Sunday, 25 August 2013

Top Tips for Revising Your Novel 4: Make Setting Work For You

Setting, as the consultant who delivered a report on my novel in progress noted, is a tricky one. Modern readers are much less tolerant of long, detailed descriptions than, for instance, the Victorians were. Reading Dickens today, we can become weary of the sheer volume of description and end up thinking, ‘I just want an impression of that area of London – not so much detail that I could find my way around it blindfolded!’

Once again, the consultant’s advice has been vital to my rewrite:

‘What you want isn’t bulk, but a few telling details. Setting is never just a place where things happen: it always conveys important information... Decor signals taste, social class, income and even the inhabitants’ likely world view: black granite backed by glass and bristling with steel gadgets? Gingham curtains, home-made bunting and shabby chic? Old –fashioned groceries such as lard, tripe, white flour, Bisto, Bird’s custard, Abernethy biscuits?... In real life we are constantly picking up and decoding these signals, which is one reason why entering someone’s house for the first time is a step towards greater intimacy: we can read the signals they have chosen for themselves. Their puce-coloured bath with gold taps (or their conservatory smelling of cat pee, or their immaculate minimalist living room, or their collection of ceramic thimbles) will influence our opinion of the kind of people they are.’

Before I learned this valuable lesson, I had barely hinted at the settings in which my characters found themselves, and thinking much harder about how they would express themselves through their surroundings made me realise that the characters themselves needed more thought. The search for those ‘few telling details’ taught me to define the characters more carefully, and not to waste a word on random or irrelevant detail when describing the settings.

In the latest version of Unspeakable Things, the difference between Deb’s mantelpiece and Sarah’s points to a deeper contrast between the two friends and their lives. Attempting to tidy her chaotic house before Sarah and Jim come round, Deb notes  the overcrowded mantlepiece and the general mess:

...’these rooms were a mishmash of styles and influences, souvenirs of disparate places, piles of magazine clippings Mum gave her that she never had time to read, books of her Dad’s and stepmum’s, and on the walls, posters from films and comedy clubs mixed in with an array of photographs, old and new: the chronicle of her large and complex family.’  

Going back into her own ordered house after Jim goes off on a trip, Sarah notes:

 ‘...there was their sofa, where she lay in the evenings with her feet in Jim’s lap, facing the mantelpiece which she kept spacious and uncluttered; with just a vase in chunky recycled glass in the centre, holding Calla lilies.’

After Uncle John lets her into the attic treasure trove full of mementoes of the mother she doesn’t remember, Jim returns to find a transformation:

‘She had framed the wedding photograph and the one of Mary with her and David, as well as a couple of others of the twins, and these and many unframed prints were crowded on the mantelpiece. It had lost the stylish, minimalist look she used to favour and was suddenly inhabited by numerous faces staring out.’

But Sarah is about to discover that families are not a neat and tidy affair; it is not only her mantelpiece that has become messy and out of control...

I can’t leave a discussion of setting without alerting you to an excellent post by blogger Kristen Lamb on using setting to deepen your characters: If you are here looking for writing tips, I can’t recommend Kristen’s blog highly enough, and this post sent me rushing back to my novel with a new zeal for using setting to show, rather than tell what a character is all about.

Glancing around my surroundings now, I wonder what they express about me... festering tea mugs, piled up notebooks and index cards, a teetering pile of undone ironing; pens on the floor (oh that’s where they all are!) and a cushion, inexplicably, on the printer. Is this the setting for a lazy, disorganised character who is barely coping with life? No no, I tell myself firmly, it’s a writer’s room, that’s what it is.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Top Tips for Revising Your Novel 3: Listen/Don’t Listen to the Voices

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given on writing came towards the end of a creative consultant’s 18-page assessment of my novel in progress Unspeakable Things. It was under the heading ‘Suggestions for the Revision Process’, and it read:

“Distinguish between the loud, bullying voice that sneers, ‘You’ve got no talent! You’re making a fool of yourself!’ (this is the voice all artists must strangle into silence) and the quiet, persistent voice that says, ‘Chapter 10 still isn’t right, you know,’ which is the one you must always listen to.”
I had never read such a profound, knowing description of the split personality of the writer. We all hear that bullying voice, and it make us cringe, plunge into despair, freeze into inaction or even give up altogether. At the same time, when we have spent a lot of time and effort on a piece of writing, a strange arrogance can take us over and make us wilfully ignore the quieter, doubting voice that niggles away, telling us we need to make changes.

This advice came to mind this week, when I was on holiday with the extended family in Wales. I had taken the previous week off work to finish the revision of my novel so that I could prepare it for entrance to Mslexia’s Women’s Novel Competition – Mslexia Women's Novel Competition 2013 – deadline September 23rd. Having a look through the entrance criteria, I found that the novels are initially judged by the first 5,000 words only. Meaning that the first 5,000 words need to be the most compelling, striking, impressive, publishable words in the whole novel. Having finished a revision that, after over a year’s work, I was pleased with, I was suddenly plunged into doubt. The bullying voice was as loud as ever. I had no talent. I was making a fool of myself. My first 5,000 words were no good. Yet even as I agonised, the other voice muttered that I just needed to do another, stringent revision on my first 5,000 words to get them up to scratch. But no, I argued. Those 5,000 words were inextricably linked to the rest of the novel. To try to change them after all that work would only undermine the whole thing. I should leave them alone and then if my novel didn’t get shortlisted, I could feel aggrieved at the unfairness of being judged by your first 5,000 words when all your really good writing is near the end.

 I didn’t write at all on holiday, and to be fair, I probably needed to get a bit of distance between myself and the mood-swinging, doubt-filled writing process. Then during a walk on a Welsh cliff, my 19-year-old son, who had recently read my first chapter, remarked that he couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and wondered what was going to happen to them. I was filled with sudden hope. One of the reasons I have stuck with this project for so long (I started the screenplay it grew out of when I was pregnant with the very same son!) is because I feel so compelled by the characters. Dare I hope that this actually came over in the writing? Would the competition judges feel similarly haunted by my creations? I pictured one of them getting up in the middle of the night and stumbling downstairs in her dressing gown, to take my first 5,000 words off the ‘rejected’ pile and give them another go.

 My son and I began to chat about the first chapter. He gave me his view on which bits worked, and I admitted to parts I wasn’t sure about. We concluded that it wasn’t clear enough at the outset that Sarah is the heroine. Two of the other characters have quickie sex in a hotel room at a wedding during the first chapter, so she has a lot to compete with! I began to think the chapter through in my head, and I was amazed to find how completely it was stored there, despite the fact that I had gone away to forget about it. I was able to re-order and tweak it as I walked along, enjoying the view. 

Today I have had another crack at those first 5,000 words. I stifled the first, bullying voice, but I listened to the second voice, the one that says, You haven’t finished. This still needs work.