Archive for the ‘The Writing Life’ category

Lost in Translation?

September 10, 2008

Hoo-whee … I’ve got a job translating a book from French into English. It’s an interesting book about a white-hunter in Tanzania, written, I believe, by a white-hunter in Tanzania … so the technical details are correct. You wanna know anything about the kind of rifles they use? I can tell you. It’s a fascinating peek into a world that takes you back to black and white movies of the fifties … Stewart Granger, Clark Gable and so on.

But this translation lark is interesting. It makes you aware of how idiomatic all language is. You can’t simply translate word-for-word, like online translators inevitably do. There seems to be at least two stages involved, if you want to do it properly. First is getting a sense of what a paragraph is trying to say, and then translating the sentences roughly in your head – maybe even writing down an approximation of what it’s saying.

The next stage is the real fun part, though – re-writing the text so that it reads like proper English, not just translated English. It’s really easy to get this wrong, to write phrases that are indeed in English, but actually don’t mean much in context. You have constantly to take a step back and read the whole flow of a paragraph to see whether what you’ve written actually makes sense in the light of what’s gone before. I’ve only completed the prologue and first chapter, as a ‘trial’ for the author, and I found myself – just before sending the chapters for approval – re-reading for one last time … and making more changes.

So it’s going to be a long job but actually quite enjoyable. You feel like you’re actually contributing something creative to the original, which makes it challenging and fun. Sometimes you come across a phrase that is so idiomatic that not only can you make no sense of it, but it doesn’t even appear in dictionaries or the Internet. That’s when I have to take a guess but also refer it back to the author for guidance. I guess Tanzanian French is even more idiomatic than French French!

Incidentally, you may notice a new graphic on the right hand side of the blog. This is an affiliate link to Waterstones – my first attempt at such a thing. I think what happens is that if you click the link and then buy something there, I get a cut. Yay! So go hog wild, why don’t you? You know there are all those Christmas presents coming up … (Now I better shut up about it. The blog hosts don’t like it if you use your posts to do too much advertising. Oops.)

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Everyone needs tools

August 30, 2007

I work occasionally on Lulu’s LiveHelp desk, and one of the questions that people are asking more and more is, ‘What software do you recommend for writing?’

Of course this is a tough one because a number of factors come into play: What hardware set-up do you have? How much can you afford to spend? Are you writing fiction or screenplays or stage plays?

I’ve spent a long time trying out various demos of downloadable software and, in doing that, have come to some conclusions about what I need from a writing software package:

1. It has to have a good word processing function. Although I might not use all the bells and whistles, I want italics, bold, word count – for chapter and book total – and spell check.

2. I have to be able to Save As … or export to a recognised word processing format, either Word.doc or rtf. As I’m writing fiction, there’s no need for drawing or image functions to be included. I’ve tried packages in the past that will only allow you to print from the software, with no ability to translate your document into another format. As the formatting functions are often minimal on this kind of package, that’s hopeless.

3. The ability to make character and scene notes, and to jot down ideas where necessary (that is, when they occur to me!) is essential. I used to keep box files full of hand-written notes – nowadays, everything’s in the software, searchable and close to hand.

4. Finally, the function that I took a long time to recognise I needed – the ability to shuffle events on a time line. Some packages enable you to outline your story – with varying degrees of detail – but not all of them allow you to switch them, like shuffling note cards. When I discovered a program that would allow me to do that, I was in heaven.

And the winner is?

Well, typically, I haven’t found one package that does all of these things. But I have discovered two that enable me to work relatively seamlessly.

The first is a suite of software from Anthemion Software, called Writers’ Cafe: www.writerscafe.co.uk/ In particular, I use the Storylines program from within the suite for the outlining process. It has what appears to be a cork-board, on to which you attach your story-threads. On each of these threads (which are like your main and sub-plots) you then attach virtual notecards containing your individual scenes. These can be dragged and dropped at will, and contain as much or as little information as you like. When you’re plotting something complex, it’s great to be able to see the story graphically like this, instead of just having a linear, text-based description.

