The creative writer in a state of idleness

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Lazing on a bench by the river Nidd in the old market town of Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, I was staring at people climbing in and out of hired rowing boats. A couple had just settled down on a boat’s seating. He took up the oars and made a few tentative strokes through the water, while she, wearing a broad-brimmed white sunhat, chattered away to him. The boat moved out into the stream, and by a whisker avoided colliding with an incoming boat.

The last time I’d been here, I’d struggled all that week to come up with a fresh way of linking two scenes of a story, and reckoned the day out might help knock my imagination into gear (Click here for post). Fortunately, it had. But this afternoon, I had no such target or ambition. I was simply idling away a few hours.

I squeezed my eyelids shut against the sun’s glare, feeling the heat soaking into my face. My thoughts up to now were bobbing about like flotsam, with no particular place to go, indifferent to any specific sight or sound.

Yet soon, a set of similar sounds in short but recurring intervals caught my attention, on my right and slightly behind me. I turned my head. Two women and a man were standing around a low circular stone wall, with a roof-like structure over it supported by wooden beams.

“Did you make your wish?”

“I’m about to.”

A laugh. “You have to do it as you toss the money in.”

“Oh!”

These people had keen gestures with animated faces, eyes big and bright.

“Do it again!”

“Spin the money! Look! Mine’s going in quicker than yours.”

I could hear coins rolling round on metal.

After this group had gone, another arrived, enthusiastically repeating the same ritual. What struck me was their lack of hesitation in approaching this structure and throwing money into it.

I stepped across. A metal sheet acted as a cover inside this low circular wall. It sloped inward with a hole in its centre. A sign read, Wishing Well.

I shook my head slowly, dropping back down on the bench and staring over again at the rowing boats. I’d pay money to do that, to float on the river for half an hour, but this other thing… absurd!

More adults arrived at the so called ‘wishing well’, exhibiting the same unquestioning and reflexive movements as the others.

“Mine went done before yours!”

“What did you wish for?”

“Don’t tell! You won’t get your wish if you do.”

Not wanting to suffer any more of this insane nonsense, I strolled off in the direction of the famous stone viaduct. But with my mind and body in its slow idling gear, thoughts of this ‘wishing well’ kept dogging me.

Why do grown people behave like this? Some had even been skipping around the ‘well’. The wall and roof bit had been recently built and I wondered if the well itself was any deeper than ground level. Not a well at all, probably. Hadn’t anyone else noticed? Anyway, don’t wishing wells belong to fairy tale territory? Sure, as a child I chucked money into them, believing wishes might come true, but by ten or eleven such beliefs were fast giving way to a healthy and mature scepticism.

I sat on another bench and listened to a train rumbling over the viaduct. Is it the persistence of childhood beliefs and superstitions that make grown people throw money into a hole? Would they throw money into any old hole to make a wish? Do the words Wishing Well act like a magnet? Or is it the structure itself? Or both? Do words and structure together equal a sort of irresistible charm for them?

I burst out laughing. One or two people flashed me a funny look. People were indeed strange.

Okay, to be fair! They’re on holiday, at an attractive riverside location, wanting fun, new experiences, and with a bit of money to throw away (literally). They’re much more susceptible to this sort of thing than they would be on a grey Monday morning rushing to the office. Like me, in fact, they’re in a state of idleness, or even frivolousness. Their usual sceptical state has given way to something softer, less defensive. Otherwise, they may not have even noticed the ‘well’.

I bought myself a strawberry ice cream, continued rambling and stuck with the topic.

What if I offered passers-by the chance of throwing money into my outstretched pocket and making a wish? I’d explain it’s a wishing pocket. Would they go for it? What if I dressed up as Puss in Boots or Santa Claus first? Unlikely that would work. Even in their idling state, people’s scepticism would dismiss this idea out of hand. Worse, they’d probably look at me in that odd way people reserve for lunatics and drunks. Boy, the difficulty in reaching beyond traditional boundaries!

Yet, throwing money into a hole will never make a wish come true. And every adult knows that. Otherwise, we’d all be lottery winners many times over and all our enemies would be dead many times over. We’d be a world full of rich dead people.

Earlier, it had rained. I stopped now and gazed down at a puddle. A tiny black-and-white terrier rubbed up against me and took his turn to stare into the puddle, his nose only a few inches from it. But seeing nothing interesting there he moved on.

But I saw something interesting there. Like the swell on a wave, I saw the idea of a story beginning to emerge.

How about a wishing puddle? People could throw money in and make a splash as well as a wish. The higher the splash the more likely the wish will come true. I could hang a sign over the puddle, made out in a fancy font, giving the sense of being Olde Worlde. Even dangle a few lucky charms from the sign.

Or what about a portable wishing well? One that looked real, of course. Like a portable toilet, you could carry it around the country to tourist spots or raves or concerts and so on. Could anyone make a living out of it? Was it a good way of raising charity money? Could whoever owned this portable but real-looking wishing well set up a franchise? Obviously, this story would have humour but say something poignant about people, especially about their fickleness over superstitions and beliefs.

Hold on! What about a story about a street beggar who opts for a makeover? He’d wear a colourful and eccentric hat, scarf or shoes, but sombre colours for the rest of his dress. He’d have an air that associates him with the mysterious and charm-filled world of the fairy tale. Maybe he could sport a patch over one eye; except he had to avoid looking like a pantomime act. His makeover would excite the punter’s sense of childhood memories so they couldn’t resist throwing money at him.

A sign hanging around the neck of his old, tired-looking dog (would he need a makeover, too?) could explain to every pair of passing and curious eyes:

Here sits the wishing beggar.
Throw a pound coin into his hat and make a wish.
100% success guaranteed.

He might feign blindness or deafness or dumbness to add to his sense of mystery mixed with pity.

And the plot? The conflict? Aah! A woman had thrown money into his hat and made her wish, but it hadn’t come true. A fussy, complaining customer, she demands a refund. He explains: a mind with any trace of cynicism makes the wish null and void. She crinkles her brow and bites her bottom lip.

And the story kicks into gear.

While I’m out strolling in a state of idleness, I’m always secretly wishing for some new story idea or character to come along. And today one had done.

So you can guess what I had to do next.

I fished out a pound coin and rolled it round the sloping metal cover, watching it drop into the hole with a smile of satisfaction.

Beside me were the couple from the boat earlier. She threw a pound coin onto the metal sheet.

“I made a wish,” she cried, holding onto her broad-brimmed white sunhat. “But will it really come true?”

I thought she was asking him, until I saw her looking at me.

“Your money went into the hole,” I told her. “So, of course, it will come true.”

She gave me a big smile.

What I didn’t tell her, and what no one else knew, was that you could make your wish and see it come true before throwing money into the well.

Where would a writer be without people’s flaws and especially an acknowledgment of his own? What would writers have left of interest to write about? Sometimes, when under the grace of idleness, those flaws come into focus very clearly indeed.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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A philosophical approach to the slog of draft writing those early novels

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Writing a novel is not a simple matter of writing a single draft, or even a second or a third. The first draft is merely the end of the beginning. In fact, once you have properly written your first readable novel, you will realize that the draft which you once thought was the final draft was just the beginning of the end of your draft writing. Some new writers will tell you that once they have finished their first or second draft they now understand the meaning of that famous phrase, ‘writing is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration’. But they would be ill-advised to say so at this point. It is only after they have managed ten or fifteen drafts of their story and done so for six or seven novels that they will truly understand the meaning behind the phrase.

During the early years of learning my craft, I’d often swear blind to myself that a particular novel couldn’t possibly need another draft and that it was as good as it was ever going to be. But months on, I’d discover to my horror that the same novel was full of weaknesses and would need another whole draft to make it perfect again. I’ve done fifteen drafts for a novel, and still it ended up not being enough, especially if I’d taken a six month break since the previous draft.

How could I have been so wrong in my estimation? I’d ask myself at those times, while my morale would slump and I’d start to believe in conspiracy theories. Was a gremlin living inside my computer and deliberately tinkering with my manuscript? It certainly seemed so, because I just found it so hard to believe that I’d got it so wrong and that the story really did need another draft. And yet this might happen again and again with the same story over a period of years. Working toward a well-polished novel seemed like the equivalent of trying to write my name in water with my fingertip, while expecting it to appear like ink in an exercise book.

Back then, it hadn’t always occurred to me that I was actually on a learning curve, and it was because I was constantly improving that I was able to see the weaknesses in the manuscript several months after the fact. But even if I had been fully aware of developments in my own learning curve, I still felt that the overwhelming slog of rewriting was slowly crushing my spirit.

