Category Archives: Motivational

Success as a Writer

Juno was an unexpected success.
Juno was an unexpected success.

How do you measure success as a writer? Writers like to speculate about what it takes to write a smash hit. We pour over the year’s best-sellers, read manuals and books on the subject, take classes, cruise websites such as this one, searching for an edge.

But while that’s all to the good, Ray Charles said it best: “Ain’t no son of a bitch knows what’s gonna hit.”

That’s the plain truth.

When a publisher or a movie producer says, “Give me something like The Hunger Games, it’s what young audiences want,” what she means is: “I believe that’s what young audiences want.” She can’t know for sure.

There are many reasons why a specific story proves popular. Remove or misplace one element and you could end up with a dud.

Hugh Howey’s Wool seemed like just another post-apocalyptic story — people kept in the dark about the real situation beyond the confines of their silos. But something about the visceral way the story starts, the way we are drawn into the mind of the lead character caught the readers’ imagination. Wool shot to #1 in its category on Amazon, and Hugh Howey became the indie writer’s poster child.

“No one knows for sure what’s going to prove popular this month, this year. The landscape is littered with failed imitations of yesterday’s hits. Success is all too often elusive.”

Juno seemed like a non-starter. Ostensibly about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, the story seemed destined to wallow at the bottom of the slash pile. Yet, the integrity, freshness, and passion behind the writing drove the movie to an Oscar for best original screenplay.

So, amid all the seemingly contradictory advise, what’s a writer to do? Emulate the formula and risk being yesterday’s news? Write something so original he has to wait ten years for audiences to catch up?

Here’s John Truby on the subject: “Write a screenplay [or story] that will change your life. If you don’t sell it, at least you will have changed your life.”

If your story is something you care deeply about, others will too. But even if they don’t, you will, at least, have explored a subject close to your heart. It’s far better than grinding your teeth and writing something you think readers want, only to discover they don’t.

Summary

Maximise the chances of success while insulating yourself against failure by writing stories that you feel passionate and excited about.

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Creative Writing — Art and Craft

Stavros Halvatzis on Creative writing
On creative writing.

Those who have taught creative writing, specifically the novel or short story, will remember being asked, at some time or another, that pertinent but most difficult of all questions: What constitutes good writing? 

The question is pertinent because that’s what teachers of the craft purport to teach. It is difficult because people have been trying to provide a definitive answer to it since first picking up chisels and quills.

Here’s my take.

The First Layer: Spirit, Ethos

I like to separate the craft into three areas. The first concerns learning about the spirit or ethos of the times, and our view of it.

It concerns sharpening our powers of observation, being aware of contemporary ideas, ideals, and issues, bringing compassion to our social critiques, and learning to address old themes in new ways while acknowledging the value of the old in the new.

These insights stem from our level of maturity. They can not be hurried.

The Second Layer: Story Structure

The second area concerns the structure of stories.

“A study of creative writing that lacks awareness of the layers that make up the craft is like a rudderless ship loaded with treasure but destined to meander endlessly at sea.”

Does your tale have a beginning, middle, and end? Are the turning points, pinches, midpoint, climax, resolution, and so on, crafted in a way that encourages interest, suspense, and surprise? If not your story may lack a specific direction.

The Third Layer: Words and Sentences

The third layer has to do with mastering the craft at the micro level. Are we using vocabulary and figures of speech appropriate to our subject? Are we creating powerful textures, pictures and sounds with our words—using all five senses to do so?

Words with an Anglo-Saxon origin, for example, are grittier and more tactile, depending on the context, than their Latin counterparts—so, ‘gut’ instead of ‘stomach’, and so on. Are we using short snappy sentences or long and mellifluous ones? All of this affects how the reader experiences our story.

In my opinion, these three layers make up the craft of writing. Together they give rise to the individual ‘voice’ of the writer. Incorporating this approach when writing a new novel or screenplay increases its chances of success.

Summary

Excellence in creative writing involves mastering the three layers rooted in the micro and macro levels of the craft. Together they give rise to the ‘voice’ of the author. 

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New Story Ideas — how to find them

Jurassic world is a new story idea from a great concept
Jurassic World is the latest blockbuster stemming from what was a new story idea rooted in genetic cloning.

