Characters Sparking Joy: Writing Experiment No. 71

items.[0].image.alt

Following on from the Character Questionnaire exercise that came out of last week’s masterclass, here is another writing experiment to help think about characterisation.

Your character is decluttering with Marie Kondo. Which of their possessions still spark joy, and are kept? Which do they thank for their service and donate to Oxfam? What do they junk with glee, or without a second thought? Consider how your character’s relationships with their possessions reflect their inner lives and outer worlds, and their conflicts or affinities with other people and places. Write a scene that grows out of this.

PS I’ve finally watched one of Marie Kondo’s Netflix shows. I liked it. I like her a LOT. I love her philosophy, even though I know I can’t fully practise it; I’m not very good at dealing with attachment (would never make a great Buddhist). But I’d read (listened to) her book a few years ago, and decluttered my wardrobe by half or even two-thirds – and felt GREAT about it!

Except for one lovely, lovely coat I made a mistake in ditching, mostly because I felt it made me look like Truman Capote in Paddington Bear drag. But then I changed my mind, and realised I should accept reality: aspire to be Truman (dream on), accept my bearish nature. And my lovely, lovely husband bought back from the charity shop the next day, phew. So: I am a convert. I see the value and clarity that comes from a good clearout.

I also have a LOT of books. Many spark joy: they are beloved, and I often refer to them. Many have sentimental attachments. Many are practical requirements, doing the job that I do. But too many will never, ever be read. Many haunt me, plague me, pull faces from a dusty corner of my office. Many are consuming real estate. Many are crumbling apart, and many are nasty, pulpy paperbacks that feel like housebricks with spines that crack when I finally get to open them. Corporate British publishers and printers don’t always have the production standards of, e.g., publishers in the US or mainland Europe. I also find that digital books are in any instances not only more attractive but very practical, e.g., for reading at night.

So: when twysteria arose from certain canyons of social media because Marie Kondo had apparently told people to give away books, it really was out of proportion to the reality, and a reminder of why Twitter can be so shit and reductive. And not a little racist and ethnocentric, either: What White, Western Audiences Don’t Understand About Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’.

It’s good to give away things you no longer use – things that no longer spark joy for us can bring pleasure to other people, and also earn a few pounds for charity shops, or dollars. And if you DO give away something you really do realise you need back – you can always buy it back from a charity shop, or find a used copy online.

Spark Joy! And maybe also make room for some books you write yourself.

Spark Joy!

 

Character Questionnaire: Writing Experiment No. 70

On Saturday I led a masterclass on Character and Setting in conjunction with Kellie Jackson of Words Away. It’s the latest in our series of classes intended as a practical, DIY alternative to the craft seminars of an MA/MFA in creative writing. Here is Kellie’s account of the day.

We discussed Olive Kitteridge and Tom Ripley and Ennis Del Mar, and Bridget Jones and that other Singleton, Mary Ann from Tales of the City. We talked about types (heroes, mentors, shapeshifters), and primary identities, and desires and inner conflicts.

We drew cartoon sketches of characters, and maps for them to be placed in. I think there is a great value in bringing nonverbal forms of expression into our writing practice, not least in keeping a check on overthinking. I’m always looking for ways in which writers can develop their writerly intuition, sparking surprises and digging deeper with their characters – their yearnings, their contradictions, their secrets. Which might include some of our own, and some of those of people we know, and some we made up entirely.

As usual: a lot to fit in! And we had a good laugh or two, which is perhaps the most important thing of all. A further bonus came from listening to Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited talking about her career in rights, export sales, and licensing. There were a lot of Agatha Christie fans in the room, and I have already been prompted to return to The Mysterious Mr Quin, which I suspect I might get more from as an adult. An excellent and engaging talk, shedding light on important parts of the publishing business – thanks, Christina! And thanks also to Kellie Jackson for helping organise the day. Some snaps from the day are below.

One fun exercise was creating a collaborative character questionnaire.

