On Writing: Fiction

Author: Paul P. Mealing
Tuesday, November 28, 2017  8:10 PM

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I wrote this so long ago, I can’t remember when; but it was when I was bold enough to believe that I could teach creative writing in a course. I eventually did teach a writing course, many years later, along slightly different lines to what I propose here. Having said that, I believe everything I say here is still relevant. Anyone who has read Elvene will know that I practice what I preach.

I should point out that I’ve changed my ‘method’, for want of a better term, since I wrote this, in that I usually write one draft, but I do ‘sketches’ on the side. That is the method that I developed through trial and error, and that is the method I used for Elvene. As I keep repeating, every writer has to find their own method that works for them.

Having taught a course, albeit briefly, I know that the exercises one gives out are more important instruction than anything I might say. As in all activities, doing provides the best learning.

I originally called this ‘Notes on Writing’.

Writing

Anyone can write – if you can talk you can write. You only need a subject and the desire to communicate knowledge about it. It is exactly what I am doing now.

But writing a narrative is another issue altogether. You have to create characters, plots, human relationships, and then glue them all together in such a way that they appear real. Sounds impossible doesn’t it? Well it almost is. But if you have the desire and the creative source to feed that desire, then you can.

You have to have a subject and something to say; and no one can provide that but you. But the skills and the tools and the techniques can be learnt. They can be improved upon and mastered, not unlike learning a musical instrument, the only difference being that the music has to come from you.

So what is the difference between writing and creative writing? Creative writing is a broad term that covers many forms, including plays, screenplays, short stories and poems. To avoid any miscomprehension I will narrow the focus – what I am talking about is simply narrative, I call it narrative fiction.

Fundamentally, writing narrative, as opposed to writing any other form of text, is that it’s art, and in that sense it has more in common with music, painting, film-making and any other form of creative expression, than it has with simple communication.

Communication is directly associated with language, ideas and to a large extent, logic. They all arise from the left side of the brain. Artistic expression, in any form, arises from the right side. Creative writing, in all its forms, not just narrative, is quite simply writing with the right side of the brain. That then, is the whole purpose of this course: to teach you to write with the right side of your brain. And quite frankly, at my very best, that is all I can teach you. What you do with that skill, once you’ve acquired it, is really up to your own imagination.

Writing as Art – Narrative Prose.

I have my own definition of art. Art is the transference of an emotion, experience or abstract idea ‘felt’ by one person: the artist; to another: the recipient. The recipient can be anyone, but for the transference to work, there has to be a sense of identity in the work – something the recipient, in the case of writing, the reader – can relate to.

That’s it in a nutshell. Sounds simple, but in truth, requires a lot of work to be successful. It is the combination of a lot of factors, including talent, conviction, practice and sheer perseverance.

Counterpoint

While on the subject of writing as art, I wish to express a very personal point of view. I don’t believe in the process of writing as compiling an assortment of dissociated ideas, topics and scenes; experimenting with them by applying various tools and techniques; and by so doing, creating an original story.

I believe instead, that you should have an idea and possibly a character, together with a very tentative plot before you even put pen to paper. Otherwise what you write may be a creative work, and it no doubt will in the final analysis, say something. But I fail to see the merit, or even the pleasure, of creating a work with no original goal in mind.

The exercises I put to you, I admit, will not have a goal in terms of creating a finished narrative. They are quite simply just what they claim to be – exercises. But I hope they will teach you skills and techniques, and help you develop ‘tools’ that you can put into practice in achieving your own literary goals. That is the fundamental purpose of this course.

Plot & Character

To start a novel, or any story for that matter, you need three essential ingredients. You need to create a world, at least one character, and a plot of some sort, even if it’s only in concept form.
The world simply means time and place – a setting. But I don’t mean setting in a theatrical sense that can change from scene to scene, but in a more universal sense, like a map that encompasses the whole story. And I’m not just talking about physical parameters, but also demography, society, civilisationand everything that involves the central character.

The main character is generally the whole purpose of the story but this should be rendered unselfconsciously. He (or she) is usually, but not always, the vehicle for your transference, but you should never think about this on a conscious level – it should quite simply happen – evolve, if you like, with the story itself.

Plot and character are inseparable in the same way that matter and gravity are inseparable. One creates the other, which then affects everything else. They are mutually inclusive, and if you think about it, this is equally true of life.

The plot is best thought of as the vehicle for the characters development. The plot in fiction is life’s equivalent to fate. As a writer, you are God. You create the world, and you create the challenges, disasters and pitfalls. The characters’ growth, then, is dependent on their response to the situations you create. That is why the best novels are imitations of life, at least on a psychological level.