The other program I use is called WriteItNow, from Ravenshead Services. With this package you can store ideas, create characters (it includes a couple of psychological models in its character-creation options), even invent plot events. Best of all, its word processing function allows you to create individual chapters, then export them to rtf format, which opens automatically in Word if you have it installed. Each chapter is formatted according to rules that you determine, so that you have a complete book ready for printing at the point at which you click Export. Also included are the spell check and word count functions that I use all the time, plus a thesaurus and a readibility index.

I liked these two programs so much I actually spent money buying them and I keep them upgraded. It would be hard for me to write without them now. Demos are available on both sites, so give them a go. (Incidentally, I have no financial relationship to these businesses!)

How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?

July 5, 2007

… Two. One to change it, and the other to offer a well-reasoned critique as to how it could have been done better.

Writers are a strange bunch. On the one hand we’re often self-critical, worrisome, uncertain and as apt to cross out a line as to write one.

On the other, we can be very dogmatic about what is right or wrong about any given piece of prose – especially when it’s written by someone working in the same area or genre as ourselves.

I guess I’m writing this in a state of apprehension, because I’ve sent out copies of my latest book to a group of beta-readers (a phrase I found on a Lulu forum) and soon I’ll be getting the feedback. All but one of them writes extensively themselves, and the one who doesn’t keeps a very active and entertaining blog, so is used to putting virtual pen to paper albeit in a different form.

I have mingled with writers a little – after all, I did a degree in Creative Arts, including creative writing, and I’ve been to a few writers’ workshops elsewhere – and my impression is that we can be quite cagey. My sense is that unlike the general impression of writers as larger-than-life Hemingway-esque characters, who grab life in a bear-hug and don’t let go, many of us are quiet, inward-looking folk who use words to explain how we’re feeling. Writing is, after all, a solitary experience for the most part. I’m still haunted by Isaac Asimov’s description of himself sitting in a small room facing a blank wall for most of 40 years – including weekends – while he produced his 400+ books … And I think, is that how I envisage myself? Well, I don’t sit facing a wall. But I am in a small room facing a screen …

Also, we veer between confidence in our belief in what we’re doing, and fear that it’s not up to snuff and other people are doing it much, much better, so why would anyone listen to little ole us … ?

When you’re with a bunch of writers a kind of friendly distance can settle around the table … people assessing and weighing up others. Gore Vidal nailed it, I suppose, with that famous line of his: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” That edge of competition I suspect is there in all of us who are competing for readers.

Which is not to say that writers can’t be enormously generous, too. The Lulu forums – and other writing websites – are full of people generously giving advice and energy – and even free reading-time! – to other writers. There are some folk who are just gregarious, I guess, and want to be part of a group that does well.

So pardon me while I dip in and out of these two modes: self-imposed solitary confinement, complete with deep-circled eyes and a snappy dismissal of books I dislike; and open-hearted, friendly, concerned and interested fellow traveler down the writing path, willing to critique and offer a helping hand where possible …

Don’t try to work out which one I’ll be at any given time, because I’m damned if I know.

The development of a scene

June 3, 2007

I thought it might be interesting to look at how a scene develops in the writing process. I guess many non-writers think that a writer sits down each morning and writes out the scene that’s next in the book. Then finishes and goes to lunch.

For most of us, that’s not the case. Sometimes we have a clear idea of what happens in the scene, and to whom. Sometimes we have a vague notion that – to fulfil plot requirements – ‘something’ needs to happen, with a particular outcome.

This scene is from the book I’m working on at the moment, called The Secret Place. It’s a follow-up to Altered Life, the book that introduced my private investigator character, Sam Dyke. Altered Life was narrated exclusively from Sam’s perspective, while in The Secret Place I’ve opted to try out a technique several PI writers are using now – slipping into the close 3rd person point of view of a different character.

