Your characters are most obliging about bringing you the best story ideas. JK Rowling once said that she was sitting on the train one day and Harry Potter walked right into the carriage, lightning scar and all, and that was where it all began.
I got some help that way in a very different setting. I was hanging about in a lowish rent care home corridor, waiting to help move an enormous television into an elderly acquaintance’s new bedroom. I liked the staff and the friendly women who sat in the corridor chatting, just as if it were a park. Corridor Park.
I asked myself, What if I lived here? What on earth would I do with myself? How do you wake up every morning knowing that people are responsible for you, but you are responsible for nothing but agreeable behaviour towards those around you (there seemed to be some possibilities for rebellion here). We all need a good reason for getting out of bed in the morning. What would that be?
Just then Mrs Stella Ryman entered Corridor Park. I wondered, could watching television get a person through the day? Heavens, no. Complaining about the food? Possibly. But by this point Stella had a better idea. And so she became… (tag line approaching)… an amateur sleuth, trapped a down-at-heel care home.
Stella Ryman. You’d be cranky too.
Stella Ryman and the Case of the Vanishing Resident can be found in Pulp Literature
Pacing is a tricky learning curve for some, like me. Other writers seem to have an intuitive feel for it and know just when to give us that beautifully painted descriptive passage that informs character and even moves the story along. Whenever my co-editors Jen and Sue read their work during our Writing Circles sessions, I’m always gobsmacked at the brilliance of their pacing.
How often we read this criticism of novelists and short fiction writers: “Too much description.” Although sometimes that’s right on, more frequently I find that description is misplaced. One of the ways a master storyteller shows his or her skill is by knowing where a descriptive passage works, and where it must not set one painted toe.
And it’s worth learning where in story structure these places are. For example, during the quiet moments where the character is finding that he or she is not what she was, description adds to the importance of the moment, and of course you want to get out the brush and paints when you’re drawing out a reveal moment (the unopened letter’s in his hand, the stranger’s on her doorstep). GG winner Joan MacLeod nails the placement in her perfect story ‘The Salt Tour’ in Issue 3 of Pulp Literature. Best selling thriller writers like Lee Child are masters at knowing exactly when to use description and figurative language and you can examine a book chapter by chapter to see where he’s placing action, description and figurative language. For a perfect example of description informing plot, conflict, and character, take a look at the moment Harry Potter first enters Hogwarts dining hall.
I think of description like caesura in music. Stop on the wrong bar, it’s a hand in the face. When it’s rightly placed, wow.
It seems to me that living our writing life is has a lot in common with embracing other passions. But how are we using those moments—to worry or enjoy? It’s natural to think about our passions a lot.
A loving parent can spend his time worrying about his daughter and son, or he can use that time and energy to think up fantastic and memorable ways to spend his hours with them. This is what David Bond did to create Project Wild Thing and the movie he released last year.
A gifted musician can worry about all the money she’s not making, or she can use that time to play her work to anyone who wants to listen. This is what Bob Dylan did in Greenwich Village, and when the opportunity to record his first album appeared almost without warning, he sat down in the studio and played the songs straight off.
A writer can spend his time worrying about failure and obscurity, or he can think about his present and upcoming works with excitement and anticipation, planning for the next time his pen will meet paper. Imagine JK Rowling, single mom on benefits, dreaming up the tapestry of detail and character that would become Harry Potter’s world.
The less time we use up on anxiety, the more time we have to enjoy and inhabit what we love.
How fortunate we writers are. Although it may sometimes seem that we have little control over our drafting time, we are privileged to have complete control over our dreams, and dominion over the the worlds we create.
Chronicles: Volume 1. Bob Dylan. Simon and Schuster. 2004.
Project Wild Thing. David Bond.
Harry Potter Series. JK Rowling, probably on your bookshelf already.