Showing posts with label Rowena House. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rowena House. Show all posts

Friday, 15 January 2021

A theory of life, the universe & writing. Sort of - by Rowena House


Fifteen years after starting to write fiction seriously, I’ve at last come up with a rough model of how the creative process sort of works for me, a theory that excludes the word writing– an absence that may explain why the work-in-progress largely remains a work-in-imagination (plus reams of notes) umpteen years after the idea for the story first grabbed me.


There are four elements to this model: research, planning, drafting and editing. They’re not discreet stages.  In fact, there’s nothing linear about this method: it’s fluid and iterative – to use a favourite word.


You could describe it as an inverted pyramid, with the research layer at the top, offering the broadest range of creative options, narrowing down through the planning and drafting layers, until the pyramid reaches the final, narrowest editing stage where all (autonomous) creative decisions have been made.


In reality, a pinball machine might be closer to the truth, with every creative decision pinging more questions into the game, with the answers to be researched afresh, planned for, incorporated into drafts or discarded as irrelevant and/or tosh.


To work in such a fluid (not to mention slow) way, you have to be free to move between each layer at will, revisiting plans and drafts, going deeper into the research, and revising the entire story as and when necessary.


Booker prize-winner George Saunders likened his writing technique to turning the course of a super-tanker one incremental shift at a time. At first, I didn’t think it would be this way with historical fiction, even though Mr Saunders was talking about his nineteenth-century novel Lincoln in the Bardo at the time.


My WIP is based on real events, so a lot of the plot is pre-determined, but inspiration and influences about the characters and their motivations are arriving from all sorts of sources – music, chance encounters, a radio interview, art criticism, a fierce, feminist argument about trans rights – as well as more formal research and planning.


So yes, he’s right. The creative process is incremental, too.


To date, the main stumbling block to the kind of research I’d like to do for the WIP has been travel restrictions due to Covid19. The story is set in 17th century Lancashire and London, and while you can do a lot of desk research these days, you can’t know what it feels like to stand on a particular hill, in a particular month, during a specific phase of the moon, unless you go there and climb the hill yourself.


Getting this kind of subjective sense-perceptions of place – its heat, light, wind, sounds, scents, the steepness of a hill, the damp of a dungeon – has, hitherto, been my first step when starting a story. 


This time around, I told myself I was just making excuses about not being able to travel, but then I learnt that neuroscience says a deliberate opening up to subjective, unexpected experiences is a precursor to creativity, enabling that part of the brain which makes original connections and creates ‘eureka moments’.


So I’ve stopped beating myself up about being a ridiculously slow fiction writer, and will this year simply snatch whatever inspiration comes along from wherever.


One piece of inspiration I’ll certainly take forward into 2021 is author Hisham Mattar’s advice on creative openness, delivered during his Arvon Foundation writing masterclass last July.


He said that without it, writers risk getting trapped by their original intentions. To access our deeper levels of intuitive invention, he advised against planning the first draft at all. While that seems a step too far into the unknown, it’s all grist to the mill.


Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to hear Max Porter’s take/s on the subject of how to approach fiction in his Arvon masterclass on 21 January, given the title of his talk is:  Think like a publisher/Don’t, whatever you do, think like a publisher. Should be good!


@HouseRowena on Twitter

Rowena House Author on Facebook





Tuesday, 15 December 2020

The Writing Gift - by Rowena House


For December, I want to be festive and positive, despite Brexit and Covid19 and Climate Change. Here, I wanted to say how precious the good things are in bad times. Family. Home. Nature. Writing.

Our new puppy brightens the future and softens the shadows of grief.

Sadly, I can’t force festive positivity today. It’s Monday morning, and the piece I drafted on Sunday is trite, with a naff extended metaphor about writing as a gift. What can I salvage from it?

Writing has been a gift this year. Not the doing of it; that’s been hard for a lot of us. But planning the work-in-progress, however slowly and sporadically, provided the time and head space to investigate and imagine, to analyse and gain perspective.

This Yuletide I’m planning to light a candle to whatever ancestors bequeathed us writers with the genetic code for curiosity of mind, plus the ability and drive to turn thoughts into words.

This quote, attributed to Jack Kerouac, sums up this end-of-year feeling nicely: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” 


I’m also deeply grateful for the sense of connection with other writers throughout the year. Thank you especially to writer friends for long, supportive phone calls, and to Arvon for Zoom masterclasses. Writers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have kept open windows into our world, too. Thank you.

As I blathered on about yesterday (having googled writing as a gift), creativity is also about giving. If the ideas and insights we get from research, planning and plotting are what we receive, it is the stories we create out of them that we give back.

See? I said it was trite. Nevertheless, in difficult times, I find that separation reassuring.

The intrinsic value of writing (the received bits) can stand alone for now; there’s no need to worry about findings readers or pitching to editors; that way madness lies.

