Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Writing, Day Three

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Today really is going to be brief, because I am shattered. I sometimes think that giving these writing workshops is the most rewarding thing I ever do. It is partly because of the glorious feeling of being of some, small use, even though I do hear myself rattling on and wonder. It is also because I do it in my own village, so there is a wonderful sense of being part of the local community, which Alfred Adler said was one of the three requirements for human happiness. And it is because I get the thrilling delight of hearing my students' writing come alive, day by day. As an added bonus, I have the sheer pleasure of you, my virtual blogging community, coming here and leaving your intensely kind comments. Thank you so much for them all.

So, it is absolutely good. For all that, I can hardly think or speak when I get home.

Today, I spoke mostly about fiction:

I banged on quite a lot about the vital importance of knowing your characters. Hemingway said they are like icebergs: even if you only write the visible one eighth above the waterline, you must know the invisible seven eighths. Live with them, talk to them, interview them. I find this last one exceptionally helpful; I pretend I am John Humphreys, and throw them hardball questions. I like to do this in the car, which can lead to embarrassment when I am stopped at traffic lights and people can observe me talking away into vacancy.

The main reason for knowing your characters to their toes is  so they come alive on the page, and you are not left struggling with types, or stereotypes, or poor, one-dimensional creatures. The second reason is that I believe story comes from character. If you start off with a vital protagonist, plot will come. If you begin with a strict story, no matter how fiendishly clever, and try to shoehorn characters into it, you may find yourself in terrible trouble once you hit the half-way mark.

Both story and character start with the question: what if? You cannot ask it enough. What if, what if, what if?

The seed for a character can be the most mundane, unremarkable thing. It could be a mania for order, a fear of heights, a habit of singing tin pan alley songs out of tune. Follow where it takes you. Imagine a woman who hates anchovies. Why does she? Was there a terrible anchovy-related incident in her dark past? Does she merely dislike the idea of anchovies? Did the person who broke her heart eat them straight from the tin?

Character arc is important. If the heroine of your story ends up exactly the same as she began, your readers may experience a swooning sense of disappointment. The character development does not have to be violent or operatic or illogically vast; small, subtle shifts are the most realistic and satisfying.

Think of the idea of tension and momentum. Resist the temptation to explain everything, to dump too much information at once, to spell everything out. Drop a teasing trail of breadcrumbs for the readers to follow. Trust them to read between the lines. You want them to ask the question: what happens next?

A brilliant trick is to start a scene half way through. Your hero does not have to open the gate, walk up the path, wipe his boots on the doormat, lift the latch, enter the hall. Have him in the room. BANG - he is there. Remember the magical capacity you have as a writer to shift your characters through time and space.

Kurt Vonnegut said a glorious thing about character:

'When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make the character want something right away - even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralysed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.'

So, in that vein, I always ask: what do they want? What do they fear? What is at stake here?

I get furious about the old saw of: write what you know. Someone cleverer than I once said, 'What did Kafka know? The insurance business?' I think you should write what fascinates you, what you want to find out about. That is what the great resource that are the internet and your local library and books written by experts are there for.

Resist labels. (I think one should do this in life, as well as in writing.) No one is just a beauty, or a brain, or a swot, or a man of action, or a sinner, or a saint. There is a fatal human tendency to put people into nice, neat little boxes. Most people are seething morasses of complexity and contradiction. Don't be afraid to give that to your characters.


Two more general notes:

Try not to fall into the terror of not being original. There are seven stories in the world, and they have already been told. The point is: you have not told them. No one else on earth has your exact set of experiences, collection of neurones, or spiralling strands of DNA. You are unique, by your very nature. If you learn to trust your own voice, you will be original, without even trying.

Keep a constant guard out for dead language that lies on the page like an old, fat fish. Worn phrases, clichés, platitudes, jargon, are all death to good prose. At the same time, it can be self-defeating to turn yourself inside out like a pretzel in order to come up with some new coinage. Play around with the familiar; sometimes a simple change in word order may make an ancient collocation fresh again. Sometimes, you may want to use an old, known phrase, because you love it, or because it feels right. I'm not sure you have to banish every single cliché on principle. I think that if there is a rule, it is: never use one without thinking about it first.


Ah, as always, not quite as brief as I intended. One day, I shall learn the art of saying what I want to say in seven mere lines.

If you want to see what I did this time last year, follow the link here.

Today's pictures are the roses from my garden, for no particular reason at all:




Happy writing.


  1. I love this one. Particularly the point about being original. People can put such amazing spins on stories you don't realise it is something you read before, or create such amazing characters you don't care.

    I used to be a writer, but I lost it somewhere. But as a voracious reader it feels you workshops will encourage people to write what I want to read.

  2. Your posts get more inspirational every day! Do you mean to say that you have all those roses in your garden. Wow

  3. I forgot to add thank you for the link. that post was so good!


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