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Posts tagged ‘Bernard Beckett’

Examining Philosophical Beliefs Through Teen Novels, by Bernard Beckett

I’m currently working on the third book of what I like to think of as a metaphysical trilogy. The first, Genesis, focussed on the mystery of consciousness, the second, August, on free will, and the last, my current novel Lullaby, is exploring death. All three are an attempt to both examine the metaphors we use to describe the self, particularly in a world where religious metaphors are not the common currency they once were. They’re also explicit attempts, through story, to introduce philosophy to the teenage reader.

So, why should we expect the teenage audience, or indeed anybody, to be interested in philosophy? Considering the teenager first, I would argue that the late teens is precisely the time in life where you are most likely to be excited by the essential contestability of knowledge. Part of the teenage experience is the realisation that the simple world of reliable authority figures and protectors is behind you, and ahead lies a mess that you alone will have to navigate. That’s both tremendously exciting, there’s a sense of freedom and possibility, and terrifying – two of the more easily accessed emotions during adolescence. One of the most tantalising thoughts you can be exposed to during this phase is the possibility that absolutely everything you have ever been taught or told about the world is quite wrong. What if nobody else is really conscious in the way you are? What if other people experience colours differently than you do? What if the rules of the universe were always going to change tomorrow morning? What if somebody was able to predict your every move in advance? What if you’re really just a brain in a vat? What if there’s no you at all, and the continuous self is an illusion?

The first thing philosophy does is allow you to question the foundations of your most certain knowledge, and the enduring appeal of The Matrix amongst teens is evidence enough that there is something highly attractive about this process for the younger mind. I think this is because it mirrors the personal reshaping that is going on, and also because it allows a tremendously important chain of thinking to emerge. If nobody knows anything for sure, then the people who tell me how the world is might be wrong, which means I have permission to consider the world anew, and reach my own conclusions, permission, in short, to enter adulthood.

Of course, the dalliance with the more extreme versions of scepticism is short lived. Very quickly we realise we must put down our foundations in the swampy ground of knowledge and get on with the business of living. Yes, technically is might be true that as of tomorrow morning being hit by a bus will no longer hurt, but to base one’s beliefs about the world upon this possibility appears to be insane. So perhaps all philosophy is, in the end, of no real practical use, beyond its fleeting appeal to the adolescent mind.

That’s a popular view, and one that I would argue is clearly wrong. Part of the reason I’ve included philosophical abstractions in my novels is that I love the idea of the adolescent reader forming a longer lasting attachment to the subject. Here is not the place to defend the worth of philosophy to the adult mind in full. Suffice, I hope, to point out that philosophy is something we all do, all the time. We use observation and reason to build models about our world. To ignore the theoretical framework of these assumptions is not to avoid philosophy, it’s just to do philosophy very badly. This failure matters most, I think, when we find ourselves in contact with those who starting assumptions are very different from our own, perhaps because of a different upbringing, or a different set of religious beliefs. If we don’t understand the premises upon which our own beliefs are based, then there is the very real danger of believing it’s fact all the way down. Now, two groups of people, holding opposing views and being unable to properly interrogate the root of that difference, strikes me as a very dangerous situation, and one that’s worth avoiding.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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How Do You Know If An Idea Will Develop Into A Good Story? by Bernard Beckett

Not every idea you have flowers, not every book you start to write is finished and not every book you finish ends up being published, or even submitted. If you write, it’s almost certain a significant amount of your time will be spent working on projects that ultimately come to nothing. It’s never a total loss: you are learning from your mistakes and exercising the writing muscles, so to speak. Occasionally, you only get to the novel you should write by way of the one you shouldn’t. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to be able to identify failures-in-waiting earlier rather than later, and, perhaps more importantly, to be able to differentiate between a piece of writing that is difficult to pull into shape and one that is impossible. If we become too sensitive to the signs of nascent disaster, we may lose the courage to see any project through.

I don’t claim to be an expert in this. Having just abandoned a novel after working on it for two years, I may be the very worst example, but here, for what it’s worth, are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

First, don’t abandon a novel just because it isn’t turning out the way you hoped. Woody Allen once said that he arrives on the first day of every film shoot carrying in his mind a picture of the masterpiece he is about to make. Then, compromise by compromise, the actual film takes shape. The thing we are aiming at is a feeling rather than a product. Its fleshy imitation is sure to disappoint, especially on first draft. The danger is that in order to develop the mental toughness required, you can become insensitive to crucial warning signs.

The next thing is the importance of being able to distil the idea that brought you to the novel. I think the cliché of being able to reduce a story to one or two sentences is absolutely as valuable as its ubiquity suggests. If you have a vague feeling that you find highly exciting but you’re unable to find a succinct expression for it, then it might not be a story-in-waiting at all but rather one of those phantoms that will always dissolve under scrutiny. I once had the idea of a story where a boy receives a letter in the mail from God. He assumes it’s a hoax but can’t quite let it go… I could never pull any more out of it than that, even though, whenever I think of it I have an ill defined yet compelling feeling that there’s something there. Until I can say what, there’s nothing to be gained from exploring it further, or so I see it.

