A Full tin of Quality Street
It came to me the other day, two thirds of the way through my children’s novel, fourth draft, that my story was beginning to feel like a full tin of Quality Street, bursting with colour and flavour, instead of a third full tin with left over Strawberry Delights and Orange Creams (you know, the ones no-one wants unless they are desperate and the house is empty of all other sugar stuffed morsels)… those… and that! But full tins of lusciousness don’t happen overnight, or easily, do they? In fact, it was only a couple of weeks ago, during the first half of this fourth draft that I even realised that my story was the third full tin. A few things happened to change that.
Firstly, I read a very interesting post of well-known writers’ tips for other writers (which you can read here). There were a few that really resonated with me, those of Paul Theroux, Maya Angelou and Neil Gaiman who says (I have summarised here): “Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you… but you are the only you.” This really hit a nerve with me as I frequently read other people’s work and think it’s better than anything I will ever produce – huge writing self-esteem is not something I possess, and I think a lot of writers can relate to that. But, as Neil says, it’s the story that matters, and the story in each writer is unique. You know when you have one of those moments, as if someone has poured precious golden liquid inside your head? Well, that! Needless to say, I have pasted his words on to my desktop to remind me, in those darker moments, that all I have to do is tell my stories.
Having recognised that I needed to tell my story, I began to wonder what was holding me back from doing so with this current work in progress. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There was something missing. Actually, there was more than one thing missing. I had confidence in the concept, I had confidence in the plot… but there was something else, and it was blooming frustrating because I couldn’t for the life of me work out what it was.
During the above, I’d been re-watching the Harry Potter films over a period of evenings. Following these I watched another film – Lemony Snicket’s – A Series of Unfortunate Events. I had a light bulb moment. Actually, I had two, and both were to do with character. Now, normally, my stories are character driven and initial ideas stem from a strong sense of character. Suddenly, I realised that this hadn’t been the case with this story. Of course! Didn’t I say I was happy with the concept and the plot? What I realised, from watching these films, was that my protagonists were too two-dimensional, and there weren’t enough characters in the story for them to relate to and for the reader to see more of them through.
The realisation that there weren’t enough characters came from watching the Harry Potter films. I read the books a long time ago, but here’s a thing – films give you something else. We tend to compare films to books and think that the film of a book is inferior to the book (it generally is), but what I realised when watching these films is that we can see the character types clearly and, as a lot of the detail is removed, we get to see the way characters relate to one another. I also watched ‘The Hobbit’, and realised how much the action depended on character interaction – it suddenly seemed to jump out at me. With the detail stripped away and plot and characters laid bare, I realised – I needed more characters!
A few days later I watched the Lemonny Snicket film. I haven’t read the books, so I only have the film to go on, but when I watched it I had my second light bulb moment. If you haven’t seen it, the story begins with a bit of back story to the three main characters – Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire -a brother and two sisters. Incidentally, my story’s protagonists are a brother and sister too. The narrator also tells the listener that the older sister is an inventor – she can invent anything and ties her hair back when an invention is brewing. The brother is obsessed with books and can remember everything he reads, and the baby sister bites – anything – with her four teeth! Straight away, these characters are defined. They are instantly three-dimensional. They are recognisably ‘them’. Remember Neil Gaiman’s words – there is only one you? Cue second light bulb moment!
The above also inspired me to put together a few writing tips. Again, as mentioned earlier, there are loads of better and more experienced writers than moi, and some of the below suggestions may be blatantly obvious, but there might be one or two in here that help inspire. I hope so anyway.
● Read – you know why.
● Write – and you know why again!
● Research – even when we think in our heads we know something, maybe we don’t. I had to do a fair bit of research on horses for my current children’s novel. Some of the detail which I thought I had got right, I hadn’t, one bit of which affected the whole scene which had to be re-written. Yes, get your facts right!
● Watch films – (see above) film adaptations of books are especially helpful. The action and characters are emphasised so that you can almost see the skeleton of the writer’s story. There’s a lot of story-writing clarity to be gained from watching a film.
● Use Pinterest – never underestimate the story ideas that you can get from visual images. You can begin with an idea, a concept, then haul through Pinterest for images that fit in with your concept. You will find yourself with a whole host of new ideas for characters, settings and situations. It’s a marvel!
● Use a Dictaphone – writing is thinking put on paper isn’t it? Thinking is the hard work and the most fun part, where the ideas and problems and questions take place. Rambling into a Dictaphone is a great way of recording some of those thoughts, the ones that would slip away otherwise. I have been experimenting with this for the above manuscript and highly recommend it. Plus, you get to hear what you sound like – weird!
● Read blog posts from other writers – other writers’ blog posts are inspiring (see another post on the influence of films on writing from Julia Munroe Martin here.) They also help you to feel part of a community of writers, and they are often full of hints and tips. Plus you get to see other writers’ experiences. We can learn a lot from them.
● Get out and about – I don’t mean writing in other places, although I would recommend this – I find station platforms and trains particularly inspiring – just get out and ‘be’… walk, go on a swing, drive somewhere you’ve never been before – it’s amazing how ideas will spring up when you free your mind from the clutter of everyday life.
● ‘People watch’ and listen – sit in cafes and stare rudely at people, listen to their conversations, look at what they’re wearing and how they communicate with one another. Think about how their spoken language and interaction could be written down.
● Pursue other creative activities – by immersing yourself in other creative pursuits you harness other areas of your creativity – paint, draw, take photos, play music, garden – all of these give you head space from the words, but you’ll find writing ideas can blossom in those moments.
● Fill your tin of Quality Street – and don’t stop and don’t submit until you have!
Which films have particularly inspired your writing?