Thursday 29 December 2011

Hello The Future


For my last post of the year I thought I'd put down how I see things going in 2012 (should be good for a laugh in twelve months' time). I've always been enamoured of culture and the arts, and I think the battle between what Old Money wants to keep the same, and what New Technology wants to see take over, is a fascinating one. My hope is things come to a head in 2012. I'd like to be part of the generation that saw the world change (hopefully into something better).

I already spend most of my time interacting with people I've never met, I think the society that could develop would be a great way to bypass the vested interests that tell us what to think and what to buy and who to hate.

Monday 26 December 2011

End of Year Report

I started this blog in February of this year and in that time have made over 100 posts and gained over 500 followers. I'd just like to thank all of you who have dropped in to read posts, make comments and start arguments. I very much appreciate all of you for sparing the time to interact with me, and I've tried to respond in kind as much as possible.

This blog has had a very specific agenda, dealing as it does with my personal obsession with becoming a writer. It's been very gratifying to meet so many like-minded  souls out there.

Most Visited Posts of 2011:

Thursday 22 December 2011

Movie Binge December

I've been watching a lot of movies recently so I thought I'd do a review post. I should point out that I saw none of these films in 3D (which may or may not explain some of my views).

HUGO ~ Very poor visuals (perhaps they're more impressive in 3D) with very obvious fake backgrounds and way too much CGI endlessly weaving between passengers on train platforms. A sweet message about the love of imagination, but quite a long, drawn out narrative structure with lots of Tell me/It's a secret/ But you must/No, I can't/Oh, go on/No, really, I can't... And quite a few plot holes too, where stuff that's important one minute is totally forgotten the next.

TINTIN ~ Visually very impressive, really used the freedom of the CGI world to get the camera to do things you couldn't do in real life. Action set pieces were very good, although the story itself suffers from the same problems as the source material (Tintin tends to solve cases through luck and coincidence), although fortunately they toned down the casual racism in the books. Still prefer Asterix and Obelisk, myself.

Monday 19 December 2011

No Subtext Without Context

In order to create a story that resonates and affects people on more than a superficial level, you need more going on than appears to be going on.

For subtext to work you need two things:
1. There must be a clear and plausible reason for why a character does something.
2. That reason is not the true reason they’re doing it.

The character may or may not be aware of the real reasons for their behaviour, but the writer needs to know exactly what is behind a character's actions. It may seem an attractive proposition to just write the story and hope the deeper meaning inserts itself, but that is not going to produce a satisfying story.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Dead Story Walking


You’re writing a scene and it’s active and energetic. The character has a goal, he’s motivated and the stakes are high. He’s putting maximum effort into getting the job done.

And yet...

On his tail are one or more highly incentivised adversaries, doing whatever it takes to bring down our hero.

And yet...

Everything is in place, all the elements for a good scene are present. And yet... it doesn’t work. The action feels flat, the outcome feels predictable, and even though it’s all vivid and clearly conveyed, it’s boring. Why?

Monday 12 December 2011

Your Dialogue Is Showing


Whether you are a strong advocate of Show vs. Tell, or you find it an overused instruction that’s oft misused, one thing is for certain: dialogue is always considered showing.

There are some people who don’t really understand why this is so, to them dialogue often seems the very opposite of showing: people telling each other things.

The reason isn’t do with what is being said—the content of speech can be all telling and it would still be considered showing—but because you are enabling the reader to visualise what’s happening in the scene. Someone is talking.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Chapter One: Magician by Raymond E. Feist


The latest genre in my series of first chapter dissections is Fantasy. As with the other books I’ve analysed (here), I will attempt to work out how a debut novelist managed to create an opening to his story that successfully pulls readers in.

Raymond E. Feist’s Magician (1982) was hugely successful, and is still considered one of the great fantasy books today. Coming up with a swords and sorcery epic at a time when fantasy of that kind had pretty much been done to death shows there’s always room for more stories, in any genre. It's such a good book that it encourages you to read the many sequels and follow-ups, all of which are terrible.

The storm had broken.

