I don’t know how many of you writerly types out there suffer from insomnia – but I do. It’s currently 1.40am and my feet are too hot to sleep. Also, it’s a full moon, which, weirdly, seems to be a thing with me and insomnia.
It’s definitely linked to bouts of creativity and not being able to turn my brain off. I used to suffer from it a lot – upwards of 5-6 nights a month when I mostly wrote at night. (Here’s me talking about it over on David McDonald’s blog as part of his excellent Paying For Our Passion series.) A couple of years ago I switched to getting up early and doing most of my writing then (which was not easy for a natural night owl, btw) and this had a transformative effect on my sleep habits. Now I generally only get one night’s worth of insomnia every couple of months, which is a definite improvement.
But, guess what, tonight’s clearly the night. Because here I am, sitting on the couch playing mah-jong and drinking a glass of wine at 2am, whilst sugar-plums dance in my head. Sigh.
I finished one of my latest reading-for-pleasure ventures recently, and it gave rise to some useful reading-for-writing introspection and analysis I thought might be interesting to share. The thing was, it certainly had its flaws – some extremely annoying ones at that. But, even so, I found it an overall satisfying read and I’m even keen to seek out the next one in the series and give that a go.
So what’s all that about? How does that work?
And, more importantly (and in keeping with the theme of my earlier reading-for-writing posts), what can I learn about this for my own writing?
First, the flaws.
The story was a whodunnit. Not an actual murder mystery, but a tale of two people trying to solve a spate of serious crimes, in which their lives were very much at stake if they failed.
The villain turned out to be someone known to the protagonist – in fact, someone the protagonist knew well and admired. (OK so far. A bit standard-operating, but solid.) The villain also turned out to have an intimate connection with the arch-enemy of the protagonist’s off-sider and potential love interest. (More interesting.)
What bugged me about the way the plot was constructed, however, was that the villain didn’t get any screen time (so to speak) until the big confrontation at the end. Sure, the narrative had mentioned this character, and had even done so in conjunction with an important clue. But the reader never got to actually meet the villain in her lamb’s clothing, never got to witness the relationship between her and the protagonist, and never even got the slightest hint about the existence of someone with this kind of relationship to the arch-enemy.
The effect of this was that:
The reader couldn’t involve themselves in unravelling the mystery with the characters by pulling together their own theories and testing these against the characters’ sleuthing abilities. There was no Ah-ha! moment where we saw how the puzzle pieces fitted together, because we never knew half the pieces existed.
The reader was unable to engage with the protagonist’s sense of gut-punch betrayal when the identity of the villain was revealed. Further, during the climactic scene, when the villain behaved in a way calculated to provoke a particular emotional reaction from the protagonist, the reader had to be told she was experiencing this reaction, rather than experience it with her (which we would have been able to do, had we been able to build our own relationship with the villain earlier in the story.)
The connection to the off-sider’s arch-enemy came off as ridiculously convenient. It could have been a revelation. But it was essentially meaningless.
This is actually more important than the book’s flaws, because it’s this that has me hooked and interested in getting hold of the next one. I have to say, it’s embarrassingly simple.
Frankly, it was all down to the two main characters and the relationship between them. I’m not sure it was exactly a romance, but it was intriguing, and emotionally charged, and I want to know where they go next.
And what does this teach me?
Make my characters, their relationships and their emotional journeys arrestingly interesting. (Note: interesting does not mean tortuous or outlandishly dramatic. It means relatable, charismatic and one step away from being completely satisfying.)
In 2011, when I decided to ‘get serious’ about my writing, one of the first things I did was book myself into a Year of the Novel course with the very knowledgeable and generous Craig Cormick, through the ACT Writers Centre. One of the very first exercises he got us to do, was describe our favourite kitchen appliance in one sentence, without mentioning what it is. I came up with:
When it’s packed, the mess is gone, and I can go and write.
(Can you guess?) Then, of course, we had to condense it down to one word. One word?The man is crazy, I thought. Then he uttered the magic phrase… “If there isn’t a word, you can make one up.” (Or something like that.) Awesome. It came to me almost straight away.
