The Scribbler

the new writing blog for exciting contemporary writers

Posts Tagged ‘Greenhorn Novelist

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post Three – Making People

leave a comment »

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:

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

with 9 comments

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?” (

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:

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

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post One, Part Two – Where does a story start?

leave a comment »

Our Greenhorn Novelist Richard Walsh continues his engaging first blog post this week. In part teo he talks about how he was inspired to take up a novel idea he had long buried.

Having seen the potential in a story he had long abandoned his travels in Fiji encouraged him to develop it and now he is part way through finishing it as part of his first publishing deal.

Having penned several short stories it’s now time for Richard to step up a level to the literature.

Read on to find out how Walsh managed to go from student to prospective novelist in the space of a few months.

+ + + + +

The Greenhorn Novelist Blog – Post One, Part Two

Richard Walsh with a local in Vorovoro, Fijia

Richard Walsh with a local in Vorovoro, Fijia

I was in Fiji, travelling. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s hut. She’d gone to bed. The jungle night hummed. Geckos sprang ambush on the plywood ceiling. We had a television: battered, old, with a furry picture. An Australian documentary about a Scottish criminal two hundred years ago came on. I watched, marvelling at the randomness of it all, and half an hour later, I knew I had my question.

I’m not going to tell you what it was. I can’t; not yet. If this book gets published, you can buy it. If not, I promise I’ll tell you.

I returned to the UK
The service sector welcomed back their errant son with open arms.

It’s strange: this single idea is the seed for the whole book. It powers it, giving my protagonist her life and reason and journey. In trying to answer that story question, I know what the book is about. It connects the different fragments of my vision. I found a beginning, several middle sections and a vague ending. As new characters appear, I ask questions about them: and suddenly they have lives, and they began to move about, to talk and hate and love one another. Each is a new branch, now running through with the story sap.

I’m not recommending that as a way of writing a book. I think it is best to have the central story question first, and then weave through characters and scenes and feelings. But hey, that’s what happened to me.

So what is the book about?
It’s a historical novel set in America, with a teenage boy and girl as the central characters.  I suppose it is what is commonly referred to as a crossover book, although I never designed it as such. I just want it to appeal to as many people as possible. I’ve always wondered whether the increasing categorisation of books (“pre-teen; young adult; crossover; literary fiction; fantasy etc.”) has led to readers being increasingly loathe to venture outside the walls of their designated section. That a child has little chance of sampling the complex food of a Dickens or Swift, or a sci-fi fan the gritty delights of John Fante, annoys and worries me.

The writing is often not easy. Writing time has to be carefully garnered and jealously guarded, against the demands of earning a living and keeping some kind of social life. Everything takes longer than expected. Careful research is needed, scores of books to be pored over and digested. I feel like I’m lagging behind the friends with whom I did my MA. They have finished their books: many have agents; a few have deals; one or two are fabulously wealthy. I suspect I’m just a bit slow.

But even in the barren times I write. It may be only a few lines, but each evening and morning and weekend it proceeds. It becomes slightly more complex; words and lines appear; paragraphs are lopped away, the new shape admired; the cursor crawls ever onward. Not for me the endless unspooling of words on butcher paper. I can’t do it. I normally sit and groan and curse the words I have written.

But then there are the secret times, when suddenly the blocks give way and you are writing and flying, struggling to get the words out fast enough and it feels, mysteriously and wonderfully, like it isn’t you writing. These are the moments that writers hunger for. Once experienced, this surrender of the self cannot be forgotten.

If I am lucky, I have this feeling perhaps a couple of times in a week of intense writing. It comes more often when (self-imposed) deadlines loom. Want becomes need becomes desperation. It is a whole body experience, and you pace around the room, acting out your characters’ parts, peering at your face in the mirror as you form it to their faces— now the old man, stooped and limping, looking at his tall son with pride, and what else? A shadow of jealousy, of regret?— now the young girl laughing with her friends, pretending to understand their smutty jokes— and then rushing back to the desk to tap out the words that have suddenly blossomed in your mind.

Method writing, if you will. Marvel at the intensity of Dickens’ public readings (they made him ill): this, and more, is the intensity with which he wrote. This is Shakespeare’s writing at midnight: conjure a play in a double handful of weeks to please both the illiterate groundlings, upon whose pennies the theatre survives, and the hyper-learned, the Greek- and Latin- steeped of the noble boxes, whose patronage you have to win and keep from the companies of your rival players.

This is the secret feeling, the muse. Writers don’t talk about it much, lest it go away.

I am at thirty thousand words now. Onwards!

Words: Richard Walsh

+ + + + +

Richard Wals will be returning in the coming weeks with a second instalment to his new blog, The Greenhorn Novelist Blog.

Watch Ian Rankin talk about his Rebus novel Exit Music below:

What do you think of Richard Walsh’s first blog? Was it helpful? What would you like him to discuss in his next Scribbler offering? If you have any questions to put to Richard pop them in the comment box below and he’ll get right back to you.

Written by Dean Samways

January 25, 2009 at 3:16 pm