Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Some questions and answers from my sessions in Rio

Q: Will you set a story in Rio de Janeiro?

A: Yes I will. Setting is a very important part of writing a story for me. I often think 'I would like to set a story here' without having any specific idea of what that story will be. A good setting - real or imaginary - brings a story alive. You have to believe in the location, both as reader and writer, as it is the stage on which all the action takes place. I like to set my creepy stories in places I have actually visited because it helps me to visual and therefore describe it. These places do not have to be creepy in themselves - or not in an obvious, spooky old graveyard kind of a way. Some places just inspire me to write. Rio is such a place. When you have a story to write, try setting it in a familiar location one time. You will be surprised at how easy much of the writing will be once you have the setting sorted out in your mind.

Q: Where do you get you ideas from?

A: From every book I've read, movie I've seen, place I've been, dream I've had, event I've witnessed, experience I've had or heard about from other people. But though ideas are important they are often ideas for scenes or themes, rather than ideas for the story. An idea might be something like 'A boy who goes to a school where they train wizards', but the resulting story might by Harry Potter or the very different A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. Don't get too hung up on ideas. Often it is better to think about the type of story you want to write, the kind of characters you would like to write about, the location or even the theme - then ideas might start suggesting themselves. Write a story that excites you and then the chances are it will excite the reader. Bore yourself and you will bore your poor reader. If a teacher sets a story, try and pull it towards something you find exciting or interesting. It will be easier to write and it will be more fun to read.

Q: How long does it take to write a book?

A: Not surprisingly it depends on the length of the book. There may be three or four months of writing, but that might come after two or three years of kicking ideas around in my head. Some of the stories in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror have been in notebooks for nearly thirty years. Historical fiction takes longer because of the research. And after it is written, there is then the equally important editing process. You need to get into the habit of doing this yourself. School children have a reluctance to change things - but that is a vital part of writing. All writers make changes. Don't see it as correcting mistakes - see it as fine-tuning an engine to make it work better or weeding a garden to make it look more beautiful.

Q: When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?

A: I wrote a short story called 'Journey to the Moon' when I was about 8 or 9 and entered it in a newspaper competition and won a medal (which I still have). It was then that I told my teacher that I wanted to write and illustrate my own book when I grew up. It took me another 30 years or so to actually achieve this! I did do it though. If you have a dream - to be a writer or a footballer or a ballet dancer - then try not to give up on it.

Q: How do you think of names for a character?

A: Naming characters is a tricky thing. People in real life just have the names they were given, but in a story names seem to become part of their character. Writers like Dickens exploit this by giving their characters names that seem to be descriptive - Scrooge for instance. An easy way to save time and find believable names is by grabbing the nearest telephone directory or turning to the index of a non-fiction book. You can simply use a name as it is or mix two names. The characters in my strip cartoon (Payne's Grey) are all named after small towns and villages in England - Brampton Bryan, Lownie Moor, Much Dewhurst, Gradely Green etc.

Q: I have an idea for a story but I don't seem to be able to get started. Do you have any tips?

A: Writers have different views on planning a story, but I think when you are learning to write it is a good idea to have some structure before you set off, even if you discard it as you go. The longer the piece, the more this helps. The shorter a piece, the more tightly plotted it tends to be. Ask yourself - What are the stand-out scenes in my story? How will it start? Where will it end? Who is in my cast of characters? How will the character or characters be changed by the events in my story? Does my story have a theme - is it about bullying or friendship, say - and is that going to come through? If you still can't get started, try writing something else - a different kind of story - and see if that helps. The more you write the easier it will become. Don't get too attached to ideas - maybe the reason you can't get started is because your idea is not a good one. It is better to accept that before you write your huge novel!

Q: How do you make a scary scene work?

A: The rules for making a scary scene are similar to making any scene work - the preparation has to be in place. A common technique in horror is to crank up the tension, then relax the reader, then - bang - you hit them with the scary scene. But just like a joke is not just about the punchline, but about how we get to the punchline, don't make the mistake of thinking it is enough to have a gory scene. If you haven't prepared the reader it will not work. Besides, gory can just be revolting rather than scary. Sometimes it is more scary to lead the reader into a dark room and let them hear something scuffling about, or let them see something out of the corner of their eye than to show them a headless body (though that can be scary too, of course).

Q: How do you write action?

A: To carry on with the answer from the last question, a lot about how a scene reads is in the way it is written. Fast action is going to read that way if the sentences and paragraphs are short, for instance. Think about the sound of the words too. But just as with scary scenes, a story that is all action with no rests will be exhausting. Read your story out loud. Do this whatever you write. Does it sound right? If it sounds wrong, the chances are it will read wrong. Is that sentence too long to say comfortably. Is it slowing the action down? Is the dialogue believable? Is it clear what's going on? Don't use more words than you need to, but make sure they are the right ones for the job.

Q: Do you think of the beginning to a story first and work through?

A: Rarely. Often with creepy stories, it is the ending that comes first and the story is all about how we get there. But the start of a story is massively important. You need to grab the reader's attention and make them want to read on. The quicker you can establish your character/s and what kind of story it is, the better. Dickens' opening line in A Christmas Carol is a good example:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

He has introduced a character, set the mood and grabbed our attention - all with six words.

Q: Lots of books I read seem to get bogged down with detail. How do you stop this happening?

A: I'm not sure I always get that balance right myself. Detail is a problem when writing historical fiction. Not enough and the period you are writing about will not seem convincing; too much and you will bore the reader and make them feel you are giving them a history lesson. Clearly if a book has too much detail it will get tiring to read, but usually stories by school children do not have enough. There is a reluctance to write more than is absolutely necessary, despite the fact that it is detail that often makes a story convincing. Try not to 'tell' the reader what is happening or what a character is feeling, try to 'show' this in the story. Obviously make sure your detail is contributing to the story and not detracting from it. But don't assume that we are going to know that Mary is tall and thin, or the house has arched windows, if you don't tell us. The more important something is to the story, the more precise you have to be with the detail. The more fantastic the world you create, the more help we will need as a reader.

No comments:

Post a Comment