Another point I have to remind myself of constantly is that openings aren’t stories. Openings are fabulous ways into stories, but just having a great opening is not in itself a reason to believe a great story (or indeed any story) will follow. I struggle with this one a lot, simply because I find openings so seductive. ‘A middle aged journalist at a concert is called away to cover the location of a murder victim’s body. He is meant to be taking his teenage daughter home at the end of the concert, so accepts the offer of a man he has bonded with during the show to drive her home. Only, of course, this stranger is the murderer, seeking to groom his next victim…’ I really wanted to write that, so I did. The opening ran to five thousand words, I was excited by it, I liked the voice, there was a great sense of momentum, then a screeching halt because the opening was all I had. I didn’t actually have a story I wanted to tell that went beyond what was in fact a slightly macabre little short story. Novels aren’t quite in the plant-and-wait-for-it-to-grow category of things.

Finally, and this is the one that caught me recently: is the story you are telling an authentic expression of you? That sounds waffly. Let me see if I can sharpen it. There’s a very great difference, I think, between trying to be the sort of writer you would like to see yourself as and trying to be the best version of the writer you actually are. Sometimes I will read a book and immediately be seduced by the idea of ‘wanting to write like that’. Yet, when I examine it more closely, I realise the thing I have loved about the book is the insight it has given me into a world and personality that isn’t my own. Much as I admire and am jealous of so much great literature, it is very often shot through with a sort of existential angst that, were I to try it on for myself, would play as nothing but self absorption.

I’m not in the end a deeply serious person. I maintain a certain lightness in my life. I struggle to take myself seriously and when others do there’s always a part of me that wants to slap them. Where others are able to draw upon the depths of their fears and sufferings, I find the hole has been filled in with a truckload of cheap gags and irony. That means, on the occasions that I have tried to imitate the writers of serious literature, there’s been a fake quality to the writing that I’ve quickly become self conscious of (but haven’t angsted over, you understand). The writing I’ve most wasted time over is the writing where I’ve been trying to be something or somebody I’m not.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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On Creating A Distraction-Free Writing Environment, by Bernard Beckett

I read recently that some authors make use of software to restrict or block their access to the internet while they’re writing. While I don’t feel the need myself, probably because I have neither Facebook nor Twitter accounts, it got me thinking about the circumstances under which I best manage to write.

Heavy use of Facebook and similar sites poses two distinct threats. The first is the obvious one. Time spent checking on the marital status of the friend of some guy a person you went to school with once sat next to at a football match is time that can not also be devoted to writing. The other threat, and the one I can more easily identify with, is not the drain of time but of a certain state of mind.

During my working day, I’m a high school teacher. A typical day might involve face to face interactions with a hundred different people. The majority of those interactions are considered by the other party to be, if not urgent, then certainly important. So you move through the day in a certain mindset. You are honed to react. I’ve watched chefs in kitchens, facing down a barrage of orders, and suspect they feel a heightened version of the same state. It’s an instinctive, adrenalin-fuelled state that I rather enjoy. There’s a part of me, I suspect, that is prone to becoming addicted to it. It’s also very similar to the state supported by the superstructure of the internet, with its template of links, updates, and constant change. It’s a state we slip into very naturally, and in my case at least, it’s a reasonably difficult state to slip back out of.

The pertinent point here is that this distracted, restless state of mind is the exact opposite to the state of mind I like to be in when I’m writing. Writing seems to better flow from a place of stillness and quiet. Distraction stands as its greatest enemy. When I say writing, I probably should distinguish between two quite separate activities. One is thinking about my story and the other is the actual task of getting the text down. The first part, which happens somewhere just below the surface of directed, conscious thought, seems for me to be particularly well suited to relaxed contemplation. Back before I had children, the period between waking and getting out of bed was particularly fruitful. Neither the structured thought of activity nor the day’s list of pressing tasks would come crashing in and I had many of my best ideas staring at the ceiling. So it is for me with running and cycling. The world goes by sufficiently slowly to allow my senses to relax and people are not actively pressing for my attention. It’s in that bubble that I find a state very similar to that of coming gently awake (nostalgic sigh).

The other phase, the actual committing of words to paper or hard drive, for me requires slightly less absence from the world. I can function fairly well with conversation in the background, and dipping in and out of the internet to check facts or emails doesn’t get in the way all that much. I’ve written in planes, on beaches, in offices and at home in the lounge. All of that presupposes that the quiet spaces are there and that the chatter of day to day living doesn’t become overwhelming. In this respect, I’ve often noticed that during the first few weeks of a school term, I can still write in the evenings but that this capacity diminishes as the system slowly but surely clogs up with minutiae.

Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has proposed the hypothesis that the rise of the internet is seeing us spending more of our waking hours in the distracted state and as a consequence we are losing the ability to access the quiets of the mind, to go deeper. The rather startling proposal is that our capacity for slow contemplation, for reading or writing books, for following long and complex arguments, is not innate but is rather the invention of specific behaviour, and that the internet has the capacity to cut us off from the very skill-set that built the modern world. I don’t know if I buy this completely but, for now, not being on Facebook suits me very well indeed.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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GenesisAugustNo AlarmsRed Cliff     A World AwayThe Gypsy Crown (Chain of Charms)

Writing Teen Novels
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First Person Versus Third Person Narration, by Bernard Beckett

A common feature of teen novels is heavy reliance upon first person narration. Ever since Holden Caulfield shuffled center-stage and offered his reluctant, enigmatic introduction, we’ve been seduced by the direct address. In my own teen novels I’ve bounced between this and using the limited third person voice more common in adult literature. I’m interested in why I do this and what different purposes the two approaches serve.

One thing that I can certainly say about the first person voice is that I find it much easier, to the point where it almost feels like I’m cheating. When we describe a scene in the first person, we use the conceit of pretending that this is the way the character themselves would describe it. So what if we don’t capture the texture of the curtains, the dust motes playing in the ray of light above the coffee table, or the disturbing ring of grime two thirds way up the empty glass? That’s deliberate. It’s because the character wouldn’t notice these things either. Our failure to describe the room in any detail is in fact a cunning ploy, designed to reveal the character as the plot advances. In first person, I find I am much less likely to slow down and interrogate a scene, wondering how I should craft the balance between observation, action and speech. Rather, the voice takes over and the whole thing just spills out.

I think this is approach is justified if indeed the voice, and its choice of tempo and observation, is controlled and deliberate. Sometimes though, and here is where I worry about using the first person, all that’s happening is the voice is betraying not the character, but rather the writer. What is emerging is a generic, and slightly lazy voice, masquerading as an individual lens. Actually, I just couldn’t be bothered thinking about the room that carefully.

Another thing that’s often mentioned in relation to the first person is the conspiratorial nature of the communication, which is thought to suit the teenage audience. The teenage reader is inclined to take possession of the book, believe the story is theirs and theirs alone, and the illusion of the character speaking directly to them adds to this intensity. Again, this is true when it’s done well. Done badly though, what you get is an inauthentic voice, and it becomes like watching a movie where the sound and picture are ever so slightly out of sync. Not enough to be obvious, or at first even named, but enough that it irks, and stops you from relaxing and engaging fully with the story. Although the first person appears to get the author out of the story, in fact it does the opposite. The author is never more present than when they are addressing you directly and so, if the voice is not convincing enough to hide that address, the presence can become oppressive.

One thing I know I enjoy about the first person is that it solves a lot of structural problems. The first person voice, it always seems to me, has absolute licence to jump to wherever it wants in the story. The old ‘they way she looked at me reminded me of the time when I was seven, and my brother dared me to steal and ice cream…’ trick. The jumping and jumbling that is a natural feature of the narrating mind, is somehow expected to be cleaned up in the more formal third person presentation. After all, the third person has clearly been written by an author, sitting at their desk, thinking about how to convey their tale. But the first person narrator, we pretend, has grabbed you excitedly by the sleeve and is telling you their story as it comes to them. From the writer’s point of view, the joy of feeling exactly that rush as you follow the developmental impulses of your tale is lost. Again though, the danger is of becoming lazy, and not thinking hard enough about structure, and indulging asides and stalls that are just plain irritating.

Finally, I think the greatest distinction between the two forms is that first person narrative is an exercise in charming the audience. You are the actor walking on stage to deliver your solo performance. You, and you alone, will convey to the reader the worth of this story. They will invest in the story because first, they have invested in you. To the extent this is true, then the advice when choosing voice is probably this: if you have come across a first person voice capable of charming the audience without hijacking the story, then that’s an excellent time to be using it. If not, be aware of the richness of language and control you are sacrificing by going for the easy option. Always ask yourself, am I just being lazy?

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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GenesisAugustNo AlarmsRed Cliff     HappyfaceThe Girl Who Was Supposed to Die

Writing Teen Novels
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Not Treating Teenage Years Merely As Preparation For Adulthood In Your Novels, by Bernard Beckett

It’s often mentioned that the biggest mistake we can make in our interactions with teenagers is to patronise them. This is true for teachers, for parents and for writers of teen novels. It’s a mistake in the simple sense that it defeats its own purpose. Presumably, if we are communicating with teenagers, then the aim is for them to attend to what we are saying, and almost nothing is more likely to turn someone off than the sense they are being talked down to. However, the instinct to treat teenagers as a sort of strange and deranged sub-species, or even worse, as incomplete adults-in-waiting is so ingrained in many people that it’s almost reflexive.

A good example of this adult-centricism can be seen in those enthusiasts who attempt to use neuroscience to bolster their prejudices. As a school teacher, I’ve sat through training sessions of exactly this type. I’ve listened to school principals smugly announce that the evidence is in and that teenagers are technically insane. I’ve watched policy makers on television use their partial knowledge to justify whatever new regulation of youth might win them votes. The issue has even made it to the cover of Time magazine.

