Dear Writer Girl Episode #5
Hola from Spain, where I am on writing retreat,
#dearwritergirl is right up my alley this week - two great questions that I think a lot of us will relate to! How not to PUT EVERYTHING YOU EVER THOUGHT OF IN A BOOK, and what to do when it all just gets you down...
I'll be doing this blog for two more weeks, so if you'd like to ask a question, tweet @leoneross and hashtag #dearwritergirl or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like to remain anonymous, just say so....
I will try my best to answer your question in the week you send it, but can't always promise. But I will get to you.
PS. Don't write and ask me how to publish. I don't know, and I will ignore you.
PPS. Questions may be slightly edited for clarity or brevity.
Dear Writer Girl,
How much is too much? Not in terms of number of words, but characters and story arcs? How do you not put everything in once it occurs to you?
It’s funny that you should ask this question now, at a time when I’m away from home disembowelling my own novel, this beast of a thing that is far too long and confusing for exactly the reason you identify – too many point of view characters and their story arcs. As I chop and kill and maim and disentangle plot-lines so I can pull them out at the root, I am becoming increasingly clear about what has happened here, and so can proffer some suggestions about saving yourself from hell – or stopping you from going there in the first place. Some of these ideas come care of my dear friend and novelist James Smythe, [@jpsmythe] who writes really good novels at an extraordinarily fast rate, and who asked me some important questions once he’d generously read the terrible, beautiful beast.
You can use these questions in advance, as a way to think about a novel - or indeed a short story - or you can use them to edit after you’ve written early drafts. Even better, you can ask yourself these questions all throughout the process.
1. Which ideas and feelings and themes are most important to you?
Accept this fact: your story will not benefit from you including every idea. It risks rupture - and confusing the reader. At some point, sooner better than later, you need to make a list of the key ideas that are floating up and out of your wonderfully creative mind – and choose. In my long-ass novel draft, these are only some of the ideas that come up: the challenges of marriage, ‘friends with benefits’ relationships, sexual inexperience, celibacy, sexual assault, child abuse, homophobia and one-night stands. Believe me, that’s just the beginning. But when I really sat down and thought about it, I realised that the book is, at core, contemplating the mistakes we make in our search for connection and love. Given that, it’s a novel about second chances and how we might grasp them.
What I didn’t have to do in order to write the damn idea was to include every single kind of relationship mistake in the world, ever. What I did need to do was use this theme of second chances in love as a kind of anchor, to stop me going off on tangents.
As you begin to write and new ideas occur, you need to regularly ask yourself what these ideas/characters/scenes/ descriptions/ conversations/ images have to do with the core idea. They should have a relationship. Are they another flavour of the core, or a reflection of the core, working to drive home the core point – or just some random idea that titillates you, like a pretty butterfly? Perhaps these new elements are in direct contrast with the core idea, in order to further illuminate it.
My novel has two protagonists, both facing a second chance at love. One is an addict, dulling painful emotions – who chose the wrong partner through guilt. He has a second chance for love but also sobriety. The other protagonist is mourning the loss of children – she also chose the wrong partner - through duty. She has a second chance at love, but also at personal fulfilment. Both are stuck; both need to seize a second chance, if they can, or drown. I want the reader to witness two flawed humans trying to love again.
Given what I say I want to write about, every successive writing choice I make, every scene, every event I choose, needs to loop back to second chances: what they are, how we take them, how we fail or succeed. Homophobia, the mating habits of lizards or the scars of racism have to wait for another book; that is not what this book is about. Or you can run after the butterfly ideas, get distracted, stuff them all in, create a ridiculously over-plotted narrative, and then rip the excess ideas out, frothy and kicking. Choice is yours. I beg you, save yourself from this bloodbath.
Saying all that, this might help, too…
2. Stop doling out point of view like cheap candy. A lot of people don’t understand that creating a character doesn’t have to mean entering their heads – by that I mean fashioning them as ‘point of view’ [POV] characters. I understand the temptation. Entering the mind of a person is one of the most wonderful things literature allows us to do. We have access to their thoughts, their complex and unspoken feelings, their prejudices and dreams and wishes. It’s fabulous fun. It makes writers feel all intellectual and deep and compassionate and clever and shit. But making a character a point of view character is a special kind of promise to the reader. When the reader sees us shift into the head and heart of a person, they think: this person must be an incredibly interesting and important person. I must worry about this person. I must become committed to this person and ultimately what happens to them. In other words, the reader, consciously or not, expects a story arc – a beginning, middle and resolution - for every point of view character. And that is one hard-ass writing task, the more arcs you’re trying to balance.