New Story Techniques

How does one generate new and exciting ideas for one’s stories? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use personal experience to spark new and authentic story ideas. Personal experience helps to add verisimilitude and uniqueness to any piece of creative writing because it is based on first-hand knowledge of real-life situations.
  • Keep a file of blog, newspaper and magazine articles and stories; also, short notes on television documentaries and programs that have caught your eye. Use them to kick-start your thinking on a related subject.
  • Use a notebook or digital device to document interesting bits of conversation, behaviour, dreams, personal encounters.
  • Explore new ideas by brainstorming a subject with friends. Free-associate root aspects of that subject by introducing nouns and verbs not usually associated with it. Note the new relationships that emerge. Those may spark new ways of looking at old ideas.
  • Ask that powerful idea-generating question: ’What if…’. Combine it with an unexpected or opposing idea. If, for example, your subject is about genetic cloning, you could start by asking: What if the DNA of prehistoric animals was found trapped in millions-of-years-old resin and used to bring Jurassic era animals back to life?

“New story ideas are all around us. We just have to know how to spot them.”

  • Mind-map a subject or idea by writing down its core meaning in the middle of a blank page or screen. Create a series of related ideas in bubbles around that core idea and draw links from one to the other. Link unrelated ideas together and see what that sparks.
  • When writing a scene, make it multilayered by filtering it through all five of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. Note the dominate sense operating within the scene, then replay it in your imagination, using a different sense. Note how it changes your approach to writing the scene.

Summary

There are many ways to generate new story ideas. Personal experience, keeping a file, brainstorming with others and asking the what-if question, are just some of them. 

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Planning your story

Lagos Egri was a big believer in story planning
The famous teacher, Lagos Egri, was a great believer in story planning

Whether you’re a pantser or a pedantic outliner (I’m somewhat of an in-betweener), I believe that having an overall snapshot of your story—properly planning your tale—raises its quality and lessens the time it takes to write it.

Here is the process I followed in planning my post-apocalyptic novel, The Land Below.

Story Planning

I started by writing down my story’s premise. The story premise is a sentence, sometimes referred to as the logline by screenwriters, which captures the essence of your story—what is unique, but believable about it. It highlights its major twists and turns and ties the inner and outer journeys together, in part, through the knot of the moral premise, or theme.

I next tackled the outer journey. This is the what and how of your story. It defines the goal the protagonist strives to achieve by the end of the story.

The goal, determined at the first turning point, is then kicked around by the midpoint and the second turning point, and is attained, or not, at the end of the final, must-have confrontation with the antagonist. Here I ensured that I had three or four major incidents in mind, including the inciting incident.

The inner journey, by contrast, is why the outer journey happens the way it does. It tries to explain the protagonist’s mental and emotional states and the decisions he takes that lead to the actions at the level of the outer journey.

In planing The Land Below, I made sure I knew who the main characters of my story would be. Each character represents a point of view and drives the plot forward.

The inner journey also shows how and why the character changes during the story. It is a blow by blow explanation of, at the very least, the turning points and the midpoint. This forces the writer to consider the reasons why the protagonist acts in the way that he does. I always ensure that I have written a paragraph or two on the inner journey prior to starting any story.

In the words of Lagos Egri, “The ending proves the theme.” Is your protagonist a good guy who manages to overcome the antagonist and save the world and win the heart of the girl he loves? If so, your theme may well be: Good guys carry the day. I always know the theme of my story before I begin to write it.

A protagonist? Certainly. An antagonist? Check. A love interest? Yes. A mentor? A sidekick? I think of my characters in terms of the function they have to perform in the overall story argument. The details, the flesh and bone stuff, I build from a series of traits and incidents as I went along.

The Land Below went on to win several prizes as a result. You can download a free sample from the novel on my Amazon page.

Summary

Planning a great story premise, the outer and inner journeys, the theme and ending, and cast of characters, are important elements to consider before writing your story.

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Story Questions: What are they?

Story questions with William Goldman
William Goldman was at pains to ask the right story questions prior to writing his novels and screenplays.

Asking the right story questions: In his book, Screenwriting, R. G. Frensham quotes William Goldman as saying: “Movies are about story: is it well told, is it interesting? If it isn’t, it doesn’t matter how talented the rest of it is.” This is also true of the novel as well as the stage play.

So, how do you give yourself the best chance of writing an interesting, well-executed story? This post offers some suggestions: 

Having chosen your story idea, you should begin to implement it by going from the general (idea) to the specific (individual characters and events). Here are a number of questions intended to help you clarify, expand, and tell your story in an effective way. Write a paragraph in answer to each one.

Nine story questions that will help you write a better story

1. Why do I want to write this story?

2. Who do I think will want to watch/read it?

3. What is it about? 

4. Who is it about?

5. Why is it about this character rather than some other?

6. What is the importance of background or setting?

7. What is the most fitting genre for the story? 

8. What is the moral of the story?

9. What is the main theme of the story?

In answering these questions you are preparing the soil for planting and harvesting. It gives you the time you need to probe your own motivation for writing the story and forces you to think about its deeper structures. 

