This is another post from the Archive. I’ve hit a point in my current working project where I’ve had to take stock of what is there and what isn’t there in the story so far. This post came to mind as a guide for me as I am reviewing the almost 80,000 words I’ve already written.
I’ve just read a great article by Gwenna Laithland advising writers to use ‘white noise’.
Basically, white noise is the void – the bits you leave out which the reader then projects their own thoughts and imagination onto.
Laithland uses the example of a Harry Potter stage show casting Hermione Grainger with a black actress. J.K. Rowling admits that she never specified her heroine’s skin colour.
I often get caught up in feeling the need to give more detail in description and narration – partly because I write dialogue much more easily and my pages can quickly resemble a play script.
I like writers at both ends of the spectrum. The very precise and detailed, and the void.
So which is best?
I suppose the answer is write with detail when you need to manouveur the reader into a specific place and embrace the void where it really doesn’t matter.
I am still working on this.
I’ve come to realise that the Void can also be used in the plotting of a story also.
What you need to reveal to the reader and what they can deduce for themselves.
The trick seems to be letting go of your own imagined, or fixed, view of the story and allowing the reader the space to become properly involved themselves.
The void allows them to bring their imagination to the story, even if you plot line turns out not to be what they imagined– Jack Reacher creator Lee Child is very good at this, giving you lots of room to try and work out what the ‘bad guys’ are really up to.
To begin at the beginning, this is not an exhaustive comparison of Connelly and Grisham. There will be plenty of writers/journalists out there who have already done this better than I can.
These are my thoughts and notes from a great interview with the two authors by the bookseller Waterstones, earlier this evening.
Connelly and Grisham have been writing for a similar length of time, around the thirty year mark. Both are bestseller authors.
Connelly writes novels with a number of repeating characters. Detective Harry Bosch is his mainstay, but then there is the Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller, journalist James McAvoy, and his latest detective Renee Ballard.
The majority of Grisham’s novels are stand alone, with only the recent ‘Camino’ stories being based on the same protagonist.
So, should you write serial characters as a new writer, or have a constantly refreshed cast? The success of both authors would seem to suggest its a tie on that score.
Connelly and Grisham both have work schedules which begin on January 1st.
They are both full-time writers and their writing habits reflect this.
Newer writers may have to work their writing in around other jobs, but there is a key point which is be disciplined. Whether you have all the time to write or practically no time, you have to sit down and write.
Connelly and Grisham both write in areas that they are very familiar with.
Connelly’s stories are very much based in Los Angeles and his previous career as a journalist covering crime clearly still has an influence on his work.
Grisham was a lawyer and most of his books are legal thrillers, with his latest ‘Camino’ books straying from that to a roguish bookseller.
I’m not a fan of the old adage ‘write what you know’, but both authors very much are of the opinion that you should write in areas which you are knowledgable.
What you know the best might not be your current career area. Your interest in sports or politics, cars or mental health, may be what you know best?
Whatever your key area of interest, make sure you keep up to date, read and watch everything you can find and look out for those story ideas.
Ploter or Pantser?
Connelly and Grisham both know what the end scenes are before they begin writing the first scene.
Grisham tends to be more heavily plotted than Connelly.
For you as a writer, plot or pants, but make sure you know where the end is before you start at the beginning.
Connelly and Grisham generally stay within their ‘genre’. Success probably has a part to play here, but they know the lay of the land and they find plenty of stories there.
Grisham has written non-fiction and sport-based stories.
As a writer you can jump around the genres but you will probably find more success in those areas of your knowledge and expertise.
Connelly and Grisham are both fans of Ian Rankin.
Connelly has had his Bosch stories made into a very successful Amazon TV series and a movie made of The Lincoln Lawyer.
Grisham has had a number of his books made into big movies, such as The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill, and The Firm.
Both writers still see themselves as novelists and TV/Film are interesting side-tracks.
So what’s keeping you – get writing!
Connelly and Grisham could do with some competition!
This talk by French Screenwriter and Film Maker, Celine Sciamma, has challenged me in two ways.
