Tag Archives: how to

In Summary: How to Write a Synopsis

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This term is all about developing the individual novels that will become our final projects, so my next few blog posts might get a bit… focused. I’ll try to keep them generally useful, still!

Start at the very beginning

We’ve been looking at the synopsis to start with. This is comprised of two (or sometimes three) parts. The first is the pitch – a short opening paragraph that shouldn’t be more than two sentences long (around 75 words) which describes the book as a whole. For example:

Pride and Prejudice is a literary romance about a woman who falls in love with a man she thinks she hates.

Your pitch needs to include your title, an indication of genre, time period, and primary theme. It also needs to pique the interest enough for agents to read further. They’re busy people – if they can get away with just reading one or two sentences before deciding the book isn’t for them, they will. Give them a reason to keep reading.

My pitch – prior to input from the tutor, which I’ve not had yet – looks like this:

London Under, an urban fantasy, follows DI Mariko Sato as she investigates a murder that could trigger a gang war. As Mariko falls for the main murder suspect, who draws her deeper into London’s fantastical underworld, she must choose between duty and desire.

Would that make you want to keep reading? Any suggestions for improvement?!

The term ‘pitch’, by the way, apparently comes from the delightful habit the Spanish Inquisition developed when torturing playwrights. Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada told them that, if they could interest him in an idea, he would let them live long enough to write it. If they failed they were dropped into a large vat of boiling tar, or pitch. No pressure, then.

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Not cool, guys. Not cool.

 

A brief description of the contents of something

That’s the dictionary definition of a synopsis. The key word there is ‘brief’ – no more than 500 words. Writing effective summaries is hard work, y’all, especially when you know the details in so much depth that you’re not sure how to leave them out. Or especially when you don’t know the details and are slightly woolly on the structure of the story.

There’s a couple of stylistic guidelines you should stick to when writing a synopsis:

  1. Use present tense. Apparently it makes it ‘immediate’. No idea, but they all are so just go with it.
  2. When you first introduce a character name, use capital letters.
  3. Limit the number of character names you mention, as hard as possible. No more than five.
  4. DO specify time period.
  5. DO specify the setting (end of Thatcher’s government? American backwater town? Bustling space-port?).
  6. DON’T give a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. This is an overview of the key dramatic points.

On the subject of overviews, the thing I found hardest was excluding information on sub-plots. My book has at least three sub-plots going on and they all tie into the main plot somehow. Not including them in the synopsis feels almost like misleading the agent on what the story is about, because what you end up presenting is just bare bones. But including them whilst keeping to the word limit of 500 makes the synopsis crowded with details to the point of unreadability.

One question which came up is the style in which you introduce your protagonist. I started my synopsis like this:

MARIKO SATO is single, a detective, and too busy to do the washing up – all things her mother deplores. She’s also developing a serious crush on the niece of her current homicide victim.

Now, technically a good two-thirds of that first sentence aren’t critical to the main plot (although they do tie into some of the subplots). One of my colleagues on the course questioned whether it was worth the word count to include it. Another asked why I hadn’t introduced any of the other characters with flavour text like this – they got a good sense of who Mariko was, but nobody else. I suspect, like all things, there’s a balance to be achieved here but I don’t know what it is. I’m hoping the course tutor will have some words of wisdom on the subject – if so, I’ll share them next week!

And finally…

The third, and optional, bit is the theme. If your book is about a wider idea – if you’re examining something about society outside the fictional – then one brief sentence outlining what that is can be included. This is more common for film synopsis than written ones, but I found it quite helpful. Theme isn’t the same thing as plot, by the way. It’s a bit more conceptual than that.

Here’s mine, by way of example:

How far people will go for duty, and how far they’ll go for love.

There was also quite a lot of discussion about what ‘plot’ actually means, as compared to ‘story’. Aristotle got quoted. Tune in next week to find out why that whole conversation is important in the first place!

Nine Worlds: Foreign Languages in Genre Fiction

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A discussion of how and why real – not invented – languages are used in science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction, on page and screen. How accurately are they used and does verisimilitude matter? What assumptions do authors make about their audiences’ linguistic competence and identity?

