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The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Three – Making People

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Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden from Fight Club, arguably one of the greatest literary characters of recent times

Something ain’t right with my novel.

The big bones are in place: the main characters, the plot lines, even the climax and denouement. Seen from a distance, it certainly looks like a novel. But up close, you can see that it’s just a simulacrum of one; it’s canvas doped over a frame, like a dummy aircraft to fool the high-flying enemy. A book prematurely abridged.

A good start, I hope: now the simple process of filling in…

Ah:  here’s the rub. It’s this close-up work, the real flesh of the story that refuses generaisations and synecdoche that I’m having trouble with. There are scraps of the real stuff, passages and pages I adore, but I am having trouble joining them into a consistent and cogent narrative.  It’s not quite firing, quickening, whatever metaphor takes your fancy to describe that mojo quality that is life.

It’s tricky. This writing, in fact, is positively hard. Those that have actually achieved this act of sustained imagination (or perhaps more accurately, these millions of small acts of imagination) ascend higher in my estimation every day.

The main problem lies with the characters.  It’s not about them yet: it’s still about events, and the characters just happen to be the vessels through which interesting happenings happen. The tension between plot and character is of course fundamental to all stories. But I want both to be vibrating, pulsating, symbiotes feeding and thriving off the other.

And the core reason for this problem? I simply don’t know my characters well enough. Even the main characters have not got the depth of history, of complexity, that makes me believe they’re real. I am often at a loss as to what a character will do in a situation, how they will speak, react, move about. I can’t hear them. Their voices are muted.

Or, if the problem is not a lack of biography, it is they have too many, all equally tempting and interesting, all antipathetic to one another.  Choosing a particular path for a character involves destruction as well as creation, the slicing away of a host of possible past and futures. Of all the shiny scraps of the world that I have collected- the interesting stories and happenings squirreled away in notebooks- only a small proportion will ever be realised in a character. Try to get too many in, and a character becomes a shapeless hold-all.

So sit your characters down and interrogate them.  Ask them fifty questions. Start off with the major biographical details: name, sex, age etc. But then range on, to favourite foods, pastimes, memories, to their hopes and fears. Concoct strange questions and situations, and see how they react. Examine their webs of relatives, friends and enemies. How do they sit within these networks? Are they popular or disliked? Powerful or downtrodden?

Physical appearance is essential. What do they look like exactly? Sketch them. Find photos that could be them.  How do they walk, and sit and laugh? What do they sound like when they talk to you? Hopefully when they answer your questions, they’ll begin speaking in their own voice, complete with their quirks of accent and idiom.

Running parallel with getting to better know our peeps, we have to make sure they are worth knowing.

A bad story, in a film, play or book, invariably lacks strong characters.  Forget the setting, the special FX or bodycount. It’s how alive the characters are, how much the audience can empathise with them (not always, please note, sympathise). We’ve got three million years of DNA programming forcing us to want to pay attention to what people are about. Even if cinema audiences bumble on about wanting to see explosions and full frontal nudity, what they would really like is that but with great characters.

So what makes a great character? A trawl through my own fiction reading, and various handbooks on writing, offers some consensus.

Falstaff, one of the greatest Shakespeare characters

Falstaff, one of the great Shakespeare characters

  • Characters should be vibrant. They push against life. Something is wrong in their lives and they set out to change it, whether an external event forced upon them or an internal problem revealed through self-examination.
  • Like real people they should be full of contrasting, even contradictory emotions.  Surprise the reader with how a character acts and reacts. Complex people are interesting people. External conflict often reveals the internal conflicts, the mental fault lines along which a character splits.  The character is forced to make choices.
  • A mix of characters brings realism and contrast. They shouldn’t be interchangeable with one another: the “Bad Guy No.4” in the credits. Humour and sadness ,  for example, whether expressed by a single person, or in a group, become sharper when next to each other.  A wacky character can act as a foil for the more realistic. Or a character can be contrasted against the environment; the city boys in the country; the airhead in a high-powered job.
  • They are often good at what they do, whether it be cutting wood or being a lawyer. Even if they are bad at something, then they are the best at being the worst.

Of course, these guidelines are by no means definitive or binding. Not all these characteristics need to be included in each of your creations. But I think they certainly provide some direction.

With the details set down in black and white, with ambiguity taken away, the characters start to have to make decisions for themselves.  These concrete details are the foundations on which intricate structures can suddenly be built. New, more subtle plot suddenly presents itself.  Cards can be placed on these foundations- and then, as time goes on these lower layers seem to harden and fuse themselves, capable to sustaining structures upon them too, all the while developing in unexpected ways.

