So, it’s not shocking to me that I only got to Day 8 with my Daily Writes series. I had great intentions, but not a huge amount of time or headspace, given that I’m working a full-time job that’s all about writing, and writing a novel in my spare time. Writing about writing every day on top of that was too much, so I went in the other direction and put my blog out of my mind altogether, mostly so I could concentrate on what was turning out to be a very difficult third book to write. Not that any book is easy to write, but I was facing different challenges and fears with this one than I did with the previous two novels.
Essentially my big worry was story. Having written two novels that had strong concepts as the narrative driving force, I’m now writing a book that doesn’t have a concept and is essentially about a relationship between two people and how forces beyond them affect it. My big fear was (and is) that I won’t be able to get the reader to keep turning the pages. In my previous books, literally every 1,000 words, I posed some sort of question so the reader would want to see what happens next, and in writing this one I felt I didn’t have enough action for those questions to pop up.
I’m trying to let go of having to rely action – the desire for big things to happen and obstacles to propel my protagonist’s story forward. This is a quiet story, and I have to trust that my reader will be so invested in my characters that they will want to see what happens to them without being prodded along with the ‘what happens next?’ structure. I am two-thirds way through my first draft, and in the process am getting to know and deeply care about my characters, and I want to see what happens to them (at this point, I don’t know how this book is going to end). I’m hoping this will translate to my editor, and after a couple more drafts, to my readers.
THE CONFLICT CONNUNDRUM
Today I finished a long scene between my main character and his partner, which is designed to drive them apart so that my character will make a stupid decision that’s foundational to kicking the novel’s second act into action. It’s a scene with two other characters present, who are also in conflict with my main character on some level. I’ve been lining up the troops against him, so that he won’t be thinking straight when he makes his decision, which will seem small at the time, but is actually momentuous in his life.
It’s a scene of intense conflict, but if you look at the entirety of a book, almost every scene will contain conflict of some sort, because conflict creates the drama that keeps a reader engaged.
If everything is going fine for the protagonist, the reader will be happy for a while, but quickly will get bored. The protagonist needs an antagonist who is stopping him or her from achieving or keeping that happiness.
Conflict can be major and the stakes can be high – the protagonist is fighting against someone who is trying to kill her. Or it can be minor – the protagonist is fighting against his own inner self which seeks to stop him achieving happiness. Conflict can be about what’s happening in a scene, e.g. a character wants to get to the supermarket, but a woman she knows and dislikes has waylaid her and won’t stop talking. Or it can be about the main thread of the book – e.g. a man fearing for his life is trying to get away from a killer that relentlessly pursues him.
Writing conflict in a scene is essential, but it’s hard. You have to pace it, make it build realistically, and the scene has to end with resolution of some sort, but the potential for more conflict, so the reader will be satisfied but want to know what happens next.
My golden rule for conflict, is get in late and exit early. So I try to start not at the very beginning of the scene, but a few beats into it, and I exit the scene with the conflict still hanging. That’s not to say I don’t let the conflict build. Lots of writers find it hard to build conflict, to really let it go somewhere. They’re always wanting to leave things unsaid, or under the surface of what’s going on. Yes, it’s fine to have a conflict that’s seemingly about one thing, but is really about something much deeper going on, but you still have to let the conflict escalate and play out. Readers are never satisfied with conflict that doesn’t have any meat to it.
I’ll be building my scene between my characters for a while yet. Making it seem real, and keeping the pace, is a lot of work.
THE FIRST PERSON DILEMMA
The poet and novelist Mary Dorcey was chatting to me today about writing in the first person, as opposed to the third person. She said, ‘Writing in the third person, you get width. Writing in the first person, you sacrifice width for intensity.”
It’s true. My first novels, the published and unpublished ones, were all in the third person. They were all ensemble novels, with groups of characters, so it made sense to tell their stories from the outside looking in (third person), rather than from the inside looking out (first person).
I wanted to do something different with my new book, to challenge myself and tell story in a new (for me) way, so I’ve chosen a first person narrative. This comes with a set of problems, not least of which is that I can’t reveal the inner workings or points of view of the other characters in the book. They all have to be filtered through my narrator.
Part of me is scared that by writing in the first person, I might not have enough story to stretch over 100,000 compelling words. But then I think of Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch, which is a first person narrative stretched over 771 mostly compelling pages (dare I break with the critical cabal and say that it got annoyingly repetitive in the endless middle section?), and I think I can maybe stretch to 400. I certainly have a strong concept with plenty of conflict to keep it rolling along.
What I’m loving about writing in the first person is how I’m getting to know my narrator, Michael Ryan, so quickly. With the other books, it wasn’t really until I was writing the final chapters that I fell in love with my gangs of third-person characters. I’d done all the character work (more of which later, I promise!), I knew their likes, dislikes, contradictions, paradoxes and what they had in their fridges, but it took a long time of writing them from the outside looking in to make me really get under their skins.
