Sunday, 24 January 2016

Writing for Beginners (13)

Another one of my early articles for beginners on the art of writing. (With thanks to Writing Magazine for allowing me to use it). Like others, it is now in a compilation called 'Write On! - the writer's help book' - available in paperback and ebook.

Keep it simple

I recently read an on-line review of a novel which fairly thudded with capital letters along the lines of ‘A story of Deceit, Treachery and Betrayal, of Love Turned Sour, and the Search for Identity and Self-Discovery Amid Danger, Loss and … ’

Actually, I can’t remember the rest, because I was overwhelmed by an army of emoticons, those little animated creations for all occasions, which burst out of my computer and bounced around the room, screaming for attention.

At least, that’s what it felt like.

If we follow the blurb on the back of book covers, many novels encompass all these themes and more. They paint lurid pictures designed to draw in the potential reader, using catchy words to appeal to the senses so that the customer parts with their hard-earned cash in return for a few hours of somebody else’s pain, suffering, excitement, love and confusion.

Which is what they are supposed to do. This is the kind of stuff we as readers are looking for when we enter a bookshop. Equally, it’s the kind of thing we as writers feed on as an indicator when we’re looking for that brilliant idea which will propel us into the best-seller lists ahead of Dan Brown. If this is what’s selling, we tell ourselves confidently, then we can do it, too. (Forgetting that ‘this’ was probably written over two years ago and something else is about to come into fashion).

However, before we all go cosmic and start bashing the keyboard into submission (that's a writers' pun, btw) over our version of life in the fictional fast lane, it’s worth drawing attention to the distinction between describing a published novel (the book reviews and the blurb on the cover) and sitting at the keyboard considering what will appeal to an agent or publisher about an idea that is still a glimmer in the writer’s eye.

I’m not saying that an agent may not be turned on by a tantalising collection of buzz words like danger, love, disaster, treachery and so forth; many are and will continue to be, Lord bless ‘em. However, looking at it from the writer’s viewpoint, trying to pig out and include all these and more in your initial ideas for the novel may be a trifle unrealistic.

Keep It Simple is a useful credo to follow in most things. Ask any craftsman or manufacturer, and they will tell you that complex means time-consuming, challenging and usually a headache. Any sales person will tell you that making a presentation and including every single dot, comma and feature of your product up front, will invariably lose the customer before the halfway mark.
So it is with writers who set out right from the start to include in their novel a vast array of plotlines, devices and emotions, on the basis that if current novels in the bookshops have them, then so should their story. Some can do this; most can’t.

Film studios and agents like to use very brief pitches when considering ideas for films (based, it is said, on the length of a lift (elevator) journey or the time it takes to chase a studio executive across a pavement). A pitch, for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, for example, might have been: ‘Courageous elves, hobbits and humans wage ferocious battle against the forces of evil to save Middle Earth.’ A bit succinct, perhaps, but that might have appealed to the studio execs. (One wonders if adding ‘trees that walk and talk’ would have had the same result?)

However, what actually went into the films came later, with the story of evil, jealousy, great courage and redemption, of family, death and almost unimaginable dark forces, all being built and layered into the script and bringing in the various elements which made the films the stonking success they were.

Set out to include too many elements in a story right from the very beginning, and you’re likely to blow a gasket. It’s like grabbing all the parts of a flat-pack of furniture and trying to assemble them at once. (I should know – I’ve assembled a few).

Equally, trying to deliberately bring in ‘treachery’, ‘betrayal’ or a host of other buzz words purely because it sounds punchy and attention-grabbing, is certain to make the going hard. Far better to let your story – and the elements that drive it – evolve at their own pace. Sure, you need a plan or synopsis or some headings in mind, even if only in the form of key words as a way of giving the story direction. But allowing them to happen in an almost organic way is far easier.

In fact, many writers will testify to the fact that once they begin a story, they find it growing almost of its own volition, to the extent that some of the characters will take on actions and attitudes they hadn’t planned. Equally, other characters will introduce themselves (and therefore additional plotlines) almost by force of personality. This might mean throwing the synopsis or plan out of the window, but nobody said you had to stick to it come hell or high water.

It’s your plan, after all; if you want to change it, go right ahead.

·        Let the pace of the story do the selling.
·        Don’t go overboard with buzz words and hyperbole.
·        Keep it simple – don’t over-elaborate right from the start.
·        Build to a crescendo, so the readers have something to look forward to.

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