Category Archives: Motivational

Turning Life into Great Writing

Great writing

Turning life into great writing

Great writing, in my opinion, embodies two indispensable but distinct sets of skills.

The first arises from the writer’s own life: empathy, intuition, observation, inquisitiveness, moral compass, and the like.

Some skills within this first set are surreptitiously acquired over time, simply by living one’s life; others are innate and spring from the writer’s general and emotional intelligence.

The second is learnt more quickly. Knowledge about the craft, such as how to fashion the theme of a story, how to make characters engaging, how to weave plot and subplot together so that they compliment each other, is easier to acquire.

Much of the writerly advice offered in books, blogs, and courses emphasises this second set of skills. Mention is made of the importance of the first set, a writer’s powers of observation, or the need to be inquisitive, but the emphasis lies squarely on how to work with technique. The reason is simple.

It is far easier to teach someone how to use a turning point to spin the story around than it is to align that turning point with some astute observation about the human condition.

I often advise my students to think about both sets of requirements simultaneously; to try and integrate them into the writing process from the get-go.

The information needed to produce great writing is all around us—in streets, shops, restaurants—if only we can learn to observe, relate, and recognise its relevance in our work.

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to be teaching at a college in Australia, which was situated a few hundred meters from the art gallery at Brisbane’s South Bank. I would often spend my lunch hour there browsing through its many treasures.

Turning life into great writing

I remember on one occasion being captivated by a painting of a young woman in a floral dress. She was leaning against a tree and seemed rather forlorn.

I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that someone else was studying the painting intently. A glance revealed that this person, an elderly man with deeply wrinkled skin, was working his top lip with his teeth. Another glance revealed a trace of tears in his pale eyes.

I crept away so as not to intrude, but my imagination raced with narrative possibilities. Did she remind him of his own daughter that had, perhaps, passed away? Or, had the young woman been a lover who had rejected him?

I tucked the image away in my mind for use in some future story, perhaps as a minor beat, perhaps as an inciting incident or turning point.

I have, as yet, not exactly done so, although I did locate a few important scenes with a very different character at that very gallery in my second Scarab novel.

The point is that one’s readiness to absorb a spectrum of experiences, to remember the small details that breathe life into memory, and to allow for their narrative possibilities to take hold of the imagination, is a wonderful way to broaden one’s skills in life and in writing.

Summary

Great writing requires the integration of two distinct sets of skills. The one stems from living and observing life, the other from mastering the techniques that transforms life into stories.

Perseverance and the Writer

Writer, Steven King

Writer, Stephen King received many rejection letters before gaining traction.

THEY say it’s lonely at the top. But the truth is that it’s even lonelier at the bottom.

It’s also more frightening and more frugal. Unfortunately, the bottom is where many writers spend their most formative years.

Getting published or having a script made into a movie has always been hard for a writer.

Steven Spielberg brandished the script of E.T. for several years before he convinced financiers to let him make it. Writer Stephen King’s rejection slips could fill an entire wall before he became one of the world’s most popular writers.

These sorts of accounts are legion.

But then, in 2007, something changed, for novelists anyway. Amazon’s kindle came along and the sun broke through the clouds.

The idea of reading stories on tablets proved contagious. Other companies followed suit with their own brand of e-readers. New writers flooded the market. Some were really good, launching sustainable careers. Others, not so much.

Still, writers could publish their work on these platforms and get feedback from their readers in the form of reviews. Sales, some sky high, some closer to earth, followed.

Then, something changed again. Amazon began to tighten the screws. Algorithms were altered, making it harder to get noticed. Reviews became subject to all sorts of restrictions – some justified, some not. Sales plummeted.

Some writers lost steam. Others gave up on their dream of becoming writers altogether. It was too hard, too lonely, at the bottom.

Sound familiar?

“The truth is that writing screenplays and novels, and attempting to get them made and read, is as difficult as winning a medal in a long-distance marathon. It may sound like a platitude, but it takes strength, endurance, and an unflinching belief in yourself to finish in good time.”

There are many moments during a race where it seems easier to give up than to press on. These moments become even more tempting as the race drags on and you find yourself alone on the road and gasping for breath. You need something special to keep you going.

But perhaps the solution is all around you.

How a writer beats the blues

Do you fear not finishing? Simply giving up? Then use that fear to drive you on.

Concerned that you are not good enough to produce high quality work? Then read the blogs and articles on how to improve your craft and put them into practice.

