Monthly Archives: October 2015

A Career in Writing? How to choose?

Bird in flightA student recently asked my advice on choosing her degree for the forthcoming year at college. She was at a crossroads and had to decide between a degree in screenwriting and something else.

It is always a challenge to advise students about which course of study to follow. There are so many variables – personal circumstances, talent, earning potential of a career, desire and love for it, all delicately and dynamically poised on the scales of local and world economics, politics, fads and fashions.

There is a huge responsibility riding on the purveyor of such advice. Does the student sacrifice preference for security? Does she follow her heart rather than her mind? In the context of the current economic climate, who’s to say, anyway?

I remember asking a similar question of a professor of literature at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg many years ago. He was a rather eloquent man with a quiet manner about him. He thought about my question for a moment before responding, (and here I paraphrase):

We are either engineers of the world’s body, or engineers of the world’s soul.

The first sort prefers solving external problems. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, such people generally love working with numbers, managing external goals, keeping great physical structures functional and erect. They are scientist, civil engineers, accountants, and the like.

The second group is more inward looking, curious about its motives and the motives of others. They constantly try to make sense of their lives by experiencing the events in them as factual stories – by creating a running documentary of their lives. They are avid readers, often have an almost obsessive desire to explore the meaning of words; they tend to perceive the world through metaphor and idiom, draw on stories to understand the world and themselves. Such people make good lawyers, psychologists, priests, social workers, and, of course, writers.

As I walked away from the professor’s office to mull over his advice, I couldn’t help thinking about the exceptions, about the mixing of categories. Arthur C. Clark, for example, was a scientist and a writer. Stanley Kubrick was a gifted filmmaker with a strong scientific zeal that informed his work. There are many others.

As I continued to think about things it became clear to me that passion for one’s field is important, and although the professor’s separate categories may be helpful, they are also porous, allowing for an exchange of material.

In the end, my decision to study literature, and later, filmmaking, was based on one overriding factor. Inspiration – I enrolled for the courses that inspired me.

Perhaps the student might consider doing the same.

Summary

Choose the field that inspires you.

A Great Story Depends on Great Timing

Clock faceIn a previous article I discussed the importance of syncing your hero’s outer journey to his inner journey – to his character arc. Today I want to say a bit more about the nature of that syncing.

It’s important to emphasise that your hero should not act beyond his state of moral and practical wisdom – his performance at the level of the outer journey has to reflect his knowledge at the level of the inner journey.

But why, then, if the hero keeps learning from the outer journey’s knocks, if the hero keeps improving, does he keep failing to attain the goal, until the end of the story?

The answer is to be found in the precise nature of the syncing, which is to say that the lesson learnt is always one step behind the evolving challenges posed by the outer journey. Hence, the knowledge the hero brings to a new confrontation is less than required to gain the goal and defeat the antagonist at that moment.

It is only towards the end of the journey that the hero is able to integrate the wisdom gained from the series of hard knocks, dig deep inside and produce a superlative response which defeats the antagonist and gains the goal.

In my best selling novel, Scarab, for example, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, fails to outwit the villain and protect the woman he loves until he realises that he must sacrifice what he wants (to win Emma’s love) in order to gain what he needs (to save Emma’s life). It is a realisation that takes most of the story to achieve.

Summary

The lessons learnt by the hero lag behind the evolving challenges of the outer journey and the wisdom needed to defeat the villain and gain the goal until the end of the story.

What Do You Write About?

Fountain pen nibIN a previous post I asked the question: Why do we write? The answers were as varied as they were numerous – from a need to express oneself to the need to make money. This week I want to chat about a follow-on question: What do we write?

Ostensibly, the answer seems uncomplicated, depending on the reasons we write. Some of us write in certain genres because that’s what our readers have come to expect of us. But genres constrain, to a certain extent, what we can write about. A western most typically features the countryside, guns and horses, cowboys, saloons, and the like, which is not to say, of course, that such stories are not varied, especially if one keeps genre-mixing in mind. Cowboys and Aliens comes to mind here.

Then there are those writers who do not stick to specific genres, but dwell in the mystical spaces between them, writing in what they consider to be a more literary style. These stories tend to distinguish themselves less through the pizzaz of depicted events and more through the style, language, and a closer focus on the detail.

But the distinction between literature and entertainment is not always a useful one. After all, literary stories also entertain, and there may be literary moments in genre fiction.

For me the answer to what we write, what our stories are really about, lies in the theme. It is the theme that determines whether a story is facile or profound.

Is the theme a cliché meant merely to entertain us or does it enrich us by making us recognise something we have failed to understand before?

Scarab, for example, is a tale involving a mystical Sphinx-like creature, a quantum computer that can change the laws of physics, and a maniacal killer dressed in black. I had hoped to write a yarn that was entertaining and thought-provoking and, judging by the comments of my readers, it appears that I succeeded. Scarab became a bestseller in Amazon’s sci-fi category and stayed there for a couple of years.

The Nostalgia of Time Travel, by contrast, is a more literary story. The narrative is imbued with emotions and everyday events that we all recognise from our own lives, no matter what our particular circumstances might be. You’d think that the two novels are very different. And in terms of style and pace, you’d be right.

But under the surface, both novels deal with isolation, sacrifice, but most of all, they deal with the wonder and excitement of scientific and artistic discovery – they deal with similar themes.

Answering the original question with this approach in mind, then, I’d say that I write about recurring themes that interest me. The style, genre and specific narrative events are a secondary concern.

Perhaps you hold a similar view?

Summary

The theme is what a story is really about.

The Hero’s Journey

Barb wire against sunsetI have often said that one of the joys of being a teacher of creative writing is that it affords me the opportunity to reflect critically upon my craft during the day and implement the insight this affords my own writing later.

Interestingly, moments of deeper inspiration tend to well up during the execution of the lecture rather than its preparation.

It was during such a lecture on character arcs that it occurred to me that one prevailing weakness in student work – failing to make the hero’s actions feel authentic – lay in students not having synchronised their hero’s outer and inner journeys.

To put it simply, their heroes acted too wisely or competently at specific points in the story. The action did not reflect the hero’s current state of knowledge, skill, and moral fortitude. Their inner and other lives were out of sync.

It stands to reason that if the character arc, in a classical tale, describes the hero’s growth from ignorance to knowledge (by which I mean moral and skill-based knowledge) through trail and error, then the quality of the hero’s actions must needs be weak in the beginning of the story and become effective only at the end. A hero therefore, can’t be achieving success, outsmarting the villain, taking the high moral ground, too early. She is simply not equipped enough for it yet.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, Benjamin Vlahos can’t free himself of his guilt until he recognises the truth about his past granted to him during the cyclone.

One way to add to verisimilitude to your hero’s actions, then, is to sync up her inner journey (her decision-making process), to her outer journey (the execution of her actions in her world); to have her earn success through a series of hard knocks where lessons, both moral and physical, are learnt. This will not only synchronise the two primal layers of the story, but it will help grant your protagonist a strong measure of authenticity too.

Summary

Synchronise your hero’s inner and outer journeys to help authenticate her actions.

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