Saturday, 22 November 2014

Point of View and Subplot

Do you think each significant character in your plot needs a subplot? 

I haven't really thought about it like this before, but I have been overdosing lately on a favourite author, and realised that one of the ways in which she creates a multi-layered plot, and also makes all her main characters three-dimensional, is by creating subplots that eventually collide with the main one.

Now, I have subplots. But they're not usually specifically targeted at a character like that. In my last novel (which is not ready for the light of day) the subplot belonged to the police officer investigating my main character's crime. Then there was a very lightweight little plot which doesn't deserve to be called a subplot, which just fleshed out Mr Love Interest a bit. But perhaps Mr Love Interest needed a bit more going on.

In my current work, there is a triangle of characters, who I will name (somewhat misleadingly, but tough, I'm not going for a synopsis here) Mrs Main, Love Interest 1 and Love Interest 2. The conflict is between Mrs Main and Love Interest 1, so he doesn't really have a subplot. There are side issues arising, which Mrs Main doesn't know about immediately, but they're still part of the main plot. Love Interest 2 is crucial to the main plot in every way, but doesn't have his own subplot. 

He has a backstory - career, family, failed engagement, hobbies - the lot. The relevant parts will be in the story. He is a point of view character - I have written scenes through his eyes.

But does he need a subplot of his own? Would it make him more believable? Or would it complicate the story too much? 

I feel as though the lack of one may be undermining an important convention in the kind of books I read (and want to write). 

There is another character who is also vital to the whole, and the threads of her story weave into the main, underpin it and provides a different voice, told in a different tense and person. She is also important, and brings texture to the whole....but I'm not sure her story can really be called a subplot, either. 

So is this story too slim? I'm a long way through to be having doubts, and I think I may have to plough on and just see...it has felt good so far, and it already needs serious pruning to make it a sensible length, so it isn't  as if it's flimsy in terms of length. But perhaps it lacks depth...

What do you think? Should all the main characters have a serious problem of their own going on 'on the side'?

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Kindle and Paper

I love my Kindle. I love the way I can buy books at the click of a button at any time of day or night and be enjoying them in seconds. I love the fact I can take a huge pile of books on holiday without filling a suitcase. I love being a book consumer on a grand scale without running out of bookshelf room.

But I'm never going to be able to live without real books. An ebook can't replace a real one. When I read an ebook, there is a dimension less to the experience. It makes the experience shallower, and more forgettable. Frequently now, I don't know if I've read a book, even after reading the blurb. I recently got to the last paragraph of a book that I'd bought at the supermarket before realising I'd already got it on my Kindle!

I miss being able to handle a physical object - feel the weight of it, the thickness of the pages. I miss navigating through it - especially if I lose my place, or want to flick back to something - such a simple place-finding exercise is time-consuming and irritating on the Kindle. I don't get to read and savour a blurb before I open an ebook; I miss the aesthetic pleasure of the front and end pages - that delicious anticipation as you approach page 1. (Perhaps I am a bit of a book geek..?) I miss seeing the cover and title each time I reach for a book - that subtle reiteration of what I am reading, which is crucial, apparently, if I want to remember what I've read.

Are these things insignificant? Not for me. I find it incredible to cruise Amazon and realise that I don't know the name of a book, or what it looks like - that the plot is floating, fragmented and untethered, in my mind. It unsettles me. And rereading a book without realising it -  I'm sure this isn't just my age; I'm sure it's linked to this Kindle syndrome of reading text out of context - out of the context of real pages, a cover, illustration, blurb...

I've embraced the ebook revolution; I do love my Kindle. I've been excited about the power that authors now have to publish their own books with such ease. But now I'm wondering if there is a downside. If an unknown author publishes with KDP, and is lucky enough to have their book in great demand, it is disappointing to think that the memory of that book is likely to slide greasily out of the readers' memory within a week or two of reading. It doesn't bode well for that author, trying to build a fanbase when the very form of their book discourages memorability.

