Category Archives: setting in fiction

One writer’s metaphorical graveyard

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By Lara Áine ni Fhearghail

I’ve been dabbling in this writing lark for a while. And I do mean dabbling: short stories, bits of ideas, notebooks (piles of them) and a Documents folder on my computer that looks like the detritus of a bookshop caught in the London Riots. And honestly? I’ve never actually made it further than a short story.

fabregeI’m probably not that unusual among writers just starting out. A short story is an obvious thing on which to cut your teeth. You get a feel for your own writing, learn about tension and pace, and building characters, shaping plots, and all within a time-frame that seems reasonable. You’re not signing away years of your life in the process. Almost from the very start, you can see the end of the endeavor looming before you. Minimal emotional investment, maximum output. (Just to be clear, I’m talking about learning how to write. Obviously writing a perfect short story is about as easy as fashioning a Fabergé Egg.)

But what happens when your ideas and ambition seem to outgrow the form? Short stories may seem doable but  novels, on the other hand, are like some long, slow slog with the devil. A long, marathon across a huge expanse of wasteland, the end so far away it seems unattainable. It seems like writing with Sisyphus on one shoulder, and Tantalus on the other (or so I imagine at least.) And where, if some sudden madness compelled me, would I start anyway?

It turns out, not really at the beginning.

I was lucky enough to attend a two-day course with Keith Ridgway at the Writers’ Centre on a bleak and sleeting weekend at the end of February. The title of the course was simply, “Starting a Novel”.

There were ten of us on the course, all from different parts of the country, with very different ideas for our prospective novels. Prior to the class Keith had asked us to bring a book with us, a book that had engaged us and that we loved, and the type of book we would wish to write ourselves. The range that appeared was as wide as the possibilities, everything from literary fiction to children’s books and plenty of genres in between.

But back to this thing with beginning…It seems like the most obvious thing in the world (and I am blushing slightly with embarrassment that I had never thought about it before) but books are not written the way they are read. If there was one thing Keith tried to hammer into us over the weekend it was this: very few novels start out life in the same place the readers will eventually encounter them.

We looked at a number of examples. Very different novels, but all with beginnings that seemed almost arbitrary out of context. Starting points that the author had probably chosen long after they had begun writing. If you’re a bit like me and you obsess over the tiniest of details, of getting each sentence right before moving onto the next, this can actually feel quite revelatory to hear.

I don’t have to have every single scene plotted out. I don’t even have to know exactly how it’ll begin. Keith’s advice was simply to figure out the general shape of your novel, you might not even have a specific plot or even characters, but find the shape and let the rest take care of itself as you write.

There were plenty of other things to be gleaned from the course too. We looked at ways of generating ideas, of using other people’s writing to spark ideas of our own and spoke about the importance of feeling emotionally involved in what you’re writing, despite how teeth-chatteringly terrifying it is. We got to hammer Keith with as many questions as we could think of, and he answered them all with thoughtfulness and honesty.

But maybe my favourite piece of advice from the weekend was what Keith called ‘Writing as Performance.’ Never mind “Know Thyself,” try “Fool Thyself.” Do whatever it takes to write, even if it means convincing yourself that you’re not.

If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.

Slavoj Žižek claims to loathe writing so much that he actually pretends to never do it. He writes down ‘ideas’ and then he ‘edits’ them, until eventually it begins to look like a coherent piece of writing. Keith echoed this idea. If it helps, pretend you’re not writing at all. A large part of writing a novel is simply accumulating information. Keep going. The bigger the pile of paper you have, the better off you are. Eventually you’ll get there.

I wouldn’t claim that I walked away from the weekend with an idea that writing a novel will be easy. It’s not. It couldn’t be, or else all our inner books would’ve been let out by now. But I still want to do it, even more than before, and at least now I have some practical ideas for how to get through the most trying bits.

Also, I think I’m going to print out the contents of that Documents folder. I’ll scatter the rubble across the floor of my house, my metaphorical graveyard littered with the bodies of false-starts, and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and look at the size of it and feel like I’ve at least accomplished something. I might even find an idea there, hidden and nearly lost. You have to start somewhere, anywhere.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, courses, Creative Writing, creative writing course, How to Write A Novel, setting in fiction, writing

ON WRITING FICTION – SETTING AS FLOUR

Writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir is guest blogging at the Irish Writers’ Centre Blog for the month of June to coincide with the short story course she will teach at the Centre on the 25th and 26th of June. Tune in here every Wednesday to see what she has to say.

