Resources for Writers: where to find them

‘Self-publishing can be both an exhilarating and lonely experience for an author, so anyone considering it should surround themselves with as much support as possible …’

That was Book Nanny speaking about the role of editing and editors with author Anne O’Leary for her article ‘Self-publishing: say goodbye to vanity and come in from the cold’ which was published in the January 2016 edition of Books Ireland.

The big question for many writers is: where do I find that support?

Professional Editors  

Finding a good editor is a great start. A professional editor can provide a practical source of support and assistance to a writer during the publishing process, not only in terms of helping you to make your finished novel the best it can be, but also as someone to bounce ideas off or answer any queries you might have.

Writers’ Groups

It’s impossible to overstate the benefits of being a member of a writers’ group and the tremendous practical and emotional (don’t underestimate the need for this!) support it provides during the writing and publishing process, helping you to stay positive, energised and focussed during the dark days and lonely hours when all is not progressing as smoothly or as quickly as you would like.

Writers’ Centres

Writing courses, seminars and workshops can be a vital source of networking for writers. They allow you not only to improve your craft, but also to meet other like-minded authors. Many writing groups originate as a group of writers who meet at a course and who share a desire to keep the support going, so check out your local arts or writers’ centre for courses, workshops and networking events – it’s worth making full use of the resources they offer.

The Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin is the national resource centre for Irish literature and runs courses and events covering all aspects of Irish writing.

Online Resources

One of my favourite online writing resources is Writing.ie, an online magazine packed full of articles, news, events and resource information for all areas of writing and publishing.

Professional Organisations

The writing community is a generous one, with writers willing to share their knowledge with other writers. Listening to and talking with other independently-published authors can give you first-hand experience of the pitfalls of self-publishing as well as many practical tips for success. If you are interested in self-publishing, you should consider joining a professional organisation which gives you access to all that experience on an international level.

ALLI (Alliance of Independent Authors) is a non-profit professional organisation promoting publishing excellence and support for independent authors.

Literary Festivals/ Writers’ Conferences

Speaking from personal experience, there is nothing quite like the positive energy and excitement a writer can get from attending a literary festival or writers’ conference. It’s a wonderful way to meet other writers and industry professionals and we are lucky here in Ireland to have so many great festivals and events to choose from. Here’s a selection of the festival/conference highlights over the next few months from all over the country:

International Literature Festival (ILF), 21-29 May 2016, Dublin

Wexford Literary Festival, 27-29 May 2016, Wexford

Listowel Writers’ Week, 1-5 June 2016, Listowel, Kerry

Dublin Writers’ Conference, 24-26 June 2016, Irish Writers’ Centre, Dublin

West Cork Literary Festival, 17-23 July 2016, Bantry, Cork

 

Let’s Get Physical 2: Sense Memory – Character First Impressions

First Impressions

We all know that first impressions count. And the same is true for our characters.

MH900252595Finding that balance between too much physical detail (which prevents a reader from using their own imagination) and too little detail (height, hair and eye colour may be too generic and not individual enough) can be tricky.

It’s also important to realise that it is not just about a character’s physical appearance. To give those first reader/character moments real impact, a writer also needs to establish a character’s physical presence.

Which is where sense memory comes in.

Using sense memory allows an author to go beyond a character’s superficial physical appearance and to delve deeper into the essence of their character – to tap into their emotional core.

What is ‘sense memory’?

‘Sense memory’ is the effect of a character’s emotional and life experiences captured or expressed in their physicality.

How does sense memory work?

Just as our bodies reflect our physical lifestyles, so too they also mirror our emotional experiences and general outlook on life. Therefore, the main question is ‘Why is the character’s body memory the way it is?’

Take the following example:

Let’s start with the barest amount of character information:

‘The elderly man walked down the road.’

This sets up the basic image for the reader, but it gives us no clue whatsoever as to the old man’s character, or, indeed, tells us anything about who he is.

Next step, let’s look at physical appearance only:

‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height, he was of slim build with a shock of white hair.’

This tells us more: we now know what he looks like, but the question remains, does the character description tell us who this man is? No? Well, let’s push it even further and introduce a smidgen of sense memory into our description:

‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height and slim build with a shock of white hair, he moved slowly, hunching his shoulders forward with each laboured step.’

The man’s forward-hunching shoulders is a small detail, which piques a reader’s interest because, as well as describing his outward appearance, it gives us some idea of the kind of man we are dealing with: what sort of character he might be.

Physical and emotional impact

MH900157951Suddenly this elderly man becomes more noticeable. He’s no longer just one old man walking down the road; he’s an old man with a history, and a life; an old man who over time has learned to brace himself against adversity and somehow still keep pushing forward down the road. And, as readers, we now want to know more.

