself and others I make it up as I go along, and have the sensation that the novel unfolds before me – but most of the work, I realise, consists in getting the first page right. And it can take months. Make it up as you go along, but know what you are doing before you begin.
Don’t try self-consciously to make things ‘good’, just try to get it done. Don’t aim for ‘literature’ – aim for ease of writing. Your exhilaration in writing feeds through to the reader. It’s going to help no-one if you’re just plodding along, checking your word count. And remember that synopses are there to be changed. Sticking to them can be really boring.
Or worse, you look really grieved and say:
‘I’ve had to put the novel to one side. I have writer’s block.’
No, you don’t. There’s no such thing. You may be ill, or not have had breakfast, or be in some emotional turmoil. But most likely – if you haven’t just finished and said all you need to say, which is always a possibility to be considered – what you’ve done is somehow write yourself into a corner. In which case overcome your natural reluctance to read through what you’ve written, and do so. ‘Writer’s block’, like being ‘stuck’, doesn’t just happen by itself. There is a reason for it. You’ve somehow lost your way on the path that must lead inexorably through your novel from beginning to end. It can be little – you’ve made some character say something they wouldn’t say in a month of Sundays – or large – your story has taken a turn which will lead you into trouble. Look at it, fix it, and you’ll find yourself writing on. Whoever said it would be easy?
And if you say to me:
Are you sure? All your points made and all loose threads tied up; all ‘i’s dotted, all t’s crossed? The pages are numbered? You’ve left space on the page for easy editing? Haven’t crammed your paragraphs together –you’re not trying to save paper; this is an electronic age! (Whenever you’ve changed time or place it needs to be reflected by space on the page.) Does the text look easy and confident – a crowded page never does, just old fashioned. Can you stand by every word, argue for every sentence? No careless repetitions, no typo’s, no relying on some putative editor to sort your problems for you later on? (Editors, publishers, no longer have time or will to do it. You are in a buyers’ market.)
Now, take time to look at your first four pages. It’s remarkable how often you can simply do without these. You’d written them when you were working yourself in, waffling in sheer terror at the prospect before you – 200 pages or more of blank pages to be covered – explaining yourself to yourself, temporising, writing and rewriting far too often, anything but actually getting on with the novel. Why it’s usually four pages of waffle, not more, not less, I don’t know, but this jumping from foot to the foot before the race gets going is endemic in many student writers.
Or if you say:
‘I’m working on this novel I started seven years ago’.
Hang on. You have changed your skin since you began this novel of yours. You are a different person than when you began it. You know more, and have felt more and your view of the world has changed; the reading world will have changed around you. Nothing’s static. The beginning of any book is intrinsically linked to its end: the person you longed to murder seven years ago may now feel like your dearest friend. The horse you are flogging may not be dead, but it will certainly be rather tired after seven years.
Don’t take too long about things. Just because Flaubert took seven years or so to write Madame Bovary doesn’t mean there is intrinsic merit in a book simply because it took a long time to write. Hemingway re-wrote the end of a Farewell to Arms seventeen times – nothing wrong with that – but the whole book was written within the year. I know people have to work and bring up children, and full-time writing is often not possible –don’t lament that too much: peace, quiet and spare time can make you languid and introspective – but do keep your end in sight. I’m afraid the whole thing is much like writing essays at school – the one you worked on so hard and long gets only a C, the one you tossed off when drunk and disorderly gets an A. There is no justice. But at least having worked so hard for so little apparent reward on one, the next thing you write will come easily. In my experience, one hard-to-write novel is followed by two which flow without effort. So one proceeds.
And don’t try and get everything into the first novel you write. With any luck you have a writing life to come. Eke your material out: Kingsley Amis once told me that.
What age are your characters?
What age are you going to make your characters? It matters to publishers, it matters to marketing and PR people. You may chose to ignore this horrible fact and pursue your literary ambitions unmoved by the practicalities of publication, but you came to this site for words of advice, so you might as well listen in.
