Bringing the band together

main_characters

Stolen from here

Oneiromancer has an ensemble cast. It has five characters who think they’re the star; each has a point of view and rather like having the focus on them, thank you very much. This is great. This is the story I wanted to tell and it’s a lot of fun, slipping beneath skins and giving different perspectives. Like a movie I can select the viewpoint and give the information I want given.

But, inevitably, there is a problem. Put simply, I don’t know how to start the novel. My early drafts had each ‘hero’ taking their turn: building a scene as they saw it, and then moving to the next person. And, as I’ve never been a big fan of ‘five men walked into a bar’ setups (although I am a big fan of bars), each of them was in a different place, a different time, with no connection to the scene that came before.

In other words I had a series of ‘starts’, none of which built on a narrative. Early criticism was that the novel didn’t really cohere until around the fifth chapter, by which time we’d met all the main players.

So I rewrote the beginning. I removed some early POV changes/introductions and tried to ‘flow’ from one character to the other. But it seems I didn’t go far enough. More simplification is needed. More difficulties are to be overcome.

Oneiromancer is a long novel. All the characters are well bound together, and the POV changes – I think – work well over the long haul. I don’t want to change it. Besides, lots of novels have ensemble casts and continent-spanning perspectives aren’t something to be feared.

But we still have to get the beginning down. Nobody will stick around to witness the genius of my legerdemain if they give up on the novel before my characters collide. Agents base their initial decisions on less and less material: ten pages is now normal. Why should they – or you – read more than that? It’s not as if we’re starved of quality literature.

So it’s back to the start with me. Lop off the first chapter, extract any relevant info, compress and sneak it back in later. And then it’s all about the hope – and the next round of beta reading and feedback and rejection – that this time it works. That I can properly bait the audience until they’re hooked, unable to wriggle away.

Ensemble casts are, in summary, a bugger. If anyone has any answers I’m all ears.

Advertisements

Let’s talk about sex (again), baby

Picture the scene: you are surrounded by familiar faces, people who know you well. It’s your turn to speak and so you clear your throat and stand. Feel the eyes, the pressure. A sip of water, maybe. You open your mouth. But instead of your high-flown fantasies, your lovingly crafted words of beauty and bliss, out pours a tide of filth and depravity; words you barely touched before now rolling out to suffocate the audience…

I wrote my first sex scene. It is dirty, unpleasant and, I think, necessary. See, I understand the mechanics of sex. I’ve read a fair bit of erotica (not 50 Shades, thank you; my experience of that is finding a copy abandoned on a bench by the Thames. I picked it up, flicked through it, then abandoned it on the next bench upriver. I imagine it moving from sea to source in such fashion). But writing it oneself is somewhat disturbing.

Creation is a private, personal experience. You build worlds and stories internally, deep within your mind. No-one is ever going to know what you’re thinking unless you tell them. Writing isn’t like that. You do it with a potential audience in mind. And so when you create something intimate and personal – and, in this case, horrible – you can’t help but be a little anxious. I guess the way to get round this is to realign your mental compass to not see it as personal at all, but that’s not likely to happen unless you’re specialising in erotica. Or horror. Or financial reports.

As for this particular scene – well, I knew it was nasty. It was meant to be unpleasant. It’s a rape-and-murder scene so it can hardly be nice. But I am inexperienced; although I fully intend to go through the whole damn thing and make it better, I don’t know what ‘better’ means in this context. Too much, too little or just right? So I took the scene to the lovely folks at Abingdon Writers for their judgement.

I can’t help but feel their opinions of me may have changed. Just a little.

Get any group of writers together – collective noun: a scribble? A grammar? An argument? – and you’ll find as many opinions as there are people. I’m still unsure whether I’ve gone too far or not far enough. But the strongest point made was that my use of language was wrong. I was using terms that a man would use, but not a woman. This scene was from the woman’s POV and so my use of some particular dirty words wasn’t seen as appropriate.

I’m not sure about this. Not being a woman myself (chance would be a fine thing) obviously I can’t really be sure. But my approach to writing as women is to treat them, first-and-foremost, as human beings. Is there really a difference in the way men and women think? I don’t know. What I’m really looking for is a book, by a woman, on writing erotica. My local library is strangely lacking such a work.

And these things matter. I care about being honest. I want to write things that are true. Just as important (to me) is to not be lumped in with the John C. Wright’s and Theodore Beale’s of the world. I don’t want to be thought of as a misogynistic hate-monger. If I can’t get this scene to work then I’ll cut it out.

But I want to keep the damn thing. The novel needs it or something like it. More importantly, to me, right now, in the position I’m in, I want to prove to myself that I can do it. It’s another skill to work on, develop and (hopefully) master.

So if anyone knows of any helpful books or articles I’d be very grateful if you’d let me know.

Points of view

You all know the rules of point-of-view. You all know that 1st person gives intimacy and an emotional connection with the reader, but can be limiting and doesn’t let you escape your protagonist’s head. 3rd person is great for giving differing perspectives but risks shallowness and, if carelessly handled, can confuse the reader. There’s also the danger of giving the reader all the info, and thus killing suspense and surprise. And 2nd person is never used outside short stories because no-one likes to be told how to behave.

I’ve spent three years in the depths of 1st person. I actually chose to write my Australis trilogy this way for a specific plot-purpose and not for some deep ideological reason. I found it difficult, ‘tis true; and hardest were the times when my protagonist wasn’t really doing anything or couldn’t think how to proceed. How to not bore the reader? It wasn’t always easy, and there’s still a lot of work to do to iron out said issues.