What do you think? Do you find it harder to retain digital text?

Friday, 31 October 2014

Fascinating first lines

We all know that our first lines have to be gripping. I wonder what your favourite first line of a novel is? Do you like the first line of your favourite novel?

Here are a few of my favourite books and how they start:

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier.

"The van der Lindens' house was distinguished from the others on the street by the creeper that covered half the front, running up to the children's rooms beneath the eaves, where at night the glow from the sidewalk lamp gave to Number 1064 the depth and shadow of a country settlement, somewhere far away from this tidy urban street." On Green Dolphin Street, Sebastian Faulks.

"The Boulevard Du Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens." Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks.

"Hush...Can you hear him?" The Distant Hours, Kate Morton.

"They said I was a drug addict." Rachel's Holiday, Marian Keyes.

"When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow." To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

"Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits." Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver.

"Mabel had known there would be silence." The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey.

"My father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip." Great Expectations, Charles Dickens.

And if I keep playing this game, I'll never be done; opening the doors to my bookshelves has sent me on a delightful half hour of revisiting old friends, and reminding me how long it has been since I've read some of these. Just one more, that most notorious of first lines:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen.

Whew, what a range, what power, what trends to consider in all these. Look how long Faulks can be; how gentle Dickens. I got a tingle up my spine opening The Distant Hours - that first scene was so gripping that reading the first line made me instantly tense. So much to aspire to! Now onto what prompted this little excursion.

My nine year old daughter, who is an obsessive reader (at parent's evening, her teacher said, "I've never known a child read so compulsively" as though it were a sin. I thought I'd better not admit to the same disorder) has never shown interest in writing. I thought she never would, and then, two weeks ago, I saw the light in her eyes. She's been scribbling, on and off, ever since, then nagging me to help her to type it onto the laptop. Today we started typing and I was struck by her first line.

"Once, some Time-Travellers made a bed, and because they were poor they had to sell it, which was a shame as it was a most pulchritudinous bed."

How's that for originality? I expect it will fall down at line two, because she is only nine, but I'm fascinated to know why there are Time-Travellers in her story, and if they have capitalisation for a reason, and if the story is really about the bed or if it will wander off down other avenues. As always, I wish I had a pinch of the originality of a child. What a gift...it's always good to be inspired by others whether they are literary greats, skilled writers of today or nine year old girls. Hope something inspires you today!

Thursday, 9 October 2014

WoMentoring Application

It's taken me a long time, and agonising rewrites, but I think I've just about finished my 500 word statement ready to apply for a mentor through the fabulous WoMentoring project.

Is it best to be earnest, dedicated and committed? Or fun and light-hearted? How do you get yourself over in 500 words - and without it being a boring list of things you've achieved and dreams of being a writer (which is hardly going to set you apart from the crowd)?

The thing is, I could procrastinate over this for months longer, miss the deadline and miss out. This year I was meant to be focused on Opportunity, and I can't let this one slide by, so I'm settling on what I've written, and I'll allow myself one more proofread, and then I'm going to apply. And cross my fingers so tightly they won't be fit to type with.

Monday, 29 September 2014

He who smelt it, dealt it

Remember this puerile little saying? I'd like to pretend I've not heard it recently, but my seven year-old is firmly in the scatological phase and shows no signs of emerging. In fact, this is one of the more polite comments he's likely to make at inappropriate moments.

The thing that fascinates me is the way we write the past tense of words like dream, smell, feel and build. On the periphery of awareness, I've noticed that sometimes, jarringly, I'll read things like "The room smelled like cabbage" and wondered if I was trailing behind in the evolution of language, until I discovered an intriguing online discussion.

What I discovered is that the distinction is one of those national things. In England, it's not only acceptable to use smelt over smelled, but usually preferred. In other countries, the opposite may be true; especially in the USA, people recalled being pulled up on using the 't' ending over 'ed', and believe it to be ignorant.