It is any writer’s first and reasonable instinct to make their main protagonist the same age, roughly, as they are – but consider whether it is a sensible thing to do. Readers come in all sizes, sexes, shapes and ages, but all prefer their novels to feature young women rather than old. This applies particularly, alas, to older women, who are by far the more prolific readers of fiction. (Men tend to prefer non-fiction – histories, biographies, science, car mechanics.) And older women, my theory is, prefer to identify with themselves when young, not as they are now, in the days when they were sexually active, agile of limb, and not afraid of adventure. It makes for livelier reading.
Publishers, who these days tend to turn away novels by middle aged women about middle aged women on the grounds that they are depressing, are probably wise to do so. We now have a sorry state of affairs in which older women, who tend to be the only ones with the time, energy, experience and patience to write novels at all, have an uphill struggle trying to get them published. Whereas a pretty young woman with her face on the back flap sells a lot of books, but has rather less wisdom to pass on than the older woman. What’s to be done?
My own answer is always to have a juvenile lead, someone running around in a state of sexual turmoil, while the older woman, keeping a low profile, passes on the wisdom of her more senior years. Get your juvenile lead on the front page: lure the reader in. 25 works better than 35, 35 than 45 – after 50, forget it. Theatre plays have been employing such tactics for a long, long time. Women past their nubile prime don’t get parts in films or jobs announcing on TV. It shouldn’t be so, but it is.
Having said all this someone like Roddy Doyle, who writes about women better than anyone I know, will prove me wrong, writing a book which sells like hot cakes about a woman of 55. He got away with Paula being 39 in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and she feels even older to the reader – she’s taken to drink; but she wisely spends a long time on the page back as a young woman.
If you’re a woman you need to bear these things in mind. And do make your protagonist as little like you physically as you can. Otherwise your reader will assume the novel is about the person in the picture on the back flap. It may well be, but try not to let on. If you’re a man you can safely make your male characters any age, while keeping your female characters young and sexy. Try and avoid too great an age gap, though. Readers get queasy if a male hero of pensionable age is loved by a 20-year-old-girl: the writer will find himself under troll attack.
Notes on dialogue
I try to have a snatch of dialogue on the first page of a novel. It suggests to the reader that this is a book in which something is going to happen; it isn’t just going to blether on and on. The attempt, I find, helps the writer formulate the book so the opening pages are not all back story or description – probably better to avoid – but is the actual setting of a scene. That said, I do not always manage it myself. I am nevertheless very conscious that large blocks of tightly packed unbroken print at the beginning of a book can put a reader off – especially if the novel comes in e-book form. Space on the page and typography is more and more the writer’s business.
Tutors of many creative writing classes will tell you that it is bad form to start a novel with dialogue, but I’ve done it often enough. It depends what the dialogue is. No good if it’s:
‘Hello, Betty,’ smiled Joan, opening the door to her friend next door, ‘Do come in. Can I offer you a cup of tea?’
‘Hello Joan,’ replied Betty. ‘Yes thank you, that’s very kind of you.’
If on the other hand you start with:
‘Please put the gun down, Betty,’ said Joan. ‘You can’t shoot me because of a pact we made when we were young.’
‘A pact’s a pact,’ said Betty. ‘I’ll be doing you a favour. You’ve lost your marbles. Getting married proves it,’ you might get away with it.
Cut out the hellos, the goodbyes, anything boring, anything the reader can fill in for themselves. Just as a film editor leaves out the obvious bits, so must the novelist cut to the chase. Don’t have your characters sip wine or tea (boring) or interrupt the passage unless it’s by something really interesting. ‘The cup of tea fell off the mantelpiece and shattered, as if propelled by its own volition’. When they’re reading dialogue your readers are listening, not watching. When they’re reading action they watch in their heads. Keep your sentences short. When you the writer are reflecting on action or character you can afford to make your sentences longer.