Monday 5 December 2011

Writers Who Know Everything

A problem I’ve been coming across a lot recently when reading and critiquing on various writing workshops is the writer using his knowledge of future story events to guide present ones. 

This is a fairly simple thing to fix, the problem is more in trying to convince the writer they are in fact doing this. It’s one of those things where if the person isn’t aware they’re doing it, proving it to them can be very difficult. They just can't see it.

The reason this is something to be aware of is because misusing that knowledge can make the story lose credibility. If a character just happens to go to the right place at the right time, or if they assume or guess or hope for the best — and luckily everything works out in a way that's very convenient for the story, it will feel contrived and fake. Here's an example of what I mean:

Thursday 1 December 2011

Interesting Characters: You are what you eat


Story is viewed differently by the writer than it is by the reader.

A writer knows what kind of person he is writing about, and uses that to inform what that character does on the page.

A reader knows what a character does and uses that to understand what kind of person that character is.

Both are looking at the same thing, but from different ends. The thing they are both looking at is this: what people do reveals the truth of who they are.

But truth and fact are NOT the same thing.

Monday 28 November 2011

Bunch of Cults No.6: 1Q84


This is part of an ongoing series of weird and wonderful stories from off the beaten path. Others in the series can be found here.

This post is in two parts. Firstly a look at the latest book from Haruki Murakami, probably the bestselling ‘cult’ author in the world. And secondly a few thoughts on the power of story over technique. If you’re telling an engrossing tale, does it really matter how you go about it?

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a science-fiction story. Sort of. It’s set in a parallel 1984, that is more or less identical to the real 1984. Except for the two moons in the sky (that only a few people notice). It is about two people, a lonely young woman, and an aspiring novelist. And it is about a fantastical group of Little People who are trying to control the balance of good and evil in the world. 

Thursday 24 November 2011

Something to be thankful for


Monday 21 November 2011

Two Pronged Attack


When you write a story and then ask someone to read it and give you feedback, you are asking two things:

1. How well have I said the thing I’m trying to say?
2. Was it worth saying?

Obviously you can give an opinion on both of those, but in order to help the writer improve things, you may also want to offer some suggestions.

Friday 18 November 2011

Best Hyperbole Ever!

Two men each have a box. Both are selling tickets for a peek inside their box. Both make extravagant claims about how impressed you’ll be with what you’ll see. But neither is willing to tell you what they've got in there.

Roll up, roll up. The stupendous, astonishing, one in a lifetime, miracle in a box. Get your ticket here. Be the first to see what’s in the Box o’ Dreams.

Now, if I tell you that one man has got something pretty amazing in his box, and the other has half a dog turd, how can you tell which is the box worth buying a ticket for?

The answer is you can’t. It’s just as easy to make hyperbolic promises about something rubbish as it something awesome if you don’t have to back up your claims. So, if you happen to actually have something really cool in your box, how do you let people know you’re the real deal?

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Hey! What's the idea?


You come up with an idea. You like it. It’s a good idea. You start planning it out, or you just start writing, either way it’s going well. You like the characters and you like where they’re headed. And then you get about halfway and everything changes. Now it seems boring. Everything seems obvious or clichéd or incredibly tedious. The magic’s gone. Why? Where did it go?

There are three things I believe every story needs: premise, premise, premise.

I’m not talking about the logline, the pithy couple of lines that sum up the whole story in compact form, easy for drunk, cocaine-fuelled agents to digest between Thai massages. Loglines are a very useful selling tool, but they come at the end of the process. The premise is the idea you have at the start, that fires you up enough to write the story in the first place.

That idea you start out with can do a lot of the work to get you out of the mid-story slump. In order to do that it has to have more than a rough suggestion of what the story’s about. It needs one key ingredient.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Trying Too Hard To Impress


It’s always difficult to know if you’re good enough as a writer. You may have had some encouragement at school, some positive comments from people you know, maybe even support from other aspiring writer on the Internet. But until you have a genuine response from people who are willing to take a risk on you, whether it be agents, or publishers, or paying customers, there’s always going to be some doubt in your mind (unless you’re a sociopath, of course).