Then, one day, I was struck by an epiphany. I had been seeing this whole matter of rewriting from the wrong end of the spectrum. Now I began to view it in a philosophical light.

If you think about it, you will see that life itself gives us just one go, one draft. If we get it wrong the first time out, well tough! Life is a learning curve but most of us find ourselves behind the curve most of the time, desperately trying to catch up. Living is tricky. Often things to be worked through and resolved in our lives seem quite abstract and difficult to comprehend: love, relationships, desires, and so on. Sometimes, it may seem that trying to understand and resolve life’s problems is like trying to write our name in water with our fingertip, while expecting it to appear like ink in an exercise book.

But imagine if we were allowed not just a second go, but a third and a fourth and a fifth go at life. Imagine if we could get right up there with that learning curve and never let it get ahead of us again. Imagine if we were allowed to go through life as many times as necessary in order to end up with a well-polished version of it.

Of course, we cannot do this with life itself because it is not a Hollywood film; and we cannot do this with most parts of life; but we can do it with our writing.

The story shows us all that we are and all that we desire to be. In other words, it offers us a reflection, often an uncannily accurate one, of our human condition. For this reason, if for no other, the story is very important to our culture. To write a good and readable novel is very hard to do and is a high cultural achievement in our society; and in theory, at least, there is nothing to stop a person from both attempting and achieving it. It is something many people claim they want to do, but so many of these never reach their objectives. But the true writer will always strive to master his art on the instinctive understanding that this thing of high cultural value might be the only important thing in his life that he is given the chance of working on over and over until he gets it right.

Now that’s quite a statement to make if you really think about it. And there is more than a touch of irony hidden away in it, too.

If we believe in ourselves, if we think our work is worth developing, that it contributes something to the total sum of our lives, then we as writers will give our all to bring it to fruition. And while doing so, we shouldn’t moan about the perspiration of rewriting, but give thanks for the fact that we can go on rewriting to improve our story. Having a second and a third and a twentieth chance at getting it right is stark evidence of how lucky we are, not how unlucky we are. Writing is one of the few things on our life’s journey where we are allowed to make as many mistakes as necessary in our attempt to accomplish something of value.

The next time you find yourself in the trenches with your manuscript, pulling out your hair and wondering if the rewriting will ever come to an end, give yourself pause for thought on this point.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

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Types of research material for the fiction writer

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

This post briefly describes the main types of research material available to the creative writer with some pros and cons offered on each type.

What are primary and secondary sources?

These terms are common to the historian, though are applied to other areas of research, too. They refer to two basic types of research. Primary sources are original or contemporary records (material from the period of research). A common historical example is a letter or diary. Secondary sources relate to original sources and are written after the fact. They are generally written by experts and presented in journal or textbook form.

Primary sources

pros

Let’s take an example! An eighteenth-century diary may bring aspects of life into sharp and vivid focus for the reader. It gives us an echo of the past from the inside out. A well-written diary may offer us an interesting account of the intellectual and emotional ebb and flow of the writer’s personality as they tackle the daily obstacles of their world. This enables the fiction writer to pick bits and pieces of the diary writer’s character or other characters referred to in the diary, and use them in developing his own set of characters, confident that his own characters’ thoughts and feelings will have a genuine historical basis to them.

A really useful diary will offer us anecdotes, titbits and personal observations of the smaller, more personal world as well as the broader, social, cultural, economic and political one; and why not poignant physical and psychological descriptions to go with these. Topics may include contemporary attitudes to war, politics, capital punishment, democracy, deference, and equality on the larger scale, and daily rituals, household problems, seasonal variation in diet, family sickness, common preoccupations and trivial fashions in clothes and entertainment, for example, on the smaller scale. The diary may also include examples of vernacular as well as formal language.

cons

Let’s stick with our example of an eighteenth century diary! The non-historian, unfamiliar with primary sources, will generally take them at face value. But the best way of thinking of the diary’s drawbacks is to imagine it as a present-day diary. When you do this, straightaway its weaknesses become only too obvious. You know the world you are living in, unlike the world of the distant past. We would not be so naive as to take any diary written now at its face value. Would we? We are involved intellectually and emotionally in the here and now. We have a stake in it. The vast knowledge and experience we possess of our own world means we can measure and weigh everything in a modern diary critically and confidently from our own perspectives and ideals.

Everybody is limited in their experiences, perspectives, emotional range and intelligence, so why take one personal account as anything other than what it is: a single record left by a single person of a limited intellectual and emotional range, writing about a limited number of subjects. You would not expect to learn much about the world we live in now with all its complexities from a single diary or even a handful of them. So don’t think you can do it about the past.

The further back you go, the more likely the diary writer will have come from a high social status. So don’t be fooled into thinking that lower status people thought and felt like the diary writer. Certainly with a diary that was meant for publication, but possibly even one that wasn’t, the writer’s political agenda might cloud his perspectives on his writing. A diary or letter meant for publication might well have been pure propaganda. ‘Trolling’ is a modern phenomenon but something similar always existed where you had the means to publish. As far as the diary’s language and style are concerned, it may well be written in a pretentious and even unrealistic form, which is obviously something the fiction writer does not want to emulate.

Secondary sources

pros

Though secondary source material is concerned with the original material and in the historian’s case is often written long after the fact, it will have many advantages that primary source material lacks. For example, the historian’s work will be peer reviewed so he will have gone to great lengths to make sure that it is credible. His research will be exhaustive, often covering many years of study. His work will cover a diversity of both primary and secondary sources and the proof of this is in his bibliography.

The secondary source writer will bring a thorough analysis and interpretation of his subject to his text. Whatever he discusses will be placed within the historical context. So, for instance, if he is using the diary above as primary source evidence to help build up a picture of the past, he will make us aware of its strengths and weaknesses and point out its specific value as it relates to his own work. Secondary source texts are invaluable for getting to grips with an unfamiliar subject as some offer a broad introduction for the beginner.

cons

Just as a primary source writer may have his own agenda, so too, may the secondary source writer. If the secondary source writer leads the reader astray because of his propaganda, almost always politically motivated in the historian’s case, this may very well have a great effect on the interpretation the fiction writer brings to his own work because the secondary source material is misleading the reader in a very broad and detailed way, and not in a small, specific and isolated one as with primary sources. The highly politically motivated historian interprets the past through a very narrow prism of political prejudices which leaves his work looking very lopsided and lacking in nuance. The problem for the fiction writer is that if he is not aware of this, it might leave his own story heavily biased and lacking in nuance, which in turn may well narrow his readership.

The Internet

pros

Do you need to know what time is sunrise or sunset at a certain place and time of year anywhere in the world? There are sites that will give you this information. Do you need to see a street view in downtown Dallas to gather some description for a scene in your story? Lots and lots of information, especially small but necessary details that might once have taken weeks or months to gather, are now only a click away.

cons

But not all sites are accurate, which is a big problem on the Internet. An overabundance of material, much of it written by opinionated non-experts, means that some of it is far from being accurate. Look for official sites rather than casual ones for relevant information.

Observation

pros

A great way to help you build description of a landscape or street scene is by actually being there and allowing your five senses to take it all in. Museums, zoos, circuses, battle re-enactments, historic sites, a busy police station are just a few of the places to visit. They will give you an overall feel of things that will help you hone your scene descriptions, and possibly even inspire you with some new ideas.

cons

Unfortunately, simple observation alone is often not sufficient. You need to know what you are looking at. For example, if you are looking at a battle-re-enactment, you will need to know what the battle formations are telling you about each side’s expertise and experience, strategies and tactics. You need to know the names of the soldiers’ clothing and weaponry, what they are made of, even what the weaponry is telling you about contemporary technology. So, in this example you would combine your textbook research with your observational research to create a powerful, authentic and accurate battleground scene.

Interviews

pros

Think of the great wealth of information a retired police officer could pass on to you about the job! Things she will never write down; things that are never found in any book; things that are esoteric and nuanced, full of insight and wisdom. Such a person would be like a gold mine to most crime writers.

Cons

A police officer recalling her personal experiences is also a primary source example, as in the example of the diary in the primary sources section. So here, as there, caution is recommended. A single policewoman is offering up her own personal and limited perspectives of a world you may only have knowledge of through her. It is not the whole of the policing world she is telling you about. A retired policewoman’s information may also not be up to date; things may have changed dramatically since her life on the force.

