Saturday, 25 January 2014

The Art of Layering- Part 2


In part 1 of the Art of Layering – adding those descriptive elements – I used a narrative example to show how it works in order to provide the reader more than just flat story telling. If the narrative is to keep the reader’s interest and carry the story’s momentum, there has to be more.  Description needs depth.
The description of key scenes always needs a little more than just straightforward telling. And readers want more than just a couple of lines of drab description. They want to rip back the words and peer right into the soul of the story.
The art of layering gives them that.
Writers don’t have to go overboard with description; too much can kill the narrative sometimes, but it is what is encompassed within the description that counts. Give readers background and foreground, give them colours and sounds, give them characterisation; let them connect to your characters – give them immediacy and emotion.
But how much is too much?  Well, there is no right or wrong; it is mostly down to common sense. You will know if there is just too much going on in your description because it will be obvious when you read it. If that happens then the reader won’t really have a chance to digest what’s going on; it would be like a dozen flashlights going on and off in the dark – the eyes wouldn’t know where to focus.
The best way to gauge if you have the right balance is to ask yourself if there is enough information for the reader. Is there enough background information? Is there enough sound and colour?  Is there enough immediacy or pace? Is there emotion? Is there any atmosphere or tension? Is there any tone to the narrative?
In other words, are there any layers to peel away?  Is there any depth?
If there isn’t, then add some. If you already have some of this in place, then see if it needs any more. 
Below is an excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839):-
...I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, the fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently…
Now imagine this passage without the radiance, the blood-red moon or discernible fissures. Take away the fierce breath of whirlwind. Silence the long tumultuous shouting and the might of rushing walls. Remove the deep and dank tarn.
As a reader, you are left with little to work with, or imagine. There would be no sound, atmosphere, colour or depth. But Poe grabs hold of the senses by layering his description with different elements, this suffusing the reader’s imagination and bringing them right into the scene.
Another exponent of skilful layering is Nabokov. This excerpt is from Lolita (1955).
A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves; that vibrant sky seemed as naked as she was under her light frock. I saw her face in the sky, strangely distinct, as if it emitted a faint radiance of its own. Her legs, her lovely live legs, were not so close together, and when my hand located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure, half-pain, came over those childish features. She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face…
Notice how he weaves colour, movement, simile, sounds, atmosphere and tone in this description without it coming across as forced or trite. His description allows the reader to participate in the scene; the sheer richness of it gives the reader more. It lets them imagine the colours present within the scene; they can imagine the sounds, the feel of it, thus enabling them to visualise it better, to become involved.
Here is another passage from another famous author, and equally famous book, Lord of the Rings, by JRR Tolkien (1954), but without the layering that made the scene a whole:-
Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists. As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted. Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, giving no colour and no warmth.
It’s a simple scene, yet there are too few layers for a reader to imagine much, however, if I restore the simile, tone, colour and atmosphere of the original narrative, the scene changes somewhat:
Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists like ragged shadows of long-forgotten summers. As the day wore on the light increased a little, and the mists lifted, growing thinner and more transparent. Far above the rot and vapours of the world the Sun was riding high and golden now in a serene country with floors of dazzling foam, but only a passing ghost of her could they see below, bleared, pale, giving no colour and no warmth.
Without those extra layers for the reader to enjoy, almost the entire scene becomes flat.
As writers, we want the reader to let their imaginations run wild, to become a part of the story. Giving depth to your descriptions is just one way to do it.
Layering isn’t difficult. It’s about taking those significant scenes within your story, looking at them closely and finding out if they can be improved in order to make sure your reader is fully engaged. Give them layers to peel, give them a hint at what lies beneath the surface.  Make them interested.  Make them imagine.
So give them more than just words. Show them.