The standard story goes something like this. Thanks to modern imaging techniques, we now have a far better understanding of the way the brain develops through time. We can track the almost unbelievable blossoming of neural connections (in the order of millions per second in early life) and the later periods of trimming and reorganising. We can see that teenagers typically make use of different parts of their brain than adults typically would for some tasks and that some parts of the brain which play a large part in decision making in adulthood appear less prominent in the teenage brain. I don’t wish to counter any of this, I take the experts at their word on it and it all seems plausible enough. What I do object to is the next step, where the adult commentator solemnly pronounces that this produces incontrovertible evidence that the teenage brain is not yet fully developed. The cliché has become that the brain does not fully mature until it’s well into its twenties.

There is a logical problem here, and one that betrays our inbuilt prejudice against teenagers. While it is true that the brain changes over the life cycle of the human being, our choice to see any one stage as preparation for the next is based upon nothing but narrative.  After all, the adult brain is typically different in its structure than that of an elderly person, but we don’t tend to say the adult brain is an underdeveloped version of the elderly one. To think of the teenage years as preparation for adulthood has the same logical structure as thinking of the adult years as preparation for being dead.

Because many adults are so programmed to think in teleological terms, where everything has a purpose, and because many adults are predisposed to thinking of adulthood as that purpose, the logical error occurs without many people even registering that a story has been superimposed over the facts. Neuroscientists announce, to the delight of such adults, that the teenage brain is overly influenced by hormonal balances, is prone to mood swings and bursts of irrational enthusiasm and defiance, is unable to fully think through the consequences of actions, struggles to interpret the emotional cues around it, etc, etc. The science, we are told, is in, and the teenager is defective. We are told that the very best thing we can do is keep them safe while they negotiate their way through these difficult years.

To see the flaw in this thinking more clearly, consider how a teenage neuroscientist might interpret the same data. Would they not be tempted to argue that as the teenage brain enters adulthood it begins to close down? The adult brain, they might suggest, with all their pretty brain scan images to support them, loses its capacity for spontaneity. That part of the brain responsible for shutting down excitement becomes overdeveloped and the adult becomes dull-witted and unimaginative. The adult brain loses its ability to synthesise new ideas, becoming set in its ways. The natural capacity for joy and excitement is lost as the brain loses its ability to respond adequately to hormonal signals. Fewer and fewer experiences register as fresh and the excitement of discovery steadily decreases… You get the idea.

The teenager is no more a defective adult than the adult is a defective teenager. Each stage has its advantages and each of those advantages comes with its costs. There is nothing good to come from treating the teenage years merely as preparation for adulthood. They are to be lived on their own terms, not endured but rather celebrated. The very best teen fiction, I think, understands this. Its stories focus on teenagers not because the writer wishes to help the teenager through those years but because this offers story possibilities that exist nowhere else on the human timeline.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Mistakes I’ve Made As A Novelist, by Bernard Beckett

The spark for a particular novel can come from many places and arrive in many forms. For me, sometimes it’s an idea that’s puzzling me and the writing of the novel is a working through of my own confusion. Other times there’s a plot element, a particular ending perhaps or an opening that intrigues me. Other times it’s a character. The trick is taking this starting point and weaving it into a successful and satisfying story. The trouble is that the path from starting point to finished product is not at all clear. There are any number of paths to take and the great majority of them will end in failure. This, by way of illumination, is a story or one of those failures – my novel Home Boys.

The starting point was unusual for me, it began with my father telling me the story of a man who lived in the same small town as him. The man in question had been sent out to New Zealand post World War Two, as part of the scheme meant to offer new starts to children whose lives had been ripped apart by the war. Like so many of the children, this man’s story was not a happy one. He was signed up to the scheme by an older brother and didn’t know he was on anything other than a day trip until the boat was out to sea. He ended up on a farm where he was essentially used as slave labour. I went and interviewed the chap and was captivated by his story, and by his resilience. In the way of his generation, he seemed to have simply shrugged and got on with it, and looking back, held no bitterness or regret.

My plan was to use the first half of his story (being put on the boat, ending up on the farm, then running away) and then fictionalise the rest. The trouble was, I didn’t exactly know what that rest was. And because I had such a solid start, there was an opportunity to start writing without really thinking about it. The first bits came easily, the character developed, along with the sense of place, and I figured I could probably just follow my nose from there and something would work out.

As I approached the point of departure into pure fiction, I began playing around with new ideas. Another runaway down the road becomes a mate and suddenly we’re into Huckleberry Finn territory. Feeling confident, I threw in some disturbing dreams (always a mistake) that hinted at the possibility of the supernatural. I brought back an Italian prisoner of war, who by strange coincidence (no worries, I’ll solve it later) reappeared and then, following my nose, ended up at a small fishing village and a love triangle at its apex. I think there was even mention of a mysterious cave in the bush from whence no man had returned. I was, it was fair to say, having fun. And the writing, for me, wasn’t half bad. I was enjoying getting the sense of time and place. It was the geography of my own childhood, I knew it well, and loved the challenge of getting that landscape into the paper.