It has challenged my already challenged mind regarding the received ‘this is the way you plot a story’.
It has challenged me to think even more deeply about what the focus of my stories are.
For Sciamma there is a three stage process for her writing. She may not title them exactly as I am about to list them, but this is my translation of them:
Identify your Global Desires for the film/story
Place the Local Scenes
Return to the Global View and ensure that each of the Local Scenes are in keeping with your Global Desires.
Your Global Desires for your story encompasses the whole form and key elements of your narrative. There may be a number: It is a love story; it has a non-typical viewpoint; its is artistically driven and not obstacle driven in plot.
Your Local Scenes are the actual scenes in the story and should be split into two lists:
1.The Desired List – This is the parts of scenes, the snatches of dialogue, the setting of the story, random ideas of plot; in fact they are anything which inspired you in the idea of the story to begin with.
2.The Needed List – These are the scenes you need to have in your story in order to tell it. It is the plot, the characters, the action, etc.
The aim here is to take all of the items in your second list and work them into the first list. All that should remain is your list of Desired scenes.
Focus on what is important in each scene. Is it the dialogue? Is it the detail of setting? Is it character? Is it the action between characters?
Your finalGlobal View for your story now checks that your Desired list of scenes is telling the elements you specified in the original Global Desires list.
What isn’t necessary needs to be cut or altered so it is necessary.
You may not need lots of background detail in your narrative.
You may not need to follow the conventions of your time period or the genre of your story.
Conflict and Obstacles – the usual cornerstones of plotting – may not have to be the focus of your story telling.
If you are telling a love story your key characters may not have to have large obstacles or have conflict in their relationship. If your Global Desire is to tell of the love between two characters then focus on the love.
Take a story you are currently working on, or a new idea you have and apply Sciamma’s three stages of planning/plotting to it.
I expect your view of your story to change. Mine has.
Usually I would advise you to read this article before you continue with my thoughts, but not today. There is enough in Ken Miyamoto’s excellent article to keep you going for days!
I’ve been researching movie/play scripts for a little while now.
There are many ways in which novels and movies differ, but what I do appreciate that the later has to have a really tight hand on moving the story on and getting the audience to care about their characters.
Plot and character, the cornerstones of any story.
You are not going to write a novel in ten days – although there might be a challenge! – but one of the points Miyamoto makes early on is that you should have visualised at least 75% of your story before you sit down to write.
I think I’ve plotted every which way you can, as I am sure you probably have.
I seem to need the excitement of letting the story unfold and the characters lead me, but I acknowledge that sometimes I am not plotting as tightly as I probably should.
I suppose there has to be a purpose for the editing process, other than to spotting typos!
I find that if I plot too much then I know the story and getting the story down is like wading through deep mud. Putting the words in becomes the hard work, rather than working out where I am going next.
How about you? Strong plotters or the adventure of discovery?
Perhaps stronger discipline in plotting will produce a stronger story from the first draft?
I don’t know.
Visualising 75% of the story first means that both plot and characters should be fully developed.
The writing then becomes the how do I show this to the reader?
Much like a director framing the story from the page to the screen.
If you choose to take a break, have you broken your habit?
I’ve written just over 63,000 words in the last 7 weeks, with the aim of writing at least 1,000 words a day.
I established the habit I wanted of writing a minimum of 1,000 words a day.
Then two days ago, I stopped writing.
It was a conscious choice.
The story was going fine. I am a ‘pantser’ by inclination and, creatively, I was having no problems.
The problem came from the characters themselves.
They were easy characters, working well together.
They had a plot which was going forward and had layers. They didn’t grumble.
But they pull me to one side and ask me one question – we know what’s going on, but does the reader?
I looked blankly at them and then asked for more coffee.
They were right.
I was leaving the reader to make big leaps in understanding of the characters from subtle clues in the things they said.
The characters left me alone to work the problem out.
The first thing to do was stop writing.
Another one thousand more words which weren’t quite hitting the spot wasn’t going to help.
I realised I was going to have to make changes in what I had written so far, but I wasn’t going to do that now.