But it had its advantages too. As long as you’re aware that other characters are still acting around your protagonist, there’s great potential for the unexpected and for conflict. It’s all a question of working out how to reveal information that your hero was not privy to at the time it occurred. This can be a wonderful tool, especially if an antagonist is actively working against the POV character. Their surprise is the reader’s, and that’s a very nice trick to have up your sleeve.

I’ve gone back to 3rd person for my new project, and I’ve done this for two reasons. Firstly because I’m sick of being stuck in one head, and secondly because I’m writing an ensemble piece and this is what’s demanded by the story. I’ve also broken my long-held and religiously-adhered-to commandment and changed POV within a scene. May any God or Gods listening please have mercy upon my soul. It was necessary, I assure you.

3rd person brings with it a wholly different set of challenges. Most obviously, you’re letting the reader into the private thoughts of a bigger cast and you have to make every POV character distinct, well-rounded and, above all, interesting: not necessarily nice or sympathetic, but interesting. Now I just need to work out when and from whose eyes we see each scene.

It’s the equivalent of not knowing what to do with yourself in 1st person, I suppose. In 3rd you have to select your protagonist for the scene, work out who’s best to tell the next step of the story – and yet still be aware of what everyone else is doing ‘off-stage’. So far I have seven different POVs in about 25,000 words. This may be too many; simplification may occur. But for now, for every scene I write I have to make that choice. Who’s going to tell this chunk of the narrative? Who’s where, doing what, with who? Complicated. And don’t forget that this is essentially seven ‘introductions’ – we’ve got to get used to these characters, get to know and taste their distinctive odours.

I may have got some of this wrong. I’ve got a scene introducing teenager Jazz’s home-life as she gets ready for a night out. It feels like it may need to go earlier in the novel than it currently does. We’ll see.

But the advantages are plentiful, not least in the way you can build up ‘mosaic’ scenes from a variety of perspectives. Set up a situation from one viewpoint; do the groundwork and build to a climax (or keep up the tension with short, snappy images from several characters, back and forth – but not too much and not too confusing) and then switch to view the same scene from a different angle, taking over from where Character One left off.

This can be very effective. It’s also great fun. It’s like directing a movie, picking your camera angles, presenting the same information in different ways. One character will see someone in one way, another will see it differently. Avoiding repetition is important, but it’s easier to dodge info-dumps when you see things through many eyes.

There’s never a right way or a wrong way to approach POV. For me it has always been about the best way to present a plot. It’s also about enjoying the process and surprising yourself, not just your readers. I don’t write for money (there isn’t any) but because I like to tell stories. The process is endlessly astonishing; it makes me smile, makes me angry, builds me up and dumps me down.

It ain’t never dull, though. And hopefully that means I won’t write dullness either.

Back to school

There’s a ring on my finger and I am a very happy bunny. But now it’s back to school, back to battling the evil forces of paid employment for time to write. After a few weeks of altered priorities it’s a struggle to get the brain together. I’d not expected the post-project depression to hit me quite so hard. I should have known better.

I took last week off to be with the woman, and I’m hugely grateful for that. But now I’m back and I’m determined to get back with the flow. I don’t like having nothing to do. I crave the tiny bits of stress – not too much, just enough to focus and drive – that comes from a major undertaking such as planning a wedding, or indeed a novel. For years I’ve known that I should always have at least one creative outlet on the go at any one time. But it’s always hard to get back in the swim after a break, and that’s where I am right now.

So, here’s a recap. Night Shift. Ninth draft. Major reworking – which means I have to think as well as do.

What I’m trying to achieve is to shift the story from an adventure into a psychological thriller. Yes, I know that the novel will get classified as science-fiction whatever the actual ‘feel’ of the book will be, but still. Having squashed some plot-holes in the last run-through (8a; my draft-numbering system is somewhat erratic) I’m now focussing on small things such as character, motivation and background. It’s not easy. I’m not an expert at any particular genre and this is new territory for me.

So how do I go about it? In recent posts I’ve included pictures of my planning sheets and that really symbolises my writing process at the moment. I’m going back to the very beginning. I’m really thinking. How and why did this person get here? How would they react in any particular situation?

One of my major characters is an African engineer called Max. I know her pretty well. I’ve got a good idea of her background and her personality, but a few days ago I realised I still don’t know enough. Because I’m writing in the first-person I never really looked beyond my protagonist for action. But even – especially – when looking through the eyes of a single person it’s vital to know how those around him will behave. How will Max feel when asked this or that question? What will my supporting cast be doing, how will they be feeling when a crisis hits?

I have to know. I have to know what’s happening off-camera for all the characters in the novel. In an emergency, who will panic? Who will be pragmatic? Who will start the rumours and who will listen to them? All the characters I’ve created are specialists, experts: I have no fools. And only fools listen blindly to their leaders. The rest will act depending on their personalities and backgrounds.

Even if this has little bearing on my story I still need to know what they’re doing and how they’re feeling. For a plot isn’t one thing happening after another, it’s things happening as a direct consequence of what went before. A stray word said in jest can resonate through a novel; a single action made with the best intentions can come back to haunt you. This is dramatic irony. This is the stuff that stories are made of.

So I’m rewriting not so much the story (this time) but the people. Not changing them per se, more trying to give them room to breathe. And always thinking about what’s going on off-camera, because real people don’t stand around waiting for the protagonist to interact with them.

And, of course, I’m still shuffling scenes around and fixing the remaining logic-gaps within my world. In summary: there’s still a lot of work to do. But the novel will be a lot more convincing if I can get it right this time.