30 Days of Nano: Day Seventeen

Hi, I’m Liddy. I’m seventeen, and I’m the protagonist heroine of Madder Hall. 

I’m actually right in the middle of something quite important, but Lynsey’s the boss I’m the boss. And I don’t really like what Lynsey’s making me do. It feels like, everything was fine, okay, and then she went off in this really weird direction and something happened that wasn’t meant to happen, and now we’re just, um, what’s going on, Lesley? (We call her that to annoy her. Once, when she was a little girl, her friend’s mum got confused and wrote Lesley on her party invitation, and ever since then it’s weird but whenever someone gets her name wrong they call her Lesley.)

She got this painting off the ‘internet’ (don’t ask, because I don’t know) and it’s got a vibe about it that reminds her of me, she says:

If you think I know who painted this you've got another think coming.

If you think I know who painted this you’ve got another think coming.

Even though I’m blonde, and this girl is a ginger, and I spend nearly the whole book fiddling with my long yellow hair (it’s like she can’t think of anything else for me to do!). But anyway. Lesley says it’s the look on her face that makes her think of me. Who is she anyway? She’s someone out of the Bible. Change the subject, please.

Lesley recommends ‘googling’ (eh?) a character’s physical ‘attributes’ (whatever they are). She says finding the right sort of face can be very inspiring.

I suppose I’ll have to go back to the plot in a minute. I’m meant to be finding a key. I am really, really cold in that house. We keep having power cuts, because it’s a useful plot device it’s the 1970s. I keep stubbing my toes on the furniture. Give me a torch, Lesley! Or just leave the lights on. (Stop saying it’s the electricity board, Lesley. We all know it’s you.)

She’s says it’s 2014 now, when you’re reading this, and people don’t have hover cars or tinfoil trousers, but they do keep really tiny phones in their pockets and the telly’s on all day. I said, can’t you set the book in 2014 with the permanent telly, but Lesley says no, it’s really not possible because it’s a well known fact that modern technology ruins plots it’s an artistic decision that’s crucial to the tone of the book. So, god, it’s 1979. I don’t even know what a deely-bopper is yet. Or a ra-ra skirt. God knows if I’ll live long enough to enjoy the atrocities of the 1980s.

God knows? I meant to say Lesley knows.

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30 Days of Nano: Day Fifteen

First draft dialogue, eh? Isn’t it marvellous.

According to a bloody good documentary I saw a while ago, ‘er Royal Highness Hilary Mantel begins with dialogue. (I believe, in said documentary, she claimed she could make dialogue out of the telephone directory.) (And I, for one, believe her.)

First draft of Wolf Hall.

First draft of Wolf Hall.

What makes good dialogue?

I can tell you what doesn’t make good dialogue: the bobbins I wrote this morning. But it’s NaNo, right? It’s just about getting the words down and shaping the scene. And that’s fine.

Just so long as no-one (NO-ONE) ever reads it. Until it’s been put through the Subtlety-Wringer and exorcised of its hideous melodrama.

Most first-draft dialogue (unless you’re extremely good at it) tends towards the melodramatic. People speak their thoughts. They actually answer each other’s questions, as if life was just one big interview session, and tell each other all sorts of things that an actual human being would never reveal without thumbscrews, or a box full of rats, or a hot poker to one’s rectal cavity.

I like writing dialogue, but it isn’t my forte. To be honest, I used to suck harder at dialogue than Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat. It took a long time to get better at it: for a long time I thought ‘getting better at dialogue’ meant rearranging the words somehow (and it partly does mean that; all writing means rearranging the words somehow). It was reading Story by Robert McKee that really woke me up to the flaws in my dialogue. I’d been writing, and rewriting, the same short story – on and off – for fifteen years (this is honestly true) and the bit I was stuck on was a monologue, delivered by a naked nineteen year old boy. It was a Big Moment. It needed to lead to an Even Bigger Moment. I arranged and rearranged those words more times than an obsessive compulsive word-rearranger. But nothing was working. It never rang true.

And the reason it never rang true? I was force feeding him. Like Vincent Price taking gastronomic revenge on a critic in Theatre of Blood (once seen, never forgotten).

More poodle, Sir?

More poodle, Sir?