Obviously, you write better when you have confidence in what you’re doing. Even if the story doesn’t end up working, at least you enjoy the process. But how do you keep going those days everything you write seems like long-winded drivel and utter nonsense?

Monday 7 November 2011

Contrivances Aplenty


All stories are contrived. A story is carefully set up so the pieces  fall when they’re supposed to. In real life it doesn’t work like that. Murder’s go unsolved. Bank robbers get away. Bankers get even bigger bonuses. But we don’t read stories so we can see the world in its unfathomable weirdness that makes little sense (that’s what we have windows for).

The value ascribed to real life events are not the same when they are used by writers. In real life, winning the lottery is hugely unlikely. In a story it is very easy to arrange. That ability of the writer’s to make things happen any way he wants, can often derail a story if it is too obvious.

Any time you write down a story the reader is aware that there is a guiding hand behind the events, even if it’s only subconsciously. And knowing that is what enables you to keep the mechanics of what you’re doing hidden. Like in a magic trick, it isn’t stopping them seeing, it’s controlling where they look.

Thursday 3 November 2011

What can you learn from reading?


If nothing else, the experience of reading mounds of badly written fiction gave him an indelible lesson in exactly what constituted badly written fiction.
1Q84, Haruki Murakami

One of the most common advice to aspiring writers is to read. Read everything. This advice comes from everyone: writers, teachers, people in the street... Undoubtedly, if you want to write fiction, you should read fiction. In fact the reason you want to be a writer is probably because of stuff you’ve read. But exactly what are you supposed to glean from reading other people’s books? And how will it make you a better writer?

Monday 31 October 2011

Chapter One: Neuromancer


The latest genre in my series of first chapter breakdowns is Science Fiction. As with the other books I’ve analysed (Hunger Games, Harry Potter, The Notebook and others can be found here), I will attempt to see how a debut novelist managed to create an opening to his story that successfully pulls the reader in.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is the preeminent cyberpunk novel. A good example of a very derivative work on one level (Philip K. Dick, J.G. Ballard, noir and hardboiled all rolled together) that is at the same time influential in its own right, spawning countless books and films and even fashions.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Thursday 27 October 2011

This Is Not An Outline


The reason many people don’t find outlines helpful isn’t because they’re not an outlining sort of writer, it’s because they don’t know how to write a good outline. You’ll also hate toast if you only ever make it burnt to a crisp. With NaNoWriMo on the horizon I thought I’d take the opportunity to go over a few basics.

1. Jacki McLonli, recent divorcee, is at home climbing the walls. Her best friend Debbie calls her up and invites her out to lunch.
2. At a cool restaurant, over a delicious meal, Debbie tells Jacki that Mark, Jacki’s old high school sweetheart is back in town. He’s doing very well, still has his own hair, and is single.
3. Jacki “accidentally” bumps into Mark outside his place of work.

I think you can see the kind of story this is developing into, and each scene has an indication of what needs to happen were I to write it up as a first draft. But this is NOT an outline—at least not a good one.

Monday 24 October 2011

Pedantic Much?


When you first learn about the basics of good writing, about how to best employ the senses, or how not to employ adverbs, there comes a moment when it all comes together, when it all makes perfect sense. Good sense that can’t be argued with. And you start employing those ideas in your own writing and no doubt your writing improves greatly.

However, it’s very easy to go from convert to zealot. The main difference being you suddenly feel the need to impress on others the true path. And in many cases others would certainly benefit from knowing the value of show versus tell, or that short sentences make action scenes more visceral. How could anyone disagree with using fewer clichés?

But that doesn’t mean it’s true for all cases.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Third Campaigner Challenge - Show Not Tell

Write a blog post in 300 words or less, excluding the title. The post can be in any format, whether flash fiction, non-fiction, humorous blog musings, poem, etc. The blog post should show:

  • that it’s morning, 
  • that a man or a woman (or both) is at the beach
  • that the MC is bored
  • that something stinks behind where he/she is sitting
  • that something surprising happens.