Katrin Thier, Catherine Sangster, Simon Trafford

I loved this panel. I’ll state that now, for the record, because I took a lot of notes and might be about to go off on an enthusiastic rant. Much of what was said falls firmly into the ‘oh my god, that’s so obvious now you’re explained it’ category, but it mostly wasn’t stuff I’d thought of before.

Languages, like so many things in culture (colour is another prime example), are almost always used in literature to call up particular associations. They can alienate the reader or evoke particular emotions. They can demonstrate a difference in culture, social strata or education. In one period of British history, for example, the poor spoke English and the rich spoke French.

How to Use Language in Fiction

If you use a real language and you get it wrong, there are people who will notice. As with any poorly researched detail, this is how you lose or even antagonise readers. Google Translate won’t cut it. Find someone who can actually speak the language, or make it obvious that it isn’t correct (like the Latin in Harry Potter). Bear in mind that a lot of languages have sounds, letters and grammatical structures that English doesn’t. It’s very easy to get it wrong. That said, there’s a general assumption of monolingualism in modern audiences, meaning you need to use fairly basic markers to identify a foreign language. This will inevitably impact the accuracy.

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Gallifreyan doesn’t even use the same method of writing

Don’t have foreign characters sprinkle bits of their own language into common speech. This isn’t realistic. If they’re going to drop back into their mother tongue, make it a whole sentence. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the reader can’t understand what they’re saying – the characters don’t have to understand each other either! You can always have one character ask for a translation, or an explanation of pronunciation if it’s important. Alternatively, you can have written translation devices so the listening character doesn’t understand the conversation in real-time but can review a report later. Biological translators, such as the Babel Fish in Hitchhiker’s Guide, are also a neat way around it.

If you’re using multiple languages and want the reader to be able to understand them all, one easy way of doing so is to use different fonts to denote different languages. Bear in mind, though, that not all editors and publishers like this. It also creates a variable look which might throw the reader out of immersion so think hard before you take this route.

Creating a Language

There’s a difference between a constructed language (such as Sindarin), and a fake language (such as Dovahzul) which mashes exotic sounds together without an underlying structure. If you’re going to use the language in any way extensively, a constructed language is a better bet.

What language tree would your created language come from? What associations does that bring about the culture which uses it? Remember that it needs to tie in and impact your fantasy culture (see the mention of German and Japanese two weeks ago). Also remember that insults and idioms tend to be culturally specific. In the past, I’ve looked up insults native to the particular culture I’m using as a base and translated them, which has given me some nicely unusual turns of phrase as well as that slightly exotic association.

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You can go much further back than this. Language trees are awesome maps of history.

Also, remember that, when you’re creating genre fiction, you’re not creating in a vacuum. The influences on you are also familiar to your audience. If you co-opt Klingon, there’s a good chance they’ll notice.

There’s no agreed models for how to transcribe non-standard varieties of English (such as Scottish). As a writer, you need to achieve a balance between authenticity and comprehensibility. Personally, I don’t like reading literal pronunciations on the page – I think the reader has to work too hard to understand what’s going on and what the accent is, which throws them out of immersion. If you can make it clear with use of vocabulary and idiom, that’s much smoother.

Examples & Associations

Welsh was used in The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper to evoke mystery and ancient magic. There’s a psychological association with something alien but not foreign, which is very hard to achieve otherwise.

Mandarin was used in Firefly to signpost a new / future developed culture and history. It showed natural bilingualism as a common thing, even for uneducated characters. It was also a handy way of getting around the real life censors! The problem, however, is that it called up connotations that weren’t then fulfilled – read Frustrations of an American Asian Whedonite to see some of the traps of using a real world language without following through on the implications.

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For an English-Mandarin culture, there’s an odd lack of Asian people in the Verse

Latin is the archetypal dead language, even though it’s not that dead! (Still actively used in science and medicine, for example.) There are a number of entrenched attitudes towards it, which always condition how we feel about the thing it’s being used for. Firstly, it’s indivisible from Western culture, easily recognisable and doesn’t need to be explained. By using Latin, you are making a very strong statement about the background culture. It is a status language which carries ideas of antiquity (both classical and renaissance), education (law, medicine, science), and religion.