The scene is part of a chapter in which we see the ‘bad guys’ for the first time. They’re the Wilder twins, Little Jimmy and his older brother, Pete. Ostensibly they’re builders in Liverpool, while in fact they’re hard-nosed gangsters with a number of scams going on. When I first outlined the scene, it began with them arriving at a building site they were running, and their intention was to use a laptop to track down the position of a ship that was sailing from South Africa with contraband on board that they were awaiting. But I couldn’t find a way to start. When I got to that point in the writing, this is what came out:

(Arrive at site. One man standing around. No work being done. Piles of bricks and timber in a corner, under tarpaulin. Ground muddy. Half erected building to one side. They go into a Portakabin, then through another door into a back room. Pete locks the door and Jimmy boots up a laptop.When it’s booted, he loads the Leocate software, enters his username and password and tracks the shipment coming from SA.)

I then went straight into dialogue.

For an outline, this is fairly specific. I seem to have ‘seen’ the situation – the man standing around, the piles of bricks, the half-erected building. I’d even done my research and found the ‘Leocate’ software, a kind of GPS system that could be used to track items worldwide. But all this was displacement activity because I found I didn’t want to describe the physicality of the scene – the prose wouldn’t come. It was easier to get into dialogue than describe the set-up.

Two months later, and I’d managed to get into the scene, like this:

The site was empty. They walked on the planks that crossed the muddy ground and went up the steps into the Portakabin. Pete had the key and he looked around before opening up. That was him – always secretive. Jimmy followed him inside and shut the door.
‘Fuckin cold in here.’
‘Put a jumper on.’
They grinned at each other – that was their mother’s saying whenever the gas meter ran out and they didn’t have any money.
‘Get ‘er going,’ Pete said, and Jimmy pushed past him into the cubicle at the back. He unlocked the cabinet and took out the laptop, then booted it up and navigated to the tracking web site. He zoomed into a section of the ocean north of Africa.

So the single man on site has gone – it would have led to complications about what exactly the twins were up to on site, so it was better to ditch him. I’ve given some detail about the muddy site, but not mentioned the piles of bricks or the half-erected building. Also, the Portakabin doesn’t have two rooms, just a locked cabinet. I’ve also taken out the reference to Leocate because by this time I wasn’t sure it would do what I wanted it to do.

The other thing that’s happened is that I’ve taken the opportunity to build the relationship between the twins by mention of their mother. The scene immediately prior to this shows them arguing in the car as they’re driving to the site, but I thought it would be natural for them to have forgotten that and to be able to share a family moment through the use of the mother’s phrase. So even while doing one thing – showing the twins looking at the position of their contraband – it’s possible to use the scene to do something else – build their relationship. It also showed the poverty they’d come from – to have a gas meter into which you had to feed coins. It says something about their social situation as children.

The latest re-write looks like this:

The site was empty. They walked on the planks that crossed the muddy ground and went up the steps into the Portakabin. Pete had the key and he looked around before opening up. That was him – always secretive. Always worried about what might happen if it went wrong. Jimmy followed him inside and shut the door.
‘Fuckin cold in here,’ he said.
‘Put a jumper on.’
They grinned at each other – that was their mother’s saying whenever the gas meter ran out and they didn’t have any money.
‘Get ‘er going,’ Pete said, and Jimmy pushed past him into the cubicle at the back. He unlocked the cabinet and took out the laptop. Pete didn’t want it kept in either of their houses, just in case. Jimmy booted it up and ran the Automatic Identification System software. Every ship over 300 tons was required to broadcast its location, speed, status and other information. This information was picked up by different tracking systems worldwide and made available to interested parties, usually for a fee. Jimmy had felt really cool when he learned this. Something he could do that his brother couldn’t. He zoomed into a section of the ocean north of Africa.

Here there’s another line about Pete: ‘Always worried about what might happen if it went wrong.’ This is to emphasise his paranoia as Jimmy sees it. Jimmy is far more of a risk-taker and sees his brother as an unnecessary worrier. Also, I’ve added in the information about the Automatic Identification System software. Further research had directed me to this information, and I’ve expanded on it because again it helps characterise Jimmy by comparison to his brother – he can do something his brother couldn’t, and felt good about it.

