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Sunday, 31 July 2016

Dialogue - Transliteration, Didactism and Dialect

How to Write Dialogue


People often ask me for advice on how to write better dialogue, and I usually fob them off with vague platitudes about listening to people and reading Elmore Leonard. This is because I'd prefer them to chalk up a hit on this blog.

There's no getting around it - writing good dialogue is difficult and complicated. The way I see most people go about it, while making perfect sense on a logical level, is unlikely to be effective. This is because some of the fundamental aspects of writing dialogue are a bit counter-intuitive. Today I intend to tackle three of the basic ones: preserving the feel of the spoken word, didactic function and the minefield which is dialect.

"JUST WRITE LIKE THEY TALK" DOESN'T WORK


The Watergate transcripts are practically unreadable.
In one of my many previous jobs, I had to sit in a small room with headphones in and type up the transcript of a court proceeding. As I was listening to the defendant droning on about safety ropes and danger signs, I realised that I was actually editing his speech as I went. Don't get me wrong - I wasn't coming over all Grammar Nazi on the poor bloke - it was simply that his perfectly sound speech patterns, translated directly into prose, were pretty well unintelligible.

Of course, I can't show you what I mean by publishing the transcript I was working on, but Steven Pinker, in his excellent book: The Language Instinct, gives us a really good example using the transcripts of the Watergate recordings.

NIXON: The grand jury thing has its, uh uh uh - view of this they might, uh. Suppose we have a grand jury proceeding. Would that, would that, what would that do to the Ervin thing? Would it go right ahead anyway?

Herein lies the problem - so much of face to face dialogue is non-verbal that a strict rendition of the words actually used will generally become a collection of nonsensical sentence fragments. The writer's job, then, is to convert the spoken word into clear prose which is still suggestive of natural speech.

I think that this mainly comes down to cadence. If we look at Shakespeare or Eminem or any other great poet of human speech, we find that one of the most important factors is meter. This suggests that the rhythm of a passage of dialogue is at least as important as the content. Paying closer attention to cadence can go a long way to making dialogue sound natural without compromising meaning. The excerpt above, for example, could be rendered this way:

"This Grand Jury thing - suppose we have a Grand Jury? What do you think that would that do to the Ervin thing? Do you think it'd go right ahead anyway?"

As we can see, cleaning up the section where Nixon is floundering for a phrase makes it more comprehensible, and the use of a dash indicates his hesitation without confusing the reader with fragmentary verbiage. Additionally, we indicate the hesitant cadence of his questioning by adding words to slow down the rhythm of the questions. Adding "What do you think" and "Do you think" preserves the tentative feel of "would that, would that, what would that do", without bombarding the reader with weirdness.

To sum this point up - it's a kind of transliteration: a way of encoding rhythm, sense and feel without compromising meaning.

SHUT UP AND TELL THE STORY, BUT NOT TOO MUCH


"Let me explain to you, at great length, a bunch of stuff you should already know."
Unless you're Elmore Leonard, it's pretty safe to say that all dialogue performs a didactic function of some kind. It either has to move the plot forward, reveal relevant information or, at the very least, reveal character. If it doesn't do any of these things, the obvious question is, "Why would anyone read it?" You may very well be in love with the interplay of your two characters, but if the conversation doesn't tell the reader anything new, it will represent an annoying flat spot in your narrative. There are exceptions, of course. I mentioned Elmore Leonard, for example, whose novels tend to consist of fascinating, aimless dialogue punctuated by annoying breaks into narrative. Thing is, though - very few people are Elmore Leonard. At present, I count one.

Having said that, there are few things which feel clumsier than obviously didactic dialogue. Take any prime time television drama, for example, and you will find it littered with passages where characters are carefully explaining plot elements to other characters who should already know. NCIS is a major culprit for this, as is almost every sci-fi show ever made.

