Poet Andrew Motion’s tips on writing better poetry
PART ONE; THE PLANNING
A while ago I put out a tweet on my account asking if anyone, anyone at all, would be interested in live updates about what the process of writing a novel looks like start to finish.
Well, the answer was yes (as you can imagine, given you’re reading this now), and I’m a balls-to-the-wall kind of person…
So here it is; ground zero; that moment when you have an idea, and literally nothing else. For me that idea, that concept, consists of three things;
And it looks like this;
I suspect I’m neither unique, or unusual in this, but I’ve never seen anyone talk about how to turn these things specifically into a workable plan for a novel or short story. Here’s how I begin; I write down that concept, the sight, sound, smell, and taste of it. Even if it makes little sense, even if it sounds like I’m describing a painting; I get it on paper. This is the first step.
Then I add to that with working titles, genres, themes, potential plots and sub plots. The end result is a messier version of this;
From here I move on to what I call the “mini-snowflake”.
I’m sure you all know what the snowflake method is and so you probably have a good idea of what the mini-snowflake is, but I’ll explain anyway. The mini-snowflake is a replication of stage 2 of the full method applied with the idea of helping to create a concrete idea of how to progress before you start planning in earnest. Start with a single sentence which explains the premise of your starting point, then follow up with a paragraph which explains the rough trajectory of the middle, and then finish with a sentence that gives a rough shape to the end of your story. It could look like this;
Now, at this point most people would go into a full blown snowflake, right? Well, not me amigos. If that would work better for you, and you fancy following my advice, then crack on, but I go to characters next. Stephen King once said that you’re either a planner or a pantser by nature, though most people have a little of both, and I’m a pantser. I fly by the seat of my characters pants, though, not mine, and so I fill out my protagonist and antagonist, along with any main characters, before I do anything else. Now, this is where you might think it gets weird; my character sheets are reminiscent of D&D, but I promise you they work. Well, they work for me.
Interestingly enough this similarity predates my jump into D&D. If I’m honest it comes from playing RPG’s like Dragon Age: Origins, Oblivion, Skyrim, and, of course, older offerings. Here’s what my character sheets look like;
The idea is to build a character type that can deal with the obstacles in their way, but not with consummate ease. By setting things like skills (for example research, literacy, two-handed weaponry… it all depends on your genre), feats (passive qualities which can be improved with work, e.g. strength, flexibility, intelligence) you can get an idea not only of how they will react, but what they can do. Likewise, by setting things like their drive (the over all goal that pushes them through life), and their short-term goal (the thing motivating them through the story), as well as the overall ideal to which they subscribe you can begin to build a relationship with your character.
Of course, that’s a different process for a different day.
You’ve heard that old gem that every villain thinks he or she is the hero, right? What if you could write a character that develops and evolves so well that you could take them from victim to hero to villain and then all the way to redemption, of a sort?
Well, you can. If you do, I’d suggest looking at Kurt Sutters’ Sons Of Anarchy, and in particular Jackson “Jax” Teller.
Let’s get real; Sons of Anarchy is just Hamlet on motorbikes. Jax is Hamlet (both born leaders with deceased fathers, good intentions that spiral to violence etc), Clay is Claudius, Gemma is Gertrude (though, in all honesty she’s more of a Lady MacBeth), and any number of the elders, Piney, Unser, Bobby, could be Polonius.
Is that what makes Jax such a fine example of character development? No.
You see, much like Hamlet, Jackson starts his life as a victim in many ways; his father is killed at a young age, he’s dragged into a life of crime, albeit willingly, and throughout the early seasons his attempts to change his life and the focus of SAMCRO are beaten down at every turn by Clay, and in some cases Gemma. Despite being an Anti-Hero in the truest sense, his morality coming from senses of duty, honour, and familial responsibility rather than morality or legality, he is a passive anti-hero.
Victim To Villain; Passive Heroics and the Illusion of Having No Choices
Jax lets himself be taken where the wind blows for much of the early seasons.