From the perspective I’ve given above, you can see that the pinnacle of this trinity is the Character. Both the World and the Plot are only significant in that they interact with the character, and to some extent, create the character. This, also, is true of life.

Counterpoint

It should be pointed out that there are basically two different types of novels: in one, the emphasis is on plot, and in the other, the emphasis is on character. All writers create their own balance between these two aspects which can be thought of as vertical and horizontal. The vertical aspect is the character, and the horizontal aspect is the plot. Popular novels put the emphasis on plot or horizontal aspect. This keeps the story ticking over and maintains the reader’s interest. They are entertainment novels, not thought-provoking, and are not meant to be. They are escapism, and I read them the same as everyone else for the same reasons. They are not necessarily of lesser value, and if they are well written, can become classics within their own field. The best examples which spring immediately to mind, are John Le Carré’s George Smiley novels.

In conclusion, a story can be thought of as a journey, and the best stories contain an external journey and an internal journey, which are essentially associated with the plot and the character. The external journey, as in life, provides the forces for the internal journey.

Developing Character

I rarely describe my characters – I let the reader create their own picture. When you create a character, you are not making a physical model, you are creating a person who has emotions, motivations, temperament, fears, loves and distractions – someone just like you.

You should unfold a character to the reader as real people unfold to you. Remember your first impressions of someone, and then as you get to know them how they reveal more of themselves by what they think, what they do, and how they respond to certain situations. This is how you reveal a character to your audience – he or she develops in the unfolding of the story – that is why character and plot are so interrelated.

When you first create a character, you, yourself, might know very little about him (or her), so you give them some freedom – observe as the reader would: see how they respond to things, what friendships, loves or insecurities they develop. If you can detach yourself in this way from your creation, you’ll find he or she becomes more and more like a real person.

So don’t try and create a fully rounded character straight off. Sure, you have some preconceptions of him or her, as you have of anyone you first meet. But put them in the story, then let them reveal themselves.

Counterpoint

We use source material for characters even though we don’t know it. In this respect writing is very similar to acting, and I’m surprised that more people don’t see the connection. Both writers and actors create characters, and they both use the same material: either themselves or people they know. Even when you use someone you know, you are not putting that person into your story, you are using them as a model, the same as you use your own experiences as a model for your creation.

Dialogue

Dialogue is obviously very closely related to character. I personally find it hard to write convincing dialogue until I know my characters fairly well.

Dialogue serves two purposes: it informs the reader of something pertinent to the story, and it reveals something about the character. It is also, most obviously, the main source of interaction between characters, and if you give it that perspective – as an interaction between two or more characters – you’ll find that’s the easiest way to write it.

Don’t use dialogue to preach to your readers – as a mouthpiece for your own opinions. Dialogue must have relevance to the characters and the story otherwise it’s simply boring. Sometimes a character can say something profound, and it can work very well, but it only works when it’s said in context with the moment and it’s not contrived.

Mix dialogue and prose, that way you create a picture, a tableau that is believable. A test for good dialogue is to leave out the characters’ identities – not identify who’s talking – and see if it stands up.

Exposition

Exposition is probably the easiest form of prose to write and ostensibly the most boring to read. Exposition is the most common form of non-fiction prose, and it’s not all boring – take this text for example. But the question needs to be raised: is there a place for exposition in fiction?
In simple terms, exposition is explanation, as opposed to the more common forms of narrative: action, description, introspection and dialogue. I use the word introspection for ‘characters’ thoughts’.

There is a very relevant adage to writing fiction, ‘Show, don’t tell’, and I would have to endorse that as a principle, but there are other factors to be taken into account as well. The most important principle, I believe, is making every word count. Sometimes, just sometimes, for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness, it is easier to tell than to show, and sometimes it is more relevant. There are certain rules in writing exposition that make it more acceptable and readable. My own personal rule is that exposition should always be written from a specific character’s point of view – that way it doesn’t intrude into the story as an external element. This makes the distinction between exposition and introspection very fine, if not indistinguishable. Exposition which is not a character’s thought, must, by definition, be written in narrator’s voice. If the narrator isn’t identified with a specific character, then he is omniscient. This too, is a form of acceptable prose and is not breaking any rules.

The other rule I personally endorse, is that exposition, where possible should do more than explain – it should provoke and stimulate. It needs to be there for a reason, unless of course you are simply trying to save words. But you as a writer have to make that decision. If showing is more boring than telling, then tell.