This is where careful structuring comes in. Doctor Who uses a brilliant device in the form of the Doctor's companion. The fact that there is always a clueless newbie by his side gives him practically limitless scope to explain any and every occurrence, object and character they come across. This, of course, is not appropriate to every situation, so authors need to be careful not to write themselves into a corner, so to speak.

The explanatory use of dialogue should be judicious, limited and, above all, realistic. If you encounter a passage of dialogue which sounds stilted and crap no matter what you do, it may be worth looking at what comes before and after. It could very well be that a structural failing elsewhere has forced you to insert un-saveable dialogue. Fixing this and just deleting any 'Macgyver explanations' may be the best solution.



DIALECT, INNIT?

Put simply, dialect is a nightmare. Do I use phonetic spelling? Do I do this for every word, or just indicatively for key words? And how do I choose those key words? Is it a cop-out to just mention the character has an accent and then write their speech normally? How the hell do you spell the way South Africans grunt?

I have no firm opinions on any of the above, but I do know two things. Faithfully rendering accents phonetically almost always makes for unreadable prose, and clumsiness with dialect is a guaranteed deal-breaker for readers and publishers alike. Happily, as writers we stand on the shoulders of giants. Or, to put it more bluntly, there's plenty of people we can steal from.
One of the funniest scenes in literature.
Charles Dickens, when he isn't unrealistically putting formal English into the mouths of his working class heroes, serves as a good case in point. One of his most triumphant creations is Sam Weller, the cockney manservant of the indomitable Mr Pickwick. It helped that Dickens was a Londoner, and therefore steeped to the gills in the Cockney of Victorian times. This is an important point - dialect and accent need to be approached in the same way as learning another language. Immersion is vitally important - if you haven't internalised the rhythm and feel of an accent, don't use it. It'll just be crap.

Dickens noted that the main features of the Victorian Cockney were the frequent transposition of 'V' and 'W', the dropping of 'h' and the use of different long vowel sounds. In the excerpt from The Pickwick Papers provided below, we can see how minimally, but effectively, Dickens represents this.

Here a voice in the gallery exclaimed aloud, "Quite right too, Samivel, quite right. Put it down a 'we', Lord, put it down a 'we'."
"Who is that, who dares address the court?"said the little judge, looking up.
...
"Do you know who that was, sir?"
"I rayther suspect it was my father, my lord," replied Sam.

Another example is provided by the master hand of Patrick O'Brian. The famously grumpy Preserved Killick, steward to Captain Aubrey, speaks with a thick rustic accent derived from a tiny village now swallowed up by present day London. Well before I'd watched David Threlfall's excellent realisation of Killick, I was able to hear the dialect in the character's voice. This is surprising, considering how little O'Brian does in the way of transliteration. A typical line for Killick would read thusly:

"Which it will be ready when it is ready."

It can be seen that absolutely nothing has been done to the spelling - O'Brian has merely found a telling grammatical variation (which it will) and used it to indicate a whole wealth of sound. A similar technique can be used for some Irish accents. The grammatical quirk contained in "I'll be after seeing where he is" can do great service, where phonetic rendering would serve only to confuse and annoy.

It can be seen from this that the main qualification for being able to write various accents is to know them with sufficient intimacy to be able to isolate and use their key components. Not exactly a short cut, I know, but so little with writing actually is.

THAT'S ALL FOLKS


Well, I hope you found this helpful. If you think I've missed anything, violently disagree with me on any point, or wish to inform me of a lucrative way to work from home, that's what comments sections are made for. Happy writing!

An Important Discussion



DRAMATIS PERSONAE:


ZENO: A philosopher who shoots at tortoises

SOCRATES: Another philosopher, and the only man who did not attempt to sleep with Alcibiades. Did some other stuff too.

TERRY WRIST: The newest housemate - a shadowy presence. No one has yet seen his face.


Scene

Socrates sits in the living room of their sprawling share house. He is alone, staring suspiciously at a steaming cup of tea. 

Enter Zeno

ZENO: Morning, Socco - what are you up to?

