This appeared in'UoB News and Views'A University of Bahrain PublicationIssue No. 58 - March-April 2003.
I was prompted to write this brief exploration into what is involved in writing, which I have entitled, 'Discovering Writing', chiefly by my own love of writing. I have been a writer since I was old enough to scratch a pencil across a piece of paper.
From those early years, perhaps my 3rd or 4th, to this my 51st, I have written things down. I have filled diaries. I particularly remember the diary I had prior to going up to university in 1984.
Much, much earlier, I had written poems about the hills around my home in Saddleworth, and the birds that flew up in front of me whilst walking about in my beautiful corner of England.
I wrote a collection of notes for birdwatchers when I was about eleven years old, and this is probably still gathering dust at my parents' house.
Whether I have been writing letters to friends and relatives, short stories, poems, newspaper articles or academic ones, I have always found writing a very enjoyable activity. I have found out what I wanted to say through writing, and I have discovered a side of myself I didn't know existed. That, for me is the benefit of writing, finding something out about yourself that you never knew. If you can do that, as well as entertain your readers, you will never look back. You will be glad you started to write.
You can write.
Writing is the skill most of us learn after acquiring speech, and after speaking, it is our main means of communicating with each other. It is one of our basics, arguably the most important after reading and speaking, yet how many of us write. We write letters to our friends and relatives, notes to the milkman, and that's about it.
Yet writing for our own pleasure or for someone else's is a great way of finding out about ourselves; perhaps the best way. And since the invention of printing, reading the writings of others has been one of our most important recreations.
We read what others have written, but it doesn't always have to be that way round. We can write, you can write, and others can read what you have written, and as well as you finding out about yourself, other people can find out something about you, as well as finding out something about the world and everything in it. Perhaps you have felt a need to put something down on paper. Just the act of writing a letter to a friend to say what you have been doing will make you think, make you remember something you did, and make you relive it and enjoy it once more. For unlike speaking to someone, which is also therapeutic, writing is permanent; you can reread it, go over it in your mind and rewrite it. And in the writing of it you can discover new meaning, new significance in what you have done. That is how writing teaches us something about ourselves.
Writing about something we know about but haven't actually done, or about somebody we know about but haven't actually met, this kind of writing, to be read by ourselves or sometimes by others, is called creative writing. You create a person, an event, an idea or whatever, and what you have created remains yours. Someone said that our mistakes are the only things that we can truly call our own, but I reckon we can also claim our thoughts put down in print as our very own.
Sure, you might say that there is nothing new, that someone has written it all before, but is that really true? Shakespeare wrote tragedies, comedies and historical dramas, Agatha Christie wrote whodunnits, Charles Dickens wrote about the times he lived in, but that still doesn't mean everything's been covered; your thoughts are still unique, as unique as you are.
The things inside our heads, our thoughts and our feelings, are what can make us vulnerable, and if sharing our innermost thoughts can be threatening, how much more intimidating is it to have those thoughts on paper, for all to see and confront us with. Creating in writing is a bold step, but once taken can be the way to increase personal confidence. It is this making a commitment to your views that brings about confidence; the confidence to say what you believe. But take heart, it's not vital that anybody else reads your first efforts. The act of writing is the thing, it's a beginning, a start to finding out something you didn't know about yourself. Sharing that new knowledge with a partner, friend or confidant is a step in the direction of greater psychological health, for you and your partner, for your relationship, and for your life.
Like you, every writer has felt a need to write; physical, or mental, or both. Dickens had to write to prevent himself and his family going the way of his father; into prison for debt, and because he felt compelled to comment on and criticize the world he had been born into. Hemingway was driven by his sense of adventure, expressing the things he experienced in perhaps the only way he could, and in the way only he could.
Jane Ellice Hopkins said, 'Gift, like genius, means an infinite capacity for taking pains.' Dickens, Hemingway and Shakespeare had this infinite capacity, but maybe they weren't aware they had it until they started writing. Another better known aphorism is that there's a book in everyone. Those who have already started to write have realised the truth of this, and have started to discover their infinite capacity for taking pains.
The exercise I recommend you try at this stage is to identify some of your needs to write, which will not always be your openly stated reasons for wanting to write. Above all, be honest with yourself.
But can you read? Learning from what you read.
To write you need to read, but having read, the thing is not to copy but to develop your own style of writing, or I should say, styles, for different genres require different styles.
Within the genre of the short story, for example, it is obvious that a tale about the gold rush in the Yukon will be written in a different style to a story about a suburban dilemma in England.
I prefer to use the term 'voice' when talking about any particular style. As you write words down, you will hear them in your head, and if they sound right, and are consistent your, audience will attune to them whilst reading. In the same way, whilst reading a short story, you will get used to the writer's 'voice' in the words s/he has written. The more you read, the more 'voices' you will hear, and your repertoire of 'voices' will increase.