In the light of this discussion, it is perhaps telling that my two favourite stories of the moment, Anna Karenina (read the full text here), and the various series of The Wire (The Wire dedicated Guardian Blog), use their respective equivalents of the omnipresent, omnipotent narrator to peel back the inner lives of their characters.  With the same unblinking eye, we see the conflicting, and often contradictory, emotions in all parties. All are understandable as human: all suddenly become rational beings, no longer easily summed up and dismissed by race, wealth, gender or sexuality. The reader is forced to confront the tragedy or blessing of chance: that could have been me.

Vividly imagined, vital characters can help us be better people.  To crawl, waltz, crash out of the hot confines of one’s head, and into another’s: to forget one’s body and become someone else, if only for a moment, and then to return, slightly changed, more sensitive and subtle, is magic and art itself.

Just for your information and my fun, here are my top five characters:

  1. Captain Yossarian (Catch 22 by Joseph Heller)
  2. Sydney Carton (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) (Full text)
  3. Harriet Dufresnes (The Little Friend by Donna Tartt)
  4. William Brown (Just William by Richmal Crompton)
  5. Falstaff (Henry IV Pts. I&II, The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare) (Full texts)

Watch Captain Yossarian collect a medal in the nude below:

Discussion:
Have you been finding Richard’s posts useful? What are you going to take away from this instalment? If you’re doing some writing how have you found the obstacle of fleshing out your characters? Comments and debate always welcome below.

Words: Richard Walsh

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Two – Writer’s Block & Procrastination

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Philip Pullman, not a believer in writers block

Philip Pullman, not a believer in writer's block

For all the stories that are constantly rattling around and exploding inside my head, all too often actually sitting down at my desk and writing things down is bloody difficult. It’s a bizarre dilemma. Too many ideas; not enough writing.

As you may have guessed, the topic of the week is procrastination and writer’s block. Fittingly, this blog is a week late. Apologies. My book hasn’t been going that well this week, you see. I’m still stuck at the thirty thousand word mark. In fact it’s actually shrunk a bit, when I lopped off a couple of dodgy pages, and murdered a whole character. I’ve been under a lot of pressure in the day job, and then I had a midnight trip to casualty, and there’s been some good telly….

All true, but I know it’s not the main reason for the lack of progress. I suspect I’m adept in the dark art of procrastination.

I’d like to think I’m not entirely to blame. Even if it is not harder to be a writer today than in the past, I think it is easier to be a procrastinator.

I am amazed at the sheer amount of distractions available. Mobiles, email, daytime television, Facebook – so far I have resisted the siren texts of Twitter – all consume vital minutes: often not many, but enough to break into my periods of concentration. As many times as writing feels glorious and effortless, I find it feels like homework or exam revision. During these periods I will do anything to avoid my desk.

Even as technology has granted us time from manual chores, it gives us the choice to do something else. We don’t want this choice. Watching Ice Road Truckers on Discovery, or joining some bizarre collective on Facebook is far easier than actually writing. For a writer, choice of entertainment is a bad. Give us only books, paper and pen, and lock us away.

Perhaps it will be a good thing. Only those committed enough to screen out distraction will complete their books: and thus the dilettantes and chancers will be screened out themselves, never cluttering the publisher’s desk, and leaving the field free for the committed and the good. And the question that wakes me in a cold sweat at night: which one am I?

A writer needs isolation and silence. He needs to delve deep into his own head: set dilemmas, flesh out characters; have the quiet space for his own imagination to whirr and play. Like Homer in the isolation booth, only when you’ve set aside some quality time with just you and your head, will the hallucinations that form the strange stuff of stories flicker into existence.


Not the Homer referred to in the blog post but still a poetic one

But then, perhaps when you’ve actually managed to pluck up the courage to sit in front of the laptop, you feel the weight of expectation pressing down on you. You’ve read a lot of books. You know all about literary theory and the corpus of 19th century Abyssinian poets. Thus, what you write is going to be perfect – isn’t it?

This has been one of my biggest problems. I want it to be perfect. But, almost always, the words on the screen capture just a ghost of my intention. That’s not what I meant. That’s not what I meant at all. I am paralysed and I have to fight to stop myself slipping back into the embrace of impossible expectations.

But there is hope. Few great authors found the writing process easy. In fact many of them spoke of the craft with something approaching revulsion and horror, yet still managed to write, publish and be successful. Philip Pullman, answering a question on writer’s block says:

“I don’t believe in it. All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that give a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?” (www.philip-pullman.com)

In practical terms there is a universe of techniques to jumpstart your writing. The most important for me is letting yourself be bad when you write. Lay down utter drivel. Just keep it private and tell yourself it’s just a rough draft. Rediscover the joy of forming sentences, paragraphs, creating characters. Create a schedule. Get up an hour early, and write in the dawn. Go walking – leave for work a half hour earlier and walk, letting your thoughts riff along the beat of your legs. Knock yourself out of regular thought patterns. Buy the Daily Mail. Get yourself worked up.

