Tag Archive | Writing

The ball of string theory of novel-writing

Penryn Market St - Copy


A novel starts out like a huge knotted bundle of string. You can see the ends of various pieces sticking out, and you must choose one to begin to try to unravel the mess. You’ve no idea where it will take you, but it seems the most likely to lead somewhere. Some of the bits of string will be too short to be of any use, and will be discarded; others will be too long, but may come in useful elsewhere, so you wind them up and put them carefully to one side.  As is the way with string, they will probably meet up with others and end up in a similar mess, but you can sort that out later.

I’m at the start of the new novel now, and I’m picking my way through the first knots. It’s a very strange process; I know who the characters are, in abstract, but I have as yet no clue as to how they will interact with each other. It’s one thing to know where I want them to go; it’s quite another for them to actually go there without a fight. I’ve got my first scene down, and already the people are surprising me. An entire new element to the story has come to light, right there in the opening pages. It’s a getting-to-know-you process at this stage, with lots of notes being written (a lesson learnt when writing Mrs Calcott’s Army) as backstory needs to be recorded.

Major Charles Danbury appeared in the first novel, so I know something of him; but there he was a secondary character, and now he’s the main man, so I have to flesh him out, and give him substance.

He has to be different in most ways from Major Mark Roper. I know what he looks like, and a few of his foibles – his knowledge of horses and his love of a good coat, for instance – but apart from his awe of his Aunt Wereham, and his loyalty, what else is he?

New characters are fun, but also a challenge; they have to fit their roles, and I’m not completely sure what they are yet. It’s a little like drawing in the dark; you never know what you’ve created until the lights go on.

I’ve got my locations in my head. The research trip to Cornwall threw up some unusual and interesting facts which want to work their way into the story – more odd bits of string from that knot which may or may not be put aside for later consideration.  It all depends on what the characters want to do, and until I give them (or they give me) the words to speak, I won’t know that.

So: Cornwall, 1818. It’s an interesting place to be. There is huge wealth from shipping, trade and tin, alongside deep poverty from social deprivation, crop failures, and depressed wages. Smuggling isn’t a choice, for some – it’s the only way to earn a living. For others it’s just greed and opportunism. There is more brought into the country than brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk, and some of it a lot more dangerous.

The towns are growing and changing. Truro has no Cathedral; Penryn is still a busy harbour. Falmouth’s major shipping parks out in the Carrick Roads and the cargoes are unloaded onto smaller ships for bringing ashore. In the wider country, it’s a time of social unrest as mill workers try to organise – which is against the law.  There’s a lot going on.

How much of that will appear in the novel, I don’t know. I’m just the scribe – I write what I’m told to write by the people in the story. So like you, I’ll just have to wait and see – and keep picking at that knotty string.

©Lorraine Swoboda 2017


“Speak!” Part Two

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When people talk, they don’t always finish their sentences. They can be interrupted, or they may tail off into uncertainty; they may speak for ages, or in short bursts. We’ve seen how punctuation can change the sound of a piece of dialogue, so now let’s have a look at other ways to use it to good effect.

Pauses and Interruptions

“What if…”
“What if what?”
“What if I can’t think what to say next?”
“Then use an ellipsis.”
“What’s one of those?”
“It’s a sequence of three dots – no more, no less – to show that you’ve trailed off.”
“Why not use a dash?”
“Because a dash is used to show that you’ve been interrupted. If I were to start speaking and—“
“—and I jumped in, just like that?”
“Exactly. That would require a dash.”

The difference between an ellipsis and a dash is clear: one sentence fades, while the other breaks off.

I could have the interrupter opening with a capital and no dash: “And I jumped in, just like that?” It would be perfectly correct; but I’ve written it to show the speaker finishing the other’s sentence for him. If he were saying something different, he would need a capital.

“Because a dash is used to show that you’ve been interrupted. If I were to start speaking and—“
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, get on with it!”

That’s a new sentence, not a direct extension of the previous speaker’s words, so takes a capital.