I have no intention of telling readers which books to read. We all have our favourite authors and our favourite subjects; some prefer detective novels, some sci fi, and some horror stories. The point in reading to improve your writing is not to necessarily move away from your favourites, but to notice things whilst reading them.
There are several things you will already have noticed in your reading, and some others you may not have. The structure of the novel or short story is one thing to notice, although the structures of short stories vary enormously from those of novels, and for a very good reason; the novelist has much more space and time to develop characters, for instance, or to describe scenes.
The question, 'Who is telling the story?' is an important one. In the marvelous novel by Charles Frazier, 'Cold Mountain', the story is narrated by two characters, Inman, and his former love, Ada, and the story switches from one to the other until they meet at Cold Mountain, after the journey Inman takes to get back to her. This is not an uncommon way of telling a story; Dickens uses a similar technique in 'Bleak House'. But there are others, plenty of others, and the distance from the action can also vary with whoever is relating it. The all-knowing author is one, and maybe characterised by such writers as Jane Austen, or Sir Walter Scott. But more usually, in modern novels, the writer gives clues to the reader, rather than stating in overt terms what the reader's conclusions must be. In 'The Bonfire of the Vanities', Tom Wolfe never really offers an opinion on the central character, Sherman McCoy, but rather, through the things he says and does, gives the reader pretty clear indications that the man is heading for a fall, despite his own feeling of invincibilty, and the title helps too. However, plot is something I wish to deal with later in this series, so let's leave it there, for the time being.
The point about who does what in anything you happen to be reading is that you notice it, notice and remember. For then you will have choice, and that is what ultimately gives a writer freedom; the freedom to tell the tale in the way s/he wants to create an impression on the reader. The impression the reader gets from reading is her/his own business, there are as many interpretations of any particular piece of fiction as there are readers of it. I would say that the best a writer can hope to do is to keep the reader interested, keep her/him turning the pages.
Besides the structure of the novel; the plot and the identity of the narrator, the next thing to notice, and probably the more difficult, is the language the writer uses. At sentence level, for example, it is easy to notice that Hemingway uses much shorter sentences that Jane Austen, but within sentences, the words writers use will be different too, as will the structuring of each sentence, and this will, of course, vary from sentence to sentence. There is a great deal of difference between: 'the cat sat on the mat', and 'the mat was sat on by the cat' using a very simple example. But might not the writer have written, 'the cat matted down', or 'the cat flopped matward'? The main difference as far as grammar is concerned is that the first two sentences are conventional, whereas the second two are not; the former uses what appears to be a new word, 'matted', and the latter a portmanteau word of my own coining. Either way, the same thing happened; the cat sat on the mat. What I'm getting at is that all four sentences have a different feel about them, a different 'voice'. Noticing the linguistic tricks writers use is one of the steps to becoming a better writer, and a more alert reader. The different ways writers use words cannot be just put into the simplistic pigeon-holes; formal and informal. Better is, how salient is the action being described, or how incidental? In the examples above, the first two sentences seem to give the cat's sitting itself on the mat some kind of prominence, whereas the second two treat the cat's action as something incidental to what is really going on, making it sound trivial.
Which one the writer chooses may depend on this salience rather than on any aspect of grammar, but more of grammar later.
A nice exercise after reading this might be to pick up any four novels at hand, and open them at any page to read and notice any differences in 'voice' you can identify, and then, having noticed that there are some, to examine what it is that makes them different. To read through the words to get at the action is one thing, to stop at them to see how your attention is being manipulated is quite another.
There's a book in everybody, is there one in you?
Whether this question can be answered positively in your case, doesn't really depend on a reply like, 'It depends if you've got what it takes.'
In one sense, everybody's got what it takes, the discovery of what 'it' is, is a journey you must take before you can find out. That journey might be arduous, but it will be enjoyable, it will be tiring, but it will also be rewarding, so take it. If you don't, you'll never know, will you?
You could do a lot worse than by starting with a short story, not because this is any easier than writing a novel, but because it is a shorter process; two thousand words takes less time than two hundred pages. You need to be determined, not discouraged, and although it is certainly true that the two require different skills, some learnt in the writing of shorter pieces can be transferred in the writing of longer ones.
Some schools tell their would be authors to start with what they know, and this is good advice. The pitfalls in this approach are that you might know your subject so well that you unconsciously assume the same of your reader. I once wrote what I thought was a hysterical monologue about the place I was brought up, only to find out when reading it aloud to my friends, that the references were incomprehensible, and thus removing the comedy for them.
Mentioning enough, but not too much versus not mentioning nearly enough always sees the first the victor over the second, a poor third being mentioning too much. It's the same way when you tell a joke; overdoing it kills the humour, underdoing it cuts out the humour altogether.
Trying out your efforts on a disinterested party will have the effect of bringing you up short if you are guilty of either.
So, you have an idea for a story. You could do a lot worse than starting by trying to imagine who you are writing for.
