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Sunday, 31 October 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: Impending Doom

Today I went to the second of our regional kick-off parties.

This one was a little more sedate, had an intimacy that the terrifying Leeds gathering lacked. It helped that I had a terrific friend there with me, whom it was said I was 'glued to' for the duration. That's not exactly a lie but it's not exactly a bad thing either. I think I pretty much spoke to everybody else there and I'm pleased with that result. There were certainly some interesting novels in preparation which I'd happily read if they get published.

So now onto the main event.

There are just over three hours before NaNoWriMo 2010 kicks off in the UK. The buzz I got from the meet-up earlier spurred me into finishing my first chapter plan on the train journey home. So it's seven lengthy chapters to write. Seven character studies, seven individual perspectives on the world. And when I say it like that I persist in scaring myself.

I've got so much to accomplish this November. I'm editing the novel I wrote this time last year for the fifth time. I'm getting to grips with my Ph.D, trying to participate in various online things and... oh, yes... being a human being. With sleep and everything.

It's going to be an interesting thirty days. Here we go!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: Having a Wobble

Yes, with just three days to go before my keyboard is battered in the race to the finish I'm having second thoughts about participating this year.

It's not because I don't think my idea is good enough. It's not because I don't enjoy my characters to the point of wanting them to suffer horribly. It's not even because I don't think there's enough mileage in the story. It's simple really: another novel is beating me round the head and begging me to go back to it.

This is a story I was leaving to cool off before a final final edit. I think I just decided it isn't ready for that. I want to give it a overhaul. And when do I want to do this overhaul? Oh, November, of course!

I've committed myself to NaNoWriMo so, yes, I'll try and get through it. But how many times can I kick the revision idea into the distance before it finally scoots past me and takes root in my kitchen?

November might be even more of a struggle than I anticipated!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Portraying the Cheater in First Person Narratives

It occurred to me recently that I have a preoccupation with deceit in my stories. This probably stems from my own trust issues but, certainly, the two full-length drafts I've completed have deceit and infidelity at the heart of them. So I began to think about the characters I've created and how they 'explain' their lies.

It's difficult for a start because none of the liars and adulterers are viewpoint characters. I tend to work from a singular first-person POV which leads to a very narrow perspective on the world. It's down to my protagonist to interpret the motives of the other characters and that can lead to misunderstandings galore. On the other hand, this narrow viewpoint allows the deceit to be continued - they can only comprehend what they see and what they are told about fellow characters.

In both stories my main character is the lover of a married woman. However, I know the motives of the women are quite different. The problem is conveying this to the reader.

Jude, for instance, is disillusioned with her marriage but content until she finds herself falling for someone else. The relationship between her and her husband is portrayed, but only through the secondary device of conversation about them and through the eyes of the protagonist. As Jude's motives in the story fall under suspicion, so the reader begins to doubt her feelings towards both her lover and her husband. By the end of the story I don't think I've redeemed her enough.

I like her. All the things beneath the surface that I'm aware of aren't coming through because of the viewpoint difficulty. Due to her history, when she says something the reader is unsure how to interpret her motives. This needs thinking out certainly. Much of the resolution comes from conversation but I think the old adage about seeing not telling needs to come into play. Perhaps the only way you can demonstrate love between two estranged characters is through action of some sort?

Marie, my other cheating wife, has motives which are much more complicated and don't just resolve around her emotions. As a result she is much easier to portray. There is no question towards the end of the novel whether she should be trusted as the reader has learned from her actions throughout. She feels less bland and more real than Jude does because I've let her show her true colours instead of insisting upon them in speech after speech.

In creating a cheater you have to clearly define their motives, whether it's love, lust, financial gain, manipulation or whatever. Very few people fall into affairs because they've got nothing better to do (though it's not impossible). If you can identify precisely why your character is risking their marriage (or even if they are at all, some marriages are more open than others) then you might be able to portray them more effectively.

As a secondary character in a first-person narrative it can be extremely difficult to show not tell. Alongside using the explicit telling and showing method don't forget to use foreshadowing, subtext, juxtaposition and various other techniques to influence how your reader is supposed to interpret the character.

In my own work it's clearly evident that while Jude is only on her second draft, Marie is on her fourth. That kind of character depth and understanding unfortunately only comes via revision for me.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: The Simple Character Profile

In the past I've varied in my approaches to character development.

I've tried the 'name and nothing else' method and allowed characters to flourish under my nose. This method, largely used in my short stories, has caused some caricatures, some nutcases and some genuinely interesting folk to emerge from the tips of my fingers. Equally, I've tried a stringent character profile with about fifty headings under advice from a tutor. That novel is the one with an unfinished first draft because I've lost all enthusiasm for the project.

Last year when I attempted NaNo I used a couple of paltry pages of notes, most of them plot and not character related. The draft got finished, yes, but the amount of butchering I've had to do in subsequent drafts has been disheartening. So this year I decided to land somewhere in the middle.

A brief character description.