Cheesy Feet

Monday 17 October 2011

Every Question Needs An Answer


From a writer’s perspective, all story has the same basic purpose: I have something I want to tell you. The problem is, you might be busy, or uninterested, or having fun doing something reprehensible (don’t pretend you wouldn’t). 

So, first I need to get your attention.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Exposition Ninja


You have information you need the reader to have. Problem is the characters already know, or aren’t interested, or have no idea. Just putting the information (backstory, exposition, general background details) into the text, while simple and effective, is clunky. So how do you go about imparting this info without being obvious about it?

You may not want to put information in a certain scene, you may choose not to, but you should be able to if you have to. Everyone says exposition should be invisible, integrated into the narrative, delivered without being noticed, but nobody tells you how to do it. So how do you do it?

Monday 10 October 2011

Do Not Trust Your Gut


Let’s say you’ve written a story, you think it’s pretty good but you know it needs work—and you’re prepared to do that work—but being so close to it, it’s hard to know exactly what to change and what not to change.

So, you give it to a couple of people to read and they both zero in on the same thing that needs fixing. And you’re pleased because you too suspected that part needed work. However, the suggestions they make for what’s wrong with it and what approach needs to be taken to make amends is totally contradictory. One says do more, the other says do less. One says this story needs more of Mr X, the other says it needs more of Mr Y. Make it quicker, no, make it slower.

And the thing is, you can see both make valid points. They both have merit. Either could be right. What do you do?

Thursday 6 October 2011

Hunky Dory


Most men have a pretty low opinion of romance fiction as written by women. Why? Most stories have some type of romance in them, one person attracted to another. The Great Gatsby or Fight Club or Slaughterhouse Five, they have love story tropes in them too. So what is it about the female version of romance that men find so laughable?

I’m not just referring to full on Romance fiction, the type with a glistening six-pack on the cover, I  include YA, paranormal, chick-lit, historical fiction, thrillers, basically any story aimed at the female market with a strong romance element to it. That means a female lead, and a man she’s interested in. She may not get the man, there may be other complications, but that’s general set up. And I don’t think it can be disputed that these books are hugely popular and one of the most lucrative areas of publishing. 

So what's wrong with how women write men?

Monday 3 October 2011

The Objective Correlative


According to T.S. Eliot (and he’s no slouch) the only way to convey emotion through words is to use an objective correlative, in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which creates a formula for that particular emotion.

That means in order to get across sadness it is not enough to simply state that Jack was feeling sad. We understand what that means, but we don’t feel it. You can say Jack was sad because his mother had died, and we understand why he’s sad, but still it doesn’t really register. But if you write a scene with Jack stood at a graveside with rain falling and mourners sniffling and Jack’s tiny hand gripping a woman’s lace handkerchief etc., then it starts to transfer some of that emotion.

The problem is that although it is true that emotions are triggered within us by symbols we all recognise and react to, because those symbols get used a lot (like rain at a funeral) it becomes obvious what the writer is doing. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate the power of those symbols—anyone who’s teared up when watching an advertisement on TV knows it doesn’t matter how corny you make it, schmaltz sells—what it does mean though is that if you want to garner respect for your writing all the seats at the front have already been taken.

Thursday 29 September 2011

The Best Speech in 20th Century Cinema*


*according to me.

Monday 26 September 2011

The New Apple Imago – does everything!


The problem with technology is it makes life too easy – for your characters. Your smart phone connects to the internet, records video and has GPS - who needs a watch with a garrote or a pen that fires darts? Never mind the Aston, James, here's my Ford Lacuna that parks itself and never gets in accidents. 

Thursday 22 September 2011

A staggering work of no importance whatsoever


So I’m walking into the house with my shopping, and the neighbour says, Hi, and I say Hey, how’s it going, and the neighbour says, Well, Nick is swimming now, he loves it, he was terrified of the water at first but he’s taken to it like a fish... The question is, do I care? No? Why not? And, what would it take to make me care?

A story is like your kid. You brought it into the world, you helped it grow, everything about it is fascinating to you. But why should anyone else care? Obviously they care about their own kids, if they have any. But they also care about some kids they’re not related to, so why not yours?

