Thanks to Gwen Walstrand for this wonderful portrait, and to the News & Star for this marvellous write up:
Sue Healy on chasing a full life
Thanks to Gwen Walstrand for this wonderful portrait, and to the News & Star for this marvellous write up:
Sue Healy on chasing a full life
It’s cold, it’s snowy and it’s lockdown #47 or whatever… but it’s still beautiful out there. The 6x60min TV series I created during the 1st lockdown was optioned, so there’s always good stuff going on.
The start of the academic year is an important time of year in France, as I recall, where it’s marked on the calendar as “La Rentrée”. It’s celebrated as a new time, a new start, a time for resolutions, a blank page. Writers can use this time to get work flowing, to launch a new project. The challenge is to find inspiration – however, prompts are always at hand.
Leonardo di Vinci used to stare at the walls in his studio until the damp patches formed scenes and figures he wanted to paint. If you look closely at some of his works, you can even see how those dark stains suggested the rock formations he conjured. Of course, you don’t so much ‘get’ ideas as you eek them out from your own subconscious.
Hopefully, you don’t have to have damp patches around your writer’s garret. Yesterday’s newspaper will fulfil a similar role. I worked as a journalist for many years and love newspapers and appreciate them as a source of ideas and stories for the creative writer. For starters, you could just take an existing story and change the setting/gender etc… to make it your own. Ideas will come to you as you start to play with it.
Alternatively, you could apply the ‘what if’ question. The ‘what if’ question prompts you to consider alternative endings to news stories. A good example of this question is Stephen Fry’s Making History, in which he explores a world where Hitler was killed in WWI but an even more dastardly figure comes to prominence, and wins.
The small ads section can spur the imagination. Hemmingway once said his best work was one he wrote in six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”. It’s clever as there is clearly a heavy back story here but Hemmingway, being Papa, does not spell it out. My point is that you could operate in reverse, search the small ads and then write its back story. Think of the tale behind a novel that ends with that small ad.
Then there are photos. Ignore the captions/related stories. Look at the photos and guess what is going on. Develop an identity for someone in the background of a picture. Give them a problem. Imagine how they are being affected by the main event in the photo. The key is to go for the more obscure shots. Obviously, if it’s a picture of 9/11, the chances are you’re not going to come up with anything too original but if it’s a picture of a man biting a dog, you may be on to something.
Reddit and gossip sites are wonderful wells to explore for story. Don’t neglect True Crime mags. One of the best tips I ever received as a writer is “don’t be a snob about where you get your story”.
The setting is the signature of many a writer: Stieg Larsson and Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Annie Rice and New Orleans (Interview with a Vampire), John le Carre, the world of spies.
And a surprising literary setting can make your story all the stronger. Agatha Christie stories work so well because in every quaint vicarage with its lace table cloths, jam, Jerusalem and glasses of sherry – there’s a body under the table.
Writing what you know
It is often said you should “write what you know”. A sensible approach, especially for the new writer. By placing your characters in scenes and situations with which you are familiar, you are more likely to invest a sense of realism in the story. Also, practically speaking, writing about familiar territory will save on research you might otherwise have to do on a subject/setting.
Some writers resist writing what they know as they feel their own environments are not “glamorous” or “extraordinary” enough to merit such attention. This is nonsense. Whatever you do and whoever you are, your life will seem exotic to someone else. The fact that you grew up on a council estate/project developent in Bolton/Kalamazoo is interesting to someone living on a farm in Siberia. Remember, the life of an immigrant taxi-driver would quite likely fascinate the Queen of England.
Also, you don’t necessarily have to set your story in your street or your workplace. Think of your Saturday morning football team, your chool, the nightclubs you frequent, a hospital you’ve spent time in or a prison. All are equally valuable settings for a short story, novel, play, film script or even poem or song. Your environment is your gold, mine it.
But I don’t want to write about my environment…
That’s fine too. There is also case for “writing what you don’t know”. Fantasy writers, for example, are (usually) not elves living in Middle Earth. Historical fiction writers have not lived in Tudor England. Yet, Fantasy/SciFi/Historical novels are written and enjoyed every year. For Fantasy/SciFi you need a familiarity with the genre and a vivid imagination. For historical fiction you need to like research. For all the above you’ll require the ability to convincingly create an unfamiliar world.
Bear in mind, however, that while a Fantasy writer won’t get complaints from angry elves about his misinformed stereotypes. A novelist who sets a story in a modern French monastery, and knows nothing about France or monks – is asking for trouble. Firstly, their prose may be riddled with (skewed) perceptions of France and the French, monks/Catholicism/wine-making etc… And not only is there danger of rehashing clichés, their writing might lack the detailed realism a reader finds so reassuring and intriguing.
So, if you want to write about banditos in the mountains of Sardinia, and you can’t go and live there for a year – then research, research, research. Read as much as you can on the topic, as well as any other fiction that has used the same environment as a setting.
I’ll tell you a story about Johnny McGory.
Will I begin it?
That’s all that’s in it.
Irish nursery rhyme.
