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Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Les Meres Sont En Vacances

Mother Freakin' Writers is on a two week vacation where we will recharge our mother freakin' selves to continue our writing and mothering.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Points of View by Harry Bingham

We are so happy to have Harry Bingham from the Writers' Workshop with us today, discussing POV.  

Anna asked me to expound a little on points of view in fiction – just the little matters of “how to get it right, how to successfully deal with writing from multiple POVs and how to adequately get inside other characters’ heads by using only one POV… It's an issue that comes up a lot when I review on You Write On stories and even more seasoned writers could use some tips on the subtler angles of [the issue].”

Well, yes, I agree – though funnily enough the very first thing to say about the topic is that your first instinct about how to deal with the matter is quite likely correct. If you’ve always conceived of your novel as having a single first-person narrator, you should probably do just that. If you’ve always seen your narrative as having multiple (probably third-person) viewpoints, then, once again, that’s probably right. Indeed, part of the trouble with the topic is that the more you analyse it, the more complicated it seems to become. Complicated and technical in a way that seems quite opposed to the flow of good, natural creative writing.

So the first message is simply: relax. If you have a vision, go with that vision and you can if necessary tweak things at the editing stage. (Though that’s not giving you permission to make a complete mess of things – see my warning later in this piece.)

Secondly, you need to figure out who your protagonist is. Jonathan Franzen once said, ‘Write in the third person unless a ­really distinctive first-person voice ­offers itself irresistibly.’ That’s a good rule of thumb. Bridget Jones was a fab (first-person) book because of the force and naturalness of Bridget’s voice. The upside of this choice is that you get intense intimacy with your protagonist. You literally see with their eyes, think their thoughts, and so on. The downside is that inevitably you see less into other people. But so what? We humans can’t simply peer inside any skulls we happen to be interested in. We deduce things about other people from what they say, do and manifest. So if you’re writing in the first person, just figure these things out the way you do in your ordinary life. Just be a human. That’s simple, no?

(As an aside, I’d also add that intimacy with character applies as much to the writer as the reader. I’ve written plenty of third person – and mostly multi-protagonist – fiction in the past. Then I embarked on my first ever first-person novel, Talking to the Dead. The central character of that book, a certain Fiona Griffiths, came storming into my head and has never left me since. She’s like an incredibly intense, strange, but welcome intruder. And she could kick Lisbeth Salander’s butt.)

The next main option is to have a single protagonist about whom you write in the third person. You tend to lose a little intimacy here, because although you can listen in to your character’s thoughts and feelings, your expression of those things will normally belong to you rather than your protagonist. (Though the latter’s expressive habits will quite likely creep in a bit anyway.)

The gain, however, is flexibility. So take, for example, Hitchcock’s differentiation between surprise and suspense. If my first person protagonist happens to be sitting for fifteen minutes at a table, beneath which a bomb has been primed and planted … well, she doesn’t know that she’s in peril, so there’s no suspense, only surprise. If you write the same scene from the third person perspective, you can introduce the information about the bomb beforehand, then have the exact same scene play out in a frenzy of tension and suspense. The protagonist may be unaware of her danger, but the reader sure as hell isn’t.

Finally, you can opt to really broaden your novel out: combining multiple major characters and third-person narration. Veronica Henry is one example of an author who succeeds with this kind of technique. Tom Clancy (not normally thought of as similar to Veronica H) is another.

The trick here is to make sure that every character who enjoys significant page space through the course of the novel has their own fully-fledged story. You know what I mean: a challenge, an obstacle, a series of adventures, mounting jeopardy – all that jazz. Clearly that rule doesn’t apply to genuinely minor characters: like a Tom Clancy coastguard captain whose only role in the book is to be the first to die in whatever conflict is brewing up. But certainly any character with more than 20% of the book is a major character and has to have a story. No exceptions. No get-out clauses.

If you take this route, you will enjoy loads of flexibility and breadth in your narrative. The downside: well, you’ll never get the degree of intimacy with character that you have when you have the reader in the first-person shoes of a single protagonist. As a VERY general rule, the more external focus of your story, the more likely you are to pick a multi-protagonist, third-person approach. The more personal and internal the focus, the more likely you are to go for the single protagonist and (possibly) first-person approach.

If this short guide doesn’t answer every question – well, it can’t. Most POV issues are simple and your gut instinct is normally right. But there are exceptions and there are complexities. As it happens, I’ve written about the technicalities at length in my How To Write book, technicalities which take up almost 25,000 words of text. (Though admittedly, the discussion isn’t solely about points of view, but also such things as authorial irony, past tense vs present tense, unreliable narrators and so forth.) If you’re mired in those complexities, then one last bit of advice: it is worth sorting them out before you do anything else at all. Because if you do make a mess of points of view, the consequences in terms of the surgery needed on your manuscript may be horrendous. I’ve certainly seen manuscripts which basically needed to be ditched and rewritten from scratch because their authors got in a tangle on these things.

