I’ve been fascinated by ghosts and ghost stories for a long time, in particular the efforts people have made over the years to use science to prove that ghosts exist. My interest in paranormal research has led me to write magazine articles about paranormal investigators, visit the American Society for Psychical Research offices, and edit books about parapsychology.
So it makes sense that my first novel, The Secret Life of Sparrow Delaney, is about a girl who sees — and hears and talks to and argues with — ghosts. There’s a romantic triangle (one boy is alive and one has Passed Over) that I’m sure was influenced by The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a favorite book/movie/TV show of mine when I was growing up.
As much as I like ghost stories, I’m also a skeptic, so I used both points of view when I created The Unseen World of Poppy Malone, my middle-grade series. Poppy’s parents are the kind of credulous paranormal investigators who will grab a camera and head for the swamp five minutes after a reported sighting of Bigfoot and who believe wholeheartedly in vampires, aliens, and other things that go bump in the night.
As their daughter, Poppy has, of course, taken the opposite path and believes only in what can be proven. I had a lot of fun writing about what happens when she actually meets goblins, mermaids and, of course, ghosts.
If you, like me, enjoy spooky stories with a spot of science, check out My Philadelphia Ghost Story, a fascinating account of a visit to a haunted prison, written by Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear.
I posted on Friday about how I’ve been studying Hilary Mantel’s novels, trying to learn how she works her magic. Tim Weed posted a great essay on her use of backstory and flashbacks on his essential website, Storycraft.
It struck me, as I greedily devoured Bring Up the Bodies, that much of the genius of these novels comes to us through Cromwell’s backstory. Mantel’s protagonist is compelling not only because he’s a bold man of action; it’s because he’s a thinker, a dreamer who spends many a late night running over his colorful past. Mantel gives us access to Cromwell’s rich inner life, which contributes greatly to the sense we get of full immersion in the historical period – and gives us insight, more broadly, into what it means to be human… In a sense, Cromwell’s backstory in these novels is his character, and Cromwell’s character is what makes these novels great. For a writer, that seems like something worth exploring.
Indeed it is! Weed explores Mantel’s technique by posting excerpts from the novel, then taking them apart to show their elegant construction.
Bonus: To hear from Mantel herself, watch this podcast.
Writers don’t write from experience. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.
I’m a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s. I’ve re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies a dozen times each, highlighting dialogue, turns of phrase, pithy descriptions, etc., studying the books line by line to see if I can figure out her writing secrets.
I plan to post other links about Mantel’s writing craft (still trying to learn her secret!), but thought I’d finish off this week with her rules for being a writer. They range from the practical (“get an accountant”) to the insightful (“concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change”) to the challenging (“be ready for anything”).
When Tracy Chevalier (author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Last Runaway) left a publishing job to get a master’s degree in creative writing, her boss gave her an eraser with the words “Less is more” written on it.
Her essay tells how she paid attention to the eraser and developed a spare, focused style by imitating Vermeer’s style. (It’s well worth studying a marked-up manuscript page from The Last Runaway that shows how she cuts every word possible.)
A poet friend taught me how to do it. He took a few pages I had written and went through each sentence, suggesting I cut this word, that word. It’s surprising how much flab there is in most writing. Now when I edit I ask that each word justify its place. The process is exhausting, but it works.
Taking away concentrates what’s left. Restraint is powerful. In Girl With a Pearl Earring, the two main characters touch just twice—a hand, an ear—but readers tell me those are some of the most erotic moments they’ve read.
It’s hard enough to write a good drama, it’s much harder to write a good comedy, and it’s hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is.
Lily King wrote an essay (titled That Would Make a Good Novel) that offers an illuminating look at how the germ of idea can be developed, eventually, into a work of art.
And there’s a bonus! She includes a writing exercise she gives to her students:
When I teach fiction I often start a workshop with one of my favorite exercises called Two Truths and a Lie. I tell my students to write the first paragraph of a short story. The first sentence of the paragraph must be true (My sister has brown hair.), the second sentence must be true (Her name is Lisa.), but the third sentence must be a lie (Yesterday she went to prison.). What I forgot when conceiving of this book is that it’s the lie that brings the story to life, makes it hum. The lie is the steering wheel, the gearshift and the engine. The lie takes your two true sentences and makes a left turn off road and straight into the woods. It slams the story into fifth gear and guns it.
Any tip that helps you “slam a story into fifth gear and gun it” seems like a good one to try.
Aimee Bender wrote a lovely essay for The New York Times about the writing lesson she learned from reading “Goodnight Moon” to her babies.
“Goodnight Moon does two things right away: It sets up a world and then it subverts its own rules even as it follows them,” she writes. “It works like a sonata of sorts, but, like a good version of the form, it does not follow a wholly predictable structure.”
She teases the elements of this seemingly simple story apart in a wholly satisfying (and thought-provoking) way. It touches on unexpected choices, surprisingly compassionate moments, and following your instincts. Well worth reading at the beginning (or middle or end) of your next writing project.
I love being a writer because I want to leave something here on earth to make it better, prettier, stronger.
This post on Medium went viral a few months ago. It’s easy to see why:
- The title is great: How a Slight Change in Mindset Accelerated My Learning Forever.
- The content is surprising, helpful and pithy.
- The “slight change” can apply to almost any skill you’re trying to learn (such as writing a novel).
The writer of the post, Tristan de Montebello, wanted to learn kite surfing. In his first lesson, his instructor gave him this important tip: “Pull your kite in one motion into the power zone (almost to the horizon) — This will pull you out of the water immediately and get you moving.”
He noticed that most of the other beginners were bobbing in and out of the water, unable to gain speed or momentum. He spent some time observing the other kite surfers, comparing the beginners with the experts.
This is what he realized:
“If you don’t pull hard, your kite moves slowly and gives you less power. It’s not rocket science, yet 99% of beginners only pulled half way. When it was my turn, I shut my brain off, and did exactly what the pros were doing. I pulled hard, and waited for my kite to get low before pulling back. I was out of the water speeding on my first try. So why do most beginners only pull halfway? Because they feel shy. They aren’t comfortable in this new situation so they tiptoe around instead of ‘jumping in.'”
This is great advice if you’re the kind of writer who takes endless notes on what you’re going to write, spends hours online or at the library tracking down one more tidbit of research, or gets caught up in worrying about whether you’re up to the task. (Guilty as charged.)
As de Montebello writes:
Fast learners know this trick of the mind and apply it all the time. Refuse to be shy. Don’t overthink it. Once you know what to do, do it all the way. Jump in. You will learn faster, and you will have a lot more fun in the process.
Fast learners take the plunge and go all the way. They harbor the crazy hope that they might get it right on the first try.
And sometimes they do.