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Today I was visiting someone in one of our local hospitals.  As I said on Thursday, this week is not so much productive as reflective, and following this particular visit I thought it would be worth playing about by using a hospital visit as the basis for an exercise.

This is setting as described by a particular character – 20 year old Emma, a reluctant visitor to her grandfather’s sickbed.

What the place seems like to her: A waiting room, for a train with an unknown destination. Everything is in shades of grey-beige, bland and porridgelike.  Oversized wall art and brightly-coloured medical zones can’t hide the functional feel of the place, and the bird-like chatter from the nurses only seems to make the silence in between wards more oppressive.

The floors are polished, but only the edges retain the shine by the end of visiting hours: countless feet have stripped away the surface care.  There are scuffs – from beds, sticks, frames, shoes – gouged into the floor like graffiti on old stone.  It tells the story of the place, but no-one wants to read it.

There is a smell she can’t quite place, like disinfectant with an undertone of gravy from the restaurant.  It comes and goes in waves as the doors around her open and close.  As she nears the right ward and squirts her hands with anti-bacterial gel, she adds a chemical rose to the olfactory experience.

Walking through the ward is like walking past a badly-tuned radio: conversation in waves, bed by bed, with the white noise of beeping machines and blood pressure monitors always in her ears. She looks into each bay, vaguely ashamed of seeing people so vulnerable.  A sleeping stranger kicks his bare foot out of the covers, and she hastily looks away.

Finally, at the end of the marathon, is the finish line: Grandpa’s bed.  She is glad to see he’s sitting next to it: her heart slows down and she takes a careful breath.  This time, she can smell the aftershave she bought at Christmas and wrapped so carefully.

What do you think?  What am I missing, what could be made clearer, what could be enhanced?  This is a first draft and just reading it out loud there are some changes I’d like to make, but they aren’t all about setting…

I enjoyed this exercise, and I might try to create an alternative for next week if there’s limited writing time again – perhaps a father arriving at the delivery suite, or a young nursing student in her first placement. Inevitably there are multiple ways of approaching hospitals as settings because there are multiple reasons to be there; there’s a reason they are the basis of so many tv shows!

I would much prefer to be staying on track but at least this is a way of testing out what I’ve learnt about setting so far.

Until next time,

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

 

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Following last week’s post where I said I was stuck in the middle of my story, I finished it in about an hour the next day – drama queen, aren’t I?!

Book 53 – The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie. This was Christie’s second novel, and stars Tommy and Tuppence, two friends who lose touch but are reacquainted a few years after the end of World War I. With little money and few prospects for employment, they join forces as ‘The Young Adventurers’.  The story follows them as they investigate a missing woman who holds incriminating evidence against the governments of the UK and the USA – evidence that the criminal European Socialists and some of the British Labour party are planning to use to instigate a general strike and the fall of the Government.  All the characters in this plot, however, are simply puppets in the control of the secret adversary – one Mr Brown.

Obviously it is of its era – politically, it is vaguely offensive and the language and some of the comments are not what you expect to read nowadays, but it was my first Agatha Christie and the first time I had come across the two characters so it was an educational read, if nothing else.

It seemed clear to me very early on ‘whodunnit’, which was surprising as I rarely work out Poirot’s cases on screen!  However, there were lots of clues and details about who everyone was and how they interacted that I did miss.  That was what I really found most enjoyable – the little details sprinkled throughout that I was able to reflect on when I got to the end of the mystery.

This book wasn’t as sophisticated as I’ve always thought Christie would be but I am not sure if that’s due to the characters or her developing writing skill.

It’s definitely one to read if you’re a fan of her work though, just to see where her writing life began, and it made me keen to read something she wrote a little further down the line…

Book 54 – The Hollow, by Agatha Christie.  This was first released in 1946, 25 years after The Secret Adversary, and there was a very definite change in the writing style. This story follows a group of people whose lives intersect at The Hollow, a country house.  On the day the lady of the house invites Hercule Poirot to lunch, one of her guests is murdered…

The plot followed the twists and turns as evidence appears and is found wanting, and a number of characters seem to have motives and opportunities to commit the murder.  The book shows multiple character viewpoints, giving the opportunity to see how each person reacted to the crime.  This was a great way to assess not just whether someone was possibly guilty of the crime but whether they had every really cared for their ‘friend’ in the first place, and how the death affected them – from emotional trauma to social inconvenience.

The story is a straight ‘whodunnit’, and this time, I didn’t know who it was which was much more satisfying!