And by this, I do not mean, just Fred and Lilly next door, but rather, adults or children, or adolescents, and then sharpen your focus; Fred and Lilly wanting something light to read whilst waiting for their flight to be announced on an airport monitor screen, Fred still wanting light reading while dinner is cooking, or heavier stuff to be read when there's more time, say at weekend.
If you are intent on teaching your reader something, forget writing and become a teacher. Like the readers' impressions, any lessons to be found in your writing is up to them.
Generations of avid readers of Tolkien's 'The Lord of The Rings' have doubtlessly read all sorts of things into that marvelous book, but Tolkien himself once said that he 'cordially disliked allegory'.
If a person reading your work finds allegorical meaning on every page, that's up to her/him, but trying to put it there could be perceived as an imposition on a reader, and readers so imposed on usually stop reading.
Don't try to do too much. A small incident you remember may be enough. The very fact that you have remembered it at all may mean that it has enough in common with the human condition to render it interesting to those who are only being told about it.
Make a start, but don't start too early; what you had for breakfast that morning may only have significance if you happen to vomit before lunchtime. Remember the evils of mentioning too much. And remember your limitations; 2000 words come up very quickly, even quicker than your fried breakfast, if that's what you are writing about. Initially in writing, you are the only judge; writing is a lonely pastime. Once you've put it down on paper however, it becomes everybody's property, to disembowel, poke fun at, or just throw away unread. I said that writing for others can be intimidating, and I meant it.
The exercise today then could go something like this; rummage in your memory for an incident, which you think would stand being read about. Don't start writing straight away, dwell on it, turn it over in your mind, talk to anyone else who can recall it with you; you might have forgotten an important part. Sleep on it, then try it out. Once you have written even part of it, reread it to see if it's going where you want it to go, and if you're feeling brave, let somebody else read it. But it is maybe better left till it's complete, paper's cheap enough. -4-
So you've already started to write about the incident you remembered, and now you've dried up, you've run out of things to say, and the blank page in front of you is a constant reminder to you that you haven't got what it takes. Wrong. The best writers in the world, past and present, have all gone through what you're going through right now. Just how you cope with it is up to you. My reply to the question, How do you cope with a writer's block? I keep writing through it, which sounds facetious, but that's one way. And when you've found your touch again, throw away the rubbish you wrote getting through your block and start up again. Writers' rubbish bins are full of false starts, the better the writer, the fuller the bin. Above all, do not despair. The loneliness of writing means you can't turn to anybody for help. You're on your own. And coming through it on your own will boost your self-confidence, and remove your doubts. We're not talking open heart surgery here, if you mess it up, start again. Enough encouragement.
I believe there's such a thing as the story leading the writer on, which is an approach I sometimes try when I get stuck.
Consider the opening sentences:- The man entered the building.
Now if we substitute words, and add words, we get the beginning of a scenario. Here goes:-
1. The man entered the room. (add your own adverb)
2. The woman entered the room.(change 'room')
3. The child entered the room nervously. (continue with 'because'
4. The Minister entered the conference hall confidently.(continue with; but soon....)
If you added the word 'happily' to the first sentence, you have already committed yourself to something that has already happened, or is about to happen, and so it is with any adverb you choose. Similarly, if you chose to replace 'room' with 'doctor's surgery' in the second, then you have placed yourself in a certain array of scenarios, it's up to you.
A word of advice though, don't reveal everything too early unless you feel the need to; you have to have somewhere to go with your story.
Now you can play with these sentences forever or until you hit on something that stirs something in you. This might seem like child's play, but it serves to illustrate what I'm talking about; getting your head in gear and your pen in your hand.
Of course, you may be one of those fortunate people for whom words trip gaily from your pen. A word of warning here too; dashing down anything and everything that comes to mind may well work for you, but then again, you may find in the rereading that you have wandered off course. It's so easy to do, and no less enjoyable for that either.
Re-reading and re-writing is your safety net; you can do what you please, with the proviso that what you do gets you some way towards where you want to go.
The words you write constrain you, but they also give you direction. I spoke earlier about the story leading you on, and that is how it happens.
The alternative to this, and one that the novelist must use, is the planning of a story. You leading it, rather than the other way round.
An exercise this week might go along the lines of trying both approaches; firstly using sentences similar to the ones above for the story that leads, and for the planned approach, to jot down ideas, do some thinking, then some writing. This will leave you having written two stories, not a bad start.
You too can be a Master of The Universe!
Writing is an art, or at least it can be, and in art anything is possible. Anything can be used in any way, as long as it intensifies the image it seeks to create, so it is with writing.
Becoming a writer means seeing significance in what most people regard as insignificant. Noticing things in your everyday world as well as noticing things in your reading, and so you should start to be more aware and jot things you notice down on paper for later use perhaps
Significance can be used to intensify meaning or lessen it, but like all good things should only be used sparingly, and with thought. An overuse probably has the opposite effect to the one intended by the writer; overuse numbs, anaesthetizes, and deadens the reader's senses.
However, finding significance, and using it well can replace half a page of description, and so is invaluable to the short story writer, limited by space.