In Harry Potter, ‘low’ spells such as cleaning have a Germanic base; ‘high’ spells have a Latin base. There are strong status implications, and possibly also gender ones. Interestingly, the two spells which use a Greek base are both healing spells. There’s apparently a fascinating essay called Ancient Tongues in the Wizarding World by M.G. DuPree which is well worth a read, but I’m afraid I couldn’t find an online link.

This led me onto a really interesting conversation with Simon Trafford after the panel. What about using other dead (deader) languages? I don’t speak Latin but I have used the one language I do know – Akkadian (aka Ancient Persian) – in my writing. How does that work? We decided that the more esoteric the language, the more work you have to do to explain where it comes from and set up the associations you want the reader to make. You do, however, have much greater freedom in defining those associations. Latin is instantly recognisable but you’re locked into working with the reader’s understood connotations.

Next week: women in SFF publishing.

Who Says: Styles of Narration

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Okay, for the final academic post of the year, let’s plunge into some technical terms. Take a deep breath – this one gets a tad complicated.

Diegesis & Mimesis

It can get even more complicated than that but lets stay simple for now

It can get even worse than this but lets stay simple for now…

Choosing your narration style is absolutely critical to telling the story in the best possible way. I usually have to experiment with both first and third person for at least a chapter before I work out which one suits this particular tale better. With Corpus, I actually got about 20,000 words in before realising that 1POV wasn’t the best choice. Be open-minded, and willing to change. It’s for the good of the story.

Now, I previously thought that the options were basically limited to first person, third person (close or not), or omniscient. Strictly speaking, second-person exists but it’s frankly weird and the stories that it works for are so rare as to be on the list of endangered species. According to Jeremy Hawthorn, author of Studying the Novel, however, it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Fair warning – a lot of this blog post will be based on what he had to say on the subject.

First, what is diegesis and mimesis? They’re Ancient Greek terms that, according to the Wikipedia definition, mean ‘narration’ and ‘imitation’. Or, to put it another way, ‘tell’ and ‘show’.

Mimesis shows rather than tells, by means of action that is enacted. Diegesis is the telling of the story by a narrator. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the invisible narrator or even the all-knowing narrator who speaks from “outside” in the form of commenting on the action or the characters. ~ Wikipedia

So, basically, diegesis involves a narrator of some kind to tell the story whereas mimesis doesn’t. Mimesis is therefore non-personified omniscient POV. You can have personified omniscient – where there’s an actual person who sees and knows all, and is telling the story – but again, it’s pretty rare. Given that this post is primarily about narration, we can happily forget about mimesis and concentrate on diegesis.

Within diegesis, Hawthorn breaks it down into three sub-types: extradiegetic, intradiegetic, and autodiegetic. Confused yet? Totally fair. I’ll try to make it as simple as possible.

  1. Extradiegetic: the narrator is apart from or in some way above the story they are narrating. Usually means it’s a second-hand account and the narrator isn’t a character in the main action. Frame narrators are often extradiegetic (see below).
  2. Intradiegetic: the narrator is involved in the story they are narrating, but not the central character. A lot of crime books have intradiegetic detective narrators, as the protagonist is usually either the victim, the survivor or the criminal.
  3. Autodiegetic: where the narrator is also the main character. Like ‘autobiography’.

Note that diegesis doesn’t just apply to 1POV. If you’re doing 3POV, you’ll still make these distinctions.

Frame Narration

A frame narrator is a third person recounting what has been told or is being told to them. It can vary in how it’s done – either with an introduction of the framing at the beginning and end of the story, or with narrator’s comments interspersed throughout. The advantage is that you get the personal and emotional touches of 1POV, but with added authorial reliability (see below). The risk is the loss of tension and immediacy. It’s a less common technique these days although, having said that, it’s how both The Imitation Game and Interview with a Vampire were done.