Next week: Tempt, tease and tantalise.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Art of Layering - Part 1


When we think of description, most writers think about simply describing a few elements for the reader during narration, such as a sound or whether it’s light or dark, but if you think of a story rather like an onion, you will see that it reveals many layers before it finally gets to the core.
Fiction – or description – is very similar in the way it operates. Descriptive writing entails a number of elements to make it stand out, and layering is just one of them.
The idea of layering within description is to show the reader there is more to just the surface of the story; that there is more information to glean from it – background, colours, noise, characters, atmosphere and so on.
Description brings the narrative to life for the reader. They have nothing to go on but the strength of a writer’s words and therefore the writer has to allow the reader to visualise the scenes that are taking place, to become part of it, and the best way to do that is to make the narrative multi-layered. In simple terms it is a way of ‘showing’ key elements, rather than ‘telling’.
For instance, peel away the top layer and you get background information. Peel another layer and you will get tension and atmosphere. Peel another and you will get deep emotion, empathy and immediacy. Another layer will reveal characterisation and more layers will reveal pace, action and so on.
The ability of the writer to layer these aspects – one on top of the other – is what gives stories and novels such depth, and what enables the reader to look beyond mere words. They are able to ‘read between the lines’ and become involved with the story.
Layering plays a vital role, particularly with important or significant scenes, because it allows the writer to expand beyond the surface and add many levels for the reader to discover and enjoy. It stops the writer falling foul of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing.’
To give you an example, I’ve borrowed an extract from my short story Driftwood (Ganglion Press), where the main character Stella, and her husband Douglas, are at sea aboard heir yacht, sailing around the Greek islands.
The squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, rolled a little.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
The scene is not that extraordinary. It doesn’t stand out and it doesn’t have any depth. There isn’t much for the reader to go on; it doesn’t yet engage.
But if I add another layer, perhaps hint at some colour, then the scene begins to change. I’ve highlighted the added text.
Silver spittle grazed Stella’s face as the squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, churned a little, snatching rust-tainted reflections from the low cloud.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
It looks better, but it’s not yet complete. The characters are pivotal to the scene; therefore the scene needs to reflect this with some tension and atmosphere. Again, I’ve highlighted the additions.
The dark crept in quickly, brought rain with it. And fear.
Silver spittle grazed Stella’s face as the squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, churned a little, snatching rust-tainted reflections from the low cloud. Her insides shuddered as the storm rushed toward them.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
‘We can still turn back,’ she said to him. ‘No point in being foolish.’
It’s starting to shape up now that it has some depth, and that’s because I’ve added a few more interesting layers. Now imagine the scene if I add sounds, which I’ve highlighted.
The dark crept in quickly, brought rain with it. And fear.
Silver spittle grazed Stella’s face as the squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, churned a little, snatching rust-tainted reflections from the low cloud. Something across the ocean rumbled. Her insides shuddered as the storm rushed toward them, rasping across the bow.
The yacht creaked, rolled a little.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
‘We can still turn back,’ she said to him. ‘No point in being foolish.’
By adding a sound layer, I am giving the reader more to work with, more elements for them to imagine and therefore more pathways into this fictional world.
But the scene is still not layered enough. It needs more layers. This time I will add more characterisation.
The dark crept in quickly, brought rain with it. And fear.
Silver spittle grazed Stella’s face as the squall rolled in from the distance. The yacht sailed headlong into the approaching theatre of darkness, churned a little, snatching rust-tainted reflections from the low cloud. Her insides shuddered as the storm rushed toward them.
Douglas fought with the wheel.
‘We can still turn back,’ she said to him. ‘No point in being foolish.’
‘Foolish? No point turning back now, we might as well sail through it get out of it as soon as we can. Besides, the yacht is strong; she can face a moderate storm.’
‘Can she? How the hell would you know?’
With these extra layers in place I’ve enabled what would have been a particularly flat scene to come alive and enable the reader to visualise it, to become part of it. Now the scene is not just mere words.  It’s more than that.
And the one thing it doesn’t do is ‘tell.’
In part 2 we’ll look at some more examples of the layering technique that will help you avoid ‘telling’ and instead get you to ‘show’ more in your narrative.
Next week: The Art of Layering – Part 2

© Driftwood, by AJ Humpage 2011

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Common Writing 'Myths'

There are plenty of myths surrounding fiction writing, the kind that stick in our minds and give us many of our misconceptions. 
 
We’ve all experienced them, more so at the beginning of our writing careers, because many writers make the mistake of assuming that fame, untold riches and success will land at their feet. Unfortunately, this rarely happens, but if writers put in the hard work and they are willing to learn, then success is sure to follow.
 
So, what are the main writing myths?
 
Writers earn millions
 
This is one of the biggest misconceptions. The truth is that most writers don’t earn millions and they have an average 9 to 5 job to ensure a reliable income.
 