Now, I could have gone with ‘neat’ or ‘clean’ or something like that . But none of those words conveyed the sense of satisfaction I have at achieving a kitchen that doesn’t have dirty plates and used saucepans scattered over every surface. For some reason, if my kitchen is messy, I feel like my mind is cluttered. Words like ‘tidy’ give you a sense of the end product, but they don’t describe the journey. My word conveys (to me, anyway) a sense of my active participation in achieving that state. And there’s the rub.
If you’re going to go making up words, you run the risk of creating something that’s meaningless to other people.
Words like ‘squared-awayness’ probably don’t carry that kind of risk, because I’ve picked something that already carries meaning and just levered it into a grammatical convention that makes it one word instead of two. But, especially if you write speculative fiction like me, which often involves making up worlds and cultures, you might want to make up new words, just coz they sound cool, or there isn’t quite the right word to convey what you want. In this case, you’re going to have to rely heavily on context to get across your meaning, or you can leverage off existing words that sound similar. ‘Frack’ as a pseudo-swear word is a good example of this, although thanks to the Australian coal-seam gas mining industry, that word now has a boring and slightly depressing, well-understood technical meaning.
So there’s your second risk. You might end up with a word that means something different to other people, to what it means to you. Here’s a couple of examples from one of my works in progress. This has a late-medieval-ish setting and a lot of the characters are peasants, or common household or forest-dwelling fairies loosely based on various bits of British folklore. I’ve tried to create a kind of vernacular for the story to give it a certain feel. But, here are two of the inadvertent missteps I’ve made along the way.
What I meant: a variant of lumpy, but with a more colloquial sound to it.
What it actually means: (according to Dictionary.com) of or pertaining to disenfranchised and uprooted individuals or groups, especially those that have lost status. It can also mean stupid or unthinking (how’s that for irony?) and comes from the German word for vagabond.
What I meant: something daft or stupid. I totally made this up. I just liked the sound. I think I derived it from whelk, which is a hilarious-sounding shellfish. (I don’t think you get whelks in forests, though.)
What it actually means: the sky. From the Old English welcn and related to the German word Wolke, which means cloud. Who knew?
Well, one of my sharp-eyed, German-speaking beta readers, that’s who.
Obviously, I should have done a bit more due-diligence. I remember reading about J K Rowling Googling the term ‘Horcrux’ when writing the 6th Harry Potter book. (Now there’s a woman who’s great with made-up words.) She says she was so relieved to find no Google matches on it at the time, because she really liked the word and desperately wanted to use it. (Try Googling it now!)
So the moral of this story is: be creative! Make words up. But you might want to double check to make sure you’re using something that, well, means what you think it means.
Here’s me, moonlighting with a guest post over on Alan Baxter’s blog about lazy character development and sexism in animated kids’ movies.
Alan is a writer of dark spec fic and horror, including two novels, Realmshift and Magesign, as well as the extraordinarily useful writers’ resource Write the fight right(he’s a kung-fu instructor, too.) He’s got enough accolades and short stories published to give anyone an inferiority complex, so when he asked me to write up an email rant into a guest post, I was too scared to say no.
Just jokes. But it did give me the opportunity to have a whinge about something that has bothered me for years, especially when my 10 year old daughter asked me last year why there weren’t any cool movies about girls. (I think by ‘cool’ she meant ‘with fighting in’.)
I admit, I was so incensed by Pixar trumpeting the fact that they’d finally (after 17 years) made a movie with a–gasp!–girl in the lead role, I was all set to be completely exasperated by Brave.
But I wasn’t.
I loved it.
Still, an evening’s worth of research using Wikipedia revealed that I was not imagining it…if the sex ratio of the human race (OK, lets go with the idea that action figures, toy dinosaurs, rats, mythical entities and monsters of all descriptions constitute, at least temporarily, citizens of the human race) was anywhere near what it appears to be on the basis of a quick census of Pixar & Dreamworks’ characters…we don’t need to be worried about global warming, folks. We’re well on our way to extinction.
And after two posts and a guest post in one week, I need a Bex and a lie down.