Walton is the frame narrator for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Walton is the frame narrator for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, repeating what Victor Frankenstein told him

Authorial Reliability

Or lack thereof. Can your readers trust the narrator? It’s not just a question of whether the narrator is actively lying or misleading – you also need to consider questions of bias, and what information the reader will therefore take away that isn’t necessarily the whole picture.

Source affects the selection , the authority and the attitude towards what is recounted of the narrative – and thus, of course, the effect on the reader or listener. ~ Hawthorn

The closer the reader is to the narrator, the less reliable that narration becomes. What you lose in reliability, you gain in manner and emotion. It’s a balance you as the writer need to decide.

First person narrative is limited in scope… [but] unlimited in manner… Third-person narrative can hardly be subjective, but is basically reliable in the sense of being authorial. ~ Dieter Meindl

Is the narrator at ease or under pressure? Are they telling the whole truth, the partial truth, lying through their teeth – what do they gain by each? What does the reader gain by your narrative choice? These are all important things to consider.

Audience Complicity

This sort of ties into authorial reliability, and is mainly applicable to 1POV. Who is the narrator talking to, and why? Because that will impact the amount and type of information given. It may sound like a stupid question, but think about it. In Jane Eyre, the narrator is clearly talking directly to the reader – “Reader, I married him.” That’s unusual but not unknown. It could be that this is a written confession/will/letter to another character, who is also the reader, and therefore being addressed directly with a specific purpose in mind. It could be a lengthy inner monologue, in which case it’s likely to be far more honest. The point is that the style will be different for each recipient.

Then there’s narrative complicity, which works in both 1POV and 3POV:

A process whereby the reader is sucked into complicity with the narrator. We are amused with the narrator at [character]’s obtuseness and self-importance, and as a result of such passages we are likely to be far more malleable in the hands of the narrator, far more willing to accept his value judgements and assessments of characters. ~ Hawthorn

Essentially, it’s possible the narrator is aware of the audience in some way, and brings them on-side. This improves the amount of trust the reader places in the narrator, and therefore allows the narrator to manipulate that trust more. This technique can also be used to impact how emotionally connected the reader feels with the narrator. Frank Underwood in House of Cards is a brilliant example of a protagonist deliberately building audience complicity:

Types of Discourse

This also ties into authorial reliability, in that it depends on how things are reported. There’s three basic types of discourse:

  1. Direct: ‘He said “I love her.”‘
  2. Indirect / Reported: ‘He said that he loved her.’
  3. Free Indirect: ‘He loved her.’

There’s an important difference between Free Indirect Discourse and the other two. Direct and Indirect both have the character vocalising his thoughts, and he could be lying. Free Indirect is much closer to inner monologue – it’s a statement of fact, and therefore carries much greater weight of authorial reliability. More than that, it can be omniscient. The character in question may not realise yet that he loved her, and thus the audience is given insight before the character achieves it.

[Free Indirect Discourse] allows writers to move backwards and forwards between narrative comment and character consciousness, often with no apparent seams. ~ Hawthorn

Principle of Inertia

Basically, a fancy way of saying that readers will attribute statements or dialogue to the last named subject, so be careful of your labelling. Also called obstination.

Unless we are given good reason for changing the way we attribute statements to a particular source or consciousness, we tend to go on attributing them to the one already established as the operative one. ~ Hawthorn

Right, that was a bit of a gallop through a whole bunch of technical terms. To be honest, knowing the names is totally unnecessary, except that they help differentiate between concepts.

Anyway, thanks for your continued interest, have a lovely Christmas break, and I’ll be back in 2016!

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Tridimensionality: Characters According to Egri

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Lajos Egri is (was) an American-Hungarian writer who talked a lot about making characters believable. He came up with an approach which he called the ‘tridimensional character’, building personality out of three primary pillars:

Every object has three dimensions: depth, height, width. Human beings have an additional three dimensions: physiology; sociology; psychology. Without a knowledge of these three dimensions we cannot appraise a human being. It is not enough, in your study of a man, to know if he is rude, polite, religious, atheistic, moral, degenerate. You must know why.   ~ Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing

It feels to me like Egri is touching on the nature-nurture debate. His tridimensional approach builds the character out of appearance (nature) and background environment (nurture) as the two foundation pillars, and the impact these have had upon the psyche gives us unique characteristics. I completely agree with this approach – there is always a ‘why’ behind someone’s behaviour, and the ‘whys’ give us the keys to the character.