In hindsight, I can see that I was absolutely seduced by the process of putting more and more balls in the air. The idea was that somehow I’d nail the catching as well, that they’d land in my hand one by one in a satisfying succession of plops, and I would bow to the standing ovation. I was caught up in the feeling the reader would also have, that somehow this mad mix of myth, dream, history, lust and coincidence was going to weave itself into an astonishing ending.

The trouble, clearly, was that I had no ending. I didn’t even have a feel for the what the ending should do, what the satisfactory completion of Colin’s character arc would look like. The book was coming to an end, the options were closing in, but there was no place to jump to that would tie it all up. At that point, what I should have done is taken a deep breath, gone back to the beginning and tried to work out what it was I was really trying to achieve. Instead I cheated and threw in a non-ending with the two boys sitting on the back of a truck, having hitched a ride, heading into the city. It was supposed to be symbolic, I suppose, but it was no such thing. It was just a case of not knowing how else to end the story, because this particular story didn’t have an ending, making it not a story at all, but rather a collection of ideas and events and people and places that I really loved writing about. Less a novel, more an extended creative writing exercise.

Looking back on it now, I still love reading from Home Boys, for exactly the same reason I enjoyed writing it. In my head, it’s hugely alive, maybe more than any other piece of my writing. As such it must be filed under ‘ones that got away’, a book where I got caught up in the telling and lost sight of the story.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

***

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Why Write Novels? by Bernard Beckett

My first five novel manuscripts were unpublished. Written over three years, they represented an apprenticeship of sorts, as I ploughed naively through the field of beginners’ errors. Sometime during that process of write, submit, hope, be rejected, repeat, I asked myself, why I am doing this? Initially the motivation had been simple enough. I thought it might be quite fun to write a novel. And then, as I committed to the task, I entertained the usual fantasies of success, acclaim and fortune. Of course, I understood just how fanciful these notions were, and the metranomic regularity of rejection rather reinforced that point. At this moment, when you realise that in all likelihood your stories are not bound for the world stage, the question of why write takes on a slightly different hue. It becomes – even if I believe I will never be published, will I keep writing? In other words, is writing one of those things worth doing for its own sake?

My answer was yes, and I remember explicitly stating this to a friend at the time. Writing, it turned out, was just something I enjoyed doing. I loved the process of creating characters and situation, of playing with sentences, of pushing on through the difficult bits and yahooing through the pages that flowed, the genuine joy of living for a moment in a world of your own creation, the satisfaction of pushing print, and then sitting back and rediscovering your story as the reader. Telling stories even when there’s no one listening.

As a high school drama teacher, this is something I often discuss with students. Very few of those I teach will go on to study full-time as actors, and even fewer of those will join that tiny elite able to make a living from it. Yet, most of the students I teach love acting. They love being on stage, that moment of beautiful tension when the lights go down and the audience turns silent makes for an addictive rush. Yet, all too easily, we buy into a societal structure that tells us unless we are the very best, we have no business to be playing at all. So, while some of my students who get the acting bug will find ways of keeping it as part of their life, through amateur dramatic societies and the like. Mostly they’ll look back on it as something they loved but weren’t really good enough to do. That’s a tremendous shame.

So it is in sport, where the drop off rate out of high school is tragic. It’s not that they don’t still love the activity, it’s just they don’t believe they’re good enough, and that consequently their urge to play is a childish thing to be ignored. In some ways the rise of lifestyle sports like mountain biking, rock climbing or skateboarding can be seen as a healthy response to this teleological tyranny. I love to run, but will never be fast enough to win a race. In fact I don’t even enjoy races much. So I hit the trails for the pure pleasure of it, but still there’s that tendency for people to ask what you’re training for, and to look slightly surprised when the answer is nothing, I’m just having fun.

Initially, writing was the same. It was a hobby, a thing I did in my spare time, a great way to fill in an hour in the sunshine. In lots of ways that was the most enjoyable writing I ever did and, by extension, the most worthwhile. But a strange thing happens when you get published. Some part of your hobby becomes public property. You can’t possibly object; you submitted the manuscript and it’s what you hoped would happen, but it’s worth being aware of the way this intrusion can end up messing with your fun. Fun is clearly not the only valid motivation for the writer. One might seek fame, fortune, critical acclaim, artistic expression, human insight or political change. None of these are unworthy, but they each come with their own costs.

At the point where the value of your hobby is measured in an external currency, you have lost a degree of control. Human psychology being what it is, it’s not something you necessarily have much choice about. The bigger your profile, the more you will be subjected to the responses of others, and it’s almost impossible not to be affected by those responses. You hand over to the reader the right to define you as a writer, and then your writing becomes the business of responding to those definitions, possibly seeking to overthrow them, maybe chasing further endorsement. This isn’t entirely negative, the outside eye brings a perspective you can’t gain yourself, and you can use it to improve your writing. But the danger is the obvious one, at some point you end up taking yourself too seriously.

