Tag Archives: common pitfalls in writing

Imagining Places, Imagining Spaces

I’ve been doing a lot of hacking away at ‘Emmeline’ this week – in other news, I think I may have come up with a better title for the story, but more on that anon – and I’m right up there within, I’d guess, 5,000 words of the Grand Dénouement. However, nothing ever runs easily in my world.

I feel a bit like this guy. Image: lookandlearn.com

I feel a bit like this guy.
Image: lookandlearn.com

I’m finding it tough going these past few days – maybe 500 words here, one thousand there – and I reckon there are a few reasons for that. One of the main reasons (besides a few plot issues, which I’m pretty sure a rewrite will take care of) is the fact that the ending of the book takes place in a part of the world I’ve never been to, in a space I find hard to imagine, and in a setting so unfamiliar and different from my everyday life as to be completely alien.

I’m learning that one of the most important things you can do for yourself when you’re writing is this: Believe in your settings.

If your book is set in our world, and you have the means to travel there, then I suppose nothing can beat the experience of seeing it for yourself. But, however, if you’re like most people and your means are feeling pretty mean, travelling to far-flung parts of the globe isn’t really an option. The internet can help, of course, with images and inspiration and handy phrases in the local language and first-hand testimony of how it feels to scale Everest or survive an earthquake or visit Pompeii, or whatever it is you’re writing about, and it’s a good tool to use if you can’t see your setting with your own two eyes. But something as important as all that – and something I am currently finding difficult – is the necessity to believe, wholeheartedly, in the setting you’re writing about. Write about it with as much confidence as if it was the view you can see out your bedroom window. Write about it with as much pizzazz as if your fictional setting was somewhere you know intimately. Open your imagination up, and make sure your settings – your landscape, your climate, your vegetation, your animal life, your transport networks, your geographical anomalies, your people, your language(s), whatever – are all as clear to you as the reality around you, whether or not your imagined landscape is strictly true.

Now, obviously, you don’t need to describe all this detail to the reader. All the story needs is what’s necessary to make it happen. But it helps you to know your setting in all this detail. In a lot of ways, depending on the book, the setting is as important as another character. You know your characters inside-out – their backstory, their dreams and hopes and loves, their motivation – so why not your landscape, too?

Image: minigardenshoppe.com

Image: minigardenshoppe.com

My story, right now, is suffering because of my own fear of the setting I’ve put it in. It’s a vast canvas, an empty and howling landscape, a frozen and barren expanse. I don’t know what it’s like to live and work there – and I don’t know what it’s like to breathe its air or walk on its surface or exist in its embrace. I’m trying to imagine it, and it’s hard. I lack the confidence in myself and my own ability to just trust myself to write it well, even if it’s not entirely geographically and/or climatically accurate. This particular landscape is important to the plot insofar as it’s a challenge, and an obstacle, and it’s home to certain creatures who do not have anything good to say about the heroine and her brave band of comrades – but I’m not writing a natural history of the country, and so I feel I’m getting hung up unnecessarily, in some ways. I’m allowing myself to be derailed by doubts – ‘could that actually happen?’ ‘There’s no way the landscape would look like that,’ ‘This is stupid! None of this could actually take place!’ – and I have to keep reminding myself that this is my book, my world, my story, and anything I dream can happen within it.

If verisimilitude of setting is important to you, or to your story, then by all means get your work checked over by someone who’s familiar with that part of the world, or do some more intensive research, or whatever you need to do once the words have been written. If, however, you’re not writing a book whose plot hinges on whether a particular type of flower grows at a particular altitude or whether a certain wave pattern brings specific weather effects to a defined part of the world, then perhaps it’s not as important to be absolutely accurate, in a geographical or scientific sense. What matters is that your landscapes and settings are real to you, and that they make sense in the world of your book – without, of course, taking liberties like placing a sandy desert in the heart of Antarctica (without having a very good, and logical, reason, at least!)

It’s hard to write without a backdrop against which to place your characters – at least, it is for me. But, equally important as having a clear, skilfully described landscape (not too much detail, and not too little) to place them in is having the confidence to say ‘this is my story, and this is my world. These are my rules.’

Image: covermyfb.blogspot.com

Image: covermyfb.blogspot.com

I’m going to tackle ‘Emmeline’ with a different mindset today. I’m not going to let my fears that I’m writing something ‘wrong’ derail my desire to finish this story, and I’m going to stop letting the backdrop run the whole show.