Does that sound scary? Well it ought to, a bit. But there are plenty of places to get help. My book is one place to go. Writing courses, writing circles and other places where you can exchange thoughts with professionals can also be incredibly valuable. And also, of course, reading fiction is the best possible resource you can have. You want two first person narrators? Well, why not? That’s what Audrey Niffenegger did in Time Traveler’s Wife. You want a multi-narrator dual time-stranded novel? Be my guest: Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers did just that. Hey, you want to fool around and try a first-person plural narration? Read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and watch a master at work.

I hope all that helps – and good luck!

Harry Bingham is the author of various books and also runs the Writers’ Workshop which offers feedback on writing and a variety of writing courses.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Point of View

Being a mother freakin’ writer means my days are filled with a lot of mothering with some writing squeezed in.  I try to read as much as I can whenever I can and there are piles of books on my bedside table, which I slowly make my way through.

Recently I finished a book with various quotes of praise from other writers all over the front cover.  And yet, I waded laboriously through the entire thing, annoyed by the characters, by the writer’s slight pretentiousness, giving up hope the plot was ever going to go anywhere about three-quarters of the way through.  I have a hard time abandoning a book, so I stuck with it and finished it, albeit a skimming-kind of finishing. 

After finishing the book, I tried pinpointing where the big problem was for me because I love literary fiction, even the kind that rarely gets published, the plot-less kind that pulls you into another world with interesting, compelling characters.  This book should have been that kind of literary fiction, but for me, it fell flat, and one of the main problems in the book was one with point of view or POV.  The narrator in the book was a character with an omniscient point of view which did not work very well because I kept wondering how the narrator knew things that only other characters would know if the narrator was also a character.

Point of view is tricky business when writing and when done well, a reader is confident in the world a writer creates.  When not done well, a story feels as messy as a kid’s room after a play date.  Point of view confusion leaves a reader wondering who’s in charge.

Point of view can be tackled from multiple angles.   It isn’t always one narrator that can tell a story.  Several characters can have their own points of view, but they must be tackled in distinct chapters or in passages that are separate from other points of view.  Even seasoned writers can slip with point of view, because a writer knows what another character would think or feel, but they can’t leave their main character to hop inside another’s head, even for a minute. 

Since point of view is such a huge topic, we are so lucky and excited to have a guest blogger on Friday.  Harry Bingham from The Writer’s Workshop is with us, writing all about Point of View and answering some of our best questions.  So tune in Friday for some more about POV.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Chicken Soup For Writers by Val Innes

This blog is all about support. It is also about encouragement and sharing the roadblocks that pop up along the pathway to publishing.  But how about inspiration? Now there is a word that I like.  For writers (and slightly jaded and battered parents) inspiration is what we are all about.  Children can notice detail that slip past our consciousness but can be amazing.  Simple things such as the reflection of a rainbow in a giant puddle in the park.  Sharing these moments with your kids, and, in turn, opening your eyes to see (excuse the cliché) “the bigger picture” take root in a writer’s mind and materialise sometime later in your work.  I hope the moment is also stored in my mental photograph album and I can reminisce when I am an old lady.  In short, everything we see can inspire us.
But writers need to use inspiration in the face of adversity; when you hit that seemingly insurmountable wall during the writing process and this is when we should be able to turn to other writer’s (or parent’s) experiences.  Each of our knocks and many of our successes can keep the blocked and/or depressed writer going in their moment of need.

I was thinking it would be nice to have a little inspirational writing bible that I could flick through (or if you are a kindle user, scroll) to boost a flagging creative streak and one day, perhaps, I could add my own words of wisdom.  Yes, we all have a couple of self-help books on our shelves and I’ll bet you have at least one “writing to get published” texts but I am looking for anecdotes, tips and a statement that will inject some inspiration directly into my system.  

It turns out there is such a book.  Or, there will be. And, for writers who have a wonderful, uplifting tale to tell, you can be paid for it.  “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Writers: 101 Motivational Stories for Writers…”  needs YOUR stories.  They want to hear about your successes, setbacks and everything in between.  A bit like this blog but with the potential for money to be made… and that doesn’t happen too much does it? 

