Monthly Archives: September 2015

Does the Novel Have a Future in this Gadget-Crazy World?

LibraryThere was a time that I was not as upbeat about the future of reading as a form of entertainment as I am now.

The desktop computer was the hot topic of the decade, driving the burgeoning games industry and a torrent of spectacular special effects movies to greater and greater heights, while book sales steadily decreased. How could the written word stand up to such a challenge?

Sure, screen and game writers were assured of a bright future, but what was to become of the poor novelist? Could she expect smaller and smaller slices of the loaf until she starved to death?

As things turned out I need not have worried. The tablet revolution, sparked by kindle, and taken up by the likes of kobo, iPad, and android devices, would be the game changer.

Suddenly, people who had drifted away from books, especially the youth, found it cool to be reading on brand new technology. It satisfied their fascination with gadgets. Tablets started popping up from a range of manufacturers. Reading was the winner, which, of course, was good news for writers, although not without hiccups.

Any major upheaval in the established order creates instability. As companies continue to experiment on how best to bring writers, readers and their products together they make mistakes. Writers are often on the receiving end.

Publishing houses, too, are having to adapt to ensure survival. The landscape is continually changing making it difficult to predict what’s next. Opinions fly around with detractors and supporters of traditional versus electronic publishing fighting it out in countless blogs and forums. My attitude is that as long as people keep reading, whatever the format, I’ll keep writing.

In the meantime, I am optimistic about the novel. After all, stories will remain an important part of life no matter what.

Summary

Stories are a necessary part of life. Write them. Read them. Enjoy them.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

The Art of Great Dialogue

Girls holding hearts in front of mouths“Writing great dialogue is an art in and of itself. For a film scriptwriter, it’s a vital skill,” writes Dwight V. Swain in his book, Film Scriptwriting.

Few would doubt the validity of his comment with regard to film, but should a novelist regard compelling dialogue as being equally important?

Yes, of course.

Novels no longer dominate the story market in the way they did a few decades ago – they have to compete with the deluge of new and exciting products, such as films and games, for the attention of their readers. Additionally, audio-visual products influence what consumers have come to expect from their entertainment – faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, authentic and gripping dialogue.

The crafting of compelling dialogue is the subject of countless of books and courses, but here is a short checklist on what great dialogue should accomplish:

Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
Dialogue should reveal emotion.
Dialogue should advance the plot.
Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.

Here is an example from my novelette, The Nostalgia of Time Travel:

Physicist Benjamin Vlahos’s wife, Mitanda, has been dead for thirty years, when she appears to him during the worst storm to ever hit the north east coast of Australia, and tries to persuade him to move on with his life.

Miranda: “Take the handkerchief from your pocket and place it back inside the box. Close the lid and never open it again.”
Benjamin: “Why?”
Miranda: “You know why.”
Benjamin: “I don’t know how to move on.”
Miranda: “You do. You must.”
Benjamin: “What about the math? What about the answers I seek?”
Miranda: “You already know the answers to the most important questions. The rest is gossamer wafting in the wind.
Benjamin: “Is it?”
Miranda: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.”
Benjamin: “It’s too difficult. I don’t have an ending.”
Miranda: “Do you still believe that? After all these years?”
Benjamin: “I believe in the math.”

Analysing the dialogue in The Nostalgia of Time Travel we discover that this is a story about a man stuck in the past. Benjamin is too tortured and tormented to move on with his life. Miranda defines the central beat in the plot: “Finish the story. Finish it in the way you want to.” This is the only way that Benjamin will end the years of stasis.

Benjamin, then, is characterised as a man steeped in regret, unsure of himself, unwilling to live his life. Miranda, on the other hand, is calmly confident, gently encouraging. The dialogue has to convey all of this.

Importantly, emotion, character, and plot are communicated sub-textually, rather than through on-the-nose dialogue. For example, when Miranda asks Benjamin to put the handkerchief in the box and never open the lid again, he asks, “Why?” Her reply comes indirectly: “You know why.” The reader knows the answer to the question from a previous context, so a direct answer is unnecessary.

Summary

Great dialogue performs several functions simultaneously.

Why Do You Write?

Light through forestWhy do we write? This important question has been asked countless of times.

