Archive for category Writing
It fascinates me how our past affects our present and future lives. The past might be our upbringing and parental influences, it might be something we did that makes us ashamed and secretive, it might be the impact of external events on our everyday lives.
Recently I went to see Chicken Soup in the Studio Theatre at the Crucible in Sheffield. Written by Ray Castleton and Kieran Knowles, the play focuses on three miners’ wives and shows the effect the 1984/85 miners’ strike had on the rest of their lives, their family relationships and on their enduring friendship. There are three acts, each one in a different year: a 1984 soup kitchen/foodbank during the strike, a 2002 Queen’s Golden Jubilee party and a foodbank on the day of the 2016 EU Referendum. To add to the atmosphere the audience are given vouchers to claim a free serving of soup in the interval – forced to form a queue at a makeshift ‘soup kitchen’.
By 2002 and 2016 the lives of the three women have taken different paths. Following the strike one has become more politically active and is now a councillor. One has bettered herself by taking accountancy exams and ends up a high-flying career woman. The third seems stuck in the past, still carrying a hatred for her brother who crossed picket lines during the strike. Each has been affected in a different way by the past.
This made me think about my own characterisation when I’m writing fiction. Do I think sufficiently about how each character has come to be where they are? Am I dropping the important parts of their past into the story subtley or am I shoehorning in great hunks of backstory? Are the characters acting realistically, given what they’ve been through in the past? Why are different characters affected in different ways by the same past event?
What about you – do you think about how the past is motivating your characters’ actions in the present? How do you tell the reader about that past life? Do you know their past before you start writing their present?
The concept of writers and other home-workers pulling out laptops and working in coffee shops is familiar. It lets us escape those same boring four walls of home and all the domestic distractions. And it makes us feel part of society, even if the only person we speak to is the barista.
UK Jelly takes this a step further. Their aim is to ‘to bring home workers, freelancers, small business owners and entrepreneurs together in a relaxed, informal, working environment to maximise creativity and minimise the isolation that being your own boss can bring.’ It is not networking to sell yourself or your business. It’s about having some company whilst you work and maybe exchanging help and advice. At Jelly events the venue, wi-fi and parking are free, the only charge is for refreshments.
I went along to my first Jelly event last week. There were only a few of us and we had introductions and a bit of a chat before getting our laptops out to work. I deliberately didn’t connect to the free wi-fi because I wanted to do some distraction free editing. By the end of the session I’d done two hours solid work and met some new people. It beat coffee shop working because I didn’t feel guilty about taking up space for a long time with only one drink and I liked that I was part of a group. My local Jelly only meets monthly but I’ll definitely be going back in February.
Why not find out if there’s a Jelly near you?
Having a theme for a novel or story is something I’ve always struggled with. I can cope with the internal and external conflicts that a character must have and the plotting of the ‘journey’ each character must go on, in order to emerge, changed in some way, at the end of the tale. The theme is something much bigger but also much simpler than all of this other detail. The theme will not be mentioned explicitly in the story but will occur and reoccur subtly throughout the narrative in the actions of your characters. The theme will generally be something to do with being human, for example growing old, maternal love or keeping secrets.
I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the theme before starting a fiction project because often it will evolve organically. For example you may notice that your characters are all motivated by greed, be it in slightly different ways, maybe one is greedy for money but another is greedy for fame and attention.
So what made me start thinking about theme?
A friend of mine, children’s author Lorraine Hellier sent me a useful link to an article on theme on the Reedsy blog. The article compares the structure of a novel to an iceberg split into three sections:
- Plot i.e. the events of the narrative. This is the smallest part of the structure.
- Story i.e. internal and external character conflicts.
- Theme. This is the huge chunk of iceberg beneath the water and drives both the plot and the story.
I’ve found this a useful concept to muse on as I ponder over what should happen next or how a character should act/react in my current WIP.
Knowing your theme makes it much easier to tell others what your book is about. Instead of delving into the detail of the plot, start with a sentence on the theme, for example, “It’s about how power corrupts.” (Animal Farm by George Orwell)
Why not take a look at the Reedsy article and let me know what you think?
When I’m working on the first draft of something, I go for speed. There’s no time to ponder the best word – I just want to get to the end of the story before I forget what’s supposed to happen next!
However, as I work my way back through the manuscript, editing and re-writing, I realise that I’ve used the same words over and over again. This is not good and I have to start thinking of alternatives. That’s when an infograhic like the one below comes in useful and gets the grey cells checking out other suitable words.
The below infographic kindly supplied by Donna Norton of Custom Writing.
If you write for children it’s important to know that the language and sentence structures within your work are suitable for the age range of your target reader. For the rest of us, it can be useful to get an idea of how accessible our writing is, i.e. is it understandable to most people or are our sentences and words too long?
The children’s author Lorraine Hellier recently introduced me to a function within Microsoft Word that measures the readability of manuscripts. It’s very easy to set up. Within Word take the following steps:
- In the ‘File’ tab, click ‘Options’.
- Select ‘Proofing’.
- Ensure the ‘Check grammar with spelling’ box is selected.
- Select the ‘Show readability statistics’ box.
Next time the spell check facility is used within a document, at the end you will be shown a ‘Readability Statistics’ pane. Among other things this shows the Flesch Reading Ease Index, the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and the percentage of passive sentences.
The Flesch Reading Ease index works on a 100 point scale, the higher the index, the easier a document is to understand. A score between 60 and 70 is acceptable for most documents.
The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level gives a manuscript a US school grade level. This link gives a conversion from US school grade to age and to UK school year. Roughly, the US grade + 1 = UK school year. For example 5th grade = year 6 = age 10/11.
Writers for adults will find the passive sentence percentage most useful. Eliminating passive sentences makes any writing more immediate and effective. We often write passive sentences without noticing, so this is a great tool for highlighting the need to go back through a story and rewrite these phrases.
How easy to read (and active!) is your work?