Whose storyline is it anyway?

I had such a good writing session the other day that I tweeted jokingly that my ‘muse’ had turned up and written a whole chapter for me. Perhaps my writing had gone well because I had originally planned to take the day off, so I was relaxed, not putting pressure on myself. But also, I let go and wrote without thinking too hard. Before I knew it, I had a chapter I was really happy with.

I’ve heard other authors say time and again that when writing a novel, they ‘let the plot evolve out of the characters, rather than the other way round’. Having written two novels where the characters inspired the plot, and written another novel where I tried to plot the whole story before I’d even started writing it, I find the above statement to be true.

Package Deal and Hot Property, my two novels available on Amazon, were the ones I wrote ‘organically’ and also won me the attention of a literary agent. A while later, when my agent asked me to write another novel, but to plot the whole thing before I got started, I struggled to do as she asked. But I gave it a go – a different approach would be a good exercise.

However, I found I was forcing the story out before it was ready to come. I’d had a clear picture of the beginning in my head for some time, and I also had a strong visual of the climax. But there were large blind spots that just weren’t coming into focus. Nevertheless, I sketched out a plot and polished it up into a synopsis. My agent gave it the green light, but not before suggesting I make one of the main characters ten years younger. My heart sank. This would change so much about this character. It would mean she came from a whole different era, and not the one she had been born with.

By the time I’d finished writing the novel, I didn’t have the satisfied feeling I’d had with the previous two. There were parts of it I liked, loved even. But there were parts that didn’t feel right, that felt weak, fabricated. So it wasn’t a great surprise when my agent turned it down and, as she was leaving the agency, we went our separate ways.

Disappointing though that experience was, I learned a lot from it: I write better when I let my characters tell me where the story is going. Plot is important, of course, but when I forced it out like an essay that needed to be handed in to a teacher, I came unstuck. To me, there is a strange, almost mystical process to writing. You’re not always in control, and that’s a good thing. 

In his book On Writing, Stephen King sums it up well: ‘The situation comes first,’ he says. ‘The characters…come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualised. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.’

I am now 28,000 words into a new novel, and I’m taking it slowly. When I started writing it, I had a firm beginning in my head and a hazy image of the ending. As I’ve been writing, developments I had not foreseen have emerged. For the first time in a long time, I’m relishing just seeing where the writing will take me.

For more on the creative process of writing, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on Ted is fascinating. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA

Slasher on the loose

The other night I was in the pub with a group of women, when someone asked me what I did for a living. I explained that I’m a copywriter, and that I used to work as a sub-editor. Like many people, she wasn’t too sure what a sub-editor did. I joked that sub-editors are like the distant cousins of axe-murderers – that there’s a lot of hacking and slashing involved.

Everyone knows what an editor is, of course, and people often assume that you are the editor of some publication or other, inadvertently pegging you further up the career ladder to a slightly more impressive position than the one you actually occupy. But in fact, sub-editors are usually a few notches below the editor, doing the dogsbody work of axing, lengthening, re-writing, fact-checking, spell-checking, proofreading, headlines and captions, while making the text look tidy, consistent and presentable.

I like to think of sub-editors as the unsung heroes of journalism, that behind every great journalist is a team of great subs, whipping that copy into shape, giving it an attention-grabbing (sometimes misleading) headline, axing a lot of unnecessary waffle and leading it towards a neatly tied-up conclusion.

Subs also have the power to change the tone of a sentence and take words out of context (surely the bane of every celebrity’s life). This isn’t always intentional. Sometimes a 1000-word article has to lose 500 words in order to fit into an appointed space and leave room for pictures. A sub decides which 500 words must go. Sentences will get skimmed down, losing words here and there, sometimes with the result that a light-hearted remark ends up sounding brusque.

Sub-editing is definitely a geek’s job. You get apoplectic about apostrophes, and you appreciate a sentence that has the words apoplectic and apostrophe in it. You weigh up ‘the staff is helpful’ versus ‘the staff are helpful’, knowing the former is correct but the latter sounds more natural. And of course, you are as smug as a bug in a rug when you spot a typo such as this one: ‘The lightweight screen shits comfortably on top of the hard drive’, which I’m relieved to say I spotted when working on an IT magazine years ago. (Although I’m pretty sure the editor planted it there just to keep me on my toes.)

