For Dickens’ sake, please don’t tell!

‘I am a mortal,” Scrooge remonstrated, “and liable to fall.’
‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 

It’s almost Christmas and, in the—ahem—spirit of the season, we are back with A Christmas Carol’s Ghost of Christmas Present, who is about to tell that old miser Scrooge what’s what.

‘Ho, ho, ho, Ebenezer Scrooge, sit yourself down there, and let’s talk about you. 05 Ghost of CPA lonely child, left behind at school when all the other boys went home for Christmas; one sister, Fanny, frail body, big heart; she died young; one child, your nephew. You were devastated. All that resentment and bitterness, dude—not good for the soul. Then you were in love with Belle, and she loved you. Oh, yes she did. But it didn’t last. You were too ambitious, too greedy; it became all about the money: you and Jacob Marley grubbing and scheming, until there was nothing left to you but each other and your false idol. And now look at you: wizened and miserable. Do you know what you need, Ebenezer? A change of heart! You need to start caring about other people again. People like Bob Cratchit and his poorly son, Tiny Tim, who’ll surely die if you don’t start caring. And then you’ll end up dead yourself and unmourned. Nobody will even miss you; well, not for longer than a moment (your nephew really is a decent sort, you know). In fact, there’ll be some doing happy dances at the thought. Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it? So here’s the deal: repent and redeem yourself, or die and suffer like Jacob Marley, with a long chain trailing behind you for eternity. A bit of a no-brainer, don’t you think? Right, got that? So, we’re good? Pleasure doing redemption with you. Must dash, other places to go and people to see, and next door has mince pies! Ho, ho, ho…’

Not quite Dickens, is it? But it does raise a number of interesting questions. As a reader, the Ghost of Christmas Present’s charm, joie de vivre and his illuminating banter notwithstanding, would you expect the embittered, miserable, petty Ebenezer Scrooge as depicted in the first chapter of the book to repent, as the late, great Tommy Cooper would say, ‘just like that’? Would you believe Dickens if he tried to make you believe Scrooge would change so easily? I don’t think so. In fact, in those circumstances, I’d be inclined to believe Scrooge was correct when he surmised that the whole ghostly experience was likely the result of indigestion. No, all in all, I’d want a little more emotional and psychological incentive over and above the jolly warnings of a fat old ghost dressed like a Victorian Christmas tree.

01 Jacob MarleyWhich is exactly what Dickens gives his readers: he doesn’t tell us about Scrooge, he shows us using images, events and relationships to which both the reader and the character can relate. He carries us, just as the three ghosts carry Scrooge, on an emotional journey towards redemption, through the memories of his character’s past: the sad childhood, his devotion to his sister, his friends and first love—all possibilities in Scrooge’s youth for a different outcome—into the bitter-sweet present of the Cratchits and Tiny Tim, and the bleak future promised by a refusal to change.

A Christmas Carol demonstrates very clearly the difference between showing and telling. You get the same facts by telling, but you don’t get the emotional connection that showing can give you.

If you still don’t believe me, cast your eye over the Ghost of Christmas Present’s story once again. Who or what are we really focussing on when we read it: the Ghost of Christmas Present or the story he is telling us? Which of them is engaging us emotionally? Are we so busy being entertained by the ghost’s character and anachronistic style, that the story he is telling fails to move us enough to shed tears at the thought of Tiny Tim’s imminent demise?

The moral of this Christmas tale: watch out for those telltale signs of telling: chunks of back story, exposition and information dumps, and replace them instead with scintillating dialogue, thrilling action and warm fuzzy feelings.

And so to Dickens for the last word:

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

Quotations and illustrations are from the 1843 first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by John Leech.

Full copy available to download on http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm

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Love at First Draft xxx

Congratulations to all those who took part in NaNoWriMo last month. I hope you are all basking in the delight of having the bones of your next first draft safely stored away!

MH900410653Ah, first drafts—the writing equivalent of love at first sight! A whirlwind romance, a lovers’ tiff and break-up, followed by a hot, sexy weekend together in Paris all rolled into one! In other words: ecstatic, chaotic, wonderful, infuriating,  heart-breaking and inspirational.

