Overdoing it

My glamorous and talented belly-dance instructress, Jenn will tell you that overdoing it is one of my failings. She does an elegant hip drop with languid grace – I do a great dump of a thing more like a cliff collapse. I have a tendency to make up for what I lack in finesse by enthusiasm.

Such exuberance is endearing in a puppy – but in a woman of my years, possibly less so. I am not, however, arguing for half-heartedness in dance or anything else creative for that matter. I passionately believe in embracing things; in involving your core, both literally and figuratively.

But I have observed that I come unstuck in my writing when I spend all my arrows too soon. I throw similes, metaphors and period details all in at once. Maybe there will be a signpost to a later event and a character revelation – all within a couple of paragraphs. Overcomplicated,  and worst of all, confusing to the reader.

It’s not that I think readers need to have everything pointed out and labelled – but I make it hard for them to see what is important in a welter of extraneous stuff. Think overenthusiastic tour guide telling you about every architectural phase of the stately home’s building, some juicy anecdotes and a list of owners all at once.

Blenheim Palace

I do it on the minor scale too. A sentence about crossing a bridge in Selchester at first go could well be like this –

Georgiana halted on the shining river-worn cobblestones in front of the five bar tollgate, waiting impatiently for the ancient Bridgekeeper to make his grumpy hobbling way to her.

Overwritten or what.

Now it has to be said that there are genres and styles that are properly more elaborate and intricate than others.

Flight of fancy

Plain country style

But if the decoration is only there to distract the eye from a bodge, that’s not good.

Some grand court dresses were cobbled together, I believe.

So in my editing I am endeavouring to locate the one important thing I need to convey in each paragraph – and let everything else serve that. Ideally, that should apply to sentence level too.

Instead of a bottom-of-the fridge stir-fry, I want to create a memorable dish full of flavour – but not too many of them.

‘Non più di cinque’ as the Venetians have it – no more than five




Snow simplifies

I’ve been visiting Art Galleries a great deal this last year- a pursuit I intend to keep up in 2013. One of the things I do there is to observe which works have an emotional appeal for me. I try, as best I can, to get over whether I ‘ought’ to like something or not,  and go for the immediate heartfelt response. Recently, I have noticed I am drawn to winter landscapes.

Winter in the Ryburn Valley by J.W.Saltonstall (The Hepworth Wakefield)

I believe it is the plainness: the almost abstract simplification of the landscape down to its bare bones. There is not much in the way of colour to distract, and the purity of line comes through powerfully. The artworks I love manage to convey a precise place and mood  through very little.

The Downs in Winter by Eric Ravilious1934

I like to believe it’s the Northernness in my soul that swells up when I see a broad expanse of pale moorland, that some flicker of Viking inheritance glows when I feel the thrill of the bleak and the bare. Truth told, I don’t want to be out there for too long – but I do love walking by the winter sea or in breezy leafless woods.

Dawns a new day by Ashley Jackson

And I aspire for my writing to reflect that. Not just my love of such things – but for the stories to be strong and bold enough that they don’t need prettiness.

Winter Landscape by Stephen Neal

It’s ambitious – I am all too much of a magpie, easily seduced by the sparkly and the curious. But it’s wise to dream. To see, at least in my mind’s eye, a perfect sparse and bold image.

Starlight Landscape by Edward Stott

Which season does your writing favour? They all have their magic.

Words and Pictures

On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of visiting the Oxmarket Centre of Arts in Chichester. It’s well worth a look as there are constantly changing exhibitions. I was interested the work of a local artist David Souter for the seamagic.org website as he paints a fair few sea scenes.

Luckily, he was there (with his delightful little dog) and we got talking. I was struck by how much of his practice as a painter chimed with mine as a writer.

He said his finished works were each a jigsaw, a fitting-together of imagination and observation. That’s what writers do, observe and then fit their understandings into a given shape. It’s the imaginative structure that holds those pieces together.