Subbing is also a creative job. Thinking of the right headline to match the article is one thing, but getting it to fit into the allotted space with the given font size is another challenge. This was particularly tricky working at The Sun TV Guide years ago: Most headlines for the soap pages were only three or four short words long, and there was only so many times you could have ‘Mum’s the word’ or ‘Kat’s got the cream’.

But there are also disadvantages to working as a sub-editor. For example, I am now programmed to always think in puns when trying to come up with a headline, strapline, caption or title. A deluge of corny, cheesy, inappropriate ideas will always come gushing out before anything vaguely on the money.

But by far the worst disadvantage: I am not allowed to make a mistake. Ever. Dare I send a text or email to a friend abbreviating ‘you’re’ to ‘your’ because I’m in a hurry? No, I dare not, lest they think I don’t know the first thing about the English language. If I’m proofreading, I cannot miss a single forgotten full stop or misplaced apostrophe, even if my eyes are bloodshot from staying up way past midnight ploughing through a box set of The Killing.

No, there is no mercy for the sub who makes a mistake (despite eradicating hundreds). So I raise my glass to subs and copywriters everywhere: “Pats you’reselfs on the bak, u lot. U is all doin a gr8 job:-)’ 

Mugs and mooches

I’ve just finished reading Lionel Shriver’s novel ‘So Much For That’. It was a bit of a slow burner, but the ending was, in true Shriver style, totally rewarding.

One of the themes that runs through this book is that of ‘mugs and mooches’, or rather, people who play by the rules (mugs) and those who don’t (mooches). For example, there are people who fill in their tax returns as honestly as they can, and those who think it’s only natural to fiddle the system. I related to the protagonist Shep Knacker: I’m a mug. I’m not very good at breaking the rules, partly because of my conscience, but mainly because whenever I do, I get caught.

When I was sixteen I was nearly expelled from school. I and a group of friends had decided to bunk off Spanish, which was a ‘general study’ and therefore a lesson we didn’t feel obliged to attend. We sneaked off after registration to a local café where we sat slurping coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes. Not daring to be late for history, I headed back to school ten minutes earlier than my friends and bided my time in the toilets until the bell rang for the next lesson.

While hiding in the toilets, I heard sobbing. It was a first year kid, distraught because she’d just been told off by the headmistress. As I tried to console her, the headmistress herself walked in, ordered the girl back to class and swiftly walked out again. I breathed a sigh of relief just a second too soon: she returned in an instant. ‘Shouldn’t you be in Spanish?’ she barked. ‘I just needed the loo,’ I mumbled. Later that day, after she’d conferred with the Spanish teacher, I was summoned to her office and threatened with expulsion if I made any more poor choices about my attendance.

How I kicked myself for being mug enough to return to school earlier than I needed to! Had I been a proper mooch, I would have hung out in the café for the full duration of my Spanish lesson, and not got caught.

Nearly 25 years later, my mug’s curse is as present as ever. When my eldest daughter started in reception a few years ago, she liked riding her scooter to school. Abiding by the rules, I would take it off her at the school gates, as you weren’t supposed to ride scooters in the playground.

My daughter would always whine, ‘But everyone else is riding their scooter, why can’t I?’ Eventually I got sick of telling her, ‘Because you’re not supposed to,’ as we were pretty much the only mugs obeying the rules. So, as I didn’t want my daughter to grow up being a total goody-two-shoes – or supergrass for that matter – one day I relented and handed it back to her. Two minutes later, she scooted straight into the headmistress, who politely, but firmly, reminded me of the school policy on playground safety.

Naturally we went back to carrying the scooter at the school gates. As for the other rule-breakers? Those kids continued to sail skillfully past the headmistress’s back while she stood there chatting and joking with their parents.

So if you’re a mug like me, I recommend ‘So Much For That’. For deep down in every mug, a mooch lurks waiting…