Friday, 30 March 2012

Plots, Plague and Psychoanalysis

P- Plot
Working up plot ideas.
There is lots of advice available about developing plot and themes for stories but one of the best tips I have come across was to write down thoughts as they occur, in the form of a kind of conversation. 
At the very beginning of my novel “The Witcheye Gene” I had a string of rather vague concepts but no coherent plan. So, after germinal ideas about the plague, mother love and sudden death in childhood, I decided to try out the technique that I first learnt about in David Morrell’s Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing. He recommends writing as you think through plot ideas, rather than thinking first then writing an outline. He maintains this allows a writer to have a conversation about the story without the risk of the best notions ending in the air because the ideas materialise as the writer writes and thoughts occur. The person the writer talks to is, of course, the alter ego. David Morrell says this technique, “encourages you (the writer) to delve below the surfaces of a conventional outline so that a richer book has the potential to be written.”
The question ‘why?’ seems to be the most helpful (although all the ‘W’ questions are used e.g. where, who, what, when) as it makes you think about why you want to write this particular story and why you think the plot/theme is important.  It also clearly helps with making the characters fully rounded and properly motivated.
This kind of writing is also a form of psychoanalysis and helps when the ideas just won’t move forward. I tried it and found it to be a wonderfully liberating exercise and make no apologies for the introspective nature of the discourse. My ‘Conversations’  document shows my thought processes developing the story ideas, and together with a premise, helps keep me on course when moving towards some kind of outline.   It is also extremely useful if, like me, you sometimes go off course and need to get your thoughts back into the main thrust of the story. It provides a kind of road map. Subplots can be woven in and kept in check a bit easier too.
Do you have ways of keeping on course when plotting a new story? Do you plan? Or do you just write?

Saturday, 24 March 2012

'Seeing' is believing??

O – Oracle

My dictionary defines an oracle as a divine utterance or a prophecy. It also says that it can be a word used to describe a person who has special powers to see into the future.
Certainly a great word to use if you write supernatural thrillers like myself. It always fascinates me where special (often supernatural) powers come from. People think they are quite modern words, in that supernatural tales of ‘derring do’ seem to be a recent phenomenon but, as any student of the classics will say, soothsayers (oracles) prophets and seers appeared in the tales of the most ancient of story tellers.
However, I do think you can only use something like this if the tone of the story is already set to be something out of the ordinary i.e. paranormal or supernatural elements. Otheriwse it would simply look totally contrived if a chacracter could suddenly 'see' the future.
I used the motif myself in my book ‘The Witcheye Gene’ where my heroine had the ability to ‘see’ things ordinary mortals could not see. And who is to say these people do not have that ability? I think that many of us have some small measure of extra ability that we do not always recognise. I often know when the phone will ring and know who it is… Is that second sight or just a lucky guess?
One thing I do know – there are stranger things in heaven and earth than we mere mortals are aware of…
Do you think extraordinary powers truly exist? Or do they have a logical explanation?

Monday, 19 March 2012

What's in a name?

N – Names
What’s in a name? Character, that's what...
Am I the only writer who agonises over names for days on end?  I guess I find it so difficult because I think names are so important in characterisation. They give the reader clues as to what kind of person they should expect. It may seem arbitrary as we are all given names by our parents - when they have no idea what sort of people we will eventually turn out to be.  Then again, many parents agonise over their children’s names too! We give children names and then hope their characters turn out to be what we would want for them. But in the world of fiction we try to choose names that suit the character we are trying to create.
For instance, age and era play a big part in my choices. A woman who was born early 19th century would not be called Rhianna or Stacy. Just doesn’t ring true, does it? But Arabella or Victoria does. The age of characters is also important in deciding names. I can easily imagine an older man called Hector or Jeremiah but not a young boy. I think most readers meeting a character with these names would automatically have in their mind’s eye and older man even before any physical description is given.
Whether your character is the antagonist or protagonist is also important in naming. Although sometimes one might want to increase surprise by giving an evil character an innocuous name… I think it depends on how you are trying to present your story.
Male heroes names tend to be strong masculine names – they are not usually called Fred or Bert - but female heroines may also be strong ‘no nonsense’ names too. I wouldn’t choose a name like Ophelia or Primrose if I wanted my heroine to be seen as strong and capable. But then again, it is all a matter of personal choice… In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like Ophelia!!
When we are introduced to people in real life we may be told their names but it is not the only information we have of them. We can see how they behave, what they look like and hear them speak. We can make judgements about what sort of person they are (although we may turn out to be totally wrong, of course!)
But in writing fiction we have to give a strong first impression by words only to have the reader ‘see’ our character in their mind’s eye. I believe this is why names are so important.
How much importance do you give to naming your characters? Do you agonise or go with the story and change the name later to fit the character?