Do not be afraid of the word ‘said’. It is such a little ordinary word no-one notices the crime of repetition, so long as you don’t qualify it.
‘You bitch’, he said.
‘You bastard,’ she said’ works.
You bitch,’ he said icily.
‘You bastard’ she said angrily’ just doesn’t, unless you’re more interested in sales than style.
If you must qualify ‘said’ give it a sentence to itself, using adjectives if you can, not adverbs. Be as sparing as you can be with ‘ly’ words.
‘You bitch’ he said. His voice was level, cold as ice.
‘You bastard,’ she said. She seemed more angry than surprised.
And don’t repeat names just to get out of another ‘said’.
‘I saw a nice pair of shoes in the shopping mall, Mary.’
‘Did you, Joan?’ sounds forced. Though you can get away with
‘Mary, I have to tell you I saw your husband in the shopping mall,’ said Joan works, because people do use names in real life when imparting bad news, seldom otherwise.
Try to keep what is said short, line by line. Let no-one speak for too many unbroken lines at a time. Put what is said into reported speech if it’s in the least boring. ‘And they agreed to meet under the clock at Waterloo,’ is better than line after dialogue line of someone giving long instructions about where to meet. If you are trying to demonstrate how long-winded and boring the speaker is, by all means put it in, but end by saying ‘She yawned, and agreed.’ Make your words work for you, and if they’re not working, leave them out.
You can have people talk for pages at a time if they’re speaking, say, to a therapist or a policeman, and the reader is looking for clues as to character – but don’t use it to carry your back story: it’s there to illuminate character or to move the story on, not otherwise, Readers are quick to recognise a lack of literary skill.
Don’t try and replicate real speech, complete with ums and ah’s and I mean – a novel is a written document and speech is formalised to a degree – leave them out. Be sparing with a literal translation of regional accents. One dropped g or missed h, one ee bah goom in every twelve is about right. Suggest but don’t insist – readers get the gist; don’t tire them with detail.
Go through a section of dialogue, paying attention to what I have said. If it now reads better, stick to it. If it doesn’t, ignore what I’ve said and carry on the way you’re going. It’s your novel, not mine. And the proof of good advice is whether or not it works.
What is your new novel about?
By which I don’t mean what is its genre, or what is the plot, but what is it actually about. Why do you want to write it; what do you want to say? Once that is decided, the novel becomes much easier to write. If you take my advice, you will write in some cosmic statement as the first line, and happily spend the next 80,000 words developing the theme, going back at moments of doubt -which always come – to that first sentence, if only to be reminded what the novel was meant to be about in the first place.
You can then simply delete it as a prop you no longer need, or keep it if it still seems to help your book.
By a ‘cosmic sentence’ I mean a sentence that sums up some universal truth, and applies to what you mean to write about. It also suggests the presence, otherwise unspoken, of an all-knowing writer whom the reader can safely trust to be interesting and thoughtful. It can be light and ironic or sombre and philosophical. It will set the tone and ensure you keep to the point for the whole book, so your last few pages are not so very different from the first. See it like the experiment you write up at school: an experiment to be proved. Your last page will be your Q.E.D. Quod erat demonstrandum. What was to be proved.
Take as an examples these famous beginnings, cosmic sentences, statements of the writer’s intent.
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’ – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness’ etc. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.
‘All children, except one, grow up’ – J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.
‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin’ – Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis.
‘It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ – George Orwell, 1984.
‘A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses the moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead’ – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair.
In saying which Greene was reflecting on his own method of writing, trusting the reader with a glimpse of the craftsperson behind the work. In the End of the Affair he also has this to say ‘So much of a novelist’s writing, as I have said, takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper. We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them.’
The transition from writing ‘exercises’ for CW classes and novel writing can be difficult. The short exercise can be written from the left-brain – and so to a certain extent can any genre novel; the ‘good’ novel requires the intervention of the right brain, what is intuitive and irrational. Give yourself time to stare into space and write nothing.
