Tag Archives: character

Writer vs. Storyteller

photo-on-18-10-2016-at-11-02-amI’m stuck in the middle of my WIP (that’s why I’m writing this post instead of writing-writing) because the Writer and Storyteller in my head are fighting. I’m just under 50K words into what I think is a complex, layered, deeply nuanced character study, which the Writer is totally in love with. But now the Storyteller is trying to crash the party with questions like: Is the storyline strong enough to pull the reader along?

Writer: I don’t care what the reader thinks. I just care about my character.
Storyteller: I’m sorry, did you just say you don’t care about the reader?
Writer: I didn’t mean it. Of course I care about the reader. I’ve worked so hard on this characterisation — won’t it be enough to pull them along?
Storyteller: I don’t think so.
Writer: Then how about elegant sentences, and beautiful punctuation?
Storyteller: How about a plot twist in act three?
Writer: That would make it contrived.
Storyteller: That would make it a story.
Writer: It would cheapen the whole thing.
Storyteller: No it wouldn’t.
Writer: Yes, it would.
Storyteller: No.
Writer: Yes.
Storyteller: What about Peter Temple?
Writer: What about Peter Temple?
Storyteller: You’re always going on about how much you like him, and he does both.
Writer: I like — believe in, care about, fall in love with — his characters (and his stylish prose). I couldn’t care less about his plots. In fact I think they interfere with the characterisation.
Storyteller: That’s ridiculous.
Writer: And I still don’t get why there were chocolate wrappers in the bin at the end of The Broken Shore.
Storyteller: *Sigh* How many times do I have to tell you — I think it’s an implication of how Cashin will eventually, sometime in a future book, solve the mystery of what happened to the missing boys who made the ceramic pots back in 1988.
Writer: You have no idea either.
Storyteller: Margaret Atwood is good at both too.
Writer: I love Margaret Atwood.
Storyteller: David Mitchell.
Writer: I didn’t love Cloud Atlas.
Storyteller: I did.
Writer: You would. How about The Bell Jar?
Storyteller: Let’s not have that argument again. So what are we going to do?
Writer: About what?
Storyteller: Our story, for fucks sake!
Writer: Sorry, I was just thinking about the way the green light from the motel’s ‘Vacancy’ sign shimmers in a rain river along the ground to Dean Cola’s feet, just before Sidney leaves town with him.
Storyteller: Oh my God, you’ve just given away the ending!
Writer: That bit won’t be there if you get your way with the plot twist.
Storyteller: So you do want to give it a try?
Writer: I didn’t say that.
Storyteller: We’ll foreshadow it right from the start.
Writer: And if I don’t like it, I could take it out?
Storyteller: Of course.
Writer: I could do it with TrackChanges turned on — like a safety net, just in case.
Storyteller: You know we stopped using TrackChanges long ago. And you’re too stubborn to try Scrivener.
Writer: If it’s wrong, changing it back would be so much work, when I could be polishing prose instead.
Storyteller: You’ve done it before. Remember how many times you rewrote Please Don’t Leave Me Here?
Writer: *Curls up in corner and starts to cry*
Storyteller: You’ve learnt a lot since then.
Writer: No, I haven’t.
Storyteller: You — I mean I know what I’m doing now.
Writer: I’m not so sure.
Storyteller: Stop being a baby! It’ll be fine.
Writer: It might not be.
Storyteller: Then rewrite it again. And again, until it is fine.
Writer: But …
Storyteller: You know I’m right. Trust me.
Writer:
Storyteller: Trust me.
Writer: OK.

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Losing the plot

Since my last post about plotting for pantsers, I’ve been travelling slowly and steadily along my well-planned and carefully built road (in case you didn’t already know, I love metaphors). I’ve been sticking to the map and taking no short cuts.

I’ve been polishing my writing as I go, not moving on until it was as perfect as I could get it. Maybe I’ll only need to write one more draft, I thought. This is the way to write a novel — why didn’t I do the other two like this?

And then I reached the first big turnoff, around 20K words in. Here, my characters started going wild — heading off in all sorts of unexpected sub-directions, doing stuff I hadn’t planned, picking up other characters along the way. I can’t write fast enough to keep up with them.