Have you ever seen one of those balancing toys; a trapeze artist on a unicycle, who can balance on a washing line because his outstretched arms hold poles with weights on the end, lowering his centre of gravity to a point just below the line on which he cleverly balances.
I saw one every day for three weeks recently while on holiday, in my father in law's garden, and I thought it as having some significance.
This week's exercise is to choose a variety of referents for this cleverly designed toy. Think about it; in choosing an object, which would be the most appropriate, think of a situation, or a person in a situation, and apply it to that.
Here is my application;
'John, feeling that his life had come to a standstill, contemplated the little man balancing on the line in front of him. The toy was incapable of movement; up or down, right or left, forwards or backwards.
"That's me," he said to himself, and shrugged his shoulders involuntarily.' The toy has one fairly clear characteristic with which 'John' can identify with, and perhaps more importantly, which the reader can recognize. And he remarks upon it, which is a quick, easy way of telling the reader.
But that is by no means the only way the toy could be used, nor is it the best way; that depends on your person, the situation, predicament, or whatever, but most of all it depends on your imagination, your ability to focus the reader's mind to your way of thinking about a problem.
Anything can be used in this way, and it doesn't have to be an object either, an action would do too.
So, two exercises this week; the second being to choose an object or an action, or anything, and use it to signify something, some emotion, somebody, whatever. My limitations are yours; three sentences, in which to mention the object, the person, and a hint of the situation.
Your resources; the world and everything in it.
There's a world out there, you know, and there's one inside your head too. Strange as it may seem, there's probably a bigger, more wonderful world in your imagination than exists spinning through space.
And in your writing you can choose either; the world out there, or the one in your head. Writers choose both, one or the other, but more likely a mixture of both. Tom Clancy, the writer of thrillers, uses his painstaking research to flesh out the world of his imagination. James Joyce used his vast knowledge of language, literature, and myth to fill a dream in Finnegans Wake.
I wrote earlier about writing about what you know, writing for the world of your experience. That needs a minimum of research, but something merely related is not telling a story, it's writing a diary. To make it into a story requires something else, that something else is your imagination. The event you focus on occurred in real time; A preceded B, or did it? Maybe somebody did something, or said something, but that doing or saying was preceded by thought, or was it? And what is time anyway, if not elastic. You can go to and fro through it as you wish, taking the reader with you using little signposts to tell her/him where you are. Your imagination can ask the question: What if? Plant that question in the reader's mind and you open up a vast cluster of possibilities. More importantly, you get the reader to ask the same question, to think, to apply those thoughts to his/her own life, and that makes for good reading.
The realm of pure imagination in fiction is the world of sci-fi, but yesterday's sci-fi can become today's reality: the novels of HG Wells and Jules Verne. Perhaps a better denomination would be 'i-fi'; 'idea-fiction, which could then include the works of Tolkien, Mervyn Peake and many, many more.
All genres of fiction impose their difficulties; the world of human drama involves the problem of what I would call 'believability'; calling on your understanding of human nature must accord with your reader's.
We are all bound by earthly laws, and although our thoughts can develop along lines that are illogical, the reader needs a system of consistent signs to help fathom the logic, or the apparent lack of it.
With sci-fi, the writer can impose logic, overturn gravity, people a planet with strange beings, travel faster than the speed of light, but is still compelled to bring the reader along into this 'new world', thus allowing attempts at forecasting, understanding the future by referring to what has gone before.
Writing 'i-fi' means no less dedication, probably more. To understand the strange, convoluted world of 'Gormenghast' in Mervyn Peake's trilogy, is to more fully enjoy it. And it is to get inside Peake's world, his imagination, and go with him through it. It is to lose oneself in a world created only by words. If you can do that in your writing, you're on your way to becoming a great writer.
A lot to take in this week, so a variety of exercises. One; take your remembered event and put a time scale on it. Decide what comes first, the thought or the deed. If what happened caused an effect, is there something in the outcome that could have been foretold before it?
Two; create a small world of your own. You don't have to go too far. Imagine your cat can tell you about his day, describe the things in your lawn at people level, or any minute world, which is not ordinarily open to us humans.
Whichever one you undertake, the main thing to do is to think. Think and imagine, the forerunners to good writing.
Language; words, grammar, and convention.
The artist; the poet, the painter, the sculptor, and the writer of fiction, can all seek recourse to 'poetic licence'. The poet uses assonance, the painter and the sculptor, proportion, and the writer; the writer has all sorts of devices s/he can use.
Linguists have recently realised that grammatical structure and what they call lexis; words, are much more closely related than was formerly thought. Grammar and lexis, plus punctuation; language, is the medium the writer works in.
Within structure, the writer is 'free' within broad and clearly defined boundaries; s/he must be grammatically correct, which sounds rather stifling and somewhat old-fashioned. It is within the realm of lexis that writers find real freedom, coining their own words, which includes all the parts of speech, with the possible exception of articles and prepositions.
