Musings: Writing in the Negative Space

I’m baaaa-aaaaack!

G’day!

I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, recently. This friend is insanely talented (he writes and draws), and we were talking over a collaborative idea I’d had for both of us to work on (said collaborative idea involving a graphic novel/comic style book).

This led us into a discussion of the sort of illustration style I had in mind–which, to be honest, mostly served to illustrate (ha! see what I did there?) how little idea I had of the style I wanted, and how little I knew about drawing and graphics as a whole. One of the art styles I brought up as something I liked was the art of Hellboy, which led off into another discussion–this one about the use of negative space.

Negative space.

Mike Mignola's Hellboy

Mike Mignola’s Hellboy

It’s a concept that I’d heard of before, but not in a while. The concept, like the style, is deceptively simple: negative space is the space that surrounds an object (the positive space) in an image. In the concept of negative space, this space is just as important–and in some cases, more important–than the positive space. It defines the positive space. It gives the positive space its meaning and boundaries. As a method of illustration, it brings a certain starkness and boldness of style that I love.

After discussing this with my friend, it occurred to me that I’m fond of negative space in more than just illustrations. I’m also a huge fan of negative space when it comes to reading–and writing.

On the face of it, you’d say that it’s not possible to used negative space for anything that isn’t visual. I would then say that you’re dead wrong. (If, on the other hand, you’d say that you agree completely, I’d stutter around a bit because the conversation was not going the way it went in my head and I was now flailing while my brain re-routed it.)

Because of course it’s possible. The execution may be slightly different, but the idea of presenting a concept, world, or character by using factors and indicators outside of the actual concept, world, or character, is a totally legitimate form of writing. It’s also a very effective one.

So there you have it, guys.

Basically, if you ever read one of my books that doesn’t make sense to you, or where the world-building, characters, or concept is never fully explained, it’s just me writing in the negative space and you obviously haven’t been clever enough to understand my genius *snark, snark* (IT’S ALL THERE IN THE SUBTEXT, GUYS.)

Seriously, though.

Negative space is one of my favourite styles of writing–was even before I thought of it as an actual style–and I typically try to explain as little as possible, leaving the reader to figure things out on their own by the way the book is written and the way the characters act and react. (“Never apologise, never explain”, as Antonia Forest says through her Navy-trained characters).

Because I trust you guys to be clever enough to get it. Sometimes, of course, that backfires on me, because sometimes I forget how much I know about the story as a whole, and don’t give my readers enough to work with.

In other words, negative space can be a double-edged sword, which means it needs to be handled very carefully (especially if you’re inclined to clumsiness, like me). But when done well, it’s delightful to read.

My favourite users of negative space: Antonia Forest, Ronald Kidd, Diana Wynne Jones, and Nicholas Fisk.

Antonia Forest uses her negative space in the form of conversation: aka, what is often not written in the form of narrative is given to the reader just as clearly by effective dialogue. It shapes the narrative rather than the narrative shaping it.

In a similar fashion, Ronald Kidd (especially in the fabulous Sizzle and Splat) writes whole passages of dialogue only, and it is amazingly effective. Seriously, go and read Sizzle and Splat right now.

Diana Wynne Jones uses her negative space more in the way of spare, no-nonsense narrative that in its simplicity says a lot more than another writer would say in twice as many words. She uses simple words and easy sentences, and they’re superbly  effective.

Nicholas Fisk, now: he’s the the really interesting one. His negative space is more of an idea than an actual thing. It’s the adult perspective. See, he writes children’s books. I could read them easily as a child and understood and loved them. Now that I read them as an adult, its as though there’s a second layer there: a layer just for me as an adult, that shapes the story into different–and yet they’re just the same–lines than it had when I was a child.

I don’t always do it well, and I don’t always do it effectively, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop using negative space.

Breaking The Rules

I’d like to start out this blog post by saying that I break the rules. A lot. (Not laws and work rules and such- I’m almost offensively straight-laced when it comes to following those. I am not a rebel.)

Nope, I’m talking about writing rules. The ones that say things like ‘Cut ALL adverbs and adjectives’ and ‘Never start a sentence with a preposition’ and ‘Never use any dialogue tags’. Stuff like ‘Always sit down and outline your book before you write the first word’ and ‘Never use semicolons’. No run-on sentences! Not to mention all the various grammar rules and regulations. Let’s face it, when it comes to writing, there are a lot of rules.

For the record, I use quite a reasonable amount of adverbs and adjectives, and although I don’t tag every bit of dialogue I write, I do tag some. There are some rules of grammar that I break for effect or in line with a particular character’s voice. I quite often, for stylistic purposes, start a sentence with a preposition. I may, in fact, have broken most of the rules of writing. There’s a time and a place for everything.