To finish on a more philosophical tack, I think that ultimately what keeps you writing is a mixture of love and fear. Love, for the special times, when writing feels like flying; and fear, of the alternative: of not writing. That is a giving-up, a little death. To write is to have a chance to live twice over, at least: firstly, you see, hear, smell and touch more intensely; and, second, when your stories are read, you yourself are multiplied. That’s worth writing for, isn’t it?

Watch Pullman talk about The Golden Compass and his writing technique below:

Discussion:
What are you guilty of when it comes to procrastination? Have you every experienced writer’s block? How did you overcome it?

Words: Richard Walsh

Books of 2008 – The Scribbler Readers’ Poll

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Is Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk your book of the year?

Is Snuff by Chuck Palahniuk your book of the year?

As the 2008 slowly eases through its final chilly days and colder nights we wanted to ask you the question that has been on our lips since starting this humble blog.

What have been your books of 2008? As you hopefully saw earlier today, The Guardian has asked public figures but now we are asking you, the Great British fiction fan.

This year has been a healthy one for releases of great fiction but which have particularly enchanted you? Have there been any that have prompted moments of deep thought, a revelation, a tear, a smile, a giggle, a spell of nausea or, more interestingly, a great deal of self-reflection?

We’ve listed 2008’s most notable new novels (disclaimer: it’s not necessarily what we’ve enjoyed) to provide you with some inspiration. It’s out hope that this feature will generate lots of debate and discussion not only about the books of the year but also what makes a good piece of fiction. Uses the comments box accordingly.

So, come on then, what will it be?

The year in literature:

Watch Chuck Palahniuk interview the protagonist of his book Snuff, porn priestess Cassie Wright below:

Discussion:
Come on then? What was your favourite book of 2008 and why? Why that book and not another? We want a full blown discussion going on.

Words: Dean Samways

Up close & personal with Irvine Welsh

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Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh

He is one of the most celebrated and infamous writers of our time. He epitomises everything that is very right and very wrong with the literary world. Whatever he may be, and represent, Irvine Welsh is one of the most successful British writers in decades. With a wealth of novels, short stories, screenplays and even pieces of journalism to his name the Scot is the manifestation of everything that The Scribbler is about.

From his near arrogant burst onto the writing scene with Trainspotting right up until this point; when millions of readers are sat waiting to click ‘order’ at online bookstores to purchase his latest offering, Crime, Welsh’s ever expanding fanbase could be put down to a number of things. Firstly, inarguably, there’s the cult following, nay, extreme popularity of his first novel’s film adaptation but there’s much more to him than a motion picture.

Societal Narrator

The land of the brave has produced a social commentator who not only connects to the thinking of critics but also rallies the backing of the masses. Thatcherism may have a lot to answer for but the creation of this cultural icon under the Iron Lady is something we should cherish. Although Welsh is not just a product of his environment, his products reflect current fears and moral panics running through the anxious veins of every Labour voting parent.

The cover of Crime by Irvine Welsh

The cover of Crime by Irvine Welsh

“It’s about a distressed Scottish policeman who is on holiday with his fiancée, who works for Scottish Power,” bellows Irvine, proud of his new literary offering. “They’ve gone to Miami Beach to catch some winter sun and plan their wedding. His head is very messed up by the case of child killer he put behind bars in Edinburgh and he sees paedophiles everywhere. He freaks out, argues with his fiancée, meets this young girl who he believes is in danger and takes off with her in a rented Volkswagen, heading for the Gulf of Mexico.” This is classic Welsh, themes and ideas that breathe oxygen into British literature. His willingness to approach, dabble and frequently play devil’s advocate with often outlawed themes makes for compulsive reading, but isn’t paedophilia a step too far?

“It’s too horrible an issue not to write about. I think being a novelist is about tackling things that challenge you. Too much of literary fiction these days is just about somebody writing in the voice of novelists past; it’s a stagnant pond and it’s so up itself. I like books that try to get to grips with the more problematic aspects of human life.”

This is why Welsh has stumbled across such great success. Like Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton-Ellis, he harnesses near primeval characteristics of the human psyche and exposes them for all to see.  Many find these subjects disturbing but coming through the other side of these novels the soul feels surprisingly cleansed, as if the difficult images have taught you something and made you stronger. Welsh uses alarming imagery to bring out the positive side human nature. Yes a police officer maybe affected in very dark ways through investigating cases of child abuse, but this has only made him more considerate and protective of the young and innocent. Does Welsh ever have second thoughts about what he’s about to put to paper? “Always. That’s what writing is about for me; confronting both the taboos and your own reservations and trying to get past them.”