Long-winded speakers

If you have a character making an extended speech, one long chunk of text is off-putting; you need to break it up, but the punctuation has to show that it’s all in the one person’s words.

“The answer is that you have no closing inverted commas at the end of a paragraph, but you do use openers at the start of each new one, as shown here.

“That way it’s clear that the person is still speaking, simply because the reader hasn’t been told that she has stopped. The second opening set of inverted commas denotes continuation. 

“The only time you close inverted commas is when she finishes speaking.” She pauses to take a sip of tea. “That’s a case in point. She’s still speaking now; but for a moment there she shuts up.”

Naming names

I read a short story recently, which consisted of a conversation between two people. No-one else entered the scene at all. It was completely unnecessary, therefore, for the writer to go to great lengths to tell me every single time who was speaking. ‘Amy said, Dora nodded, Amy sighed, Dora twitched, Amy laughed, Dora fiddled with her cup…’ Why?

In a short story you have a limited number of words, and every one is precious. The author could have written an entire extra paragraph with what was saved by deleting all these pointless directions.

If you have two people talking, the sequence – if you have used your line spacing correctly – will be enough to tell who is speaking. If Amy has line one, and Dora has line two, then Amy has line three, and so on, unless something happens to change that. In that case you tell the reader what he needs to know, and go on as before. Don’t use movements as an excuse, either – it’s the same thing in disguise. If your character needs to scratch, fine; just don’t employ it as a desperate alternative to ‘she said’.

One last point:

All punctuation relating to the speech itself goes inside the inverted commas.

“If I write a line of dialogue”, she said, “surely the full stop refers to the whole sentence including the insertion, so it should go outside the speech marks”. Wrong – both meaning and punctuation. It should be as follows:

“If I write a line of dialogue,” she said, “surely the full stop refers to the whole sentence including the insertion, so it should go after the speech marks.”  Meaning still wrong, but correctly punctuated.

The comma after ‘dialogue’ marks a pause in the speech, and so belongs to it, not to ‘she said’: it goes inside the inverted commas.

The inserted words ‘she said’ have their moment of glory with their own comma; they don’t get the full stop too. If I were to leave out ‘she said’ the speech would read as a single sentence, complete with its full stop, all inside the marks that point out that it is in fact dialogue.

It’s all quite logical really. Honest…


Punctuation is not your enemy.

Let’s start at the beginning. The written word was developed as a way of recording something that has no physical presence. From the very start, it was there to tell a story: I was here, and this is my hand print. I was here, and this is a picture of me killing a mammoth. I was here, in this lousy wet, cold country, when I’d rather be in Rome.

Humans progressed from simple daubs to pictures to runes to ogham script, and so on; as the need to communicate and record grew, so did the complexity of the way in which spoken words or thoughts, or indeed actions, were represented. While spelling may not have been fixed, the letters and words had to be recognisable to more than just the writer’s intimates. The written language began to be formalised, and more unified, in the hands of scribes and monks. It became a tool of church and state, which demonstrates its importance. A man dictating a letter in England wanted it to be read in York or Rome: to do that, it had to follow rules that the readers in those places would also comprehend.

Move on a few centuries: printing has taken care of the forms of the words so successfully that people are writing for pleasure as well as for matters of business, law, or religion. Now there’s a desire to convey nuance as well as simple meaning. There’s a need to clarify, to avoid misunderstanding. Words that run together can be read wrongly, unless there’s a way of making certain that there can be no misconstruction – and that’s where punctuation comes in.

If you were writing a piece of music, you’d give all the instructions necessary, using the internationally accepted code, for any orchestra anywhere to reproduce the tune the way you heard it, and the way you wanted the audience to hear it. Anyone playing the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony does so as he intended: ‘da da da DUM, da da da Dum’, not ‘diddly dum, diddly dum’, because he told them exactly how to do it. He gave them the key, a time signature, the length of the individual notes, and spacing.