And I’m going to start trying to believe in myself a little more.

This will all be Worth It. One Day.

The edits for ‘Tider’ are ongoing. I now look like this:

Gaaaah! Image: prevention.com

Gaaaah!
Image: prevention.com

I am currently on my fourth careful re-read of the manuscript, and – horrifyingly – I am still finding plot holes, problems, inconsistencies and stupid errors. Taken all together, they are making me doubt my own sanity, ability to write, suitability to use a computer and, in short, my claim to be a productive and useful member of society.

(On this point: when writing a book, it’s always good to begin it from a place of total equilibrium in your mental and physical health. By the time you’ve finished, you won’t be quite as self-actualised as you were when you started, but that’s all right.)

One thing I have definitely learned from this week’s writing has been: Never throw anything away. When you’re editing, and hacking great lumps of text out of your book, it’s important not to fling the scraps into the oubliette of the Recycling Bin. Certainly, it’s vital never to delete anything completely. You really never know when you might need it again. As an example, let me tell you about a scene I wrote several months ago, where my heroine breaks into her best friend’s house in the middle of the night to beg him for his help and ends up having to escape through the bathroom window when his mother wakes up; it was fun, but it didn’t fit with a later edit. To replace it, I put in an emotionally wrenching scene where the heroine’s best friend comes across her in their secret hideout, and offers his help when he sees her in distress – it seemed to suit better, and it certainly fit more snugly with the plot as I’d written it in that particular draft.

Alas, no longer.

Now, I’m changing stuff around again. I’ve noticed myself doing what I always do with my protagonists – making them too safe, and not putting them in enough danger – and that has to be remedied before I go any further with the current draft. My heroine will no longer be discovered, weeping, by a boy; she will be the agent of her own fate, and the original scene will be restored – with extra, added kick-punchery for good measure. So, I spent several minutes yesterday being extremely glad that I have a file labelled ‘Offcuts’ where I put everything I cut from my earlier drafts, and which I can use to restore the book to its former glory without raising my blood pressure too much.

It's all good. Image: magnahealthblog.wordpress.com

It’s all good.
Image: magnahealthblog.wordpress.com

It’s good to be aware of your mistakes, and of the things you tend to do which stymie the development of your book and your characters. For me, one of these things is that I keep my protagonists too safe. It’s always good to put them through the wringer, and make them suffer; it sounds cruel, but it’s not. If a protagonist is struggling, a reader will engage with them more strongly. People are inclined to support the underdog, I guess. If everything comes too easily to your heroine, then it’s going to induce a reader to start rolling their eyes in bored disbelief, until eventually they put your book to one side and start reading something else instead. Who wants to read a story where everything happens to the protagonist? You want to write a story where the protagonist happens to the plot, not the other way round.

So, because of this, my heroine will be doing no more anguished weeping in a darkened corner. She’ll be busting her way out of places, busting her way into other places, and making stuff happen.

I’m also working through my foreshadowing at the moment – or, in other words, the ‘hint dropping’ that occurs throughout the text, preparing the reader for the end of the book. It’s important to do this right, with a light touch that isn’t overdoing the exposition; however, you don’t want to leave too much in the dark, either, and it’s always good to nudge the reader very gently toward some of the good stuff that’s coming up in the next chapter, or ten chapters away. I’m finding this difficult, I have to admit. One thing is for sure, though – I wouldn’t have a chance of being able to do it without having a completed draft to hand. You need to have a clear idea of your entire story arc before you can start flagging hidden details to a reader.

Pacing is also a problem for me in writing a novel – the current draft of ‘Tider’ has a lot happening to the protagonist in the last five or ten pages, and I want to change that before I consider that book ‘finished’. Foreshadowing will help this, as will allowing my heroine enough brains and chutzpah to start putting things together herself, making educated and intelligent guesses which lead her to important conclusions – then, they won’t all have to be explained to her at the end.

Wow. Writing this post has really made me see how much work I still need to do.

Writing a book is hard. Being aware of your pitfalls is a good way to start fixing them, but it’s only half the battle. I’m sure there are mistakes I won’t see, but I’m going to do my best to spot and destroy as many of them as I can while I have the chance.

Wish me luck!

Writer at work! Image: orwell.ru

Writer at work!
Image: orwell.ru