Friday, 11 December 2009

Edits, Stereotypes and Quality Street

Good morning all. Please dive in – I’ve got fresh coffee and plenty of black and herbal tea. There are pastries and mini mince pies plus a tin of Quality Street from the office. Go on, you know you want one, those shiny foil wrappers are just begging to be unpeeled...

Congratulations to Chris on her exciting news this week and to Cally for a fab debut launch party last weekend. Such developments keep all of us Novel Racers inspired and motivated to carry on. I’m currently 77,000 words into the rewrite after a stop/start year and am pleased with my progress but it won’t be finished this side of Christmas. What’s interesting is that I have incorporated certain plot strands or characters into this draft which were abandoned way back after the first or second versions. The time that I have taken to develop and redefine the plot and character arcs was necessary in order for me to smooth out any previous problems.

I set out to write a contemporary story about a trio of female Londoners and when I read the end of the first draft it occurred to me that they were all white. I have relatives, friends and colleagues who are Londoners but not white; I have dear friends who are gay and colleagues who are lesbian. I wanted my characters to reflect the city and its diverse population. The experiences that I was writing about could be those of any young woman regardless of race, sexual persuasion or religion so I attempted to make my main protagonist black.

This was an edit that remained cut because I had failed miserably to make her ethnicity work within the story. It just seemed unsubtle; references to her appearance were clunky and did not add to the story. I have a secondary character who is gay and he’s ended up camp and bitchy which does a disservice to the many gay guys I know who are neither of those. Resorting to stereotypes is weak writing but using accents and regional speech takes great skill to ensure authenticity and consistency.

So how does one successfully create a character that does not necessarily need to be white and/or straight if these aspects of their identity do not form a key part of the story and their character arc? Or is it best to leave well alone and let the reader decide?

Finally, have you cut characters, plot lines or swathes of dialogue only to put the back in down the line? How has this improved your work?

18 comments:

Leatherdykeuk said...

Super, CC :) I'll have a black tea (not too strong) and a green triangle, please.

I think the key to using ethnic or other characters is not to point at them and say 'she's black, look' or 'he's gay, see?' but the write them interacting with their environment. I don't need to say Harold's gay when he's laced his fingers with Jasfoup's, and I don't need to say Winston's black when the police suspect him of B&E for no reason.

Yes, I cut tons out of edits and sometimes use them in other novels.

sheepish said...

Oh it has to be a big purple one for me!!!
I have only just finished my first draft and will not look at it again before the New Year so it will be interesting to see how my characters hold up to close scrutiny. Rachel is right that you have to be subtle about showing [not telling] character traits, especially ethnicicity or sexuality, just hope that i can do that.

JJ Beattie said...

Quality Street? Fantastic, thank you. I'll have some toffee and tea!

I haven't cut characters or swathes of plots yet, because I'm still on the first draft but I do have an anxiety about the American boyfriend I've given my MC.

I read a book fairly recently in which a British character used an American phrase and it felt a bit clunky to me. I am therefore nervous of writing dialogue for this American of mine. (I actually plan to show the dialogue to an American colleague at the library...)


I think Rachel’s right and it boils back down to show don’t tell.

Flowerpot said...

Herbal tea for me please. And showing not telling is the answer - one of my many weaknesses.

ChrisH said...

Tea and a mince pie would be a great start to the day!

Thanks and thanks for congrats - although I'm still reeling, I do think it does show that publishing doors are still open which is brilliant news for all of us.

Interesting point as I was encouraged by the agent who first looked at TTT to include a character of dual heritage in my cast. Rachel's right 'though, it's about revealing the character not the label.

HelenMHunt said...

Still not allowed Quality Street, or pastries and mince pies - sigh.

All of my characters are white and straight, but they do have diverse backgrounds. Two are ex prisoners, and one of things that I try to show is that just because someone's been in prison it doesn't mean they can't be the good guy.

I've also tried to show that one of the characters is huge (relevant to the plot because he uses his size to intimidate people) without actually saying so. I'm not sure yet if this works or not.

I suppose my main concern has been to make the characters distinctive enough to be real without making them different in ways that aren't relevant to the plot.

And yes - I have cut a lot. But it won't be going back in because I've usually cut it for being rubbish!

Rowan Coleman said...

lovely post! I think Rachel has hit the nail on the proverbial and is exactly right, I've written black, hindu, muslim characters as well as gay characters, who are all central to plot and story and I try to follow exactly what Rachel suggests.