Moving away from the specific example of the police officer, other problems can be: your interviewee bores you to tears and talks about anything but what you find interesting. She may be stupid, dull, shallow, exaggerating things or simply lying to look big in front of you. Her memory may be poor and she may make things up even without being aware of it, just to fill in gaps. A person with an agenda will always give you a lopsided version of events. You may not bother cross-checking what your interviewee tells you because you treat it as authentic, straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, so you don’t think it needs to be challenged in any way.

Maps and visual material

Pros

Maps are obviously very useful in helping you negotiate the landmarks and set out the boundaries of your story’s setting whether urban or rural.

An old ordnance survey map instantly reveals something of a landscape’s history. For example, a fifty-year-old map showing countryside of a now urbanized development offers you an immediate and striking picture of the changes during that time. A chronological series of such maps over the fifty year period shows you the gradual changes. Such maps can be extremely useful research aids, for example, in stories about real or imagined urban-development protests.

Maps are also very useful for verifying material from other relevant sources.

Photos, paintings, statues and artefacts can help build accurate and authentic physical description, and can also help with inspiration and mood.

Cons

The only real downside is that they are hardly likely to be sufficient on their own as research material but will no doubt be used in conjunction with secondary and possibly other primary sources.

Conclusion

The obvious conclusion to draw here is that you will probably need to work with more than one type of research material in order to develop a strong working knowledge of your subject. A combination is certainly more likely to help you build up both an intellectual and physical understanding of your subject. But start off with some general and broad-based reading which means starting with the secondary sources. The more you research and learn about your subject, the more you will come to see both the pros and the cons of the different research types on which your knowledge and insight is growing.

Readers might also find these posts helpful:

Research and the fiction writer

Part 1: Why the study of history is relevant for the fantasy writer

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

Click on the image below to buy any of Jerry’s books on the US Amazon site

Posted in Miscellaneous, Writing fantasy, Writing fiction, Writing short stories | Tagged | Leave a comment

Research and the fiction writer

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

This post looks at why the fiction writer benefits from research, the best way of handling research, and ends on a warning of how researched material may easily drown rather than enhance the story.

Why research?

This question should be obvious for anyone wanting to write an historical- or fantasy-based story. An historical novel is impossible without research. The writer couldn’t set pen to paper because he would be unable to describe the setting of his world with any sense of believability, which includes not only the obvious physical setting, but the whole intellectual and emotional range required of his characters. The fantasy writer uses historical resources to help build his world as many physical settings of the fantasy tale are comparable to the early middle-ages societies of Northern Europe. Police, medical, law and science-based stories are also some of the more obvious ones requiring research.

Research enhances many types of stories and in any number of ways. Even a simple children’s short story can be improved by it. One story I wrote benefited by a quick research on washing and grooming beards and a list of beard styles with their descriptions.

Research often makes a writer’s original ideas look naïve and this simply means they are learning from the research. Research helps the writer develop a more informed approach to the subject of their story which translates into a classier story if the researched material is handled correctly. Research can help with character, storyline, conflict, theme, and plot and sub-plot development.

The greatest advantage research offers the writer is an understanding of the intellectual and emotional range of the world they are researching. This counts as much for a cop, law, science-based story or story about an athlete, as it does for an historical-based tale. Story is based on character and your story will collapse if your characters are not believable. This means that the characters’ intellectual and emotional range must be believable to the reader within the context of their world. If you do not develop this particular form of insight to a strong degree, you cannot hope to create believable character for your setting. This is important to understand as their intellectual and emotional range dictates their actions and reactions to the events in their world. As an example, how can you hope to show the actions and reactions to important events of a working doctor from the middle of the nineteenth century if you have no understanding of his intellectual and emotional range? It would be a rare writer indeed who had nothing to learn by making enquiries of this nature. Research will help prevent the talented and skilled writer from producing a derivative or completely unbelievable set of characters. Other writers are doing this research and if you are not one of them, you are going to be well out of the running for the bestseller lists.

The right approach

Approach your research as you would any new subject. Start with an overview of the major issues and details before tackling the smaller events and details. Let’s work with an example. Suppose you want to write an historical novel set in Ireland in the 1860s. The story will involve some form of political struggle against Westminster rule (direct rule from London). So you read several history books that give you an overview of the main political, social, economic and cultural realities of Ireland in both the eighteenth and nineteenth century. You can also read novels set in Ireland during this period.

While doing this swotting up, take notes on whatever strikes you as relevant to your own story. In particular, you’ll be looking for any spark of character from the historical narrative that may help you in the development of your own characters’ attributes. Also, be thinking of storyline, theme, plot and sub-plots.

Once you have gained a basic overview of the subject, a bird’s eyes view, start to stick your nose up closer to the setting. You want to see the smaller but still very important details. Character is the heart of the story and so the heart of your research will always focus on character. Your aim is to produce well rounded characters for the setting you have chosen. In our example here, that setting is 1860’s Ireland.

Let’s suppose we’ve chosen to centre our story around a medical doctor in his late forties. The plot revolves around our hero believing British rule is bad for Ireland and he is an agitator for change. He has been a working doctor in the West of Ireland for twenty five years, treating people from all social levels of society. As regards plot, our basic research has informed us of what can only be the most important aspect of this man’s backstory: the Great Irish Famine of the mid 1840s to mid 1850s. The doctor’s experiences from this period of his working life have moulded his present (1860s) perspective on Irish home rule (he wants a parliament in Dublin controlling the country rather than the one in London). The physical and emotional scars of the famine years were still being felt very heavily in the 1860s across much of Ireland.

So we have a basic backstory for the doctor but nothing really personal as yet. We need to move in various directions now and then dig a little deeper. We will try and personalise the famine from our doctor’s perspective.

Our first step in this direction is to get to grips with the general intellectual range of the mid-nineteenth century medical profession. To do this, we return to basics and gain an overview on the history of medicine from that period. We need to know what medical skills and understanding were available back then. Will our doctor have a stethoscope? Does he know what causes cholera? Can he treat smallpox?

Once we have knowledge of these, then we dig deeper by reading up on western doctors who worked during epidemics in mid-nineteenth century. We will look for personal accounts as well as books written by others on the subject. If we can find books or diaries about doctors in Ireland during these actual famine years, then so much the better. But a wider reading will give us a wider range of character to study. This will enable us to deepen our understanding of these men and their intellectual and often emotional reactions to the horrific disasters playing out around them, which more often than not they were completely helpless in preventing.

Our doctor’s medical limitations will directly affect his emotional state. He won’t be using modern and powerful medicines to cure his patients but doing what he can and then leaving the rest in the hands of God. In our story, in the 1860s, the doctor will reflect deeply and often on the famine days because they influence his present political attitudes which are important to the plot. He will often be thinking of the crowded and overworked medical facilities in which he treated the mass of suffering humanity and the political and economic conditions which made this happen. Perhaps at that time he got sick and nearly died himself. It has certainly left him with deep and permanently emotional scars and maybe even physical ones. So it is very important that our research is thorough and that we give this part of his character a full intellectual and emotional range. To help our researches further, we can read modern personalised accounts of doctors working with mass suffering but mostly only for the emotional output the accounts may offer us. Intellectually, modern doctors are in another world.

Of course, there are other aspects to the doctor’s character; for instance, the political one around which the plot revolves. These other aspects will be researched using the same techniques as explained above. First an overview and then go to a deeper level to find the intellectual and emotional range of individual historical actors. Again, personal accounts can help greatly here. We do the same thing with other characters in the story.

Our research provides us with a sense of ‘knowing’ how our characters will respond to any given situation because we have gauged their intellectual and emotional range broadly and deeply. The research needed for ‘knowing’ any character from any setting outside of our own experiences must be thorough.

The smaller details

Imaginatively this is the easiest part but will still be hard work.

During the first and second drafts, you will see how much work you have to do regarding the smaller details, many of these details you won’t have even thought about up to now. These smaller details, though not as important overall as getting the bigger details right, are nonetheless very relevant to the story for building effective and believable scenes. With each draft you will enrich the story that little bit more with this sort of historical description. You will have to leave notes in your manuscript where you need to include, for example, details about the inside of a tenant’s cottage, or a church, or the description of a workhouse (a major detail would be getting right the date of the workhouse’s arrival in Ireland). Most writers add more descriptive detail from one draft to the next, anyway, so this is nothing new.

Overusing research

A lot of research is descriptive or informative and very seductive to the researcher. He may have done massive amounts of research for his story and become quite the expert in the field. He may have become emotionally connected to it; he thinks it has expanded his horizons; he may even believe he is now on a bit of a crusade with it; and let’s not forget it has empowered him to improve his story to no end. As a consequence, he may well think that he is making his work look more sophisticated by piling a lot of it on, and that he is also doing his reader a favour by sharing so much of it with him.