Finish the story. Edit after.
What I needed to do know was realise all of the character points I knew in their backgrounds, and let that information out to the reader, without them having to do an ‘escape room’ puzzle to work it out.
I am writing a thriller. Not a character trait treasure hunt.
I have dropped the reader into the midst of a group of tight characters.
The reader needs to understand how they got where they are and why.
I am the writer, so it’s my job to get them up to speed.
The main characters know we are back to work as normal tomorrow.
Break-time is over.
I’ve looked them in the eye, and I think they believe me.
It is difficult in these days of movies and tv series not to associate actors with the fictional people they portray.
Or is it the other way around?
An honest actor will tell you that if the writing is good then they just say the lines. Which is them being very generous. Their art is a truly skilful one.
But, if the lines of their characters are true to their part within the story, then they may ‘play’ the role rather than having to ‘invent’ the role.
I’ve been concentrating on character within my own stories a lot more recently.
I tend write and reveal character through dialogue. Which, for me, is fine; mostly due to the fact that these characters have been hanging out with me and following me around, talking non-stop to me.
I’ve started to think much more about how much I am actually revealing about these characters. I think I might not be doing as good a job as I think.
One of the articles I came across whilst deliberating this issue offered ‘five ways to improving your characters’.
In my notebook, I neglected to write down where the article was from . . . but when I track it down again, I will attribute it properly so you can check the whole thing out.
Until then I offer you the notes I made.
Get in touch with your character on a personal level – If you were describing having met this person to a friend of yours, what would you tell them? Your reader probably should know that much too.
Understand their backstory deeply – You probably will not tell this story in your novel/script but all of the things that have happened to them up to this point, will effect their decision making within your story.
Drive your story with your characters – Plot is obviously important, but how your main characters get to that end point, might be different if you let them find their way there, rather than driving them there yourself.
Study how character change impacts plot – Back to school! – pick up those books/articles, listen/watch those interviews with your favourite authors. Keep learning your craft!
Be persistent – Unless you want your characters to give up, don’t you give up learning and understanding them, so together you build the best story you can.
One of my favourite movies is Lethal Weapon and the introduction to the characters of Riggs and Murtaugh is one of the best there is.
We discover that Riggs has nothing left to live for and wants to die. We discover that Murtaugh has a family he wants to live for and worries that he might die if he isn’t careful.
The tension between these two characters and their motivations are what we watch. The plot line almost becomes something that just moves them from one place to another.
We see them rubbing the edges off each other.
They will only survive to the end of the story by doing it together. Murtaugh has to take chances and Riggs has to have something to live for.
Just writing those last couple of paragraphs reminds me I need to keep going back to point 4!
Let me know how your characters are going and what you have done to improve them.
You hit a wall. You lose the thread. A character doesn’t follow the plot line you have carefully constructed for them.
I’m sure it happens to artists and musicians also.
As a writer you normally do two things.
First, you give up; thus proving that you probably aren’t really good enough to be a writer after all. Second, you become belligerent and try and force the character, or plot, into fitting into the shape you created for it.
I’ve done both.
But, more recently, I’ve been learning there is a third way.
And it is easier than the other two.
You just close the notebook or electronic file and open up a new one.
Then, every now and again, let your creative mind wander back to the project and see if anything new occurs to you.
Let me give you an example.
I will call the project White Ladder.
White Ladder started with an image of two old men talking in a room one evening. They see a news clip of a new movie actress wowing audiences. It turns out that one of the men knew her mother.
That image and about 400 words, of mostly dialogue, was over 20 years ago.
It just never got past that initial stage.
A couple of years ago I heard a radio programme which focused on particular musicians and their defining albums. They played some of the songs and talked about the inspirations and processes of making the albums.
The one I listened to was David Gray, talking about his album White Ladder.
Suddenly that image of the two men talking came back to me and a variation on the theme started to form, energised by the words and mood of David Gray’s album.
The plot line was now dictated by the titles of each of the tracks on the album and the mood set by, often, just one line of the lyrics.