He leaves Wendy because of her drug addiction and is blown back to Tara when she arrives in Charming. He is then blown in to the arms of various women (ugh, Ima) when the going gets tough with Tara. He nearly fucks his own sister, for Christ’s sake, and when Tara ends up in legal trouble, understandably angry and distressed, because of something she did to protect him? He jumps dick first into a brothel madam-cum-high-class-pimp; Collette. In the end, however, he lets Tara go free.
On a side note she has to literally beg him in a public place not to kill her in front of their children before he realises that he has become the monster under the bed to his own wife…. but, hey. I’m not bitter.
Jax’s love life(lives) provide a perfect microcosm for his overall story arc, and this symmetry is something so prophetic and well-written that we would all do well to take heed.
The pattern of Jax’s life goes as such;
Jax marries Wendy because he feels he has no other choice; he confesses to Tara that it was a “sad time out” because he never got over her. He plays the victim while using Wendy, and when the going gets tough and she becomes addicted to heroine he bails. Enter Gemma; Gemma plays villain at first to allow Jax to maintain his wounded persona, but when Wendy gets out of rehab Jax tries to play hero by urging Tara to downplay their relationship for the sake of Wendy’s recovery.
He then chases her out of town, and when she returns, clean and ready to take care of her son, he forcibly injects her with heroine in order to keep what he see’s as “his”.
The arc doesn’t finalise until after Tara’s death when he leaves everything, including the children, to Wendy’s care. But he never actually tries to make personal amends.
Or there’s Tara;
She leaves him, and when she returns he sets about tugging her heart strings. He puts her in awkward positions by having her patch up injured club members time and time again, and then shoots her stalker in her home. When she begins to crumble under the stress and tries to escape again Jax does nothing to support or help her, but instead throws a tantrum and jumps dick first into another woman. Multiple times.
After the Ima fiasco Tara is kidnapped and pregnant so they end up back together again, after which he barrels down a course of action that lands him serious jail time. Tara cares for the children and waits, and he eventually promises her they will get out. He becomes an active hero for Tara when he attempts to extricate them, and when he reneges on this promise and she seeks her own escape he becomes the villain himself.
He redeems himself only just before her death, after which he slides back into violence and carnage.
This is what makes Jax such a fascinating character study; he lives, for the largest part of the show, under the belief that he has no choices. It’s only when he becomes President that he really takes control, and coincidentally this is when things really spiral out of control for the club.
The shattering climax, that realisation that over time he has become the villain in his own story, is so effective because we see the slide and we, the viewer, know that Jax is becoming more and more morally corrupt as the show spins out.
I once joked with my, then, partner that I had thought I would love Jax and Opie, but ended up hating them in favour of Juice, Tig, and Chibs because each of their characters was at the very least an active participant and had a morality of a sort that they held to. Jax and Opie both suffer from a martyrdom mentality that kills everyone and everything around them.
As writers we can learn from this undeniably masterful deployment of characterisation because it shows us, firstly, that you don’t have to like a character to root for them. Secondly, that symmetry is key; characterisation extends to the milieu of a characters life as well as the defining story arc. Thirdly, anti-hero’s don’t have to be edge-lord, morally grey gun-slingers like Dirty Harry. Sometimes an anti-hero is the pretty boy down the road who pretends that none of his bad choices could have been avoided.
Despite what some people will tell you, first person writing is enjoyable, rewarding, and fairly popular amongst readers; providing it is done well, that is. If you’re new to the craft, or just new to writing in first person, there are some basic hints and tips that can get you off to a good start.
Some of them are even transferrable to other points of view and perspectives!
What is First Person Writing?
First and foremost, it’s important to understand the difference between first, second, and third person writing. I’ll go in descending order;
Third Person – The third person point of view has the reader viewing events from outwith the characters themselves. E.g. “he ran”, “she fell”, “they cried”; third person can have a number of focuses, from close third, where the reader views one character in particular and their knowledge is mostly limited to that characters experiences. Omniscient view points are more old-fashioned, but can still be used to striking effect; an omniscient view point, or far third POV, will have the reader overseeing the whole cast in a less focussed way. Think of J R R Tolkeins The Hobbit as an example.