But these particular hints are for writers of literary novels: those in which the writer’s ambition is more than just to make money, not just to entertain but to offer up an opinion as to the nature of the universe and the people in it. You can get to it young – Jane Austen wrote her Pride and Prejudice first line when she was 22, an age when she wouldn’t have had much experience of life, but at least she knew that much. Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina’s opening when his when he was 50 and had a bit of experience. (I think he was wrong about marriage, but never mind.) All of the first lines listed above come from what I would call opinionated writers. I would not call Dan Brown an opinionated writer; just a very, very successful one.
How to write a very successful novel.
In the popular novel the lowest common denominator rules: that is to say plot. If you are writing a book and hope to get lots and lots of readers you will not attempt to follow any instructions from me: rather you will do the opposite. You will eschew cosmic statements in case they lead to unnecessary contemplation and you the writer will keep right out of it. You will use lots and lots of adjectives and you will splash adverbs about – all the sins for which I chide the aspiring writer. Importantly, you will not use the word ‘said’ if you can possibly help it. You characters will screech, whisper, yell, snarl, shout, gasp, yearn, argue, deny, or smile their words, but they will very rarely just say them. If they do there will an adverb nearby so the reader knows that the words have been said with some strong revealing emotion. He or she will say whatever it is angrily, caressingly, sagely, nastily, kindly, scratchily, benignly, acidly, savagely or despairingly. Interesting, though, how Lee Child, who is taken seriously as a writer as well as having hordes of readers, manages to avoid ‘said’ by seldom having more than two people in a room or space together, so you don’t have to specify which of them is talking. Make of that what you will.
It might be an interesting experiment, those of you who have had a novel rejected time and time again, to change its title and rewrite, adding two or three extra adjectives to every one you used in the original, and strengthening every verb so your characters e don’t walk but head for, don’t run but hurtle, don’t reach for but lunge, don’t cry out but scream, don’t frown but rage, don’t bite but savage, and so on. Resend to a less lofty publisher than you tried first and see what happens. You can always take your name off it.
The value of the Latin tag
If you know you want to write a novel and still have no knowledge of what you want to write it about – it can happen – you could do worse than study the Latin tag. Latin tags – usually phrases written by ancient Romans, and used by well educated-generations of Europeans for centuries since – were known to contain the concentrated wisdom of the ages, and they are more than likely to still apply to us today. Great civilisations rise and fall; human nature does not change. A Latin tag can be a good way of getting to your cosmic first sentence, on which you are to base the entirety of your novel. Here are a few examples:
exita probat acta – ‘the end justifies the means’. A mystery, perhaps, about a jealous elder sister who sleeps with her brother-in-law out of malice, only to discover the younger sister is even wickeder that she is. Title: A Justified Girl, bearing in mind how popular titles with ‘girl’ in them are doing on Amazon at the moment.
video et taceo – Elizabeth 1’s motto: ‘I see but stay silent.’ A CIA thriller perhaps, the fate of the man who sees too much. Title: The Witness.
video meliore proboque, deteriora sequor – ‘I see the better way but I follow the worst.’ An inveterate gambler marries an alcoholic – a moral tale. Title: Country and Western Song.
eheu fugaces, labuntur anni- ‘Alas, the fleeting years slip away.’ A Proustian novel.
Title: Remembrance of Things Past.
fallaces sunt rerum species – ‘appearances are deceptive.’ People pretend to be what they are not. Title: Gone Girl.
flat justitia ruat coelum – ‘Let justice be done through the heavens fall.’ A paranoiac detective follows a charming criminal. Title ‘Let’s Get Out of Here.’
Other sentiments that might inspire you, cosmic sentences all:
legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possimus – ‘We are slaves of the law so we can be free.’
mutantur omnia nos et mutamur in illis – ‘All things change, and we change with them.’
pessimum genus inimicorum laudantes – ‘Flatterers are the worst type of enemy.’
proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris – ‘It is human nature to hate a person whom you have injured.’
radix omnium malorum est cupidita – ‘The love of money is the root of all evil.’
struit insidias lacrimis cum femina plorat – ‘ When a woman weeps, you can be sure she is plotting.’