This will probably be the final version, though I’m still considering how much information about the AIS software to leave in. Does it add credibility to the scene? Or does it read like research that’s been shoe-horned in to show off? I’m still unsure.

The interest for me is to learn how a scene can develop over a period of about eight months. More experience as a writer tells you that you don’t have to get it all right first time. Putting in a ‘place-holder’, in brackets, was good enough until I could see my way through to write the scene properly. And even then it changed as more thought went into it. So what I’ve learned is to have more confidence that things will become clearer to me, as the writer, in the same way that they will become clearer to the reader. Getting it right first time isn’t always possible, so long as you put in the work to get it right eventually.

Keith Dixon
Altered Life

It’s the little things, stupid …

May 20, 2007

Worse than journeying into the land of Mordor is the voyage through the Swamp of Rewrite Hell.

Example 1: You’re on page two of rewriting and you suddenly realise that a minor character’s motivation – that you hadn’t given any thought to a year ago – suddenly becomes very important. Why would he be doing what he does now, when later in the book what he does is … ohmigod, the alarms go off. You scurry through the text, looking for every appearance of this character – what does he say? Does he compromise the plot? Does he make sense any more?

Example 2: On re-reading the description of a character’s relationship with his brother, you see that you’ve seriously undersold that relationship. The way the book has turned out, you need to beef up the conflict between them … while at the same time making it clear that there is a profound feeling between them that never gets expressed. All you’ve done in the book as written is to maneouver them around the plot, enabling them to interact with your protagonist but not actually developing them as individuals in their own right, and with a relationship to each other that turns out to drive the conclusion of the whole story.

These are examples from only the first six chapters of a 46 chapter book, and show how difficult it is to construct something that is logical, compelling and makes sense at even a superficial level. Well, difficult for me, I should say.

This book was the result of the most lucid and complete planning process I’d ever worked through … and still there are flaws in the motivations of characters. Partly this is because of the fact that as you write, the story continues to develop. Better ideas occur to you than did when you were in the planning stage. Or writing a character brings them to life in such a way that they begin to drive the story in a different direction to that which you’d planned.

I knew all that, and was ready for it.

But what I’ve learned is that not only must you have the direction of each scene planned – the way in, the conflict, the outcome for the protagonist – but you must also examine the motivation of each character in the scene. Why are they there? What do they want? How did they get themselves into this situation and what will they do as soon as they leave this scene? Obviously this is important for you to know about your protagonist and your major characters. But I’m realising you also need to know these things for your minor characters, too. Otherwise, a year down the line, you start to re-read and suddenly find yourself saying, ‘But that doesn’t make sense. Why would he do that? Given what happens later … ‘

Actually, this isn’t Rewrite Hell. This is the part I like best. Fixing it. Spotting the inconsistencies. Bottoming out the characters. Tying together the plot points so that they’re evident to the reader as well as to me.

But it’s frightening when you come across something plainer than the nose on the Wicked Witch’s face, and you didn’t spot it two years ago. In the immortal words of Jay Leno, ‘What were you thinking?’

The sense of an ending

April 30, 2007

I’m reaching the end of my second Sam Dyke book, and it’s strange and exciting in the same breath. Strange because it’s been 2 years in the writing. Exciting … because it’s been 2 years in the writing.

My books come to me in flashes – a beginning, an end, maybe a scene from somewhere in the middle. Nowadays I write according to quite a strict outline, whereas in previous years I’ve just written away from a beginning towards a middle, then away from a middle towards an end. The scenes in-between have come as necessary to fill the gaps. With an outline, though, all the thinking is done in the planning stage and the writing does become easier. It’s a kind of structured inspiration. I use the creative flashes in putting together a structure, and then I stick to it.

But an odd thing happens as you get closer to the end of a book. All of a sudden you start to have yet more ideas. The plan you had for the end seems flat when there are so much more interesting ideas out there. But if you follow that new idea, does that affect what’s gone before? Without intending it, your perfectly structured ending goes out of the window as new possibilities open up. And new ways of rewriting what you’ve spent 2 years writing …

So the end becomes a potential new beginning. And you begin to wonder whether what you’ve been doing for so long is in fact working. Is the reader going to care what happens to your characters? Is she going to be able to follow the subtleties of the plot that you’ve cleverly built in … or are they so subtle that in fact no one could follow them?

