Black, Red, Blue and Yellow

After a recent class where I discussed my ‘four-colour printing process’ approach to writing scenes, one of my students asked me to do a blog post about it. So this is for you, JJ!

I developed this way of thinking about writing scenes when I made the transition from writing for children to writing for adults. I wrote my first adult book as my thesis for a Doctor of Creative Arts degree, and my supervisor, the wonderful Debra Adelaide, kept saying, ‘You need more reflection, more thinking from your characters about what’s going on.’

In children’s writing, there are two factors which mitigate against the characters doing a lot of thinking – firstly, you often have illustrations which show the character’s state, so the reader can figure a lot out for themselves and, secondly, a lot of reflection may slow the story down too much for younger readers. Yes, you need some, but for adults I had to learn how to integrate more reflection into my writing. Also, I was writing a fantasy, the Castings trilogy; a genre which demands far more descriptive detail of the environment than most do.

So I needed a way to make sure I was including enough information for adult fantasy readers: thus, the four-colour process. When a full-colour picture is printed in a magazine, the black is laid down first, then the other colours: magenta, cyan and yellow (red, blue and yellow). Only when you have all four colours do you have a life-like picture. Anyone who has had a colour toner cartridge run dry on them in the middle of printing will know what a three-colour picture looks like: odd, distorted, uneven.

In my writing process:

Black = what happens: dialogue, action, movement, anything which influences the plot.
Red = Emotions. This is tricky, because it is not just the point of view character’s emotions, it’s what everyone in the scene is feeling. Sometimes, this affects the Black – you must show what other people are feeling by their expressions, actions, movements, etc.
Blue = Reflection/thoughts. This is pov territory – but, again, if you want to convey what other people in the scene are doing, Blue will impact upon Black.
Yellow = Environment/description. Can be vitally important. For me, the thinking about Yellow has to happen before I write the scene, so that I can accurately visualise Black.

I’m much better at Black and Red than I am at Blue. Yellow, it depends on the story.

So, when I do a first draft, it’s often heavy on the Black and the Red, and light on the others, although the Yellow may be implied (eg if someone picks up a rock to throw it, there were rocks in the environment).

Knowing this, I don’t think of my ‘first draft’ as a proper first draft until I have gone through the scene and made sure I have given the reader the right proportions of each colour to create a vivid, life-like scene. I do this before I go on to the next scene. Only when I’ve painted all the colours appropriately, do I think I have a ‘first draft’.

Now I am writing historical fiction, I find the process is the same; I need more description than in contemporary fiction in order to make the world in 1915 vivid for my readers, and it’s crucial to explain my character’s thought processes, because they are often quite different to what a modern woman might think in the same situation.

The great advantage of this way of thinking about a scene is that it makes you consider what each character is thinking and feeling, and this helps make those characters more alive for the reader (and for the writer; it often changes a scene significantly when you finally realise what that one recalcitrant character is really thinking!).

I’d be curious if other writers have other systems – please comment if you do!

Mary’s Australia

What people don’t know

Recently I had conversations with several of my beta readers which made me think long and hard about general ignorance.

I am working on a novel set in World War I, A Soldier’ Wife, and I thought I had put in enough background on the war itself – surely most people know about WWI, I thought. Wrong.

One of my beta readers comes from a non-English speaking background, from a country which wasn’t involved in the conflict. She had a vague notion that England and Germany fought, and she knew that Anzac Day was about Australians who went to fight for England – but she thought they were fighting Germans at Gallipolli.

One of them was quite young. She knew all about Gallipolli, because they’d covered it in school, but she didn’t know much about the war in Europe. More importantly, perhaps, since the characters in the novel never go to Europe, she didn’t know much about daily life in Sydney. She got quite annoyed with me for having my character take a tram to Randwick, because there aren’t any trams in Randwick! (Not now, I said, but… she was astonished and a bit irate: Why did they take them away? she asked. Why, indeed.)

Subsequent to this, I had a chat with a writer friend who felt that I’d put a bit too much historical detail in because, ‘surely everyone knows that?’ Apparently not.

One of the challenges in writing historical fiction is putting in enough explanation to set the story but not so much that you bore people who already know it all.

In writing A Soldier’s Wife, I drew on my experience in creating fantasy worlds. It’s much the same process. You have to give a combination of straight-out explanations and a number of more subtle clues. Some of those clues won’t be picked up by the general reader, but the intelligent or experienced reader will note them with pleasure.

However,when you’re writing fantasy you can assume a certain level of ignorance. After all, you’ve made up this world, and anything you have made up you can assume you need to explain. When you’re writing historical fiction, you have to guess at the level of knowledge your readers may have.

World War I is beyond living memory. There are no Anzacs left alive. There are no people who were adults during the war left alive, as far as I know. So everything we know is based on anecdote, history lessons, books, TV and films.

The lesson I’ve drawn from all this is: don’t assume any knowledge on the part of your readers. For some people, A Soldier’s Wife will be their first introduction to World War I. For others, all they will know is what they’ve seen on Downton Abbey. And that’s okay. It’s part of the fun of historical writing, to introduce people to fascinating, disturbing or enjoyable facts which you have discovered. I enjoy sharing my vision of Sydney in 1915-16 – I just hope others enjoy reading it!