Friday, 20 March 2009

Coffee time

Good morning, the sun is shining and the school bus has gone. Time to turn my thoughts to writing again.

On the OU Advanced Creative Writing course we have been learning not only how to write drama and poetry, but also how to apply some of the techniques to our fiction and life writing. So I was wondering how many of you (especially those not doing the course!), do this either consciously or unconsciously.

Have you perhaps read books about story structure, such as McKees 'Story', which are often aimed at screenwriters? Do you envisage your novel in structured scenes, like a film script?

At the editing stage do you craft your work closely, looking at the impact of every word and phrase? Do you read it out loud to make sure the rhythm is right? Do you find that even subconsciously you sometimes include analogies, repetitions and rhymes for emphasis, as I do?

I'm interested in this, because I wonder how many of these techniques we actually apply without being aware of it and yet whether, if we try to do so deliberately, we can be in danger of overediting and making our work seem forced.

Over to you.

27 comments:

Fiona said...

Gosh am I first? Thank you for coffee, I always need one to wake up.

Great question Cathy, I hadn't realised how close poetry is to prose unti someone on the A215 course said I wrote prosetry.

Editing I find slightly easier now that I realise it has to be done, not once but loads of times. I am inclined to keep editing first three chapters which isn't very useful.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I do read work aloud, especially poetry, but that's about it, I'm afraid.

Captain Black said...

If I do apply these techniques, then I'm unaware of it ;o)

Seriously though, I don't think I consciously do many of the things you're talking about. My plots have a high degree of structure to them, which probably filters down to the individual scenes and chapters. I think it's fairly unstructured at the paragraph and sentence level though, so I've clearly plenty more to learn.

I read dialogue out loud to check for realism but, so far, I've not read prose out loud. Perhaps I should.

My poetry is abysmal, so I wouldn't dare utilise any of that kind of writing in my fiction.

Over-editing and related problems, such as "analysis paralysis" are probably naturally avoided, once you find your writing "voice". I think I must have lost mine. Probably left it in the pub.

Ellie said...

I haven't read screenwriter-type books, but I always visualize any scene I'm writing. To get dialogue right, I think you have to read it out loud, or at least 'hear' it in your head. While I don't read all my work out loud, if I'm having trouble with a sentence or a word, I often find it helps to read it out and get a different perspective on the rhythm.

Kate said...

Morning all! I fancy a mocha this morning. Or is it too soon to be dreaming of iced-coffee?

I am quite a fan of screen-writing books and structural theories - I think that these books are a lot more 'hands-on' with the story and the text than CW books aimed at prose writers. And I tend to think that one's own individual style is something in the DNA, i.e. you can tweak and improve but actually your voice will come out whether you like it or not and it’s hard to change. What you can do is improve your story-telling. So I'm more interested in structure, the more I write.

McKee is heavyweight but interesting, I think. I did his three-day seminar which was a boot camp style experience but probably not that much better than reading the book. I do think where screenwriting theory helps is in forcing you to think about your characters' journeys and 'raising the stakes' for them all the time. Perhaps more relevant in commercial fiction than literary.

I sometimes do read out loud, but it's hard not to feel silly doing that alone. I'm editing at the moment - have gone straight into it after finishing first draft - and how I work is to read at sentence level, for flow/voice (as it's four different POVs) and then look at the work at chapter level – is enough happening, is there a dramatic ‘change’ for the character featured in this chapter – if there isn’t, then does the chapter need to be there? I also have some running notes in a separate document, for example: MORE CHARACTER DESCRIPTIONS/MORE FESTIVE DETAIL/INCREASE THREAT AND FORESHADOWING OF X STORYLINE. I also make a note of little niggles – could I come up with a better image here? And also a whole set of ‘date/time’ notes e.g. making sure a character isn’t pregnant for a year etc, but I only address those right at the end, otherwise it’s easy to lose the big picture.

Was that too much information?

Graeme K Talboys said...

I do all those things, but I try not to make a big, separate thing of them. To me they are all part of the process, all part of the writing.

I liken it to learning to drive. To begin with there are all these separate activities that have to be learned as well as the terrifying propect of being in control of a scary machine. You kangaroo along the road, crash gears, mount the pavement reversing round corners, wish you had at least four arms and eyes in the back of your head. But the more you drive, the more all the necessary actions become second nature. Indeed, it gets to the point where if you start trying to think consciously about the physical actions of driving, you make a mess of it.

I also happen to believe that once you get to that stage where you can sit down and do it unconsciously, your subconscious begins to play a part and you do build in connections and references it would be impossiblt to plan for consciously if you wanted to finish the book sometime this century.

All the learning about structure, plot, editing, and so on, is equipping us with the tools and teaching us to use them in a way that creates a channel for the creative part of the mind.

JJ Beattie said...

Hi all, it's five pm here so I'll have another cup of tea.

I love Graeme's analogy. That was so me a year ago and when I learnt to drive.