Answering questions about a character’s outer identity and inner world is a common exercise in creative writing. There is, of course, a risk that assembling a character out of such details can lead to cookie-cutter writing that gets caught up in representing the facts assembled on a checklist at the expense of telling a story. The result, if we are not careful, is writing cluttered with detail but lacking in heart and momentum. We considered, for example, that cliché of someone looking in the mirror in the first pages of a book as a way of establishing a character, focusing on obvious traits that pin that character down but somehow seem a bit flat or predictable as a depiction.

A conversation about a white lab coat concluded that we in fact need very little description to bring a character to life: the Principle of Sufficiency. We also discussed the importance of defining characters through their speech (dialogue, subtext) and their actions (their plottings) and their perceptions (point of view).

All the same, creating Character Files (and Setting Files) can be productive work in assembling our stories: building a mood board or a scrapbook, saving pics on Pinterest, taking walks in the personality of your character and seeing the world as they do, thinking about who and why and what and how and where and when they are. See, for example, the Character Questionnaire as well as a version of the popular Proust Questionnaire shared by Gotham Writers.

Below is a version of the questionnaire I created, along with other questions generously shared by Saturday’s class; I tasked them particularly on asking questions that probed characters’ miscellaneous particularities and oddities. Such prompts are intended as exercises for exploring your character’s depths and potential, but some of the writing that’s spurred may in fact lead its way into your book.

Give yourself an hour (a good chunk of time), and devote yourself to working through your answers to these questions for your character. Then come back and fill in the gaps you might not have answered immediately. And then do the questionnaire again for other characters. And so on … And do feel free to update at a later date, as your story shifts in its drafting.

Also: please feel free to add questions of your own in the Comments below. Thanks in advance!

Also thanks to everyone who came on Saturday, and made it such an enjoyable day. Our next workshop, Crafting Your Prose, is on Saturday 30 March at London Bridge Hive. There are just a couple of spaces left.

 

Character Questionnaire

Consider the following questions for your characters, not only in the context of their background and history, but also within the timeframe of your story – and beyond.

Outer world

  • What is your character’s name?
  • Does your character have other names, pseudonyms, or nicknames?
  • Describe their appearance: hair, eyes, height, weight, distinguishing features.
  • What is their state of health?
  • What is their family background? And current family?
  • What is their marital/romantic status?
  • What was their social class growing up? And during the course of the book?
  • What is their primary identity/category/type: occupation, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, region, language, other? (Primary = defining the storyline.)
  • What are any secondary identities/categories that important in defining them?
  • How might your character contradict any types they belong to?
  • What is your character’s dramatic role or function in the story?
  • What problem does your character face within the story?
  • And what question does your character pose to the reader?

 

Inner world

  • What is your character’s personality type? (Outgoing, introvert, obsessive, laid back, etc.)
  • What does your character yearn for?
  • What secrets does your character keep, and from whom?
  • What are your characters’ flaws?
  • What mistakes or poor choices has your character made?
  • What risks has your character taken?
  • What wounds does your character carry?
  • What does your character fear?
  • What are your character’s phobias?
  • What are your character’s prejudices?
  • What are your character’s pathologies? Consider: OCD, anxiety, neurosis, narcissistic, sociopathic, mental health, gossipy, inability to take criticism, etc.
  • What are your character’s politics?
  • What makes your character angry?
  • What brings your character greatest happiness? And how easy is this?
  • What are your character’s passions?
  • What memories continue to shape your character? (Personal as well as cultural/collective.)

 

Misc. behaviours, habits, tastes, oddities (which often reflect both inner and outer worlds)

  • What are your character’s repeated actions? Routines? Tics? Mannerisms? Catchphrases?
  • Does your character have a pet?
  • What is the best gift your character ever received? Ever gave?
  • What direction is your character moving in?
  • What is your character’s favourite … food? … book? … hobbies? … sports? Etc.
  • What is your character’s spirit animal? Their nemesis animal (an animal that represents a character flaw or weakness, e.g., squirrel = scattered and a hoarder)?
  • How does your character sleep?
  • What does your character keep or dispose of when decluttering?