Second Person – By far the least common style of writing, second person can be very, very clunky and awkward, but it’s not unheard of for people to use it well. Second person makes the reader the protagonist in the most obvious of ways; “you go to the fridge”, “You screamed for help”, “You felt the rope burn your hands” in second person the novel speaks to the reader directly. It’s a conversation, of sorts.
First Person – In first person writing the reader looks through the eyes of the main character, see’s what they see, feels what they feel, and hears what they hear. They gain access to the thoughts of that character, very often (though this can also be seen in close third person narration), and form an intimate connection with that character. “I ran”, “my lungs burned”, “the blood that spilled from my gut”; everything in first person comes from the main character.
Pros and Cons
Everything has strengths and weaknesses; first person writing is no exception to this universal rule.
How to write well in first person
Writing well in first person is much like writing well in any style in that it takes three things;
Now I can’t help you with items two and three, but I can sure as hell give you advice when it comes to improving your technique. Here are the main things to keep in mind;
Minimise me, myself, and I
Believe it or not, using the words I, me, mine etc in first person can be a real killer if you do it too often. Why? The overall effect should be that the reader watches the story through their eyes, and if you overuse “I” it can start to feel more like the reader is having a one-sided conversation with the main character. This can work if it’s done with flair, of course, but it relies on an amusing and stimulating character voice.
Cut out filter phrases
Somewhat of an extension on the last point, but important enough to be distinct; cut out filter words. What are they, you ask? They’re the first person equivalent of the dreaded adjective.
“I saw”, “I heard”, “I felt”; these are filter words/phrases because they put a barrier between the reader and character. For example contrast,
“I ran to Gerald, but couldn’t help him. I saw him fall and heard his scream as he tumbled to the rocks below.”
“As I ran to him Gerald fell. He screamed on the way down, and hit the rocks below with an almighty crack.”
Now, both sentences have their virtues, but the first is laced with filter phrases.
Invoke the senses
When writing in first person the key to building a tangible connection between your reader and the wold you have built lies within your characters senses. Don’t tell them the campsite was filthy and chaotic, tell them that the character smelled offal and blood and wounds gone bad, and that the air hummed with raised voices. Don’t tell them the hand your character shakes is scarred and warped, tell them it feels rough and lumpy and twists at odd angles.
Begin with action
This rule holds true no matter which point of view you write from; begin with a character in action, in need, and/or in crisis if you want to hook the reader early. When you write in first person it can be a relatively small action, but try to avoid the “book opens with character running away from a nameless horror” trope because… well, it’s as predictable and overused as the “looking in a mirror to describe my character” trope. It can be done well, but rarely is.
Establish a voice and stick to it
One of the hardest things to do for some people is establishing a unique character voice that isn’t just theirs (the authors, that is), but if you can do this early and be consistent with it you’re on to a winner. People will pick up on the quirks your character displays, and if you’re clever they will really carry the quieter moments of your story. Just be sure that you consider what is reasonable for your characters background – if you’re writing an illiterate character it might be a push to have them making clever literary references.
Don’t be passive
Once again, one that should be applied to all fiction; the passive voice is not just out of vogue, it’s a distraction from the flow of your story. More than that, many people find it irritating these days. In case you weren’t aware, the passive voice occurs when the thing that should be the object of the sentence becomes the subject. For example;
“The cat caught a fat mouse.” Is an active sentence.
“The fat mouse was caught by a cat.” Is a passive sentence.
If the house was walked into, or the road was crossed by a hedgehog, you have a passive sentence. Now, passive sentences aren’t necessarily bad, and they’re not grammatically incorrect; it’s more of a stylistic faux pas.
If you can pin all these things down, you’ll have a good foundation from which to develop and grow!