Hamlet says, "it out-herods Herod", Dylan Thomas regularly uses words in his own unique way; 'jellyfishing', 'Bible black and starless', and 'viper through her', and many more in his panoply of language, 'Under Milkwood'.
Notice the parts of speech replaced here; Hamlet uses the name of Herod, the tyrannical king of Judaea, as a verb with 'out'. He could have said, 'outdoing Herod'. 'Jellyfishing' is not fishing for jellies, but is a verb that Thomas used to replace something like 'flooding over', 'Bible-black' is a compound adjective to describe the darkness of the night, and 'viper', a noun, is used here as a verb to denote how a downtrodden husband imagines the poison he is about to put in his wife's tea will pass through her body.
Here is the mixing of structure and lexis the linguists talk about. But is it English? It is, creative English. The days of absolute correctness in prose are gone, if they were ever here.
The point about being creative with language is not being clever with it, but using it to heighten meaning.
Lewis Carroll showed how words that don't exist, could do, if our 'rules' of spelling were applied further. He used portmanteau words like 'slithy', and purely non-existent words like 'vorpel' and 'mimsy' to relate the tale 'Jabberwocky', making Alice puzzled but certain something horrible had happened.
The coining of entirely new words seems to belong to the world of scifi, but was their a word 'hobbit' before Tolkien wrote about one?
Joyce's Finnegans Wake reads like the clues to some fabulously esoteric crossword puzzle, and must have been a nightmare for the typesetters who produced it, but a master like James Joyce is allowed his literary convolutions. He wrote 'the Wake' to "keep professors busy for years", and to synthesise language to do the things he wanted to do and say the things he wanted to say.
To be honest, coining new words, or using old ones in a new way, seems to be moving nearer to poetic language, and so care should be taken. You could get away with it in a fantasy but perhaps not in a social drama.
Using pronunciation creatively is far more constraining, but can be done. The word 'yes' could be written as, 'Yes!' or 'Yes?' This is not entirely creative, for the word is frequently used in speech in this way. It takes a little more mental gymnastics to write 'No?', but it is authentic nevertheless.
But what can easily be done in speech is more difficult when writing. Remember the little girl, who is asked by her mother to go next door to find out how old Mrs. Smith is, returning with the reply, "She said, 'Mind your own business'"? Making sense of the written version of what the girls mother actually said would be the business of the reader, unless the girls question, "My mother wants to know how old you are" were to be given as well, which defeats the joke somewhat. There is practically no way of indicating intonation other than perhaps by italics or bold type, or by the written reaction of the listener.
Exercises here could go along the lines of turning nouns into verbs or adjectives, and putting question marks behind utterances that are not normally questions to see if they make sense as such. If they don't work, you'd be stretching the reader's patience by using them.
This is all about giving you more choice, more freedom in your writing, and again, it's about making the reader do some work too.
Style: how to say what you want to say in the way you want it to sound.
Grammar, words, punctuation, sentence length, and repetition all combine to contribute to style. You might read the learned writer Geoffrey Leech on what style consists of and yet still be unable to manipulate your own, in the same way that you might read how to ride a bicycle and then fall off immediately you try to do it.
By far the best way of learning about style is to read different ones.
But that still won't enable you to develop styles of your own. You will already have one style, of course, but it might not suit the writing you want to do, and style can make the difference between being read and not.
As you read, you might notice that there is a relationship between style and what is being written about. I think style acts upon the reader in a disguised form, or let's say that the reader is unconscious of a style until it's perceived as the wrong one for the subject. This might sound to you like being confronted with five closed identical doors and being asked to open only the right one, but there's more to it than that. I have already hinted that attentive readers make better writers, and it's true.
Let's look at the styles in the made up extracts below:-
1. 'Cyd oozed out of the limo, delicious syrup from an upturned jar.
"Hi, honey," she purred, "wanna dance?"'
2. 'Margaret, the secretary, got out of the taxi carefully.
"Would you mind holding these for me, please?" she said.'
3. 'The car screeched to a halt, and the kid shot out like a cat from a backfire. "You want sump'n'?" he menaced.'
Three people getting out of cars and asking questions.
My questions are:
a) Tell me something about Cyd, Margaret and the kid.
b) How do you know the answers to (a)?
c) What helped you; words, grammar or what?
Very simple, but if you have answers to a, b, and c, then style, and the words I used gave them to you. Now you try it with a situation. Feeling what the characters are like will help. Be careful with cliches, there's one in (3) above.
Now for places:-
1. 'The cave he now crept into was totally black. A movement of air across his face told him he was in an enormous gallery. His breathing, irregular from exertion, cascaded round the walls and rushed back at him like a series of throaty explosions.'
2. 'After the cool of the morning, the library felt stiflingly warm, and the fusty smell of unturned pages made John's breathing short and soft.'
3. 'The steam, clamming up nostrils, damping a clean shirt down till it felt soiled, made getting undressed easier.
"Is it always this way?" Replies came in puffs of cloud, lighter than steam, from mouths that couldn't be seen. "Hotter".'