It’s OK, too, if the forge of inspiration turns out to be stone cold (to mix metaphors, soz.)  Just stack the ore of the story into a corner; there’ll be time to sift through it one day.

A form of giving that’s been hard to accomplish this year is teaching creative writing. I hugely admire all of you who’ve kept going remotely. Young people need to express their thoughts and feelings more than ever. Congratulations if you gave them that gift.

Ordinarily, I try to develop these blogs into something worth reading, but the puppy needs walking, logs brought in (our central heating boiler died), There are business calls to make, an invoice to be emailed, then we've got to go to my elderly dad's.

The Christmas tree is still in its pot in a quiet corner of the garden where it lives between its short weeks of glory, and for a few more days the decorations will have remain in their boxes.  

Meanwhile, I hope you are better prepared. More festive and positive. Feeling resilient in the face of whatever 2021 will fling at us.

I wish you as happy a midwinter festival as your circumstances allow, and send love to those grieving, sick, fearful, hungry or homeless here and abroad.

May the New Year be a creative, caring time for you and yours.

Sunday, 15 November 2020

Back to basics: suspense - by Rowena House

Suspense happens in the stillness of your story, in the gaps between the action sequences, in the moments between the promise of something dreadful and its arrival.’

The value of this advice from thriller writer Steven James came home big time the other day as I yawned my way through a film on Netflix featuring a young Laura Croft overcoming one gigantic calamity after another without the benefit of an actual plot.

IMHO, the scriptwriters should have taken note of Mr James’s view that, ‘Contrary to what you may have heard, the problem of readers being bored isn’t solved by adding action but instead by adding apprehension. Instead of asking, “What needs to happen?” ask, “What can I promise will go wrong?”’

Personally, I’m going to nail ‘What can I promise will go wrong?’ above my writing desk. Here’s the link if you’d like to read his article for the Writers’ Digest in full:

As well as a planning tool, I found it an excellent checklist of techniques to shoehorn suspense into a dragging scene. For example...


Applying his advice to ‘include more promises and less action’ injected much-needed adrenalin into a reworked opening for the work-in-progress: a night-time chase through the moonless, torch-less streets of 17th century York.

Counter-intuitively, editing out most of the action and focussing on the protagonist’s psychological reactions to his sinister pursuer highlighted the drama of the moment far more than choreographing the pursuit itself.

Analysing why the edit worked better than the original plot- and setting-based scene flagged up an unexpected answer to a question that’s occupied me a lot this year. That is, what are the limits of intuition when planning and drafting a novel?

Specifically, at what point does the practical business of putting words in order demand answers to fundamental questions about genre, psychic distance, voice and point-of-view?

In practice, adding suspense imposed a voice on the scene, one that created intimacy with the protagonist and bought the psychic distance closer: we’re inside Tom’s head, experiencing his fear.

Was that planned or pantsing? Neither, really. It was a matter of making a creative decision, then seeing where it led. In this case, technique + intuition = an editable scene. Ye-ha.

Googling ‘suspense’ threw up more generic advice, like ‘building suspense involves withholding information and raising key questions that pique readers’ curiosity.’

A lot of blogs refer to Alfred Hitchcock’s model of suspense, a ticking time-bomb under a table, where the audience can see the bomb is about to go off but the characters at the table can’t. Here’s a nice piece using this model to talk about the difference between surprise and suspense:

Robert McKee in Story uses different terminology for these techniques. He says suspense builds when “characters and audience move shoulder to shoulder through the telling, sharing the same knowledge’ and neither knows how events will play out. This builds audience empathy with the protagonist; we care about the outcome of the story as well as being curious.

McKee calls the next step up (where the audience knows about a danger before a character) dramatic irony. ‘What in Suspense would be anxiety about the outcome and fear for the protagonist’s well-being, in Dramatic Irony becomes dread for the moment the character discovers what we already know and compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.’

For film-makers, it’s relatively easy to share ‘hidden’ knowledge with an audience through the omniscient eye of the movie camera. For the novelist, this technique begs questions about viewpoint and the number of narrators, since a reader can’t know more than a first person protagonist, or a very close third, unless you allow for prologues or other ‘telling’ devices.

And there we are, back to the basic questions I’m still asking about the WIP.

At the moment, it’s being told in close third person present, with multiple viewpoint characters, so McKee’s dramatic irony is an option. More importantly, however, the opening scene must engage empathy and pique curiosity, and suspense was definitely the missing ingredient in its earlier iterations.

It’s been fun as well as useful to go back to basics this month, rediscovering things I’d forgotten and stumbling across the new. I’d love to hear how and where you use suspense, and if it comes naturally to your storytelling.

In the meantime, happy writing – if lockdown allows.


Twitter: @HouseRowena


PS I did a live interview about The Goose Road for Hillingdon Libraries on Armistice Day. If you fancy a gander, I’ve posted a copy of the recording onto my Facebook page: