Allsorts of Alchemy

Like a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, your writing will contain little tastes of the unexpected as well as some familiar elements. So, when you’re sitting there, scribbling or tapping away, do you ever wonder if your marvellous, utterly inspired plot has been written before? The unpalatable answer is: it probably has.

Does it matter? Probably not.

If you’re a writer, and also an avid reader like me, borrowing piles of books from the library each week, bingeing in bookshops and charity shops, or filling up your e-reader, it can be disconcerting to find that you’ve chosen several books with related themes. To the new and aspiring novelist, it can be gutting to read a summary of your entire storyline on the back of a newly published paperback. Dispiriting to think the plot you’ve been worrying at for years has already been done.  

Honestly, how many completely original stories have you read, ever?

In recent weeks I’ve picked up novels dealing with eerily similar subject matter. No spoilers, but plots have included: heroines who are morticians (but not in crime novels); husbands or wives who mysteriously disappear; recalcitrant teenage daughters who have problems and/or secrets; husbands who reveal a second family; and almost interchangeable crime scenes The choice has been completely unintentional, as the blurb doesn’t always betray all the details of the story.

Just last week, I read a new release with definite echoes of my own WIP, which I’ve been working on for the past two years. Great minds, eh?

Fiction is awash with adaptions and reinventions of familiar tales. They say there are only seven basic plots anyway, so good luck trying to invent one that hasn’t already been covered by someone, somewhere.  Besides, no one can read everything; life’s too short. Denying yourself the pleasure of exploring a delicious subplot because you’ve read something similar, and worrying that your readers will notice a resemblance, is to invite even more uncertainty and doubt into your writing life. And you’ve got enough of that already, right?

So what if the plot has been used before? Not by you, it hasn’t. 

There are always aspects that will be different. Imagine baking a chocolate cake. The recipe calls for certain ingredients in particular amounts. The result is a sort of alchemy. Change the method or the ingredients only slightly and the cake will be different: denser, lighter, more luscious, less calorific.

The same goes for writing. The love story you’re considering may have been told many times before – it’s the human condition, after all – but not in your voice, with your expertise in telling an old story in a new and distinctive way. Even in a familiar girl meets boy scenario, there’s lots of scope for originality. Unusual settings and exotic locations create interesting situations almost by themselves. A mental or physical problem could add a new dimension to an otherwise ordinary situation (make sure you do your research first). Consider the dynamics of the couple: how they respond to each other, to outside influences, things they can and can’t control – there’s a huge range of emotions, undercurrents and subtleties to be explored, in your own inimitable way.  

Try not to get too hung up worrying about plagiarising someone else’s work. There’s no copyright in ideas, just the way they are expressed. Avoid hackneyed phrases and clichés, which will mark your writing out as unoriginal. We are all unique and the stories we tell will be similarly individual. Approach familiar stories from a different perspective, introduce unexpected elements. Be inventive, unpredictable and ingenious.

There really is nothing new under the sun. Everyone’s recipe is different. We all have our own writing style and voice. The stories we tell, even those with similar themes, will always be different. 

The same…. but different. Finding the perfect word.

How often have you paused, pen in hand, fingers over keyboard, trying to think of an alternative word to avoid a repetition?  How often have you looked over a piece of work and realised that you’ve used the same word several times in one paragraph? Or worse, had it pointed out to you at your writing group?

It’s time to grow your vocabulary.

Continue reading

Asking Myself Some Serious Questions

desert island

While on my desert island recently, I was thinking that it might be fun to bring a writerly perspective to some of the more random, even philosophical questions I’ve been asked over the years. Some are pretty run of the mill; some have personal resonance and most have nothing, specifically, to do with writing. But I think they’re interesting enough to run a series of author interviews in the future. See what you think. Continue reading

Changing the Landscape

For a variety of reasons I’ve been having a funny old time, writing-wise, just lately. The old mojo seems to have packed its trunk and run away to the circus. I didn’t invite me along, though I think I’d be pretty good on the trapeze, so rather than sit around feeling sorry for myself, gazing gormlessly into space, I’ve been doing something worthwhile.

I’ve been writing in my head. Continue reading

In Praise of the Written Word

bookshelf1Sometimes when the muse isn’t with me and wringing anything sensible from my frazzled brain is a real effort, I wonder why I’m doing this. Writing, I mean. Why do I write? Who is it for?

