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Practical Advice


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copyright 1973-2004 Hugh Cook

How to Write Fiction

Notes by Hugh Cook

Practical Advice

        Practical stuff - notes about the nuts and bolts of writing fiction.
        So you want to write fiction? Okay ....

        1. Ten minutes a day (compulsory minimum). A lot of things work this way: learning to play the trumpet, learning Japanese, and so forth.

        2. Log time worked, eg "Started work today at 1pm, finished at 1.05pm, cumulative time worked today 15 minutes, cumulative time worked this week one hour."
        The point here is that you must have an objective measure of progress, otherwise you're just going to be kidding yourself. Measures that I have used at one time or another include:-
        (a) time
        (b) words written
        (c) stories submitted
        Right now, the measure I am using is time.
        3. Build semantic fields (beach, sand, ice cream, charabanc, sunburn, suntan lotion, windsurfer, sea, yacht, ferry, motorboat, navy, flag, binoculars). This can be done daily as a warm-up exercise.
        Question: What is a charabanc?
        Answer: I have no idea. This stuff has been sitting in my files for years.
        Note: you don't have to build semantic fields, but if nothing else is working then it may help. A lot of writers (including me) gather materials before starting.
        4. There is nothing wrong with a simple, direct declarative statement, eg "He was sad." "She was lonely." "Jesus wept."

        4a. The last sentence you wrote is good enough. At a pinch.

        We could think of (4) and (4a) as a doctrine of imperfection.

        5. Narrative text is indicative rather than exhaustive, eg "The cubic white buildings of the Greek islands" rather than a complete Baedeker.
        6. A good narrative begins with a promise, delivers on the promise, then goes on to add something more. The promise can be implicit: "At the beginning, the household seemed utterly normal; there was no outward hint of the undercurrents." Or the promise can be explicit, eg "Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles, the son of Peleus"; "On the day of his assassination, the President woke as usual at 6am."
        A mystery, a problem, a desire, a dead body with a knife sticking out of the back - these are all forms of narrative promise.

        7. Plot is the turbulence which results from
or more
forces working
to opposite purposes - the outgoing tide running against the wind. George Bush and Bill Clinton both want to be President; only one can win; therefore they are working to directly opposite purposes. Domestically, the inexhaustible plot resource is the eternal triangle involving Jane and John and Jim, or John and Jane and Joan, the triangle in which Jane and Joan both want John or Jane and John both want Jim, and only one can win.

        8. A truly successful narrative plot puts people through a truly operatic range of emotions, usually involving at some point a total downcasting and despair:-
        The crucifixion, Jesus alone in the garden, deserted by his disciples, despairing; KING LEAR, Lear on the blasted heath with his fool; MACBETH, Macbeth confronts the madness of his wife. THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, by Kenneth Graham: Toad is alone in the dungeon, locked up, an imprisoned criminal, far removed from his friends or all possibility of salvation. Toad laments, and despairs.
        A plot gains its full effect from the depth to which it can descend into human despair.
        9. Maximal emotional shock is achieved by maximal perversion of expectations.
        A small perversion of expectations: You are walking down the stairs in the dark, and you put down your foot, expecting the next stair, and the next stair is not there.
        The perversion of expectations, the unexpected betrayal, it at the heart of the shock of adultery, desertion. (Sample: the Indian Mutiny, 1857-59).
        In MACBETH, the antihero Macbeth leans on his wife, who is strong, ruthless, resolute. Then Macbeth's wife goes mad: his expectations of her character have been totally perverited.
        Maximal emotional shock, maximal perversion of expectations, can be achieved when a character sets out to achieve a desired result, and instead achieves the opposite. Anciently, a king was counseled by the oracle that his planned invasion of a neighboring power would lead to "the destruction of a great nation" - he set out to destroy the great neighboring nation, but it was his own nation which was brought down.

        10. We begin with a promise, we end with a catastrophe involving the maximal perversion of expectations. The middle part of a book (play, story) can be looked upon as setting up the conditions for that maximal perversion of expectations.
        NOTE: Point ten probably works better for a long work than a short work. If you specialize in vignettes of about 300 words then you probably won't be thinking along these lines.
        Anyway, this setting up of conditions for that maximum perversion of expectations involves:-
        (i) the viewpoint characters invest emotionally in a set of goals, of desired outcomes (note: as the viewpoint characters invest, so too will the reader);

        (ii) the viewpoint characters begin working toward a set of
goals, of desired outcomes;

        (iii) the viewpoint characters encounter both:-

        (a) obstacles and

        (b) indications of the possibility of success ....

