Questions asked and answered

I have been asked by Sonya Rhen to answer four questions about the writing process.       Sonya has been very active lately in connection with National Poetry Month and her blog is well worth a visit.

1. What am I working on?                                                                                                         I have recently published two novels (general fiction) and am now putting the finishing touches to a story for children before working on it with an illustrator. This, as they say, is not me at all. I don’t know where the idea came from but I’m not complaining.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?                                                   Probably in the way it keeps a balance between seriousness and humour, though this would be for others to judge.

3. Why do I write what I do?                                                                                        Because the ideas are there and I feel the need to give them some existence outside with my own head. That way, hopefully, they may have a life of their own.

4. How does my writing process work?                                                                                    I begin with the idea/ideas and sketch and draft an outline narrative. I avoid making this too detailed since these things take on a life of their own. No matter how good the plan may seem, I know I won’t be able to stick to it once I get going.

When a draft is complete I revise it as carefully as  I can, looking out for poor expression, unintentional repetitions of words, inconsistencies in the narrative and so on. All the usual things that lie in wait for us.

Lastly comes some fine tweaking. A slight change may feel like an improvement at the time, but is it? Checking it two days later will show whether it really convinces.

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The Writer is Missing

Unlike the disappearing blogger of the previous post, The Writer in this one is a category.

Today I visited a place used by many different people on a drop-in basis to promote their business.

It was an old building, the interior spacious and full of light. I wished I had my camera so, guess what, I was invited back again to take some shots.

Corn Exchange, Leith

I brought some leaflets back to show my wife, whose reaction was interesting. ‘Ceramicist, actor, musician,’ she reads, ‘animator, dancer, filmmaker, jeweller.’        Giving me a hard look she adds, ‘You know what’s missing, don’t you? Not a writer in sight, don’t writers count?’

She was right. I suspect the reason is that writers can easily work from home and don’t require a place like this. Unless, of course, they intend to market themselves as a brand. Now there’s a thought.


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First person or third?

On the face of it, writing in the third person will be the more attractive option. It gives the writer complete access not only to what his characters do but also what they think. This is the writer as God approach, and it isn’t surprising that the majority of novels and short stories are written in the third person.

Writing in the first person faces the author with a major question at the outset: how does the narrator come by his information? There are two approaches to this. The author might decide that, for his purposes, it will not be an issue and the narrator will know very much more than could happen in real life. For example, he might have astonishing powers of recall, giving us lengthy passages of direct speech as if, between his ears, he had a fully functional tape recorder or digital recording device. This is what Pawel Huelle does in ‘Who Was David Weiser’. He doesn’t care that a reader (me!) might reasonably ask ‘How could your narrator possibly know all this? He decides that the problem isn’t a problem at all – the writer as God again, but by a different route.

But if the question isn’t side-stepped in this way, we will wish to know how the narrator comes by his information. In the old days, a popular approach was, ‘These papers first came into my hands.’ Nowadays, the narrator might come by a stream of emails, texts or voicemails. And other characters, who have observed events which the narrator has not, will pass their information on. When writing in this way it will always be wise for the writer to ask, ‘How does my narrator know this?’ There should be an answer, explicit or implied.

Sometimes, writers – even famous ones – can be indecisive in this matter. When Patricia Cornwell began her Kay Scarpetta series, the novels were written in the first person. However, when she came to write Blow Fly, she changed to the third person. Then, seven years later, she reverted to the first person in Post Mortuary. This wouldn’t call for comment but for the fact that these books are part of the same series and might be expected to conform to one style of writing. (Bear in mind that she has also changed from past to present tense in this series).

Cornwell was sufficiently established to get away with this, but for authors starting out and wanting to build up a readership, conventional wisdom would be as follows. 1) Write within a specific genre 2) Write a series of books within that genre 3) Write the books in your series with a consistent style. (I am not advocating this advice, simply reporting it).

Then there is the interesting case of John Irving. As published, his novel Until I Find You is in the third person. But Irving wrote it in the first. However, on the advice of his wife he changed it to the third. Given that the book is unduly long, this was a major task which took him nine months. (I believe the couple are still married). So getting this decision correct at the outset can save a lot of time and effort. And while it is perfectly possible to change a first person narrative to a third, going in the other direction would be difficult in the extreme.

But writing in the first person isn’t just a matter of information. Since the narrator will be a person, the author must decide how that person speaks and/or writes. The narrator will have a voice and the writer should let us hear it. This is potentially more difficult than adopting a competent, third person prose style which any one of a number of authors might use.

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose one person or the other – we can use both. The novel I read most recently, Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, does exactly that. The main character, Lysander Rief, is urged by his shrink to keep a journal as part of his therapy. So, though the book is mainly third person, the narrative is intercut with first person extracts from his journal. Using both first and third persons is not uncommon and can work very well.