He felt the real work was in the sketches beforehand and the actual painting didn’t take him long at all. I’m not at that stage, it takes me a fairish while to write a novel, but I certainly find the repeated exercise of my craft is essential. Little notes, pen sketches and the like   drawn from life feed the larger work.

Many of his scenes were recognisable places. Others were creative amalgams. He was honest and unapologetic about re-arranging people and sometimes other elements to suit the composition. That’s what I’m doing right now: I’m editing a first draft to bring out the shape. Some characters will move, some will blend and others may well get painted out. The overall shape, the arrangement of different elements, is what brings pleasure to the reader – or the viewer.

A final aspect that tallied was his desire to create a sense of movement in his work. His images are not static. There is a sense of a before and an after – we are seeing something happening – not just posed. I suggested that this was how writers approach character: we show the person doing something in order to convey them to the reader – we rarely describe them at a standstill.

I found this cross-fertilisation from one art to to another quite a tonic. I wonder what my readers think?

Them bones, them bones…

This week I have been working on the underlying structure of my work-in-progress (provisionally called ‘Georgiana and the Municipal Moon’).  I’d be dishonest if I didn’t remark on how much there is to think about.

It’s set in an alternative Regency England – but I want consistency so I’m using the years 1808/9 for days of the week , phases of the moon and tides. Even though I’ve dreamt up the City of Selchester, I do want my Sussex geography to be feasible (magic notwithstanding) and the details of everyday life to be convincingly Georgian. Research into where and when and how can throw up no end of plot possibilities – and problems.

Regency Ladies by O. Benson

Then there’s the question of scenes and chapters. Each one must add something to the plot and the reader’s understanding of the characters as well as having a crescendo. Why would you read on if the scene isn’t going somewhere?

So I’ve been happily imagining what the exit point of each scene might be. Sometimes it’s a steady build-up, in others, a different strand comes to interrupt the flow and forms the climax. All good stuff – it’s taken four rough drafts to get this far.

One thing I’ve tried this time is working backwards. It sounds odd, and it is a brain-strain, but it does make sure everything pays off.

Here’s a ‘frinstance’:

I knew I needed a particular character to successfully forge a signature on a document. By tracing that in reverse, I could put in an earlier moment where they are praised for their handwriting (much to another character’s disgust) and and even earlier incident where someone who might spot the forgery is shown to be unlikely to. The difficult bit is making this none-too-obvious: lots of head-scratching and the use of distraction were needed.

So now ( version 5) I have a dirty great long sequence of discrete episodes grouped into chapters. There are some gaps with notes like Her experience at school will be largely unpleasant – but by-and-large, it is done. My foetus has vertebrae.

Image by Leo Reynolds

How do you tackle the spine of your work?

Washing the Elephant

When you start a novel – where do you begin? Assuming you’ve done all your research and your thinking, how do you set about it?

I think there are two main approaches: Character-Led and Plot-Driven

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

This mysterious process is how the Character-Led writer works it seems to me. They know who’s inside their imagination, set them free and follow their adventures.These authors see action and hear dialogue – and then record what occurs. Marvellous stuff.(Meg Rossoff, I mean you.)

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.

But what if you make a mistake? If the chisel slips? If you find what the protagonist does on page 136 means you have to change pages 97, 43 & 25 and that means Chapter 3 is a bit dodgy too. Rather like sorting out a Sudoku when you write the wrong answer and only realise three entries further on. My puny little brain can’t hold all that in, but clearly some writers can.

Now for the other sort: Plot-Driven.

This seems to me like creating an armature when sculpting. You focus on getting the underlying structure to work first.

One day I will be a pussy-cat.

It might not much look much to start with but it gives shape to the finished work. You add more and more layers to create the final piece. And these are relatively easy to change. A small adjustment can make a big difference in characterisation – think of manipulating millimetres of Plasticine in Gromit’s face.

