Characters: Mysterious, quirky, interesting, likeable?

My tome of choice this week in terms of reading material has been the rather brilliant Sweet Caress by William Boyd, who I mentioned the other week when I was chatting about writing out of sync. For fans of his previous work, especially Any Human Heart and The New Confessions (two of my particular favourites), I thoroughly recommend it.

In fact, if I were to describe it, I might say it was… sprawling, compelling, nostalgic, intriguing.

photoI’ve borrowed this quick-fire description technique from the novel and I must say, I’m quite taken with it as a fast, candid and precise way of defining characters. It’s a great idea for writing and, well, for having fun with, as the characters do in the book. Indeed, one of them – a society photographer – believes any person can be summed up in just four adjectives, and he and his niece – the central character Amory Clay – use it as a game to distract themselves when the snapping is slow of an evening.

It’s a simple way of getting to grips with the core of a character in my opinion – a highly resourceful way to sketch out the traits you want your to portray when writing. Sometimes I think we can get bogged down in drawing out every last detail when it comes to creating characters. Yes, we need to know them inside out, but this is a good way to start and one I’ll be using as a cornerstone for my own fictional creations. It’ll also show how well you really know them, I think, if you choose your adjectives, then write your story and then go back to your description. Does it still fit…?

Meanwhile, in lieu of actually using it as a writing technique, why not think of someone you know and see what pops into your head…

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Stuck in a book

book coverVery often these days, books are over-hyped when it comes to promotion. We know this, and yet still, we fall into the lure of dust covers decorated with dazzling quotes from other writers and eye-catching designs. However, quite often, these books leave us feeling disappointed, as they fail to live up to the marketing campaign that’s gone before. It’s the same with films and other things of course, and perhaps nothing can ever really live up to the hype, but when publishers push titles onto us, it can be difficult to know whether to invest the time in the stories.

Which makes it all the more special when you happen across a book that isn’t being forced in your face, but which nevertheless, delivers great storytelling that you just can’t put down. I found such a book at the weekend – A Good Day for a Dog by Enniskillen-based author, Carlo Gébler. I’ve known of Gébler’s work for some years, but only recently started reading it (!), and it was for me, quite literally, a page-turner. I couldn’t put it down.

Writers, Ian Sansom (L) and Carlo Gébler (R) at Aspects Festival in Bangor.

Writers, Ian Sansom (L) and Carlo Gébler (R) at Aspects Festival in Bangor.

As a creative writing teacher in prisons in Northern Ireland, Gébler has first-hand knowledge of the prison system here, and this novel, published in 2008, makes good use of that knowledge, as it depicts the story of Stephen Melanophy, who spends his life in and out of prison. It’s a compelling story told deftly in punchy chapters which constantly move the story onwards – this is a book which prompts the reader to move swiftly from page to page and never really presents you with a moment when you wish to put it down for a break. It’s a style of writing which we all, I think, strive for – one which completely absorbs the reader in the tale being told.

Kelly Creighton coverI was at a literary festival on Friday where Gébler was speaking, which is where I picked up the book, and he said on the day that he writes with the reader in mind always. He went on to joke that that reader is a version of himself, but there’s something in the delivery of his writing that just works. I wouldn’t ordinarily say that my book of choice is a gritty tale about prisons and drugs and beatings and shootings and the like, as I have a tendency towards elaborate fantasy books, but when the story’s good, the story’s good. Along with my friend Kelly Creighton’s recently published novel, The Bones of It, it’s enough to get me back into reading the crime genre… :)

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Writing out of sync

book-862492_1280When it comes to writing fiction, do you write out of sync, by which I mean – do you write chronologically for longer projects such as novels? In the past, I’ve always written my stories in an orderly fashion – editing of course involves a lot of chopping and changing, but the writing process has always marched on in a linear fashion. I write in a straight timeline and if I get stuck, then I wait until inspiration comes before I continue.

However, when those times come (and they usually do at some point), and you wonder – what next? – is it perhaps better to hop on to a part of the story which you’re certain about, and leave the gap for later? It’s seems a simple enough way to write, but I’ve recently realised that I write how I read (from start to finish), and maybe it’s time to step out of that pattern. After all, there’s always the risk when you get stuck with a plot line, that you’ll give up on it, or get distracted from it and move onto other things, leaving your idea languishing for the sake of a missing piece of the puzzle. clock

It’s something that I’ve decided I’m going to try with longer stories. William Boyd (yes, there was a prompt for this thinking!), said in a recent interview that he does this. He doesn’t write chronologically and, given the format of his latest novel and others before it, which depict entire lifespans of characters, that’s pretty impressive. For there is, is there not, the risk of also tying yourself in knots when you write little pieces here and there, which must then be stitched together to form a story which flows forwards as it should…?

I may give it a try and see what happens. :)

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Finding stories

photo 2It’s a question writers dread and one which, as a journalist, I have to admit I’ve asked: Where do you find your stories?