If you wrote a piece of computer code, you would have to get it right, or the machine for which it was intended wouldn’t function. (Everyone who owns a computer knows how much fun that is.) The same applies to the written word.

Punctuation is just such a piece of code: it’s there to provide information. It tells you, for example, not only that there is speech, but how it is spoken; you know that the speaker tails off, or asks a question, or exclaims. It divides lines of text up into usable chunks with pauses of different lengths, just as they would be when spoken. It’s a way of moving the prose along, by marking out what belongs together and what should be kept separate.

When we read silently, we hear the words inside our heads. We provide the soundtrack. For precisely that reason, the writer has to give us all the clues available to him to tell us how to make the work sound as he intended. He uses the code. It may vary according to the language in which he writes, but every language has the same idea – to provide the information necessary to reproduce the work as it was conceived.

No-one ever hears your work in your voice; they hear it in theirs, like a dubbed film. If you have ever watched the credits of such a production, you’ll see two cast lists – one for the actors, dumbly moving about on the screen, and one for the voices of people you will never see. The vital thing is that the dubbed voices match the original for content and meaning, even if the syncing is off. The same applies to a reader’s version of your work; it is still yours, and it should say what you meant it to say – it’s just got a different voice-over.

So unless you want your sweated-over novel to come out sounding like a badly-dubbed film, or Beethoven’s Fifth opening like the theme for ‘Captain Pugwash’, get it right; give the reader all the clues. Make friends with punctuation. It really isn’t your enemy.

Leading the Witness

Almost perfectI read a book this weekend that very nearly fell at the first hurdle. My interest wavered the minute I learned, on page one, that ‘we are expecting a visit from the vicar, Mr Brown,’ as though the character addressed had forgotten the name of this regular caller; and worse, from a mother to her daughter: ‘ever since your husband David drowned five years ago…’ (I’ve changed the names to protect the guilty.)

When you, the reader, open a book, you walk into a room populated by real people who can’t see you. Nothing should be explained specifically for you, because you’re only there as an invisible, though interested, witness. You should hear voices, see faces, actions and mannerisms exactly as you would if you were physically present, and, in particular, as if you inhabit the body of the person from whose point of view the scene is being shown.

You’re the ghost in the machine, not a visitor being guided round an exhibition. ‘Look – over there is a villain. He is plotting the overthrow of the juvenile lead’s father. Look, there’s the juvenile lead; he failed his exams and had to come home, and he’s feeling so guilty and resentful that tomorrow he’ll steal some money and go on a spree.’

Facts cannot be doled out for your benefit, to explain what you cannot yet know. Of course you can’t know them – you’ve only just arrived; but if the writer has a little patience, he can fill in these gaps in your knowledge without handing them to you as a fact-sheet. In my opening examples, it is wholly unnecessary to name the vicar at all, as he plays no further part in the book. As for the dearly departed, his widow is fully aware of the how, when and where of his demise; if it is important, the reader may learn these in the course of the story, or in some comment to another person who is similarly in the dark.

The fact-sheet approach is telling, not showing, at its worst. I once read a novel set in Regency England, where the author had done his homework, and didn’t want to waste a single piece of it. He had a character visiting the hero’s London townhouse, and so keen was he to tell us what he had learned about such places, he listed every single room – to the extent of using the word ‘room’ thirty-two times in eight consecutive paragraphs. Apart from being crushingly boring, it was nearly all irrelevant; the characters were going to use three of those salons in the whole course of the story.

One of the worst faults is the line that begins, ‘What she didn’t know was…’ If she doesn’t know it at this point, neither should you. Any writer who uses this ploy is giving you a nudge and a wink, which is simply amateurish. You should not be given privileged or advance information in an authorial aside.

It’s the author’s job to make you, the reader, feel included, not peering in through the window from an emotional remove. Your awareness of yourself should vanish; you should be consumed completely by the events on the page. You should be in that room, desperate to help the character in difficulties, willing the heroine not to trust the villain, or cheering on the hero to make it to the house in time to prevent disaster. You should be involved.