 

Additional questions from Words Away masterclass, 26 January 2019

  • In a stressful situation, would your character be most likely to (a) pray, (b) swear, (c) cry, (d) other?
  • What is their favourite holiday destination?
  • What smell takes your character back to being a child?
  • What is your character’s preferred mode of transport and why?
  • Any tattoos or piercings? What? Where? When? Why? Do they smoke/did they? What? Where? When? Why?
  • How does your character feel about kissing?
  • What is the biggest source of shame for your character and have they ever told anyone about it?
  • Is your character subconsciously trying to impress/gain respect/[insert motivation] their father or their mother? How does this cause/drive conflict in your story?
  • How does your character respond to an unexpected extravagant gift?
  • What action that your character has taken would they change, and what would they do instead?
  • Who was your character in his/her most recent former lifetime?
  • What does your character need/desire and what’s stopping her from getting it?
  • What is your character’s secret fantasy?
  • If your character was a song, which song would it be and why?
  • How does your character act when getting changed at a public swimming pool?
  • How does he/she relax? (I.e., what do they like to do for downtime?)
  • If your character had only two hours to live, who would they spend it with, where, and why?
  • [Insert your own questions below, and invite your friends for their questions too.]

 

 

Books of 2018

In approximate order of reading, and including books published in other years, the books that I most enjoyed reading this year were:

Zoe Gilbert, Folk
Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body And Other Parties
Xiaolu Guo, Once Upon A Time In The East 
Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
Tommy Orange, There There
Alexander Chee, How To Write An Autobiographical Novel 
David Sedaris, Calypso
Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna
Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Swan Song
Lucia Berlin, Welcome Home
Anna Burns, Milkman
Sally Rooney, Normal People

Other mentions go to: Denis Johnson, Train Dreams; Kit De Waal, A Trick To Time; Carys Davies, The Redemption of Galen Pike; Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad; Bartholomew Bennett, The Pale Ones; Armistead Maupin, Logical Family.

I’m still reading other contenders: Richard Powers, The Overstory; André Aciman, Enigma Variations; the most recent Lucia Berlin collection, Evening In Paradise. Sometimes I just have to take my time with a book – why rush something that’s good and meant to be savoured? And I only just started Edward Carey’s Little. It is witty and well paced, and I am already halfway through this captivating story about Madame Tussaud, but I doubt it’ll be finished before 2019 comes in. I’m also currently listening to Claire Danes’s fleet rendition of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey: another one for 2019?

Other books shall remain permanently unfinished, I suspect, and I still won’t get back the time or remove the bad taste in my mouth, despair in my soul, or bewilderment in my brain that came from lasting to the bitter end with a few unmentionable duds. I have said it before, and I am sure I shall say it again: are there any limits to publisher hype and social media twysteria, is there any accounting for taste?!

No matter. I like books with a dark tinge, clearly. Other common threads in what I did enjoy: voice (especially Toews, Sedaris, Burns, and Rooney); the intensity of personal stories (Guo, Chee, Sedaris, Berlin, plus various fictionalised accounts); creating community from art and politics against the epic backdrop of historical events (Great Believers, Lacuna); unworldy world-building (Zoe Gilbert’s Neverness, the stories of Carmen Maria Machado). My read of The Lacuna was certainly expanded by the marvellous Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A, and I particularly enjoyed Alexander Chee’s interest in gardening and tarot, and his experiences as both student and teacher of creative writing.

A special mention for well-received Xmas pressies: Anissa Helou’s Feast: Food of the Islamic World, and the celebration of Palestinian food in Joudie Kalla’s Baladi, and The Writer’s Map by Huw Lewis-Jones (which I must work into the setting session of the masterclass I’m teaching next month). And the Blue Peter craft book Here’s One I Made Earlier was a real blast to the past, especially the wizard puppet made from a Jif lemon and a dishmop.