The tendency is to rush the end. To get it all down as quickly as possible. To conclude the story line, wrap up the characters, and write THE END. So of course that’s exactly the time you have to slow down. Stretch out the ending. Take longer over the action. Put in more introspective moments at just the point that the action is heating up. Add dialogue between your main characters to help them understand what has gone on beforehand. Describe in more detail the precise facts surrounding the events that conclude your story. Because if you don’t, you get to the end of the tale before the reader is psychologically prepared for it. They bring with them everything that has gone before – the storyline, the characters’ development, the prospect of a future beyond the end of the book. And if you cut them off too short, they feel let down and deprived. The story has been ripped from them before they’re ready for it, and they’ll feel disappointed rather than sated.

This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned in many years of writing stories and novels: your readers have a sense of an ending that will be right and appropriate. You have to give that to them, or they’ll never forgive you.

Altered Life

Your instrument …

March 25, 2007

At the same time as I’m working on my second novel, I’m also learning to play the guitar. I started about a year ago and progress is slow, largely because I’m teaching myself in a very haphazard fashion.

It struck me the other day that one of the reasons it’s hard to learn an instrument (at least a stringed instrument) is because there are several things you have to learn at the same time.

First, you have to train your body to complete manoeuvres it has no intention of completing of its own accord: fingers need to stretch to reach a span of notes on a fretboard; arms need to bend over the guitar body and under the frets, leaving you with aching shoulders; your back needs to be held upright even as you’re sitting on the edge of a chair.

Secondly, you have to do different things with your hands at the same time – fret chords with the left, pluck or strum strings with the right.

Thirdly, you may have to learn to read music – or at least the tablature that guitarists mostly read.

Fourth, there’s pain! Your fingers have to build calluses, and this can take months. Until they’re hard, your finger tips are grooved with painful lines, meaning you can only play for minutes at a time before having to shake your hand and utter a few choice words.

Fifth, if you play an electric guitar (which I don’t), you have to build a body of knowledge about electronics and amplification.

Why am I listing all these? Well, using one of those far-fetched analogies of which preachers are fond, it suddenly seemed to me that learning to play the guitar is a little like writing a book …

First, you have to train your mind to complete manoevres it has no intention of completing of its own accord: for example, you probably have to be more organised than might be usual for you – for instance, keeping track of the colour of characters’ eyes, or the timeline of events in your book, or the past history of your heroine. You also have to have the discipline to write, sitting at that table for hours every day, developing carpal tunnel syndrome, short-sight and (if you’re unfortunate) haemarrhoids.

Secondly, you have to do different things with the right and left parts of your brain – the creative and the structured. You have to follow a plan, an outline, a rough mental sketch – whatever system you’ve found suits you – but at the same time be open to the unexpected flash of intuition that takes you along a completely different path. Many writers seem to have nailed one but have trouble with the other!

Thirdly, you may have to learn grammar and spelling. Don’t be fooled that these will be fixed by an editor. Your work won’t even reach an editor if these two systems of notation aren’t reasonably well mastered.

Fourth, there’s pain! Mental anguish as you begin to believe you can’t do it, the words won’t come, the characters aren’t really alive, the plot is dull … why did you bother starting in the first place? You just have to build the mental calluses, the tough-mindedness that says, Write it, then Re-write it. You can’t do the second without the first, so just get it down on paper.

Fifth, if you use a computer (which I do!), you have to build a body of knowledge about word processing, filing, back-ups, formatting and printing.

Maybe these elements just happen to be part of the act of creation. Maybe for anything good to be formed out of thin air, you need to have developed mental and physical toughness, creativity and organisation. Maybe to use your instrument to the best of its abilities, you have to suffer pain, too. What a comforting thought!

Keith
Author of Altered Life


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