Writing in the first person, you are under you character’s skin from the outset. In a way that character is you, and you are him, or her. Michael Ryan is nothing like me, but he is me, and I am him. I’m liking the process of revealing him, to myself, and the world.
If you haven’t read Mary Dorcey, you should. She’s up there with Colm Toíbín and Emma Donoghue as one of Ireland’s foremost LGBT writers.
Write What You Know
Before I started this book, I was writing another one. I’d got about 20,000 words in when I admitted to myself it wasn’t working. My publisher liked the idea, and my editor was encouraging, but I found myself putting off writing it even more than usual. It was the story of a two sisters and a brother in crisis, after a sibling they never knew about turns up out of the blue, revealing a secret history of their now-deceased, beloved mother. A good idea, but no matter how I tried to make myself excited about it, I couldn’t.
My previous two books are also ensemble novels – telling the stories of groups of people, with one of them getting more chapters than the others, thereby becoming the main protagonist. The characters in them were nothing like me, and came entirely from my imagination, as were the sisters and brothers of my untitled book. I didn’t follow the ‘write what you know’ advice often given to first time writers. Instead I wrote what I didn’t know, and it worked.
But this time, when I decided to give up the manuscript I was working on, I came to the conclusion that it is time to write what I know. Perhaps I wasn’t doing it because I was afraid of delving into myself too much, afraid that what I knew wasn’t enough to flesh out a whole story over 100,000 words.
During radio, television and print interviews for my second book, Knowing Me Knowing You, I was repeatedly asked about being a gay father, to tell the story of how I had my son, my relationship with his mother, how I came out to him, and other details. There were no stories about gay parenthood in the book, and I was uncomfortable about the interviews. I wanted to talk about the book, not me.
When I discarded the 20K words I’d already written, I was casting around for an idea, getting freaked out because I had nothing to work on. I met my editor for coffee and she said to me, what about being a gay dad. You know about that, and maybe it will bring something new to the table if you explore it.
That night I woke at 3am out of a dream and the idea for this book, perfectly rounded, with a beginning middle and end, came to me. So, I’m writing about what I know, and even if it’s as hard as writing any other book, I’m sure I’m on the right track.
All was not lost with the first attempt. I’ve been able to salvage some of the character work I did in advance of writing (I’ll talk about this in a later blog entry), to flesh out the supporting cast for my pair of gay dads, negotiating parenthood in a world that doesn’t fully understand them. I know all about that.
The Barking Dog
One of John Steinbeck’s tips for writers was: If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
I write dialogue more slowly than description, always trying to carefully feel my way around the realness of what’s coming out of my character’s mouths.
Not only does the character have to speak with realism – so that the reader will believe the character is real – and each major character will have to have his or her own speech idiosyncrasies, there also has to be a kind of rhythm to the speech, a stopping and starting, a flow that is as realistic as the words used.
In screenplays and TV scripts you find the word ‘beat’ interspersed through dialogue. This is a pause, maybe before the delivery of a punchline, maybe to indicate the character is taking a pause to think.
An author friend of mine calls the beat in fiction writing: ‘The Barking Dog’. It’s when, in the middle of a conversation, something happens to add a ‘beat’ to the rhythm. It can be a thought running through a character’s head. It can be the sound of a barking dog outside the window. It can be an interruption, or an action. But using ‘The Barking Dog’ is a must in long stretches of dialogue, or there will be no sense of realistic pace to the conversation on the page.
The reason I’m writing about this is because today I wrote approximately 1,000 words of straight dialogue. The child at the centre of my book, Ely, is a very verbal boy. He talks – a lot. But generally, adults who are with talkative children only hear half what they say, because much of what they say is inane. Keeping the reader engaged while Ely talks will be a feat, but I’m using The Barking Dog to help pace it.
In later drafts this 1,000 words might be drastically reduced, but this is another thing about dialogue for me – I have to let it play out to its extreme, without exiting the scene before I’ve let my characters say everything they have to say in the moment. It’s only then that I can get to the crux of what they’re trying to say, realistically.
An email from my editor today, in response to a needy, insecure one from me: “Once you find the truth of this book – what it is you want to risk saying – it will come, but it’s a horrible process to get there. So, consider emulating someone you think does it well until you find your feet…”
This is good advice. For my first novel, I began by emulating Armistead Maupin (author of the ‘Tales of the City’ books), with lots of snappy dialogue to describe action, and quick brushstrokes to describe place and atmosphere. But the final book didn’t end up reading like Armistead Maupin (although he remained a large influence on both my first books).
I know exactly the moment I found my own voice for it, in a scene when one of my character’s fathers was having a stroke. It was a slightly comedic scene (if you can believe it), but the emotional core of it rang absolutely true to me.