What I do think is that if you are writing a black character as a main character, perhaps in the first person and you are not black, then it is bound to be harder to get inside the head of that person and to really write from that persepctive. A friend of mine is writing a book based around her experiences growing up mixed raced in an multi-ethnic enviroment. I could never write that book, I could never presume to hazard a guess at what those experiences, feelings and emotions are like. I don't know why I feel differently about this as to, for example, writing a book about domestice violence, which I have but which i have not been a victim of, or writing in the first person as a man - which I have also done. But I do. This maybe show my limitations as a writer - after all there are black male writers who write about white women and white male american writers who write about Japanese women with incredibe success.

Karen said...

Lovely to meet you on Saturday :o)

It's easier said than done but I agree with the others that it's showing not telling. The MC of a novel I read recently was Jewish and this was conveyed in her conversation to another character. She was telling her how her mother was clinging to the old traditions and wanted her to marry a Jewish doctor.

I do cut stuff out and sometimes use it elsewhere, but rarely if ever put it back in the novel!

Debs said...

I'll have one of those toffee pennies please.

I've taken out characters before and never put them back in again. I did have one protagonist whose best friend was gay and although he was very like friends I have, the NWS reader said he was too stereotypical, so I had to rethink him a bit.

CC Devine said...

Am glad the Quality Street are a hit! We're sick of them in the office having gorged ourselves over the past week. Poor Helen! We'll save you some :)

Thanks for your brilliant comments. Showing and not telling is the key but I didn't manage this well enough with that character. I've had a similar experience to JJ and been distracted by the unnatural feel of a character's accent and or expressions.

Karen - great to meet you too!

Ellie said...

This is a tough one, especially for the more peripheral characters. When you're writing, you can see them really clearly and know how you want the reader to see them, but sometimes including enough information to get that across is too much for what the story needs. I think with ethnicity rather than sexual orientation it can be easier to have subtle background clues, like the conversation about the Jewish mother's hopes that Karen mentioned. I sometimes think I'm too keen to get all the details I've imagined onto the page, but they're not always relevant.

PS. I'm over in Texas at a conference, so hi to all the US-based racers!

Cathy said...

This is something I've been working on in my novel with secondary characters who are gay/black/Muslim. Looking back I think my first attempts are a bit obvious, but hopefully I'm improving and can get it right on edits. I think names can be a good way of showing rather than telling as can descriptions of clothing or minor details of a character's background. I also have a main character who is a Brit living in the US and am trying to give him a mid-Atlantic accent, much more forgiving than having to write true American speech!

liz fenwick said...

Great topic...I'll skip the choc 'cause i'm not allowed them.

Because I live 'away' I don't think about ethinicty too much although the language thing can still catch me up but having early 'reader' who can check language helps. I think what threw me most was realizes half way through that my hero was gay...then had to figure how how this fit in because he was who he was and she was who she was...and the twain shalll never meet so to speak...

Still doing a happy dance for ChrisH

Denise said...

Are there any purple ones left? (Digs furiously)

Good topic, I'm struggling with this one at the moment. My protagonist works closely with a black man and I'm not sure I have him right yet. I feel like I'm cheating a bit because he went to Eton, and I have him with quite a posh accent so haven't much considered what kind of background he might have otherwise had. I live near Eton so it's an easy fix because I hear these posh kids all the time!

I find the showing not telling tricky and am constantly going back to improve this. I had an amazing lesson in how easy this can be to fix from an agent at a writing conference last year. She took one glance at my first page and reeled off a list of ways to improve the setting. For example - don't say where it's set, have them drive past Windsor castle, set the time period with posters outside, and make the car splutter in the cold weather. Took her 2 minutes...

CC Devine said...

Great tips Denise - thanks. Am afraid that the purple ones always go first!

LilyS said...

Cally's launch party was great and it was lovely to meet you! Great post. I used to work with a lovely guy who is gay and he was such a great character I had to have him in the book. He doesnt come across as bitchy in any way (I hope). Just very opinionated - but he isnt the only one in the book like that.

CC Devine said...

And you Lily, always great to meet people in person. Glad you're gay guy works, as mine is a secondary character I have struggled but will go back and make sure that I'm showing and not telling!

Kate Lord Brown said...

Sorry I'm late ... any Quality St left or is it just the coconut ones (or the odd one in the red wrapper that no one knows what it is?)

Excellent post CC - I have written all kinds of characters, races, sexuality (inc a main 'straight' in the closet gay character ... only to be told it would put readers off). Also wanted 'Queens' in the title of new book but was told *that* was too gay (sigh). Food for thought here.