Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Four little lights in the fog.

I've had word that a number of creative writing students have been looking at my blog, so I thought I'd share four things that I wish I had known when I was starting out (way back in high school, even) and which have proved to be tips that I come back to again and again.

Conflict is story. This is one I wish I had known when I left school and wanted to write short stories but never knew what should happen in them. If someone had told me to think of a character and give them some conflict, whether from another character (antagonist! Revelation!), a situation or something inside themselves, I would have started writing seriously a lot earlier, and I wouldn't have had so many prettily written pieces of nothing.

Write what you don't know. I had always been told to write what I know. Which is actually sound advice when you're starting out. But when it comes to writing novels, writing what you don't know can elevate your work to another plane altogether. It's easy enough for me to write from the point of view of a thirty-something woman in 2008 with my background and experience (although not well probably), but it's more challenging and ultimately more interesting to write, say, from the point of view of a 27-year-old male lepidopterist in 1904 England. Or a 39-year-old retired army captain in 1904. If the character you want to write about does share some of your own traits and experience, give them a hobby that you know nothing about. The act of researching throws up wonderful ideas for story and conflict, and who knows, you might learn something new, then it will be writing what you know. Keeping yourself interested in what you are writing about will also keep your readers interested.

Describe the coffin not the grief. I don't know where I picked up this tidbit - when I google the expression all I find is myself. So either I've mangled it, or I read it in a book. It might have been John Gardner's Art of Fiction, but I don't have it front of me to check. This is the best writing advice in terms of writing style for me. I should really have it written in huge letters above my desk. When I am revising my work, it plays like a mantra in my head. In case you don't understand what it means, I'll explain how I see it.

It's very easy when describing big emotional moments to get bogged down in melodrama (heaven knows I am as guilty of it as the next person - I'm working on it). I'm always reading people describing how characters feel, the physical sensations they experience, the actions they take (wringing hands, wiping tears, clutching churning stomachs etc), or sometimes people don't bother describing and just say "she felt angry" or "she was sad". Describing the coffin and not the grief is about looking at a scene firmly in the point of view of the character, then filtering what they see through the way they are feeling. I have read a great example of this recently in The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block, which I will post later.

I found a literal example in a book I reviewed a while back, The Center of Winter by Marya Hornbacher, where she describes a funeral: “There is something about a coffin. It is a big, long box … and inside the box is your broken husband, and the lilies are crawling down your throat, closing in as you go, gagging you with their sticky pollen, their fake spring, their cheap, dime-store perfume.” Not once has the narrator descibed her feelings, but you know just what they are, and despite the fact she has lost her husband, there is not a smidgeon of melodrama in sight.

Don't think about a character: What will happen to them next? Think: what will they do next? Because active characters, whose actions drive the narrative, are so much more interesting than those who sit back and only react to situations. It might end up being a flaw that a reader can't put their finger on, but I think it's a flaw nonetheless.

These things have made me a better writer. I'm sure there are other things that I have forgotten, and if I remember them, I will post again. Anybody else like to share their personal favourites? Please don't say "show don't tell" (although I have another post about that one day).

11 comments:

Gondal-girl said...

Hi Rachael - this is a great post. I love the describe the coffin not grief. Had an issue in my writing group with something I had written - I thought i was 'writing the coffin' but my buddy wanted 'the grief', reading your post reaffirmed what I know, evocation of something is more powerful than an advertisement...

Roger Morris said...

Wise words, Rachael. Write the coffin not the grief is brilliant - and something we all need to remind ourselves of constantly. Well, I do!

Frida said...

Thanks Rachael! I think that "describe the coffin not the grief" is going to written across the top of every page of my notebook (yes - the one your and Thomas gave me!) as I head off today for a week of solitude and writing.

Rachael King said...

I wish I could remember where I heard it to give credit where credit is due!

susan pearce said...

I learnt 'describe the coffin' etc from you and now repeat it to my students. (Doffing hat.)

Maurice Gee has said that he believes all (adult) characters should have occupations. In his opinion, a character without a job is a sign of the writer's laziness or annoying unworldliness.

Know the rules, then break them...

Ruth said...

I might stick the coffin line up above my monitor :) good line!

Regarding "show don't tell" - my creative writing lecturer (yes, I'm one of the students who's been reading your blog lately) told us recently he doesn't care if we show or tell, as long as we do it well. :) That was nice to hear - I'm so sick of hearing show don't tell from everyone else, as valid a point as it may be!

Rachael King said...

I think 'show don't tell' is a valid tip, but I think it is sometimes misunderstood and abused.

Captain Indy said...

I'm glad I found these tips. :D Me too, I wish I could have known this earlier (I just finished college XD)!

I'm rather big on melodrama, I notice in my works. Really, really big. And it's kinda fun to write...but I absolutely need to change it up and actually show things! I will definitely have to remember this.

Thanks for the great information! :D

Creative A said...

Hey :)

Some good tips. It's interesting that you mentioned the active/passive character because this is something I have a huge struggle with...I write suspense. It's hard to have active characters when they're always running away from the bad guys!

emmadarwin said...

Great post, Rachael.

I've blogged more than once about how it's not 'Write what you know' but 'Write what you can make me believe you know,' which is along similar lines: you need to write 5th century Athens or 31st century Alpha Centuri with as much seeming authenticity and immediacy as you would your own high street. Curiously, though, I find that it's their own high street (or disguised versions thereof) that students often skimp on, while going into almost too much detail for the places they've researched: it's as if they need so few clues to evoke places they actually know that they fail to give us - who don't know it - enough.

'Conflict is story', and 'What does the character do?' combine in the classic, 'What does they want/need? What do they do to get it? What gets in the way?' which I still use on my own work, as well as other peoples', when things are getting a bit shapeless.

'Describe the coffin, not the grief' is perhaps a little less universally applicable, but it's a great way to make sure you're rooted in character and point-of-view and specifics, rather than melodramatic generalities.

Rachael King said...

Good points Emma. Your advice about always thinking about what they want in each scene is something I have been trying to apply to my own novel.