Writing, on the whole, won’t pay the rent. The few lucky ones that have caught an editor’s eye (and said editor thinks they can make lots of money) or the few writers that catch the zeitgeist and write something that is currently flavour or the month (i.e. Fifty Shades, Da Vinci Code et al). That doesn’t necessarily mean these novels are actually any good, however.
 
Getting a novel published is easy
 
No, it isn’t. It's more likely that your magnum opus will be rejected countless times before it catches an editor’s eye, if at all.

Becoming published is not as easy as it sounds. It’s only easy if you self-publish, through the likes of Amazon. Mainstream publication is somewhat different, however. It’s difficult because it’s competitive, and anyone who says it isn’t competitive is misleading potential writers. It is competitive, and that is simply because of the amount of manuscripts that agents and publishers receive each week. They have to sift through hundreds and hundreds of submissions, and maybe one or two might be special enough catch their interest.

In essence, your submission must compete with thousands of others, therefore, what you submit really does have to make them sit up and take notice.
 
Grammar isn’t important.  Editors will do it for you
 
A poorly written submission will not impress an editor. They can help with certain things, they can highlight areas for improvement and help guide a writer to improve a manuscript, but they will not correct it for you. Poor submissions tell the editor all they need to know about the writer, and it will end in rejection.

Grammar is important. If you can’t get the basics right, no editor will want to publish you.
 
Once published, you’ll never be rejected again
 
Don’t bank on it. Being published isn’t a golden ticket to all prospective publications and isn’t a guarantee that you will ever be rejected again, because you can still be rejected, even if you are already published.

Each piece of work you submit for publication is assessed on its own merits. That means it may be accepted or it may be rejected. That’s just the way publishing works. 
 
Writing a novel is easy. Anyone can do it
 
Writing is never easy. And not everyone can do it.

Anyone can write, but not everyone is a writer. That means most of what they write is substandard and not worthy of mainstream publication. These writers wouldn’t get a second glance from agents.
 
Writing is hard work and takes time and a lot of effort. Nothing is instant.
 
It only takes a couple of months to write a novel
 
Sometimes they’re quick to write; sometimes they take longer than expected.  But that’s only the first draft. It’s the second, third, fourth and fifth drafts that take up the time.
 
Anyone who can churn out a perfectly edited, polished novel within the space of a few months is a literary genius. Trouble is, literary genii are extremely rare.

Don’t rush your writing. Take your time to polish your novel to perfection. Editors accept nothing less.
 
Once published I will be a huge success
 
Yet another myth based on preconception. The sad truth is that around 75% of all new novels fail to break even, let alone make a nice profit for the publisher. Often, it is the second or third book that sees a profit and sells the author’s name. 

It is a well known fact that new and unknown authors need time to establish themselves with the book buying public. If they have been on the writing circuit for a few years, establishing themselves, then the progression of success is made easier.
 
This is another reason why writing is never an easy, instant process.
 
I don’t need rules and conventions.  I’ll do it my way.  Editors will love my stuff.
 
Good luck with that.
 
I’m a fabulous, talented writer. My novel is so brilliant, agents will fight over it.
 
Fabulous, talented writers are rare, and those who shout loud about being fabulous and talented are nothing of the sort.  At most, they are mediocre. The only thing they are fabulous at is being arrogant. And editors do not like arrogant writers.
 
You are only a fabulous, talented writer when you’ve got something published and you’ve received the praise to back it up. And novels are only brilliant if your editor thinks so and gives you a publishing contract.
 
Writing will make me rich and famous
 
Unless you are one of those rare authors who just happen to write something that can make a publisher’s head spin with dollar signs, the sad fact is that the majority of writers don’t make that much money at all, and most have full time jobs in addition to their writing.
 
Many people write simply to become rich and famous, but the reality soon hits home. 
 
The best advice is to get rid of any expectations where writing is concerned and purge any preconceptions. That way you won’t be that disappointed when you don’t get that mega bucks publishing deal, but equally you may be pleasantly surprised and if you did.
 