Of course, you can make your own frameworks. You don’t have to follow some pre-made thing like a Paint-Your-Own-Gnome set. It was fascinating  to see how Marcus Sedgwick devised the structures for his novels on the SCBWI-BI retreat at Dunford House.  He said he found that though some decisions seemed arbitrary at the time,  the finished book showed them to be entirely right.

Not everyone feels confident about creating their own from scratch: there’s nothing wrong with using a tried & tested form and adapting it to your own needs. ‘Cinderella’ becomes ‘Pretty Woman’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ becomes ‘West Side Story’. It’s a long and honourable tradition.

I think you can tell which I go for.

I made it!

One final thought: my perception is that many women writers can do the character-led thing, indeed prefer it, whereas male writers tend to favour the plot-driven approach ( and ex-tomboys like me). Is this imagined or real?

Copy – wrong?

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – anon

It is very easy to echo a favourite writer. Like picking up a strong accent, you may well do it in unconscious admiration. Does that make your work fake? A blend of your most-read authors would not be plagiarism as such – but would it still be your work ?

Since we are a result of our life experiences – and a book properly read and interacted with is an experience – I would say this is inevitable. We write who we are – and we imitate.

But I’d suggest taking it one stage further. Do it deliberately.

Take an aspect  – the structure of a thriller, the rhyme scheme of a poem, one choice character – and play with it. Analyse how they did it and apply your new knowledge. You might draft a thriller set in a completely different world, compose a poem on another topic or send that character on a new voyage.

It worked for Constable – an avid copyist:  Shakespeare – a great ‘borrower’ of stories and writers such as Jean Rhys in ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ & Susan Hill in ‘Mrs de Winter’. There are many more examples – indeed for most of art history learning from the Masters (please forgive the sexist term) was de rigeur.

You may wish to acknowledge the original  – to make the source obvious. I did so in my poem ‘Meanwhile, Mr Ferlinghetti’ because it was a reply – but it is not compulsory.

There is plenty of controversy in this area – arguments over intellectual property are complex and often heartfelt. I would say that it’s not the idea that matters – it is the execution: something I have learned from Greg Mosse on the West Dean MA. If I put in the spadework and create something new – well, then it’s my work.

I would love to know other people’s views on this – is it always wrong to copy?

Chicken and Egg

Easter holidays; no bus trips to college and time to do some serious wordage. One thing I have learnt is you’ve got to have form ( no, not that sort). Think of a garden – it can be colourful, jam-packed with plants but it won’t impress the Yellow Book judges much if the hard landscaping’s all to pot. That’s certainly how I used to garden – and my writing is still a bit that’s good- bung-it-in-and-hope-for-the-best.

One antidote to splurging is looking how other people do it. I had a spot of ironing to do, so I popped on Radio 4 and listened to ‘On Mardle Fen’. I scribbled down notes on the structure in between pressing Gorgeous Hubby’s poplin shirts and the posh tea-towel. There were plenty of mini-dramas including finding the remote restaurant, kitchen disputes and a runaway daughter – but one overarching  familial drama. A big feature that holds it all together, like a wall round a vegetable garden, or a central fountain, definitely creates an effective structure.

An external event can be a good device – the count-down to a wedding, for example or that highlight of East Wittering’s year: the opening of the refurbished Co-op. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realise how many mini-stories are possible with so many people  involved. What about the reporter with the comedy cardboard scissors, the football coach holding the giant cheque, or one of the fitters looking down from the roof? And it wouldn’t have to be limited to the contemporary: think of the excitement of the first supermarkets arriving, or the fuss the Victorians made opening a shop.

But, of course, all these possibilities lead off in different directions. You can follow your protagonist and secondary characters wandering off along all sorts of paths. And where’s your planning, your pre-formed structure then? Back to the venerable Plotter v Pantser debate.

I’m trying Plot-the-Big-Stuff and Wing-the-Details at the moment. It feels like herding cats – or trying to control couch grass.

Any advice?