So to ease the process along, here are a few first draft ground rules:

  • Firstly, there are no rules! And even if there were rules, they were made to be broken. It’s your first draft, for goodness’ sake! All yours, just for you, for your eyes only! Enjoy it! Just get it down on paper or computer screen—you can sort it out later!
  • Accept and rejoice in the fact that it is in the nature of first drafts to contain some or all of the following:
    • Clichés
    • Typos
    • Coincidences
    • POV shifts
    • Unbelievable leaps out of character and back in again.
    • Extraneous characters you didn’t even know existed until you started writing.
    • Lots of other good and bad stuff.
  • Don’t be afraid to play around with your novel. Write scenes you know from the outset will never make it—write five versions of the same scene—even if you know all five are ‘wrong’. Ask yourself a lot of questions about the book: ‘what if’, ‘why’, then write down all the answers regardless of what they are. There is no right and wrong in writing—only what works and what doesn’t—but deciding which is which comes at a much later stage in process – that’s what editing is for.
  • Take active steps to shut off the editor in your head: if typing on the computer is encouraging you to edit, try writing with a pen and notebook for while. Try free writing – jotting down the first thing that comes into your head – just to get the creative juices flowing. Experiment a little, and find out what works best for you.

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  • Remember that you are unique: what works for someone else will not necessarily work for you—find your own process and inspiration. Equally, each book you write is unique: the process you used for your first book, may not work for your second. Don’t forget, you’ve progressed as a writer, and learned from the experience of book 1; book 2 will be different, so don’t give yourself a hard time when it is.
  • How to’ books, blogs and other people’s advice are not ‘rules’ you have to follow: they are possible ways which might work for you when you need to troubleshoot a particular issue that’s causing you problems when you come to review or edit your work. You’re not at that stage yet, so forget them for the moment.
  • Don’t show your work too early; make sure you and your first draft are strong enough together before you start showing it off.
  • And remember, it’s a first draft, so ignore all of the above and just write!

The Ins and Outs of Writing Character

‘Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.’

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I raised the issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in my earlier post ‘A Conspiracy of Coincidences’.  But what exactly does this mean?

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In everyday speech, we would usually describe somebody as being ‘out of character’ if they do something we don’t expect. But, I hear you say, the whole point of my novel is that my character doesn’t do what everyone expects. And what about character nuance and complexity? Surely, my hero is allowed to be contradictory, or change his mind without being considered ‘out of character’?

In fiction, as in real life, the key to being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character depends on other people’s expectations. So the key to keeping your character ‘in character’ is to manage your reader’s expectations. Your character can change his mind and be as contradictory as often as he likes to all the other characters in the story, as long as it is clear to the reader that this unpredictability and contradiction are part of his essential nature, and not something tacked on by the author to get him out of a rather too deep and awkwardly constrictive plot hole.

If your story turns on the fact that your character is going to face his demons and do something he has never done before, you need to prepare your readers in advance.

 Take Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, for example. His employer’s post-Ghost behaviour is so out of character for him that poor Bob Cratchit assumes the man has lost his wits entirely. So why are readers so willing to accept the curmudgeonly miser’s complete change of heart and personality?

MH900020689Because Dickens has set up the hope of redemption at a plot and character level from the start of the book: Jacob Marley’s ghost is a last chance warning to change before it is too late, and the Ghost of Christmas Past shows us a kinder, more innocent Ebenezer Scrooge just waiting to surface underneath all that miserly cynicism. Bob may not expect Scrooge’s redemption, but we readers do, and all is well.

So don’t wait until your hero has his back firmly against the inescapable wall of whatever jeopardy you have in store for him before he discovers his hidden depths of character and abilities. Your readers won’t thank you for pulling convenient and hitherto unknown character traits from nowhere like rabbits appearing from a magician’s hat, but they will appreciate a carefully structured pay-off for all their emotional investment in a character.

Book Nanny is running a workshop on writing character, ‘Write them for real’, Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 9.45 am, Carousel Creates Writers’ Centre, Rathfarnham, Dublin 14. Full details here

Book Nanny’s back – with a website!

Yes, Book Nanny is back! OK, I said that a few months ago and then disappeared again, but I’ll do better this time. Honest.

And my excuse for all this tardiness? Apart from the joy of working with some hugely talented writers, I’ve been busy, busy, busy setting up a new website.

And here it is: Book Nanny’s website.

 Ta dah!

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The Book Nanny website is packed with information about my editing and copy-writing services, and for answers to some of the most frequently asked editing questions, check out the site’s FAQs. I will also be posting details of upcoming Book Nanny workshops and events on the ‘Workshops’ page. Something for everyone, I hope.

You can subscribe to the website by email, but I will continue to blog on this site for the present also.