I don't want to get bogged down again. As my project this year is from seven perspectives it's not hard to envision myself floundering under the weight of character information in a few weeks. The purpose of NaNo is to get a first draft. The rest can come later: I just want to make sure I've got those 50,000 words on paper by the end of November. So, with that in mind, I developed this brief character sketch:

NAME - Shelley Wallace
AGE - 37
OCCUPATION - Cafe Night Manager
FAMILY - Parents retired living in Wales, brother Michael works in London
HOME - Terrace house in the suburbs of the local town, neatly furnished and painted due to her own hard work
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION - Short, average weight, brown curly hair, green eyes, radiant smile, thin nose
CLOTHES - Hides behind uniform, wears jeans and plain tops otherwise
LIKES - Tea, romantic black and white films, cats, eighties girl pop, truffles, biographies
DISLIKES - Indian food, heavy metal music, buses, vodka, pink clothes, vindictive people
GOALS - To get a raise but not promotion, continue to live comfortably
RELATIONSHIP HISTORY - Quite bad, nothing lasting over a year, unable to trust people, goes through the motions of a relationship frequently
ATTRIBUTES - Caring, nurturing, defensive of everyone, nosy, can react angrily when really pushed, committed to her job
NOTES - Likes to look after people, not dim but not excessively intelligent

So that's Shelley. The other six have similar profiles and as a result I know them slightly better than I would if they lurched straight onto the page. Is there more work to be done? Absolutely. I fully expect each and every one of them to surprise me by doing/saying something I hadn't anticipated.

Still, I've got a foundation now. And, as a starting point, something is better than nothing!

Blogging NaNoWriMo 2010: The Kick-Off Gathering

In the spirit of documenting my NaNo experience this year, I decided to start with the kick-off party I (quite bravely) attended in Leeds today.

Now I'm certainly not a mix-in kinda girl but, as I've previously said, I intend to become a social bunny this November and I'm trying to immerse myself in the feeling and spirit of NaNo as much as possible. So with that in mind (and after a lot of dithering) I attended the meet-up at the West Yorkshire Playhouse today.

The tradition was to take a piece of fruit along for recognition (and nutritional extra bonuses). I duly collected my apple from the market in Wakefield and hopped on a bus. When I got to the Playhouse I joined a table of about seven others all clutching various pieces of fruit. A few minutes later the influx of people who had met at the train station began and our number swelled. We had to move tables.

Well, the twenty five plus of us gathered in a large circle and proceeded to give a brief introduction to ourselves: forum name, previous NaNoWriMos attempted and won, a fact about ourselves and a fact about our novel. This had forced some pretty serious thinking from me the previous night about how I could condense my plot into a summary (a useful exercise for any writer). Essentially, my novel is that a teenage girl is dumped at a service station and the story progresses through seven perspectives as she makes herself at home, showing each character in various lights. Easy!

After the 'official' introductions we broke up to mingle (having been moved by the staff again by this point). Now, me being me, I was too shy to do much. I let people come to me which meant I only spoke to six people while I was there. At times I felt myself slipping back into my shell and forced my way violently out of it as best I could.

I did excuse myself fairly early (who passes up a free pub meal at home?) but I came away with the knowledge that there are some very strange writers in Yorkshire (some of whom stole my apple to adorn a fruit sculpture and for all I know are still keeping it hostage), and that there are a lot of people out there who just want to write while having fun doing it.

Am I glad I went? Yes. It was a social experience, and while I didn't make the absolute most of it that I could've, I did utilise it a bit. If nothing else I've learned that I can stand up in front of a large group and talk for twenty seconds.

That'll be handy for a future university lecturer...

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Classic Openings: The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath is probably known more for her suicide and marriage to Ted Hughes than for her poetry and prose, which seems a terrible shame. The Bell Jar was her only novel, written in 1963 under a pseudonym a few weeks before her death. It's notable for the treatment of madness and, more significantly, the world that perceives it.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the paper - goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.

For me, this opening works extremely well for several reasons.

1. It reads like poetry. Anyone who's read any of Plath's poetry will appreciate the way in which she hooks the reader into the story here. The 'granite canyons', the glittering car roofs and the imagery of dust all conspire to create a vivid portrait of the New York that protagonist Esther Greenwood is inhabiting.

2. It employs foreshadowing. The middle line that separates the two paragraphs is distinctly loaded. 'I thought it must be the worst thing in the world'. Illuminated on the page like that it is obviously supposed to be noticed by the reader and interpreted as they wish. One of the significant side effects of space on a page is that the reader often attaches some importance to it.

3. The voice of the novel is vivid. Aside from describing New York, the opening few paragraphs also introduce you to the as-yet unnamed narrator. This is Esther, as we will learn later. But the opening paragraph gives a close analysis of character, managing to tune into a few vital points instead of trying to paint a broad picture that could be anyone. By honing in on the execution issue, Plath also cements her theme right at the beginning of the novel.