I realised that the book, although ostensibly about a group of friends who form a film club, was about parents, and at the heart of it were my feelings about my own parents. This allowed me to clarify who I was in the context of writing, and when I went back to reshape the second and third drafts, I was much more confident in and grounded in that voice.
So, the first draft of this book, as in any other book, is about finding the truth. It’s also about writing forward and trusting that the truth will come.
Today I got more conversation under my belt than writing. I’m staying at the writer’s and artist’s retreat, The Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan. At dinner I met a novellist who talked about the excitement of beginning a story without knowing exactly how the plot is going to unfold. “If you don’t know what’s going to happen next, your readers won’t.” she said.
It doesn’t feel exciting to me at all right now. It just feels scary. I’m inching forward, half the time trying to figure it all out in advance, and then telling myself to stay in the moment, to let go of having to know.
So, in the moment, the key character of my book, Missy, has arrived. I’ve spent much of my writing time today describing how she looks, trying to give as much information possible without overdoing it. She’s a transformed character, someone who has re-created herself. The trouble is, I’m not sure exactly why she’s gone to the trouble of such painstaking re-creation. In my mind, she kind of looks like Sammy Jo Carrington, a character from the 1980s soap, Dynasty. Not that her personality is bitchy like Sammy Jo’s, but there’s something about the eyes, a mischevious, bold quality that the actress Heather Locklear brought to the role.
I do feel a bit excited about the character, and how she will develop and infiltrate my main characters’ lives, even if I don’t exactly know how it will play out at this moment. I’m trying to trust in the process, but tomorrow I’m going to spend the day doing a little mapping. It’s okay to strike a balance between knowing and not knowing, I think.
MY DAILY DIARY, WRITING A NOVEL FROM DAY ONE
My third novel, as yet untitled, will be published next Spring (2015), and this is the first entry of a daily diary throughout the writing of the first draft. With it, I hope to externalise the process a little, sharing the writing of a book. Before I wrote my first novel (written long ago, and long before I wrote a book that was published), I was always looking for writers to tell me how it’s done, to help me. The whole process seemed shrouded in mystery.
What I’ve learned is that there is a mystery involved, some magic that’s inexplicable, when a character says or does something that seems to have come from them, and not from you, or a piece of the jigsaw just lands in your lap, and it’s exactly right. There’s also a magic to the final thing, this whole world you have created that seems absolutely real, even though you know it came from your mind. A finished book is a mysterious object.
But there is also hard graft – structuring, developing characterisation, plotting and pacing, that all need to be worked out, in not such a magical, mysterious way.
For my last books, which had multiple narratives, I drew up plans before I started writing. These plans were based on the three-act structure of most screenplays, and indeed, most books:
Act 1. The Beginning – in which we meet our hero, learn to sympathise with him as he tries to get something he wants, before coming to the conclusion that he desparately wants something else entirely.
Act 2. The Middle – In which our hero pursues the thing he desparately wants against mounting odds and ultimately achieves it, before everything goes pear-shaped again.
Act 3: The End – In which our hero overcomes the pear-shaped situation to get what he wants and learn something about himself in the process.
This is a very simplified version of the three-act structure, but basically that’s what it’s all about. This structure worked for me so well that when my editor read the third draft of my first book, she told me she’d never seen a first novel so perfectly plotted. She just had a major problem with my characterisation, which suffered while I was trying to get the structure right.
It was a good learning experience, re-writing with only character development on my mind, and it served me well for my second novel, the writing of which concentrated just as much on character as it did on the plot I’d worked out for it.
CAUTION TO THE WIND
For this book I’m coming at it in a very different way. I have a basic plot (I know the beginning, end of the first act – when everything goes pear-shaped – and I have some inkling of the ending), but I am setting out without a plan. I’ve spent some time developing three of the main characters (the fourth, a child, isn’t as developed at this time), but I don’t really know what’s going to happen to them for the majority of the book.
I’m going to try to feel my way forward with the writing, to see what happens. This is both frightening and liberating. It’s hard not to have my map, because when I had it, I knew exactly what I was going to write each day. But at the same time, I’m letting my characters come to life, letting them determine the action, which is exciting. And if it doesn’t work out, I can always go back to mapping solutions.
Today, as my book was beginning its birth, the little boy at the heart of it was born. His name is Elijah and he has two gay dads, and surrogate mother. I learned that he has a loud, throaty cry, and that he will grow into a very loud boy. I learned other things about my main character’s insecurity.
Tomorrow I will read what I wrote today, revise quickly and then move forward. This is a piece of advice I took from another writer. Don’t revise too much, always move forward. When you have a first draft, you have something to hone. Concentrate on getting that first draft done, day by day.
For a Valentines feature this February in The Irish Examiner, I was in the good company of Irish writers, Sheila O’ Flanagan, Michael Harding, Catherine Dunne and Emma Hannigan, looking back on our first loves. I really love the way it’s written by Sue Leonard, and sent a copy of the newspaper to my first love.
Read it here.