KATE ASKS: I am a writer by trade but I would like to try my hand at this 'creative writing' business. I am not sure where to start -- I have story ideas but they are vague and nebulous, and I fear I don't have the discipline to get them onto the page, or the in-depth understanding of tone and pace and rhythm and exposition and so on. Can I be helped by paying people massive amounts of money vis a vis a creative writing course? Or should I pursue some other option?
Charlotte says: I find it helpful to write out a scheme of one’s tale, complete with instructions to oneself, as with this relic from 1843 which I scribbled on the cover of my German exercise-book while improving my French and German in Brussels, and which may perhaps remind you of something:
Time – from 30 to 50 years ago
Country – England
Scene – rural
Rank – middle
Person – first
Subject – Certain remarkable occurrences
Sex of writer – at discretion
No. of characters – at discretion
Plot – domestic – the romantic not excluded
Opening – cheerful or gloomy [! -- PC]
1st, reverses of fortune
2nd, new arrival
3rd, loss of relatives
4th, crosses in the affections [she means unrequited love or similar, as in
‘crossed in love’ – PC]
5th, going abroad and returning
6th [left blank]
Characters – Hero – heroine – family of do. [a 19th century convention, contraction of ‘ditto’ – PC] Rival or rivaless – villains. N.B. Moderation to be observed here. Friends – avoid Richardsonian multiplication.
P.S. As much compression – as little explanation as may be.
To be set about with proper spirit.
To be carried out with the same.
To be concluded idem.
Observe – no grumbling allowed.
PC adds: If you don’t know where to start, there are two possible courses of action. Either sketch out the story as Charlotte does above (though with perhaps less of the tongue-in-cheek and less of the self-admonition), or as you would for a movie, with a storyboard, and do the logical working-out of the chronology at that level first -- or alternatively just plunge in and see how you go. Whatever you actually write first won’t necessarily end up at the beginning of your novel.
Re the massive amounts of money: I would go out first and spend a very modest amount of money on (since it’s novels you seem to have in mind) Kate Grenville’s The Writing Book, which will answer many of your questions.
If you’re the Kate I think you are, then you are a genre fiction fan – look at some of your favourite novelists and work out how they do tone and pace and rhythm and exposition and so on. (NB -- knowing that these things matter takes you about three-quarters of the way towards dealing with them.) There’s a lot more attention paid to structure and technique in good genre fiction than there is in bad ‘literary’ fiction, usually.
THIRDCAT ASKS: I suspect this is a 'how long is a piece of string' question, but anyway...how do you know when you've given a particular story and particular characters a good enough go? Or, to put it another way: will I know when I'm flogging a dead horse?
Very useful suggestion from Elsewhere, who teaches creative writing: Putting things to bed for a while can help in gaining perspective when you come back to them later and also in being more merciless in the revision process.
I've heard others say that you should look at your MS at the 30,000 wd mark and see if you think there's truly something in it before forging on.
PC adds: I’m not getting anything from the Sisters about this. They all worked within such strong narrative structures and had such extraordinary self-belief that I doubt if this question ever crossed their minds, though in the case of Charlotte’s The Professor, perhaps it should have.
Also, they had each other as like-minded and in-process critics. Now this is one of the things for which a Creative Writing course is invaluable, because in it you are surrounded by fellow-students in the same boat and by teachers (or at least one teacher) whose job it is to help you with exactly this kind of question, and who, unlike one’s friends and/or partner, aren’t so close to you personally that they can’t bear to hurt your feelings by being straight with you if they think something’s not working.
Or if it is working. I tend to do the other thing and give up tickling perfectly healthy horses with feathers after about thirty seconds. I’m not sure which is worse.