HOWEVER.

There is a huge, monumental, gaping great difference between breaking the rules for stylistic/characteristic/etc purposes, and breaking them because you don’t know what the heck you’re doing. A huge amount of my favourite authors break the rules constantly, in one way or another (reading Terry Pratchett last night just reinforced this) and I don’t think there are many people who would be daft enough to tell Terry Pratchett, Patricia Wrede, Steven Brust, etc, to pull their socks up and get their grammar right. This is because they know the rules. They simply choose to break them every now and then. But they do know them.

I’ve read a heck of a lot of bad books. Books with bad spelling, the wrong homonyms, atrocious grammar: errors that stick with you whether or not the actual stuff of the book is good. I’ve also heard a lot of authors, when their errors are pointed out, say something along the lines of: “Oh, I didn’t realise that. But it’s okay, insert famous author here does it all the time.”

It’s not okay. Breaking the rules is okay, but there needs to be a reason. And you need to know that reason. You need to know the rules before you break them. It makes all the difference between good and bad writing. You might get it right by accident, breaking the rules, but you’re far more likely to get it horribly wrong and find your book being mocked for the rest of its (probably short) life.

So pull your socks up. Learn the rules.

Then go ahead and feel free to break ’em.

Inferiority Complex

We’re writers. We’re meant to be at least slightly neurotic. But there’s that day, every so often, when we’ll be reading a good book. I mean a really good book: solid to fantastic plot, fascinating characters we fall in love with and weep for, and the absolute perfect pacing; all wrapped in a superbly crafted structure.

You take a thought break to bask in the gloriousness of it, grinning foolishly to yourself. Then it hits you.

I’ll never be this good. This is the Van Gough of books. If I live until I’m fifty and keep writing better and better, I’m still never gonna be as good as this bloke.

And you know, that can be good. I’m not one of those people who thinks it’s damaging to the human psyche to admit to actual inferiority. You’re never gonna be as good as at least one girl or bloke out there, and sometimes that knowledge spurs you on to do better. Anything that gets us in front of that computer/notepad/whatever to write and grow, is a good thing.

But it’s also good to remember that writing is a growing thing. The first books of at least two of my favourite authors, had I read them first, would not have inspired me to read more of their work. I can literally see the growth as I read through those early books. You’re not going to be the best you can be right now. You’re going to have to work on it. Your first book is most likely not going to be your best. You’ve still got so much to learn. I’ve still got so much to learn- and practise, and put in to practise.

Who knows, one day we may be that good. But if we never had anything that spurred us on to be better, we’d probably never get there.

Embrace the inferiority. Just don’t let it stop you from being better.

Sound And Fury

I couldn’t really think of a blog post this week. Yanno: work, the dog, the hubby . . . a new tv show . . .

So you’re going to get 250-500 words of sound and fury, signifying nothing* about my week so far.

#1 on my list of nonsense is that my husband makes a great roast.**

#2 is that my dog stinks. I mean really honks. Can’t give her a bath because a.) no time and b.)when there is time it’s too late in the day for her to dry without leaving the whole house smelling of wet dog.***

#3 is kept for the smug, happy thought of the book I’m planning on reading next.****

#4’s job is to mention that I’m dying for a cuppa.

#5: Did I mention I really want a cuppa? A cup of tea is the best medicine. And I won’t say no to a couple of scotch fingers with that.

#6 would like to offer up the proud knowledge that I’ve figured out the kinks in a story I’ve been thinking about for years, making it properly writable at last *****

#7 is, happily for you, the end of this nonsense. Go do something productive with your day. I’ll be over here having a cuppa.

*Yup. You got it. I’m the idiot. You’re very clever.

**By this I mean that he cooked me a great roast, not that I cooked and ate him.

***Yes. Stinky dog smell is infinitely preferable to wet dog smell. Wet dog smell burrows into stuff.

****Re-reading Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret, in case you wanted to know.

*****I have no time to write said book, of course. I have a schedule of four publications for next year, one of which I have yet to write, one of which is yet to be quite finished, and the third of which is on its last edits. The fourth is done, though. Go me!

When Beta Reading Makes Your Writing *cough* Beta *cough*

I don’t do a whole lot of beta reading. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read. Also, when I read nowadays, it’s not without my back-brain saying things like ‘oooh, I like how they did that!’ and ‘yer, bet I could do it better’. But beta reading is different. If you enjoy it, that’s a plus; but you don’t want to be enjoying it so much that you let things slide because you liked the book as a whole. You get into the nitty-gritty and point out the tiny inconsistencies and mashed sentences. You argue with your writer friends about tenses, and old versus new spellings, not to mention Australian versus American spellings. You tend to be more ruthless, even to nit-pickyness. Something that you might glide over in a run-of-the-mill book you’ve picked up, you don’t glide over. And that’s how it should be. That’s what you want in return. But it is hard work.