I hope you enjoy the Book Nanny website and please do let me know what you think!

Book Nanny Writing and Editing Services: nursing and nurturing for all your creative writing needs.

A Question of Craft

 

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I hope you enjoyed the two articles in the last post.

It’s good to see Sinead Gleeson’s article advocating the ‘shove it in the drawer’ approach to resting manuscripts before editing or re-drafting, but you heard it from Book Nanny first – check out ‘Are we there yet? Knowing when to edit’ here.

Of course, it’s all part of the craft of writing, which, incidentally, was the main topic of discussion recently at a talk given by my colleague, Carolann Copland, author and facilitator at Carousel Creates Writers Retreat, at the Hays Festival Kells last month.

MH900280567Carolann was discussing the old ‘nature versus nurture’ argument when applied to writers and their writing. Is writing a gift or a skill? Can we be taught to write well or does it come naturally? And what part does skill or craft play in the process of writing? Fortunately for those of us who couldn’t get to Kells, we can read Carolann’s blog post on the subject here, and, as you will see, your own Book Nanny gets to put her tuppence worth into the mix.

Editing can help your manuscript shine, so before you send your book or story out into the world, it is well worth learning a few self-editing skills and hiring a professional editor to help you turn your rough diamond into a sparkling gem.

Editing matters

MB900441386Yes, Book Nanny is back after a brief sabbatical. And what better way to get back into the swing of things than with two great articles about editing:

  • Sinead Gleeson’s recent article ‘Kill your darlings: the importance of editing’ in the Irish Times which you can read here; and
  • C.S. Lakin’s blog post ‘The Editorial Burden That Weighs on the Author’ on her wonderful editing website, Live Write Thrive, which is here.

Enjoy!

Shall I compare thee….? Similes and Metaphors

The metaphor is a shorter simile, or rather a kind of magical coat, by which the same idea assumes a thousand different appearances.

Oliver Goldsmith, ‘Poetry Distinguished from Other Writing’, Essays, no. 16

MB900084346I don’t know about you, but one of the bugbears of my later school and early university years was the unpleasant task of literary critical analysis. All that sterile dissection of imagery, metaphor, simile, allegory—slicing away at a poem, or indeed any piece of poetic literature, to expose its innards and put them on show [metaphor]—it felt like an act of desecration. I was reminded of the frogs I had also been forced to dissect in science class in school: the process was not dissimilar [analogy]. Dead things splayed out, the barely-disguised stench of decomposition and me, standing over them with my scalpel (metaphorical or otherwise) like a reluctant executioner troubled by the demands of his work [simile].

Yes, in case you haven’t guessed it by now, today’s post is about those wonderful comparative figures of speech available to all writers: metaphors, similes, analogies and allegories.

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George Eliot lamented in The Mill on the Floss that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else. And yet surely language would be deadly dull without such comparisons. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the act of comparing things— that bringing together of connections—that helps us to understand and describe not only the world around us, but also our emotions and our experience of things and how they impact on our consciousness. If that all sounds a little esoteric, look at it this way: think of phrases such as ‘drowning in paperwork’, ‘going through something with a fine-tooth comb’, ‘sly as a fox’, ‘not the sharpest tool in the tool box’. The fact is, we all use metaphors and similes in our daily speech. As G.K. Chesterton said, All slang is metaphor, and all metaphor is poetry.’ So you don’t have to be writing poetry or high-brow literary fiction to spice up your prose with a few well-chosen comparatives.

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Let’s take a closer look at our comparison options:

Simile: uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare one thing with another thing so as to make a description more vivid—‘as cunning as a fox’.

Metaphor: compares two things directly by stating that one thing is the other (symbolically, not literally)—’All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players;’ W Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7.

Analogy: compares two different things with multiple common characteristics to point out their similarities, for example, comparing ant or bee colonies with human society (or the process of dissection of a poem with the dissection of a frog).

This little piggy...

This little piggy…

Allegory: a story ostensibly about one thing, but meaning another—George Orwell’s Animal Farm as an allegory for the terror and repression of the Stalinist regime in the early twentieth century Soviet Union.

So, what is the difference between a simile and a metaphor?

A metaphor is more direct and deals with the essence of the something: the heart of the matter (which is a metaphor in itself). With a simile, the two things remain separate—a man’s cunning may be comparable to that of the fox, but the fox and the man remain two separate things. With a metaphor, the man becomes the fox, taking on all its attributes of cunning and general ‘foxiness’—they are no longer two separate entities. Equally, an analogy can contain metaphors within it, but it doesn’t claim that the two separate things are the same thing: for a metaphor, the poem and the frog become one thing (the thing that has innards to be exposed), in an analogy, the poem and the frog remain separate points of reference to allow us examine the similarities in the way they can be dissected.