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Manichean Struggle

M - Manichean

(The fight between the powers of good and the powers of evil e.g. God and the Devil)

 The world of horror writing is tied up firmly with the world of suspense writing. And, for me, every tale of horror should ultimately be about the struggle between the forces of good and evil. This struggle can be outside ourselves, as in the fight between the Devil and God (or whatever your beliefs deem him/her to be), or inside ourselves as in the fight between the good and bad in all of us.
In my opinion, this Manichean tussle is the essence of all supernatural thrillers and not the gore and senseless bloodlust you see with many ‘horror’ tales.
Some of the best horror writers in the modern era have used fear and suspense so skilfully that readers go to bed with one eye on the curtains! And yet they use no actual violence. Because ultimately fear (emotion), is in the mind of the reader. 
Horror writing, I believe, is more than mindless violence based on screams and monsters. It is the human experience woven into fear of the unknown and fetched up from the darkest corners of our minds. The world of horror writing for me is essentially the world of the everyday but with twists (maybe paranormal?) thrown in that seamlessly take the reader on a journey of ‘what if’s’ and hopefully scare the pants off them because somewhere in the deep primal subconscious we wonder ‘could it be possible?’ 
First of all horror writers must aspire to produce good fiction with all the requirements that entails, i.e. conflict, suspense, good characters, rising tension, meaningful settings, and proper resolution. Then the curtain can go up and the terror can start…

My latest book 'The Witcheye Gene' deals with the theme of good versus evil, in that the main character is fighting a very evil man who's only intention is to cause death and destruction to her family. He aligns himself with what he deems to be the devil, so he can ultimately gain more power for himself.
So what do you think? Do you prefer blood and guts or more subtle tales of terror?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

All you need is...Love

L – Love
"Hatred ever kills, love never dies" Ghandi
Where would we be without love? More to the point where would our writing be without it? For in one way or another it features in most works of fiction. When I say love I’m not just talking about the romantic notion of love, I am talking about the emotion of caring for something or someone in an unconditional way.
For me the notion of love is intrinsically linked to its opposite, hate. This dichotomy is the engine which drives most rollicking good stories. There is nothing readers like more than to ultimately see love (and other similar admirable qualities) triumph over evil. Whilst I may not write particularly romantic stories, love always features (in some form or another) in all my fiction.  
Love is one of the most basic of human emotions and we have all experienced it at some point in our lives. It is so strong that artists over the ages have written about its power in songs and verse. It is the very bedrock of human happiness and without it we would all be hard put to survive.
The most primitive and basic form of love is that of mother and child. Love is the protective umbrella that we are all reared under and mother love can - quite literally - achieve almost impossible tasks.
What a fabulous premise to underscore a great story! And what a great adversarial emotion to stand against a destructive protagonist…
In my supernatural thriller writing, ‘love conquers all’ is a frequent theme – it may be parental love, it may be romantic love or it may even be love of a belief, place or group of people.  ‘Love thy neighbour’ is also a common theme when one or more people are racing to save a population or even the whole human race. I have often heard of great sacrifice in order to save one single pet! So love at its best is a very admirable human quality that most of us understand.
 Whilst some may think it a simplistic theme, it is a mighty powerful ally in the structure of a modern story. And far from being solely the thematic concern of the romance genre, it ought (in my opinion) to suffuse all our fiction.
The antagonism of love and hate makes for rich pickings in terms of rising tension and suspense and, as fellow human beings, we can all empathise with and cheer for the main characters who think it worth fighting for.