Good dialogue, as McKee says, comes from knowing your characters. In the case of my unfinished story, the naked nineteen year old’s dialogue never rang true because neither did he. He was only a stooge, shoe-horned into the story to do what I wanted him to. (NB if you’ve just tuned in, I’m talking about a fictional character: I’ve never done anything to a  naked nineteen year old with a shoehorn.) So I had to go back to the drawing board, and re-draw him. He still isn’t right, and I’m still not happy, but neither am I wasting time on dialogue that’s never going to work. I’ll come back to him one day, when the novel’s done, and finish him off. He’s been standing beside some brown curtains in only his birthday suit for a very long time now, watching the rain, and I do feel I owe him a climax, eventually. One day. (I repeat: this is a fictional character. I do not keep naked boys next to my curtains.) (And, besides, they’re red, not brown.) (The curtains, that is.)

Crap dialogue, though, is the lifeblood of NaNoWriMo. (Ah, go on, you know it’s true.) When you’re strolling along in your own time, 500 words a day for instance, you’re stopping and noticing what’s going on in the scene you’re writing. You know what everyone’s wearing, what the weather’s like, what sort of chairs they’re sitting in. You dot the Is and cross the Ts.

When you’re knee deep in NaNo and 4000 words in the red, there’s a natural tendency to resort to dialogue. Slowly the rest of the scene decays, like Joel’s memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and you’re left with disembodied voices. Like an episode of the Archers, without any sound effects. (Did you know they use yoghurt pots to make the squelchy lamb noises? And, ahem, this 2013 Storify of the Archers’ twitter Q & A includes a question from… well, yours truly.)

images

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this. What’s good enough for Her Maj, HM, is good enough for me. Dialogue is a great way of sketching a scene. Just so long as you know that it’s only a sketch, and the colours and textures will have to be painted in later.

As for my word-count, it’s 27,758. Today we’re halfway through. Thanks to yesterday’s slightly bonkers 3798 words, I’m ahead of the game – in spite of a paltry 102 words (of shit dialogue) this morning. I keep having ideas for What Happens Next, and they all seem to function in harmony with each other = A Good Sign, no? I’m also projecting forwards, beyond this draft, to the moment I have to go back and change bits that don’t work. But, hey. That’s what writing is.

I’m off to eat my half-time oranges. Good luck with part 2, everyone!

Plotters and pantsers and halfway houses.

You set your book in 1970s Britain and it’s only to be expected, I suppose, that at some point in the proceedings your cast will go on strike. The ‘C’ word hasn’t helped. By which, of course, I mean Christmas. My novel, like so many others, no doubt, has been gathering virtual dust while I’ve battled old ladies for last jars of mincemeat, and spent half my annual earnings on postage, and queued up for 22 hours for a £1.50 stocking filler (without which said stocking is bound to seem woefully empty somehow). But the rumblings had already started, to tell you the truth: I think Christmas was just an excuse, for this writer at least, to step back and take stock of the Magnum Opus. And one thing was stunningly, immediately obvious: my characters have gone Off Message. This isn’t all bad, though. As Isabel Allende describes it (on the utterly wonderful Brain Pickings): ‘When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.’ This is all very comforting of course – because there’s (almost) nothing finer than spending time with characters who’ve sprung to life at last – but what of this thing we call ‘plot’? I had plans for these characters, way back when: an itinerary of activities to keep them all occupied, like overseas visitors you’ve dutifully – reluctantly – agreed to escort on a sightseeing tour: ‘No, but Tuesday we’re doing the Houses of Parliament. Windsor Castle’s on Wednesday. Madame Tussauds? But we’re not even going to Madame Tussauds… Look, I emailed this weeks ago…’

Once upon a time I had a plot. My cat was guarding it. He fell asleep. Perhaps that was the problem.

Once upon a time I had a plot. My cat was guarding it. He fell asleep. Perhaps that was the problem.