And so forth and so on. If all else fails, go to your local newspaper, find a story which fascinates you, attach a Latin tag, and see how the story can be first universalised, then novelised. Hardy worked from a press cutting in Tess, Flaubert in Madame Bovary; don’t be proud.
Words to look at twice
Avoid the sloppy use of ‘he’ or ‘she’.
Observe this lamentable piece of writing:
“Alice had brought her little girl Sonia with her, charming in her fur muff and little fur boots. (Who was charming? Alice or Sonia?) She was barely five, and so, accompanied by Isobel, she (who, Sonia or Alice?) went up with her immediately to the nursery, which she (who?) was relieved to see was well-kept and warmed. One never knew with other people’s nurseries what one would encounter. Some kept their children less comfortably than their horses. But here there was a splendid rocking horse, with a great quantity of toys and a little boy, a year or so older than Sonia playing happily amongst them. A pleasant nurse-maid, Molly, young but competent, took them (what, adults too?) in charge once Isobel had introduced the little boy as ‘Edgar, the son and heir’. This Alice thought a little strange, as she (sorry, I’m still trying to work this out) was obviously the grandson.
‘The mother’s gone visiting her parents in Chicago,’ she (who?) explained, in her sweet, cool voice, ‘I am fortunate enough to be in loco parentis.’”
Hopeless confusion. I’m sorry to say I wrote this. I knew it was sloppy at the time, but neglected to go back and put it right. I was tired. Excuses, excuses, but one does get tired. Repeating a name isn’t always ideal but is a much lesser sin than leaving your reader confused. Personally, I rather like repeating names even when it’s not strictly necessary, though purists may not, and copy editors certainly will not.The passage would have been better written like this, as it eventually was, thanks to an eagle eyed copy editor.
“Alice had brought her charming little girl Sonia with her. Sonia was barely five, and so Alice, accompanied by Isobel, went up immediately with the child to the nursery, which Alice was relieved to see was well kept and warmed, with a great quantity of toys and a little boy, a year or so older than Sonia playing happily amongst them. A pleasant nurse-maid, Molly, young but competent, took them in charge once Isobel had introduced the little boy as ‘Edgar, our son and heir’. This Alice thought a little strange, as Isobel was so obviously the grandmother.
‘The mother’s gone visiting her parents in Chicago,’ Lady Isobel explained. ‘I am fortunate enough to be in loco parentis.’”
Also, it would have been snappier with a full stop after ‘voice’ and a new sentence with ‘I am fortunate’ but too late now for the printer.
‘It’ can be even more of a minefield than ‘she’ and ‘he’.
Student: (reading from her work:) Last week she didn’t know it had been her last time. Me: Ouch! Surely, ‘the previous week she hadn’t known the visit was to be her last?’
Student: But that sounds so fussy. Me: Fussiness is a small price to pay for unintentional bad grammar, which shakes the reader’s confidence in you. ‘It’ refers to the last (or next) noun or noun phrase used, as ‘she’ refers to the last person. When reading your work through – and please, please always do – look out for any ‘it’ and make sure you have used the word properly and precisely. Fussy, perhaps, but no-one’s going to call you ‘a bad writer’ because of it. Fussy, like boring, is better than bad, if minimally. And please be precise about tenses. Something that happened last week just can’t have a present tense. It has to be hadn’t, not didn’t. Even if you’re not hot on grammar, just read what you’ve written aloud and listen to yourself.
Student: Climbing up the hill, a farm worker in thigh boots came towards him.