Book pile

Besides the obvious benefits of beta reading (someone who reads your work in return, someone with whom to discuss the ins and outs of writing) is another, overlooked benefit. In my mind it’s probably the biggest benefit.

It’s the benefit of recognizing in your own work the very thing you picked at in your friends writing. Come on. You know what I mean. You’ve just highlighted that part of the MS you’re beta-reading: the niggle that keeps happening in their writing. You add a note to remind them that this is becoming a habit. You put aside the MS for the time being, exhausted with your efforts, and settle down to work on your own MS. And as you’re reading the last paragraph you wrote last night in order to refresh your memory, you realize that you’ve done that thing. That thing that you just highlighted a dozen times in the novel you’re beta-reading. You look at it in horror. Go over the last chapter. Find you’ve done it another half-dozen times. Shriek and pull out your hair. Go back to the start of the MS and find the time after time that you’ve done that thing that annoyed you so much in your friend’s book.

It’s annoying. It’s exhausting. But in the end, beta reading is so very worth it. It makes you look at your writing like an outsider again, and if you don’t want your readers being constantly annoyed by that thing, it’s an essential habit to cultivate. Don’t be afraid of the irritation: it’s all part of the process. And if you’ll take my advice, do some beta reading.

The Most Comfortable Chair In The Room

Jane Austen wrote at a small walnut table set close to a window for the best light. Pen and ink, of course. Diana Wynne Jones started first draft in ‘the most comfortable chair I can find in the sitting room, in everyone’s way’, and went on to the second draft in her study. Truman Capote supposedly wrote lying down, with a pencil in one hand, and a glass of sherry in the other. Flannery O’Connor would write facing the blank wood of her dresser so as not to be distracted.

I’ve talked a bit about styles of writing, and a bit more about process in writing. Today I want to talk about where to write.

I have an actual writing room. It has a desk with drawers down one side and a bookshelf on the other, and is surmounted by a green bankers lamp, a big fake book of Lord of the Rings (the real one is in the bookshelf), and a couple of knick-knacks. You don’t have to imagine what it looks like because I have a picture of it in the header of my blog.

Now that you’re back after scrolling up to see, would you like to know where I write?

If you guessed in my writing room, at my desk, you’d be wrong. Well, you’d be wrong about 95% of the time. Sometimes I do actually write at my writing desk. It has a planning board and everything, where I pin up all the tiny notes I write myself when I can’t get to a computer, and the reminders that I write myself as I’m revising- for example, notes to remember to tie off this loose end, or that character’s story.

Unfortunately, my study rarely remains clean for more than a week at a time. When it’s messy, there is literally no room for me to sit at the desk with my laptop, since every conceivable place is taken up with piles of stuff. When it’s neat, I sit tapping my fingers on the desktop, unsure where to start in all this sparkling cleanliness and afraid to mess it up by moving.

So where do I work? The most comfortable chair in the house (a recliner) at the centre of the living room. I can see out the front window to where the tiny birds with blue tails chip at each other. I can see the telly. I can see if anyone comes up to the front door. I am not able to see the washing up that hasn’t been done, and the dog is in view (when she’s not, it means trouble). For some reason, I need all this to be able to do my best work. If the cricket is on, so much the better. I do not use pen and ink. Well, not seriously; not when I’m on a roll. When I’m on a roll, I can barely keep up typing at 80 WPM.

Obviously, I am not Jane Austen.

I can write in most places, but that’s my favourite place. What about you guys? Where do you write? Do you have to be in a certain place? Does it matter? Let me know.

In Appreciation of Jon Bokenkamp

blacklist

As you may or may not remember, I have written about different approaches to writing: ie, pantsing, planning, outlining, etc. No two people are exactly the same, and there is no ‘one size fits all’. (There isn’t with clothes, either, but try and convince the clothing industry of that.)

So, what does that have to do with Jon Bokenkamp? Patience, grasshopper.

Not only are there different approaches to writing, there are different styles of writing. There are writers who focus on exposition, and others who focus on dialogue. There are those who rock the stream-of-consciousness thing (think Patrick Ness) and those who absolutely own the grand fantasy with it’s fully realised history/language/quest/thing (yeah, I’m looking at you, Lord of the Rings).