Let’s imagine you start out with one POV character. His name is Jude and you want to write about his experience of being a schoolteacher and how his terrible childhood eventually helps him understand his students. This is important to you. You're ready to do it. So you have Jude wake up, get hungry and head for the corner shop, contemplating the need for eggs, cigarettes and the cute guy he went to dinner with last night. We're getting to know him, we're seeing the world through his eyes. Jude says howdy to the shopkeeper. And that’s when you get all excited, Sessha. You think: shopkeeper, now that’s terribly interesting. He has to put up with all of these people coming into his shop everyday, and Bill, he doesn’t even really want to be a shopkeeper anyway. You jump into his mind and you find out that he hates shops because actually he wants to be a stage actor. Because you know that stories need conflict, you think you ooh, Bill needs a thing to stop him from becoming an actor - subplot!!!! - so you invent a wife for Bill - with a horrid disease and then because diseases are heart-rending and important and your BFF conquered one last year and you want to do homage, you hop skip and jump across London into the sick wife’s mind, sitting in a beautiful garden pondering the meaning of life and death.
And so now we are in three minds, which is not inherently problematic, except that your teacher hasn’t even gone to school yet, and now I’m terrified you’re going to get into the point of view of at least 10 of his students, because after all, each one represents a new theme and idea you find fascinating, and important.
As I have said in earlier Dear Writer Girl blogs, a narrative arc involves beginnings of orientation, where we get to know our characters and their problems, conflict, where the character faces problems and challenges, and resolution where change often takes place, for good or ill. So now you’re writing a novel from the point of view of at least 13 people and how long and confusing is that going to be, and how hard is it going to be to unite these ideas around a central core theme and jump from head to head?
Sessha, have you done this, ever? Have you? Me too.
A lot of writers don’t understand that vivid characters don’t have to be point of view characters. Just think of a person in your life that had a profound or important effect on you, someone who you admired, but wasn't your friend or confidante. People often choose teachers or artists of some kind. Whether it’s your high school teacher or David Bowie, point is, you were never given space in their heads. But you still have a vivid, detailed memory of their behaviour and the things they said out loud and the lasting effect on you. You can create tremendously effective characters by restricting yourself to a description of their behaviour and to their dialogue. Stay out of their heads unless they are a primary character [the main vehicle for your core theme/s] or a secondary character created to express other consciously complementary themes.
A final word on this before everybody starts throwing examples at me; yes, yes, yes - we all know and love novels with many characters in them, including many POV characters. I am not claiming this is impossible, or that it can't be delightful. But Sessha wrote to me, worried about losing control, not Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These are not writers overwhelmed. They are [at least eventually] in control of their shit.
Whatever you do, you need to strive to make conscious choices. Which leads me to my final point.
3. Consciously divide your writing time into sessions with different, but compatible goals. Sessions of uncontrolled, gorgeous waves of uninhibited self-expression, where you feel and explore and find out what you want to say and how you want to say it; sessions of contemplation time, in which you ask yourself serious questions about intention and form - and editing sessions where you consciously improve your work with those intentions and goals in mind. I find it most helpful to work with scenes – self-contained pieces of narrative that take place in particular places for particular purposes, like Cinderella looking for a cute dance partner at the ball, Romeo and J-Cap doing that sweet-nothings balcony thang or Jeremy Corbyn fighting our bitch PM in UK Parliament. At the start of the process there will probably be more scene writing devoted to exploration and self-expression and unfettered discovery, as you try to find your core theme/s and the voices of your characters, but as time goes on and less brand-new writing is done, you may find you spend more time in contemplation and editing as you attempt to express your increasingly clear intentions.