Monday 19 September 2011

The Reversal


The Reversal is a technique when things appear to be going one way, but they end up going another. It helps stories avoid being predictable and you can use it to subvert clichés. It also pulls the reader deeper into the story.

In its most familiar form a reversal is a plot twist, usually big and important. You thought the murderer was Dave, everything pointed to it being Dave. But it was BILL!

What you can do though is use it in a more simple, subtle form, to keep a reader engaged and wondering what will happen next. This is especially useful in genre fiction where readers who are familiar with the form start guessing what happens next and rapidly lose interest.

Thursday 15 September 2011

The Story Equation


They say there are only 22 variation of plot. Actually they say there are seven basic plots. Well to be honest it comes down to three types of story: this guy does something, this girl does something, or this thing does something.

When you come right down to it, every story has a formula. They all follow the same basic pattern: beginning, middle, end. Even when some bright spark decides to reinvent the wheel, all they’re really doing is leaving bits off or switching them round. But you can still see the same basic equation at the heart of things. Formulaic writing is seen as a bad thing, but this formula is far from simple.

Monday 12 September 2011

Chapter One: Rosemary's Baby


The latest genre in my series of Chapter 1 Analyses is horror. Rosemary's Baby was written in 1967 by Ira Levin, and was made into a hugely successful movie. It is a supenseful supernatural chiller set in a modern city with a cast or urbane characters. It is not an out and out blood and gore type of story, but it is horribly effective at getting under the reader's skin.

It is quite short at 195 pages. Chapter one is about 8 pages. There will be spoilers.

The opening lines are:
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available.

The opening is not particularly scary. In fact the whole first chapter is about the couple trying to get out of their lease and move into the Bramford. The actual story doesn’t start until they become residents, and the novel could easily have opened with them moving in. So why didn't it?

Thursday 8 September 2011

First Campaigner Challenge


My entry for the First Campaigner Challenge. I will be doing the rounds checking out the competition.

Write a short story/ story in 200 words or less, excluding the title. Begin the story with the words, “The door swung open”. 

Monday 5 September 2011

Anxiety > Curiosity


The reader should want to know what happens next. The drive of curiosity is one of the main factors in what keeps those pages turning. But anxiety is a more powerful emotion than curiosity.

If I said I was curious to know the results of my blood test, that would be different to if I said I was anxious to know the results of my  blood test. And that anxiety is what keeps me sat by the phone waiting for the call (I’m fine, all tests came back negative).

That’s not to say you should always go for anxiety over curiosity, it’s depends on specific context and intention, but it should be a deliberate choice and you can only make that if you understand what it is your choosing between, and how to achieve each.

The main difference between the two is this: with anxiety you have to be aware of a possible bad outcome.

Wednesday 31 August 2011

The Little Hook


Most people when they think of a hook in a story think of the Hollywood, high-concept version, something like:

Martha Harry was the best spy in the business, but what no one knew, not even her bosses at the CIA, was that Martha was a vampire.

Which is fine if you’re writing a high-concept story of that kind, but hooking the reader at the start of a story is more to do with phrasing and learning how to pose a question without a question mark.

Martha Harry, or ‘Buckets’ as she was known to anyone who had been at school with her, lived in a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan.

There is now a question that will appear in the mind of anyone who reads that  opening: why was she called 'Buckets'? It doesn't need to be a question that the whole book is about answering, it just keeps the reader on the other end of the line, an especially useful technique at the start of a book.

If I were to rephrase it as:

Sunday 28 August 2011

Done To Death


Stuff  I don’t need to be told again in books and movies:

Agreed. It’s ugly, it’s brutal, people die. We know. The men in charge are only interested in their own gain, soldiers do stupid things in the heat of battle and actually a lot of war is waiting around getting bored. We know. Occasionally people go insane. Yes, we know. It doesn’t matter what fresh angle you write about it from, we’ve seen it. Unless you have a suggestion about what to do to stop war (preferably not involving hippies) then you’re just re-stating the bloody obvious.