And no, that’s not what I’m going to talk about, either. So if I’m not talking about approach or style, what am I talking about? And what does it have to do with Jon Bokenkamp?

Allow me to get to the point. Besides approach to writing and style of writing, there is another point of difference for writers. That difference is whether you are primarily a character-driven writer or primarily a plot-driven writer. If you’re lucky, or if you work really hard, you can be both; but it’s uncommon enough for me to find such a writer that when I do find one, they immediately spring into my Fluid Top Three Writers category. (Think Kate Stradling, for instance, one of the best indie authors I’ve ever read.) I’m a character-driven writer mostly. I’ve had to work very hard to become so, and I worked myself so hard because I like to read and watch things that are character-driven. Don’t get me wrong: I love a clever plot-line. But if that clever plot-line has no interesting/engaging characters, I’ll lose interest.

This is where I get to my appreciation of Jon Bokenkamp. I started watching The Blacklist primarily because the TV ads appealed to me. They looked cool, amusing, and interesting. Also, James Spader is a great actor. What kept me watching it, however, was a single, great character. Jon describes The Blacklist as a ‘chosen one’ storyline, which interested me very much, since Red isn’t the sort of character one immediately thinks of as a mentor-figure (yeah, take that, Yoda), and since until I heard him say that, I had thought of The Blacklist as primarily Red’s story.

At first it was all about Red for me. But Jon didn’t leave the characterisation at just one cool, fully realised character. He built the others up as well. Lizzy started growing, Cooper developed layers, and even Ressler, who I initially disliked because he seemed to be there simply as the scowling pretty-boy, began to get interesting. As a writer who appreciates characterisation more than almost anything else in a story-line, I found myself delighted.

Now, if The Blacklist had been merely about the great characters, I would have enjoyed it anyway. There are so many little conversational touches used to advance the characterisation; so many implied, unspoken moments that speak to motive and feeling. It’s a beautifully, beautifully done show.

The thing is, it doesn’t stop there. The plot lines (and especially the plot-line for The Freelancer, which I greatly enjoyed) are amazing. There are times when, watching The Blacklist, I find myself grinning like an idiot and saying: “Oh, that’s brilliant!” I don’t want to put down any of the actors (they do a fantastic job) but most of the time, that reaction is purely from the writing of the episode. As a writer myself, there are things I’ve learned from watching The Blacklist that I never expected to learn.

In closing, I’d like to say that Yes, I do know that Jon Bokenkamp is not the only writer for The Blacklist. To all of the writers I could find listed on the internets- you guys are doing an amazing job. But mostly I want to express my appreciation to Jon Bokenkamp, whose writing and direction have taught me things about writing I didn’t realise could be learned from screenwriting.

Also my disappointment that Jon isn’t fifty-odd with a huge beard, cos I kinda expected that.

Getting Back Into The Swing Of Things (Or, Post-Publishing Blues)

TimeTravellers (No subtitle)

So I’ve finished my first, (self)published ebook (gratuitous Kindle link and gratuitous Kobo link to same).

There was a big sort of scuffle toward the deadline, when I seemed to be writing during every lunch break at work, then rushing home to write feverishly every evening until bedtime. After the writing there was the editing, and after the editing came the formatting. Then there was the realisation that Kindle and Kobo take a little longer to upload books than I had fully grasped. All in all, it was a big rush, scramble, and heave to get over the finish line in time.

Then, the day after I uploaded A Time-Traveller’s Best Friend to Kindle, I was uploading it to Kobo. The same day, I was researching how to upload it to iBooks and making preparations for a CreateSpace paperback copy. That kept me busy for the next few days.

Came the weekend, and suddenly I was at a loss. Somebody should have warned me about this. There’s a gaping hole somewhere around my middle that isn’t because I need to eat (doesn’t mean I’ll say no to those doughnuts, though) and I don’t seem to be able to settle to anything. The other book is done, finished. But I can’t seem to get right into my old WIP again, despite the fact that I know where I want it to go, what I want it to do, and exactly who my characters are. And let’s not even get into the usual stresses of “Why isn’t my book selling more than a few copies? I’ll press the refresh button again: that’ll do it!” or the continual jumping back and forth between book pages in the vain hope that somebody has reviewed your precious ebook in the five minutes since you last checked.

I’ve decided I’m gonna take it easy. I actually got to read a couple new books over the weekend, and managed to do a bit more work on a book I’m critiquing for a friend. Sometimes it’s good to have a break. Also, there are a few more seasons of 24 to catch up on, so there’s that. Only now I’m kinda feeling like I could actually work on my WIP after all . . .

Oh well. Who needs a break, right?