I write this in part because I recently took a novel I’d been working on for two years, of which I had finished a second draft, and threw it away. It wasn’t a terrible novel, it was publishable, and with a little bit of work and some outside guidance, might have even been quite good. But as soon as I threw it out, I understood why getting rid of it was such a smart move. Somewhere in amongst the writing, I’d lost the joy for it. It wasn’t fun any more. It was a struggle. Specifically, I was struggling to be something I wasn’t, the type of writer that I’d managed to get into my head I was meant to be. As soon as I did it I launched into the project I was meant to be writing. The joy returned, and I realised how long it had been missing. Maybe three books, or five years ago, was the last time writing felt like this: felt like it felt when I was unpublished and perhaps unpublishable, writing for the sheer joy of it. It’s awfully good to be back.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

    

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GenesisAugustNo AlarmsRed Cliff     Winter TownAcross the UniverseAngel Dust

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Endings And The Novel Writing Process, by Bernard Beckett

I recently read an interesting piece of research that suggests that the crucial thing when it comes to recalling and assessing an experience is the way it ends. So, for example, people asked to rate the nastiness of a painful experience (they used submerging the hand in unpleasantly cold water) leaned more heavily upon how it felt at the end (whether the water was slowly warmed again or not) than the duration of the pain.

This brought to mind a university job I once had helping to run a children’s holiday programme. The young chap I was working with (now a bishop, of all things) explained to me that the key thing was to end the day with your best activity. Just so long as, when the parents came to pick them up, their little darlings were buzzing with enthusiasm, the reports would be positive and they’d all be back the next day. The movie industry is well aware of this effect. The cliché-spouting executive is quick to tell you it’s the way the person feels as they leave the film that will determine whether or not they recommend it to a friend. Hence the constant reworking and second guessing of Hollywood endings and the almost pathological aversion to stories that don’t ultimately affirm.

As a reader, few things infuriate me more than a novel that misses its ending. No matter how much I’ve enjoyed the preceding pages, if the ending is mishandled I feel like I’ve just been subjected to a long joke without a punch line. I find myself asking: why exactly did you want to tell me this? (I once heard that there is a special word in German for the person who tells long and pointless stories – we need such a word).

Yet, as a writer, I’ve messed up a fair few endings of my own. Endings should complete the story. They should make sense of all that has gone before. Not necessarily in the tidy, tied up, artificially resolved way of Hollywood. I’ve nothing against ambiguities and uncertainties. What I strive to avoid though, with varying degrees of success, is the ending that fails to fulfil the novel’s implicit contract. If a novel presents me with a murder on page one, I expect to find out the who and why by the end. If it introduces the love struck hero, facing impossible odds, then by the end I’d like to know if he’s succeeded, or failed, or simply fallen out of love. What I don’t want, is to have that left unresolved. If that’s the method you’ve used to maintain reader interest throughout the story, then I think you’re obliged to give them the payoff.

If I think about the times I’ve failed with endings, they are consistently stories where I was confident I would find the ending when I got there. I was enjoying the characters, building the situations, turning and twisting the plot, and somehow I believed, so long as I put my faith in the world I was creating and followed the characters where they took me, an ending would emerge. I’ve read of writers who operate this way and produce remarkable endings. So it’s not impossible. But looking back on my ten published novels, that’s never worked for me. Never once did I embark upon a story not knowing the ending and then find it. I found an ending, sure, but not the ending, the one that lets you close the back cover and feel that the story has finished.

So, for me, I’ve worked out rather belatedly that I need to know how the story ends before I can begin it. That doesn’t just mean I know the how of the ending, that character x discovers the letter he threw into the sea was from his father, but also the why, by which I mean the emotional context. What does the revelation of the ending tell us about the main character? How does it make us feel? How does it allow us to reinterpret or package all that has gone before? So endings have both a narrative and emotional dimension, and to know the ending is to know both of these. (Recently I worked on a novel where I knew what would happen at the end but not how I wanted the reader to feel about it. After two years, the book was discarded).

Although I know the ending of a novel before I start writing, I won’t necessarily have much idea of the in-between. I don’t plot incident by incident, or even chapter by chapter. Part of the thrill of writing, for me, is watching the thing wriggle into life on screen, and the more thrilling that feels the more likely it is that I’m on to something. I make sure I’m aware of the destination in a meaningful way because the ending is, in so many ways, the reason you’re telling the story in the first place. It’s the thing that compels you to take a stranger by the arm and say, ‘Hey, listen to this.’ If you do that when you don’t have much to say, well there’s a word for that in German.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (April 2013)

Writing Teen Novels has reached the end of its fourth month of articles for 2013, from this year’s line-up of novelists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Teen Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.

The purpose of these Month In Review articles is to:

- provide a handy list of links to the articles for the past month, then to

- relate some of the content of these articles to my own novel writing to help novel writers and other interested people discover the month’s content and gain some insights into ways the month’s content can be engaged with in a practical context.

