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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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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

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GenesisAugustNo AlarmsRed Cliff     Winter TownAcross the UniverseAngel Dust

Writing Teen Novels
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Are Teen Novels Literature? by Bernard Beckett

To write for teenagers is to be classified as a genre writer: to dwell on that small, slightly shabby shelf, near the back of the store.  From this vantage point there is a question that naturally arises: are we writing literature? We ask this self-consciously, perhaps defensively, worried that somewhere out there real writers are looking down their noses at us, or worse still, not looking at us at all. Such paranoia is not without fuel. Consider the way our work is treated in schools. It is not uncommon for a senior student to be told that a certain book isn’t ‘challenging enough’ to warrant their attention. The subtext is clear. Some books are light relief, a form of entertainment and nothing more, while others have a more worthy purpose. Real books dig beneath the surface, expose us to thoughts and feelings that would have otherwise eluded us, they expand our horizons, add colour to our palette. And, as a helpful short cut, genre fiction, be it romance, crime, fantasy or YA, is lumped together in the diverting-but-shallow category. But is such a distinction valid, and how effective a filter is the genre/literature divide?

Actually, in terms of YA, I think the filter works pretty well. I certainly wouldn’t argue that teen fiction can’t be great literature (I have my favourite counter-examples), but I would argue that mostly it isn’t. What’s more, I think this is perfectly predictable, and shouldn’t be viewed as some sort of failing on behalf of the YA writer. Indeed, a case might be made that the opposite is true – teen fiction authors self-consciously attempting to create great literature would be doing their readers a grave disservice.

To make this case, first it’s necessary to establish that the notion of literature is itself meaningful. Some argue that the very term is nothing but a code word for elitism: a small, culturally self-referencing clique, define literature against their own tastes, needs and prejudices, and then impose this definition upon a bewildered public, primarily as a means of exclusion. The bored schoolboy struggling through Passage to India on a hot afternoon might have some sympathy for this view. However, I think it’s too easy a dismissal. When I consider the books I have read, some simply passed the time in a pleasant manner: entertaining, intriguing, manipulating me, spinning stories. Others did something else. They deepened my understanding of the human experience. There were moments of clarity, of insight, indeed wisdom. Now of course this is an individual response, what counts as insightful will depend upon the state of the reader’s current model of the world (whereas an adult reader might treat The Da Vinci Code as a bit of escapist fun, a twelve year old reader might be ‘blown away by the ideas’). Furthermore, many books that aspire to insight, expose us only to the limitations of the author’s world, and are almost unreadable. The definition of literature is always going to be slippery with subjectivism, but I’m not sure we should do away with it altogether.  Some reading experiences are intellectually richer than others, just as some writing is poetic, while in other cases it’s purely functional. To deny that some books are primarily in the business of entertaining, while others strive to create art, seems to miss something important.

But to say it makes sense to speak of literature, is only to build half a case. Why should we expect literature to respect genre boundaries? Why shouldn’t we expect to find beautiful, wise writing in teen fiction or romcoms? The answer, I think, is that it is tremendously difficult to serve two masters. If you want to construct a thriller, then the primary goal must be to, well, thrill. And, at the point where we accept the thriller challenge, we are faced with psychological constraints, and these  constraints in turn determine the way our story will be built. We are thrilled when the character we care for is in jeopardy, when all appears lost, when every move only makes things worse, and all the while the deadly clock ticks on. The more our righteous indignation is fired, the more intense the thrill. It’s not just that our guy is running away, it’s that our guy is essentially good, and the folk he’s running away from aren’t.  We yearn for his survival both on an empathetic, and a theological level. So immediately, we can see that moral ambiguity has a tendency to work against the thriller element. Yet it is precisely this ambiguity that challenges our sense of the world, asks us to view our circumstances from a new perspective. Here then, we see the demands of literature and entertainment pulling in opposite directions. There are ways around this, of course, and the freakishly gifted writer will find them, producing both compelling narratives and deeply challenging works. For most of us though, what we’ll produce is a thriller that doesn’t thrill.

Like the thriller, the teen novel has its own imperatives (although as the readers reach the older end of the spectrum, this is less the case, and it’s here the chances of finding genuine literature improve). One of the great joys of being a teenager is the intensity with which one lives, an intensity that is never matched. To love a new song at fifteen is to love it in a way no functional adult can reach for.  So too it goes for fearing rejection, anticipating glory, or surfing the crest of a hormonal wave. Life is full of fresh first times, the existing template is tantalisingly inadequate, and the ride is at once terrifying, thrilling, elevating, and crushing; a mess of confusion and contradictions. Teenagers are in the business of trying out their new toys: their new bodies, their new intellectual capacities, their new level of access to adult society. They are fearsome advocates, gobsmacking risk takers, both loyal and fickle, tribal and fiercely independent. They don’t seek ambiguity, but rather clash. Their instinct isn’t for contemplation, it’s for engagement. These are the fast food years. One doesn’t linger and savour; one consumes, in great, joyous mouthfuls. And this wonderful creation, the modern teen, is the master the YA writer must serve.

This unique audience provides us with special opportunities, along with a peculiar set of constraints. It is the nature of these constraints, I would argue, that mean that the work we produce often isn’t literature. There are exceptions of course; glorious, inspiring exceptions, that simultaneously provoke jealousy and ambition. For the rest of us, with our stories to tell, engaging the audience is a lofty enough goal.

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

Bernard Beckett’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

GenesisAugustNo AlarmsLester     Prison Ship: Adventures of a Young SailorWhere the Broken Heart Still Beats: The Story of Cynthia Ann ParkerJohnny Tremain

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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