What has happened to that man in his lifetime? What has he experienced emotionally over the years to shape him in such a physical way?  

Sense memory can act as a useful emotional shortcut to your character for your readers, creating maximum emotional impact and allowing your character to hook reader interest in a few short sentences. In other words, sense memory makes it possible for all your characters, main or otherwise, to make an immediate and lasting first impression.

Creating and exploring new characters

It’s also a great way of creating and exploring new characters. For example, why not follow the elderly man’s sense memory story and see where it takes you? You may well find yourself in some very interesting places.

The Glitch in the Matrix 2: Heads will roll…

Yes, it’s true: sometimes words can be – as Gollum would put it – ‘tricksy’, and very often it’s those little physical quirks which can cause the most problems.

MB900192427Consider this conundrum which I heard on TV one evening:

‘My reflection in the mirror looked back at me like a bad smell.’

Huh?? There is a definite aroma of mixed metaphor with that one. Or rather, mixed simile (for the difference check out my earlier post ‘Shall I compare thee?‘) To start with, what exactly does a bad smell look like? Even if we manage to sort that one out, what’s the story with it looking back at you? Scary!

So please do take care that your hero is not accidentally foraying into the realm of physical impossibilities as he or she goes about their narrative business. In other words, keep an eye on what your protagonist’s eyes are doing. Are they following people across the street, rolling down mountains, sweeping across rooms or dropping to floors?

The human body is indeed a thing of wonder and it’s amazing what eyes actually can do, but, generally speaking, they tend to do it from the comfort of a person’s eye sockets rather than indulging in some perambulation of their own quite distinct from the rest of the body. Besides all that running, dropping and rolling sounds rather painful and damaging to the anatomical part in question.

Happily, a protagonist’s gaze or stare, on the other hand, can quite easily follow, roll, run or sweep across anything you wish.

The same rules apply to protagonists’ heads and other generally fixed parts of the body, by the way.

Of course if your hero is an animated cartoon character where anything goes, the above may not apply!

For other glitches in the prose matrix, see my earlier post ‘The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers‘.

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

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.

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?

Character and Plot 1: It’s my emotional arc and I’ll cry if I want to!

MH900016705Why am I here and what am I trying to do? Two of the most important questions every actor has to ask themselves about the character they are playing, regardless of whether their character’s raison d’etre is as mundane as delivering a tea tray to the posh folks in the drawing room or as sublime as soliloquising on the meaning of life, the universe and why their mother married their uncle.

Let’s be honest, a lack of purpose is distracting for an audience: they should be concentrating on the play itself, not wondering why a particular character appears to be meandering aimlessly about the stage with all the air of an indecisive rabbit caught in headlights or stuck in the middle of a scene as though surplus to requirements. So answering those two questions is an important part of an actor’s job and actor training (via Stanislavsky) has come up with various methods to help them do so.

So what has all this got to do with emotional arcs? Apart, of course, from the fact that the same rules apply to characters in a novel or short story as to those in a play or film. Well, let’s look at the whole concept of emotional arcs to start with.

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First up, what is an emotional arc? Essentially it can be defined as the emotional journey a character goes on throughout the course of a story: the growth, changes, denials and acceptances of the events and incidents they experience along the way and the emotional choices they make. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a character absolutely has to change by the end of a book—their tragedy might well be that for whatever reason(s) they choose not to grasp the opportunities for change offered to them, but from a reader’s perspective, watching them make those choices is where the emotional heart of a story lies. And to truly engage a reader, a story needs an emotional heart.

Here’s the traditional way of illustrating an emotional arc—a sort of character rainbow graph:

Emotional Arc 1

However, I like to think of it as more an emotional barometer than a graph. Don’t think of it in terms of the character feeling happy, sad, pleased or vexed—think instead of the emotional pressure being applied to a character at any given time in the story. At the height of the story, the emotional pressure should be at its most intense. And what gives us this increase in intensity as the plot develops is dealing with a character’s wants and yearnings—what Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book about writing fiction, From Where You Dream (with Janet Burroway), calls ‘the dynamics of desire’. Because the character’s yearnings, wants and desires are the driving force behind the events in the book, the momentum that will push the story forwards to its conclusion.

Which is where we return to acting. One of the ways in which an actor approaches a script for rehearsals is to break it down into ‘objectives’: ‘super-objectives’ for larger sections of the play such as Acts, or indeed the whole play itself, and ‘units’ for smaller scenes or moments of action.

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By giving a character a want, goal or aim for every single moment and playing the sense of purpose generated by each objective, an actor can bring an energy and dynamism to performance which hooks an audience from the start and keeps them engaged throughout the play.

And what author wouldn’t want the same for his or her readers? So next time, I’ll look at how using objectives can help writers develop their characters and the useful knock-on effect on plot and structure.