But the trick is not to let the reader know all these things about you. The reader has sat down to read a novel, to be entertained. If he wants an overabundance of facts, he will read a history book. If he wants to be lectured at, he will join a cult. Too much detail prevents the reader from being able to concentrate on either the story or the historical information. The rule should be: is it relevant to the plot or does it enhance the scene without slowing the pace?

A sophisticated text is one that uses research sparingly and in the right way. It may even be one where the reader is hardly aware of it, but would be very aware of its absence.

Let’s sum up!

Some stories obviously benefit from a lot of research but most will benefit from at least a little. Research can enhance character, setting and plot.

Approach your research as you would any new subject. Start with an overall view of the subject and only get deeper into the details when you have an understanding of the bigger picture. Pay particular attention to the needs of character development.

Beware of saturating your work with too much of your researched material. Make your material work in a poignant way in your story rather than just piling it on thickly and often.

Readers might also find these posts helpful:

Types of research material for the fiction writer

Part 1: Why the study of history is relevant for the fantasy writer

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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Improving the character interview technique used by fiction writers

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

In this post, we look at how the character interview technique is used as a means to help stimulate the fiction writer’s imagination in developing character. We see that the usual approach with this technique has a big flaw inherent in it, but that improvement is achievable. We end with a simple example of a more effective use of the technique.

What is the interview technique?

The interview technique is based on the idea of a real interview. The writer asks questions of his character, the interviewee, and listens carefully to the answers, all the while taking notes. Not just verbal language, but body language, tone of voice and facial expression is also noted. The technique is supposed to help the writer gather information and emotional and psychological insight about his character.

The writer prepares for the interview by drawing up lists of questions. Some lists are simple and others more complex. Some are even tailored to fit the story’s genre. Some lists are made up of questions relating to physical attributes (name, height, eye colour, distinguishing marks, age, etc.), while others may deal with emotional and psychological questions (how do you feel about losing, etc.). A writer might interview with the intention of learning much more about their character than is necessary for the plot, and refer to the lists of answers throughout the whole writing process for inspiration, fact checking and avoiding contradictions as well as for psychological and emotional pitch. Another writer might go for the bare minimum, wishing only to use the interview to ‘spark up’ the character before letting them run free within the story. Many writers swear this technique works for them and we have no reason to doubt them.

The technique’s flaws

Yet, I can’t help feeling that the interview technique seems to be a bit like the tail wagging the dog here. The writer demands answers from his character under the pretence that they have their own intelligence, emotional and psychological state; that, in fact, they are independent souls. But if this is the case, why do they give up large parts of themselves so easily? This is not how human beings are, and if you want your character to be complex, then they must behave like a human being, surely.

Not only do people not reveal important aspects of their psychological and emotional states directly, but some do not know how to answer such questions, or are left unmoved by a question or even confused by it. Some individuals are not connected to their emotional or psychological sides. Some people have no self-awareness. Some may give you an answer they think you want, or one they think makes them look good, or may simply give you an answer depending on how they feel at that moment. A fact-based questionnaire will undoubtedly get you straighter and more honest answers, but even here you may have problems. Ask some older people their age and see what happens. Anyway, you don’t get to the heart of character through data collection. And if all you’re doing is collecting facts, why bother with the interview?

Some writers says they’ve cracked the problem of a reluctant interviewee by leaving aside the normal question sheet and throwing ad hoc questions at them in order to gain access to their emotional and psychological states. But I still don’t see why the character will suddenly open up, whether they have secrets to hide or not, but especially if they are not the type to open up, anyway, and especially if the questions are penetrating ones. You always have to ask yourself: would a real person suddenly start talking? How are you going to get those who lack self-awareness, are disconnected from their emotional side, the liars and the hypocrites, the bullies and the addicts, the narcissists and the control freaks suddenly to open up? People may tell you all sorts of things about themselves they may actually believe, but are just not true. Flawed people generally don’t know that they are flawed. They may get away with it because on the surface they may appear to be not what they actually are, and convince others of it. But you need to know your character’s flaws. Yet how are you going to get revelations out of your character by direct questioning? It seems that in order to do so, you have to throw them out of character, and once you’ve thrown them out of character, they are behaving unconvincingly and unnaturally.

Ways to improve on the technique

In order for the interview to have real teeth and help the writer develop well-rounded, true-to-life character then the interviewer ought to have a basic idea of the personality type under interview, and really importantly, he must be prepared to adapt a more complex approach to the interview because complex characters do not give up their secrets easily, if at all.

So how will we accomplish this? Because we are dealing with human psychology, we can turn to psychology for basic guidelines. Psychologists use a whole range of very successful interviewing techniques to help them deal with the complexity of personality. The police have even adopted interviewing techniques developed by criminal psychologists to help them gather evidence and gain confessions from criminal suspects.

Let’s look very briefly at some of the ways criminal psychologists approach the interview.

The type of interview carried out will depend on both the subject and the purpose of the interview. Some interviews are conducted simply to pinpoint guilt while others are aimed at therapy. With reference to a violent attack, for example, the psychologist needs to explore the psychological and emotional range and depth of the subject, the perpetrator. He does this by firstly looking at the crime. He needs to know what happened, how it happened, to whom it happened, and why it happened. The psychologist will not often directly ask these questions of his interviewee because the interviewee will more than likely not answer them or have no idea how to answer them, especially the last one which would require a considerable amount of self awareness on his part. Nevertheless, a psychologist will be able to build up a picture of the subject’s personality once these questions are answered because he will now understand his motivations. Then he will move backward through his life, questioning him on his family, friends, relationships, work, school, etc., along the way taking notes, particularly of emotional responses. The psychologist will do all this because he knows there is an underlying cause for the offender’s behaviour and he wants to get at it. The offender’s action did not come out of the blue but is linked to his personality.

The likelihood is that the criminal psychologist will already know important aspects about the psychological and emotional state of the perpetrator without even meeting him if these four questions, what happened, how, to whom and why, have already been answered to his satisfaction. This is based on an understanding that in general a particular set of unusual and violent or destructive actions are linked to a particular set of psychological and emotional traits. This is a very important point to understand: that you can learn much about a person, not by ever meeting them, but by the actions they carry out. In other words, action is character.

This leads us to believe that a character carrying out an unusual set of actions must have an underlying psychological reason for doing so. People do not do unusual things, if they do anything, for no reason, even if it seems that way. So, if you as a writer decide a character will do something unusual in your story, you can work backward from this point to discover motivation for that action, then further back still to reveal the psychological and emotional state behind that motivation, and you can do all this by using the psychologist’s interview techniques, or at least by adapting them into an easier version. This will help you produce complex and believable character types. No matter how bizarre the action appears on the part of the character, they will be legitimate because he or she will have real motivation based on their personality type, and the writer will be able to ‘prove’ this to his reader.

Psychologists rarely take any answer as something complete in and of itself. Over the course of the interview or set of interviews, the psychologist, criminal or otherwise, will gain an understanding of the emotional state of the interviewee by noting body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and language. The psychologist notes the interviewee’s overall emotional reaction to any question, and with reference to the interviewee’s emotional level at other stages of the interview. Understanding the subject’s emotional state is very important, as it is often a gauge the psychologist uses for determining the veracity of a set of answers. It may also offer a lead for him to pursue. So, for instance, a subject who reacts emotionally over a simple question regarding family relationships may prompt the psychologist to believe this is a topic worth looking closer at but in a very careful and roundabout way and possibly even at another time.

The writer must be prepared to observe their character closely, not just listening to their responses, but watching them, too. The writer should endeavour to work out the normal emotional response of the interviewee by asking him a set of ‘comfortable’ questions. This gives the writer a baseline to work from. Any further questioning which elicits an emotional response deviating from this baseline should be noted. This deviation gives the writer an insight into the effect the questions are having on the subject that the subject would probably never openly admit to. The writer’s awareness of these emotional cues may well decide on a different approach as with the example of the family relationship question above. As the writer explores the character’s personality, working on the assumption that they have the same complexity as a real person, he must be always ready to change his line of questioning and the way those questions are asked, in order to deal with the nature of the emerging personality.

