Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literature. Show all posts

Sunday, March 10, 2013

How Game of Thrones Improved My Writing Game: What a Literary Author Can Learn from a Bestseller


As a literary fiction reader and writer, I’ve always eschewed the bestseller.  For one thing, I always felt that bestsellers didn’t need my attention (and plenty of other wonderful books did), and for another, I was under the impression that the ‘bestseller’ had a tendency to be more plot than character driven, with racy stories that wouldn’t sustain my love of language or desire to read about characters I cared deeply about.  More fool me.

Though I would never have read Game of Thrones if my son hadn't insisted, not only am I enjoying it as a reader, I'm finding plenty of lessons for me as an author.  Here are some of the key ones:

The art of building suspense

Martin has perfected the art of building suspense, particularly through the use of the cliffhanger. This is critical in Game of Thrones since there are so many plot twists and multiple points of view (POV) that without intense suspense, it wouldn’t be possible to maintain the momentum. Each chapter ends with a mini-cliffhanger, building up suspense throughout the chapter through foreshadowing and the use of symbolism. Each book ends with major plot threads dangling deliciously, bringing the reader anxiously back, in some cases many years later (there were five and six years respectively between the last two novels in the series). Noting the way Martin uses POV and characterization to create these cliffhangers, how often he does it and how natural it seems in the context of the books, is hugely instructive.

The art of world building

Though I never thought I liked Fantasy, Martin has created a world so engrossing, so naturalistic, and so oddly familiar (reminiscent of Medieval Europe), that it’s not hard to believe it. There are no ‘silly’ characters – no mercurial elves or big dumb orks, however, there is magic, and it’s introduced so slowly and subtly over the course of the books, that never once does Martin strain a reader’s credulity. This is world building at its most subtle and sophisticated, and for a writer, like me, who is drawn to verisimilitude, but who wants to explore the strange and often magical world of synchronicity, dreams, psychological drama, and possibly a world where Newtonian physics are bent, it's very helpful to read a book where dragons, magicians, zombies, and trees with faces seem utterly naturalistic.

The art of changing character POV

Every chapter in Game of Thrones takes a different POV and there are dozens of POV characters. In the hands of a lesser author, this would be a hard trick to manage. Indeed I’ve read books where this kind of view switch is irritating, especially when you are engrossed in a situation, however, Martin does this masterfully, partly because his characters are so richly drawn, that even though you regret moving off one POV, you’re pleased to be back into another.

One of the biggest lessons for me as an author was not to judge a book by its sales, or by its genre classification. Game of Thrones is not the only bestselling book series that is far better than the hype around it (or the movie made of it) would suggest. Quite frankly, the way in which George R R Martin has written these novels is as literary as any literary fiction. I’m finding that Game of Thrones is not only pure (slightly guilty) pleasure to read, but slowing myself down to admire the beautiful use of language, the deep, intense characterization, and the rich, subtle textures of the work is more powerful a tool for me as a writer than attending a workshop or reading a ‘how-to’ book. I often find myself putting the book down and rushing over to my own WIP to rework something or incorporate a technique that Martin has made obvious to me. I’m now officially shelving my literary pomposity and opening my mind to a broad spectrum of genres, including, where appropriate, the ‘bestseller’.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Writing as nostalgia: on the origins of fiction


It starts small, as something inchoate.  You don't know why you're drawn to a topic, a setting, a subject.  There's just something compelling--a magnetic field that pulls at you as you begin to type.  Much of my work starts with this kind of magnetism.  As the subject begins to come together, the streets turn into New York City in the 1980s, or Grossinger's hotel in the 1940s.  While the plotting process is careful left brain activity - a engineering styled construction, the themes, the plots, the characters that inhabit my fiction tend to be driven by instinct and nostalgia.  Something in me wants to explore the pain, the correspondences, the connections.  The whole process of writing, fiction and poetry at least, for me has an undercurrent of nostalgia that is becoming ever clearer as I move deeper into my third novel, an exploration of creative, love, loss and time travel through the DNA wormhole that links the 1940s and 2012. 

The more I think about it, the more I realise that this is a motivating force for many authors, not just myself.  We need to find a place in our lives where something has been left behind, to explore a notion that bugs us, and then, like a grain of sand in an oyster, to pearlise it and create something that is no longer personal and lost, but universal and found.  I've been exploring this notion, not only in my own work as I aim my fingers into the past, but in the work of others as I traverse literary landscapes that work best when they invoke a similar nostalgia in me.  The sense of loss that motivates the characters is familiar and current to the modern reader regardless of whether the book is set in Victorian England or a mythical planet in the constellation of Kasterborous.

