About Me

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I still feel like a teenager on the inside, unfortunately my children do remind me how old I am!! I have lived for 20+ years as an Irish expat in The Netherlands. My favourite city here has to be Amsterdam.

Writing, reading, authentic living. It's all here at The Writing Process

Welcome to my blog. Let me start by telling you that I love writing. I love the sense of vitality it gives me. I love that it helps me to make sense of the world and to the people in it. I love that it helps me become wiser, more intuitive, empathic, and most of all autonomous.

All aspects - reading, writing and observing - are what make the process complete. The essence is storytelling, and learning about
life and yourself.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Article 4. Beating Heart

The plot is the beating heart of a novel. And despite character outlines and being aware of the conflicts and motivations of those characters, it can be as complicated and as delicate as open heart surgery to get the heart beating. One beat is not enough. The heart has to find its rhythm, and its continuity. The plot must be steady, reliable, strong enough to guide you through the writing process until it is completed.
I think the element that comes to mind here is courage. Courage to follow the voices in your head that tell you what your characters need or want to do in order to resolve or work out the elements of conflict that drive the novel forward. Courage, too, to say whatever needs to be said. Is this confusing? If someone had said this to me before I had written a novel myself I might not have understood it. But, believe me, to write the novel you will need courage.
The moment you start to write the plot, many conflicting voices will start to sound in your head. There’s the voice telling you that your idea is unrealistic. There’s another telling you it’s silly, superficial, unnecessary, boring. There’s yet another telling you that you’re not the one to write this novel. And another one, maybe the most powerful, telling you to quit having delusions of grandeur and to go back to your mundane existence. These are the voices of your fear and your resistance. These are the voices that will prevent many from ever putting pen to paper. These are the voices of your imagined, external world, a critical, unfriendly world.
These are not reality. They are just your imagination. And, in order to overcome them, you must make the decision that you are writing this book for yourself, in the first instance, and for a wider public, maybe. This book is for you; this is your growth, your development. This book is your way of making sense of the experiences you have and the events you have seen, and the people who have crossed your path.
So, if fear and embarrassment and a feeling of inadequacy prevent your literary heart from beating, then a certain selfishness, and a need to make sense of your world, and moreover an acceptance that you are writing initially for yourself, should be the jolt it needs to start it up.
You will be surprised, but even at the plotting stage you will feel the momentum gather, and the story take shape, once you have overcome this initial, paralysing fear. You know your characters, and what you want them to overcome and achieve. You also know, have decided where these conflicts take place, in terms of geography, history, and society. And once you blend these elements into a story, secondary characters, events, new conflicts needing to be resolved, will present themselves.
At this stage the plot can be written into a synopsis. How long a synopsis is, is purely personal. I prefer to keep a synopsis short, letting the secondary characters present themselves. I then return to my character sketches and write a rough outline of those characters to add to my initial sketches.
In the case of The Cloths of Heaven, when I had written about one A4 for the plot, I had added mothers, fathers, friends, etc to my three main characters. What also came to light at this point was my need to literally draw a map of a fictitious street in Limerick City, which was to be the common setting for the entire book. This street was the base for everything that happened in the book. The characters might move on, but the link, the core, would be this one street. I called it James’ Street, and set about drawing the map. I needed it to incorporate a Church, a shop, a pub, and schools. I also wanted it to be close the banks of the River Shannon, and yet not too far away from the city centre. And more importantly, it had to cease to exist once my story was completed. So it had to be an area that would be included in any inner city development plans which were taking place in Limerick at that time. I wanted these people to come together, create something together, deal with issues together, and once they had moved on, I wanted even the evidence that they had ever been together, to be no more than a story. I wanted the entire novel to have a mythological quality, to emphasise the very Irishness of it.
I drew the map, placed Michael at the Church, Sheila in one of the terraced houses with her mother and father, and decided that Maud would live in a caravan with her mother, who, with her gypsy-like wildness, might just become a more important character than even I had planned. Maud’s mother, Kitty, might just be the electricity that would keep this novel alive.
Being methodical and needing clarity, the next stage for me has to be the chapter breakdown. Not all writers need this much preparation – D.H. Lawrence preferred to let the book take him on a journey of discovery so he did very little preparation. John Irving and Minette Walters do a lot of research and planning. I fall somewhere in the middle. But I need a chapter breakdown if only to see if there’s enough muscle to the plot