An example

In fiction, as in real life, action SHOWS character. Action SHOWS us a character’s ambitions, struggles, loves, hates, courage and fears, weaknesses and strengths, failures and successes. You can SHOW many of these character attributes even in an interview because as well as body language, tone of voice, etc., dialogue is also action, and the words do not have to be truthful or direct to be revealing. In fact, your interviewee is much more likely to SHOW you their emotional side with a set of unintentional cues than to tell you of it directly. To SHOW most effectively, you ought to write up your interview as though writing a scene. SHOW, not tell the relevant aspects of character related to the story’s plot.

The following is part of an interview showing how the interviewer adapts his line of questioning based on a big emotional cue he receives from the interviewee rather than through the interviewee’s direct use of language.

Mr. Scrunge is a character from my children’s novel St. George’s Day. He manages and trains teams of chatterers and squealers (monkey jockeys and racing pigs). His arch rival is a manager and trainer called Berty Puffwhistle.

“Mr, Scrunge, congratulations on the race of the day last week at Chascot. Third place is very good out of a field of nearly forty competitors.”

He tightens his shoulders slightly, but his deadpan expression gives nothing away. “Third place isn’t first.”

“Third place isn’t bad for such a popular race.” I make a pause. “You’ve had some success on the racing scene all these years, so where…”

“Some?” he interrupts. “I like to think I’ve had quite a bit of success. I’ve won a lot of races. I’ve won major titles.”

I note that he says I rather than we. He doesn’t include the chatterers and squealers or other trainers in this success. And major titles? Major?

“Of course,” I say to humour him. “So where do you see yourself this year?”

He shifts about on his seat. “I’m not sure I understand your question.

“I mean ambition-wise. I take it you have racing ambitions this year?”

He fixes his gaze on me and his eyebrows move closer together. He takes a deep breath, holds it for what seems like an uncomfortably long time and then releases it in a quick hiss as though his words are in a great hurry to leap from his mouth. “A man with no ambition is an empty shell. A man with no…” His voice, suddenly full of a hard resolve, drops to a hush, making me shiver, “…soul. He may as well be dead.”

After a pause, I ask, “So what are your ambitions?”

His eyes have not moved off me.

“I seek justice,” he says in that same tone of resolve.

Unlike his right hand, Mr. Scrunge’s left hand is no longer in his lap. It hangs loose by his side. Without looking directly at it, I notice the fingers are moving. I want to look at that hand, but dare not, not while his gaze holds me.

His eyes move off me and onto a cup of tea beside him on the table. He picks it up and takes several quick gulps. Is his mouth dry? I steal a glance at his left hand. He holds what looks like some small silver balls against his palm while his fingers turn them over and over. A stress buster! He places the cup back on the table.

I’ll come back to this topic of ambition via another route.

“Next month we’ve got the Skipton Run,” I say, smiling. “Are you entering it as you did last year?”

The fingers of his left hand stop moving. “I always enter the Skipton Run,” he says, a thin smile appearing on his lips.

I take a deep breath and think: I could do with my own stress buster around this man.

An interviewer would work hard to get any straight question answered in a straight way with Mr. Scrunge. Yet despite this, we’ve learnt a lot about the character here and with a very small number of questions, though most of them are the same question asked slightly different ways. Mr. Scrunge is delusional (he’s won no major title), self-centred, defensive, fixated on success (his weird bit about ambition) and blames others for his lack of success (the bit about justice). But maybe the most revealing thing about him is that raising the topic of ambition should cause him such stress that he attempts to deal with it by use of a stress buster. These are all big things to learn about a character, yet we discovered none of them by him directly telling us.

Summing up

Human beings are complex creatures who do not open up easily to questioning. Psychologists use interview techniques to handle this complexity. The type of interviewee and the purpose of the interview will depend on the approach the psychologist takes. For our characters to be complex creatures they must mimic the general behaviour of real people and not open up easily to questioning, so the writer must develop an interviewing technique to deal successfully with this. A basic study of the techniques used by psychologists will be a useful aid to help the writer with this exercise. Of course, we’re not expected to develop the same sort of sophisticated approach as a psychologist, but if our characters are opening up way too easily in the interviews, we need to ask ourselves what sort of characters we are indeed creating.

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How to develop insightful and credible short story ideas from a fable

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Below is the first part of the fables chapter from my book How to Develop (Imaginative, Insightful & Credible) Short Story Ideas

CHAPTER THREE

Fables

Here we appraise the fable as a means of both an inspiration and a blueprint for developing short story ideas. We will analyse a fable, work an idea inspired and guided by the analysis into a story plan and then write the story of 1,000 words. We will also consider a second idea encouraged by the fable.

In order to make sure we have a firm grasp of working with the fable, we will examine two other examples, but without going so far as writing up two more stories. We will turn the last fable into a modern style fable and see whether this technique is successful in helping create a fresh story idea.

We are also going to turn the theme or message of all three fables into sayings. As we discovered in the sayings chapter, wordplay can work as a powerful incentive in helping create ideas, as well as help conceptualise, control and sharpen our story’s structure and theme. Here, we are not just word playing but moving the theme from one literary medium into another.

THE FABLE

The type of fable used here is the Aesopic fable, the fables of Aesop, an Ancient Greek storyteller believed to be the originator of a collection of fables known as Aesop’s Fables, and which has survived in popularity down to the present age.

Aesop’s fables are short pithy tales consisting of characters that are usually animals, though plants, humans, inanimate objects or natural forces are also used. The characters are anthropomorphized (given human characteristics) and act as props for human character traits and expression. In the fable, each character fulfils a very narrow set of consistent characteristics. For example, the wolf is always a clearly defined predator with the nature to go with it; the fox is cunning, tricky, not to be trusted. Character is kept within simple boundaries so as not to interfere with the clear purpose or moral of the fable: to reveal a single aspect of the universal weakness of human nature.

ANALYSING THE FIRST FABLE

The Fox and the Grapes

A hungry fox saw some fine bunches of grapes hanging from a vine that was trained along a high trellis, and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air. But it was all in vain, for they were just out of reach: so he gave up trying, and walked away with an air of dignity and unconcern, remarking, “I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour.”

Not surprisingly, this fable has many of our storytelling elements: character, plot, theme, conflict, setting, and even irony, a twist and humour.

First let’s examine the fable’s message.

When we can’t have what we want because we fall short of the capability of gaining it, we must compensate our pride by belittling it and pretending to ourselves it was never worth the trouble to begin with.

Let’s play around with the message a little to make it pithier.

Pride compensates for failure with contempt aimed at the object that reflects that failure.

This message or moral of the fable is also its specific theme. Pride is too vague a theme for our needs. Our specific theme is clear and simple and offers a powerful insight into a single and universal aspect of the human condition. Because the theme comes across clearly in such a short tale, which is actually the whole point of the fable, we know that this type of theme can fit easily into the parameters of a short story. With consideration to the fact that characterization is only a stereotype in the fable, we can say that the theme is also the most important part of the fable for our purposes, though we must be careful not to neglect other important aspects of the fable.

Usually, a lack of character nuance in a story is a sign of weakness, but in the fable it is its strength. To deliver the simple message about human nature clearly, the fable must not develop individual character, but use simple props to carry out straightforward tasks. With the message, the fable is powerful. Without the message, the fable is worthless. The fox’s character must remain a simple stereotype.

But we are not writing a fable yet; we are using it as inspiration and guide for a story plan. We must produce individual and nuanced character. The most important thing we can take from the fox’s character is his attitude to his set of circumstances which is tightly bound up with the theme. Our characters will be tightly bound up with our theme, too, but the trick we must perform is to make this universal expression of human nature originate from individual and recognizable personalities. As our characters will be human, this should automatically happen. But we need to be aware of the significant difference in character development between the fable and the short story.

The fox’s physical struggle to reach the fruit involves some conflict. But it is in his internal struggle that real conflict occurs, where only with the palliatives of bitterness and lack of self-awareness is he able to accept failure. The fable cannot explore this internal struggle, but we can do so in the story.

As for plot, the fable’s distinct advantage over the saying is that a plot actually exists here. An examination of the plot in the abstract will allow us to spot other potential ideas more easily, as well as manipulate the plot more easily. The abstract plot has a physical as well as an emotional side.

Here is the abstract physical plot: A struggles to possess B. After several failed attempts, A gives up. This is the abstract psychological or emotional plot: A desires B; B holds back from A’s persistent advances. So A goes off in a huff, accusing B of being worthless to cover for his own sense of inadequacy.

We won’t be using the fable’s setting. Our setting will depend on storyline.

The fable’s wit mocks the fox.

The human condition is full of irony because it is full of contradictions. It is ironic that having failed desperately to possess the grapes, the fox suddenly turns up his nose at them. Of course, this is down to his lack of emotional self-awareness and is the fable’s twist. Once again, irony paves the way for the twist.