Summary

Answering a number of pertinent story questions prior to writing your story helps you to explore the elements, structures, and motivations that are necessary in telling a tale that is interesting and well-executed.

How Long to Write Each Day?

Write Stephen King
Stephen King believes that one should write every day

Writers write. We’ve all heard this succinct advice on becoming a writer. 

But how often should we write? Where should we write? Where do we start? Where do we finish? 

How long should we write each day?

Answers to these questions fill countless of books, articles, blogs. Often they disagree.

Each writer brings his own approach to the art and technique of writing. Stephen king believes one should write every day. Jeff Somers, the New Jersey sci-fi writer believes it’s pointless to force it. We may agree on general principles, yet disagree on specific habits. 

When I write a new novel or novella, I generally won’t stop working unless I complete the chapter I’m working on. The chapters of my novels tend to be short, so the task isn’t that daunting. 

Having thought about the forthcoming chapter the previous day—the story beats that have to be struck and the character development that needs to occur—I keep to the task until that last sentence is in place. I end my chapters with a revelation or hook that creates expectation in reader, and this guides my thinking the following day; it makes the process easier — for me. 

This might not be the case for others. 

A fellow writer, and winner of several writing awards — no slouch in the craft of writing— told me that he often stops writing before completing the scene he’s working on, whether it’s giving him problems or not. He finds that tackling the material the following day brings fresh insight to his writing. I suspect this is because he is more a pantser than a plotter, but the point is well taken. One shoe size does not fit all. There are, indeed, different strokes for different folks. 

It’s helpful to keep this in mind as we pour over the voluminous suggestions of experts. Some nuggets of advice are more suited to our particular personalities and circumstances than others. We need to decide which to keep and which to throw away. 

After all, how long is a piece of string, anyway?

Summary

Study all the advice on how to write in general, including on how long to write each day, but use only what’s best suited to you.

Novels Films Games.

Novels, films, games.
Novels, films, games – The novella, The Level, has been turned into a screenplay and is awaiting being turned into a film

Novels, films, games: How could reading compete with the visceral pleasures of big-budget, special-effects-driven films, or the massive growth of computer games that have so captivated our youth?

Yet, the truth is that far from novels, films, games and the like existing in a state of war, creatively, they exist in a state of symbiosis, feeding off each other.

I think this is set to continue in the foreseeable future. 

Consider the various skills of the novelist: Philosopher, visionary, psychologist, researcher, casting agent, actor, director, cinematographer, set builder, costume designer, scriptwriter, editor, sound recordist. Indeed, the novelist is the prime creator of the story world—albeit in the virtual sense. 

At a time when big films require even bigger budgets, testing the potential success of a film by measuring the success of the novel upon which it is based is a relatively inexpensive way of taking out some insurance against failure—although, clearly, no guarantee against it, as the movie John Carter, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars, clearly demonstrates.

The point remains, however, that if a novel has done well in the market place, the chances are that a well-made film might do the same. The film maker might then allow the world of the novel to inform the world of the film, although, clearly, adapting a screenplay from a novel is an art form in its own right—often, to the extent that little of that world, other than the bones of the story, remains the same. Even so, the novel does at least, act as a starting point for the film project.

Novels, films, games—the latter both in video and board formats, predate Amazon’s Kindle revolution and the resurgence of reading it inspired, but there were some who predicted the death of the novel as a viable form of entertainment.

In terms of benefit to the novel, people who have seen the film and enjoyed it might now read the novel on which the film is based. Sales of the Game of Thrones series sky-rocketed after the television series hit the screens. 

Book-to-film/TV adaptations, such as The Level, often go hand in hand with conversations about the relative worth of one rendition over the other. “The book was so much better than the film,” or vice versa—good publicity for all concerned, which helps to boost sales of the appropriate medium. 

As an aside, I might mention that in my classes on screenwriting, I sometimes encourage my students to write their screenplays as novellas, or short stories, first. This encourages them to explore their characters’ actions through the inner voice—something the novel, novella and short story do well. This shifts focus to character motives and goals and results in character action that is more authentic and believable, making for better screenplays.

Summary

Novels, films, games and short story anthologies often function in a state of symbiosis, testing and popularising the story through different media. 

So, you want to be a writer?

Writer

My passion to be a writer has kept me writing stories. Before is my latest sci-fi novella scheduled for release on Amazon this month.

You want to be a writer? No, Really?

This is, perhaps, the most important question I ask my students at the beginning of my writing course. If they’re not sure, if they scratch their heads, study their shoes, or choose that moment to text their friends, I advise them to take a break and think seriously about their motivation.