So after you comment on “Motherfreakinwriters” check out for details.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Really Over-Writing Very Much

Yesterday my youngest put a plastic spoon in my mouth.  She belly laughed when she pulled it out again.  This exchange went on for about twenty minutes.  Completely entertained by the moment at hand and by a plastic spoon, she was having a moment of pure joy.  It’s the age-old story; you buy them tons of toys, hoping to capture their imagination, and they prefer a plastic spoon, or a box, just any interaction with you being fully present.  It’s the simple things that make them the happiest.

The whole plastic spoon incident made me think about writing and creating a story.  You start with a simple idea and you build on it, quilting together characters, a plot line, tension, tempering it with, you hope, the right amount of pacing.  And it can be hard to know when to stop and when you’ve written enough.  A story is never over.  It’s just like a painting.  Both are finished when they’re ready to be shared, but finding that point can sometimes be tricky. 

Which brings me to the topic of over-writing.  Over-writing is getting really excited about what you have to say and saying it…too much.  It’s the fancy battery-operated toy that blinks and sings in five languages when a simple cardboard box will do.  It’s squinting really hard to channel the Muse when simply looking out the window and finding one simple word after looking at a cloud will do. 

I over-write when I’m not feeling confident in something in my story, either in a character, an interaction, a setting, or even where the plot is going.  It signals to me that I need to step back, take a deep breath and look out the window.  It tells me to be brutal, and ‘kill my darlings,’ as they say, and really examine what is causing me to over-write.

Over-writing is like over-parenting.  It stems from lack of confidence and it weakens what you are intending to say or do.  It can force you to go back to the cardboard box, to dive in and just say it, because it’s your voice and you should use it without apologies.

Do you find that over-writing is a symptom of a problem within your story?  How do you pin-point it and how hard do you find it to ‘kill your darlings’?  

Friday, 11 May 2012

It's All In The Name by Val Innes

Because of continued IT problems I turned my attention to my manuscript.  I wrote it eighteen months ago and has been buried under a pile of magazine cuttings on advice about how to develop characters, show not tell and finding an agent.  These snippets of information were supposed to help me over the fear of editing the manuscript but instead, I forgot the 86,073 words that lay festering beneath.
When I finished the novel I felt fulfilled; like I had reached the end of a journey. I now believe the writing of the story is the easy part.  Trying the take apart each character, subplot and excessive description felt like I was ripping out my soul.  So instead I put it aside to give the plot time to sink in for I felt I knew the story word for word and as Anna touched on in her last blog, it is difficult to self-edit.
But here I am, more than a year later picking it up and facing the fear.  I re-read my first three chapters. Whoops, it has 22 characters, five of their names begin with “A” and three of them are main characters!  I even had a female called “Rowan Beech”. Naming her after species of trees? What had I been thinking?  She wasn’t even the willowy, natural girl her name implied, but a sullen teenager padded with puppy fat and dominated by a nest of unruly black hair.
Turning back to my “advice” cuttings, it seems that a mistake we often make is giving unisex names to characters.  I have one called “Alwyn” - I don’t even know where that came from but I can’t bear to change it because she has BECOME Alwyn in my mind. Female friends who have read the manuscript like her name; male readers can’t decide what sex she is…! 
Art imitates life for me though, because people are confused by my children’s names.  My daughter has a name that can be attributed to a boy and my sons could be a nickname for a girl!  So my parenting and writing choices parallel each other. Since I can’t change my kid’s names, I will set about thinking of new ones for my book.  Do I sound like an amateur novelist? How do you choose your character names? Do you think they are important? I am interested to hear but don’t rush… it might take me another eighteen months to get around to looking at the manuscript again!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Self-editing and Repetition, Self-editing and Repetition

When you’re answering to children all day, you can become a bit repetitive, and you have to get creative about your answers, hoping one magical construction of words will sink in.  Oftentimes, the words don’t sink in, no matter how hard you try, especially if the answer that the kid wants is ‘I will do that for you right now, my sweet.’  So you just have to abandon the topic and hope to build a new one.  Which brings me to the topic of the day:  self-editing.

Self-editing is tricky.  It’s easy to overlook mistakes in your own writing, mistakes that would pop out on the page screaming at you in another’s work.  Self-editing is hard because we can be so close to our own work, that we need to step back from it and come in with fresh eyes.  This is not always easy if you are driven to finish your work on a deadline.  But that extra space and time means you will look at your work more critically and with less protectiveness than if you plow through in one go.  I admit, I am not good at stepping away.  I feel like I’ve abandoned a baby with a dirty diaper and want to rush in and make it all better right away.