SOCRATES: Hey, Zeno. Someone left this cup of tea for me, and I don't think it's quite right.

ZENO: You don't think the cup is quite right, or the tea, or the leaving of it?

SOCRATES: Let's not start this nonsense again. We were at it three days last time. Let's just say I've developed a general distrust of herbal infusions and leave it at that.

ZENO: Fine. I don't care, anyway - I'm here on important business.

SOCRATES: Oh yes? What's that?

ZENO: Well, a member of the government, [checks his phone] one George Christensen, says that it's vitally important we have a discussion on Radical Islam.

SOCRATES: Well, if the government says so, we should probably do it. What's Radical Islam?

ZENO: Um... It's Islam that's gone radical.

SOCRATES: You'll have to do better than that.

ZENO: Well, 'radical' means wanting to change things and 'Islam' is a religion. So it's a religion that wants to change things. Yeah - that's it.

SOCRATES: I think you'll have to work on that definition.

ZENO: Whatever for?

SOCRATES: Because if you can't properly define something, you can't really say you understand it.

ZENO: You know I've never really agreed with you on that.

SOCRATES: That's probably because you think a tortoise is faster than an arrow. Anyway, let's leave that aside for now. This Radical Islam - do we have a lot of it around here?

ZENO: I don't know. But what I do know is that it's a big problem - everyone's talking about it.

SOCRATES: If everyone's already talking about it, then why is it so urgent that we have this discussion?

ZENO: I'm not sure. I just have a vague feeling of unease, is all.

SOCRATES: Surely it would make sense to investigate this 'vague feeling' before going around bothering other people with it, don't you think?

Enter TERRY WRIST, composing a Tweet on his phone as he walks past ZENO and SOCRATES.

ZENO: Hey, Terry - where are you going?

TERRY: I've got to catch a plane to Iraq. That's where I mostly work these days.

ZENO: Can it wait? We have to have a discussion about Radical Islam.

TERRY: Sorry, no. And besides, I'm pretty sure your 'discussion' doesn't affect me in any way. See you later, guys.

Exit TERRY WRIST stage left

Curtain

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Collaborative Writing, Silence and Samurai Thinking



Reading about writing these days, one might be forgiven for thinking that we're living in some kind of Romantic revival period. The creative process is almost always cast as a kind of individual communion, with the writer alone on a mountaintop or in some flea-ridden garret, feverishly searching for the sanctum sanctorum of creativity supposedly buried deep within.

This is a bit deceptive, however - thanks to film, television and the blockbuster novel, we're living in something of a golden age for collaborative writing. This means that for writers with commercial ambitions, the ability to write collaboratively is a must-have skill. Which is all well and good, but how, when you get right down to it, do you actually do it?

Well, here's some hints and tips, garnered first hand from my time collaborating on two multiple award-winning works of fiction.

OBVIOUSLY, YOU NEED A PROCESS

Have you ever been on a committee? Then you know the feeling of wanting to stab yourself in the eye with a fork as a tactic for escaping the endless, circular discussions that are the potential bane of any group dialogue. The strategies for avoiding this in your own writing group are simple. Nominate a leader, set times and deadlines for discussion, and institute a clear, fair and definitive decision making process. This way, your discussions can be directed, have a definite end time and a way to drag people off their hobby horses so everyone can get on with their lives.
Collaborative writing requires organisation. Gigantic whiteboards are optional.

But you don't need to just take my word for it. You'll see that my friends Tony McFadden, Kristen Prescott and Zena Shapter, all agree. You should check out their tips on collaborative writing as well - a quick cross reference will show that we all say pretty well the same stuff. Process, process, process. It's boring, I know, but when a bunch of individually prolific authors and collaborative artistes extraodinaire say so, it must be true.

SHUT UP AND LISTEN

Most collaborative writing efforts are going to start with a brainstorming session. If you're fortunate enough to be surrounded by some real talent, each and every member of your writing team is going to have something to say.

