The write stuff

Posted: 27 October 2011 in personal, skills, writing
Tags: , ,

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing recently.

I’m about to be pretentious and precious, both at the same time. Now I know you can cope with me being one or the other, but if both at the same time is too much, feel free to entirely ignore this entry if you wish.

So, yeah, I’ve been thinking about writing.

Not merely considering writing as in “I think I’ll do some writing”, but also, and perhaps more importantly, about the mechanics and craft of writing. This was started off by me reviewing some old writings of mine, and some unfinished works. I’d started making some notes on the uncompleted work when – as so often happens – I found my mind going off in various directions, and I found myself effectively scribbling down lines that were almost a philosophy of writing. Now, it could be said that I’m being, as I suggested earlier, both pretentious and precious, but what the hell. When has that ever stopped me ?

It strikes me that there are two things that I’m trying to get the reader to do when they read something I’ve written. The first is that when you’re writing a story, the whole point (other than telling the tale you wish) is to get the reader to read the next word… or the next panel.. or the next line.

And despite my oft-stated belief writing for broadcast and writing for print are about as different as you can get, both are obviously an exercise in the creative tension of suspense.

As with broadcasting, when you’re trying to get someone to read or experience something you’ve written, everything comes down to a that simple aim: to get the reader to want to know… what happens next.

It was pointed out to me some time ago – and I sometimes find it a useful analogy when considering dialogue – to think of the analogy of table tennis.

Yes, table tennis.

What’s the hardest thing in table tennis? To get the ball over the net and on the table… ONE. MORE. TIME.

That’s what you’re aiming for when you want someone to read something you’ve written… to get them to read the next word/panel. And the next one. And the one after that.

The other thing, almost equally important (arguably more important if you’re more interested in the aesthetics of writing rather than getting people to read it) is to provoke an emotional response in the reader. And we’re back to the concept of a game again. If you provoke the reaction you want, you’ve won. If you provoke a different reaction, it’s certainly not a win, but arguably not entirely a loss. However, provoke no reaction – that’s a cold, hard defeat.

Fear, laughter, anger; it doesn’t matter the reaction you’re aiming for. If the reader reacts the way you as a writer wish the reader to, you’ve won. Simple as that. It’s important, though, to get the reader to feel involved with the story, which leads straight back to the point I made a moment ago: to get the reader to care about what happens next. If the reader doesn’t give a shit about the characters, then he won’t carry on reading, no matter whether or not an individual passage in the story provokes the reaction you want.

Lord of the Rings? Reputed to be one of the greatest books published in the 20th Century, yes? I read 100 pages and genuinely couldn’t give a shit what happened to the characters. So I stopped reading it.

First Among Equals? Complete trash, written by a hack. I was gripped right the way through the book, because I genuinely cared about what happened to these characters. And wanted to know what happened to them.

Some time ago, I started a second novel. I deliberately tried to change my previous style of writing, to concentrate on plot, to make every line have something happen in it. I knew going in that there was a danger I’d sacrifice the depth of character that I’d enjoyed writing previously, but that was a risk I was prepared to take.

I got 12,000 words through the story when I stopped, and offered what I’d written to some friends to read and comment upon.

One particular comment hit home, hard. Without doubt the slight sacrifice I thought I’d made in character depth was far deeper than I’d realised and as writers far more experienced than I know, poor plot will survive good characters easier and better than a good plot will survive poor characters.

So I need to do some more writing. And rewriting.

Because… writing is rewriting.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot as well.

Not just the sentiment but the simplicity of “doing it”.

Easy to say, harder to achieve.

More thinking required… as long as it leads to doing.

  1. Blaadyblah says:

    Impossible to tell yet whether the semi lucid notes I’m producing through a haze of medications and The Lurgy will amount to anything useful in the future but if nothing else it keeps my typing speed up meaning I’m more likely to catch the good hallucinations before they’re forgotten. I may be able to use much of it later in something with a function, after all.

    Like you I never enjoyed reading Lord of The Rings. I found it impossible until one autumn when I’d glandular fever and it was read to me (despite having thoroughly enjoyed The Hobbit). The reader’s voices did the trick in the end. Now it is a book I refer to rather than ever really read.

    • Strangely enough, Phil regards the entire Harry Potter set of books the same way – he doesn’t enjoy reading Rowling at all, but absolutely loves hearing Stephen Fry’s reading of them.

      Having heard several of Fry’s readings, I kind of understand what he means, but even then, not overly impressed with the quality of writing. Hugely impressed by the commerciality of the books though.

      As for Lord of the Rings, the BBC Radio 4 adaptations, with a cast containing Ian Holm, Robert Stephens, Michael Hordern,John Le Mesurier and Bill Nighy – Bill Nighy!!! – as Sam are incredibly good. Must listening.

  2. But for all your flash fictions I’ve read, you have created wonderful characters. I believe you can combined a great plot with characters only you can create. You are lucky to have such a good friend. I hope you continue!

    • Thank you – have been tempted more than once to regard some of the fast fictions – not that many of them, but some of them – as spines about which I could write a longer story. But have always resisted the idea.

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