Me: Ouch again. You could say ‘While he was climbing up the hill, the farm worker, etc.’ or ‘ He was climbing up the hill, when -’ but starting a sentence with an ‘ing’ word is simply not a good idea. Go through your text and find every verb to which you have added ‘ing’, thus making a present participle. Are you sure your one sentence wouldn’t be better as two? Present participles, used to suggest two things are going on at the same time, are tricky because they so easily can elide and confuse time sequences. Very few things in life happen exactly at exactly the same time and it’s too easy to end up with ‘Crossing the room, she closed the curtains’ or some other shocker. Because, actually, no. ‘She crossed the room. Then she closed the curtains.’ The main verb in the sentence ‘closed’ is the one which takes precedence. You can get away with ‘Hoping against hope, she ran to meet her lover,’ but there’s probably a better way of saying something so interesting, if only you give yourself time and energy. An ‘ing’ on the end of a verb suggests to me you’re tired, you’re trying to save words when you shouldn’t, you’re using a shortcut and it’s time you stopped for a rest. Writing is tiring, invention even more so.
Titles and names
On thinking up titles
Useful to see a novel as a fictionalised essay. It’s not just words, plot and character, it’s about something. If the title doesn’t come to you instantly and you feel adrift without one, decide what your novel is about and get it down to fewer than five words. Use that as the title. Then you have, as it were, your essay question in front of you and can use it to make sure you’re on track when the once-a-month ‘but-what-is-all-this-about?’ panic strikes.
This at any rate is what I do. Sometimes I’m lucky and the title stays as it began. Habits of the House, written last year, was one of these: more about the domestic routine of a posh Edwardian household than its young-love plot. So was Praxis, written thirty years ago, praxis being a word which encapsulated three meanings: a) a girl’s name b) the Marxist term for the moment mounting forces erupt as revolution, and c) a code word for orgasm in Victorian pornography. It encapsulated the book, so why change it? It looked good on the jacket and an X in a title always helps. (More on typography later.)
Life and Loves of a She-Devil started as She Devil and I added a Life and Loves, in spite of my mother observing ‘call a novel that and no-one will take you seriously ever again.’ She may of course have been right.
Publishers these days demand synopses and titles before you begin. Give them something – let deliver first, argue later, pay the rent be your motto – but keep heart and mind open. Wait for something more appropriate to surface mid-text. It will. But just get on with it. Enough procrastination.
On finding names for characters
Sometimes names come instantly, in which case trust your fuzzy right brain instinct and proceed. But if you find yourself dithering, use your left brain. Apply reason.
Visualise the person you have in mind. An elderly school teacher? Check the year of birth. 1950 perhaps? Google ‘popular baby names 1950’. Now you have a relevant field of choice. What were the parents like? Did they want a humble, everyday, servants’ kind of name? Make it Nancy. If they were aspiring make it Deborah. Both were popular names at the time.
Even the most minor character who flashes on and off your page needs a past and a future. Now you have it.
But if you’re a woman and the name for your hero came easily and it was John, David or Michael, then I suggest you think again. He is likely to be the all-purpose, single-syllable man, the handsome lover, the kind husband, the good friend; you have not thought him through. Back to Google, back to the parents, think again. Likewise, if you’re a man and you’ve called your female lead a two-syllable name, Sarah, Emma, Lucy – she’s all purpose: the slim and lovely mindless girl who exists to reflect credit on you. She will always ask questions, never provide an answer. Not good enough. Readers, fantasists all, may well read what you’ve written, but it won’t win critical acclaim.
Writing Tips – Introduction
If you’re a would-be novelist – the kind of writer who just wants to get published, who hasn’t been to a creative writing class and has no wish to do so, preferring to plough your own lonely and idiosyncratic furrow – you may find this ‘helpful hints’ column useful.
If you read a lot – and I hope you do – much will be second nature to you anyway and you don’t need telling. I wrote twenty-five novels without benefit of training before being transmogrified overnight into a Professor of Creative Writing, and seven years later can at least codify the errors writers-in-training tend to make, and hand them on to you, anarchic lot that you are. The State pays me to teach, so teach I will.
Browse the links on the left for writing tips. New tips will be added regularly.