Counterpoint

When you first start writing, you’ll most likely do a lot of writing in exposition without even realising it. This will even come out in the exercises I give you. Exposition is in broad terms, writing with the left side of the brain, and with practice, will disappear as a dominating factor in your writing. But don’t fight it at first, because it can help you to get the bedrock of your story onto paper. When you undertake revision, you’ll find that as a style it will jar you, thus forcing you to rewrite in different narrative forms. This will also force you to delete whole scenes and write completely new ones – this is all part of the process, and is what makes writing so painstaking as well as rewarding.

Introspection

Introspection, or ‘Characters’ thoughts’, should not be mistaken as unspoken dialogue, and could probably be more accurately described as insight. In that respect it has a special function which is pretty well self-explanatory. It allows the reader to get inside the character’s head, and that is what makes narrative fiction unique, not only in art, but in all forms of story-telling. Certainly, you can have soliloquies in plays and films, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and it is not their natural mode, whereas in narrative fiction it is the natural mode, and that’s the difference.

Streams of Conscious novels are almost entirely written in this narrative form, but that is not an element of writing I wish to pursue, not because of any prejudice I have, but because of my lack of experience in that arena.

So introspection (my own term) is to give the reader specific insight into a character’s thoughts, motives and feelings. There is nothing much else one can say about it, except not to rely on it too heavily, and use it for selective characters in selective situations. In other words use basic common sense.

Description

There is really only one rule about description – it should be relevant. Description can be the most boring form of prose, even more boring than exposition, it’s the part of a narrative that people will skip over in order to get on with the story. So how do we avoid that?

One way is to simply avoid it as much as possible, prune it to a minimum; but there are less severe measures. Remember you are working with the reader’s imagination, so you use all their senses. Let them feel, touch and taste things. Atmosphere – evoke emotions and sensations – create ambience.

Just for a moment, compare the sensations of a book to the sensations from a film. In a film everything is portrayed in absolute detail, but how much of that detail actually gets through. Now think back to the novel – is it necessary to describe every scene in absolute detail: the detail conveyed in a film? No. So use cues, not just visual cues, but any that come to hand. The advantage of relating a story from a specific character’s point of view is that you pass their sensations directly onto your reader – that is the whole secret of narrative prose.

I have a personal rule that description has to be absolutely relevant to the story; even then I try to weld it into the narrative so that the reader passes through it without perceiving a conscious interface. Remember that the reader will always paint a different picture in their mind to yours; so let them. Your description should be like props on a stage rather than elaborate full-house scenery.

Do not be afraid to use imagery or metaphor, but keep it original and relevant. Remember imagery and metaphor should come unbidden, like composer’s notes, otherwise it reads like dough that has failed to rise.

Counterpoint

You should never be conscious of writing description, or any other form of prose. When you can move from dialogue to introspection to exposition to description to action without conscious thought, but just as the narrative demands it, then you’ve mastered the art of writing narrative fiction. Your prose should flow without discontinuity, just like a horse changes gait over difficult terrain. This even comes down to lengths of sentences and paragraphs. It needs to be done by feel and intuition, but the tools only come with practice.

Action

Outside of dialogue, action is probably the most challenging form of narrative to write. It is in a technical sense, a special case of description, but there are fundamental differences.

The key to writing action, even a complicated scene like a battlefield, is to portray it from only one character’s point of view, after all only a limited number of things can happen to one person at one time. The other essential point is to remember that action is always linear. It is, in analysis, a sequence of events within a specific time frame. And that is the fundamental difference between action and description – it has the added dimension of time. So you must use that dimension to best effect.

There are different types of action – the most obvious is adrenalin pumping, but often it is not dramatic at all, and sometimes it may not even involve a character.

Counterpoint

Many of the issues raised in writing description apply equally well to action. The best way to evoke an emotional response to action is to get inside the character’s head – transfer their emotions and feelings to the reader’s imagination.

Always use the reader’s imagination – that is the essential connection – your imagination to theirs. If you are always conscious of that, you’ll stop writing bad prose.

Point of View

A lot is said about point of view, but the only relevant point to remember is whether the point of view is inside the story or outside the story. Most writers like to keep the point of view inside the story which means it is always being related from the point of view of one of the characters. This is true whether the point of view is first person or third person intimate. Another point of view is third person omniscient, which means that the narrator is the story’s equivalent to God.

First person usually, but not always, tells the whole narrative from a single character’s point of view, whereas third person intimate changes point of view from one character to another according to circumstances. Third person intimate has obvious advantages, in that the narrator has more freedom, and can also give more insight into more characters through ‘introspection’. For this reason it is the most common form of narration.