Reflecting on the past, and responding to that reflection by exploring its meaning to the present and that disassociative, uncomfortable sensation of not being able to ever get back to that point, creates a visceral sensation that is empathetic and powerful.  There's something there that you have to pick at.  Something Proustian in the taste of those Madeleines, or the smell of that long forgotten perfume. 

It's suprisingly painful, both as reader and as writer, to go to that place, and explore the sensations, knowing that this is all we have left of the past.  Bringing it back to life, at the same time as we distance ourselves from it through irony and new found understanding, creates a very post-modern type of novel.  Noticing and loving this sensation, however uncomfortable, in modern literature, is a most pleasurable experience that connects writing with reading. 

How does nostalgia inform your own work, both as reader and writer?  

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com


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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Writers Helping Writers: On the Value of Literary Friendships


As the Editor-in-Chief for the website The Compulsive Reader, I get about a hundred review requests a week.  Of these, maybe one will be accepted.  Not because ninety nine of those aren’t good books, but because we simply don’t have the people power to read and review everything out there.  And there is so much out there.  How do we filter?

For me, I try to filter on quality.  If a book strikes me as being, in some way, extraordinary, I’ll try to take it on, even if I’m already overloaded (and I am; I am).  All writers are my ‘fellow writers’.  We are all plying our trade, and most of us doing it in conjunction with a day job, families, and a ton of other commitments.

 I want to help everyone.  But I can’t.  Every now and then, someone I “bump into” online will strike a personal chord with me.  We’ll ‘bond’ in a virtual sense, and keep up the conversation, continuing to support each other’s work, and communicate our triumphs and losses.  I think you could call it friendship, though perhaps not quite in the conventional sense.

When the time comes when one of my friends needs a review, back cover quote, some advice, or help with promotion, I’ll be there.  Why?  Isn’t this a kind of literary favouritism?  Does it really help?  I believe it does.  Here’s why:
  •  A healthy concern for those who have similar talents, ethics or who are members of our family/social circle is part of what it means to be a human.  We can’t help everyone.  But we can, and should, help those that we care about.  It’s the bedrock of our social existence. Some might call it nepotism, especially if family is involved (and I have a rather artistic family – we all support one another), but I agree with author Adam Bellow (In Praise of Nepotism, Doubleday, 2003) that nepotism, when combined with meritocratic principles, can be a positive force.  
  • According to Bowker, over one million (1,052,803) books were published in the U.S. in 2009.  Of these books, a large number of titles won’t sell more than 100 copies.  There are many more books on the market than book buyers.  Most book buyers will purchase books based on familiar names.  Emerging authors need all the help they can get to simply get their titles noticed amongst the hype and names that dwarf them, but few of us can afford the publicity powerhouse that big names get as part of their publishing packages.  Supporting one another is one way to help redress the already negatively skewed balance.

  • As professional writers, we treat what we review professionally, regardless of whether it was written by someone we know or a stranger.  So when I review a book by a friend, I review it in the same objective (as objective as any book review can be – we always bring in our tastes, biases, and perspectives) way that I would review any book.  I don’t always give my friends glowing reviews.  It isn’t easy, but I have occasionally had to refuse a review, or have had to publish a review which is negative.  That happens.  Friendship doesn’t mean I compromise my integrity, otherwise my review or support would have no value.  What it does mean is that I’m willing to give your book some priority in my crowded stack. 
  • Writing can be a solitary occupation, but promoting a book isn’t.  Being in a position to help someone whose work is superb is inherently gratifying.  We are all disciples at the altar of the well written word, and promoting excellence wherever you find it is a privilege.  That said, the production of my first novel, Sleep Before Evening, found me in a position where lots of people were needed to help me get the word out.  I got a tremendous amount of support, and in this dog-eat-dog world where money and celebrity often rules over quality, that support helped me as much emotionally as it did in terms of my book’s success. 
Writing novels is a mug’s game, at least in the beginning.  It can be immensely gratifying, but it is also painful, hard work. Helping one another is also part of the game. Without the support and community of like-minded authors, there’s simply no way to get one’s foot in that tiny crack of the promotional door.  The more we help others, the more we help ourselves.  Social networking is the hottest buzz around for writers, and the kinds of networks we develop, with people whose work we admire, helps define who we are.  

So why not offer your writerly support to someone today.  Offer to do a review, host their guest blog, go out and buy the book of someone whose writing you admire, or just mention their work in your blog.  It’s the kind of good deed
that will come back to you.  