Story trumps all. The toppermost bough of the literary elite tree may disagree and say literature is about language, the perfect sentence, la mot juste. However, for most writers in today’s economic climate – if you don’t have a sound story, you don’t have a publishing deal. Having a well-constructed plot and a good story means you’ll be forgiven all sorts of other failings (blingy adverbs, oddball syntax, clichéd characters). It’s simply today’s reality.
Firstly, in order to have a story, you have to have some sort of conflict. These conflicts usually fall into one or more of the following categories:
man vs. nature
man vs. man
man vs. the environment
man vs. machines/technology
man vs. the supernatural
man vs. self
man vs. god/religion
Examples of good conflict ridden plots can be found everywhere, in the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, ethnic folk tales and even jokes.
A typical story structure might be plotted thus:
Stasis – the status quo. The reader is introduced to the character and setting.
Disturbance. Something occurs which upsets the normal run of things. For example, a stranger arrives in town.
The main character is affected by the disturbance.
The main character decides on a plan of action to rectify or improve matters.
Obstacles stand in the way of the plan of action succeeding.
Complications occur in the guise of choices/new characters/new ideas/discovery.
These lead to a crisis, when the focus of a play comes together in an unavoidable way.
The crisis usually leads to a climax or the major confrontation.
Finally comes the denouement or resolution which results in a new stasis.
The above will often feature a character development arc whereby the protagonist is changed in a fundamental way by the events.
A good exercise in plotting is to take a book or a film you’ve really enjoyed and try to break it down into a series of plot-steps, like the ones I’ve outlined above. Now, change the setting, the gender of the protagonist, the era, the goal and the type of obstacles that stand in the way. Yet, stay true to the plot template. When you’ve finished you’ll find you have a completely new story. Don’t feel as though you’ve stolen another’s plot. In truth, there are no new plots, each is a retelling of an older version. You’ve simply adapted and updated a classic plot line and in the process have created a unique story.
That’s all that’s in it.
Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level the stories are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.
For your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying message like: “jealousy kills love’.
As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).
Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.
Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.
my bedroom in the morning light….
ok, ok, it’s that of some bint called Ephrusi de Rothschild of Cap Jean Ferrat – but same thing…
It is said that the closer the brain is to the sleeping state, the more creative it is. For this reason, many writers keep their notepad by their beds and make sure that the very first thing they do when they open their eyes each morning, is write.
The resultant notes are called “morning pages”. Morning pages might contain what a writer remembers of their dreams or perhaps the writer will simply jot down the very first words that come to mind that day. Some writers say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind from elsewhere.
Just as the waking moments are a bridge from the sleeping state into sober reality – the hour before you go to bed is often a creative time with the brain slipping into that semi conscious state. Hence there are plenty of writers who write late at night.
And just to show that there are no rules, there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day when all of life’s busyness is in full swing (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).
So, I guess the point is that different times of the day work for different people and it is really of no consequence whether you are a morning, day or night writer. What is important is that you write and that you find your ideal writing time. Experiment. Find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write. Likewise, writers have very personal tastes regarding an environment conducive to writing. There are those who like music or TV buzz in the background and those who can only write in silence. Find whatever works for you.
Amelia stands out from the line
Those new to writing will often fall in love with words and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing negates the impact. Use adjectives but go easy, less is more.
An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:
‘A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’
There is too much going on in this sentence, far too much colour. Each individual image is in competition for the reader’s attention. The result is a confusing clash. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly. Do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume. Edit that sentence down.
‘A cloud slugged over the hills,’ has far more impact.
A note on adverbs:
Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”). Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. “A bomb exploded” is more striking than “Suddenly, a bomb exploded”.
Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.
What’s happening here? Storm over a street fete in Monte Carlo.
It was a dark and stormy night…
“Pathetic fallacy” is an academic term that refers to the technique of ascribing human emotions to inanimate objects, usually to reflect a character’s mood. For example, say your protagonist falls in love: you might describe flowers laughing and trees waving their branches gleefully. Or perhaps there’s been a death, so the landscape looks bleak and with clouds brewing rain.
“Pathetic fallacy” was very popular with the Victorian novelists – think of Thomas Hardy. Therein, however, lies the problem – “pathetic fallacy” is out of fashion nowadays. This demise of its popularity is partly due to the modern attention span. If you’ve ever read novels by the Brontes, Dickens, Elliot or Hardy – you’ll know all about lengthy landscape description. It’s taxing for modern readers. If you absolutely need to say how each field in the valley looked, then spread your descriptions out over the course of your work. Above all, as Elmore Leonard wrote, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Another reason “pathetic fallacy” is no longer beloved in the literary world, is that it can seem cliché. If your protag is heading home to see his wife and there’s a storm, and then they fight… your foreshadowing’s is derivative, predictable and boring.
Still, “pathetic fallacy” has its place in the literary toolbox. It can provide emphasis for mood. I suggest using it sparingly, with caution and avoid storm/argument, rain/depression, sunny days/falling-in-love clichés.I like to turn PF on its head; let the trouble come in sunshine or make a storm a symbol of peace. If you use PF, surprise your reader with it.
Oh, and whatever you do, never open with a PF weather report, that’s just pathetic : )