Jean Paul Sartre maintained that ‘Hell is other people’ and I have a certain sympathy with that sentiment, but if anyone were to ask me what form my particular hell would take, I would answer immediately, without any thought at all: Hell is having nothing to read. I would qualify this to include the inability to read.

If I couldn’t read, for whatever reason, I’d go nuts, simple as that; I may as well shoot myself. Continue reading

Watching the World Go By

Giant's Causeway5

I’m an inveterate eavesdropper and people-watcher. The minutiae of other people’s lives, with all their complexities and mundanities, fascinates me. They might seem tedious to the casual onlooker, but they are very fertile hunting grounds for the writer.

A healthy dose of inquisitiveness is a useful quality for a writer and one worth cultivating. Continue reading

Characterisation

character One subject that keeps coming up in my writing group is how to create convincing characters.

All characters need a context, a goal, a challenge, a history, but do you start with a blank page and watch your characters develop as the narrative progresses, or are you familiar with every aspect of their backstory before you start writing?

So how do you build a character? Continue reading

Building Characters

character

When I first moved up to Norfolk from London I worked in a fascinating archive, The History of Advertising Trust, which has its offices deep in the countryside where real estate is cheaper than the capital. (Archives only ever grow, they never shrink.) Anyway, it was my good luck to happen upon it, because over the years it provided me with a lot of stimulation, sparking my imagination when I was struggling for ideas.

Advertisements are still a favourite source of mine. I love the lateral thinking, the wit, the ingenuity, the nods to popular culture, to classical art and literature, but I have a soft spot for 1980s cigarette ads. In this decade, tobacco companies in the UK were no longer permitted to show actual cigarettes in their advertising, although they were still allowed to promote their products. I’ve never been a smoker, and I’m not endorsing smoking here, but the imaginative and surreal advertising campaigns that resulted from the efforts to circumvent the ban are as fantastic as they are bizarre. Remember the Benson & Hedges pyramids and the Silk Cut scissors? You can see them here:   http://www.hatads.org.uk/catalogue/search.aspx?titleType=Print%20Advertising

But how could these curious images help drag my exhausted imagination out of the doldrums?

One particular series of ads was for Winston cigarettes and would have appeared on the London Underground. Because of the ban there are no images of lissom women enjoying cigarettes, no curls of smoke floating irresistibly upwards. The strapline reads simply, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  But it’s the text that followed that catches the eye.  Picture the scene…

You’re sitting on the train on your way home. You glance at the ad and read, We’re not allowed to tell you anything about Winston cigarettes, so here’s something to pass the time.’  You read the rest of the text and an idea sparks. You take out your notebook, (because you always carry one, don’t you?) and let your imagination go. By the end of the journey you have a serviceable character study…

  • Look at the person sitting opposite you.
  • Just a quick glance. Try not to stare.
  • What do you think they do for a living?
  • How much do you think they earn? 
  • More than you? 
  • Could you do their job? 
  • Think of 5 possible Christian names for them. 
  • And one nickname.
  • Are they married? 
  • Imagine their home. Their furniture. 
  • What do they keep on their mantelpiece?  
  • What colour bathroom do they have?
  • Consider the ANY DISTINGUISHING MARKS section of their passports. What does it say? What should it say? 
  • Where are they heading now? And why? 
  • To meet somebody? Who? For what reason
  • Do they look like they’re late?
  • And if they suddenly leant forward and offered to buy you dinner, what would you do?

 

I’ve tried this as an exercise with my writing group and it always gets good results. It forces everyone to think a little outside the box and consider alternative character traits. It acts as a catalyst, igniting the imagination and sending it off in unusual directions.

Works every time, often with very interesting results.

Plotting with dialogue

Stuck with your plot? Bogged down in description? Janet Gover discovers a novel way of  building a story.

Whenever a few writers get together, at some point the age old question is going to come up…. Are you a plotter or a pantser? This of course refers to our way of working. Do you plot the novel in d…

Source: Plotting with dialogue

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

christmas-cactus2After a rather bruising journey to the publication of my second novel, my writing mojo has gone temporarily AWOL, so I thought I’d step away from my current project for a while and look back on my writing odyssey instead. This is a rewrite of an old post but the advice is still relevant.

In my experience, writing isn’t a life choice like exercise, or dieting, or what colour your hair should be this week. We don’t decide to become writers any more than we decide to become a man or a woman (well, most of us, anyway). By the time we’re ready to make such a conscious decision, writing has already made the choice for us. It’s a compulsion: innate, instinctive and as inevitable as death and taxes.

Here’s what I’ve learned thus far. Continue reading