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader.She isthe author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future.She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com

Sunday, July 10, 2011

How to become a novelist in 30 minutes

There are plenty of books on the market to teach you how to write a book in 30 days, or 3 weeks, or 12 months. That's not really what this article is about. This is an article for those of you who don't have 30 days to write a novel in. This is an article for those of you, like me, in the midst of life. Demanding wonderful families probably won't tell you to go off and do a couple of days of pure writing. Demanding wonderful bosses of well paid jobs won't tell you to take a sabbatical and go off to get your novel done in 30 days. In fact, no one will tell you to write this novel, except your own nagging conscience. And that voice will be increasingly dim in the face of all the other voices harassing you. Of course the title of this piece is facetious. You aren't going to actually write a novel in 30 minutes, just to commit, seriously, to doing it and layout out a roadmap.
What we won't be doing is writing the novel. That's the hard work that's left for you when we finish, and don't let anyone suggest it's anything other the most outrageously difficult thing to do. But it is do-able, no matter what your circumstances, and no matter how busy you are. You can still do it even if you only manage ten words a day (and believe me, you can manage that). And you can do it without quitting your day job, or setting your children up for years of therapy. You can do it secretly, hedging your bets, and still producing a wonderful, professional, exceptional book. I promise! So let's get started.

1. Why do you want to write the novel?

It's important to have a good understanding of where you're going if you're to get there, and understanding the reasons why - the reward you'll get - is an important motivating factor. If it's for financial reasons, you'd be better off stocking shelves at your local supermarket. I'm not trying to talk you out of it! There's almost nothing to compare with holding your beautiful finished book in your hands. But it's something wholly different from holding a pile of notes (or bills), and one doesn't necessarily lead to the other. For me, my key motivation was to be able to create something concrete, beautiful, and solid which would move other people; to share a fictive dream. I still get all shivery imagining someone in the solitude of their own room, being moved by my book. That visualisation is something which kept me going even when I flagged. You may have other reasons for wanting to write a novel - an image that will sustain you. But you need to be clear about it. So stop a moment and answer the question.

2. Putting it all together - the outside

Buy a looseleaf binder. One of those types with clear plastic sleeves at the front and back, and I mocked up a cover image, with title, image, your name of course along the bottom. It should look just like a book cover. Then write the kind of brief overview that you find on the back of most novels.

This is really important, because it will become your guiding principle. You can go back to this kind of positioning statement - what could be called an "elevator pitch" --again and again - while writing the book, and later, while pitching the book.

Under that, and more for fun than anything else, put a few glowing statements - what those in the industry call "puffs". Since this is for your benefit only, have fun with it. Give yourself great reviews. Seeing it will make you hungry.

3. The Three Pillars of Fiction: Plot, Setting, Characters

Of course this is not going to be a lesson on how to create great plot (that's a book or two), produce a wonderful setting (another book), or create great characters (surely there are three books in that topic). What I will tell you is that you can't really progress in your novel writing until you've got a reasonably in-depth handle on that. So at this stage of the game, you should also add some additional dividers into your book and call them Plot, Setting, and Characters - one for each. Then spend some time filling in each one. The more time you spend on doing this at the front end, the less time you'll spend with your novel trying to make it work - so don't skimp!

Plot

Begin by nutting out your plot - just do a brief outline - first this happens, then this, then this until you've got a reasonably clear structure. If you tend to think in diagrams, a flowchart is a really useful way of doing this. Another useful way of doing it is to use mindmap. All of these are just tools, and it's easy to get caught up in evaluating different ones and never actually getting to the writing, so pick one and stick with it. Whatever you end up using to structure your plot, make sure you do it before writing. That way, with only a few minutes a day, you can get straight into the plot and not waste time wondering what to write. The structure will also help your creativity as your unconscious mind moves across it, pulling the story together for you.

Setting

So where is your novel set? You should be really clear about it. I'm not naturally good at this, so in the end I have to literally create my places by making my own little map. In the case of Sleep Before Evening, the settings were real ones. I had Long Beach, Long Island (which I fictionalised slightly and called Seahaven) , and New York City, so there were maps I could use, but I still had to customise them for my own specific places, and I had to take them back to 1982, which wasn't all that straightforward. If you aren't clear about setting your reader won't be, so you need to get each street right - to know exactly where your character is walking, visiting, and so on. Details are key to creating the fictive dream, and the more detailed and clear your maps are, the more powerful your writing will be, so this is a step to take some time over.

Characters

Ah, characters. I'm a little biased here, as I'm a character focused writer and reader, but I don't think that there is anything as important to fiction than character. If you don't know your characters as well as your real friends and family, they won't be real to your reader. You should create a list of key characters - protagonist, antagonist, important ancillary characters, and minor characters and flesh each of them out in as much detail as you can stand. You don't need to use it all, but it will make a huge difference in the ease of writing and the overall impact that your characters have on the reader.
Some of the many aspects of character you should cover include physical appearance, profession, backstory, emotional issues, strengths, weaknesses, what they crave, what they are grateful for, who they love, and maybe above all, what they are afraid of.  Try and get at least a couple of pages, but the more the better, for each character before you start writing the book.