But even more importantly, try to remember that magical moment that first got you writing. There is something timeless and powerful in that moment — an antidote to doubt.

Become familiar with it. Learn to conjure it up at will. Use it to inspire you when you need it most.

That moment, together with a sense of what life might be without your dream, might just help keep you in the race.

Summary

Keep writing. Keep learning. And never give up.

How to Break Through Writer’s Block

Writer's blockWriter’s block. It happens to all of us at some point or another.

It happened to me while writing my award-winning novel, The Land Below. One minute I’m conjuring up a storm, full of plot plans and enthusiasm for the characters in my story, the next I realise that a month has passed without my having added a single word to the text.

I had succumbed to writer’s block – that insidious creature that slouches in the shadows hoping to snatch our muse away and keep her prisoner in his dungeon.

But writer’s block, no matter how persistent, needn’t mean the end of our writing careers.

Breaking Through Writer’s Block

They say that genius is ninety-nine percent hard work and one percent inspiration, and they’re probably right.

Without the force of habit, hard things seem harder to do: Training in the gym. Getting up early for work – just skip exercising for a week, or return to work from a long holiday, and you’ll see what I mean. That engine just doesn’t want to turn over. There’s just not enough spark left in that battery.

So, what to do?

You could just give up and walk away. Have a drink. Take up table tennis.

Or, like persevering with a car that won’t start, you could put your back into it and push. Never mind that the road is flat and narrow without a hint of a downward slope to make things easier. Never mind that there isn’t anyone to help you steer. If you want that engine to start, you just have to push until you gain momentum.

So, it is with writing. You have to fight the inertia. Grit your teeth and place those fingers on the keyboard. Write something. Anything. Heck, write about how much you hate writing.

Sure, what you write might be silly, uninspiring garbage that no one wants to read. But who cares? Silence that inner critic and push on.

Five minutes today. Maybe ten tomorrow. Twenty the next. Just get back into the habit of writing, and inspiration be damned.

Set yourself small goals – increase time spent daily at the keyboard. Pay no attention to the quality of the output just yet. Just write, write, write.

Suddenly, perhaps when you least expect it, the engine will turn. It might take several days. It might take a month, or longer. But inevitably, that engine will start and you will find yourself back in the driving seat steering the car down the road.

And don’t be too surprised, if, a mile or two along, you happen to stop to pick up a hitchhiker, wearing a tee-shirt with a large M on the front, who spins you a yarn about kidnappings and dungeons, and how she escaped them both.

Summary

Beat writer’s block by writing through it, one bit at a time, one day at a time.

Storyteller: Plan or Write from the Gut?

What sparks a storyteller

What sparks a storyteller?

As a storyteller and teacher I come across two types of writers – those who work from a meticulously rendered synopsis or treatment, and those who write from the gut.

There is much to commend both approaches, depending on the personality and mood of the writer, and the medium the writer is writing in.

Screenplays require a more planned approach – the precise placement of the inciting incident, turning points, the climax and resolution. This particular framework typically plays out in a two hour film that does not allow for non-essential embellishments. After all, each additional scene ultimately costs thousands to shoot and edit. A lot of unnecessary writing in search of a purpose, even at the draft stage, is an unprofitable use of time.

A novel is somewhat different. Although this form has also felt the impact of the modern screenplay, with some novelists choosing to eliminate lengthy character rumination and plot diversions, the form does allow the freedom to dig deeper in ways that the screenplay simply can not afford.

A novelist may start with a seed idea, a genre, and a character with an aching need to fix some present or past wrong, achieve some insatiable dream, and take it from there. Some novelists believe that providing they have such markers tucked away in their minds, they can confidently unearth their stories as they go along – that they can write from the gut.

Of course, there are exceptions. Ken Follett writes draft after draft of detailed and accurate treatments of a story, prior to his commencing the writing of the novel itself. It is a method that has clearly worked for this best-selling author.

My own view is that for some of us, dwelling too long on a treatment once we have a version of it, may blunt the writing when we finally do sit down to deliver the tale. So much of the magic, especially in a novel, happens spontaneously at the level of imagery and expression – in bits of plot and image that combine in serendipitous ways to create roads and highways that advance the plot in ways that we can not predict. This, at any rate, has been my experience.

Which approach do you favour, and why? Write in and let me know.

Summary

One storyteller may meticulously preplan her stories before commencing the actual writing of her tale. Another may launch right away, using a number of markers to guide her hand.

