Monthly Archives: August 2013

Writers’ Winning Ways

Winning Writing Habits

Although neither sacrosanct nor replete the list below reveals some of the winning habits of writers and creatives across the world.

1. Enjoy and celebrate your creative journey—the mistakes too. Goethe once said: “By seeking and blundering we learn.” Sound advice indeed.

2. Read voraciously. Stephen King reminds us that if we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write. Watch plenty of good movies too. If novels and short stories teach us about the inner journey, as well as character complexity and depth, movies teach us about pace, the outer journey and economy.

3. Join a writer’s group for networking, information, feedback and moral support.

4. Know your industry. Read dedicated magazines, subscribe to relevant blogs and websites. Try to learn something new about your craft each day.

5. Dispel negativity from your writing life, despite the growing number of rejection slips. Dean Koontz garnered 75 such slips before his first sale. Each book or screenplay represents enormous effort, dedication and faith. Negativity eats away at your resolve, self-belief and energy. It has no place in your process.

6. Write regularly—every day if you can. Not each session has to produce inspired or superlative work. The point here is to support the writing habit and it will support you.

7. Don’t second-guess, or edit your work while writing. Let the material pour out of you. Correcting and polishing are for the editing stage.

8. Be persistent and committed. The great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.” You shouldn’t either.

9. Believe in yourself and in your abilities. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

10. Learn to take criticism. Feedback, fair or foul, is requisite and inevitable. Paz Octavio, the Mexican poet and writer said: “What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.”

Summary

Becoming a successful writer often involves traveling down a long and difficult road—it is not for the faint-hearted. Fostering healthy habits that develop and sustain stamina ought to make your goals easier to achieve.

Talking the Story

Writer

Trish Nicholson

Today I have the honour and privilage to host a special post by a truly erudite and inspiring writer: Trish Nicholson.

Trish writes narrative nonfiction and short stories, some of which have won international competitions and are analysed in her latest book Inside Stories for Writers and Readers. She is also a social anthropologist and author of travelogues. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and visit her tree house on her website at http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com

Take it away Trish…

Trish: Thank you Stavros. I’d like to start with the idea that although film and the short story may each employ different strengths to tell a particular tale, what they share is greater than their differences.

“Short story and film are expressions of the same art, the art of telling a story by a series of subtly implied gestures, swift shots, moments of suggestion…”(H .E. Bates).

Dialogue is especially significant in this respect. By eavesdropping on what they say, readers and viewers hear characters’ desires and intentions directly from the source. Crafted with care, verbal exchanges demonstrate character traits, emotional states, relationships with twists of deceit, manipulation and asymmetry, and they reveal facts and motivations that push the plot.

‘Talk’ that achieves none of these is idle chatter that clutters the story and slows the pace.

In Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, I unpick dialogue in a couple of stories, explaining the role of each spoken phrase. The following excerpt shows how much can be conveyed through a few lines of dialogue within a 100-word micro-fiction. In this story, a couple sit at a table in a train-station café. A tramp occupies the same table and lifts his T-shirt to scratch flea bites.

“Let’s move,” you hiss.

We learn the character being quoted is probably intolerant of tramps. A tag had to be used because no one has spoken up to that point and there are three people at the table, but the ‘hiss’ not only tells us how the words were delivered, but that the narrator seems to have a negative attitude towards the comment, or the speaker – to use ‘whisper’ instead, would have given a whole different meaning and character hint.

“There’s still an hour,” I say.

It is unlikely that the tramp would have spoken this, so the tag is not necessary in that sense, but it provides the symmetry of ‘you said/I said’ to point up the rejoinder that deliberately ignores the subtext of the other speaker as to the reason for moving: there is underlying tension here.

We’re starting over: going on a second honeymoon – to Torquay.

This suggests problems in the past but the inner voice of the narrator is optimistic, and gives vital plot information – where they are going and why.

“You’re always so obtuse.” I feel your spittle spatter my face.

The choice of ‘obtuse’, while apt anyway, was made especially for its spittle-delivering qualities. The use of ‘always’, like ‘never’, is argumentative and again indicates a history of conflict. The spittle comment is not needed as a speech tag, but it up-grades the speaker’s anger and paints a visual picture of the scene.

You get the Brighton train.

The narrator’s inner dialogue describes an important action in the plot, and the one word “Brighton” tells us there will be no second honeymoon (the significance of “Torquay” earlier). [The Last Train].

Summary

Dialogue helps us to create vivid scenes; to emulate the immediacy of film by revealing crucial aspects of our stories directly through the words and actions of characters.

Stavros: Once again, I want to extend a special thank you to Trish Nicholson for agreeing to share with us her considerable knowledge of the craft of writing.

