Writing tips from Our Jillian
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Writing has been on my mind. Lately I have been reading a lot of free books on my kindle. They are promotions mostly by newer authors and some of them are fantastic.
Some of them fail the very first test of writing – not even good writing – just writing in general. They are just not interesting and do not hold a reader enthralled for any-time at all. Some are also diatribes by people with an axe to grind and these ??writers?? use their stories like the basis for a lecture. Not fun at all.
I mentioned this to Jillian as I know she writes and wants to be a full time author some day.
She said that there were two things a writer, of fiction anyway, needs to be aware of. Obviously there are more than two things or anyone could be a writer, but two elements that are more important than any others.
“OK.” I said. “I'll bite. But don't they say there is a book in everyone, you just need to find the gumption to let it out?”
“True.” she replied, “but you still have to have some idea about the process or the technique. Why do you think there are some very famous writers whose books are read by huge numbers of people, and prolific authors with very large lists and very few readers. And I am not just talking esoteric and less accessable subjects here. I am talking your basic novel that no-one wants to read.”
“Oh, I know what you are going to say,” Jillian butted in “It is just practice, and if you write 500 words per day everyday you will get into a habit and your book will suddenly appear out of apparently nowhere.”
Now that is a good idea (there is a web site that has a 31 day writing challenge based around this very idea) and you should do this if you want to develop your muscle, but, as you know, the wrong exercise will not help a muscle, it may even be a bad thing. So you do need SOME technique.” Jillian was rising to the challenge. I could visualise her in her school marm garb with chalk in her hand and white dust floating about her head like a miasma of cigarette smoke. It was pretty awesome to see her in action this way.
I had a thought. “Well, it's true I have seen some pretty poor examples where people have just taken their lives and some stuff that they'd like to do put it together and let their imagination, as they say, run wild.”
“If that's what they mean when they say there is a novel in everyone' – I reckon in many cases it should stay where it is.”
“True again,” Jillian said, “but the addition of a tad of actual knowledge, (there are after all University courses on writing and journalism and stuff like that,) might be just a little beneficial don't you think? So, perhaps, it is something you can and need to learn.
“OK.” I said. “The first thing is a good plot. The action must be awesome? Right?”
“Nup.” She dismissed me with a flourish. “A very famous author once asked us at a seminar given as part of the Writers Festival in whatever city I was in at the time, 'What was the plot of the latest Harry Bosch or Alex Cross novel that you read?' No one remembered. But they all knew Harry Bosch or Alex Cross, a lot about his life, wife and or kids if he had any, what car he drove and many other things he had got up to, but the latest adventure (The Plot) no one could immediately call to mind.
“So.” she said majestically, “plot is secondary to fabulous characters. Your novel needs to be full of personas that will grab the readers by the nose and lead them places they would love to go but are scared, or show them things they have dreamed about, or make them part of a reality that is impossible but
wonderful at the same time. Readers will identify with the folk in the story. They will live their lives with them. A vicarious existence they had only imagined. The characters need to be real and LIVE in the minds of the readers. All else is secondary.”
Hating to interrupt this flow of erudition I took my life in my hands and said, “Plot – which I naively thought of as the story – is not that important, then?”
“Of course it's important you moron,” she blustered. “but if the characters are not engaging then no one cares. If you don't mind whether the detective, for example, lives or dies. becomes corrupted or sleeps with the suspected killer, or any other plot twist or turn, then none of it matters to you as the reader.”
“OK.” I think I’ve got it.” I say a tad chastened, “but exactly where does the plot fit in?”
“Good question,” Jillian winks. “It is the glue that holds all the characters together. Why is there a detective, why a jilted lover, who is hiding in the shrubbery, what is the point of this discussion and where is the money? All of these plot or story elements are connections between the characters and are the twists and turns that make their lives (and by extension – yours) fascinating. The plot is like a roadmap to your character's final destination.”
“I remember,” I thought out loud, “when someone in a story I was reading acted in a way that seemed to be completely opposite to how I expected them to respond (out of character if you will), that I lost interest in this person and figured I really don't care what you do. Yes. I reckon that this character had been set up with beliefs and values that wouldn't have generally allowed her to do whatever it was she did and so was unbelievable. Therefore I lost empathy and all my other feelings for this person and what they did or didn't do or what happened to them was not something I wanted to know about. I put the book down and never returned to it.”
“Something like that,” said Jillian. “you have to be aware of being overly judgemental, though, they are characters in a story remember, so not everything can be explained. And sometimes timeline and other literary devices may mask possible major changes in a person's character attributes. But yes. You might find things like that.”
“Okaaaay. Let me think on that for a while”, I said thoughtfully.
By the way, There are a huge number of websites that are focussed on this topic. Here is ONE I found. It is not necessarily the best; it is one of many, but it has some good stuff including a downloadable cheat sheet to help with character development.
“What is the second element of which you spoke?”
“I reckon we've had enough for one time. Don't you? What say we talk about the next bit later? Besides it is hard to explain and even harder to do consistently.”#ourjillian