The response is probably as varied as the people asking it, ranging from the rather vague – I write because I have to, to the more pragmatic – it helps pay the bills.

But writing is such a difficult and lonely activity that I believe there has to be a deeper and more significant reason that explains why we keep returning to our keyboards.

Why is it important to know? Because when we lose our way – and sooner or later we all do, when the muse and market-place glance the other way, when the critics descend upon us like a plague of locusts – we need to grab hold of that reason and use it to help pull ourselves back up to higher ground.

“It pays the bills,” won’t do then. There are other easier ways to pay the bills. Neither will, “I write because I have to,” since during such times it doesn’t feel like you have to at all.

The answer is probably two-fold. The first part is true for most writers: realise that what you’re feeling now will inevitably change. Your strength and self-belief in your abilities will return, prompted by more positive reviews, fresh insights, wonderful new ideas, better sales.

The second part you have to work out for yourself. What is it about the craft of writing, specifically, that brought you to the deep well in the first place? Remember that feeling you had when you wrote that first paragraph, page, chapter, that got you hooked.

For me it was a short story I wrote for a school assignment about the unbounded joy a homeless kid feels when he finds a shiny coin in the street. The idea sprang out of nowhere and practically wrote itself. I remember that last line well. It said: “And in his little black hand, the shiny 50 cent piece was set off even more.” Naive as it was, it had heart and a social conscience beyond my conscious ability to craft it.

The story made it to the school’s end-of-year magazine and proved to me that there was a voice inside me that had something to say if I could just find a way to activate it. It was the start of my journey.

I’m sure you have an equally meaningful memory about the moment when you first realised that you had something to say. Remind yourself of it when the going gets tough. It may just help you get back on track.

Summary

Never forget the moment when you first realised you had something to say as a writer.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Do Your Characters Have ‘Felt Life?’

Man's faceOne piece of writing advice we keep hearing over and over again is that the characters in our stories should be authentic – that they should exude a sense of verisimilitude.

But this is easier said than done. It takes years of meticulous observation of people to grow a sufficient understanding of their motives, fears, hopes, and goals, and even then, there’s no guarantee that this understanding can be communicated through a story in a way that makes it feel authentic. If that were the case, EVERY lawyer or psychologist would automatically become a bestselling author or Oscar-winning screenwriter. There have been some successful writers emanating from those illustrious professions, but by no means all. Why?

The truth is that writing requires techniques specific to the art of writing. Technique, in this sense, is the method of distilling an author’s experience of the world into a story that convinces the reader of its authenticity.

One way to achieve this is to imbue your characters with a sense of ‘felt life.’ The idea is to have your characters effervesce a pervasive sense of their likes, dislikes, values, and individual memories and foibles, so that they spring to life.

Here’s an example, drawn from my latest book, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, in which the protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos, describes his love for a specific cafe located in Mission Beach on Australia’s east coast:

“There is a small cafe off the beaten path near Mission Beach in the north that makes the best waffles I’ve ever tasted. Miranda and I once had breakfast there, as newlyweds, while on a tour across Australia and the place stuck with me; but that was a long time ago.

These days you know the shop is there, even though it’s hidden by trees and shrubs and clamping bamboo that sways five metres tall, because the scent of freshly ground Brazilian coffee can keep no secrets.

The tables, now mostly vacant, are covered with green tablecloths with cigarette burns. The chairs have thatch seats that creak when you sit down, though never enough to spoil the constant stream of blues and jazz on vinyl from a Philips turntable. The walls are strewn with dusty black and white photographs of the town before they found coal, a few kilometres up the road.

Not many people drift into O’Hara’s anymore. They built a pier nearby with the coal money and a three-level shopping centre, with more parking than there are people in the town. It’s filled with glass and chrome restaurants, bars and shops, and the place now draws much of the crowd away. I’m still a regular customer though.”

Benjamin’s sense of nostalgia, his love for Brazilian coffee, and his tacit condemnation of the new shopping centre, built out of coal money, which has more parking than there are people in the town, grants us an effective and concise snapshot of his personality – a sense of ‘felt life’ which gives the story its verisimilitude.

Summary

Make your characters more authentic by imbuing them with a sense of ‘felt life.’

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, kindly share it with others. If you have a suggestion for a future one, please leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the bottom right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.