Articles for April 2013

First Person Present Tense Narration In Teen Novels by Beth Revis

Teenage Characters And Responsibility In Teen Novels by Elizabeth Wein

Does A Novelist Need An Agent? by Amy Kathleen Ryan

Tools To Develop Productive Novel Writing Habits by April Henry

On Story Ideas And Developing A Novel by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

On The Inspiration For My Teen Novels by Laurie Faria Stolarz

On Joining A Writing Group Or Writing Alone by Paul Volponi

Plotting A Novel Versus Winging It by Diane Lee Wilson

The Process Of Writing My Novel ‘My Brother’s Shadow’ by Monika Schroder

Plotting My Teen Historical Novels by Carolyn Meyer

Making Time To Write Your Novel by Lish McBride

Crafting Your Novel’s Plot And Characters To Sustain Story Momentum Throughout The Middle by Sam Hawksmoor

Writing Novels About Teens For Teen Readers by Bernard Beckett

Using 5 Senses In Your Novel Writing by Pauline Francis

Using Characters And Setting To Situate Your Story In Another Culture by Kashmira Sheth

Creating Empathy For Your Characters (Secrets Of Narrative Drive) by Sarah Mussi

Characters And Story by Andy Briggs

Developing Characters For My Teen Novels by Kate Forsyth

This month’s articles and writing my teen novel

April Henry wrote: Do you ever find yourself polishing the same paragraph over and over, moving a clause here, changing a verb there and not ever actually adding any new words?
Sometimes even experienced writers have trouble making progress. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

Paul Volponi wrote: What gave me the glimmer of hope that I could actually write a novel? Well, while I was working on Rikers Island, I was surrounded by other teachers who were aspiring novelists. They would sit in the computer room before and between classes working on their stories. I turned to one of them one day and said something like, “That’s amazing how you guys can write such big stories with all those characters and plot twists.” The guy replied, “If I can write a few good paragraphs a day, it really adds up.”

Elizabeth Wein wrote: One feature that I feel is characteristic of teen fiction is the divide between young people and adults.  It can show up as a contrast – between the unfinished, dynamic character of a maturing teen and the more static character of adults who are stuck in their prescribed roles.  Or it can show up as a simple lack of understanding between the adults and the teens in the novel.  Where I find this divide most interesting, and probably most disturbing, is when it’s part of a power play.  This is the kind of conflict that I find myself most often describing in my own novels.

Bernard Beckett wrote: When writing a piece of fiction, we try to do something more than achieve an external description of the world. We want to engage with it in a way that feels like a depiction from the inside. We’re digging, if you like, towards that which is essential. If you write about teenage characters for a teenage audience, you are backing yourself to be able to tell them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences.

Different novelists approach their writing in different ways but it is typically a good idea not to stop and start, breaking off to research or edit, once you start drafting. Most novel writers find it much more productive to familiarise themself with their subject matter, and maybe the general design of their character development and plot, then to write a draft from beginning to end before going back over what they’ve written and revisiting their research to get the finer details right. It’s often not until a writer has finished a full draft that they really understand in detail how they want their story to work, so the best time to spend hours painstakingly polishing the fine details is typically after you have a full draft. Otherwise changes which are necessary to make your story work better could result in having to change or cut large sections that you have rewritten and edited for many hours needlessly. As April wrote, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” when drafting.

As Paul pointed out, writing a little bit regularly adds up. If you ‘wait until you are inspired’ and write 3000 words in a day once per month it will take you two years to write a full draft of a 72,000 word novel. Keep in mind that this is just the first draft, which might be half, a third, a quarter, or less of the work you do before submitting a novel to an agent or publisher (or self-publishing). Then an agent or publisher might only be interested if you do a major rewrite. If you write 500 words a day every day while drafting you will complete the first draft of a 72,000 word novel in 144 days, which is a little under four months. Writing 750 words a day, five days a week, will get a 72,000 done in 96 writing days over 134 days, which is three and a half months. Writing regularly will also help you keep the story together in your head to maintain continuity in your story and consistency in how you’re writing the story.

Many have speculated about what makes teen novels so popular with both teens and adults. One major factor is “the unfinished, dynamic character of a maturing teen and the more static character of adults who are stuck in their prescribed roles” that Elizabeth wrote about in her article. Adults don’t have to get stuck in prescribed roles but many do. Many adults have lost touch with a sense of having an unfinished, dynamic personality – which is the nature of people throughout their whole life, whether they take full advantage of it or not – to a large degree and reading stories about teenagers can help adults rethink their own attitude to life and rediscover the possibilities still available to them.

Writing my own teen novel, set in 1939 Poland, it has been crucial to do in-depth research before drafting to avoid stopping and starting to do extra research while drafting or writing an under-informed draft which would require major cuts and rewriting later. I find that having an in-depth knowledge of my subject matter and resources at hand to double-check any details I might need to confirm along the way allows me to write with confidence, enjoy the writing process and be inspired by the real-life context of what I’m writing about. Even if you write fantasy novels, and can therefore make up a lot that other writers might need to make sure they get right, some initial research relevant to your story can go a long way to creating a rich, coherent foundation for your novel and tangible real-world details to draw readers into your story-world.

