Bruce Springsteen, consistency, David Lurie, Disgrace, English languages, Exposition, external conflict, Hindi, India, internal conflict, J M Coetzee, Johnstown Company, Josef K, Oscar Wilde, Portuguese, South African, veranda, verandah, Vogotsky, Winston Smith
10-7: The countdown continues to the biggest blunders-to help you avoid them.
“Getting an audience is hard. Sustaining an audience is hard. It demands consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.” Professor Bruce Springsteen.
Let’s not mess about with anecdote this week, we are all busy people. So with no further fondue…
10 Revealing far too much, too early. Exposition through action, a simple rule that will help to start with is: act first: explain later (or much later). Any narrative has to get the reader to ask questions, to make them think, how much do you give away, if in doubt leave it out. Some say very little, let the reader work it out, if in fact they ever do, not unlike a psychological thriller. Even if they don’t notice the clever subliminal information you have placed in there, and you sure want them to, why else would you do it? − Like I did at the end of the last blog with the double meaning of ‘second person.’ – but, does it matter, really?
You can obviously leave the reader hanging, and the slow burn of trying to work it out, but the average person likes certainty, they often feel cheated, it is not the role of literature to tell them the answers, the answer is there is no answer to the meaning of life! Loads of dead Russian guys worked that out long before we were born. I got quite a few messages to ask what happened to Robert after he and Tazmin torched the car in ‘Hoofing it’, these were all men, the answer again is there is no answer, or maybe there is! There is something nice being in the discomfort zone, the twisted metacognitating mind will ask more questions than those that are passively spoon fed−remember as the Psychologist Vogotsky said, “The mind is a muscle, it will only grow when it is exercised.” Well, I think he said it, I can’t find the quote on the inter-web.
The German playwright, Gustav Freytag analysed the narrative arc as; exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and denouncement (or resolution). This may sound formulaic once more, but how many authors apply this simple scaffolding? Even simpler is the three part cinema action movie structure; 1. The antagonist/s looks certain to succeed−nothing can stop them. 2. The odds are insurmountable; the protagonist has a forlorn hopeless task, and 3. Low and behold, Good triumphs over evil with lots of special effects and fighting thrown in–hurrah!
Again what we are ‘talking’ about by how much to reveal is all a question of measure and craft, you will only acquire this from reading books, not watching action movies.
9 Device/s. Choosing the right device or devices to use is another important aspect of your book. Whereas Victorian writers often exchanged letters as a device, A S Byatts Possession, the letters exchanged between the Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte are both apt, The Victorians wrote a lot of letters, and a way of juxtaposing it against the modern ‘relationship’ of the academics Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, in the novel the letters (diary extracts and poetry as well are used), act as a clever device to illuminate the story. We don’t send letters now, we email, phone, Skype or social network over large distances.
If one of the roles of fiction is to try and add meaning to life, to try and decode it, how much fact do we use as a device? If you write a non-fiction academic book about the reign of the rather colourful King Henry the VIII, a few people will buy it, if you’re lucky, but emphasis the bodice ripping, torture, betrayal of friendship, country, religion and love. You have a bestselling ‘fiction’ work. A lot of academics do this; they have done a lot of the hard work, the research over years and years. The difficult part is deciding how much fact and fiction to use, generally speaking fiction writers don’t want information dumps, they are not experts in the field, they want a good emotive story.
Diaries are often employed as devices to tell the narrative, Robinson Crusoe, Adrian Mole, Bridget Jones. As have newspaper articles, Margaret Atwood uses nearly twenty as references in her novel, albeit made up in The Blind Assassin. Bram Stoker’s Dracula uses letters, ship’s logs, doctor’s notes, telegrams and as well as newspaper clippings. This type of novel writing device is called epistolary. The more of these you use, the more real your book becomes, if you want your book rooted slap bang in the middle of Realism, and you are trying to allude to the ‘work’ of the NRA and GCHQ, those two leading institutes of protecting the people, in the paradigm democracies, be careful as you might be going on holiday to a destination not of your own choosing!
Sometimes the reader is shown what the characters don’t have revealed to them in the book, and the frustration and injustice add to our enjoyment, as well as indignation. Sometimes it’s both, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Tom Robinson is found guilty of raping Mayella Ewell.
These are simple everyday devices, obviously there are ones that require greater skill and craft.
One that requires both, and a great imagination is metacognition, here is two ways of starting a novel written from beyond the grave:
“I’m dead now, but it hasn’t always been this way, far from it.” An example of prolepsis.