I attended many engaging literary events in 2018. I loved seeing André Aciman, Sharlene Teo and Madeline Miller at the London Literature Festival, and look forward to reading Sharlene and Madeline’s books as soon as I can. An event at Foyle’s for the fortieth anniversary of the Virago Modern Classics was a real celebration where I was lucky also to meet Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott for the first time. And I gained much from Zoe Gilbert’s insights into writing at both workshops as well as a Words Away salon. I’m sure I’d have loved their books without meeting them anyway, but knowing someone can really deepen a connection to a book. (Sometimes! It’s not always the case.)

But an advance notice for Eleanor Anstruther’s A Perfect Explanation, which is coming in the spring, and is based on the most extraordinary true story. In 2019, I’m also excited to read Julie Cohen’s Louis & Louise, Fiona Erskine’s The Chemical Detective, and Trevor Mark Thomas’s The Bothy. I know or have had professional connections to all of these writers, so I add not only that disclaimer but also an observation that it’s good to see talent, application, and good storytelling rewarded with success in publishing.

This was also for me the year of the audiobook. The two most profound reading experiences of 2018 for me were in fact listening experiences. One was Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song. I loved the narration of its collective third-person We: gossipy, intimate, confessional. Voice is probably the aspect of craft that draws me most of all into a story, and the voice in this novel about Truman Capote and his high-society muses especially worked its magic as narrated in audio form by Deborah Weston. This book took me somewhere else, and there’s little more I want from a story.

A very good year for very good books, but if I had to pick one that stood out for me it’s probably Milkman by Anna Burns. First, it has the most remarkable voice, in the audiobook brought to life by narrator Bríd Brennan with great force: sarcastic, funny, relentless. Maybe my experience of the audiobook gave me a seamless experience, as I was bemused by commentary on the book’s apparent difficulty. I easily find that works described as challenging can be opaque, pretentious, or dull. But I loved loved LOVED Milkman for its great looping paragraphs, and its rootless refusal of placenames, and the no-names of its characters: the wee sisters, maybe-boyfriend, longest friend, the real milkman, the unreal milkman. Again: that sarcasm, the tone, the gossipy style of storytelling. This is how people talk, right? Nothing difficult about that. (If you have any doubts: do the audiobook.)

Second, I loved Milkman‘s crafty politics: its critique of patriarchy and matriarchy and class, its depiction of the violence of borders and the madness of authoritarianism, its cry for freedom – especially (and indignantly) the freedom to read while walking. I realised that something I particularly liked about this book is that it’s basically a dystopian novel – one of my favourite genres, and right now, as we prepare to face the consequences of Brexit, most cleverly and claustrophobically rendered. (I return to a line from the musical Rent: the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.)

Milkman is one of my favourite novels of the last ten years, and it’s one I shall return to, and examine more closely – it will be interesting to see how my feelings about it evolve. Above I loved its beauty: the beauty of sunsets and French lessons, the beauty of reading while walking and camaraderie in running, the beauty of lists, the beauty of its sentences, the beauty of its fury, the surprise of its acts of compassion and creation, and, despite all the darkness, the sense of love and hope and healing it left me with. 

On that note: a Happy New Year! May 2019 again see good books and literary friendships bringing light into the world.

Spring 2019 Masterclasses: Character & Setting, Prose Style

After a successful masterclass on the Craft of Voice at the end of November, Kellie Jackson of Words Away and I are continuing this series, which began with Plotting in September, with two more masterclasses for the spring term:

Crafting Character & Setting

Crafting Your Prose

Character and setting are the foundations of our narrative content, and on 26 January we shall be exploring ways in which they can be brought to life in ways that propel our stories forward. And the masterclass devoted to prose style on 30 March will look not only at important aspects of grammar and usage (verbs! nouns! the evils of fronted adverbials!), but also explore ways to refine and adapt our voices in writing for a variety of purposes and effects.