Trish: It’s been my pleasure Stavros.

Amazon, Mon Amour!

Glances and hearts

Amazon Love:

In today’s post I want to pay a personal tribute to Amazon. Now, I do realise that it is sometimes unpopular to align one’s self with a large institution such as Amazon, an institution whose operational style might be seen, by some, as predatory. But, with all due respect to contrasting views, I make no apology for this.

No. I don’t own shares in the company, nor do I work for it—although, I do, in a real sense, work with Amazon to achieve my personal goals.

Let me explain.

Some fourteen years ago, whilst working as the resident screenwriter for Elmo De Witt Films in South Africa, I wrote a short novel called Scarab. A fellow South African writer read it, liked it, and recommended it to his publisher at Perscor. The book generated interest with the local branch of the company, but before it could go further, the branch closed down and some of its staff relocated to Cape Town to form a new company. The South African economy was shaky at the time, and businesses were folding one after another. This was during the early days of Nelson Mandela’s Apartheid-free South Africa and the country was excited, nervous and focused on more important things. I was advised to try to find another publisher, failing which, I should contact the Cape Town group and take it from there.

I never did.

I was eyeing Australia at the time, busy with my graphics and animation company, and somehow, I let things slide. I suppose the fear of rejection also played a role.

As time slipped by, I found myself teaching and studying in Australia, while a little device called the Kindle gathered in strength and popularity. The thought occurred to me that there was no harm in updating my novel (the pentium processors mentioned in my old revisions of Scarab were now passé), with the view to publishing it on Amazon.com as a Kindle ebook. And so I did.

I’d love to say that the rest is history, and offer some rags-to-riches story, but, sadly, that wouldn’t quite be the truth. What is true, however, is that since that day, I haven’t looked back. Scarab performed better than I had ever expected, hitting the #1 spot in the bestseller list in High-Tech Scifi, both at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk. And some two years later, the novel is still holding a place on the same bestseller list, while its off-spring, Scarab II: Reawakening, has staked its own bestseller claim on amazon.co.uk.

The effect of this small gift of success was to grant me confidence that with enough hard work, output and dedication, I could eventually earn a living solely through my writing. What a rush for any writer!

The truth is that without Amazon’s global reach and innovative vision for the future of books, its research and development, its success in making reading “cool” again for the younger generation through the introduction of its Kindle tablets and software, Scarab would have remained a pile of pages on my shelf, placed in a box, gotten lost, and Scarab II would never have seen the light of day. My dream of being a writer might never have materialised—not for me, and perhaps, not for many other authors who have trodden a similar path to mine. This has been an opportunity for which, I, for one, am deeply grateful.

Invitation

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The Syuzhet & Fabula

Road sign

Syuzhet & Fabula:

In today’s post, I want to talk about two obscure but useful terms in relation to story telling—the syzhet and the fabula.

The Syuzhet

The syuzhet is the story we encounter on the screen or page. It is the blow-by-blow account of the narrative events that comprise our tale, in the order set out by our book or film. These events may or may not make immediate sense to the audience or readers, and therein lies the fun and intrigue.

This is very much the case in Memento, for example, where the protagonist’s retrograde amnesia is mimicked by the syuzhet’s presentation of a narrative that is given in reverse order in the black and white sequences, and in normal order in the colour sequences. The effect of this on the audience is one of confusion and obfuscation, much like the confusion and obfuscation experienced by the protagonist.

The Fabula

The fabula, by contrast, is the product of an ongoing process of deconstruction and reassembly of the syuzhet during the act of viewing/reading, using accepted norms of coherence and inference so that the reordered story has a clear beginning, middle, and end—in short, a story, reordered in our minds so that it makes sense.

Without this reordering, films like Memento, Pulp Fiction, Donny Darko and Jacob’s Ladder remain confusing. Indeed, many of the films we see in the art-cinema circuit, demand such an active process of fabula construction if they are to make any sense at all.

The question now arises: Why should the syuzhet differ from the fabula? The answer is simple: Presenting events in their normal sequence, without hiding, withholding, or misdirecting information, often robs the audience of the element of surprise and may result in a predictable and boring story. Few would disagree that part of the magic of Pulp Fiction lies in its disjointed syuzhet.

The point, in relation to writers, however, is that we need to have a thorough grasp of a coherent fabula, in the sense of knowing its beginning, middle, and end, before we can begin thinking about styling it into an effective syuzhet that can manipulate, misdirect, and surprise its readers or audience. It is here that thinking about our story in terms of a fabula and syuzhet proves useful.

Summary

Thinking about your stories in terms of a fabula and syuzhet is helpful in constructing complex narratives that stay coherent while remaining intriguing and challenging to your readers and audience, at the same time.