The stylistic differences between this and The Secret Adversary were significant, and too many to list, but key ones from my point of view as a reader included:

  • a constant shift of viewpoint – we saw all the main characters away from the setting of the story and each other
  • the very late introduction to the recurring Christie character – Poirot is not the main player in this story, and he arrives about a third of the way into the book
  • the way the characters exist in a recognisable reality – we see a doctor, a sculptor and a shop assistant in their workplaces
  • The language used – this book seemed much less dated than The Secret Adversary which used more slang and colloquialisms (or perhaps the slang in The Hollow was better adopted and became normal English, who knows?!)

This book seemed to be about grown-ups, for grown-ups, whereas The Secret Adversary was more like a young adult book as we describe them now.  I definitely preferred this one.

Just as an addendum – I chose The Hollow as it was the first Christie I saw on the shelf of books I inherited from my grandparents (and am aware it isn’t necessarily reflective of her other work).  It reminded me that their library is sitting unused, when books should be read, so I am going to choose my next few books from there and give it life again.

Some are probably out of print, or out of style, or politically insensitive but that’s the way it goes with books – they are a reflection of a moment in time.  I just hope they bring me a little more insight into the world my grandparents experienced.

Until next time – happy reading,

EJ

🙂

 

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I really wanted to use this image in some way; it’s a picture either my partner or I took when we visited Anglesey and in my mind it’s tied up with the search for Druids and the end of the social and religious order that was wiped out by the Romans.  It isn’t Druidic, of course, but that’s not the point.  I just love it!

 

Water Lion

 

It feels like a good time to use the image now, as I want my words to flow like water.  I want them to spill out onto the paper in front of me – as imperfect and incomplete as they are – into a narrative from which a trail can be picked.

If you’ve ever read Ulysses by James Joyce, you’ll be well aware that some writers have opted to keep the stream of consciousness as a narrative technique; I am not looking to do so and yet that’s what’s happening with my writing right now.  I sit with my plan and my character’s voice and I work my way through the memories she has locked up and hidden away.  The pain, the joy; the unexplored and unexplained – it all trickles down the page and soaks into the manuscript, giving it a cold and unyielding tone which is exactly what I want.

I will have to split it up, add dialogue and descriptive sections.  I am not James Joyce and don’t think many would accept a stream of consciousness novel nowadays even if I were.  But setting the words loose, letting them find their own pathway, frees something up in me.

I am not writing for perfection in a first draft – or any draft, for that matter.  I am trying to find the character’s authentic voice.  By letting her thoughts take over the page without recourse to anyone else I can do that.

So if you are struggling to hear your character in amongst the chatter of your story, it’s worth sitting down and just letting the words flow from one scene to another, through their eyes alone.  Not only does it give you a chance to know your character better but it means you are forming their world without compromising their viewpoint.

Give it a go, and see if it works for you.

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

 

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Sometimes I visit places and I get to see familiar settings in an entirely unfamiliar way.

This picture shows a scene I know reasonably well – but it was brand new from this vantage point, on a gently rolling, wind-whipped, hill.

 

Viewpoint

When it comes to writing, viewpoint governs the structure of the story.  Do you see everything from one viewpoint, or through many?  Is your viewpoint omniscient or narrow?  Is the viewpoint character a reliable narrator?

One of the exercises suggested by Brian Kiteley in his book The 3am Epiphany asks you to change a piece of writing from first to third person, or vice versa.  I won’t go into all the details about it, of course – but it was an exercise that really made me focus on how much of a story I should actually show.

In essence, the viewpoint character holds a torch, so you can only see what they see.  If you need to reboot a tale, change the torch-holder – you can even hang it up so light shines everywhere, if that’s what works for your novel!

If the story isn’t working as you want it to, a change of viewpoint could be all it needs.

It’s also worth bearing in mind what your own perception of the world brings to the story you are telling.  Just like my experience on the hilltop, if you look at something from an unusual angle it can change how you perceive it, and open your eyes to another way of defining things.

And of course, if you can’t get the writing to go as you want – take a break and look at the views around you.  It might not add to your word count but it adds something even more valuable to your day.

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

 

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Have you ever looked out of a plane window at the ground below, and felt as though you are looking at another world? Or seen satellite images of countries at night, and felt disconnected?  Well, this week’s post is about perception.

Let’s start with an image, shall we?   Here’s one from NASA – this was found at grin.hq.nasa.gov

What do you see?

Not people, not man-made structures, not proof of life.  The first thing I saw was the clouds.  Just underneath, it seemed, was a white block – the ice at the South Pole.  I saw the liquid oceans and the land masses.

Humans, on the other hand, live at street level.  Brushing across the surface, we would be invisible to any aliens busily flying past; we wouldn’t show up to their naked eye – assuming they have eyes, that is…

They’d have to change their point of view to see that life thrives on the planet.  It’s in those clouds, under that ice cap, swimming in the oceans.  It’s scuttling across continents.