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Finally, a word of warning: metaphors and similes can indeed be ‘magical coats’ lending your prose richness, depth, colour and meaning, but, as you’ve also probably noticed by now, many of the metaphors in daily use are also stock phrases and clichés, so be careful how you use them. For helpful hints on the use of similes and clichés check out my earlier posts here and here.

Character and Plot 4: A Conspiracy of Coincidences

MH900059565The subject of coincidence in plotting is a thorny one. Many years ago, a TV development executive told me that one of the key plot flaws they asked their script readers to look out for in a sample script was coincidence. If the story hinged on it or there was a pattern of rather-too-convenient events or coincidences, then more than likely the script would get the thumbs down. A little harsh, perhaps, but their view was that the presence of coincidences in a story would invariably lead to two killer audience complaints: ‘the plot was contrived’ or ‘the characters weren’t believable‘.

Before the outcry begins, let me be clear that we’re not talking about the merely fantastical or serendipitous here: we’re talking about the type of plot coincidence in which it is clear that an author has essentially attempted to ram a square character into a round plot hole or vice versa.

Unit Objectives 

Take our two characters from ‘The Terrible Twos’: in the last post we left Character A battling her spontaneous combustion demons and trying to prevent Character B from being on stage—two interesting dilemmas (and obstacles to Character A’s objectives) keeping the audience engaged. So how do you think the members of the audience will feel if any or all of the following happens?

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(1)    Character A states that she has been suddenly and miraculously cured of her fear of bursting into flames and sits down; or

(2)    She sits on the chair, and the whole ‘spontaneous combustion’ thing is conveniently ignored; and/ or

(3)    A letter arrives from Character B telling us that she’s decided to move permanently to the Caribbean and won’t be coming back.

Fair enough, these ‘coincidences’ may seem a little too obvious, but the fact is that the more complex the story, the easier it can be to fall into the coincidence trap. You know you need a character to be at a certain place at a certain point in the story, and you just keep hammering away until you get them there, ignoring the instinct that is telling you loudly and clearly that something is just not quite right. We’ve all done it, and hitting that kind of plotting block can be hugely frustrating for a writer.

One of best ways of sorting out these structural blips is to play the objective: this time not just the super-objective which drives the overall emotional arc of the story, but the small scene or unit objectives we spoke about earlier.

So how do we get at these ‘unit objectives’ and how can they help with plotting our story?

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Essentially unit objectives derive from those other all-important dramatic building blocks: character and character choice. Each move, each action should involve your character in a choice. Whether the impetus behind it is conscious or sub-conscious is immaterial, but it should come from the character asking her or himself: what do I want to achieve and how do I make it happen?

Let’s assume Character A above has reached crisis point: she needs to get rid of her ‘spontaneous combustion’ fear in order to achieve her super-objective. Perhaps hypnosis is the answer? But how to get Character A and a hypnotist together at this juncture? If she leaves the building, Character B will take her seat and A’s super-objective is finished. We can’t have our hypnotist simply turn up in a ‘here’s-one-I-called-earlier’ sort of way—that really would be a coincidence! But what if A could persuade someone to fetch one for her? What if she could somehow even manage to persuade Character B to fetch the hypnotist, thereby unwittingly causing B’s own downfall? Now that would be a psychologically interesting scenario. So next question, what strategy should Character A use to persuade Character B: seduction, bribery, brute force or all of the above? And what to do if Character B doesn’t take the bait?

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As you can see, each choice a character makes leads to another question and another choice. It also clearly pinpoints the intersection of character and plot because Character A’s answer to each question posed and each strategy choice will be determined by what type of person she is. We’ll look at the whole issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that as long as A remains within character, then the action will push forward naturally and organically and accusations of authorial manipulation or contrivance can be avoided.

Lastly, you shouldn’t forget that in building a story, you are not only dealing with one character’s objectives. Other characters, even minor ones, have objectives too, and their objectives can provide useful obstacles or assistance to help you weave what Sir Walter Scott called a ‘tangled web’ to keep your main characters under pressure (it’s that emotional arc again) and your readers turning the pages.

Happy plotting!