Remember to take time to shut the hell up.
The thing is, though, that this is iceberg time - what they say is really just the tip of an elaborate vision for the work as a whole. It is vitally important, when listening to what your fellow authors say, that you are alive to the fact of this vision. It's down to you to decode and extrapolate from the tiny fraction of their idea they are able to vocalise, and then decide whether you can accept and build on it, or if you need to pitch a different way of seeing the final product. It is impossible to attain this level of understanding if you talk incessantly, or if you are the sort of listener who's mainly thinking of what to say next. Listen actively, ask questions and, most importantly, give your whole attention to understanding both what your fellow authors are saying, and what they're leaving unsaid.

WRITE LIKE A SAMURAI

“Although this may be a most difficult thing, if one will do it, it can be done. There is nothing that one should suppose cannot be done.” 

Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai
Yamamoto Tsunetomo


Purpose, courage and unusual footwear are all samurai traits we should emulate.
It's very important that when you do finally settle down to write, all other considerations are simply ignored. Do not be paralysed by doubt, pay absolutely no attention to what you think of your own skills as a writer and especially do not worry about what you think of the skills of your other writers. Be unafraid of looking foolish, of writing terrible prose, of making mistakes - in short, be like the samurai: take decisive action and complete it no matter what.

If we sit around trying to think of elaborate or complicated ways to get things done, there is a very good chance that nothing will get done at all. The best way to get something finished is to just start it. It's easier said than done, I know, but also remember that being in a group represents a kind of safety net. If you're having an off day, or you're just not confident you can do what needs to be done, do it anyway - your fellow writers will catch you if you fall. Almost anything can be tweaked, prodded and edited into shape, but there is zero possibility of fixing a piece of writing which does not exist.

AND FINALLY

You'll notice that most of what I've had to say above has been about mentality. This is no accident - if you don't approach collaborative writing with the right mentality, it simply won't happen. No amount of organisation in the world can overcome an author who's in their own little world, or who tries to bring an unconquerable ego into the group. It's vital that each individual author sink, to some extent, their own individual visions and aspirations in order to favour the corporate goal.

If you'd like to have a look at the books we've produced by this method, here's some links.

Scribbles in the Dark

A Dolphin for Naia

Rider and The Hummingbird








Thursday, 28 July 2016

How to be Productive as a Writer


When we decide to be writers, I'm sure we all have some imagined idea of what that's going to look like. For me, I have visions of myself seated in front of a computer, alternating between the agony of composition and the triumph of completion, all pasted together into a work montage, with Eye of the Tiger playing in the background.

Reality, however, is never so kind, and I've found that without careful management, 'being a writer' can easily devolve into 'wasting time on the internet' and 'lying about your accomplishments to yourself and others'. The work montage is replaced by the failure montage, and despair, angst and self-loathing stalk the darknesses of the mind. 

This fate worse than death is actually quite easy to avoid. Here's five of the strategies which have worked best for me.

1. BE A GOOD BOSS

How to be a productive writer
Nobody likes an arsehole, so why be one?
Writing is a self directed activity. This means that, for the period during which you're writing, you're your own boss. It's important, therefore, to be a good one. Think back to all the best bosses you've had and you'll realise that they weren't the ones who let you slack off all the time, and nor were they psychotic martinets. A good boss assesses and monitors their workers' capabilities, their capacity to absorb workload, and manages accordingly. Avoid both the setting of impossible standards, and failing to set any standards at all. Create a set of achievable goals which you know you have a good probability of achieving, and remember to praise, reward and otherwise manage yourself for better results. 