Drama is lacking here because of the fox’s simple character. As we know, drama is conflict fuelled by the addition of moral choices (not to be confused with the moral or message of a fable). If the fox had character depth, having failed to snatch the grapes, he might fight internally against the decision to diminish them, and instead, he might walk away with a philosophical approach to his failure. With character depth, the potential for drama is strong.

THE SAYING

We have played around with the message a little to make it pithier.

Pride compensates for failure with contempt aimed at the object that reflects that failure.

As a saying, it must sound more dynamic and ironic.

The following is much better:

The more successfully a man ridicules what he craves but cannot have, the less successfully he voices his self-awareness.

The saying has thrown a different light onto the theme, and added wit and deep irony to it. This new approach may in itself prompt our inspiration to dream up new ideas around the theme. It is certainly a good exercise in keeping focused on the theme.

Don’t sweat blood over writing these sayings! They are supposed to be an aid not a hindrance, and are just one more tool at our disposal for helping us develop our work.

A SHORT STORY IDEA

With our workable theme, we can now start thinking of character and storyline.

The theme is so universal that it should conjure up dozens of real-life situations (character and setting) where we have seen it at play. For example, the reaction to unrequited love, lust, passion or friendship; the reaction to not getting that job or being fired from one; and the reaction to being turned away from that club you wanted to join.

Let’s work with one of these examples.

This will be in third person limited POV for a man.

A man’s attempt to chat up a woman is turned down. Here is the fox trying for the grapes. Like the fox, the man’s skills are ineffective in this particular context. At first, the fox believes the grapes are his for the taking. We can assume so because of his verbal assault on them after he fails to grab them. This makes us laugh at the fox’s cocksure character twice over. He has misjudged his own ability and also shown himself to be a fool in the way he deals with failure. Our character will respond in the same way to his failed attempt. Of course, we must deepen his character and the woman’s also, as she must become more than a simple bunch of grapes.

We’ll make him a little self-aware, so when she thwarts him, he knows he mustn’t knock her physically as it’s hardly a nice thing to do. The point isn’t that he wants to continue thinking well of her, but to continue thinking well of himself. He knows that by knocking her he lacks self-awareness. But his self-awareness is limited. He must knock her in some way for his own pride to stand tall. His little bit of self-awareness forces him to look elsewhere for a reason to bring her to heel. Fortunately, he finds two. This gives him deeper character, creates a better twist, adds to the humour and doesn’t distort the theme in any way.

The inciting incident is when the fox makes the first grab for the grapes and fails to win them. In our story, it will be when the man makes the first attempt to grab the woman’s attention but fails to impress her. Here …and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air. But it was all in vain, for they were just out of his reach… is the middle part of the fable. In our story, we could possibly have up to three little events (attempts to attain the goal) in the middle section (also depending on story length) where our character (like the fox) is struggling to gain the woman’s interest (the grapes for the fox). Each failed attempt will embarrass him that little bit more and so make him more determined to achieve his goal on the next attempt. This will ratchet up the tension. After he has completely failed to win her over, we get irony and the twist where, ultimately, he succeeds in demonstrating his lack of self-awareness.

*

To read the rest of this chapter and the other chapters in How to Develop (Imaginative, Insightful & Credible) Short Story Ideas by Jerry Dunne, purchase the book at any of the online stores below.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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The emotional investment behind writing fiction

Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne

The following is a recent conversation I had with a friend that I thought would make a good blog post. I have written it up here as closely as my memory allows. We look at the writer’s emotional investment in his work and how this reflects on his personal sense of worth as well as the pay off it may offer the reader.

My friend asked, “Why do you get ideas for writing your stories?”

I thought she was asking how do I create an idea or where do I find one, so I began to relate a tale about the origin of one idea. But during the telling, her brow was playing with wrinkles, and by the end, her brow was fighting with them.

Then I realised her question hadn’t sounded quite right. Why do you get ideas for writing your stories? Why? It was my turn to show a wrinkly brow. “I haven’t answered your question, have I?”

“When I read a novel,” she explained, “I enjoy the plot and storyline, if it’s any good that is, but what I’m really doing is sympathizing with and cheering on the main characters through the story. See what I’m getting at so far?”

“Of course,” I said.

“I connect with them emotionally. But how am I able to do that? Where does their ability to make me connect with them come from?”

“The writer, obviously.”

“Saying it comes from the writer is too simple. Why does it come from the writer? Why do you bother writing? Why have you been writing for years? I know a lot of physical and psychological effort is needed to write. I’ve heard you and other writers talk of the bubbling enthusiasm, high energy levels, and discipline necessary to sit down and write. I know writers commit themselves in ways many people wouldn’t or couldn’t. They often write novel after novel without a single penny being earned and no one showing any interest in their work. I know years can go by while they do this. Decades even. Their work may put a strain on other parts of their life. But why do they put themselves through this? What force drives them? Saying, ‘writing is me, it’s what I am’ or, ‘it’s what I’ve always wanted to do’, or ‘I love to write,’ or ‘I’m a creative person, what can I say’, or ‘there’s nothing else I’d rather do,’ explains nothing.” She looked me in the eye, and added, “Well?”

I chewed on my bottom lip, narrowing my eyes at her. This one was worse than a copper.

Finally, I shot back with, “Writing is a form of expression, and I have a deep need to express myself in this way. Humans crave expression. We need to let others know how we feel, think and see the world. Storytelling is a great way of doing this.”

“So it’s a strong emotional need?”

“When I come up with a good idea I want to develop, I must commit a lot of emotional energy in order to work it into a viable story.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” she said with a sigh.  “So why do you invest so emotionally in your work? Why you and not me?”

I rubbed the side of my jaw, gazing at her. “Well, you’re not a writer!” She rolled up her eyes.  “Okay, Okay. Let me think!” My finger tapped on the table for a bit.  “At various points in our lives we make choices to invest our physical and emotional energy into certain things. It might be in sport, business, acting, marriage, crime, law enforcement, landscape gardening, running your own business, etc. I chose storytelling. The emotional commitment was unconscious, yet it was fuelling all my writing. It was fuelling my passion. It is my passion. People often invest a great deal of emotional energy into their work without realizing it.”

“And what do you get back for all your emotional investment?”

I took a minute to think about this.

“Writing has become part of how I see myself, part of my identity as a social and cultural animal. My self esteem is wrapped up in it. So praise makes a writer feel valued at a fundamental level. It confirms they have made the right choice with their life. Some writers invest more emotional charge in themselves as writers than as lovers. Who was that writer who said he shrugged indifferently whenever a woman told him he was either a good or a bad lover? But whenever anyone knocked his writing he fell apart for days at a time. This wrapping up your self-worth within a particular form of identity is common. Imagine investing emotionally in a relationship for years only to get a return in the end of indifference or even abuse! Your self esteem, your sense of worth as a lover will take a battering. A writer who’s any good will always receive some bad criticism, but there will also be more people who like their work. This keeps their self esteem from imploding and also keeps them writing.”

She nodded slowly. “Now I see what’s happening. And is there any part of the story that gets more emotional investment than any other part?”

I smiled at her. “You said it yourself a minute ago. A story is all about character. Character is the sun and all else the planets revolving round it. Even successful action films must have half decent character because the viewer has to make an emotional connection with the hero. Otherwise, when the hero reaches a crisis point, the viewer is indifferent to his struggles and probably bored with the action. Though great ideas are obviously worth having, you cannot deal with character half heartedly. You must invest your emotional energy in character. Or else your characters won’t grow strong enough to survive the challenges of a tough plot arc in a way which engages the reader. To be honest, I wouldn’t even bother trying to develop my main characters without feeling a strong emotional connection to them.”

“How do you get to this emotionally connecting stage? What do you do to make this happen?”

“You imbue your best characters with attributes that you like and respect. You build them with pieces of other people’s character until you have a whole new and unique individual. Right from the beginning you are emotionally investing because you are emotionally connecting with each piece of the jigsaw that all together makes up a whole new picture. A writer will often put some of their own personality and aspirations into their characters, too. This deepens further the emotional investment with the character. This emotional investment deepens further still as the writer watches their creations becoming fully developed while working their way through the trials and tribulations of the plot arc.”

“Now I see it all,” she said. “The level of a writer’s emotional investment in his work will determine how much of his self worth he gains from it, while at the same time the most important part of his work is the emotional commitment he makes to his characters. This explains why I as a reader can connect so easily to some characters. A strong emotional charge goes into the character from the writer and comes straight out the other end for the reader. Thanks for the insight.”

