On the need for action (and surprising ostriches)

My Writing Advice to Self of the week is this: whatever the genre, pack the action in!

Bedtime reading at the moment is High Rollers by Jack Bowman. Jack Bowman is the pen name of Belinda Bauer and I bought her book at the Killer Women conference in London a few weeks ago. Belinda was a great speaker. She wrote High Rollers (‘Brace yourself for IMPACT’, it says on the cover) after being marooned in a holiday home with only one book in English. It was a thriller and she found it so predictable and the male lead character such a stereotyped action man with a horrible attitude to women, that she decided she could write one a lot better – and (unlike most of us who have had similar thoughts) she did!
In the chapters I read the other night, the hero and his potential love interest/sidekick makes a vital breakthrough in the investigation, is driven off the road at night, misses an opportunity to make love to his lady friend, goes back to check the evidence and finds it gone, returns and finds their hostel has been torched, is hurt in the fire and in rescuing a dangerous dog, is hospitalised, is wooed in return by the lady friend, is questioned by the police and fined, finds an escaped animal (an ostrich, as it happens) and helps to capture it only to find the bird itself holds another vital clue.
All this is in the middle of the book – the flat bit in many plots.
Now, we don’t all write fast action thrillers. I don’t, for one, but I know from reading manuscripts that one of the weaknesses that can occur in any novel is the sitting about talking (SAT) problem. It can be caused by a flabby plot moment – you know where you’re going, but not quite sure how you’re going to get there. Sometimes it is also a signal of authorial self-doubt (just tread water for a while, characters, while I figure out whether this novel is going to be worth the effort). Whatever causes it, dull passages of SAT have got to go.
Action is what we want as readers.
I don’t mean car chases or burning buildings, necessarily. In different genres the action might be far more cerebral, but it would still be action, in other words there would be change. Change of scene, of tone, of point of view, of shot distance or frame, of tempo, of colour or accent or rhythm. Change; movement; surprise!
The best of all books are a huge sequence of surprises. You never know how any single sentence will end, let alone a chapter or the whole story.
That’s my ambition.
And hats off to Belinda. The ostrich! Brilliant!
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Stay away from that café!

I’ve been giggling this week about a tick I noticed in my own writing and other people’s – the tendency to sit down too much!

I don’t mean the authors; I mean their characters. In the half dozen books and manuscripts I’ve read in the past three days the characters spend an awful lot of time sitting about.

It’s not that the books are without action, there is plenty elsewhere, it’s just that between vivid scenes they all tend to sit down and (this being England, my dears) they often have a nice cup of tea!

As soon as you spot something like this, of course, it jumps out at you whichever book you pick up. Plots need pauses and a cafe or pub is a handy place for characters to meet and share vital information. People do chat over coffee and meet in tea shops – it’s perfectly realistic – but my resolution for Nanowrimo and beyond  is to put a stop to all this comfort and get my characters moving.

They can talk plot lines and establish character out in the fresh air. They can reinforce their conflicts or mention that crucial detail  whilst driving, walking, riding, break dancing, roasting an ox, drying their hair, shark wrestling or getting a tattoo, but they will definitely not be doing it sitting in a café.

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Granny writes WHOPPING plots

Greetings from the Shed, Grannies*. I recommend a shed, especially one that is newly wind- and water-proofed. No gaping holes! The luxury!

If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, you can find all about it here. It’s a challenge to sign up and try to write 50,000 words in the month of November. There’s lots of cheery support on the website and ways to contact other people doing the same thing. Some will be near, others will be on the other side of the world. It’s free – donations aside – and it’s a great way to take the bridle off your muse and get her galloping. The idea is that you don’t edit your writing at all, you just write and keep writing. Some people make meticulous and detailed plans, some have a rough outline to work to, others do no preparation at all. Your genre, approach and style is up to you; the results of your efforts are your own – you don’t need to share anything except the title and your daily growing wordcount, and even then only if you feel like it. I’ve done it several times now and have never come even close to completing the 50,000 challenge, even so, I can’t recommend it highly enough. My first novel went from a vague beginning to a proper manuscript through NaNoWriMo. I’m using it this year to top up the sequel. We start tomorrow. Give it a go! Let me know how you get on.

I was reading George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl this week. Why not? I’m an English teacher; the pay may be shirt buttons, but I have the perfect excuse to read anything at all. Dahl’s Granny is a wonderfully transgressive character. She’s mean and ugly, she’s rude to her grandson, she’s horrid about his parents and she has brown teeth and a mouth like a dog’s bum – a simile that electrifies every child I’ve read it with.

George’s granny made me think about plotting. Not plotting how to to do away with your granny – plotting as in making your story grab the reader and sweep them along. Dahl is terrific at action. The next step is never predictable. Mild little George is oppressed by awful granny, he feels “a tremendous urge to do something about her. Something whopping.” And of course, he does. What keeps his young readers on the edge of their chairs is that every scene is a huge surprise.

My resolution for NaNoWriMo this year is, like George, to do something whopping with my plot. Nothing mild, absolutely nothing predictable, just one irresistible surprise after another.

Wish me luck!

PS this is one of the best blogs posts I’ve read lately. It’s from the Writer’s Workshop and includes a couple of really useful points about plots, as well as lots of other cringe-making mistakes most of us will recognize.

*NB For the purposes of this blog you are a Granny. Everyone is. We practice extreme inclusivity. If you don’t like the title, you can be a Refusenik (RK for short), and you are welcome too.IMG_0949.JPG

It should say ‘apologies to Quentin Blake’…