2. SCHEDULE EVERYTHING (ESPECIALLY DOWNTIME)

It's best not to go 'Full Rimmer'.
A to-do list is nothing more than an aspirational wishlist which you are guaranteed not to complete. Tasks need to be linked to time. I block out all my time on an electronic calendar. This way, Google becomes my personal assistant, gently reminding me that now is the time to do this, that or the other. It's important, however, to take some time over this. I'm not saying you should go the full Arnold J Rimmer on your schedule, but basic things should be taken into account. When are you most creative? Block out this time for creation. When are other people awake and receptive? This is the time to do your calls and emails. And so on. But most importantly (and this is the thing which most people forget) you must also rationalise the time you intend to 'waste'. Everyone needs a break - time to poke around on social media, to eat, watch television and so on. Set and allocate times for this as well, otherwise your breaks will end up swallowing your whole day.

3. BE HEALTHY

It's health, Jim, but not as we know it...
This is neither the time nor the place for health advice, but that's not really the point. What I mean by this is that you should do whatever it is you think constitutes leading a 'healthy lifestyle'. It doesn't matter if you've fallen for some detox fad or think that your addiction to aerobic activity constitutes a healthy attitude to exercise. For the purposes of being more productive, it is vitally important that you consistently make and stick to decisions about your diet and exercise which make you feel virtuous. It's very, very hard to be productive if you're not happy with who you are or the way you live. 

4. ESTABLISH A ROUTINE

The less stuff you need to carry in your head, the more space you have for creative endeavour. If your goal is to artfully construct a towering edifice of existential thought and deep human pathos, the last thing you need is the additional burden of remembering every trivial detail of the travails of what we call daily life. Routine is the great saviour in this case. As much as possible, the business of daily life should be 'routinised', to borrow an ugly military term, so that minor but important things which must be done can be done on autopilot. There is simply no need to re-invent the wheel every day. If there's stuff that needs to be done at regular intervals, make those intervals as regular as possible and they will eventually require no management, and therefore no mental energy, whatsoever.



5. MAKE YOUR WORKSPACE YOUR OWN

Einstein's desk.
I am emphatically not one of the 'tidy desk, tidy mind' brigade. While I like to have a neat workspace, I'm well aware that many do not. But whether your ideal desk is uber-achiever minimalist or mad scientist chaotic, it's important that it be optimal for you. If you want things messy, have them messy. Just make sure you don't waste any time on self-recrimination and that you can put your hand on whatever you need, whenever you need it. I guess what I'm saying here is that it's foolish to try and force yourself to conform to some external standard for what your workspace should be like. My advice is to aggressively ignore everyone else and construct a space that works perfectly for you.


This list isn't comprehensive, of course, but I chose these five things because they were the base changes which needed to be made before any other strategies could be employed - the fundamentals, if you like. It's worth remembering, too, that everyone has their own strategies for optimal productivity. It's very useful to talk to other people about their process - you never know what you'll pick up. As Montaigne, or some other Frenchman, says: "We polish our minds through contact with the minds of others".




How wrong did I get that quote and attribution? Very wrong, but you get the idea...

A Matter of Opinion



DRAMATIS PERSONAE


JOE AVERAGE: A perfectly moral, decent and good citizen.

ZENO: Yes, that Zeno. Because I've always liked him.



Scene

Joe and Zeno are seated at the breakfast table reading the morning papers. Sunlight filters in through the windows of their comfortable suburban home. The distant sound of lawnmowers forms the drone note beneath a counterpoint of birdsong.

Joe throws down his paper in disgust. 


JOE: I can't believe  this verdict - that bastard should have been locked up for life!

ZENO: So, he was acquitted?

JOE: What? No, of course not! But he only got three years, so he may as well have been.

ZENO: Ah, I see - it's the sentence, not the verdict, which has upset you.

JOE: Oh, for god's sake, Zeno - why are you so fussy with words? Don't you know it's every man's inalienable human right to be lazy and inept with language and still expect to be perfectly understood? Words! They're the sly, tricksy weapons of the media elite. They just don't matter.

ZENO: Really? No, I wasn't aware. Well, in that case: Banana paradox flugelhorn Frenchman sultana.

JOE: Are you having a stroke?