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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Proof-reading your own fiction

Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne

This post explains what proof-reading entails for the fiction writer, shows some advantages of proof-reading your own work and offers some ideas on developing proof-reading skills.

What is Proof-reading for the writer of fiction?

Proof-reading is the skill that checks for errors involving spelling and punctuation, grammar, meaning and consistency. Proof-reading comes after copy and line editing and is the final stage of working on the novel. After this stage, the only thing left to do with the text is formatting.

Spelling, punctuation and grammar speak for themselves, but meaning and consistency may need a little explanation. For example, meaning does not amount to replacing a weaker word with a stronger one. This should have been dealt with in line editing. But if you now discover a word that you thought meant one thing actually means something else then it will be your role as proof-reader to change the word. Think of proof-reading as searching for mistakes in the writing itself as opposed to looking for weaknesses in the craftsmanship.

Again, when we are talking about consistency, we mean in the writing. For example, if a character driving a blue car in a scene is suddenly driving a red car and you offer no explanation for the change, then this is an inconsistency in the narrative, and not in the writing itself. Inconsistencies in the narrative are dealt with in line editing. A simple example of a proof-reading inconsistency would be the abbreviated title Mr written both with and without a dot throughout the story. Neither way is wrong, but you should strive for consistency throughout the text.

Let’s look at the big advantage of using a professional proof-reader but also some advantages of proof-reading your own work

 Main advantage of using a proof-reader

A professional proof-reader will always be able to proof-read better than you (obviously a very important point to consider) and will do so to the industry standard.

Some advantages of proof-reading your own work

It’s a skill that can be learned and developed like any other skill.

The more you practise the better you will get.

You will greatly improve your grasp of grammar, punctuation, spelling, meaning and consistency, and therefore will end up with fewer mistakes to rectify in the proof-reading stage.

A professional proof-reader will always be better than you in general, but that does not mean you cannot be good enough when proof-reading your own work to pick up most, if not all, of your errors.

You save money.

Not everyone offering a professional proof-reading service is a professional.

Like anyone else in life, proof-readers miss things.

Here are some things you may wish to consider in order to help you develop as a proof-reader

Firstly, read some proof-reading guides.

Then proof-read your novel.

The professional proof-reader as teacher

Once you have proof-read your novel as well as you can, send it to a professional proof-reader. This is worth doing at least once. It will give you an invaluable insight into your level of competence as a proof-reader. You will now be able to see all those errors that you failed to spot when you worked on the text. Take note of consistent errors. These are your main proof-reading weaknesses, at least for this manuscript. Never throw this feedback away. Get your money’s worth by writing out lists of your common errors into different categories, such as spelling, grammar, etc., so that you can easily reference them the next time you proof-read a manuscript.

Even though you have had your manuscript professionally proof-read, do it again yourself. Have you picked up any other errors? Remember, proof-readers are only human.

This pattern of using a professional to help you develop as a proof-reader can be done as many times as you like until you feel competent enough to tackle a new manuscript completely on your own. Look on the professional proof-reader as your teacher! No matter how bad you are to begin with, remember that awareness and practice will make you better. As a matter of fact, this is not a whole lot different to how you have developed your craftsmanship by using a professional editor to critique your work. You have done that, haven’t you?

Use print-on-demand to help you discover proof-reading errors

If you have used a professional editor and also rechecked the manuscript yourself, you may not want to bother with the following. But if you have reached the point where you are doing your own proof-reading, this can turn out to be a very useful part of the process.

If you are going to use print-on-demand publishing, once you have proof-read your novel, format it for the print-on-demand company and upload your work to them. Then get a physical proof copy sent to you. This stage of publishing allows you to check for further problems in the book format without worrying about a member of the public seeing it. The book format you now have in your hands will help you see your text with new eyes and so spot errors that previously had been ‘hiding’ from you.

Once you find these errors, add them to the lists you have been making since you began to study proof-reading. Don’t mark the book in any way! Next time these errors will not hide from you for so long because your proof-reader’s eye is sharpening its focus all the time.

Let others help

Choose three or four people to read your book who will enjoy your genre. Ask them to check for spelling, punctuation, grammar and inconsistency errors in the writing. Okay, many people won’t be paying any attention to these things even if they know how to find them. So try and pick people who you think may have a sharp eye for general proof-reading. The best type of person to ask is one who is nitpicky and usually drives you nuts because of it. But here, for once, you may be able to use their particular ‘skill’ to your advantage. You may also want these readers to spot other errors or weaknesses in your book outside of proof-reading ones. Just be careful that they understand what you are asking of them, and that you understand what they are prepared to give. The easiest proof-reading error to spot is the spelling error. Perhaps you could emphasise that it is these in particular you want to cull from your work. Spelling errors are those errors your paying readers will pick out first and foremost and if you have lots of them, you may well be heavily criticised for it.

Be sure to change all your errors on your electronic file before resubmitting your book to the print-on-demand company.

Stuff to bear in mind

If you find yourself doing quite a bit of line editing when you are supposed to be proof-reading, then you need to stop proof-reading and go through the manuscript again as a line editor.

The self-publisher will more likely publish just one edition for the English speaking world book market. If you publish via Amazon this will be the case. The one publication means that the spelling of some words will appear wrong to people from a country with a different spelling system. There is not a lot to be done about this, but you can cut down on the differences a little. For example, in British English we often have a choice between an s and a z in words such as realise. The Americans use a z only. In such a case, British writers could choose the z spelling. Look out for these examples.

Try not to mix British and American spelling in the same manuscript.

Another problem lies with words that are unfamiliar in another dialect. One big one seems to be the word sidewalk in American English which equates to pavement in British English. You would hope that an intelligent reader would understand that not all dialects of English share exactly the same vocabulary. This is why they are called dialects. There really isn’t much you can do about this, except if any reader complains about it, suggest they try googling the word for an explanation of its meaning.

The Internet is changing and developing the English language at an unprecedented rate. For example, old spellings are giving ways to several new forms. One example is the word proof-reader which I have spelt here as two words connected with a hyphen, as my dictionary shows it. But some spelling sites on the web are suggesting this word may also be spelt as two separate words, proof reader, or as a single word, proofreader.

Above, I said try not to mix British and American spelling in the same manuscript. But I think the liberalism of language championed by the development of the internet is going to increasingly mix the two forms in the coming years, if it is not already doing so, especially on the web. It is already happening with turns of phrase. So be aware what you reference to help you make your choice of spelling. Then once a choice is made, stick to it. Be consistent!

Above, I used the word googling, which has emerged as a verb from the noun Google, the name of the world’s biggest search engine. These days, most internet users understand the meaning of the word and no doubt use it themselves. But Google is only fifteen years old. Would people have understood the meaning of the verb twelve years ago, ten years or even eight years ago? Was the word that common then? Be careful with language adapted from the internet! Unless you are writing sci-fi, do not go too far ahead of the game in your use of language!

A final, satisfying point

You will know when you are developing a proof-reader’s eye in your own work which, of course, will make you feel some satisfaction. But you will be surprised how many proof-reading errors you will soon discover in mainstream publishing, too, and this may well give you even greater satisfaction.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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How to develop imaginative short story ideas from a saying

Copyright © 2013 Jerry Dunne

Below is the first part of the sayings chapter from my book How to Develop (Imaginative, Insightful & Credible) Short Story Ideas

CHAPTER TWO

Sayings

In this chapter, we are going to think of a saying as a means of both inspiration and guidance for developing our short story ideas. To this end, we will analyse a saying and then follow it with a story plan based on an idea we worked out of the analysis. Next we will write a 1,000 word story. This way the reader can see the whole process at work in a single go. We will also look at some other short story ideas that this saying inspires.

To be certain the reader acquires a good understanding of how to work with appropriate sayings, we will examine two other examples and create early draft story plans out of their analysis. Anchor words are introduced in this section.

THE SAYING

The type of saying examined here expresses universal nuanced truths or wisdom in an ironic and often witty way. The saying usually sets the reader up for an expectation in the first half that is not met in the second. Instead, we get something unexpected – an ironic twist. The effect is to jolt the reader into seeing the truth or wisdom (message or theme) of the saying from a fresh and poignant perspective that they would not otherwise have thought about in quite this way, if they had ever thought about it at all.

ANALYSING THE SAYING

For our purposes, our saying will have at least some of the main storytelling elements, especially character, and also the potential for exploiting others.