Now think about a story you might be writing, right at this moment.  In it is a whole world – people are vast in this world, as visible as a land mass, or the watery 70% of the globe.  But what are you missing, what can’t you see, what is hidden by your perspective? What, if you shift to the right and squint, can you see?  

Whose point of view could you explore?

Whenever you write, you make a decision which viewpoint you use.  Every so often, you should look from another angle to see what you’re missing.

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I promised an update on the 2014 Reading challenge so here it is…

This week I have read two books:

Book 4 – Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie.  Like many people, I know this from the cartoon more than anything, so some elements were quite surprising – Peter’s selfish cruelty, Hook’s torment at his hand (pardon the pun), Wendy’s willful ignorance.  I loved some of the description, but this wasn’t the cosy tale I thought – so it’s a good thing I read it really!  There’s a darkness in it that probably appeals to children still.

Book 5 – The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak.  I put this one on the reading group list because I thought it sounded interesting (it’s a war story of sorts, narrated by Death), but I don’t like war books, and I needed a push to read it.  I’m so glad I did; I devoured it like a locust, I was so hungry to know how things turned out for the characters.  It was thoughtful and emotional, but not cloying, and although it was a little metaphor-heavy in places, I suspect that’s because I am aware of these tools.  There were stylistic choices I didn’t particularly care for but as a whole I think it was a very good book

I haven’t given up Moby Dick yet, but I haven’t finished it.  I think the thing that’s keeping me reading in Queequeg, make of that what you will!

Until next time – happy writing,

EJ

🙂

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…Or focussed versus whole-of-scene narratives.

Whenever you write, you make a decision about how the reader experiences your work. Do you want to write in first, second or third person, do you want an unreliable narrator, do you want an omniscient narrator?

Your decisions may be deeply considered or a gut reaction; you may change your mind as the piece develops. You may even experiment with multiple approaches in one piece.

The aperture approach, as I call it, is like a camera lens: you focus on one part of the story to present.  You see only what a particular character sees, experience the events through a specific pair of eyes.  It’s a little like torchlight; your attention shines on only one thing, and the rest is unseen and therefore unknown.

The all-seeing eye is the omniscient narrator, the one who can describe the feelings of each character in detail, and is party to all events.  This is more like a floodlit room, where there’s no chance for things to hide in corners.

I think the choice is entirely dependent on the story.  My first novel had four viewpoint characters and each character shared only what they experienced; the four characters together gave a fuller picture.  My second is very much based on what one character sees and feels, allowing me to explore a collapse from an external viewpoint.

I haven’t tried unreliable narrator in novels, but I have in writing exercises, and it’s very useful when exploring ‘shady’ characters – characters who you don’t want to reveal too early on, or those whose motivations are suspect.

This article is a quick reminder of first, second and third person (and a reminder I often write my blog in a mix of first and second person which is very naughty!) and here’s a whole lot of basic information on narrative options that’s worth considering if you’re not sure which way to go with your manuscript.

Good luck and happy writing,

EJ

🙂

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Now I’ve finished the first draft of the woods novel (still celebrating!), it’s time to get back on board with the family tree novel.

The purpose is to fill in gaps, but I’ve noticed that at least part of this has to be filled by a person not directly involved. Oddly, this means I am using her inaction to highlight the action taking place ‘off-screen’, so to speak.

I’m sure we’ve all tried writing with strange permutations but I for one have never tried this: an unreliable person reporting on what they are not party to hearing…

Will it work? Only time – and writing it – will tell, but I think it’s the only way to make the action centre stage and yet not fill in the details of it too fully. The event is necessary, but knowing the content is not, and would undermine the story, I think.

It’ll be like one of those summits where nothing is actually decided…!

My second bit of inaction was the start of book club for 2013.  We’re now meeting every month but only doing six books – each is allotted two sessions for discussion (read one gossipy meal then one gossipy meal with books on the table).  I think we agreed that we’re all reading/about to read/have read the book in question, and established it has been made into a film which isn’t exactly like the book but does have a curly-haired actor in it…  So not a lot, but it was really great to meet up!

One thing I did do was to share the poem from Saturday though.  One person said it gave her goosebumps so that’s a pretty cool reaction!

And finally for today – to counteract my inaction I am at last starting to visit some of the lovely bloggers who have come and said hi over the last few months.  I know it’s horribly delayed – as is the daisy award I have yet to deliver – but one of my resolutions for this year is to spend a little more time reading – books, papers, blogs; whatever takes my fancy and spurs my imagination.  I am sure I’ve missed lots of interesting and exciting posts so will make an effort to read as many as possible (even if I don’t always comment).

Happy writing

EJ

🙂

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