4. The execution idea is a memorable and gripping one. I remember the first time I read this book that mentions of execution and burned nerves right at the start were a bit of a shock to the system (no pun intended). But they did one thing - they kept me reading. A book that starts with such imagery cannot possibly shy away from portraying anything else in vivid detail. And you know what? It didn't.

The Bell Jar is available to buy here.

Monday, 18 October 2010

My Take On NaNoWriMo

Yes, I'm adding my voice to the multitude clamouring for attention as November approaches. For anybody who's been living in a cupboard for the last few weeks, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is an annual event that takes place in, you guessed it, November. The goal is for you to write 50,000 words within the month and (hopefully) have fun doing it.

Now I know there are many many reasons not to participate in NaNoWriMo.

You might have a full-time job. You may be a student struggling with hefty novels or textbooks. You may have a family that takes up the majority of your time. The thing about NaNo, however, is not reaching the finish line. It's having fun trying to get there and maybe discovering something about yourself in the process. Perhaps just that you're not cut out to write a first draft in a month!

The first year I came across NaNo was 2008. I threw my hat into the ring then promptly ran away pre-November. I didn't write a word. What did I blame at the time? Well, I was working on my undergraduate dissertation and living in a nightmare student house so that was that.

In 2009, though, I decided to actually make an effort. I'd just finished my MA Creative Writing and one of the problems I'd discerned in my own work was that I thought about things too long. Perhaps if I just had a crack at it, let the words run away with me, then I'd have that elusive article - a finished first draft. It didn't matter what state it was in, I just wanted that clump of paper staring at me from my desk.

So I participated. Not only did I achieve the 50,000 words within November but after the first week of December I found I had a first draft of just under 70,000 words to play with. The momentum that had started me off had obviously stuck, along with the desire to get that first draft finished.

Now, this novel was absolutely terrible. At the time I was sending chapters to a couple of close friends. Their desire to read the next part spurred me on to carry on writing it. Without that support I might easily have drowned in my own doubts. But none of this meant it was a good piece of writing. Far from it. The plot needed a complete overhaul, I needed to cut one major character and several minors. I found there was one character who could become significantly bigger and the whole thing became a trimmer, prettier version of what it had originally been.

That was the second draft. The novel, still untitled, is now on the fourth outing. This time I'm debating over where to stick commas and exposition rather than overhauling the fundamental plot points. I have NaNoWriMo to thank for getting this far. Without the push that the dreaded 50,000/30 Days gave me I would've dawdled and talked my way out of this pretty good idea. In fact, I liked the idea of these targets so much that I set myself another one in February or March. I didn't get 50,000 words written then but I came close and did indeed complete another first draft soon afterwards.

This year I plan to go one step further with the NaNoWriMo experience. I want to be part of the community. I'm planning on going to meet-ups, write-ins, anything I can find time to go to. Because of this I might not reach the finish line this year but does it matter?


Though when my annual competition begins with a few close friends I might change my mind...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Cry Me A River: An Ode To Subtlety

I suppose, all things considered, I should be a huge fan of Michael Buble. Along with some other notable artists he's succeeded in recent years in bringing some classic songs back to public consciousness. I'm grateful to him for that. However, his way of delivering has the habit of making me nauseous.

Take the exquisite ballad 'Cry Me A River' for example.

There have been many many versions of this song. Everyone from Shirley Bassey to Aerosmith to Joe Cocker has had a crack at it. I think for most people, though, the definitive version is Julie London's smoky performance of 1955. The rendition is so heartfelt, so quiet and mournful, that a listener can't help but be entranced by it. It reeks of subtlety. With the simplest of accompaniment London's voice shines through. No need for extravagance in this version: she sells it on voice alone.

Compare that to Buble's version.

At times he's almost drowned out by the orchestral accompaniment. Every syllable is forced at the listener; it makes me tired just listening to him. Each time the song comes on the radio I wince, I physically wince. It sounds as though he's taken a perfect classic song and debated about the best way to murder it.

Now I do have a point with this.

I don't think I'm the only writer who feels the necessity to spell out every little thing to their reader on occasion. This probably comes from a combination of doubting myself and doubting my reader. I'm well aware of what I'm trying to convey but I fear the intricacies might be lost on the audience. So instead of painting the page with light sketches of character and emotion I take a sledgehammer to the portrait and batter my reader with it until they really don't care anymore.

Of course, I'm mostly inclined to do that in a first draft. It's specifically something I look for when I'm doing my initial edit but it isn't the simplest thing to cut. After all, whacking your point home is a lot easier than subtly defining it and allowing your audience to draw their own conclusions.

At some point we have to begin trusting our readers and letting go to an extent. If we are lucky enough to get published then we can't control every little reader reaction to every aspect of our story. In a sense it becomes their story and they have the right to interpret it as they please.

Personally, I find Julie London's soulful rendition of 'Cry Me A River' a little more open to interpretation. But maybe that's just me.

Julie London singing 'Cry Me A River'

Michael Buble singing 'Cry Me A River'