Great Writers Have This In Common

Great writers

Leo Tolstoy – one of the world’s great writers

What makes great writers great? I’ve ruminated on this topic before, but the subject is so fascinating that I find myself revisiting it each time I read or reread a truly great story.

There have been many great writers throughout history: Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and later, Hemingway, Golding, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and many others writing in a multitude of languages across the world.

Most of these writers differ significantly from one another in style and subject matter. So in what sense can they be said to share the same appraisal?

What makes a writer great, anyway?

And why is it that so many remain relevant today when the world they lived in, the manner and style of their writing, has changed? Just compare Shakespeare to Hemingway, for example.

Something timeless must surely be part of the lens through we recognise great writing. It must be something that not only focuses on the historical context, but locates in the work an immediate relevance to today’s society, despite the anachronisms and eccentricities of language and nationality.

It can not be style alone, although all great writers have it in abundance, because style succumbs to anachronism.

Nor can it be solely form, because form evolves with time. Linear story telling, for example, is increasingly competing with non-linear forms.

The essence of great writing therefore has to contain something that excludes change from its definition because it is already fully evolved.

The set of universal values, perhaps?

Great Writers and Universal Values

Although many academics argue against the objectivity of universal values, I believe that they do exist and have always done so. Great thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Siddhartha Gautama and Mahatma Gandhi have, in one way or another, argued that core values do not fall out of fashion or become irrelevant. Fairness, generosity, compassion, and love form some of the values which ennoble us as a species and whose absence or negation exposes the worst in us.

Throughout history great writers have been humanity’s conscience precisely because they recognise the timeless relevance of those values. They write stories that track the consequences to societies and individuals when love is supplanted by hate, generosity by greed, duty by ambition – when the values that make us human are ignored or negated: A Cathedral’s newly added spire that threatens to collapse under the weight of pride (The Spire), the families and villages that are torn apart by greed (The Pearl), the blind ambition that leads to the murder of the rightful king and the eventual death of his usurper (Macbeth).

It is this tireless affirmation of universal human values that renders great writing immortal and perpetually relevant to us all. Long may it continue to do so.

Summary

Great writers write stories that affirm universal values.

What Sort of Writer Would You Like to Be?

What sort of Writer are you?WHAT sort of writer do you want to be? That is a perennial and interesting question. But it is also a difficult one to answer because many of us write from the gut, without pausing to examine our deepest motivations.

Yet, the question is important and I pose it to my writing students each year.

The answers I get vary: The sort of writer who makes a good living writing – a commercial writer. Or, a serious, literary writer. Or, another Steven King.

I want to be the sort of writer that…

I tend to nudge students along by asking a related question: What sort of films and novels do you enjoy? Chocolat or Independence Day? The Spire or Fifty Shades of Grey? Perhaps all of those, alongside many others?

The answers point to the sorts of techniques we need to pay special attention to.

Commercial, widely popular stories tend to focus on the outer journey – the visible struggle of the hero to attain some important tangible goal – save the world, his family, his beloved from some terrifying threat. To discover a hidden treasure. To solve some impossibly difficult puzzle and be rewarded with fame and fortune.

More literary writing throws the focus on the inner journey – the balance or imbalance of the hero’s inner values and motivations pitted against an outer challenge: The discovery of a large pearl that forever changes the life a poor fishing family, and the village they live in. The willful building of a spire, against the advice of others, atop an existing cathedral, even though it lacks the appropriate foundation to support it.

Some films and novels manage to strike a balance between the two journeys – the attempt to return a destructively powerful, magical ring to the hellfire that forged it, while fighting the growing desire to posses its beguiling power.

It is this third category, the one that balances the literary with the commercial, that is, in my opinion, the most viable. It is the one I encourage my students to explore the most.

I believe that stories need to have forward thrust and momentum. They need to pounce from obstacle to obstacle, and to do so in a clear, tangible way that involves the activation of the senses. But stories also need to challenge the hero’s beliefs and values. They need to pit the hero against herself, as much as against an antagonist.

This sort of story requires paying special attention to character-building, but it also needs to generate exciting and fast-paced action. It involves aligning the hero’s character arc to the slope of her mounting obstacles so that each minor victory or defeat forces her into a spiritual, moral, and physical dilemma that promotes growth.

Thinking about stories in this way often helps gauge a developing writer’s specific interest in the craft.

Summary

Write stories of the sort you most enjoy.

