The development of a scene

Posted June 3, 2007 by Keith Dixon
Categories: Good writing, The Writing Life

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

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It’s the little things, stupid …

Posted May 20, 2007 by Keith Dixon
Categories: Good writing, The Writing Life

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

Posted April 30, 2007 by Keith Dixon
Categories: Good writing, The Writing Life

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

Vonnegut’s legacy

Posted April 15, 2007 by Keith Dixon
Categories: Commentary, Newsy stuff

Like many people, I guess, I’ve felt a special attachment to Kurt Vonnegut since the first time I read anything by him. That first book was probably Slaughterhouse 5, and I read it because they made a film in the early seventies that looked interesting and vaguely science-fiction-ish. Which was a plus.

So that was about 1972, and over here in Britain they started publishing or republishing all of his early works. So I was able to scarf up The Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Mother Night, Player Piano … all leading to the publication of his ‘birthday present to [him]self’ – Breakfast of Champions, in 1973.

So what was it that attracted people to him? What did he do, as a writer, that made the books resonate?

Player Piano and The Sirens of Titan are, to some extent, fairly straightforward science-fiction. Except that the latter is very funny, cleverly structured, and speaks with an individual voice practically unheard in 1950s science-fiction. By that I mean that you have a sense of a real person writing the words. It’s there in the first few paragraphs, and if you look closely you can see how he does it: simple phrases, homely words, familiar metaphors. Like this:

“Gimcrack religions were big business.” …
“Mankind flung its advance agents ever outward … It flung them like stones.”

The use of “gimcrack”, “big business” and “like stones” tell us that this language is going to be the kind of language we all use. It’s not “literary” or difficult. It’s slightly ironic in tone but the irony of the common person, the person who regards large institutions with suspicion and who uses language to describe exactly what he or she sees, without fancy metaphors: “like stones.”

Reading The Sirens of Titan now, it actually feels quite literary compared to the later books. There are long sentences, quite a few descriptive passages, and lots of characters and situations. Later, Vonnegut refined his technique further – fewer characters, shorter sentences, less description. It was as if we began to understand Vonnegut-world and he didn’t have to describe it to us any more. What became important was the depth of his insights and the simplicity with which he began to express them.

At one level, this is perhaps why his novels became less successful even as his essays and other writings became more popular. He no longer needed the excuse of fiction to talk to us – he could use his essays and recorded speeches. I was sorry about that, because reading The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle for the first time is a lesson in how to have your head expanded to take in new fictional possibilites. For example, the use of drawings – created by himself – to punctuate and illustrate his books; or the introduction of himself as a character in Breakfast of Champions, pre-dating similar tactics by Martin Amis, Philip Roth and Douglas Coupland by a few decades. (He actually introduced himself as a character, though briefly, in Slaughterhouse 5, as someone excreting his brains … always the comedian!)

I spent a couple of years studying Vonnegut for a Ph.D. thesis, and later went on to teach Cat’s Cradle to college students. Despite these circumstances that are guaranteed to cool your ardour for any author, I ended up admiring him even more as a writer. To the extent that I found my own writing was beginning to lurch towards sub-Vonnegutian aphorisms and brevity. Unfortunately for me – or perhaps fortunately – I hadn’t suffered the same way he had: his mother committed suicide on the eve of Mother’s Day, the day Vonnegut returned home prior to being shipped abroad to fight in WW2; and his sister, Alice, and her husband, both died in one week in 1958 – she of cancer, he in a railroad accident two days before. All of these events, together with the well-publicised circumstances he endured during the fire-bombing of Dresden, gave him a perspective on the brevity of human life that was hard earned.

So Kurt has been there somewhere in the background for me for the last 35 years or so. Even as I read his later works with less and less enthusiasm, my admiration for the man as a humanist and someone who saw things clearly grew. Now it seems like there isn’t anyone out there who’s going to call us to account. My other favourite living author, Gore Vidal, is declining as a literary force, and his playful, if biting, comments more often sound left-field rather than right-minded. Too many disappointments seem to have clouded his judgement.

In these days of Bush, Blair and Bin Laden, we needed Kurt Vonnegut. Shame he had to go.

RIP

Your instrument …

Posted March 25, 2007 by Keith Dixon
Categories: Commentary, The Writing Life

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

On or off the bus?

Posted March 11, 2007 by Keith Dixon
Categories: Commentary, The Writing Life

In the early 60s, Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters toured America in an old bus, promoting the use of LSD as a way of revolutionising society. People who thought of themselves as ‘Pranksters’ were considered to be ‘on the bus’; if not, you were ‘off the bus’.

I feel somewhat the same about Print on Demand publishing. I have a novel that I’ve self-published, Altered Life, and I’m proud that it’s out there and being bought, gradually, by people I don’t know.

By the same token, I know that I’m off the bus – I haven’t gone through a process of being chosen by an agent, sold to a publishing house, edited by a professional editor, proof-read by a person wearing thick glasses … I’ve done all these things myself. So part of me feels slightly like a second-class citizen, faking it, pretending to be an author when I’m actually someone with a lot of persistence and chutzpah.

