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!
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.
Dan doesn’t know me and I’m not getting any kickbacks.
This is just a really great podcast and you should check it out.
This is the first thing I listen to on a Saturday morning when I’m fixing breakfast.
The format quickly becomes familiar and I defy you not to shout out ‘I do that’ at a similarity in routine, like you would shouting out ‘snap’ in the card game.
He starts by getting the writer to describe their writing place surroundings and then ask for clues about their current projects.
– standing desk, books, posters/paintings, pantser so all plotting in my head, notebook, music, and a timer . . .
This is followed up, generally, by a revealing of their working day.
– lots of promises of a better routine but generally write during the evening, use of a timer, minimum word count, lots of dog interruptions . . .
Plotting, characterisation, ideas, and all sorts of other nuggets – like the business of writing – come out of their conversation.
– pantser so often the characters know before the plot before me . . .ideas will be a character or piece of dialogue or a mood from a piece of music . . .
There is quite a back catalogue of episodes now, so plenty to get yourself into.
I don’t believe that copying another writer’s routine will ‘channel’ their success, but I definitely come away from these episodes with a sense of ‘maybe I’m not doing too badly after all’.
When you share a number of habits with writer’s you admire, or even have never heard of before, you gain that sense of community which often is missing in what is, on the whole, still a fairly solitary profession. Especially, if you aren’t even published yet.
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.