Donald Trump Tweets his Own Script

Donald Trump Wins ElectionSo, Donald Trump is the President Elect of the United States.

People across the world have watched the unfolding drama during past twenty months, some with increasing fascination and enthusiasm, others with varying degrees of scorn, fear, and trepidation.

This week, I thought that I’d take a break from writing about screenplays and novels to give you my brief take on this seismic election.

Donald Trump – the Teflon Don

To many, Donald Trump personifies some of the best and worst traits of America. Tough, resilient, inventive, brash, rude, and politically incorrect he has battered through a seemingly impervious wall of opposition to grab the Presidency and co-opt conservatives to his personal brand of Republicanism.

Love him or hate him, Trump has gone against the political, financial and media establishment, earned the ire of powerful elements in his own party, and won. No political outsider, with the exception of Eisenhower, has managed to do that before. It is a jaw-dropping achievement against overwhelming odds.

Few, outside his circle of supporters, saw it coming. Pollsters and pundits didn’t. Mainstream media didn’t. Neither did Democrats.

But Trump did. He correctly gaged the mood of the majority of working class Americans and proposed an agenda they could vote for.

Of course, it didn’t help that he was up against a widely disliked and distrusted political opponent in Hillary Clinton who used an insecure personal server to mix confidential government and personal business, then destroyed thirty-three thousand emails that were under Congressional subpoena to hide her tracks and repeatedly lied about it.

It didn’t help that ObamaCare has gone up by double digits in many states, with crippling deductibles.

It didn’t help that businesses are being drowned under an avalanche of suffocating regulations.

It didn’t help that surveys show that over 70% of voters are angry with the government and feel it is heading in the wrong direction.

It certainly didn’t help that NAFTA has cost American workers seventy thousand factory closures since Bill Clinton signed it.

And then, of course, there is illegal immigration. And rampant crime in cities such as Chicago. And homeland terrorism. And WikiLeaks. And Brexit as an indicator of an emerging global backlash against aloof political elites.

In retrospect, should anyone have been quite so surprised at the result?

Dazzling With Language in Stories

Dazzling language in storiesThere are many things that go into crafting great stories.

Some aspects are hidden from initial view. They are glimpsed only as the story progresses. They exist in the tension between character, theme, setting. They relate to pace, tone, mood, insight.

Such tensions play off against one other eventually kindling a fire that dazzles. Others, such as arresting physical and psychological descriptions through simile and metaphor, are immediately apparent.

No two stories are the same. The narrative relationships within each are too rich and varied for that.

A gifted writer knows when to dazzle us with her exotic yet precise word choice and when to use a subdued vocabulary in order to let something else shine through. A gifted writer is like a gifted conductor, moulding, pacing, coloring every note to greater purpose, now drawing our attention to one voice, now to another.

Dazzling Stories

Today I want to point to what is perhaps the easiest skill to spot – the virtuoso use of language that grants us crucial insights about life (and death).

Examples in stories are as numerous as they are varied, so my choice is a personal one. I’m referring to the many arresting lines from Paul Harding’s first novel, Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer for literature in 2010. The book has not only had a lasting effect on me, but has inspired me to try my hand at a more literary style, resulting in my recently released novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.

There is something magical about Harding’s use of language that transcends space and time and makes it truly universal. He starts his book with the lines:

“FORGE WASHINGTON CROSBY BEGAN TO hallucinate eight days before he died. From the rented hospital bed, placed in the middle of his own living room, he saw insects running in and out of imaginary cracks in the ceiling plaster.”

A little later, Harding gives us this surreal description of Forge’s world tearing open as he prepares for death:

“The roof collapsed, sending down a fresh avalanche of wood and nails, tarpaper and shingles and insulation. There was the sky, filled with flat-topped clouds, cruising like a fleet of anvils across the blue. George had the watery, raw feeling of being outdoors when you are sick. The clouds halted, paused for an instant, and plummeted onto his head.
The very blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like the ornaments of heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.”

This is exceptional, packed writing. How can one not want to read more?

Although I do not presume to claim a place amongst such illustrious company, passages such as the ones quoted above inspired me to come up with my own insights about growing older and our need to reconcile our life with our past mistakes. Here’s my protagonist, The Nostalgia of Time Travel‘s, Benjamin Vlahos, pleading for a second chance to get life right:

“Sometimes, I wonder what it must be like to be a subatomic particle existing for the briefest of moments; all the joy and pain of birth and death compressed between the two staccato ticks of that relentless hand.

