Subplots – adding texture to your novel

The other day I sat through a film featuring a subplot that had nothing whatever to do with the main thrust of the film. It didn’t reveal anything about the characters or the storyline, it didn’t hint at motivation, it wasn’t even a credible red herring. Completely irrelevant. I can’t even remember the title. However, it had an unexpected, but very useful consequence.

After the successful conclusion of an important subplot of my own, in which my mother in law was transferred to residential care when her dementia became too advanced to manage at home, I found myself with an unaccustomed amount of free writing time and not a word in my head. Tum-te-tumming at the keyboard I recalled the film with the inconsequential subplot and looked at it through the lens of my own perspective. What purpose should subplots serve in novels? Continue reading

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Time to Retreat

Norfolk BroadsWe’ve all got our special writing places in our homes, rented office space, local cafés and libraries, but how often do we take ourselves completely out of our comfort zones and spend time in different places with no one but ourselves for company? How far are we willing to go, and for how long? And does it work?

My first experience of a writing retreat, though that wasn’t the original idea, happened many years ago, after a difficult and painful split with my then husband. A good friend offered me her family’s apartment in Puerto del Carmen on Lanzarote and I took off for a week by myself, intending to do nothing but eat, sleep and sunbath. Actually, I’m not much of a sun worshipper, and I’d sort of lost my appetite, so that left sleeping…. and I did an awful lot of that. Mental exhaustion or something.

During the long, solitary days, I started jotting down my thoughts, initially as a means of clearing my head. It didn’t take long to exorcise my demons and I was soon onto different subject matter. Stuff that was in my head, waiting impatiently to be released. Who knew? Anyway, I sat under a parasol for five days and wrote. And wrote. It just poured out of me. I didn’t even read much, which was most unlike me.

I was totally unprepared, and when I ran out of notebooks I had to search for writing paper, scouring local shops and supermarkets until I found some pads of cheap, lined paper. This enterprise took a long afternoon, on foot, in blazing heat, but I was not to be deterred. I had caught the bug; I was hooked.

I still have those desperate scribbles; it was painful and embarrassing to re-read them when I got home. They’re so bad, full of all the mistakes a novice writer makes. Let’s just say they are better left at the bottom of the cupboard. But I could see a story developing. Even better, it wasn’t my story; it was the product of my imagination. Fiction. Much easier to deal with than real life, and I can change the outcome to suit.

Since that holiday, I have taken myself off on occasional retreats and residential writing courses and would definitely say I’d benefitted from these periods away from the daily routine. It’s like looking at life from a different angle; you see things you hadn’t noticed before. The enforced absence from the daily grind gives me a new perspective on lots of things and I find I’m much more productive as a result.

I hadn’t realised there was so much junk in my head that needed to get out and without that week away with nothing but my own company, who knows if it might still be in there?

New Year, New Growth

Gerbera

As I coaxed the Gerbera on my windowsill into bloom for a second time, I thought I should apply some of the same magic to my writing, and the New Year seemed a good time to think about setting some objectives for 2016. I don’t make resolutions that require any sort of denial – they’d be doomed to failure from the start, so Yes, I will still be eating the chocolate and drinking the wine – I’d much rather give myself goals that will enrich my writing life. Early in 2013 I wrote about using the SMART acronym for personal development. It fits well with this aspirational time of year, so I’ll roll it out again. Continue reading

Procrastination is the thief of time

A perfect storm. A new PC with an unfamiliar operating system, no internet connection and an awful lot of snow. What could possibly go wrong? Well, the shop had run out of Windows 8 for Dummies for a start. Couldn’t be better.

I’m not a computer expert and I appreciate that I need a modicum of understanding. Why should it be easy? I’ve read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and I know it behoves me to at least show willing, to get to grips with it, but perhaps not today. The lack of connectivity has given me an ideal opportunity to get some uninterrupted writing done and I shouldn’t ignore this gift. At least I’ve managed to upload all my files from the old computer so I’ve got something to work on. I’ve even managed to open a new document. I’m off and running.

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Goal setting

Further to my positive outcomes post, I thought I’d give a little more substance to my aspirations for the New Year. Any of you who’ve had career or personal development training will probably be familiar with the SMART acronym for goal setting: Specific; Measurable; Achievable; Realistic and Targeted. I’m not usually a lover of this type of strait jacket approach to growth or creativity, but when it comes to goal setting, it’s quite a neat and useful summary of where we should be headed. And knowing where we’re going and what we’re aiming for is quite motivational, to coin a phrase.

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Creating characters

It was my turn to take our writing group last week and as my theme I chose a topic I’ve written about in the past – Characterisation.

As well as what the story is about, readers are interested in who it’s about. They want a protagonist they can empathise and identify with throughout the story, but these characters won’t necessarily be nice people; some memorable characters from literature have been downright horrible – think Heathcliffe from Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Pinkie Brown from Brighton Rock.  Whether likeable or thoroughly villainous, we need to believe that the characters we create are real, breathing people or our readers won’t believe in them either.

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Create some tension

Are you sure you’re starting your story at the right point? Are you approaching it from the best angle?

There’s an old joke about a driver who stops an elderly man and asks directions. The old man considers this for a while before replying, ‘Well, to begin with, I wouldn’t start from here….’

Sometimes, if you follow the strictly chronological sequence of events, you risk revealing too much to your readers and depriving them of the satisfaction of working things out for themselves. This is equally true of chapters, scenes and even whole novels. Should you describe a scene in detail, as it happens, or would it be better to come in later, after the event and leave the reader to fill in the gaps and draw their own conclusions?

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