After editing for typos, and punctuation, I start reading my work aloud, and that’s when I come across the biggest changes that need to be made, see the weaknesses in dialogue, the inconsistencies, and the areas that aren’t working.  When reading my work aloud, I start seeing repetition.  For example, in my first novel, I was in love with using the word ‘just’.  It was just everywhere and just served no purpose.  Little words like this can clutter a good story and weaken it even without us being able to pinpoint why.  So, I slashed a ton of ‘justs’ and the manuscript did not suffer.  In my latest manuscript, I peppered ‘breezes’ of various kinds too frequently throughout.  A friend editing my manuscript pointed out how often I used the word ‘breeze’.   It was kind of mind boggling that I never noticed that before, even after reading it aloud to myself.  There were breezes coming through windows, across porches and downtown streets.  Maybe living in cold Edinburgh, I subconsciously long for those Texas breezes that break the stifling heat.   If you have a friend or several friends who can point these repetitions out for you, then beg and plead for them to read your work.  And return the favor as much as possible.

Which brings me to my last point, gentle reader (I had to use that, having found out this weekend that some writers love using this in their work and that it ticks off agents).  Self-editing, I think, can go only so far.  It’s like parenting in a vacuum. Those eyes from other writers are as invaluable as exchanging tips with other mothers.  It takes a village to raise a child and a room full of grumpy writers to raise a novel.  It’s a huge ask to have people read a long manuscript, but if you can exchange editing with other writers, do it!  Take it seriously and it will come back to you when you need it.  Which reminds me, off to edit a friend’s manuscript who has been patiently waiting for it for two weeks now! 

How do you self-edit?  What do you find when you read your own work aloud? 

Friday, 4 May 2012

Creating Minds

Apparently, according to recent scientific studies, your brain is always at work being creative and creativity is not a process reserved just for ‘creative’ people.  We all possess different creative skills.  And according to the same studies, states of relaxation are essential for moments of insight that fuel our most creative ideas.  So, if you’re a mother freakin’ writer, those moments of calm and peace are good times to let your brain relax and do the work for you, to let those little baby chickens incubate until they are ready to hatch. 

Also, again according to the same studies, creativity is actually much more social than we’ve wanted to believe, shelving the myth of the lone genius.  Learning this made me realize that feeding my social life is as important and vital to my well-being as it is to my writing.  So, I don’t need to feel so guilty about having fun once in a while.  It’s making me more creative!

Edinburgh is full of creative moms and apparently cities like this become centers of creativity because they force us to interact and these experiences feed our creativity.  Along with the above points on creativity, studies show that both single-mindedness and persistence are essential keys to creative success, not just raw talent.  So those old adages about persistence really are true.

It occurred to me after listening to a Radio 4 program on creativity that discussed these studies, (thanks to it being pointed out to me by another creative mom), that all these aspects of creativity are closely aligned with being a mother.  Often it is in those moments of calm and relaxation that we find clarity in a parenting issue, and often in our persistence and consistency as mothers, we see our children responding positively to the safety of the boundaries we are providing.

How do you feed your creative mind?  Do you pin board, note-take, go for walks or creative meet-up groups?  How do you find this helps increase your creativity?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

I (diot) T (technology) by Val Innes

Do you have a writing routine? Some scribes do, others are flexible. Me, I start writing longhand - words come easier to me with a pencil in my hand.  The problem comes when I have to type the prose into - or is it onto? - the computer and I can't read my handwriting.  I keep all written drafts and research (remember I write non-fiction pieces) and convince myself that it is in case of questions later in the process.  In reality I think I like the feeling of paper and screeds of handwritten notes. Since I also like trees, I aim to stop that practice as soon as possible.

At the end of the day, all my work ends up on the computer. Which is why this week I have been tearing my hair out.  My laptop (already missing the "F", "W" and "@" buttons, decided to go on strike.  It was so determined to have a holiday that it would not even open a document I had previously saved.  Worse was to come though, as I couldn't log onto the internet (no Facebook or bubbleshooter...) and eventually the laptop died. I mean all I got was a black screen (with bird tweets coming out of it, but it has been doing that for a while now!)

Thank goodness for the computer shop opposite The Links as they are going to 'supercharge' my machine (or fully resuscitate as I think of the process) for Friday. FRIDAY! My seven-year old is crying into her cornflakes that her Moshi Monster will be missing her; he may even lose his rare moshlings.  Any parent with children under school age will not be familiar with the addictive online games available to children. In my defence, at least Moshi Monsters has word and numeracy tests that she loves to do. 
Apologies, therefore, if this post is late.  I had to offer no end of favours (no, definitely not those ones!) to the owner of the other laptop in the house so I could borrow his fully operable, brand new computer and printer to write this blog.  It left me thinking that sometimes the grown ups can be more difficult than the children - unless you include temperamental laptops, that is.
So I will end with this. Do you have back up when technology goes wrong? If not, I repeat the wise words of Woody in Toy Story:  "If you haven't got one, GET one!"