Jess Richards writes astonishing prose about astonishing things, creating worlds in which “anything can come alive” as Richard Beard put it, introducing her to an audience at a NAW masterclass this week at the Free Word Centre. Jess talked generously and honestly about how she wrote her two novels, Snake Ropes and Cooking with Bones, including some intriguing details about how she connects with her characters. Here are some of the insights Jess offered into her personal writing process; I for one found some of them familiar, some of them useful, so hopefully you will too.
Trusting your characters
Jess began writing Snake Ropes with only her main character, Mary, and a problem that Mary had to overcome (her little brother has gone missing). She then wrote and wrote, following Mary around her world looking for a solution, but waiting for Mary to show her what it would be rather than vice versa. As she said, this requires enormous trust. It also involves a lot of writing – she wrote 200,000 words before she found out what the ending would be. Jess admitted to a crisis of faith in Mary around 150,000 words, knowing as she did that Mary was an unreliable narrator who had lied to many people, and might well be leading her astray. She kept going, and it paid off; not all novels have to be planned.
Sense of Place
Snake Ropes is set on an island ‘just off the map,’ similar to, but not the same as, some Scottish islands. As Jess put it, even an invented place must have its history, geography, myths and legends. Her way of immersing herself in the place was to dedicate a notebook entirely to it, using drawings, cuttings and notes to add details whenever they struck her. This was a place to record anything her character Mary suddenly revealed to her, such as who her mother was and how she died.
Getting stuck and unstuck
Sometimes, Jess said, Mary would go quiet on her, or she would have no impulse about where the twins in Cooking with Bones would go next. Exercises she used to get unstuck included ‘jumping heads’ – changing the point of view from which you are thinking about events to another character; swapping expression – from thought to dialogue, perhaps; and writing a great big lump of one thing – dialogue, description, action, thought – and then breaking it down later. When you cannot get at what your character is feeling, she also suggested shifting into the first person, and then quickly rewriting in third.
Surplus minor characters
If they are not up to much, merge their roles into one character and see what happens!
This I found surprising, but revelatory. Jess renamed the character Maya in Cooking with Bones seven times during drafting. She said that by changing the name, she was able to see the character in a different light, or bring out another essential element of her personality that she had neglected before. Names really bother me when I’m writing, I spend ages over them, so I’m really going to think about this one.
Ask yourself: what is the absolute heart of this story? Anything that doesn’t feed into this can go. This is advice that can be applied strictly to short stories and more loosely to novels (where adding surrounding detail may carry more weight). I’ve heard similar advice from Adam Marek, who described putting some rocks into a jar (the story’s core) and then filling in the spaces with pebbles and sand (all the extras).
It’s hard. Make it easier by creating a folder called ‘cuts’ and just bung everything in there; that way it is not lost. Jess said she had turned much of this material into short stories or flash fiction, or found other ways to use it.
After 200,000 words of following her character, Mary, Jess was worried she was on a wild goose chase looking for Mary’s brother. She jumped ahead of the narrative and started trying out endings, waiting for the intuition from Mary that one of them was the right one. She got there in the end, after six or so tries, even though the right one was not the resolution she was expecting.