“I’m live in two worlds; I will start with the one you are familiar with.”
In the latter you are using a device that keeps the reader guessing; are you from another world, a God, a ghost, a figment of someone’s imagination or dead? You can be dead, because fiction allows you to do that, you could make it more realistic by putting someone on their deathbed at the end. This is the device that Ian McEwan uses in Atonement, Briony Tallis is later, much later, revealed to be telling the story and she has changed parts, the reason for that becomes apparent, this is called meta-narration. Italo Calvino does something similar, but more complicated in If on a Winter’s Night.
Then you have psychological books, like Palahniuk’s Fight Club, that confused me until I saw the film!
The reader is a sophisticated animal; they see the device coming, at least have a strong inkling, if you are going to try and use a clever device to try and shock the reader, or at least make them take a slightly deeper intake of breath, plan it carefully beforehand. Device comes after plot and character, but is central to both.
8 Consistency. Readers will spot inconsistencies; they won’t have to be train spotters to do this. We have talked about time-lines and recording information on a pro-forma for easy access and recall. I would strongly urge this, especially if the story goes back and forth in time, or spread over a large time frame. Make sure word spellings are constant throughout, especially those that are spelt phonically from other non-English languages, verandah or veranda, both are right, a Portuguese word, via India (Hindi), which ever you choose, stick to it, OK, Ok, ok. One tricky one is animal species names, complicated by the binomial system, do you give them capital letters or not? The problem arises when writers check via the internet, and because of the confusion, differing upper and lower case spellings occur. Ultimately get your ‘old-fashioned’ dictionary out. This article is quite useful: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/when-to-capitalize-animal-and-plant-names/
Make sure all your character names match up. I wrote a published book many years ago and I changed the name of a subsidiary character, it sounded too much like another one in the novel. I did the ‘replace with’ command, and then diligently checked it a few times. When published, one of the corrections went amiss, just one. I felt physically sick. Like not backing up my first ever novel, it is not the sort of schoolboy error you make twice. Again this emphasises the need to get your characters right, their name is at the very top of the list!
Then there is consistencies in writing, you want variation, but within a theme. Stick to a comfortable writing style, don’t read a nineteenth century novel and start writing in Victorian prose if you are writing a Si-Fi novel set in the future. This may sound ridiculous (it is), but you see some authors very occasionally throw a change of style within the narration and it feels wrong and jars. Yet again this is about experience and craft; think about your target audience, word choice, sentence fluency and voice. A good way to test your work is to read it aloud to yourself and if you are feeling brave, to others.
7 Not enough conflict. Conflict either internally or externally, or both are important in fiction, it is what will interest the reader. If you are focusing on just external conflicts such as humans battling; other humans, supernatural forces, authority, class, nature, unfortunate birth circumstance, then you might have a good book, but unlikely to be very literary. The reader wants to know what is going on internally, the dilemmas, the psychological demons, the societal pressures, etc. Regardless of whether your book is to be written in the first or third person, we need to know something, it cannot all be exposition through action, if the battle is external and internal, let us all have the honour of travelling inside the head of the first person narrator in to every corner of their mind. If we need to know how other characters are battling adversity, plumb for the third POV. Put two young people together with a duel third person internal dialogue, hidden from them, but shred with us the reader, and you have a Rom-Com! That is trickier than it sounds to get right in fiction then on film. But you have conflict and a frustrated romantic reader, well, until the end anyway.
Think of your favourite books, the main protagonist is in conflict, and we emphasises with them, put ourselves in their shoes. Not literally, we are not Winston Smith or Josef K, but we part feel their pain and angst in a diluted form. Sometimes you want to shake them, and tell them to get a grip, like the South African professor, David Lurie in J M Coetzee’s Disgrace−he is in conflict with his own sexual desires, and petulantly with authority. Whatever your characters do, you want them to evoke emotion in the reader, they want to feel immersion.
Remember both your characters and your plot need conflict, otherwise your book will be flat and dull, plan then action.
For every argument there is a counter argument: “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative” −Oscar Wilde. But you are just starting out, cutting your fictional teeth and you want to hold your first book in your hand, because if Mary and I remember anything from Professor Springsteen at School, it was the preposition he put to us: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?”
Have to go, got a new job with the Johnstown Company…
Ian M Pindar’s latest books, under his real name are: ‘Hoofing It’ and ‘Hoofed,’ the first and second novels in The Robert Knight Series and are on special offer http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Ian+M+Pindar He has another three novels out this year.