I think my novel became so difficult and unwieldy simply because I was fighting my way out of writer’s block, so I spent nearly 100% of my time in uninhibited self-expression, with minuscule amounts of time in contemplation. By the time I began to edit, it was like chipping away at a mountain. As I mentioned last week, I will never write a novel this way again. I truly think writing is a commitment to depth, not breadth. Find a few things you care about and squirrel away at them, using a few characters as vehicles for your ideas. Add pretty stuff, as much or as little as you like, depending on your style. Then do it again.
Write lots of stories for all your ideas – don’t stuff them all into one little book.
Dear Writer Girl,
I used to be able to write – small, unfinished things. But in the last four years, all I have is white blinding rage at the racism and bullshit that’s choking me. There's nothing there except anger and desperation. How do I find other stories? (Am seeing a therapist for the rest!)
I’m glad you’re seeing a therapist and hope s/he is the right one for you. I’ve spent time in therapy and it’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve done, probably life-saving. Too many people still resist, because we are given strange messages about seeking help; others just can’t access in terms of cost or quality or availability. It's criminal.
To your actual question:
In these times of Brexit and Trump, a lot feels scary and cruel and stupid. I think it’s the cruelty that can be most soul destroying. The dismissiveness of real people’s lives, the hysterical pushback against practically heroic efforts to express stories that were once silenced. I get it. For every white, straight dude who wants to over-intellectualise the shit that makes people of colour bleed. For the weird sociopaths with more money than anyone could ever want. For children dying and we don’t know what to do. For people who bitch about the idea of free birth control and tampons, for fuck's sake. And so on. You know. You’re feeling it.
Several things occur to me. First of all, you should have permission to rage. It means that you are alive and paying attention. I believe in rage. It has fuelled some of the most beautiful writing in the world. Baldwin, Audre Lorde, June Jordan – especially her tender, furious essay on Mike Tyson, bell hooks’ treatises on love, Malcolm always, Ralph Ellison, Marcus Garvey, and so many more, all wrote out of anger and gave voice to desperation. Forgive me - if you are not reading them, you should read them, so that you can be reminded rage is righteous in the face of cruelty. So you can see that it’s valid to write like this, in these times. And if you have already read them, you should read them again, because what they also have in common is a tremendous capacity for tenderness and deep humanity. All of them. Art has the capacity to bring out the best in us, despite the times, sometimes because of the times. It feels to me as if that is what bothers you – that you’re temporarily unable to go to the best part of you. To a place of peace or forgiveness or beauty or softness or redemption.
I don’t know you. I can only share what I know works for me when I’m mad. If I were you, I would start looking for the small, ordinary miracles. Look for them fiercely. Do it as homework. Do not stint in your pursuit of small, everyday, beautiful things. Watch your father prepare a cup of tea: the way he steeps the peppermint leaves, slowly using a spoon to wash hot water over the green, and step closer and breathe in the scent, noticing the ring of the spoon against the rim of the cup. Notice the hairs in your hairbrush, curling and fragrant. Go find some kids in your family and watch them learning: how to walk, how to talk. Or go hang out somewhere and people-watch, and don’t stop until you begin to notice lovely things. A woman stopping a door from swinging back into a guy’s face; the bus driver helping a lady with directions; someone making food for someone they love. Walk around with a pen and paper and record these small details of joy and comradeship and happiness. Insist on finding them. It doesn't take long. Everywhere, there are people doing small and precious things.
I tell people all the time: just write what you see and hear and touch and smell and taste. Give thanks for the sound of wind and your breath. If you can’t help yourself that way, go see if you can help somebody else. We may not have money to give, but the deepest need in this world is to be heard. Call somebody up, or better yet, arrange to sit in front of them, and ask them how they’re doing. Then listen closely. At first they may complain – that’s cool. Listen. Then in your new ferocious determination to find the tender and the good, ask them to tell you what’s good. Something’s always good; if they find it and tell you, listen some more. Don’t say much. Maybe the occasional ‘yeah?’ or ‘uh-huh’ or ‘tell me more’. Let their stories sink in and act as a barrier for the bullshit. Write their stories down. The more you seek the tenderness, the miracle, the beauty, the more fortified you’ll become.
The cruel voices are very loud at the moment: my mother tells me they’re loud because they’re dying. She gets mad at the bullshit, and then she reminds me that change comes in decades, not minutes.
Write some more small, unfinished things. It gives me great pleasure to think of good, outraged, sensitive people, writing small, unfinished things.