I'm not sure how much of all of that I'm doing. Before I started working with the mentor I worried about absolutely everything but since I've got her feedback I've relaxed about certain things. I've begun to believe that I'm doing certain things right intuitively (though how many of these were informed by my reading theory, I don't know.)

One of the things my mentor has said is she can see when I try too hard! So I do try to relax and write away from my conscious mind, not questioning too much.

I haven't got to proper editing yet ... I only polish enough to send something that's not a total first draft.

KAREN said...

"Prosetry" is a great word!

I became aware of the structure of prose subconsciously while reading a while back; I started to realise that every single sentence has a 'rhythm' and it was a bit of a flashbulb moment for me. Now, when I read my writing back (out loud sometimes) I can tell whether it's Got It or not and correct it, but try not to overdo it. It's a fine balance :o)

Anonymous said...

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Debs said...

Good morning. I definately need a coffee, as I've been editing for the past couple of hours, and still have a way to go.

I tend to hear the dialogue in my head, and occasionally I'll read it out loud, but not that often.

I just let the first draft flow, but think that I probably remember various things that I've gleaned from 'how to' books whilst writing it. I then tend to think more about the structure, dialogue during the second draft.

I do see it as a film playing in front of me, but have to make sure that what I'm seeing is actually transferred onto the page.

Lily Sheehan said...

I imagine my work as a film which would make it a looong film wouldnt it! I also read aloud when noone is around.

Calistro said...

Hmmm, good question. Make mine a strong coffee while I think about it.

Okay, thought about it. When I vaguely plot my novel before writing it I make sure I identify the scenes that make up the 3 Act structure or the Heroes Journey (depending on which one I'm using) but that's about it. I then write the first draft without thinking about the right or wrong way to do it. When I'm editing I look at my story more closely and check various things (mind's gone blank now but basically a lot of the stuff in the 'Self-editing for fiction writers' book I used with Book 1). If you think too much about the 'rules' of fiction whilst writing you become overly self-conscious.

Alice said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clare Sudders said...

I'm still trying to get the right balance with all this stuff.

I read McKee's Story and was very impressed with it, and after that tried to analyse every tiny bit of my writing, splitting everything into scenes and then making sure that each scene had all the key elements that McKee describes... but in the end it meant I spent too much time getting nowhere, and had 100,000 words of notes before I even started writing my book. I couldn't see the wood for the trees.

But some stuff I still find useful. I like to think in terms of scenes and acts, that works for me. And I like to think of direction, trying to make sure that there is a clear quest and that each scene has a value change between start and finish. But the rest I find is largely overkill, and gets in the way of things flowing well.

As for editing, and considering the impact of every word and phrase... again, I think if I examine things too closely, I lose sight of the overall aesthetic and just get bogged down in stuff which is rather soul-destroying. But I do edit every single line, and I spend a lot of time thinking about rhythm, because it's important to me. And I do read stuff out loud - I find that very useful.

As for analogy, metaphor, etc... well, for a start, I have a confession. I'm still not sure of the difference between analogy, metaphor and simile. I've learnt it several times but then forgotten almost instantly. But I do know that I like putting analogies and metaphors into my work, and sometimes I go through a flat passage inserting them on purpose. But then at the final editing stage I often take the clumsy ones back out again.

My favourite part of writing is the final edit. This is where I stop confusing myself with the complex shaping of character, structure, value change, plot etc... and just focus on the language. Making it flow well, checking the rhythm, just creating a good aesthetic feel. It's a very satisfying process, and I particularly enjoy taking a knife and cutting out the bad bits. If only I were any good with my hands / eyes, I'd love to be a sculptor.

I think this kind of thing is very individual - different things work for different people. The important thing is to listen carefully to all the writing tips people come up with, but then to decide / discover what works for you and what doesn't - and try not to be too anal about it.

Above all, try to keep the process enjoyable. This is something I'm still struggling with, but at least I have it there at the back of my mind, as a goal to work towards.

ChrisH said...

Interesting to read your thoughts about the Advanced Creative Writing Course, I've found A215 very useful for making me consciously apply techniques that I'd only been using in a rather hit and miss way before. I do find it useful to do some freewriting or clustering when I'm stuck, I do think it helps to read a tricky scene out loud because it shows you where the glitches are, and I can see the point of editing - there's no doubt that my work has improved by going the extra mile. I'm also a graduate ot McKee's Story bootcamp - I enjoyed it at the time but wouldn't repeat it the way some devotees do.

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

Thanks, I really need that coffee.

I tend to write intuitively. Haven't read books about story structure, although I'd like to read one that was recommended by a writer I know (can't recall the title right now). She claims it made a huge difference to her approach and time frame. I'm reluctant to read too many how-to books, though, out of fear that all the instruction might get in the way of the creative process.

If I do include techniques from drama it's done unconsciously whereas I sometimes deliberately use poetic devices, not as decoration, but because I think it's the most effective way for me to express something. The editing stage is where the deliberation comes in; I examine every sentence, if not every word, and the problem here is in knowing when to stop the tweaking and let the story be.

sheepish said...