ZENO: How could you not understand me? I was saying very clearly, in my own personal and therefore perfectly valid way, that I believe communication is futile unless we first agree what words actually mean. Did you not get that? My, how pedantic you are about words, all of a sudden.

JOE: Okay, you can be as clever as you like...

ZENO: Thank you. I intend to.

JOE: ...as clever as you like, but it doesn't change the fact that three years is a bloody outrage. Look - the front page of the Tele says it is, so it must be. I just can't understand what the judge was thinking.

ZENO: Really? I read the judgement and it all seemed perfectly clear to me.

JOE: What are you talking about? Is this another one of your philosophical tricks? You know, I tried that thing with the turtle and the arrow and it didn't work at all.

ZENO: Logic is not life. Anyway, 'judgement', in this context, refers to the document wherein judges outline their specific reasons in law for the sentences and/or verdicts which they hand down.

JOE: I stop listening when people use words like 'context' and 'wherein'. Only experts and smart people use those words, and they're never worth listening to.

ZENO: They write down why they did what they did.

JOE: Yeah, right. So what's that got to do with anything?

ZENO: You said you didn't understand what the judge was thinking. Reading the judgement might be a good start, don't you think?

JOE: No. I don't. I just emote. And it's everybody's inalienable right to emote on the basis of inchoate feelings of outrage, formulate that emotion with incoherent and imprecise language and then call the products of this process a 'considered opinion'.

ZENO: I see. Well, exercising this right and going by your process, it is my considered opinion that you are a scabrous, mentally handicapped, deaf mute donkey. On that basis, there is absolutely no need to ever speak or listen to you again.


Curtain

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Reality Plays - An Immigration Conversation




DRAMATIS PERSONAE

INTELLI GENT: A disembodied intellect, utterly alone


POLSCI: An organism grown in a sealed hothouse, expert in all things political


VOX RATIO: A disembodied voice, trapped in a soundproof box


VOX POP: A foot long Subway sandwich imbued with the power of speech


Act 1 Scene 1


A hush falls over the stage as INTELLI GENT, POLSCI et al realise that VOX POP is about to speak. They look at VOX POP with trepidation, but without effect, as VOX POP is aware of neither the spelling nor the meaning of the word 'trepidation'.

Trumpet Fanfare, spotlight on VOX POP, who stands alone in the splendid isolation of his echo chamber.


VOX POP: Can you imagine, right, what it'd be like if we, like, let all the Moslems in?

INTELLI: [pauses] I imagine it would be quite crowded.

VOX POP: Yeah! I mean... what? Whaddayamean? Why don’t you ever say anything that makes any sense? You ivory tower, university qualified, know-nothing, know-it-all who knows nothing!

INTELLI: Well, for a start, our population would instantly grow by about 1.6 billion people, which would represent a significant and sudden increase.

POLSCI: We’d have to build a huge amount of infrastructure – I’m pretty sure that even ‘Big Australia’ advocates would admit that an injection of population that large would overwhelm any current or future capacity for this country to sustain population. It would probably mean taking the regrettable step of raising taxes on individuals by about 170%. It’s all good, though, as we’ll offset that and create economic growth by reducing company tax to, um… let’s see… minus 300%.

VOX POP: Shut up, dickhead. No-one cares.

INTELLI: And then there would be the expense. As far as I’m aware, no more than a few millions of this total figure are actually displaced or attempting to migrate, so we would need to purchase quite a lot of military and logistical hardware in order to bring them here by force. You’d have to talk to POLSCI for the exact numbers.

VOX POP: I can’t be bothered with facts and figures. I just know how I feel, and how I feel is terrified about terrorism.

INTELLI: Well, if we had a sudden influx of 1.6 billion people, I’m pretty sure terrorism would be the least of our problems. I think the primary issue would be total and complex societal collapse.

VOX POP: So I’ll finally be able to use all those doomsday supplies? I’m glad they won’t go to waste – you know how much I care about value for money.

VOX RATIO: [inaudible]

VOX POP: What did he say?