More info including booking details at the links above. I have listed provisional schedules for the day as well as some suggestions of readings we might use to bring to life our discussions about craft; we usually email delegates a few weeks in advance with further reading recommendations as well as any other preparations for the class. We shall make time for some short writing exercises in class too, and you’ll also be given handouts and resources so that you can continue your lessons and explorations in craft at home afterwards.

And each day will close with an informal Q&A with an industry professional. This is designed to demystify the publishing industry, and offer practical insights into the business, giving you chance to ask your own questions. Our guest speaker on 26 January is Christina Macphail of Agatha Christie Limited, who has a great range and depth of experience in selling books and rights in both adult and children’s publishing – intellectual properties she has sold include many much-loved characters, so it will be interesting to place our creative conversations about character and world-building into this wider commercial context.

The last masterclass filled up in about ten days, and we had a long waiting list, so if you are interested I suggest you book in advance. We hope to continue with a couple of other classes in the summer term, and should there be interest to repeat this sequence in 2019/2020 too.

The Craft of Voice: Coming Soon

Kellie Jackson has posted a Q&A on her blog for our 24 November masterclass The Craft of Voice.

It’s voice that matters most in writing for me. It’s voice that draws us into a story at the start, and it’s voice that keeps the pages turning. When I was an editor working in-house, it was voice that usually convinced me that I wanted to take on a new writer.

I think of the opening of one of my favourite novels, The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber: ‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them …’

I recently read All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, and, among its many strengths, what stands out is the way in which its voice brings a gritty humour to content that at times is pretty grim. It’s also very well paced – it’s natural, it’s easy, it brings us along. This class will devote some time to learning to trust the natural speaking voice, and also extending its range – varying the tone, shifting into other voices.

Related to voice, we’ll also be talking about narrators and narrating. I’m currently listening to the audiobook of Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song, which is fantastically done; a strong narrative voice that brings to life the gossipy world of Truman Capote and his ‘swans’ is well served by the audiobook’s narrator. The voice of the text and the voice of the narrator are beautifully fused. Truman can be somewhat unbearable! But that’s the point, and because the voice is compelling this is a joy to listen to.

A recent article in the Guardian on the rising popularity of audiobooks says:

The new medium beckons a change in writing styles. The omniscient narrators of 19th-century novels, whose godlike qualities were unpalatable to the realistic writers of the 20th, are more suited to the audioboomers of the 21st.

I like that idea very much – I love a good narrator, whether omniscient or involved in the action or unreliable, and whether it’s read on the page or listened to in an audiobook. Who’s telling the story, and how? There’s a real art to good narration.

I feel that understanding how to use and develop your voice is the most important lesson in writing. I’m continually bemused by the reliance on screenwriting guides for prose fiction in creative writing, as there are real limits to what we can gain from studying film when writing novels and short stories. Don’t get me wrong – certain ideas about, for example, structure and dialogue are invaluable. But good prose cannot draw on the grammar of visual storytelling. Prose relies on words placed on a page in a book, one after the other, just as speech amounts to a linear sequence of words: a voice. Words and sentences are all we have – so we have to learn how to craft them in ways that are natural and persuasive and a pleasure to read or listen to.

This masterclass on voice is designed as part of an ongoing sequence of classes and workshops that could be incorporated into an ongoing DIY MA in Creative Writing. We’ve already covered revising, and plotting come next week, and future topics might include: prose style; character and setting; and creating scenes. As with earlier masterclasses, which featured guest speakers Lennie Goodings (chair of Virago), Nick Ross (production director at Little, Brown) and Jenny Savill (agent at ANA), we’d again hope to invite publishing professionals for Q&A sessions to help demystify the industry. Contact us if you interested in a particular topic or would like to be added to our mailing lists.

More information on the 24 November voice masterclass can be found in the Q&A on Kellie’s blog, and further details about the schedule for that day can be found on the Words Away site.