Hi as it's mid afternoon I shall have a nice cupof tea and I just happen to have a lovely choc gateau to go with it. And boy do I need some choc therapy. I wasn't able to make it last Friday due to loss of phone and internet and today i have had more hassle. Anyway as always an interesting topic and lots of interesting replies. I'm afraid I am still at the "get something on the page if at all possible" stage and will worry about all other aspects with the second draft and editing, but it's still good to read what methods other racers use.

KeVin K. said...

My first time through college, when my parents were paying for it, I was a theatre major. (With a monor in philosophy -- going for all the big money degrees.) At that time I thought the only writing I would do would be playwright-ing. I use the structures of that form constantly. I build all of my scenes, beginning with dialog and then add blocking, business (the things you do on stage without moving from one point to another) and set -- plugging the various elements in as needed. Particularly pivotal scenes often begin as an exchange of unattributed dialog that can go on for a couple of pages. And I have one- or three-act conventions in mind whenever I plot a story or subplot. Very useful stuff.

Lane said...

Sorry I'm late. Soon be time for my Horlicks.

I try to write intuitively first and then edit for rhythm, repetitions and oversuse of silly words like 'though'. I read aloud too but mainly only the dialogue.

I love Graeme's analogy of driving and would say that too much worrying about the 'rules' would be like driving with the handbrake on. You'd never get to the finish line.

KayJay said...

I've worked for most of my life in theatre and that influences me tremendously. I read everything aloud, I very much think in terms of scenes, and the textures of words - how they sound or feel or taste - is very important to me. Rhythm, pace and making the action as visual as possible are all things that I concentrate on.

Sometimes I think this works against me. Is my writing too episodic? (Maybe!) Do I sometimes distract the reader with a particularly crunchy word choice? (Probably!) Do I over-think things, chuck in a few analogies too many and the story stutters when it should flow? (Sometimes, yup.)

It's funny you should mention this now, as I feel I'm at the stage in my writing where I really have to tackle the idea that I might over-polish. In the kind of writing I do, it's so important to keep the mantra of 'the story is king' and not get caught up in making every word too shiny.

As to structure, I haven't read McKee's Story, but I always try to think about the big picture, the 'through-line' of the action. In acting terms, this is the main course of action, determined by the characters' central objectives (wants and motivation), their given circumstances, and the obstacles that stand in their way. If I find myself veering too far off that through-line, I try and bring it back through asking myself what my main character's biggest objective is and what their 'endgame' is. Mostly works...not always!

Annieye said...

I have never undertaken a writing course at any level. I write as part of my day job as well as for pleasure I've honestly never given a single thought about how I write and I haven't read many books on writing.

I do read out loud to make sure my work flows, though. I'll sometimes obsess for ages over a scene, or a chapter, until I'm completely satisfied as to its structure.

Interestingly when I met my agent for the first time last year I felt I had to tell her at the outset what a complete novice I was, that I had never undertaken any creative writing courses and only had an ancient 'O' level in English.

She said it didn't matter at all, so I guess we must apply certain techniques without being aware of it.

I do know one thing though. The more I think about the technicalities of writing, the less I enjoy it.

Helen said...

I don't really think about the technicalities. Part of me whishes I did, but when I do I lose all confidence and think I can't write!

I do however, picture parts of my novel as scenes from a film.

Un Peu Loufoque said...

Late again, any chance of a cup of tea? My writing runs like a film in my head but I can not read it outloud as think it sounds terrible with my voice! However, in the past I have ,when I was writing the UN Peu Chronicles, read it to my children who are brutal critics and that helped me with the humour and sense of it!

liz fenwick said...

Very very lat! Sorry. I need a large black coffee today.

Great post and I have loved all the answers and insights.

I don't think during my first draft - which sounds awful but if I do I trip myself up. I just let the magic of the story emerge from my head.

In the subsequent drafts then I look for themes and images that I have used and either enhance them or delete. I haven't read Mckee but that heard fab things about him. I do read aloud as it through up clunky stuff. I have lost my faith in my own writing style over the years and live in fear of getting the grammar wrong. Reading aloud helps but doesn't stop me from simplifying sentence structure (which is a same).

I have to say that I an nuch more aware of 'writing craft' as I do the first pass on the llatest book. As it isn't done I have no idea whether this will be a blessing or a curse!
lx

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Cathy said...

Thanks for all your comments. I think most of us are saying the same thing, that we do many of these things without realising, probably because we all read well. If I stop and think too much about the crafting as I am writing, I find it blocks my creativity completely.

However, I would recommend the reading out loud. I did it on my latest course assignment and it helped me identify a few clunky sentences that I hadn't noticed on paper!

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Hi Cathy, I'm so sorry for my terribly late reply - I know I'm useless but the lambs have finally started arriving and here I am, blogging when I should be lambing!

In reply to your question, I think I do set out my book like a film script, probably hoping it will be one at some stage! (Ha ha ha)

I would love to do an OU course but I just haven't got time, esp at the moment.

Best wishes, CJ xx