The Importance of Body

I naturally ascribe much more strongly to the ‘nurture’ side of the debate, but Egri makes the point that physicality has an important impact on the psyche. Gender affects how you are treated (not going into the politics of feminism on a writing blog, but yes, this is still very true); aesthetic appearance and how close it is to the cultural ideal has a massive impact on both happiness and treatment; disease, deformity and so on impact not only perception but also abilities. In the 2000 film Unbreakable Samuel L. Jackson’s character says the following about comic books:

See the villain’s eyes? They’re larger than the other characters’. They insinuate a slightly skewed perspective on how they see the world. Just off normal.

This idea of villains with a physical abnormality or defect of some kind is a really strong theme, particularly across the superhero genre. My question is: why do we do this? Why ascribe physical defects to villains and not heroes? Why do we link flawed physicality with flawed psychology so strongly when, rationally, we know that there’s no such link? Surely this is a perception that we should be working on disrupting. It happens very occasionally – Denzel Washington’s tetraplegic protagonist Lincoln Rhyme in The Bone Collector, for example – but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Mr. Glass

Mr. Glass

Bone Structure

Egri set out a list of ‘bone structure’ questions for character creation, which he divided up into these three pillars. I don’t tend to use lists like this in character creation, at least not to start with, but every now and then I find it’s quite a useful exercise to run through one once I’ve started a project. It usually teaches me something I didn’t know about the character, even if it isn’t necessarily something important (like the fact they like to watch trashy daytime TV on their days off – something I doubt will ever come into the story). Anyway, for reference, here’s Egri’s list. I’d be interested to hear what you guys make of it.

Physiology

  1. Sex
  2. Age
  3. Height and weight
  4. Colour of hair, eyes, skin
  5. Posture
  6. Appearance: good-looking, over- or underweight, clean, neat, pleasant, untidy. Shape of head, face, limbs.
  7. Defects: deformities, abnormalities, birthmarks. Diseases.
  8. Heredity.

Sociology

  1. Class: lower, middle, upper.
  2. Occupation: type of work, hours of work, income, condition of work, union or nonunion, attitude towards organisation, suitability for work.
  3. Education: amount, kind of schools, marks, favourite subjects, poorest subjects, aptitudes.
  4. Home life: parents living, earning power, orphan, parents separated or divorced, parents’ habits, parents’ mental development, parents’ vices, neglect. Character’s marital status.
  5. Religion
  6. Race, nationality
  7. Place in community: leader among friends, clubs, sports.
  8. Political affiliations
  9. Amusements, hobbies: books, newspapers, magazines he reads.

Psychology

  1. Sex life, moral standards
  2. Personal premise, ambition
  3. Frustrations, chief disappointments
  4. Temperament: choleric, easygoing, pessimistic, optimistic.
  5. Attitude towards life: resigned, militant, defeatist.
  6. Complexes: obsessions, inhibitions, superstitions, phobias.
  7. Extrovert, introvert, ambivert.
  8. Abilities: languages, talents.
  9. Qualities: imagination, judgement, taste, poise.
  10. I.Q.

Finding Your Voice

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A strong, distinctive, authoritative writing voice is something most fiction writers want – and something no editor or teacher can impart. There are, after all, no rules for writing like yourself. ~ Browne & King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

But blimey, they try. Chapter after chapter of craft books are devoted to the subject of ‘voice’. It’s an ephemeral prize, and all the talking tends to muddy the water. “What is voice in writing?” I hear you (metaphorically) cry. “Do you mean my voice or the characters’?”

Simple Answer

Character. In the vast majority of modern writing, most books are told either from first person or from close third person perspective. So the voice you’re writing in is usually intimately linked to the voice of the narrator-character.