I don’t usually plan. I am a pantser by trade.
A couple of weeks of looking back at the plot line then led me to open up a project on Scrivener and start putting words on the page.
74,428 words later I stalled. I was at the three-quarters finished stage.
The two main characters had not followed the plot line and were all out refusing to do so.
I huffed and puffed and threatened to delete them, but they knew I was bluffing. So I gave them the cold shoulder for about six weeks. It turned out they were more patient than me.
So I took a key idea from within the project and tried to write the story from that perspective instead.
That was good for 34,149 words. Then the plot line decided not to follow the original plot I had carefully conceived. The two main characters waited patiently on the street they were walking, looking at me, waiting for me to make a decision.
I now had the word count of a full length novel, but three-quarters and one-quarter of the same story in two versions.
Dust gathered on both versions. Apart from reworking the whole plot into a series of ten short stories, telling the story from the perspectives of different characters.
I think I got that idea from Patrick Gale and his fantastic book Notes from an Exhibition.
Dust still gathers.
I know this story will be finished, because it keeps tapping on the door of my creative studio, reminding me that it is still there.
But in not finishing White Ladder (yet!) I have learnt a lot.
I have learnt that one simple scene will eventually become a full story if you wait long enough.
I have devised a story plot three different ways.
I have 108,000+ words of writing practice, which will eventually be a finished novel.
I have learnt to be patient with myself.
I haven’t failed because the book isn’t completed.
So yesterday I suggested that relatives could take inspiration/lessons from sports and hopefully I will convince you today.
Bill Belichick is the most successful NFL coach ever because:
He stays focused on the overall goal and works hard to achieve it
He never goes through the motions and always trains with purpose
He makes sure that he puts the right players on the pitch at the right time
He doesn’t panic if things don’t seem to be working early on in the season and understands the importance of late on in the game and the season
He doesn’t waste time talking about the game
So how does this translate into being creative?
Be really clear about what you are trying to achieve.
Belichick knows the season is about winning the Super Bowl and so is the pre-season and the post-season. If you want to write a novel then that is the goal, nothing else. Prepare. Execute. Analyse to make next year’s performance better. It is hard work so put in the hours. Be focused and cut out distractions. Commit and achieve.
Practise with purpose and put what you learn into action.
A very underestimated part of what Belichick does is the practice field. The Patriots train with crowd noise. They train with old and scuffed up balls, removing as much of the grip as they can. They try to recreate conditions similar to the ones they will play in. All practice is purposeful.
It can be hard if you are time pressed for your creative pursuit but you need to practice. If you are a writer then try and find an extra couple of hundred words which are based on what you are writing, or will write in the next chapter. It might be character descriptions, or scene setting, or dialogue. If you are an artist you might need to experiment with colour, or sketch certain body parts, or try different techniques for applying the paint.
Use the creativity you need for that particular moment.
Don’t get distracted or show off. Use the skills to produce the elements you need to make that particular chapter, or picture, or composition, exactly as you need it. Be prepared and execute. If the scene is your chapter is heavy on dialogue, then make sure you have been practicing that element. Listen to good movies or tv, listen to or read good scenes from books and plays.
Sometimes, particularly in the early stages, things might not go quite the way you had planned. It happens. Work out why and fix the issue. Sometimes there might not be a specific problem, you just didn’t execute well enough, so make sure you do the next time. Keep pressing on and know everything will come together late on in the season when it really matters. You may have zigged when you wanted to zag but keep the process going and remain focused on the end result.
Don’t waste time and energy.
Monosyllabic answers and repetitive phrases at press conferences are communicating that this isn’t where we win championships and Super Bowls.
As creatives we have platforms which can really boost the audience for our creativity in ways which no other writers/artists have had before, but it can also be a massive distraction. Social Media is the press conference. Learn from Bill. Don’t waste your energy and know it is taking time away from your main job. It is necessary, which why even he does them, but his conduct tells you that he knows what is important. The end result.
So Create Like Bill! And I hope to see you all in the Hall of Fame! (But don’t be surprised if Bill doesn’t speak with us!)