I was thinking lately about the novels I write, about themes and concerns that re-occur in them. What do they have in common, I wondered? I have one novel published, You (New Island, 2010), one novel-in-progess (my NIP) and a couple of failed attempts, which will live forever in that limbo where dead novels go. And here is what I realised as I pondered my obsessions as a novelist: all of the novels I have tried to complete have been about mad mothers. Well, maybe not so much mad mothers as unsuccessful mothers – women who are not very good at being mothers. And these mothers drink – they drink in public and they drink in secret. My own Ma doesn’t drink and I’m a half-bottle-of-wine-on-Friday-night kind of Mammy myself, so I’m not altogether sure where the obsession with drinking mothers comes from. And obviously that is not all that my books are about – they usually deal with the breakdown of love (separation/betrayal), and there are generally children involved.

Setting is also very important to me in my fiction. I am hugely affected by my environment – as are most people, I presume – and I like my setting to get under the skin of my characters and to be as important as the people it serves. You was set in my home place in County Dublin – I grew up across the Liffey from the Strawberry Beds. The river and the valley it runs through are crucial to that novel in terms of atmosphere and in terms of plot.

My NIP is set between Dublin and the Scottish Highlands. I worked in the Highlands for almost a year when I was younger and it has been a thrill to revisit it for the purposes of the novel. So far my visits have been imaginary and virtual; I have also been (excruciatingly) re-reading my diaries from that time. But in July I am going back there, to soak up a bit of the Scotland that I remember and to taste it anew. I feel like I couldn’t do the Scottish Highlands justice without a quick trip to make sure I am getting it right in my NIP. What better excuse for a few days away?

When I teach Creative Writing, I always urge the participants to be mindful of their fiction’s setting, both the place and the time. Characters, and their actions, have to be located in a physical reality, not in some grey nowhere. In our giddy rush to get the story down, we should never forget the importance of the setting and the atmosphere created by it. The setting, when well evoked, is like the glue that holds all the pieces together. The writer Nigel Watts has a better analogy for setting in fiction. He says: ‘The setting is like the flour in a cake: perhaps less compelling than the nuts and dried fruit, but if you forget to include flour in the recipe, you’ll have no cake.’

I like my reader to feel rooted in the story and by naming places and describing them with care, and by being succinct with detail, I think that is achievable. To that end, I keep a mini notebook on me at all times and I endlessly jot down what I observe around me. A lot of my writing ideas come to me on the edge of sleep, so I have made myself stick to the notepad beside the bed rule. It helps, particularly in the long haul of the novel, which is constantly on your mind, asking questions of you.

Jottings that have made it into my NIP include rain-flattened daffodils; the sight of hundreds of jellyfish on an otherwise empty beach; and a dead crow that hung from a wire between my two neighbour’s houses. It is funny how things present themselves just when you need them. My main character was going through a tough time and I wanted to conjure a foreboding atmosphere while showing that she was becoming slightly unhinged. I went for a walk with my baby daughter to get some clarity on the scene and I spotted the dead crow, lurid and menacing as it swung by one leg from the wire. It was the perfect detail to carry me through the scene.

So, if you want to write believable fiction, here are a few tips: be nosey and sensitive to the world around you; always write down your observations/thoughts/ideas as they occur to you; be specific: name things; use your senses when you write – readers love the sensuality of touch, tastes, smells etc.; gift yourself time to write; stick with it and be patient; read lots of good books; and, whatever you do, don’t forget to add the flour.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin and lives in Galway. She has published three collections of short fiction, including Nude (Salt, 2009) which was shortlisted for the 2010 Edge Hill Short Story Prize; three poetry collections – one in an anthology, one a pamphlet – and one novel, You (New Island, 2010). Nuala’s third full poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2011.

Blog: www.womenrulewriter.blogspot.com Website: www.nualanichonchuir.com.

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