What do you think? Have you noticed this difference when you have read books by authors from other countries? Do you think it matters?

And would it be wrong to teach my other children, "He who says the rhyme, did the crime"...?

Friday, 26 September 2014

Grammar or pleasure?

How important is grammar?

With my teacher hat on, I was on a training course for the new curriculum. The information was skewed heavily to literacy - I have a feeling that the lady was in her element with reading and writing. 

I agreed with a lot of what she had to say, until we came to grammar. I'm sure we can all agree that it is important to write grammatically correct sentences, and then to employ proofreaders to try and catch all the mistakes that got away. But does a good writer - or a child, to be a good writer - need to know the correct terms for grammatical features? 

The lady swung right into action, throwing around terms like 'upfront adverbials' and asking us to determine if a sentence was compound, complex or simple (I'll give you a clue; compound isn't related to having the conjunction 'and' in it). 

Within five minutes we teachers were bored - a Mexican yawn passed around the room. I felt a pang of horror to think that we might tantalisingly offer our young minds something marvellous, like the Hobbit, to read, then strip it of all excitement by studying exactly what kind of sentences are in there. What's more, the trainer said this was crucial to be a good writer - but is it? Isn't it possible to write, to some extent, by instinct? To know how to use grammar without being able to name things correctly?
I was curious about my strong antagonism to what the trainer was saying. Was it just because I didn't know what she was talking about half the time? Was it because we all felt she was showing off and deliberately trying to make us feel underskilled? 

I love words. You have to, as a writer. As a reader, too, that rush of warmth down your spine when you come across the perfect pairing of words, and know what craft went into choosing them - it's priceless. I never talked down to my babies, with bunny or gee-gee. I figured, if they were going to use a word, they might as well learn the right one straight away. I offered tyre alongside wheel and explained the difference. I pull them up, still (though gently) if they use a word wrongly, or mispronounce something. So why don't I believe that children need to know what an upfront adverbial is? Why doesn't it bother me that, for years, schools have called conjunctions 'connectives', which, said our trainer, there is no such thing as? 

I think it's because, to me, the naming of these things doesn't add anything to what they are. Flower is generic; teach a child rose or daffodil and they have more power in their choice of vocabulary. They are enabled to communicate more effectively. Teach them Rosoideae and they are actually less able to communicate effectively except in exclusive circles. What you are really teaching them is how to make others feel excluded; it's jargon, and unnecessary. What it might do instead is turn hundreds of children off literacy - make it stale and dry. What a crime. If they don't need to know it, don't teach it to them. I don't believe for a second that it will make them a better writer. And if, as adults, they want to write for a living, and discover that knowing more grammatical terms will enable them to communicate better in online forums with other writers, or on courses to improve their writing - then it won't take long to learn. 


Let's try to leave some pleasure in reading for the digital generations. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

Fighting fear

Does fear of failure stop you from writing? I've been struggling to get back into my novel after the summer break, because I knew there was a lot of structural work to do. I was so overwhelmed, I've been avoiding it; I even cleaned behind the fridge.

But today I took my 2 year old and my notebooks to a play centre. I told myself a half hour would do, then I could stop, wherever I was up to. And, to my surprise, once I began it was painless. I didn't want to stop after half an hour, but then when I had finished my untangling, I realised it had only taken an extra ten minutes. All that procrastinating, and it was done in forty minutes!

As I unpicked and wove, I added in ideas that I've been jotting down all summer, and they began to take shape together and move the story in a better direction. It felt good; new ideas sparked and brought the whole to life.

When I put it down, I was fizzing with excitement. Today, my plot feels sweet; it is all singing in harmony. I'm still a little nervous about spoiling it when I try to capture it on paper but most of all, I can't wait to get back to it tomorrow.

So the cure for self-doubt is to push through it - must remember that next time! I wonder what the cure is for the guilt of putting writing time ahead of housework? And the guilt of letting my attention wander to made up people when it should be on my two year old?