Yet out there in POD-land, I come across many folk who consider themselves writers because they’ve put themselves in print, and people are buying their books. And I can’t decide what I think about this – and about their claims (and my claims) to be published authors. They show diligence, self-belief, marketing awareness and the ability to project manage. Some of them can even write a bit. But if you’ve not gone through the commercial publishing process, are you really a writer – or just a self-publicist?

For example, I have an acquaintance who has published a book through a large and well-known publishing house. I’ve read the opening pages … and that’s as much as I’d care to read. The reviews on Amazon.com have been mixed – some poor, some good. Yet the book is still 270000th on the hardback sales list (compared to my humble 1.4 millionth in paperback), which will be almost entirely down to the marketing clout of the publisher and the fact that the book is on bookstores’ shelves. It’s not, I believe, down to quality.

So are we PODders deluding ourselves? Just because a book is nicely printed by our publishers, doesn’t mean it would cut it in the commercial world. Are those of us who call ourselves writers just people who can string a sentence together but don’t have anything to say that would interest a commercial editor or publisher? I guess it comes down to what criteria you’re using – commercial acceptance or personal achievement. I suppose I view ‘writers’ as those who’ve managed the first of these. To publish by POD is certainly the second, and not to be sneezed at. But is it enough? I’m not sure.

I want to be on the bus, but I have a feeling I’m actually off it.

Making our people real

Posted February 25, 2007 by Keith Dixon
Categories: Good writing, The Writing Life

What makes you believe that the character you’re reading about is a real person? And what makes you want to find out more about them?

For me, these are two crucial factors for a fiction writer to consider. If you don’t believe in the character, you won’t be interested in what they’re doing or care what happens to them. And if you don’t want to find out more about them, then the story will have no real ‘guts’.

So how do you establish a level of characterisation?

There are two main tactics that writers can employ: speech and action.

When our characters speak in inverted commas, we hear them directly. There is no mediation by the author, no commentary by someone telling us what to think – we simply ‘hear’ the person speaking. So to make our characters real, they must use the language we expect them to use. Crooks don’t, on the whole, talk like college professors, and vice versa. Consequently we have a number of tools we can use:

– diction: the choice of words
– pace: the length of sentence together with punctuation
– structure: how the words are put together

Diction

“‘Man, I don’ lend my sled to nobody!’
‘Then who’d you lend your 12-gauge pump shotguns to? Boy, you spill on that.’
‘Man, I tol’ you I don’t own no shotgun!’
Jack stepped in. ‘Tell me about the Purple pagans. Are they a bunch of guys who like purple cars?'”

(James Ellroy, LA Confidential)

Here, the contrast between Jack’s slang-free speech and that of Leonard and Denton, crook and cop, sets him apart and is a ‘voice of reason’ whom the reader can identify with. Whenever he speaks, we listen and know that he’s using logic and rationality to gather evidence and filter information. He’s characterised as the good guy.

Pace

“‘Well, that’s a barn all right, and a beautifully drawn barn. I very much like the pattern of light and dark. You’re very talented, Sanford.’
‘And that’s a tobacco plant growing. That’s what they look like. See, it’s shaped like a triangle. They’re big. That one’s still got the blossom on top. It’s before they top it.'”

(Philip Roth, The Plot Against America)

Here the Rabbi’s more languorous sentences are compared to the young Sandy’s, which are choppy, eager, each sentence replicating a thought as it occurs to the young mind. The immaturity of his teenage mind is captured in sentences which also are immature, not shaped in the same way as the rabbi’s are. Notice also the rabbi’s more mature diction – ‘I very much like’.

Structure

“‘What do you think?’ he demanded imperiously.
‘About what?’
He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
‘About that. As a matter of fact, you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.’

‘Who brought you?’ he demanded. ‘Or did you just come? I was brought. Most people were brought.’

(F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

In this extract we see the man characterised by his repetition of phrases. Fitzgerald has structured his speech to show how the man’s mind works. He makes an observation, then uses the same word to enlarge on the observation – ascertain, ascertained; brought, brought. This slight structuring of his dialogue is enough to fix him in our minds as someone probably small-minded or precise and probably a little smug.

The second tool we writers have at our disposal, apart from speech, is action.

We get involved with the lives of a character when they do something out of the ordinary – whether it’s risky in a physical or psychological sense, or simply unusual in that we couldn’t see ourselves behaving in the same way. When that happens, we try to attribute a motive to their actions because it’s a human trait to want to understand why other people behave the way they do.

Why does Gatsby say he was driving the car that killed Myrtle Wilson instead of Daisy? Why does Yossarian act the way he does when asked to fly more missions? Why does Holden Caulfield abscond from school to visit his sister Phoebe? All of these are actions that help characterise the hero as ‘different’. And in the same way that we’re attracted to the ‘bad’ boys and girls at school, this refusal by our characters to follow a traditional, safe pattern of behaviour is what draws readers to them.

So characterising our heroes and heroines, and the lesser personae, isn’t just a case of making them look different physically (a common trait of beginning writers). It’s also a case of putting them in situations where they can make strong decisions that we don’t expect or even understand. And making them speak in ways that differentiate them from each other using different vocabularies, length of sentences and structured phrases. Then the reader begins to really see how they are different from each other – and interesting enough to want to read more about.

Keith


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