1. 'The deadening inertia bent his legs, his back strained, but slowly the lid came off. The wheels moved, imperceptible to the eye. Tom felt the car inch forward, two feet and the engine roared through the tailpipe, a puff of blue smoke made him cough.'
2. Walking at Jack's pace instead of his own meant that he couldn't get up his own rhythm. The pavement blurred out under his feet, the cracks that would have sounded out a tune in his ears evaporated in this hurrying to get home.'
3. 'The pages flicked past his eye, p-p-p-p- sounding dry and uncreased,
proud p-p polyanthus p-p phonetic. What was the word? 'Parlance: way of speaking as regards choice of words'. That was what he wanted.'
Exercises? You bet. With 'places' find some adjectives I could have used, and with actions, have a go at describing the same ones in a different way. Maybe you could do that with all of them?
The plot thickens.
The essence of good drama is conflict: 'The King is dead', is a report, 'The King was shot dead', is the beginning, or end of a drama.
'The King was shot dead, and the Queen pined away with grief' is a plot, according to the author E M Forster.
But who shot the King? Somebody with the means and the motive, if not a madman with a gun. Either way, as your story about the assassination of the King unfolds, someone mentioned earlier must have done it. If it happens to be someone who comes in at the last page to do it, then what you have is an imperfect plot, and unsatisfied readers. Take heart though, good writers can do it; Dickens' 'Bleak House' is just such a story with a perhaps less than perfect plot. Hortense, the maid, it turns out, is the person who killed Mr. Tulkinghorn, the lawyer, rather than those who had better reasons.
Suspense, so we are told by Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, occurs when the audience know something the characters in the film do not.
Giving readers information that you withhold from your characters places you in the position of all knowing author, that is unless you make another character let the cat out of the bag for you.
Dragging your readers along through the darkened room without telling anybody that a masked man with a gun is about to pounce on your hero, is another way, but why not use suspense and leave the hero to his own thoughts, to work it out for himself. In that way the reader can join in the working it out, leaving her/his opinions confirmed, or moved in another direction.
The first person narrative style of telling a story can still contain elements of conflict. Place doubts in that person's mind and there's your conflict. She doesn't know what she's going to do next, and neither does the reader.
Your event from your own experience, mentioned ages ago, should have an amount of conflict in it, and by conflict, I do not necessarily mean that blood has to be spilt. A mother expecting her son home by ten and then having to wait till 2am has conflict. A resolution, even better, an unexpected resolution, is what you need for the event to be worth relating in the first place. The main trick with plots, after devising one that is, is to remember it and keep on course. You don't want to back yourself into a corner you can't reasonably get out of just because you forgot what was happening.
In longer work, you'll need sub-plots too; stories within your main story, but this isn't absolutely necessary in a short story; there just isn't time.
Even sub-plots need working to a conclusion though, and one that contributes to the main one too. But all that is for the novelist.
One of the main problems writers of short stories have is that they often give themselves too much to do in the space available. A baffling array of plots and sub-plots will be too much for you to handle, and far too much for your readers. A sensitive treatment of one, fairly minor conflict, with a satisfying outcome, is much better than a super complicated one that is haphazardly resolved, involving weird and wonderful inventions to accomplish it. An intricate plot in a short story may leave the reader with the feeling that it has been heavily contrived, and thus unrealistic. Be fanciful, but not in ways that are overtly so.
I wasn't going to supply an exercise this time, but then I thought...
Think your way through a conflict. Think about each element; a promise broken, or about to be, help not returned, a reaction that wasn't quite the one that was desired or expected, something you have lived, something you maybe haven't.
Jot it or them, down, play with it, think about it, decide who tells it, or if two sides of the same coin will do it better, and remember human nature, whatever you perceive that to be.
"Dialogue, you say!"
No kitchen sink drama involves everything that is ever said in the kitchen, or anywhere else for that matter. Dramatists don't report conversations, they invent them. They select out what doesn't contribute to the unfolding drama. Were this not so, kitchen sink dramas would go on all night.
Conversational analysis, the transcribing and dissecting of each and every word, every pause, false start and noise made by two or more interlocutors, is incomprehensible to all those except the analyst. Even the persons whose speech has been recorded and transcribed wouldn't recognize the transcription as their own, at first glance. And transcribing conversation is the most time-consuming, tedious activity I can think of. So forget that amount of 'realism', it isn't worth it, and would drive an audience to distraction, not to mention the actors toiling with such a script at rehearsal. The same goes for a story.
For drama, on the stage, or in the pages of a book, is not reality, it is art posing as reality, and that is quite a different thing altogether.
I would say that brevity, clarity of meaning, and precision are what makes good dialogue. But a moment to reflect on what people actually say will help. People don't talk in sentences. That's the first thing. They interrupt, talk at each other while the other person is talking, do not talk when they are bidden. To be masterful at writing dialogue is to be masterful at handling silence, and that goes for actors too. The playwright, Harold Pinter is a master at giving silence meaning.
