Last Monday night our guest author, best selling novelist and creative writing teacher, Julie Cohen, treated us to a virtual master class in craft and technique as we discussed, Writing Relationships: Love and Other Bruises. It was a sell-out salon with people coming early to settle in and grab a bite beforehand. Julie arrived to a bustling house with time to sample a Tea House specialty, the cherry pie. Once we'd all assembled, I booted poor old Gladstone, one of the cafe cats, out of his favourite chair on centre stage. Then with Julie at the helm we launched into a vibrant discussion.
If you consider that all novels are about relationships - what defines one of Julie’s novels as being about relationships? Julie suggested that there is a perception, perpetuated by the publishing industry, that when a woman writes a novel it's deemed to about relationships. By contrast, if a man writes a novel about relationships, it’s defined just as a novel. There's an ongoing bias about ‘women’s fiction’ with women writers often corralled by classification into a ghetto.
Putting that aside we talked about where relationships are the big story and the differences between character driven and plot driven novels. A plot driven novel might focus on a “big thing” like an explosion. A character driven one might revolve around a “relationship issue" such as losing a baby. A relationship novel is propelled by people doing things, i.e. where the characters grow and change while interacting with other people.
How does Julie develop an idea? She mentioned ideas that “fizz”; a simple core idea that must have a depth and different aspects to it. Her recent book, Together, has a devastating secret at its heart. That particular idea, the secret, came to Julie first and the ripple effect affects every single relationship in the novel.
We explored our theme and asked what makes a relationship plausible on the page? You have to know your characters really well. Ask questions of your characters. Do a lot of digging and prep before writing. Some characters might come to you fully formed while others might demand more work. In this way her characters grow organically.
We moved on to Julie’s approach to structuring a novel. She plans the entire story from beginning to end, or in the case of Together from the end to the beginning. She likes to work out the linear sequence of a narrative before playing with it’s final order. Julie’s an advocate of the Post-It method which involves mapping her story out scene by scene on a big board. She uses different coloured post-it notes for different points of view, sub plots or narrative threads, then plays around with the narrative without needing to write an entire draft. She can see what’s missing and spot plot holes which simplifies the process and makes it less daunting. We talked about using Scrivener as an option for planning (see Emma’s blog below). All of this is a vast exercise in tricking yourself in to getting over THE FEAR! Remember that character and structure are the same thing.
Julie had some excellent tips for writing sex scenes. Decide what sort of book you're writing. Establish your genre. Avoid clique and metaphor. Say what’s happening. Concentrate on detail and focus on the individuals; the shape of a body, smells, conversation during sex. Above all, the sex needs to be there for a reason. Something has to change. Sex is a conversation. Leave out the boring bits! Julie always wonders what people do with their shoes and socks…or what happens to the condom!
Discussion about sex scenes raised the question “Does it make a difference to write about different genders or a sexual orientation other than your own?” Ultimately it’s all about character; human beings. Take care writing about a gender other than you're own. Whether your depicting a queer romance, a heterosexual relationship or anything else on the sexual and gender spectrum, make sure you avoid cliche. Do your homework. Be respectful. (We covered this topic, writing outside your own experience, in our salon with Courttia Newland last month (blog link below).
While you may never experience everything your character does, you can draw on emotions you've felt yourself. Personal feelings can imbue the writing with a universal quality and add emotional resonance. Drawing from your own life can be inhibiting on the page but write it anyway and see how it feels. When worrying too much about what family members might think of her forthcoming book Julie decided to subscribe to the ‘Ah Fuck it” approach.
The Fear: “It’s totally normal to be scared shitless. It’s a sign you're doing it right.” Julie talked with honesty and candour about her recent struggle with writer's block; something she once never believed in. She had a difficult eighteen month period, grappling with anxiety, unable to complete projects and struggling to write. Sometimes, she said, you get can get the over the fear by ignoring it, but other times the fear is too great and you need support. Julie found support and and her new book is on the way.
Best bit of writing advice Julie’s ever received: when developing character don’t go more, go deeper. Overwhelmed by the enormity of writing long form fiction? Forget about a laborious back story (not entirely, you need to know stuff). Instead, focus on the core need or want of your character. What is your character's core hope, dream, fear? Identify this need, explore this in depth, and make it deeply consistent. This will lead to more goals and problems. How will your character grow and change? Other character’s will have a different core - have a dialogue with that. Choose opposite core needs for each character or perhaps the same but flipped!
How to avoid cliche: Employ humour & subvert cliche; imagine an engagement taking place in a toilet! Keep it particular to the character. Be character focused. Imagine a sex scene; how would your character behave Subtext: picture a happy engagement scene where something is wrong but only one character knows about it. Remember characters often don’t say what they mean. A good exercise: write a dialogue between two people when one is keeping a secret from the other. Sometimes characters do just talk or say how they feel. Decide what would be more effective.
“Make (good) shit happen”: focus on developing your character’s arc: even secondary characters have needs and desires. Make sure there’s rising tension at every point. When thinking about the midpoint, twists and reversals, ask how can I make it worse for my character within the context of the story. Think about layers to develop emotional resonance. Emma suggested an exercise by Donald Maast: Stop in the middle of a scene and ask, what is my character feeling. then ask, what else is my character feeling. Finally dig deeper and ask again, what is my character feeling and now write your scene from this perspective.
On Point of View: Third person past tense is the default position for story telling. It doesn't allow anything to get in the way of the reader identifying with the characters. While it has its limitations, first person present tense, the inhabiting point of view, might serve the story better especially if using an unreliable narrator. Julie’s forthcoming novel, Louis and Louise, alternates between two different points of view. Mess around and see what happens; sometimes the character tells you.
It was a great discussion including some wonderful audience participation. We covered such a lot of ground and I hope I’ve captured the essence of it! With huge thanks to Julie for her insight, wisdom and for sharing her writing process with us.
Please join Emma and me for our last salon before the summer break, on Monday 2nd July at the Tea House Theatre Cafe for Writing Ghosts with short story writer, novelist and teacher, Jenn Ashworth. I’m currently busy setting up dates for new salons and workshops in the Autumn - keep an eye on the website or sign up for advance notice.
Links & References:
julie-cohen.com including Tips For Writers, Why I'm A Convert To Writing With Scrivener: from This Itch of Writing blog by Emma Darwin, The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide For Fiction Writers by Elizabeth Benedict, The Power of Place, our salon with Courttia Newland, Donald Winnicott, Tammy Cohen, Mills & Boon, Erotica Romance: Mills & Boon, Richard and Judy Book Club