Next week: The Art of Layering

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Writing Isn’t Easy


It’s a new year and it marks a fresh, enthusiastic start to writing, especially for new writers.  But for those beginners who think writing a novel is easy, then it is best to find out now rather than later that it isn’t as easy as it sounds.
Firstly, let’s dispel a few myths so that every new writer is fundamentally aware of what lies ahead. Writing certainly isn’t easy – almost all writers will agree – and anyone who says different can’t be a true writer.  Every writer has a different skill level, so not everyone can write that well and not everyone has raw talent to do so.

Fact: writing is a very lonely, hard and frustrating business. It often means hours, days, weeks and years concentrating on a novel that may never be published.  A writer might spend weeks writing a short story that may never find a home.  Not everything we write makes it into print.  That’s the nature of writing.
Disappointment is often a staple diet of any writer – understand from the outset that not everything you write will be amazing and not everything will be to a publishable standard, but it’s worth remembering that the more we write, the better we become.

Writing to that publishable standard, however, doesn’t come instantly.  The fact is that people don’t just wake up one day and suddenly become novelists. I can pluck a few strings on a guitar and I can play a note or two on the piano, but it doesn’t make me a musician.
In other words, it means years of dedication and learning the craft of fiction writing, sometimes with minimal reward.

It also means would-be writers need to develop a tough skin and a positive outlook in order to ride out the disappointments that will inevitably come – the dreaded rejections – before any positives start to emerge.
Some writers spend a lifetime trying to be the next JK Rowling or Stephen King, but they never succeed simply because they are trying to emulate those writers in the hope that they become rich and famous, too, rather than letting their own writing voice and style do the work. Often their writing isn’t very good and they haven’t taken the time to learn about craft. You can’t be a writer overnight.

So, why isn’t writing easy? 
Well, it’s not just about stringing words together to make a story. It isn’t just about being creative either; it has many technical components too. It’s about developing, and structuring something that entertains, thrills and satisfies a reader, so there has to be a fundamental appreciation of how words work and what they mean. That means learning about and understanding the many different ways that narrative works, so writers need to be aware of the technicalities such as dialogue and description, correct POV, correct tenses, passive/active verbs, understanding sentence structure, the use of modifiers, and intensifiers, knowing the difference between adjectives, adverbs, nouns and verbs and above all, the correct use of grammar and syntax.

It’s also about understanding the idea of research, plotting, sub plotting and strategy.  It’s about applying themes to a story and how they all relate to the main character, then making all these elements come to together seamlessly by the end of the story.
It’s about knowing how to characterise using character history, actions, responses and thoughts. It’s about creating the right setting and background. It’s about creating unity between time, place and action (Greek unities). It’s about keeping continuity, knowing how to transition smoothly between scenes and how to correctly use flashback. It’s about understanding and applying symbolism and foreshadowing to create a deeper, layered narrative to provide hidden meanings for the reader to discover.

And don’t forget the right use of metaphor and simile, tone, assonance; immediacy…the list is endless.
Lastly, and most importantly, there is the ability to edit, to spot and correct your own mistakes.  Editing is probably the hardest part of the writing process.

Writing is all these things and more.  So, is writing really easy?
Anyone can write a novel and self-publish on Amazon etc., however, a large gamut of work on there is substandard and wouldn’t get past an editor.

Writers must understand just how hard it is to become mainstream published. In other words, writers should be at a standard that knocks the socks off agents and publishers, so that they will want to publish your work. 
Your job as a writer is to make them sit up and say ‘Wow!’

But getting that reaction is not easy. Every writer starting on this journey should be aware that the road ahead isn’t straight, smooth or lined with gold. Far from it. It’s a constant, uphill struggle to get your work noticed and appreciated, and even harder to be published.
But the way to do that is to forget about ‘instant success’ and concentrate on the craft and mechanics of fiction writing, to start at the bottom and work your way up. Writing is a constant learning curve, and there is much to learn, because no one is born with instant knowledge. The only thing a good writer is born with is raw talent to start the process.

The writing process allows you to learn as you write, to keep writing and improve. It takes years of apprenticeship and practice. It’s not instant. And the greatest learning device for any writer is rejection, because that’s how we correct our mistakes and learn about editing. That’s how we learn to become better writers.
So, do you still want to write? Even if it isn’t easy? Then be prepared for failure – rejection and disappointment will become a part of your writing journey, but ultimately failure will help you as a writer. Put in the hard work, be prepared to learn, and you will eventually succeed. 

And remember, writing is never easy.

Next week: Writing Myths