Cue a rolling of the eyes. But – if you’re up against a blank page and are stuck for words, then reading about how another writer sources their ideas can really be inspiring.

Sure, everyone gets their ideas from different sources, but sometimes, all it takes is for someone to remind us about keeping our eyes and ears open, and considering more than the usual as fodder for writing.

Where do stories come from? The imagination, yes, but that’s helped along by:

  • Overheard conversations (we don’t call this eavesdropping – it’s research)
  • Stories in newspapers and magazines (you do still read those, right?)
  • Our friends and er, family (names changed, of course…)
  • Watching complete strangers (not stalking – researching again)photo 1
  • Reading random signs and messages
  • Weird dreams (anyone?)
  • Books we’ve read (inspired by, not copied)
  • Talks and events
  • Pictures and photos
  • And much much more…

I visited the Titanic Centre today in Belfast and happened upon a little story on the side of my cardboard cake box (which was used to carry home the leftover cakes from afternoon tea). It was about someone I’d never heard of before, and how she inadvertently saved a boatful of passengers.

photo 3I wasn’t even looking for a story, but one found me all the same. Perhaps I could use a snippet of this to inspire a tale of my own. Perhaps it might start me thinking about wily women with knives, or hero characters, or dangerous situations… things I wasn’t concerned about until I spied this powerful little tale.

Stories can be found on the side of your cake box – so if you need a helping hand with the ideas, then take another look around you…


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Why we write

Having done a lot of ‘work writing’ over the past week, but not much of my creative writing unfortunately, I got to thinking about why it is that we write. As the years have passed, I’ve discovered that many people like to write as a way of helping them through crises – which is great – but for me, writing has always been about a love of words and story, nothing more. As with anything you do which you enjoy, of course it will inadvertently make you feel better when you do it, but as any regular writer knows – when the story sticks and editing seems never-ending, why do we keep with it?dragon-860683_1280

We can write for self-discovery, for escapism, for art’s sake and to make a change, however minuscule, in someone else’s life. Words have the power to change perspectives, be they fiction or non-fiction, and the challenge of shaping them into forms that are new and interesting is perhaps one of the biggest appeals for some people. I know it’s part of what draws me to the craft. We write also for a sense of accomplishment, I think, and this is especially true for those who don’t seek to publish or share their work. It encourages mental exploration and hones our ability to step into another’s shoes and consider the world afresh.

Why we write can also therefore influence what we write, so the question is – why do you write..? :)

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Writing in the ‘in-between’

I read an article this week which asked authors how they had used their experiences to flavour their writing – the old ‘write what you know’ mantra – and I got to thinking about how I do this in my own writing, which I do, of course. I think that you can’t help but have things you’ve seen and experienced first-hand seep into your writing – that we always write a little of what we know – but that this shouldn’t be misinterpreted, as it sometimes is by readers, that what you write is a blow-by-blow account of your life.castle-658042_1280

The other camp proclaims ‘write what you don’t know’ and I happen to think that somewhere in between is a rather good place to be, and is actually probably where most writers are. For, in creating fiction, we draw to whatever degree on what we know to create something new that we don’t quite know – am I right?

Well, there’s no right or wrong – I think that’s the point. Right now, I’m reading and writing and easing into a new project in fits and starts, but I’ve just finished a short story and a poem and I wrote a few pages of something else today, so… I’ll see where it takes me. :)

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Are you a rapidly writing writer…?

As a blogger myself, I try to keep up with other writing blogs as much as I can, as it’s always inspiring/uplifting/interesting to hear different people’s points of views and how their own writing journeys are progressing. This week I happened upon a blog which dismissed the idea of writing rapidly, which I found quite ironic as my friend (a successfully published author) had also written during the week about the advantages of writing quickly, one such example being NaNoWriMo.superhero-534120_1280

It got me to thinking and despite all the theoretical pros and cons, I came to this conclusion – do what suits you best. It’s simple but effective advice!

As someone who likes to be busy and to do things quickly (but well), I write as often as I can and as quickly as I can. Sometimes, this means I write an entire short story or poem in a night, do some editing and it’s pretty much done. Great. Other times, it takes weeks or months to perfect a story (and then, is it really ever ‘perfect’…?) and that’s okay too. And that’s just short fiction.

With a novel, I’m of the opinion that if you can write quickly, get it on paper and go at your own pace, then if it takes an intensive month, great; if it takes two years, great; if it takes 10 years (as the Pulitzer prize-winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See did), then why not? clock

Writing can be done quickly, depending on the writer and the ideas that they have. Pre-planning will assist with the speed, although if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself going off on tangents all over the show. It’s the editing, the re-drafting, the editing again, the rewriting etc. etc. which happens over and over again that will finally result in the completed novel. And that takes time. A lot of it. And that’s ok.

Writing rapidly? I say, if you can do it, go for it! Things like NaNoWriMo give people a deadline, which tends to keep you focused and motivated, and as a journalist, well, I’m all for that. :)

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