Saturday, 30 July 2011

Why Fiction Writers Need Markets

Like many writers, I try to stick to a daily word count goal. Last week, Thursday was a writing wash-out for various very good reasons and I didn't manage to write a word. So Friday was the day I had to get back on track.

Friday is market day in our little French town. I decided to give it a miss and get on with the writing. But the market is the best place to buy fresh flowers. We had guests arriving at the weekend. Fresh flowers would cheer up our work in progress house. Our wip garden does a fine line in weeds. Flowers? - well that's next year's challenge.

So feeling frustrated and twitchy about something else taking priority over the writing, I trailed up to the market. And I discovered they were all there - the characters that might people my novels one day: the attractive Parisian businessman on holiday, in his pristine linen shirt and designer shorts, two fractious children and an even more fractious wife in tow; the elegant elderly lady I queued behind for tomatoes who'd forgotten her list and couldn't remember what she needed to buy; the affable stallholder, growing less affable by the minute; the pleasant, sad-eyed woman in the boulangerie who remembered my bread order before I even had to ask; and the young flower-seller with the winsome smile who takes such delight in fashioning his lavish bouquets.

I came home with more than flowers. I couldn't wait to jot down some character ideas in my notebook. They'll wait in the wings of my subconscious. One day they might make an entrance on the page.

Sticking to writing goals is vital. But gathering the fuel for those goals is vital too. I once had the privilege of meeting Muriel Spark. Something that great writer said has always stayed in my mind. 'Travel is the life blood of the writer.' I think that's true - even if the only place you travel is up the road.

PS I achieved my word count on Friday too!

How do you manage your writing priorities? Do you get time to live as well as write?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Getting Emotional

Have you discovered, like me, that one of the hardest things a fiction writer has to learn is how to convey emotion? It's so easy to over-write when we deal with the sad stuff, the heart-rending revelation, the tear-jerking confession. We pile on the agony and add a few more crumpled Kleenex for good measure.

The other day I was listening to a radio programme - or half-listening while I did the ironing - in which listeners contributed their own Desert Island Discs music selection and told the story behind their choices.

A young woman recounted the tale of her parents' courtship. The clincher for her mother accepting her father's proposal was a haunting piece of music he'd composed especially for her. We heard a snatch of the music before she told us the sequel. After many years of marriage her parents sank their life savings into converting a barn in France. Together they grafted away doing the work themselves.

I clutched the iron. Oh no, any minute now she'll tell us one of them died of a heart attack before they could move in. But no, it was a happy ending. The piano was given pride of place in the completed barn conversion. As his wife approached the new front door, her husband sat down at the beloved instrument and played the music he'd composed all those years before. Cue another snatch of music.

Well I'll confess now, it brought a lump to my throat. And I wasn't the only one. A couple of minutes later another listener texted to say 'Would they please stop making her cry.'

So then I switched from impressionable listener mode to objective writer mode. How had that particular story achieved that effect? Obviously the snatches of haunting music helped. It's one of the advantages a film has over a novel. But the main reason was that the daughter recounted the facts without trying to tug at heartstrings. She told her story simply, with no sentimental language or maudlin attempt to manipulate her audience.

And it worked. We filled in all the background detail ourselves without being told: the ups and downs of marriage, the decision to embark late in life on an adventure together, the challenges of that adventure and the triumph of a love that had endured. If anyone had spelled that out for me, I'd probably have yawned or said 'yuk'. As it was, I was gulping over the pillowcases!

All writers have the principle of 'show not tell' dinned into them. It applies to every word of fiction we write. But I reckon it applies supremely to writing emotion. We show it as honestly and as simply as we can by what our characters say and do, and we allow the reader to supply the rest.

Do you have any tips for writing emotional scenes? I'd love to know what they are.