Complicated Answer

‘Voice’ is what clues the reader into the atmosphere of the story. Word choice, sentence structure and paragraph structure all offer clues as to the time period, culture, type of characters, type of setting, etc. You aren’t writing in your voice, you’re writing the voice of the story, and each story should have its own. As mentioned above, the fashion in modern story-telling is for 1POV or close 3POV, so the story is seen through the eyes of a primary character. The voice is therefore also a vital clue into the nature and background of that character. The story is essentially told in their voice.

It’s important to remember that, whilst the reader is getting everything filtered through their perspective, the dialogue of the other characters shouldn’t sound the same. Each character should have their own voice – it’s simply that one is dominant in telling the tale.

If you’re writing in omniscient POV (you brave soul), you obviously don’t have a particular character to use as a primary voice. But you’re still trying to convey a particular atmosphere, genre, culture, etc. In this case, you use the character of the story itself. I’m not going to use the same styles in a sci fi romp about space pirates, and an Elizabethan romance, right? The characteristics of the setting become the character of the story, and give you it’s voice.

Put like that, it sounds like the whole subject has nothing to do with authorial voice – it’s all character, right? Well, kind of. You certainly shouldn’t try to clinically work out what your personal authorial voice sounds like, and then apply it to stories. That way lies shoe-horning and stilted prose. But as you build up your portfolio, certain stylistic points will inevitably become common because – as much as you put yourself into your characters’ heads – you’re still the person holding the pen/keyboard/dictaphone/personal monkey-scribe. Your go-to vocabulary and stylistic choices will form a pattern. Which is totally cool and awesome, and what fans will love without realising it. But don’t go looking for it.

Types of Voice

Hardy Griffin wrote a great essay called Voice: The Sound of a Story, in a book published by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I recommend getting your hands on a copy, and not just because it was published by a group called Gotham. In it, Griffin lists a number of different types of voice. It’s not an exhaustive list but it is quite a good starting point, if you’re looking for stylistic ideas.

  • Conversational: the narrator sounds like they’re having a casual chat. Almost always 1POV, heavy on the stream-of-consciousness type of inner monologue.
  • Informal: still pretty casual, but less heavy on the colloquialisms. Fully formed, grammatically correct sentences. This is the most commonly used style in contemporary fiction.
  • Formal: less intimate, with a grander range in vocabulary. Generally more detached from extreme emotions being experienced by the characters. This can work in 1POV (e.g. The Great Gatsby) but it’s more common to see it in 3POV or omniscient.
  • Ceremonial: high language, high style. Think public speaking, but in book form. Very detached from emotion, and often quite poetic. Dickens used ceremonial voice. It’s way less common now.

I’ve tried to keep this pretty basic, because over-complication keeps getting in the way of the topic. I hope that helped.

TL;DR – basically, write each book in the language and style of your narrator/protagonist. It’s that simple.

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Oh, and don’t try to use the voices of other writers. It only leads to hackneyed writing and tentacles.

The Poetics of Topography: How to Describe Places

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I’d like to start by saying that literary criticism has a tendency to be – in terms of vocabulary, at least – up its own backside. The first bit of critical analysis I had to read took me three goes and a dictionary to get through. I submit Exhibit A for your consideration:

The over-arching imperatives of socioecological critique can detract from fiction’s own aesthetic distinction, enlisting novelists tangentially in correspondence with activist affairs. ~ David James, Contemporary British fiction and the artistry of space

Anyway, let’s move on to the ‘poetics of topography’, or (in normal language) how to describe places. There’s the obvious: physical description. Next to the pub is a post office, next to the post office is a supermarket, and so on. But that’s pretty boring to read and doesn’t actually give the reader much of a clue about what each one really looks like. It’s certainly not a story.

There’s two main tricks to describing a place in a way that will make it real to the reader: history and emotion.

HISTORY

Think about how your characters interact with the place. When they look at the pub, they don’t just see a building with booze in it. They see Friday night with friends, the day they went in for a meal and got caught in hail on the way home, the time some drunken idiot spilled a full pint all down their leg. You can take it bigger – encompassing a town, for example – or smaller, down to a room. If it helps (which it did for me), don’t think of it as describing the place. Think of it as using the place to describe aspects of your character.