If you’ve come within sniffing distance of National Novel Writing Month then you’ll certainly know of the NaNo folklore that two types of writers exist, known as plotters and pantsers. The plotters, of course, are self-explanatory (lovers of file cards, character profiles, hard and fast outlines. Call round to their house and you’ll most likely find their CDs neatly marshalled according to some kind of arcane system – date of release divided by number of band members, for instance, multiplied by Pi). Pantsers are not German tanks, as you might be imagining, but rather are writers who fly by the seat of their pants (which is rather a wonderful image, when you really think about it). Call round to a pantser’s house of an evening and follow the trail of their last music session like breadcrumbs from one incorrectly-replaced CD to another. (As every unfortunate guest will know, I fall squarely in Category B.) But, of course, it’s not really that simple, is it? The late, great children’s author Diana Wynne Jones saw four distinct camps, not two, and I’m rather inclined to agree: 1. Careful planners (who need to know every last twist in advance). 2. Avid researchers (short on plot, but long on background). 3. Back to front and inside out writers (who might start with chapter 11). 4.  DWJ’s own method: ‘I know the beginning and what probably happens in the end, plus a tiny but extremely bright picture of something going on in the middle.’ (You can read the full article here. While it’s aimed at children, it’s perfectly pertinent, too, for the adult writer).

And when you've read the article, give yourself a treat and read this book. Pure joy from start to finish.

And when you’ve read the article, give yourself a treat and read this book. Pure joy from start to finish.

Myself, I’m a 4. I’ve tried plotting – I really have tried – but the plot (wildly good as it seems in the abstract) can only translate into concrete reality if the cast you’ve created decides to play ball. And, ay, there’s the rub. You can move them around all you like when they’re still only names on a neat set of file cards, but once they’re alive – I mean really alive – they can give you the old two-fingered salute any time they flipping well want to. ‘Characters are not created by writers,’ said Elizabeth Bowen. ‘They pre-exist and have to be found.’ And she’s right, I think – or, at least, in the sense that all characters (probably) spring into life as composites of the many hundred – thousand – people we’ve met in real life. They’re like teenagers (trust me on this; I’m the mother of one): and as every mum knows you can take a hot-headed teen to the instrument of your choice but you can’t make them practise… and so it is with characters. You can spend your whole morning with shoehorn in hand – ‘you will poison the schoolmaster’s wife, because have decreed it… but what do you mean you’re in love with the schoolmaster’s wife? Oh god, NO, because, look, now you’ve sunk the whole plot’ – till your characters head to the picket line, placards in hand, and perhaps they’re unusually stubborn, my cast, but they’re not going to budge, not a muscle, until I’ve re-written the script of their lives. Am I going to give in? Well, of course I am.

The Third Suitcase (or How Many is Too Many Characters?)

So I know how many psychiatrists it takes to change a lightbulb (one. But the lightbulb’s got to want to change) and how to get four elephants into a mini (two in the front, and two in the back).

What I don’t know, good people, is how many characters I can reasonably cram in my novel.

Many have fallen already, in the thirteen months (not that I’m counting) since ‘Madder Hall’ first stuck its nose past the parapet of my notebook (‘Wheeling a stolen bicycle, an ordinary-looking girl with yellow hair…’)* As I sit at my desk (oh, all right, in bed), with a Pivotal Scene to be written today, I’m pondering whether or not to cull another.

Now someone (whose name I’ve forgotten) said something (I can’t quite remember) on Radio 4 once, while lightly discussing the Eleanor Catton book-beast that garnered this year’s Booker Prize. It went something like this: writing plots is like carrying suitcases, one in each hand. If you’ve constantly got to go back for a pesky third suitcase, then maybe your plot is too complex. (Do please shed some light on the source of this quote, if you know it.)

For me, this particular character feels like that pesky third suitcase. I keep on forgetting her. Leaving her under a bench on the platform. (She nearly got blown up once, by controlled explosion, for being a possible bomb.) She’s only half-packed, as I vaguely recall: there’s a dirty great lock on the strap that I can’t find the code for. More bothersome still, she’s the same shade and texture as one of my other cases. I can’t always tell them apart at a distance. (Insert pic, here, of the author scratching her chin.)

But she plays very nicely in tandem with somebody else (her young daughter), and killing her off may cause the fabric of Time Itself to be hopelessly torn apart (or else necessitate a largish chunk of rewriting, which is far worse, of course). So here I am straddling this chasm, my legs at unnatural angles (as modelled here by Leroy in Fame), Gene Anthony Raywhile the Pros and Cons swirl in my head. Do I welcome The Killer Inside Me or hack off that lock with a buzz saw and see what she’s hiding?

* As the re-writes have piled up (like hands playing One Potato, Two Potato) it turns out the yellow-haired girl can’t even ride a bike anymore. Which just proves the truth of this Rose Tremain quote (from the Guardian’s Ten Rules for Writing Fiction): ‘Respect the way characters may change once they’ve got 50 pages of life in them.’