POLSCI: Not sure – I only caught something about “false premise”.

VOX POP: Typical. Vox Ratio’s never got anything really interesting to say – nothing you can get really frightened or excited about. And he’s always trying to ruin it when you’ve found some really juicy piece of outrage to chew on. I mean, seriously, what an arsehole. Oh look, he’s yelling now.

INTELLI: I think we should hear what he has to say.

POLSCI: I dunno. If Vox Pop doesn’t want to hear it, then I probably don’t either. Actually, I do, but I don’t want to upset Vox Pop in case he evicts me from his house.

INTELLI: I think he’s saying something about “talking at cross purposes”.

VOX POP: What? What does that even mean? Actually, I don’t care. Just drop this curtain over his box, will you? The day I listen to that killjoy is the day the world ends.



Curtain







Monday, 25 July 2016

"Make Your Characters Live" And Other Writing Platitudes

I spend a lot of time hanging out with writers. Not in a smoke-filled coffee house, absinthe-sipping kind of way, but in a spotty nerd online in his mother's basement way.
What 'hanging out with writers' really looks like most of the time.

Now that's cleared up, it's probably time to get to the point - which is that I come across quite a lot of writing advice, much of it to do with how to write good characters. Most of this advice is along the lines of "make your characters live" or "when your characters do stuff you didn't plan, then you know you're on the right track."

This is annoying on several levels. As advice, it's utterly useless. The first example doesn't actually mean anything and the second is both unhelpful and not necessarily true. And all of it together is a bit like being a boxer's corner man and offering something like, "Hit him quite a lot and really hard." It's basically answering a question about how to do something with vague instructions as to what should be done.

So let's talk about the how.

When writing fiction, what we're mainly trying to do is create an experience for the reader. I'm aware that many people who write fiction are doing so because they feel compelled to elucidate their grand and unique vision of the universe, or because they think it's a cheap replacement for therapy, but I'm mainly concerned with people who want to write good stories. And those people are as much or more about the story and the reader as they are about their own special inner specialness.

In creating an experience for the reader, what we ordinarily do is provide a proxy consciousness in the form of the narrator. This means that the narrator, regardless of the 'person' being used, needs to perceive and conceive in a way that is familiar, or at least understandable, to the reader. Let's take the example of walking into a room. When we enter a room, most of us do not make a detailed accounting of every single object within, and nor do we completely ignore these objects until we wish to interact with them. The eye falls naturally and in a predictable way. We obtain an impression of size, note key pieces of furniture and decoration and any people who might be inside. Sometimes, we take note of what can be seen out the window. Given this, it should be a relatively simple matter to describe a room. All that need be done is to consciously emulate the normal pattern of the moderately observant eye, and then remember to add in anything which might be crucial to the plot.

A prose description is not a detailed catalogue. Unless, of course, you're writing a catalogue.
Or if your name is Andy McNab.
The same principle applies for characters. One should ask the question, "Of what, in fact, does another person's existence consist?" Examined clearly, the answer tots up to a surprisingly short list. When we 'know' a person, this knowing consists of little more than a jumble of impressions and images held within our minds. Generally speaking, our experience of the 'other' is limited to just a few telling aspects. A signature context or environment, one or two physical mannerisms, a habit of speech, some dominant characteristics - stupidity and a quick temper, for instance. Layered on top of this we might have a vague idea of their beliefs, profession, some likes and dislikes and one or two signature ways of moving or walking, though usually only if we know them quite well.

Given that our narrator is a sort of proxy consciousness, and that this consciousness should be recognisable to a reader, then creating a believable, life-like character is actually pretty simple. All we need do is re-create those aspects of another person which make up the existence of others as it is experienced within our own minds. Some writers put these elements in a spreadsheet of some sort and tick them off as they are revealed through action and dialogue, whereas others use a less accountancy-based approach. Either way, it doesn't really matter. The essential thing is that no amount of laboriously telling the reader who someone is, no potted biography, no matter how detailed, is ever going to measure up to a method which echoes the memories and experience of your own consciousness and, by extension, the reader's.