One thing to be aware of with this approach is bias. It’s very difficult to describe something entirely without bias. Even maps suffer from this – think of the relative size of Africa and the UK on British world maps, for example. When you’re describing a place, beware of your own bias as a writer. Try to keep your assumptions and history from bleeding in. More productively, you can use it to show the reader something about your character’s bias. It can even be a subtle plot hook – if the character’s history contains a bad experience of hospitals, for example, that can be hinted at early on by how they see a hospital or doctor’s surgery.

Guy Gavriel Kaye and Kate Griffen are both great examples of authors who use history to describe places.

That's a story of imperial attitude right there.

That’s a story of imperial attitude right there.

EMOTION

It’s not just about how a place looks, or even smells and sounds. It’s about atmosphere. What does a place feel like? The key to all stories is to hook a reader’s emotions, and that shouldn’t stop with characterisation and plot.

My tutor gave me two passages to read. One described the setting very well, with clear topography. The other barely gave any physical description but the way it felt to the characters was extremely powerful. After reading them both, it was the atmosphere that stayed with me most strongly. This approach is all about ‘show not tell’. You can’t just tell  reader somewhere is oppressive – you have to make them feel it by showing why it’s oppressive.

I found the challenge with this is to strike a balance between the physical and the emotional. The piece I wrote for the exercise focused so much on the emotional that the readers were confused as to the physical location. There needs to be an anchor of some kind that the reader can navigate by.

Mary Stewart and Erin Morgenstern would be my recommendations for good examples of emotional places.

EXERCISE

The idea of describing a place by emotion changed my style a bit. I think it can be too much if used all the time, but very powerful if used at the right time. Anyway, this is what I came up with. It needs some more work – the aforementioned physical anchor’s still lacking – but I was quite pleased with it. Any feedback welcomed!

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The letter, hand-written on Savoy Hotel notepaper, was brief.

  Your son’s alive. You need to come home.

Trojan had to read three times before it stopped being ink and became meaning. The page fell from strangely numb fingers and slip-slid through still air to the floorboards. He raised his head, seeking comfort from the sun lancing through the wall of skylights. The sun was real. The letter could not be.

  You need to come home.

Home meant London, grey air clogged with politics he couldn’t breathe through. It meant his father’s cold house, full of closed doors and memories that could still stab through the decade to his heart. It meant an end to this exile in a foreign land.

Mr. Bloch was singing on the balcony below, a fine old voice fond of opera. Trojan had left a punnet of tomatoes outside his door last autumn in return for the music. It was the closest he’d got to a friendship in ten years. He’d never been good at making friends; never been given the opportunity to learn how.

  Your son’s alive.

That could not be real. His son came cold into the world and went straight to soil, without Trojan even knowing until after. His father had sent word, one crack in the silence that stretched like an iceberg between them. Unless his father had lied.

  Trojan swallowed, rubbing roughly at his throat. “I am alright,” he told the narrow room, answering silent concern. “Do not worry.”

The tiers of green settled a little, reassured. These were his friends, his adopted children. The palms and the succulents, the ferns and the cacti, the orchids and the jasmine. They depended on him for water and love. They listened to Mr. Bloch’s singing with him, and told him their simple dreams as he watched the stars through curtainless windows. His garret was an Eden of figs and lemons offered up for praise, gifts of blooms unfurling in purple and gold. The wealth of a king, he told them often, and no exiled prince could ask for more.

  Your son’s alive.

His son. All he had left of Sophie,  with her smile like the coming of Spring and skin the lilies openly envied. Her ghost followed him from London and, though the quiet of this place kept her gentle, he could feel the hollowness of his narrow bed. She would have talked to Mr. Bloch, coaxed her favourite tunes from him and made him laugh. She had always been good at making people laugh. Even Trojan, who had never heard such a miracle before.

  Your son’s alive.

The Kentia Palm by the window unfurled a frond as the strains of Tosca’s Recondita armonia floated past. The palm was particularly fond of Tosca.