 

Character and Plot 3: Spontaneous Combustion and other Objects of Desire

MB900294304What I’ve tried to show in previous posts are what I consider to be the vital ‘building blocks’ of dramatic conflict: objective and obstacle. Somebody sets out to do something and finds an obstacle in their way, often in the guise of another character with conflicting objectives. Crime procedurals are excellent examples of this: the detective wants to catch the bad guy; the killer wants to escape capture. Two objectives or wants at odds from the start and a good place to begin a dramatic journey. However, the other thing to bear in mind is that obstacles to achieving a character’s objectives are not necessarily external. They could well be internal: a fear, a phobia or a character flaw which a character has to battle in order to achieve their goal.

Let’s return to our long-suffering Character A: in ‘The Terrible Twos’ we left her desperately trying to prevent Character B from sitting on the stage (because her objective is to be the only person seated on stage). But what if, even if she solves the Character B problem, she can’t sit in the chair? Or at least, she can physically, but something is stopping her psychologically, say, she’s convinced that she and the chair will spontaneously combust the moment she actually sits on it? This immediately ups the ante for the character: now she not only has to battle Character B, she has to battle herself as well. MH900389348 Of course, even with the intriguing, albeit macabre, possibility of poor Character A spontaneously combusting, wanting to sit on a chair is perhaps not the most exciting objective for a character. But what if the chair isn’t just a chair? What if it is a throne or a seat of power and the ‘stage’ is a country, kingdom or an empire? A throne is still physically a chair, but, clearly, it has significance and meaning over and beyond its practical use or function. Combining a far-reaching emotional or spiritual want or objective with a physical object in a character’s super-objective allows a writer to form a strong backbone for a story, whether it is genre or literary fiction. Thus Chekov’s Three Sisters and their yearning to return to Moscow: a physical journey which never takes place and which becomes a metaphor for their unfulfilled emotional wants and desires. Or George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones which is basically a whole bunch of people striving to sit on a chair called the Iron Throne and gain the personal power over the Seven Kingdoms that comes with it.

Which brings usMB900441386 back to our character’s emotional arc: to raise the emotional pressure we need to keep the stakes high for the character. When deciding on an objective to carry your character emotionally and physically through the length of a novel, the most important question to ask is: what does the character have to lose? The more they can lose by failing to achieve their objective, the better the drama.

Character and Plot 2: The Terrible Twos

MH900279674Picture a toddler in the middle of the Terrible Twos: you tell them specifically not to do something, they either do it immediately or spend the next few hours determinedly trying to find a way around whatever obstacle or hindrance you’ve put in their way to prevent them from carrying out the forbidden task. The Germans have a word for it: ‘Trotzkind’, literally, ‘a defiance child’, with all the connotations of defiance for defiance’s sake. And what Trotzkinder and Terrible Twos toddlers have that your characters need is that overwhelming sense of purpose and desire to achieve a set objective, ‘trotzt’ or despite the odds.

Last week, I introduced the idea of actors using objectives to analyse plays for performance. How does this actually work? Well, let’s start simple: take an empty stage with a chair on it. Character A enters. Her objective is to sit on a chair. There is only one chair, so she sits. So far so good: not particularly dramatic, but at least the action is clear and the audience is now focussed on the character and the chair and is waiting for the next event.

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Enter Character B. Her objective is also to sit on a chair. But wait—the chair is occupied—Character A is still sitting on it! Now the audience are watching with interest. How will Character B react? What will she do? What about Character A? How will she react?  And the key question for the audience: what will happen next? Without any long character explanations or convoluted plot twists and frenetic action, we’ve already set up an intriguing dramatic scenario.

Of course, both characters don’t have to have the same objective, as long as some conflict of purpose between them remains. Character A’s objective may well be to be the only person seated on stage—so what does she do when Character B decides to achieve her objective by going off to find another chair?

A character’s objective can change within a scene as they react to another characters’ actions.

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For example, in the above scenario, Character A might decide that the only way of preventing Character B bringing on another chair is to block up the entrances to the stage. In that case, blocking up the entrances becomes her new unit objective (her new purpose), but the overall super-objective of being the only person seated on stage remains and dictates all her further actions and reactions.

This is the great thing about using objectives—they act as a vital point of reference to link all the action and dialogue for a character and prevent a scene, an act or, indeed, even a whole novel going merrily off on a tangent. Because if it threatens to go AWOL on you, just play the objective and bring it back. Remember the Trotzkind: what is my purpose? Why am I here and what am I trying to do?