        .... encouraged by (b) they increase their effort to overcome (a); "There's light at the end of the tunnel, so let's pull together and keep going." "Bail harder, boys, bail harder - I can see land!"
"Yes, it's true, his condition has taken a turn for the worse, but the doctor has told us about this new drug from overseas, they say it's got very good results elsewhere."

        (iv) the characters appear to be on the brink of achieving success;

        (v) and then disaster strikes.
     11. The disaster should involve the logically inevitable
impossibility, and here note that misdirection is the key to the
art of creating a catastrophe which is both logically inevitable
yet totally unforseen by the people who are involved in it.

        Usually, any force in human affairs creates a countervailing
force which tends to push a situation back toward a state of
        Note: as the viewpoint character's attention is misdirected, so too will the reader's attention be misdirected. Plot works best when
there is a totally unexpected perversion of expectations which is
seen, in retrospect, as being totally inevitable.

        In MACBETH, Macbeth by his wanton killing is rousing increasing countervailing opposition which makes it inevitable that he will fall. Macbeth's attention, however, has been misdirected by a prophecy which says he will not fall unless the woods come to his castle. He is paying attention to the prophecy rather than to the politics. And then, of course, the woods do march on the castle, and Macbeth ends up facing his enemy in combat.

        Macbeth is not fussed, because another prophecy has assured him that he will not be killed by any man born of woman. However, his opponent turns out to have been delivered into the world by caesarian section rather than natural childbirth.

        12. A narrative text should always be built around a minimum of four characters, eg the Rat, the Toad, the Mole and the Badger.


        Because four is easier than one. Writing a story with four characters is ten times easier to write than a story with just one.

        The hardest book to write is ROBINSON CRUSOE. (Plot: man gets shipwrecked, finds himself alone on an uninhabited island and spends his time surviving.) Why is ROBINSON CRUSOE so hard to write? Because Crusoe exists in a depleted environment, a desert island.

        Narrative is easier to construct in an enriched environment.

     13. Characters should be construed in terms of what they are
likely to do. The Badger is conservative, hence will tend to work
to restore the equilibrium of a conservative, normative society. The Toad is reckless, hence will tend to subvert conservative norms. The plot of THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is the logical outcome of the characters of its protagonists.

        14. There should be a maximum of seven major characters.

        (There are only seven days in the week because seven is the largest number with which the human mind can deal; conversations involving more than seven people are impossible, and problems involving more than seven human variables are incapable of solution).

        15. Not John and Jim and Joan and Jane but Anthony, Bill,
Hillary and Barbara. (Understand? If not, then think about it).
        16. Transitions.

        (i) "Let's go to Paris," he said. / Paris was cold and wet,
gray beneath a winter sky. Over a coffee in at the Pompidou Center, he told her | |

        (ii) "I'll see you tomorrow, then," she said. / The next day
was hot and dry. There was a near-catastrophe when Billy tried to
throw petrol on the barbecue, but Hillary caught him in time.

        (iii) "So how's married life, then?" said Barbara. "I'm not
sure," said Hillary. / Two years later, she was even less sure. They were sitting around a camp fire by the shores of a river in Tanzania, and Bill was telling (for the fiftieth time) the story of the hippopotamus in Natal which had stormed into the sea, grabbed hold of a 300-pound shark then stomped it to death. He was quite drunk; and, once again, he had given up shaving, though he knew how it vexed her.

        (iv) "Would you like one slice of bread or two?" "One and a
half, thank you," he said. / Dad duly served up one and a half slices of bread, buttered and jammed.

        (v) "He's dying," she said. / At the funeral, there were no flowers, by request.

        17. A first draft of a novel of five hundred pages need only be half a page long. A first draft of a poised and polished novel can be as bad as you like, complete with gaps to represent the difficult bits.

        The greatest error is to compare the imperfect reality with the theoretical perfection. We live amidst error, but at least we live; perfection is a schoolmaster's conceit, a pedagogical constraint we should behind as soon as we leave school.

        "If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly."

        "The man who never made a mistake never made anything."
     Perfection = Paralysis
        Someone somewhere says that "The thing which dooms the good idea is the better idea."

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