The writing’s rough, a lot of it in point-form; there are big gaps, blue place-holder text, and highlighting with notes in square brackets reminding me to ‘fix this later’. I’m working all over the shop now — on the middle at the same time as the ending, and then adding bits to the start, and here, there and everywhere — the ideas are coming at me from all directions. My manuscript looks like a complete dog’s breakfast. It’s going to need many more drafts.

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E.L. Doctorow (also a fan of metaphors and similes) said:  ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way’.

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This is a dangerous place to be. You don’t want to break down out here, where you could lose control of your story and get hopelessly lost. I’m pretty sure it will be OK, though, because I still have my trusty map. I know which turnoffs to make and by when, and I know the final destination — none of these things change much, no matter what my characters do. [Doctorow also said: Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. Ahem …] However, what happens in between, I don’t really know. Sure, the process would be faster and less painstaking if I planned these in-between bits better. I would waste less time and make fewer mistakes exploring dead ends and characters that don’t make the final draft. But for me, the thrill is in the exploration of the unknown, the joy in the discovery of the unexpected, the magic in the unearthing of things I never thought I could imagine. This is the reason why I write.

Where the hell does writing come from?

I hate writing; I only like rewriting. Looking at things I’ve written, I usually struggle to recall how I wrote them or where the ideas even came from. Somehow words have just appeared on the page, magically. I think this writing amnesia is similar to the kind that kicks in after childbirth — a defence mechanism because it’s so painful.

This morning I caught myself in between the godawful blank page and the ‘where did that come from’ stage? I stopped and made a conscious effort to take note of how I got from one to the other.

Two days ago, I was staring blankly at the gap between chapters seven and eight of my work in progress, where I had written put something here. Yesterday I updated that to Sidney goes to work. Maybe Mac comes in to meet her after work? Thirteen words in two days!

I have this character, Macallister, who was my protagonist Sidney’s boss in the hellhole office where she works (any resemblance to places I have worked is completely coincidental). While Sid was ‘away’ (in the psych ward) for reasons that are becoming increasingly sinister, Mac resigned from his job. Mac was off the page at the start, and I thought I’d probably delete him altogether at some stage, but there is this line about him in Sid’s thoughts that made me think perhaps he is an important character. What if something had happened between Sid and Mac just before the ECT, which wiped her short-term memory, and she doesn’t remember?

This morning, I finally did some writing. I started with dialogue — slabs and slabs of boring dialogue. I just let my characters talk to each other at the pub for a while to see what would happen. What came out of these conversations between Sid and Mac was a strong sense of unease. Sid had confided in Mac something that she can’t remember; she was afraid of something, maybe of her husband; Mac is worried about her; she dismisses his concerns, saying it had been the illness talking. There is so much tension between these two characters. Maybe they had an affair? Yes! No. But I think maybe Mac wanted to.

I uncovered clearer character motivations as I chipped off the boring bits of dialogue that didn’t create tension or reveal character. Next, I added action between the dialogue, and then description and sensory detail. I will add more setting details when I decide on a pub location and go there to do some ‘research’. I also did the pathetic fallacy thing with the weather — a wild electrical storm — reflecting the calamity that’s going on beneath my character’s skin.

Now for the fun bit: rewriting. I’ll polish, and move bits around, and then move them back, and then move them again. I’ll delete bits, and then reinstate them, and then delete them again. And again. And again. And then I’ll go onto the next section.

book-1012275_960_720 (4)Having done this twice before, I trust in the process, and know that I will eventually get to the end of an entire first draft. Then I’ll rewrite the whole thing a gazillion times. It will become a blur and, in the end, I will look at the words on the page and wonder where the hell they came from.

My top five unreliable narrators in fiction

1) Grace Marks in Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Femme fatale or victim of circumstance? Innocent or a cold-blooded killer?

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers, and Grace Marks is my favourite unreliable narrator in fiction. Alias Grace is based on the true story of one of the most notorious Canadian women of the 1840s, having been convicted of murder at the age of 16.

The actual case was sensationalised in the newspapers. Grace was reported as being ‘uncommonly pretty’; her employer and housekeeper were having an affair; and Grace and her fellow-servant were also assumed to be having an affair.

In Atwood’s fictional account, Grace claims to have no memory of the violent murders of her employer and housekeeper. Is she insane or lying? Or maybe she is unable to recall events accurately due to post-traumatic stress? She seems to be telling the truth (as she knows it) to her doctor, but she admits to making it ‘more interesting’ for him at times.