There are many ways a writer can shut you out, trapping your fingers in the door on the way so that you don’t want to come back. Changing the narrative point of view is one example. Here you are, in that room, looking through the eyes of the girl handing out the drinks. She’s got a fascinating insight into who’s who, and you’re enjoying what she has to tell you; a moment later, you’re looking through the eyes of the villain plotting silently in the corner – which is all very fascinating, but how did you get there? When you are then shifted back to the servant, or into the head of the lead juvenile, you’re being shown what you have no right to see.

As the ghost in the machine, you are witness to the proceedings; you know the villain is plotting because the narrative voice – the servant girl – can look and read his expression. You know the juvenile lead is worried because she sees him biting the corners of his nails. What you cannot do is see everything from everyone’s viewpoint – any more than you could if you stood in any real room.

The author, of course, knows what every single character is thinking, and what they did yesterday and will go on to do tomorrow. These people are his creations, all there for a purpose (hopefully). It’s his job to reveal traits and deeds as matters unfold. What he can’t do, if he wants you to stick around, is hand you a list in advance. He needs to let you learn the slow way.

He needs to let you make discoveries of your own – that’s part of the joy of being a reader; and when all’s said, it’s you he’s writing for. If he treats you like an infant, you have the right to drop the book in the bin and find something else to read. Better yet, ask for your money back.

The author has to learn, too – but preferably the fast way.

The Holes in the Plot: or Every Writer Needs an Editor

Ten years ago I wrote the world’s best Regency romance. I wrote it, read it, edited it, read it again, sent it off and waited for the praise to come back.

It didn’t, of course; the whole thing was returned with a definite ‘no thanks’ letter. Hurt beyond measure, I thrust the manuscript into a file and shelved it, thinking up any number of reasons why they could have rejected my wonderful novel apart from the obvious.

Last year, while writing a modern novel which has grown out of a 200 word flash fiction story, I found the Regency romance again. It seemed like such a simple idea to take that one, edit it, refresh it, and get it out there to earn its shelf space while I concentrated on the other.

Ten years of writing and using my brain for what it was intended have wrought many changes in my outlook. As I read through the novel, I could see all the flaws. The time scale was all wrong – the whole thing took place within what must have been the longest four days ever recorded. The main character was not, as that publisher desired, the female – in fact she came a definite second; and the secondary characters were all having a better time than she was. In short, she was someone for whom everyone else acted.

So that quick edit and turn it round idea died a death, and a rewrite was required. There were some excellent parts, and they will remain; but it’s been a case of bringing the rest up to match.

In the intervening years I’ve honed my editor’s skills. I have learned to keep a calendar of the storyline, and to make sure that the plot contains everything it has to contain. That changes as it goes along – novel writing is never a static process, and characters will insist on going where I hadn’t thought they would, or planned that they should.

I’ve grown stale with the projectImage, and stopped for a breather – worth doing for the refreshed vision it can bring. I read the start of it again yesterday and thought, yes, this is good and should be completed.

Writing is about more than just putting down the words on paper. It’s about structure, and geography. It’s knowing the setting, seeing the place, putting the characters into that place and watching them move and interact. It’s remembering that two characters should not have similar names, and that a man who arrives in a carriage should not leave on a horse unless he has a very good reason to do so.

Occasionally it feels like trying to herd soup; but I’m getting there, and the greatest Regency romance novel ever written** will make it into the public domain.

My mistake, and it’s not an unusual one among writers, was in refusing to let anyone else read it before I sent it off. Writing is such a private affair, and handing a piece of work over to someone else and asking them to pick holes in it is like asking someone to stick pins in you. It’s painful, it’s embarrassing, and it doesn’t make any sense at all when the whole point is to get your work out there for hundreds, if not thousands (may as well be positive) of total strangers to read.

So my advice today is, hand the thing over and let someone see it through their own eyes. It may well hurt if they find fault, but that’s a lot better done before you publish it or submit it, and could save you a lot more grief.

(**by me, on a wet Friday, without my specs on.)