Beyond the page

Clearly the Edinburgh born former electrician believes writing is much more than just ink on paper. It’s not an exaggeration that fiction can be a window to the soul, much more than a face or eyes, so maybe it’s only right that Welsh exposes human imperfections. But shock alone isn’t enough. Of others from the same school; William S Burroughs, Charles Bukowski and Will Self, Welsh has strong beliefs about what makes them thrilling reads: “I think they point out things that are instantly recognisable to us but shock us with that recognition. That’s when we know we’ve met the writer as an artist rather than an entertainer.” The difference between the flowery writers whose books line your Gran’s bookcases and those grittier paperbacks that are jammed between copies of The Word and Dazed and Confused in your magazine rack is blatant. The art of writing the novel can be abused by those lazy enough to appeal to our base emotions of love, lust, hate and the like but it’s the clever ones that attempt to tackle issues that draw moisture from our palms yet intrigue, school and lift us.

“I love writing the novel because you are creating the artefact. There is nobody else to blame if it goes wrong.” Works of fiction aren’t Welsh’s only vessels of telling his twisted tales fantastic fables. “With screenplays, you can blame the commissioning editors or the director or whoever, if the final product – the film – doesn’t work out.”

Having finished Crime he’s now adapting fellow Scot Alan Warner’s The Man Who Walks with his screenwriting partner Dean Cavanagh. Unlike Welsh perhaps, Warner has a taste for the extraordinary. His fourth novel follows the journey of an anonymous undesirable with hidden qualities. Drunk on whisky and half full on pony nuts he’s pursued for committing a crime towards a landscape created in the author’s first book. Parallels between Welsh and Warner can be drawn here. The mini-universes created through their work; Welsh’s Porno was a near sequel to Trainspotting.

Alan Warner author of The Man Who Walks

Alan Warner author of The Man Who Walks

“It’s very hard as I want to do justice to Alan’s book. I love it and that was why we wanted to adapt it in the first place. But we also need to realise it cinematically, and that often means taking liberties with the text. John Hodge told me when he adapted Trainspotting that he loved the book and found it hard to let go of some his favourite parts. I feel the same way. I have to keep remembering that Alan wrote it as a book not for the screen. Thankfully, he’s a very good friend and has been greatly supportive of the project.

“Novel writing is lonely and I’m a social animal by nature. You get a chance to collaborate with others when you work on a screenplay. Film-making is a collaborative art and that’s why I love it. I couldn’t NOT write books, but I couldn’t JUST write them.” But behind all this writing there lies the business push to get the work into the public consciousness. “Promotion is part of the writers work that is both very grim and absolutely essential. Writers love to create but hate to sell, although it’s such an important part of the job. I’ve a new and very dynamic publisher in France, which is publishing Porno and Bedroom Secrets at the same time, so I had to talk about both those books. It’s strange to discuss work, which is very old to you, and you must try to be graceful when you hear the same questions asked over and over, all week.

The business of promotion

“Basically I spent five days in a Paris hotel bar talking to a different print journalist every hour, broken up by the odd visit to a TV or Radio studio. To be fair, there was the big, long lunches that the French love, but when in Paris you really want to hit the museums, bars, cafes and shops. However, it’s hard being so constrained when you’re in such a vibrant metropolis.” It’s difficult to see then how a novel can take shape if a writer is forever promoting past work, penning another and then starting the cycle over. When is there time for new ideas to fester, be born and grow from the embryonic stages? Perhaps these ideas are always with writers, stewing and developing as they go about their own lives. Except what is special about Welsh is that his extraordinary ideas seem to come from ordinary behaviours around penning the novel. “I tend to rise early, work a hard morning, then take most afternoons off, alternating between going to the gym or for a swim and relaxing in the cinema. At night I just hang out or do a lot of reading. I love to read; a good book is the best way to relax. I travel a great deal; the beauty of writing is that you can do it anywhere with a laptop. In the last three months of 2007 I was in Bogotá, Cartagena, Chicago, Miami, Dublin, Paris and Edinburgh and I’ve mixed work and relaxation.”

With the picture painted of a writer’s life being busy and relaxing all at the same time, as schizophrenic as this writer’s literature itself is, horrific and enlightening, what’s the best piece of advice Welsh can give budding writers? “Finish the piece of work. Don’t just send in the odd chapter. Finish it! And, most of all, stick it away for six months before you send it off to a publisher or agent. I wrote one novel I thought was great then my publisher told me that it was a pile of shite. When I looked at it six months later, it wasn’t even as good as that. But you tend to get blinded; the emotional investment you make in your writing is crazy and can kill the critic in you. Write as an artist, with freedom and unselfconscious inhibition, then stick it away for a bit, then go back to it as a cynical, anal, repressed critic.”

Crime is out now through Vintage

If you can spare three quarters of an hour to watch the below video, your patience will be rewarded as before your eyes Welsh goes into even more detail about his new book during an interview for Google Books:

Words: Dean Samways