Here is the saying:

On passing a graveyard, I am always reminded of one of life’s great tragedies: headstones are full of dull facts and second rate poetry.

Character here is in the first person, which is promising. This first person POV (point of view) challenges convention by making a witty and unusual attack on a single but important aspect surrounding the tradition of respecting and remembering the dead. So he has grabbed our attention.

At first glance, there seems to be no conflict potential. And yet, the character’s perspective and opinion is at great odds with the convention he is criticizing. Therefore, the potential for conflict is huge. For example, supposing he expressed his opinion out loud at a sensitive moment, like during a burial?

Let’s look at irony, wit and the twist together. In the first clause, we are being set up to think that the second clause will deliver something big and meaningful about our mortal existence: On passing a graveyard, I am always reminded of one of life’s great tragedies. Instead, ironically, the second clause gives us something seemingly petty and irrelevant: headstones are full of dull facts and second rate poetry. Suddenly, we are thrown into a spin. The second clause is so unexpected and irreverent that it makes us laugh. However, this second clause is possibly not saying something petty at all. It certainly has a ring of truth about it. Perhaps there is yet more irony here. This sort of stuff certainly gives us thoughts for our story idea.

Does the saying have drama? Drama is conflict fuelled by the addition of moral choices. If we look at what we said about conflict, and we consider there might be moral questions involved in this conflict, and it is certainly possible that might be so, then the potential for drama is clear.

Whatever theme you may read into the saying, it obviously doesn’t have to be the same theme that emerges from the story. Here the theme revolves around the belief that death is actually treated quite lightly in so far as it concerns the writing on a headstone.

The setting doesn’t have to be in a graveyard. But it’s an obvious choice here.

A PLAN BASED ON THE ANALYSIS

The saying can act simply as a source of inspiration for imaginative, insightful and credible ideas. We don’t have to stick closely to our analysis for our story’s plan; we don’t have to be guided strongly by it. If it prompts something very different and preferable for us, then we should go for it.

But here we are sticking closely to our analysis for our story’s plan. Our story will revolve around headstones, or more precisely, what is written on them, and the reaction of one character to them. As much as possible, we will keep faithful to the actual saying, though due to its extreme pithiness we obviously have to develop elements like plot and storyline from scratch.

Set-up

A new couple are visiting her grandma’s grave. He’s a poet (story from his POV, third person). He empathizes with her story regarding her grandma’s last months. Her story is touching and poignant, revealing good and enduring memories of her grandmother.

Inciting incident (kicks the plot into gear)

When he reads her grandma’s headstone, something alarms him. He reads a neighbouring headstone, and his alarm increases.

Middle part (rising tension; suspense begins here, too)

She sees him upset. Talk about her grandmother as well as being in the cemetery have brought back sad memories for him, she says. He denies this, wants her to stop focusing on him. He asks her to continue telling him about her grandmother.

Middle part (tension rising higher)

Finally, they start to retrace their steps. Sometimes they stop and she reads out loud from the headstones. This really causes him discomfort. She’s aware of his discomfort and wants him to confide in her. She feels it’s related to a past tragedy of his. But he doesn’t want to tell her the truth of what’s causing his discomfort. It’s her time, her moment, her visit to her grandmother’s grave, and he feels she’d find him shallow or trying to be too clever if he told her the truth. But he feels pressured into saying something; so to explain his discomfort he spins a tale about an old flame dying tragically young.

Middle part: high point and darkest moment (tension higher still)

She accepts this lie, though he knows she really thinks his discomfort is evidence he’s not over his old flame. The lie makes him feel bad, but at least she’s off his back about the true root of his discomfort. Or so he thinks. Soon she reminds him of something he told her that seems to contradict part of his lie. Caught in the headlights, he has a moment of panic. But he keeps his cool and manages to bluff it out.

Climax and resolution

Outside the cemetery, the reader finds out what’s really on his mind. Her grandmother’s story was beautiful. Why wasn’t it on the grave showing the sort of woman she was? Why not the same sort of thing on the other headstones, too? Imagine that! An individual story on every headstone, keeping poignantly alive the memory of those buried beneath. Instead, all these dead souls are condemned to an eternity of dull facts and second rate poetry by their headstones. As a poet, it broke his heart to see it.

*

To read the rest of this chapter and the other chapters in How to Develop (Imaginative, Insightful & Credible) Short Story Ideas by Jerry Dunne, purchase the book at any of the online stores below.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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Are your core values similar to your childhood ones?

Copyright © 2012 Jerry Dunne

A person changes, an average person must change, mature, quite a bit over time; but I sometimes wonder how much we change deep down. Do we have similar core values to those we had in childhood or do we lose them somewhere along the way due to the things life throws at us? One way of finding out would be to test our emotional reaction to some core values that we felt deeply as children.

To do this, some tool of measurement is needed, and it must be something that in childhood we held in high value and that has remained unchanged since then.

Many things from childhood no longer interest us, and we no longer place value on them except in a sentimental way. Probably the biggest thing we value from childhood is memories. But memories are an insufficient tool of measurement in and of themselves for this test. Memory doesn’t create the values. It remembers them.

The tool a writer usually has in mind for such a test is a story or a set of them. Stories hold core human values that people react to at a deep emotional level. The Doctor Dolittle stories by Hugh Lofting, my favourite stories as a child, have core values that I once believed in and felt passionately about. To find out if these values still hold true for me, I needed to reread them. Just to make it clear: I don’t mean whether I still enjoy the books in the same way as I once did, but whether the stories’ values stir me in the same emotional way.

Not wanting to write about the horrors or boredom of life in the trenches of the First World War, instead Hugh Lofting breathed life into Doctor John Dolittle in illustrated letters to his children. These stories are set in early Victorian England in the fictional village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Doctor Dolittle is a man who can talk with almost every kind of animal. His aims in life are to help animals for their own sake and to try and understand nature better. He works selflessly toward this end and his housekeeper Dab-Dab (a duck) is always chastising him for giving away all his time and money to any and all animal strays, rather than taking care of himself and keeping enough money for the household needs. John Dolittle is a humble, gentle, thoughtful, selfless man to animals, always putting their welfare before his own, but one who also has some human friends. A child can easily imagine being in company with him on his adventures or helping him out in his surgery tending to the sick and needy animals.

Though the animals in the stories are mostly presented in anthropomorphic roles, they still give us a strong awareness of the vulnerability of real animals and their needs in a world dominated by man. Lofting’s idea for Doctor Dolittle may have come from his witnessing the destruction of regimental horses in the war. Who was to speak for these animals that were being used so cruelly for the sole purpose of war? Doctor Dolittle came to speak for them in story form, as he could not do so in real life. Doctor Dolittle came to speak for all animals. Animals told him of their problems, their needs, their desires and dreams and how their lives might be greatly improved. This man who could talk to animals was able to rise above wealth, class, snobbishness, indifference, fickleness and greed. He grew to be a superhero to the animal kingdom.

It is quite an accomplishment to have created such stories under any conditions, but to have started them from the trenches of that war highlighted Lofting’s tremendous will, enthusiasm and ability to let his imagination rise above the destruction and suffering surrounding him.

Lofting immerses us in his visionary world completely, and amazingly a very light touch of humour manages to run like a bright light throughout all the stories. He presents his philosophy in a very simple way that a child can easily grasp; it appears child-like, naïve and ambitious, and works wonderfully within the context of a children’s story.

So the question is: having read them again as an adult, how do I feel about them? Do I still share Lofting’s core values?

I not only again enjoyed the stories this time round, but felt Lofting’s core philosophy as strong as ever within me. The weak struggling against the strong, the animals struggling against the human world with the doctor on their side, still has a strong emotional pull. The light, gentle humour that runs throughout the stories also works for me as well as ever.

I will add this, though: my greater awareness of the human condition as an adult has left me with a vein of pessimism that makes part of my personality scoff at Lofting’s philosophy. On the other hand, this pessimism is hardly any more (and probably quite a bit less) than what Lofting himself experienced and yet it didn’t stop him from writing the stories and believing in the ability of human society for improvement. And I guess this is what the adult reader may take away from them – a sense of possibility that we humans may yet improve ourselves.

Beautiful and heartfelt stories like these remain a nurturing tool for the child’s emotional development and growing range of core values. But I also think they serve as a means of reawakening or reassuring the adult who may return to them. Though pessimism creeps up on one unawares over the years, there is always a counterweight to it, out there somewhere, if only you know where to look for it. Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle stories are one such example.

You can buy Jerry’s books on any Amazon site. They are also for sale in many of the other online stores such as Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

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