Brevity, saying enough, and no more is a good watchword, both in writing dialogue and narrative. A character that goes on and on will only be tolerated if that is the personality you give him and make others react to it, otherwise he'll just sound tedious. Jane Austen often gives Mrs Bennet in 'Pride and Prejudice' lots of words, but little to say, and that is how we come to know what she is like. Hemingway's characters are often taciturn, but what they do eventually say has meaning. Clarity of meaning; using words that have salience to the reader, which means being as brief as it takes, is another important characteristic of good dialogue. There might be misunderstanding between your characters; there should be none between them and the reader.
Lastly, precision; by which I mean writing dialogue that has the right amount of meaning. Don't forget that people use many different ways to convey the same meaning. We often say something other than what is expected, as a way of avoiding the subject, often called changing the subject. Done sensitively, it can still have meaning.
All the feelings known to man can be insinuated through words: blind terror, unhappiness, hate, love, sarcasm, comedy, all can be written into dialogue. Every type of response can too; truthful ones, deceitful ones, open- hearted ones, love, hate, any kind you care to name.
So, exercises for this section will be to listen more acutely, even if that means eavesdropping. Listen to the way people refuse, and acquiesce, to the way they give permission, and refuse it, and to the way they change the subject as a way of denying a proposition.
Write a short dialogue that contains an element of conflict, and don't use the words, 's/he said', after every line of utterances. Try to give your characters something to do while they are speaking; people rarely sit still while they are talking unless they happen to be on a train or as bus, and even then they might read a newspaper or unwrap sandwiches. Doing this will make your dialogue less intense, and more realistic too.
Reading dialogue in novels and short stories will give you clues to how it's done, remembering perhaps, that a character from Dickens will not use words in the way they are used today.
Writing is useful: the function of literature
In Britain, as recently as the first half of this century, whole areas of our biggest cities were covered in slum dwellings. Fortunately, most of them have been cleared away, but in Victorian times, arguably the most prosperous period Britain has ever known, large numbers of people lived in conditions that would not have been out of place in some of the poorest countries on Earth. This anomaly, of a fabulously prosperous country in which many of its population lived in conditions of abject poverty, was seen by some as the failure of the system of government, of mercantilism, and of laissez faire politics in general. Out of such a society grew the British Labour party, which pledged itself to implement social reform, which it did on a grand scale; and the birth of the National Health Service, the 'envy of the world' grew out of such social mayhem.
As well as opinions voiced by philanthropic industrialists, some courageous and determined politicians, and the will of the people at elections, a vociferous opinion has always emanated from the field of the arts and literature. Many famous writers have voiced their discontent publicly at meetings and in their writing. Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Robert Tressell, D H Lawrence, H G Wells and George Bernard Shaw were just such writers. Although they lived at different times, came from very different backgrounds, and wrote in widely varying styles and genres, they nevertheless all shared a discontent with the status quo and the apparent inability of those charged with such things to change for the better the lives of those responsible for the country's wealth.
Dickens' 'Hard Times' showed the failings of a society organised along utilitarian and industrial lines, and its almost willful neglect and inability to feed, clothe and house its people properly, despite the vast wealth made by its entrepreneurial classes.
Orwell depicted the squalor of many people's lives in England in his 'The Road to Wigan Pier', while H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw wrote pamphlets and treatises on social, economical and political injustice in what was supposed to be the home of democracy; Britain.
Writers such as D H Lawrence were as much concerned with the spiritual wellbeing of industrial society as they were with the physical living conditions prevalent in industrial areas, while Robert Tressell's 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' did as much to raise awareness of society's ills as it did to encourage the birth of socialism. Many still regard that 'novel' as the major text extolling the virtues of socialism, and that despite it being ostensibly a work of fiction.
The point I want to make is that the literary figures of the day, arguably amongst the more sensitive portion of the nation's population, saw social injustice as a stain on that nation's accomplishments. They saw it as a devaluing of all that was great or good about Britain.
Works of creative fiction can touch people in ways that other forms of mass communication cannot. The messages they attempt to convey are more believable simply because they possess the quality of altruism and grace.
Perhaps more importantly, literature is able to undermine the intellectual base of dominant ideologies, by illustration and example, and thus remove the moral base upon which such ideologies are founded. Examples abound in popular literature; surely there has never been a finer denunciation of the maxim: The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, than Dickens' portrayal of Jo the crossing sweeper in 'Bleak House' nor a clearer condemnation of the love of money for its own sake than is shown by the fate of George Eliot's Silas Marner.
All such works are usually referred to as 'the classics', which is to say that the truths they extoll have stood the test of time. They are no less valid in the new millenium than they were when they were written, and while there is still injustice, social or otherwise, literature is able to confront it, and bring to our notice the fact that nothing is new in the world. Injustice has a history, as do kings and queens.