My novel-in-progress is set in a time and place where characters’ plans are disrupted by the outbreak of war and they have to re-invent how they live their lives. As discussed, teenagers tend to do this naturally and many adults would benefit from being more open to re-invention. The ‘unfinished, dynamic character of the maturing teens’ in the novel should carry with it appeal for teenagers who identify with the characters’ personalities, by ‘telling them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences’, and for adults who remember their own teenage years and the sense of possibility and opportunity that they either still have or have let go of to some degree. The characters face extraordinary circumstances which will hopefully inspire readers to realise that, if the characters are capable of doing what they do in their difficult circumstances, then the reader is also capable of great things without the obstacles faced by the characters.

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‘Month In Review’ Updates

For more articles on writing novels you can check out Writing Historical Novels and Writing Novels in Australia.

You can connect with Steve Rossiter on Facebook or on Google+.

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Writing Novels About Teens For Teen Readers, by Bernard Beckett

When writing a piece of fiction, we try to do something more than achieve an external description of the world. We want to engage with it in a way that feels like a depiction from the inside. We’re digging, if you like, towards that which is essential. If you write about teenage characters for a teenage audience, you are backing yourself to be able to tell them something both fresh and authentic about their own experiences. That’s not without its difficulties. They are, after all, the world experts on being teenagers in the twenty first century. They know the quality of their experiences better than adults do and for as long as there have been teenagers there have been words to describe the way they feel about the adults who don’t understand them: phoney, bogus, try-hard, fake, lame… Clearly my own list stalls somewhere in the nineties, but you get the idea.

So how are writers to bridge this imaginative gap and capture something of the rawness and immediacy of the teenage years? One obvious way is to do your writing while you’re a teenager. The Outsiders stands as one of the enduring titles at the junior end of this genre. As a school teacher I’m amazed to see how well fourteen year olds still respond to it. To an adult reader the cliché and sentimentality can get in the way but to the teen they translate readily into truth and drama. Nick O’Donnell’s Twelve is another book written by a young author that catches some essential quality of being young that perhaps is out of reach to the older writer, ditto Less Than Zero. For all their flaws, they do smell like teen spirit (and again, see how quickly our references age us).

There are other ways around the problem. One doesn’t turn twenty and magically lose all recollection of the previous decade. Adolescence passes more quickly for some than others, and I don’t mind admitting that I actively resisted adulthood well into my twenties. Many fine writers - I think, for instance, of John Green - have managed to stay in touch with the energy and quirks of the teenage mind, at least at first. Aging slowly does appear to be a feasible strategy, and one I’ve certainly leaned fairly heavily upon, but time is insistent and sooner or later both these strategies are doomed to fail. No matter how you dress or how carefully you keep up with the language and musical trends, one day you’re going to be an old person writing about young people. Then what? A popular option is to rely upon memory, or up close observation of teenagers. How many writers of YA come to the genre from a background in school teaching, or are prompted to write in the genre as their own children hit the teenage years? The trouble is, and I speak as a writer who has worked in high schools for the last twenty years, I don’t think this approach actually works.

Memory is not a static thing. We don’t recall events, we interpret them, and next time we try to access the recollection it will have been tainted by the previous interpretation. As we grow old, we lose touch with our youth. That’s just the way it is. In its place, we construct a story, and for all the many things such stories have going for them, authenticity isn’t one of them. So too with observing teenagers. You’re watching from the outside, focusing them through the adult lens, and no matter how bang on your external representation might be, that’s not the yardstick against which the novel will be judged. My interactions with students now are different than they were twenty years ago. Not necessarily better or worse, but different.

This is not to argue that older writers shouldn’t write for teens, but to do it well I think an important truth needs to be faced. The further we move from our own teen years, the less capable we will be of capturing their essence. To ignore this is to pour forth into that already overflowing pool of inauthentic, patronising and disconnected YA fiction. If I look back over my own novels, the ones I wrote in my mid twenties when I was just starting out as a school teacher have a particular energy I’ve never been able to recapture. When I wrote about the hopeless infatuations, the social fears and longings, I was writing about something that still lurked within. This is not to say they are my best novels; all the flaws of early apprenticeship are there to see. However, they had something that is lost to me now and understanding that is, I think, crucial to continuing to work in the genre.

Luckily, teenagers don’t wish to read exclusively about the teenage experience any more than teachers are going to limit themselves to reading books set in schools. A great deal of writing for teens sits within other established genres, be it supernatural romance, fantasy, sci-fi or crime. While they will still mostly feature teenage characters, the issue of authenticity is less pressing, the success of the story doesn’t hinge upon it in the same way. The very best of it produces work of depth and beauty without pretending to reflect the teenage world back at its readers (think Mark Lanagan’s books or MT Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books). Part of the reason I’ve moved into sci-fi/metaphysical novels for a bit is to do with these different demands. Similarly, at the higher end of the teen range, those novels that explicitly retell the teenage experience through the adult voice have an absolute place and, for my money, represent the finest pieces of YA writing. So there’s hope.

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Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

***

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