Yes, it’s called sex. People are shallow, men are pigs, women are hormonal, children are cute, everyone loves puppies. If the people in these stories drank less and masturbated more, I think they’d find their need to sleep with inappropriate people that leads to ‘hilarious’ hijinks would be much easier to manage.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Identification, please


As a writer what you want is for the reader to be absorbed into your story so they think, ‘Just this chapter and then I’ll go to sleep’ but when they get to the end of the chapter... they’ve got to keep reading.

What you want is for the reader to lose sense of time and place and be immersed in the fictional world you’ve created.

What you want is for the reader to identify with your protagonist so his adventure is their adventure.

So how do you do that?

Sunday 21 August 2011

Bunch of Cults No.5: Scarecrow

Previous in this series can be found here
Gene Hackman and Al Pacino star in the small 1973 movie Scarecrow. Two itinerant men, one just out of prison, the other the navy, strike up a friendship as they thumb a ride across America, each with a goal.

The Hook
Two great actors in a movie you've never heard of, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Complications Ensue: Writing Styles Pt.2

Long, flowing prose, made up of the perfect words placed in melodic paragraphs, can be a pleasure to write, and even (occasionally) a pleasure to read. But the danger is that you’ll become mired in a swamp of indulgent vocabulary and wet spaghetti sentences. Complex doesn’t mean convoluted.

William Faulkner’s Barn Burning:
The store in which the justice of the Peace's court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish - this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood.

You might think, Golly gee (which is how I imagine you talk) this is a wonderful description of a room, a town store that is being used as a makeshift courtroom, you can almost feel you’re there, and what a masterful job of realisation of a setting. Scene setting at its most vivid. And you would be wrong.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Simply Irresistible


I’ve decided to do a couple of posts on writing styles. The first will be on clean, simple prose as mostly identified with writers like Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver.

This kind of writing, where you don’t use long words or complicated sentence structures is easy to read and can build into a powerful way to tell a story. However, simple does not mean simplistic.

Simplicity in writing refers to the external structure, the language you use, the number of events you cover, how you structure the narrative. But that is not the most important aspect for the writer to establish. The writer needs to know about the internal structure, what the story is about.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Make the most of it


If what appears to be happening in a scene is exactly what is happening in a scene, it can read as plodding and obvious. Direct, on-the-nose, mono-layered, mono-tone storytelling has a tendency to read as juvenile. That’s not to say the writing can’t be simple, but simple isn’t the same as simplistic.

One way to add depth to a scene is to take into account where the scene is set, and use the setting to create sophisticated storytelling. It should be noted that as simple doesn’t mean simplistic, so sophisticated shouldn’t mean convoluted.

Here are eight ways to achieve a greater level of depth without being too obvious (or too waffly) about it:

Sunday 7 August 2011

Self Correction Fluid


I’ve written a number of posts on the various techniques available to a writer, here I’m going to discuss my own. What works for me. Not that I hold this up as an example for others to follow, if you know another way I strongly suggest you use it. 

I am by nature (somewhat unsurprisingly) a moody writer. When I have an idea for a story, the approach I take to writing on any given day will depend on my mood. I don't mix techniques, I veer wildly from one to the other, often in the same story.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Don't love me for fun, girl


Romance fiction, the kind with the bare-chested male on the front cover, has always been looked down on. It sells very well, but no one is very impressed by it. Most modern YA books have a strong romance element to them, and are often equally derided for their wish-fulfilling maelstrom of passion. The kind of love they contain is, in a word, corny.

However, love is a strong motivator and part of most stories, but the simplest things are often the hardest to articulate (especially without resorting to clichés). Why does person A love person B (and possibly also person C)?

If the answer is along the lines of: He was so cute; she had a nice smile; his eyes were so blue; I felt a knot in my stomach the first time I saw he; there was just something about the way he moved... then the writer is asking the reader to take it on faith. Forget why, it’s just how they feel. And in many cases the reader will agree to overlook the exact reason why the “okay-looking” girl who no one talks to is suddenly the most desired girl in school.

But what if you were able to demonstrate how it happened, if you could show the moment love took bloom? And in a way that made the reader go: Okay, I see why that person’s special. How would you go about that?

