Kath here. Please welcome Harry Bingham, of the U.K. based Writer’s Workshop, to WU today. Harry is a best-selling novelist and non-fiction author (check out his impressive and prolific list of books), and his Writer’s Workshop has been successful in helping writers negotiate the tricky U.K. market. Harry’s book, THE WRITERS’ AND ARTISTS’ YEARBOOK GUIDE TO GETTING PUBLISHED: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR AUTHORS is his latest, and looks to be a valuable edition to the novelist’s craft library:
Written from the writer’s point of view, this is an expert guide to the process of getting published, from submitting your work and finding an agent, to working with a publishing house and understanding the book trade.
We are pleased Harry was able to guest post with us today. Enjoy!
You know the rules. First, you start to build character. Something like this:
Emma. 28 years old. Now a florist, used to be a financial analyst. Loves horse-riding, ski-ing. A few boyfriends, one of them serious. Hates swimming after sister drowned fourteen years ago.
And so on. You need to make it believable. But you also need to freshen the character up a little (so a banker turned florist, why not?), and make sure you’ve got a few of those quirky little life details – the swimming / drowning thing – that create edge and interest and individuality. Avoid clichés (flame-haired passionate Irishwomen, for example). Go on building your character up, till you’ve got enough to start writing. Then off you go. That’s characterisation sorted.
Except that somehow those rules, sensible as they are, seem to exclude everything that really matters. Take, for example, these possible character notes:
BJ is a late-twenties woman. Mildly but not seriously overweight. Social drinker, but sometimes very social. Ditto, when it comes to smoking. Uncertain self-esteem. Longs to be loved. No steady partner. Occasionally decisive, more often not. Sometimes awkward when in company, especially so with men.
DC is a mid or late thirties man. A business type. Charming, but deceitful and untrustworthy. There to bed women, not commit to them. Witty, however, and with some money and power.
There’s nothing very individual there. Nothing fresh or quirky. And if we’re honest – if we’re trying to think about this the way a literary agent or publisher would – then DC seems like the ultimate chick-lit cliché, the handsome bounder.
And that’s all true, except that then you read this:
Huh. Had dream date at an intimate little Genoan restaurant near Daniel’s flat.
‘Um … right. I’ll get a taxi,’ I blurted awkwardly as we stood in the street afterwards. Then he lightly brushed a hair from my forehead, took my cheek in his hand and kissed me, urgently, desperately. After a while, he held me hard against him and whispered throatily, ‘I don’t think you’ll be needing that taxi, Jones.’
The second we were inside his flat we fell upon each other like beasts: shoes, jackets, strewn in a trail across the room.
‘I don’t think this skirt’s looking well at all,’ he murmured. ‘I think it should lie down on the floor.’ As he started to undo the zip he whispered, ‘This is just a bit of fun, OK? I don’t think we should start getting involved.’ Then, caveat in place, he carried on with the zip. Had it not been for Sharon and the fuckwittage and the fact I’d just drunk the best part of a bottle of wine, I think I would have sunk powerless into his arms. As it was, I leapt to my feet, pulling up my skirt.
‘That is just such crap,’ I slurred. ‘How dare you be so fraudulently flirtatious, cowardly and dysfunctional. I am not interested in emotional fuckwittage. Goodbye.’
This – of course – is a chunk taken from Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary. And it’s brilliant. If you reduce the characters to notes, then, yes, they’re completely clichéd. But they’re not notes. They’re characters who sizzle with life. Although Daniel Cleaver is a handsome bounder, and though Bridget Jones is hardly un-clichéd herself, they vibrate with energy.
If a literary agent were faced with the choice of working with an author who wrote blandly about Emma, the water-loathing florist, or wonderfully about Bridget, the chick-lit cliché, then the agent will pick the latter every time.
So what lessons do you draw? First of all, character emerges from every tiny detail. Those little snippets of dialogue. The humour. Weird little choices of vocabulary. You can’t get those things from writing character notes, you just get to them by writing the character. Letting yourself sink into the moment. Finding the particular.
Secondly, authenticity matters far more than whether something is clichéd or not. In fact, clichés are bad mostly because they feel stale. If you find a way to make a clichéd character feel entirely new, then it’ll no longer have that awful ‘seen it before’ flavour.
Third, good writing always matters. Every single word of that Bridget Jones extract is carefully placed. Bridget Jones probably doesn’t speak French, but she’s pretentious enough to use the word ‘intime’. It’s a lovely little observation, simultaneously surprising and accurate. When you hear the word, you hear Bridget. That’s good writing, that is.
As it happens, I do sometimes make character notes before I write. It can be a way of gaining confidence. But the book of mine which I’ve liked the best (and which my literary agent and publishers have liked the best) is one where I started with no preparation at all. I just found my character, let her speak through me – and bam! I was off. That takes luck as well as skill, of course, and I do know I was lucky with that one. I hope you have the same luck yourself!