At other times I imagine a scaled-down version of myself, living on the surface of the watch, fighting against the perpetual ticking of that fearsome engine. I imagine gripping the watch’s hands in my bleeding fists, my arms extended, my body and head thrust forward, my legs bent and wide apart, until I stop the hands from ticking and force them back, rotating them anti-clockwise, back to that moment on the Sydney pier when I stopped to buy my last pack of cigarettes, while Miranda stood on the pavement smiling brightly back at me.”

Ultimately, Benjamin, despite his being a theoretical physicist, opts for art, not science, as a way of understanding life’s vicissitudes:

“Isn’t everything worth knowing squeezed inside the kernel of a story? All that’s ever been written, sang and spoken, pressed into a single pearl? The story is our raft when old age casts us out to sea; the logs are the memories, the ropes are the love and kindness we have shared. Can my equations ever be that?”

Summary

Use powerful but appropriate metaphors In your stories to immediately capture your reader’s attention.

What Makes a Great Writer Great?

Are you a great writer?In her book, Advanced Screenwriting, Dr. Linda Seger asks the question: What makes a great writer? It is a question all writers have asked at some time or another.

The answers are varied, depending on whether we mean ‘great’ in the colloquial sense of popular, skilled in generic page turners, or whether we mean something deeper and more enduring.

The Great Writer

Sticking to the latter sense, a great writer, in my opinion, is one who sheds light on the human condition – who reveals some hidden or difficult-to-discern truth about ourselves, no matter what our particular circumstances.

As Dr. Seger notes, a great writer is part psychologist, part philosopher, and perhaps, part theologian, as well as being a consummate master of words.

As a philosopher the great writer poses questions such as, what is the meaning of a specific event? What is the purpose of a specific story? Do I examine the world through the lens of realism, idealism, pessimism?

As a psychologist she asks: What motivates my characters? What moves them? What do they want? What do they need – is there a difference? How far will they go to get it?

As a theologian, she asks where is the good and the evil my story. What is the nature of sin? Indeed, mixing these categories, the writer may even ask, is there such a thing as evil, good, or sin, at all?

Places in the Heart, written and directed by Robert Benton, for example, renders a theological theme with a value system rooted in a community sharing and helping each other during the Great Depression. Its psychological theme reveals a portrait of a woman overcoming her racism because her determination, and love of her children, motivates her to do anything to save her family. It espouses an optimism in life rooted in the notion that goodness and morality will prevail despite life’s challenges.

This multi-layering of motivational/belief systems makes this story, and others like it, truly memorable.

Summary

A great writer reveals our obsessions, secrets, and dreams, helping us to find the courage to live life nobly in spite our human failings and circumstances.

Logic, Heart & Good Manners

Logic, heart & Good MannersPREPPING for one of the honours classes I teach in research methodology in film arts I had occasion to watch several televised debates between proponents of theism and atheism as examples of the sort of logic used in hotly contested debates of this nature.

One such debate in particular struck me as informative. Both men were scientists, one, a mathematician from Oxford and a believer in the existence of God – a Christian. The other was a physicist from Arizona State University and an unflinching atheist.

The Logic of Heart and Good Manners

Both men, in my opinion, put forward narratives that were strong on logic and consistent within their world views. In terms of their delivery, the Oxford man was affable, warm, tolerant and kind. The physicist came across as cold, rude, arrogant, mocking, and condescending. When I asked my honours students who they thought won the debate, a surprising number of them thought that the Christian did, even though that might have been at odds with their own beliefs.

The point is that the logic of a narrative, be it scientific, historical, or fictional, is only part of the story. The heart behind it plays a role in the art of communication too. It is not enough for a scientist to say that we have it by the numbers and that pleasantries, therefore, do not matter. Certainly, it will make no difference to the hard mathematical proofs whether you come across as arrogant or kind, but it will make a difference to how effective you are in advertising your field.

The mathematician and string theorist Brian Greene is proof of how hard science can be delivered in a warm, persuasive, and cogent way that makes it accessible to lay people. His documentary The Illusion of Time, is a good example of his affable, passionate style. Special and general relativity and black holes are explained in a way that makes one want to know more.

So it should be with any narrative. Behind the facts and logic, we should sense the presence of a human mind and heart seeking to communicate the wonder of being alive, not only through logic, but through the power of tolerance and kindness.

Summary

Use logic, heart and good manners to persuade others of the merits of your narrative.