Collaborative Writing: How Hard Can It Be?

Over the years, you may or may not have noticed that something called the Northern Beaches Writers' Group regularly makes the ill-advised decision to include me in the creation of a collaboratively written children's book.

This is part of the Write a Book in a Day challenge, where writers and illustrators write, illustrate and bind a book within twelve hours, all to raise money for the fight against childhood cancers. Well, last Saturday we assembled at our secret fantasy factory and did just that, emerging at the end of the twelve hours with a book about a magical spider amulet, sinister secret societies and a time-travelling convict.

The work begins...
Of course, the process of writing a book in such a short time, and collaboratively at that, can only be described as fraught. To steal a line from one of my favourite Dark Age chroniclers: "A great many things keep happening, some of them good, some bad."  

When we all rocked up at stupid o'clock, the general mood was upbeat. Much food and many excellent baked goods had been brought, confidence was high and nobody was hungover or at all worried about spending twelve hours on a non-smoking site. Nobody.

As a group of seasoned, multiple award-winning WABIAD veterans, there wasn't quite as much naked terror in the room as one might have expected. When the email dropped in, we were relaxed, confident, and ready to roll. We were to write about a spider, an escaped convict, a beautician and rubbish tip. This author kept his mouth resolutely shut for the first minutes of the brainstorming session, being utterly determined to keep anything resembling a robot or a military vehicle out of it.

No robots were created in the making of this book.
What we ended up with was a tale which spanned two centuries, several cultures and, because I was there, included firearms and humorously stereotypical Chinese secret societies. We cracked into writing, I cracked into feverishly deleting passages containing profanity, death and sex (I kid you not) and then we all settled back for our first read through.

This is where it gets interesting. As we read through each chapter, it became apparent that not a single one of us had come away with a common understanding of the (admittedly quantum physics complex) plot line. Devastation! Disaster! Something else beginning with 'D'!

With a lesser, merely mortal group of authors, we would have expected something like this to happen:


But no - this is the legendary NBWG. Everyone took a breath. I consumed half a pound of nicotine gum, and a discussion took place in which everyone's politeness instantly attained an elaborate, Jane Austen level of intensity. Plot holes were identified, compromises made, faults eagerly admitted and gnawing, soul-destroying anxiety and rage carefully hidden. In short, we smiled, communicated and then formed like Voltron to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

We all settled down to work again except, of course, for me. My chapter containing nothing but a firefight and some people shouting at each other, I filled the time by adding another firefight and doing a last minute check for profanity, etc. Rather dishearteningly, I found some. Then, after a mere three and half hours, we had converted eight more or less disconnected chapters from wildly different books into a seamless and compelling tale.

A brilliant bunch of professionals. And some bloke with a ponytail.
And this is really what this post is about. I've been collaborating with these people for so long that I now take the process for granted. This is very, very wrong. Some very special qualities are required for successful collaborative writing, and all of our team has these in spades. Faced with a potential disaster, every single one of them sunk their egos, pride and irritation, negotiated from positions of extreme generosity and never once lost their tempers, even consenting to accept advice from a seething Chinese person mumbling through a huge mouthful of Nicabate.

I know that the usual practice is to simply panegyrise everyone involved, over-use exclamation points and thank everyone and everything it is possible to think of, up to and including the weather, the traffic and people who weren't involved in any way. But that would be to miss an opportunity to showcase just how profoundly impressive the NBWG team actually is.

If you want a more detailed breakdown of the collaborative process, with special emphasis on recovery, watch this space - one will be coming out very soon, using our book "The Time of the Jade Spider" as a case study.

If you want to sponsor us (and I know you do), you can still do so until the end of August.

The link is: https://www.writeabookinaday.com/findschools.php?state=NSW

The team is: Northern Beaches Writers' Group

And the cause is a fantastically good one.