  Your son’s alive.

He nearly didn’t go.

Creating Memorable Characters – Workshop with Peters Fraser Dunlop

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This is part 2 of last week’s post – the agent’s side of the workshop. The agent in question was Nelle Andrew from Peters Fraser Dunlop, and she had some very strong opinions about what makes her take on a book.

Basically, it’s all about memorable characters. Characters who transcend their own narrative – characters you recognize even if you haven’t read the book, such as Lizzie Bennett, Gandalf, Voldemort. Characters who are people, not vehicles for plot.

HOW TO BUILD A MEMORABLE CHARACTER

The first tip Andrew gave was to visualise the character. Good characters have a very strong visual, which should be described early. To not describe it at all, Andrew said, is lazy writing. Because humans work the way we do, visual images are the easiest and quickest form of communication. Convey the personality and characteristics through appearance, as much as possible. If the character is OCD, reflect it in how the pens are lined up in their top pocket, for example. Don’t stop at the aesthetic – use walking and talking, nervous tics, the whole physicality of the character to create a visual.

Secondly, leverage dialogue and inner monologue as much as possible. The reader inhabits the character – the act of reading is an act of empathy. Dia/monologue is vital to making that happen. Remember, too, that the reader should feel like they are in a privileged position with inner monologue – they are getting information that the other characters don’t have about the narrator. It also allows you to contrast how the character appears with how they actually feel. This provides internal conflict, which can drive plot.

Thirdly, how does the character affect their environment? How do other people react to them, how do they make other people feel? And how do they react to what other people do? This shows a lot about their personality without telling.

WHY DID YOU DO THAT?

People do things for a reason. Choices and consequences make the plot, not the other way around. Beware of the red thread! You must make the reader believe your characters would naturally make the choices that you have them make on the page. There are a couple of things to consider which will help you achieve this.

1) Freedom vs determination: does the character have control, or does the environment enforce choices? Are they free to decide or are there constraints? Did the character need to do that or were there other options? If they make an extreme choice, it must be because there were no other options, or the reader will not find it credible.

2) Heredity vs environment: how much is in their nature and how much was formed by environment?

3) Active vs reactive: do they react or take the initiative? This can really drive plot. Active generally is more compelling, with more leadership qualities, but being unable to react (e.g. in prison, paralysed) can also be very powerful. See the Bone Collector for a superb example of this. Reactive doesn’t mean weak, and active doesn’t mean good! Also, remember that most people are a mix – active in some aspects of life and reactive in others. As a general rule, 1POV characters are more reactive – happy to watch what’s going on and narrate it. 3POV are more active.

4) Level of risk: the emotional journey only happens if the character is threatened or in peril. Risk makes us care about what happens to them and whether they’ll make it through. Risk is what keeps readers reading.

READABILITY

You need to decide what kind of author you want to be. Do you want to have critical success or do you want to sell books? Do you want to be Proust or EL James? According to Andrew, 60% of all book sales are from supermarkets, not bookstores or online, and they will stock the kinds of things their customers are likely to buy. That ain’t Proust.

You also need to ensure that you don’t jolt your reader. They should forget there’s an author involved in the story at all. That means thinking VERY carefully about changing POVs or tenses between chapters. Each time you do, there’s a jolt as the reader has to change mental gear. Probably best not to.

And Andrew’s final words of wisdom:

Talent is great but what authors really need is emotional resilience.

You will have agents take your story apart. Then editors. Then critics. Then the public. And almost every time, you need to roll with the punches and adapt. If you can’t do that, you aren’t going to make it as a writer. To be honest, I found that the most daunting piece of advice in the entire workshop and I’m pretty confident Andrew intended it that way. Fortunately I met up with Dr. Nick just after the workshop ended, and he gave me a look that said you doubt your emotional resilience? Seriously?’. And then I felt better.

So MY final words of wisdom are these: you don’t just need talent and emotional resilience. You also need faith in yourself, and support from others when that faith has a wobble. And surprise. And fear. And ruthless efficiency. And an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope…

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I’ll come in again.