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Article 3. arms and legs

The process has just begun. Having gathered together the pieces that will form the backbone to the story, several things have to happen before these ideas can grow into a novel.
I have my main characters and I have established their motivations. I know the time and place in history in which I want the story to take place, and I am aware that I need conflict to drive my characters. But that is not a novel.
I will, at this stage, write a very brief outline. I wouldn’t even call it a synopsis, but rather a gathering of the elements I have established. It can be no more than a couple of sentences, something to kick start me into ‘living the novel’, of getting that mental film up and running.
At this point, almost at the very beginning of a novel, it is imperative to have patience. Let your mind dwell on the elements you have, without forcing their growth. It is not necessary at this stage to write CHAPTER 1 and to dive in. What is necessary is to think about the characters, know how old they are, what colour hair they have. Are they tall, short? Can you base them on anyone you know? And also, and this is more important than you might initially think – what are their names?
I like to write a character sketch for my main characters, at least an A4 per character. Knowing the character, finding his foibles and passions, will help fatten out the plot too. Also, and this is a pivotal point for me, each of the characters has to illustrate some particular trait, and that trait must be emphasised. Although in real life, a person may display many facets, if we were to have fictional characters incorporating too many traits, it will make the story confusing, and believe it or not, unbelievable. Readers need, to a certain extent, to rely on a character behaving consistently. More so than we see in real life.
I will state though it might sound cliché, that it is imperative to relate to the main characters. I might want to step into the shoes of the one I have chosen to be the narrator, and this is all too easy to do, but if the novel is to be credible, then I must feel the same rapport with the others. In the case of The Cloths of Heaven, I had to feel Maud and Michael (the priest) just as strongly as I felt Sheila (my narrator with CP). And this is where the advantage of limiting the character traits per character comes in. I could find aspects of my own character, and times in life when I had been in conflict either with myself, or my environment, remember how it felt to be in that place in time. I can remember sadness, I can remember anger, and I can remember frustration. I can also remember sheer joy, contentment, feeling a sense of achievement. And they all feel different. So even if one of my characters is less likeable than the others, or is farther removed from my own set of values, I can plug into the sensation by using my own life experiences. And for me, being able to plug in to ALL characters is a must. At no stage in a novel do I want the reader to detect that I might be TAKING SIDES in any issue that might arise. I am a chronicler; it is not my intention to become a didactic.
I recently read House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. A magnificent novel displaying great literary skill. But more than that, it is a perfect example of the point I am making above. Andre Dubus III makes it even more complicated by using not one, but two narrators, alternating chapter by chapter from an unstable female to a dogmatic, disagreeable Iranian husband and father. Dubus speaks through both characters with equal conviction. But what he also does, and this to me shows his craft, he illustrates each one’s flaws and weaknesses and less palatable traits, by what each says himself! This gives the reader complete freedom to form his own opinion about each character. Not once in the entire novel do we hear a whisper of Dubus himself. Never do we feel nudged in a particular direction. We never find out what Dubus himself thought of the actions of his characters. And that, to my mind, is a feat of genius, and characterisation.
In The Cloths of Heaven, I had only one narrator and two other main characters but the impartiality (or complete partiality) that Dubus illustrates was no less important. I had to like all the characters. I to find an empathy that would endure, whatever the plot had them do. That is why I choose to establish the characters, and acquaint myself with them BEFORE I know exactly where the plot is going.
It is possible however, to have a character with a particular trait grow and develop and become more than we would have initially expected. (And this is where plotting comes in). Through the conflicts he endures he might be changed, either for the better or the worse, but he cannot JUST change in order to fit the plot – then the plot has not been properly thought out. A good example of this type of development is Scrooge, from Dickens’ Christmas Carol. He is enticed into becoming more giving and generous by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, that he has seen. His changes, though a surprise to the other characters in the book, are not unexpected to the readers.
And if the characters are the arms and legs, then the plot is the beating heart of a novel.