If a nation is to improve the life chances of its population, then those who are able to visualize alternatives are invaluable. The raising to public awareness of values that are essential to the healthy growth of a nation is vital if conditions are to improve, and one of the main functions of literature is the raising of that awareness in the public consciousness; the messages that literature in general is still capable of conveying.
The things to have round you.
The things I have round me when I'm writing? Well, I have a cup of tea, that's essential, and some music, that's essential too, but it may not be for you. I should say that the most important thing to have is space, your own space where you can be quiet, where you can talk to yourself, and where you feel comfortable. Things to have near you; some kind of machine that retains what you've written; a word processor, or a computer. I clung to an old typewriter for years until I discovered the convenience of the micro-chip, but a pen and some paper will suffice if times are hard.
I can put my right hand on a dictionary, a good one, an encyclopedia, my left on a book of quotations, a thesaurus and the Writer and Artists' Yearbook, and that's it. I use a pocket dictionary for spelling and quick checks, and a larger one for more detailed definitions. My encyclopedia gives me detail that can't be found in a dictionary. You could use the Internet, but that might mean leaving your text, and a one volume encyclopedia is quicker anyway; surfing the Net might be enjoyable, but it stops you writing.
My word processor has its own thesaurus, but is nothing like as comprehensive.
A book of quotations comes in handy sometimes; I've used it two or three times writing this.
The Writer and Artists' Yearbook is really only of any use when the thing's finished, more of that later.
Everything else I need is between my ears, or in a novel in my bookcase.
When I'm not writing, when I'm out and about, I should carry a notebook and pencil, but I don't. I've tried it but it was empty after the first week, and by the second I'd forgotten where I'd put it. I don't work that way, but you might, so try it.
One technique I have when going somewhere different, somewhere interesting, is to try to notice two or three things about the place in some detail, and if you happen to notice I'm not in the conversation at one point, that's probably what I'll be doing.
To write with any serious intent is to live and breathe writing. It becomes an obsession. I once asked a prolific author friend of mine how he kept at it. His reply was that writing had got to be a habit he couldn't give up; he had to write. That is how I feel about my writing, and that is how you'll feel if you give it a chance.
Don't go anywhere or do anything without remembering what you are; a writer. Being more aware of your surroundings, your actions, what you say, and what others do and say, is the way to a fuller, more enjoyable life.
It might sound a funny thing to say, but remember to keep yourself fit as well. Sitting at a desk writing isn't the best way of taking exercise, and you'll feel a lot less tired, and a lot more alert if you take exercise regularly.
Forget the image of a room full of cigarette smoke, a whisky bottle half empty, and a writer hard at it creating a masterpiece. That's pure fiction. Surround yourself with everything you need to suit you, get a good night's sleep every night, be joyful, and your writing will be the better for it, suffering for your art went out with Vincent van Gogh.
No exercises. Just get yourself organised, and kitted out with what you need to write. Don't forget paper.
Getting it into print.
Well, that's the easy part done; you've written your story, and now you want to see it on a bookshelf.
Where you want to see it published will depend on whether you've targeted it's destination thoroughly. If you've been writing the kind of story that normally appears in a woman's magazine, you should familiarize yourself with the content, type and length of stories that regularly appear in it. Check also with an up to date copy of The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, which will tell you if the magazine you had in mind accepts unsolicited material; some do, some don't.
If you've written a collection of stories and want it to be published, your best bet is to get in touch with an agent, again you'll find details in TW&AY, which also gives good advice on: submitting material, writing for newspapers, writing magazine articles, as well as invaluable stuff on self-publishing, vanity publishing, marketing plays, writing for broadcasting, and copyright laws, as well as a lot of other vital information, plus names and addresses of editors, publishers, literary agents and broadcasting companies. At about $12 a copy, it's great value.
It seems these days that publishers and their agencies are more interested in making money than art. Maybe it's always been that way, I'm not sure. But if a publisher or an agent can be convinced that there's a follow up, or better still, several follow ups to the book you've just written, you might have a better chance of getting it published, provided that is, that it's good enough to warrant reading in the first place.
For unusual one off stuff, it might be worth your while going to a literary magazine rather than to a publisher of books.
'Stand Magazine' takes short stories, poetry, translations and literary criticism, as well as taking entries for its biennial short story and poetry competitions.
'Staple' takes the same kind of material, but doesn't offer competitions.
'Raconteur Magazine Short Story Competition' at 44, Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8LR, and the excellent 'Writing Magazine', 'Writers's News', 'Writers' Monthly', and 'Writers' Forum' offer advice to new writers, plus details of short story and poetry competitions. You'll find all the details in The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook.
Just the act of entering writing competitions, let alone winning them, provides great incentive; at least somebody is going to read your story.
Not hearing whether you've won or been short-listed probably means you haven't. You shouldn't be disheartened. Hemingway, it was said, could paper the walls of his room with rejection slips at one time. Don't give up, you need determination, and a belief in yourself and your writing. You need self-confidence, and you'll get it writing. Good luck!
Robert L Fielding