What I feel like telling them is: Are you sure you want to do this?

Those of us who contemplate a career in writing, specifically in storytelling as screenwriters or novelists, had better know.

If you’re not driven by the unstoppable desire to be a writer, if you’re not obsessed with understanding every nuance, texture and colour of a word and how it plays out in a sentence, if your pulse doesn’t race when you deliver that golden passage, you’d be better off taking up darts instead.

Writing is hard. Accomplished writing is even harder.

Earning a living as a writer is possible, thanks to the tablet revolution and platforms such as Apple and Amazon, but it demands steely dedication, talent and luck. To make it as a writer you need to put your head down, keep improving your craft on a daily basis, and never, ever, give up.

Knowledge and experience of the world are not enough, although they are required. Deep philosophical ideas are enriching, but they too, are not the secret. Ideas, at the cost of story, do not make for compelling tales, except for niche or elite readers. Nor, does artistic temperament on its own. Sensitivity towards others and observational skills are essential, but they, too, are not sufficient.

So, what, in addition to the above, does one need to become a successful writer? The answer, I think, is rather obvious:

PASSION!

Passion is the secret ingredient that makes even the toughest journey enjoyable. Passion turns work into play and sweat into joy. Without passion you lose focus. Without it you merely slog.

So, why decide to be a writer?

Because passion compels you to. It leaves you with no choice. You can’t imagine doing anything else. Not in a million years. If you can, you’d be better off taking up darts.

Summary

Passion is the essential ingredient in developing your writing career.

How to Write Great Story Ideas

Jurassic Park Is founded on great story ideas

Jurassic Park – a well of great story ideas

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AS a teacher of creative writing, I am often privy to complaints by new writers that their books or screenplays don’t get off the ground, sinking into obscurity instead.

Is it fate or just plain bad luck, they ask?

While it is true that luck plays a role in a writer’s success, it also true that you can’t keep good story ideas down.

Not just any good idea, mind you — a vibrant, original idea we haven’t encountered before, or, at least, an idea presented in a way that feels new; an idea that takes us places we’ve never been, fills us with wonder, introduces us to characters that captivate us.

Story ideas roll call

Consider some of my favorites stories: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Stranger than Fiction, City Of God, 2001: A Space Odyssey, George Orwell’s 1984.

All of these, apart from being well-written, are fascinating and original. They grab our imagination and compel us to know more.

A mysterious black monolith that appears at crucial moments of man’s evolution to spur him on? Wow!

A procedure to erase painful memories from one’s mind. I want to know more!
Jurassic creatures brought to life through DNA preserved in a dollop of Amber? Yes, please!

A secret passage that takes us right into John Malkovich’s head! Who would have thought it!

These ideas are so good, so original, they sell themselves. They make for hugely successful stories – providing all other elements of fine writing are in place, of course.

I try I not to start writing a story until I am absolutely convinced that the idea behind it is as good, as original and unique, as it can be, because once I start, I find it difficult to change it mid-stream. I used this approach in my first novel, Scarab, about a quantum computer which can change the laws of physics. The novel quickly entered the best seller list in its category on Amazon, and stayed there for over two years!

My advice to myself is simply this: Start with an idea that fascinates. Isolate its captivating core then think about ways to make it more unique, more original.

Come at it from different angles, from the point of view of different characters, different genres, even different epochs. Write at least ten versions of the basic idea, trying, each time, to up the ante, then walk away from it for a week or two, to give it time to breathe, before repeating the process.

Once I’m convinced I have a good story idea, I test it on others. I watch their eyes as I speak. If they flick away, seem distracted, I’ve lost my audience somewhere. That happens a lot. The path back to the drawing board is well-worn.

Your process may differ from mine, but one thing seems likely: the more original and unique your idea, the more fascinating your story will be.

Summary

Fascinating, original, and well-written story Ideas are the antidote to writing obscurity.

Screenwriting Mentors

Screenwriting advice

Christopher Vogler’s book provides an extremely useful guide on the screenwriting craft

WE ARE LIVING in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information, and this includes information on screenwriting. Finding the right stuff, therefore, is one of our biggest headaches.

In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five important writing mentors worth mining for gold.

Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, they all adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot that revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’

Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance—-although even he employs a template in his use of the quest as a generic structure. But more of that later.

The screenwriting mentors:

Syd Field

For the sake of brevity, one may view Syd Field’s work as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles.

Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’

Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Linda Seger

Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.

Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.

Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres.

McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.

Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.

Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.

This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale, in terms of character function, put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.

Summary

Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important screenwriting and story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.