Sunday 31 July 2011

Sometimes it's just got to be said


In some cases the writer doesn’t care that readers are put off by backstory and exposition. They need to know stuff and the quickest way to tell them, is to just tell them. Sometimes it works for the genre. The lead robber of the bank heist will give the “Let’s go over it one more time...” speech, and it's kind of expected.

Sci-fi geeks want to know how your teleportation device is supposed to work (so they can scoff at your poor understanding of quantum physics). And if the reader is heavily invested enough they’ll even let slide the ridiculous rules to your made-up sport that makes no sense (150 points for catching a snitch? Really?) .

However, assuming you want to work in your backstory/exposition in a subtle and elegant way, there are a number of techniques available to you.

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Action Stations!


There are some basic rules to writing action in fiction that are straightforward and make sense. Keep sentences short to add pace. Be clear and use simple language when describing complicated moves. Show don't tell.

This doesn’t just apply to fights and chases. Any confrontation, any physical movement, any visual scene will have an action element to it. However, you can’t just replicate Hollywood movie visuals, the picture in the reader’s head won't automatically have the same impact as stunt-work on the big screen. You have to find a way to translate what's on the page into an emotional experience for the reader.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Hello, Mary Sue.


A “Mary Sue” is a character who is too good to be true. They have all the skills, they save the day, they sacrifice themselves to be the hero everyone remembers. In fiction this kind of character is derided as being the overly perfect man or woman who has the all best qualities and none of the flaws.

I think the general attitude towards this kind of character is a little misconceived. There’s always been the character who was good at everything, the hero, the beauty, the chosen one. Whether it’s James Bond or Cinderella or Neo. And in some genres, like Romance or Spy Thrillers, this kind of character is pretty much standard.

The thing that stands out with “Mary Sue” types I come across isn’t what they looks like, or what abilities they have, it’s what happens to them. And it’s what they do. Or don’t do.

The modern-day “Mary Sue” isn't perfect, she's lazy.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Story vs Plot


Aren't these just two ways to say the same thing? Does it really matter if you don't know the difference?

On a very basic level STORY is what happens and PLOT is how it happens. There are various simplified explanations of this, the most famous probably being E.M. Forster’s:

The King died and then the Queen died – is a story.
The King died and then the Queen died from grief – is a plot.

The suggestion being that plot provides a deliberate causal relationship between events that tells the reader the reasons for what happened, and what it means in a wider context. This is all very well but how does it help you to be a better storyteller?

Sunday 17 July 2011

Query querying


Week 3 of the Blogorama is a query contest where advice, suggestions and comments are sought on query letters. Anyone can share their opinion on the following pitch for my WiP Lickety Split. Please feel free to tell me what you think, vague or specific, no need to hold back (I'm sure agents won't).

I've taken onboard people's comments  and this is my second draft:

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Choices, Decisions, Dilemmas


There’s no point posing a question for a character if the answer is straightforward and easy. If the question is “Fish or chicken?” that isn’t much of a dilemma. Even if the character loves both dishes and is at a loss and can’t make up his mind. It’s just a matter of preference.

If the character can decide later, if he can carry on living quite happily with either choice, if he can say, “Actually, I’ll just have a salad,” then why would the reader care about the outcome?

Problem is, there are plenty of people who will tell you something as though it was terribly important when it isn’t. They explain why they took the scenic route instead of cutting through town. Why they chose blinds instead of curtains. How the Cointreau Orange was the right choice for the living room walls because it matches the Ambre Solaire Beige upholstery of the settee. People are generally convinced everything they think of is as interesting to others as it is to them. But how do you prevent a conversation with someone you just met from turning into a dance of the disguised yawns?

Sunday 10 July 2011

What the hell is up with no.8?


As most of you will already know, these are Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing short stories:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things -- reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them -- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. 

Seven of these rules for writing short stories are pretty easy to agree with. They make sense and although they may not be as straightforward to employ as the list might make it seem, they’re probably worth pursuing. And even if you choose to do it differently, you can still understand what he meant.

But number eight is an odd thing to say, and one I’ve never really understood. So I'd like to take a closer look at it.
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