Style

Style is not something you create deliberately – it is a natural result of writing with the right side of your brain. If you deliberately try and write in a style or emulate a style, you will probably fail – it is something that evolves in the course of your work.

It can be best perceived by comparing it to musical styles – I don’t mean jazz, rock, classical, but different styles within those boundaries. Consider the different musical forms that different musicians/composers can get from a common instrument. Have you ever noticed that musicians have a ‘signature’, that you can immediately recognise. Electric guitarists are probably the best example, but also pianists, and even classical composers – compare Beethoven to Bach for example.

Likewise, writers develop their own ‘voice’ – a narrative voice as distinct from their language voice – and that is their style. That does not mean to say that writers don’t change their style according to different types of stories they may write, but generally writers are consistent in their style if they remain consistent to their genre.

Counterpoint

Style has a lot to do with your own preferences in story-telling. Most writers have a preferable point of view, and most rely heavily on two or three modes of narrative, rather than all five. But there are many elements of writing that affect style, and analysing them, while it may prove interesting, is not necessarily helpful to you as a writer.

Your own style will be affected by your reading preferences, but it is more of a subconscious activity than a conscious one. If you concentrate on the content of your work and its transference to the reader, then style will take care of itself.

Some personal notes on writing a novel

Writing a novel is often described by writers as going into a tunnel – it is a very apt metaphor. It suggests a one way journey, and it conjures up the loneliness and self-reliance imposed, as well as the perseverance and sheer concentration required to complete the journey.

But, from my experience, I would use a slightly different metaphor – I see it as a road, self-made, on a very large map. The road gives a subtly different emphasis. When you travel a road you are focusing on a distant goal or goals, milestones that seen at a distance are simply points to be aimed at, while the real work and concentration takes place close at hand where details are closely observed and the construction takes place painstakingly slow and progressive.

The two points are important – you need something in the distance to focus on, otherwise you’re construction may be impeccable, but it is also aimless and meandering. More obviously, the real work is done at your current point in the story, where words and sentences are laid down like bricks and mortar, creating an edifice that can only be seen in your mind’s eye.

When you get closer to the end of your road, you’ll find yourself looking back more often than forward, because the perspective at the end of the novel includes everything that has gone before. Also when you’re near the end, most of the work has been done – you’re not left with a lot of freedom to create any additional impact, unpredictable endings notwithstanding.

Of course I’m talking about the first draft, which means that you’ll go back over your road many times, patching holes, repaving whole sections, and sometimes creating detours and/or shortcuts. But the first draft is the bedrock of your story – it may be badly written, and in most cases it is, but you should not change the course of your story in consequent drafts. You may make subtle shifts in emphasis, flesh out one or more characters because you now know them better, but otherwise the first draft dictates both the course and the focus of your story. Anything less than that means starting another journey.

The map is what you start with – it dictates the physical and abstract parameters of your story. It is probably not clearly defined when you start, nevertheless it must exist in your mind if not on paper.

Another point is to treat the story like life – if something has happened that is pivotal to the story or to one of the characters, don’t regress and change it because it makes ‘life’ easier. If you really do feel you’ve made a wrong turn, then stop, and don’t start again until you are sure you are going in the right direction. Sure, there are times when you feel like you are fumbling around in the dark trying to make some connection that seems elusive, but often a break is what’s required. If you persevere, and if you believe in yourself, then the connection is always found again, and it is like turning on a light. In fact writing a novel is not unlike realising a vision, and the vision starts off as the map, only becoming concrete as you make the journey – the same journey your readers will follow.

Counterpoint

The above comments are my own personal experience of writing a novel. It is important to point out that there are probably as many different ways to write a book as there are writers. For example, Georges Simenon (creator of Maigret), apparently never took a break from a work-in-progress. If Simenon was forced to take a break he simply threw the work away and started something completely new. As the most prolific French writer of the last century, he did that all of three times, or so I’m led to believe.

But most writers do see their work as a solitary occupation. To discuss your works-in-progress is to dissipate your creative energy, and it contaminates your work – receiving feedback too early can interfere with your own personal vision. Most importantly, writing alone assures that you are not inhibited to express yourself. As a rule never show your work until you are ready for a second opinion – you need to be confident that the work can take feedback without losing its fundamental integrity.

Writing plays and screenplays is a different matter. I’ve had no experience with plays, but they are often work-shopped in a group environment that is completely contradictory to the solitary occupation of a novelist. Stage and cinema requires interaction with a whole team of players and technicians, whereas writing a novel is one of the most introverted and solitary forms of art that one can attempt.

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