The reader never knows if Grace is guilty or innocent, and is left to judge how much of her narration is truthful.

2) The unnamed narrator in Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

The unnamed narrator in Fight Club is immediately questionable as he suffers from impaired thought processes due to chronic insomnia. Our suspicions about his point of view deepen when he joins self-help group after self-help group and eventually finds himself in an underground fight club, which turns out to be a cult-like group that participates in terrorist activities. There’s a big twist at the end that makes us question everything the narrator has told us.

3) Amy (and Nick) in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Right from the start, the reader knows something is wrong in Gone Girl because the stories of the two narrators don’t match.

Beautiful Amy goes missing and her husband Nick is suspected in her disappearance.

The first half of the book is told in first person, alternately, by both Nick and Amy. Nick’s point of view is from the present, while Amy’s perspective is given via journal entries. Amy’s account of their marriage makes her seem happy and easy to live with, and Nick aggressive. Nick’s story, on the other hand, depicts Amy as anti-social, demanding and resentful. Did Nick murder Amy? Or is he innocent and lacking in remorse simply because he is relieved to be free of her?

The competing narration and the mystery of their marriage is intriguing enough. But then — the big twist — the second half of the novel takes a different turn, and Flynn reveals that Amy and Nick are both unreliable narrators and that important information has been withheld from the reader.

4) Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

An unreliable narrator for many reasons. The Great Gatsby is a series of one-sided reminiscences of experiences based on Nick Carraway’s perception, opinions and thoughts about his mysterious millionaire next-door neighbour, Jay Gatsby.

Nick contradicts himself, a lot of alcohol is consumed, there are gaps in his memory, his behavior is inconsistent, and his moral conflict seems to distort his judgements — all of which leaves the reader questioning the truth of events recalled.

5) Christine Lucas in Before I Go to Sleep by S.J Watson

Christine Lucas, the narrator in Before I Go to Sleep is unreliable because she is suffering from a rare form of amnesia that wipes her near-term memory every time she falls asleep. Such a clever premise! This book sucked me in completely.

Every morning Christine wakes unable to recall what happened the day before. Her doctor suggests she keep a journal, which she reads every morning. Clues in her journal make Christine suspect that her husband — the only person she can trust — has been lying to her, and her life may be in danger.

Novel research trip

Day 1: On The Road

First location. Really!

Ryan's Hotel, Traralgon

Ryan’s Hotel, Traralgon

I’m thinking more exotic locations for my third novel. New York? Paris? Maybe Detective Aidan could go visit his relatives in Italy …

Bairnsdale Court House

Second location: Bairnsdale Court House

Raymond Island ferry

Raymond Island ferry

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I was half-expecting to find Detective Aidan sitting on the porch with a beer in his hand. No — just a koala.

 

Day 2: The Old Middle-aged Man Woman And The Sea Lakes

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Should have bought my swimmers! Almost forgot: It’s not a holiday.

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Lakes Entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 3: The Shining?

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Whenever you hear me typing …

 Day 4: The Road

Finally found a location round the back of the island for the shooting scene.

Gravelly Point Road. Very gravelly.

Gravelly Point Road. Very gravelly.

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Tea Tree Lane beach

 

 

 

 

 

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The sea was angry that day, my friends.

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Look who’s here. Hooray! Another writer. Amy Jasper.

Day 4: Please Don’t Leave Me Here (had to get that one in)

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Bye-bye, my annoying little friend (lay off the potato chips for a while).

 

 

 

 

 

 

And farewell to my imaginary story-friends who will forever live in this place.

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My book is like Frozen

If you have a young child, you will probably know all about the Disney movie Frozen — and the savvy marketing that has filled our home with Frozen merchandise.

I’ve watched the movie over and over with my five-year-old. Although my novel — a psychological/crime thriller — is full of sex and drugs, and a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll (definitely not for children), I think it’s a lot like Frozen!

Elsa-and-Anna-Frozen book

 

 

 

 

 

  • It’s set partly in the past and partly in the present.
  • My protagonist is a bit like Elsa (the accidental perpetrator wrestling a guilty secret), and a bit like Anna (the awkward innocent).
  • ‘True love’ is not who you expect.
  • Ultimately it’s about acceptance and letting go.