Novel writing is a large commitment and it's easy to lose your way. If you spend a reasonable amount of time (it doesn't have to all happen at once either - See "Getting On" below) setting the work up, you can chip at it little by little later. But get the bones in place first - your work will be better for it, and the whole process will be significantly easier.

Getting On: How Do You Eat an Elephant

The plot is outlined, the characters are well detailed and your book is looking pretty nifty, even if it hasn't really been written yet. So what's next?

What's next is you put your bottom on the seat and get to work! It sounds so simple. You know where you're going and the only way to get there is to move forward. But life is so busy - the kids need you to take them to their activities, your partner wants your attention, your day job is howling for results and the house is a mess and...you can't let everyone down. I know, I know. I've been there. I'm there now. My daughter is pulling on my shirt even as I type this. But with your roadmap in place you just have to use standard time management techniques. Schedule in the writing - plan to do a certain amount each day. It doesn't have to be a lot. It can be as small as a few minutes and a single word a day. But when you're on a roll, you'll probably do a lot more. Don't let a day go by (or at least many days if things are bad - kids are sick - pressure is high), without opening your work and doing a little on it. Move your protagonist's hair out of her eyes, have her talk to the person sitting next to her. Write a scene. Just keep working on it.

What you'll find is that, with every bit of work you do, your brain will keep working on it as you do other things, and the regular dipping in, however small, will keep your work current and your writing sessions effective. If you push the novel to the backburner, your brain will move away from it and it won't progress. You've got to keep the voices in the novel up front with all the rest of the voices in your life. That's the secret. Then just keep at it. Keep chunking. Keep writing. Give it as much or as little time as you can, but give every day. In the end, you'll finish it, and you'll find, as I found, that the closer you get, the faster the work will move.
No one will care if the work took you one year or ten. You'll still be an "overnight success" and it will still look quick and easy to those who haven't been there with you while you worked. So, go and do your daily bit now.

5. Revising and Rewriting

I can remember clearly the day that I finished my first draft. I was so excited. I stopped typing, went to get a much needed glass of water, and spent the rest of the day in a wonderful fug of delight. I told my son when I picked him up - "I finished the novel." I kept saying it to myself. "I've written a novel. I'm a novelist now, for real." But the sad truth was that the novel was years off being finished. I wasn't even close. The first draft is just the beginning. Don't let that put you off. You shouldn't even be reading this yet. Go back and write and forget you saw this!

The real work of novel writing is not in the first draft, muse whispering at your ear and the wind behind your hair (okay it's not really like that, but it sounds good). The real work is in the re-writing. So have a drink and celebrate. Then go back to work. It took me ten rewrites! That's full rewrites. Before I was really finished. I won a mentorship grant from my local writer's group and had 30 hours of one on one with an experienced editor, and that really opened my eyes. My mentor, Greg Bastian was superb, showing me all the holes in my manuscript that I was unable to see. After working with Greg, I also utilised the services of another excellent editor, paying for it myself this time. While Greg helped me pull apart and put my novel back together in a much better, more organised way, Logos Editing helped me polish the novel - fixing timing and space issues and dealing with things like dialogue and pace. A third editing called a line edit, was done by my publisher (I worked on that too). So three edits involving other people were necessary. In addition to that, I spent time listening to my novel and picking up on mistakes by using Acrobat's read aloud feature. It was easier to spot errors listening to someone else's voice than to my own. Then I went through the whole thing backwards. Then I enlisted 3 trusted proofreaders to work through it (each with his or her own strengths). And my publisher did the same. And still there were a few minor errors! Editing and proofreading are separate functions, and both critical. If you're lucky enough to be able to do this prior to submitting the novel to a publisher, you'll be way ahead of the game. Oh, and give yourself at least a month after completing the first draft (you deserve a good break!) before starting the revision process. You'll come to the work fresher and be able to accomplish a lot more.

In Closing

This article provides, of course, a brief, broad brush overview on a very big topic. I'm not suggesting that this is comprehensive, or that writing a novel is easy. In fact, I'm suggesting the opposite. It's hard. But what it comes down to isn't raw talent, inspiration, the muse, luck, or great potential. Those things don't mean anything against sheer tenacity. If you are committed to writing a novel, you can. And you will. Just keep at it, a little at a time.

Oh, and one more critical thing - the most critical of all. Start now. Don't wait until the children are grown, or until you finish that big project at work or until the kitchen shelves are organised. Just get on with it. I wish you great success, personal satisfaction, and deep joy.

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future.

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