Category Archives: Motivational

Structure of Stories and Intuition

Structure of intuitionSTRUCTURE is helpful in showing us how to write stories that flow well.

Developed from Aristotle’s core advice that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end, the study of structure has expanded then crystallised into a set of techniques that add detail to specific parts of a typical story, such as the inciting incident, turning points, and the like.

Certainly, tweaking a story at the editing stage through knowledge of such structural nodes helps the writer to smooth out the drafts that inevitably follow.

But how does a knowledge of structure help us write a better story while we are actually writing it? Surely, few of us write while thinking about such abstractions? Don’t we mostly follow the fire of the story, wherever it may lead us, at the level of the story and not of structure?

Structure and Intuition

Sidestepping debates of whether you are a plotter or a pantser, and avoiding an outright cognitive discussion of the process, I think the answer is that we do, at the point of contact, have to shift our synopsis to the background and write from the gut. We have to follow the fire.

But the fire is inevitably influenced by our knowledge of structure. And, of course, by our experience of life. So, while it may appear that the words flow spontaneously from our brains, they have been cultured, at a deeper level, by our knowledge of the craft and life.

We all have different ways of manifesting this deeper knowledge while we write. Some writers glance at key words and phrases such as ‘midpoint approaching’ on bits of paper stuck to the walls and desk; others allow their minds to flit to exemplars in order to intuit how great works have navigated similar problems.

My own awareness of structure manifests in a series of inner bumps and twists, or in an awareness of their absence, which alerts me to the possibility that I may have missed a structural node, or that I may need to change the direction and magnitude of specific actions in my story.

In the biggest confrontational scene of The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I felt that I lacked an additional twist, an injection of kinetic energy, in order to push the story to its true climax. Interestingly, this feeling came not from the drama, but from the mechanics of structure, although it did force me to ferret out a powerful revelation, buried in the backstory, that had a huge impact on the drama itself.

Running through the scenes of a story in my mind, then, I often find myself jutting out an elbow, or pushing out a hip as I try to feel, in a visceral sense, necessary changes in narrative direction. Consequently, I often experience writing as a kind of dance – a free flowing stream that assumes shape through bends, turns, through its changes in direction.

Peculiar as this form of kinetic writing may be, it points to a deeper truth – that writers have to develop their own intuition of story structure, accessed on the go, in a way that does not interrupt the flow of the creative flame.

Summary

Our awareness of story structure during the first draft should nestle in the background, influencing the story but not inhibiting the creative fire.

Literature. Can it be as Popular as Genre Fiction?

Popular Literature?JUST LATELY I’ve come cross several blogs and editorials in social media that criticise literature and art film while praising genres such as Romance, Crime, and low-brow Science Fiction. Literary stories and art movies are seen as boring, introverted, and static while the former are pacy and exciting.

Now, goodness knows, literature can be slow and boring, as can off-beat movies. I’ve said so here on more than one occasion. But the same can be true of popular writing and films – unrealistic characters and settings juxtaposed against laughable plots spun around improbable actions resulting in formulaic endings. And all in the name of entertainment.

Literature versus the World

I don’t know about you but I don’t find stories peopled by thin, unrealistic characters entertaining at all. In fact I find a large number of them to be more boring than most literature or art films. Which is not to say that there isn’t value and skill in popular stories. I would not be writing in established genres if I didn’t believe in the potential of convention.

But I do believe that there are many things we can learn from literature and art film.

What kind of things, you ask?

Well, how about integrity, truthfulness, and enhanced observation that lead to a strong sense of connection with fictional characters? In my recent novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, for example, I tried to create just such a connection between the reader and my protagonist, Benjamin Vlahos.

I think where literature and art films often leave themselves open to criticism is that they are big on insights about characters facing ordinary problems and small on exciting plots. It is almost as if some of these works see plot as something artificial, contrived. Several recent Pulitzer and Booker winning novels relate the life history of protagonists in a way that seems like a mannered study in chronology, albeit crammed with truthful observations about everyday life.

But the presence of an interesting plot need not harm the deep search for truth and meaning – the purvey of more serious works. After all, one of the most cherished modern stories, To Kill a Mocking Bird, manages to do both.

And, here, I think, may lie the solution to writing stories that are potentially more accessible to run-of-the-mill readers and audiences as well as endowed with deeper layers of value – namely, meaningful stories that contain strong and exciting plots.

I have a suspicion that the likes of Dickens, Mark Twain, and H. G. Wells, all popular writers in their day, might have agreed with me

Summary

Literature or art films driven by strong and exciting plots make for popular and meaningful reading and viewing.

Writerly Advice

Joyce Carol Oates ~ Writerly Advice

Joyce Carol Oates

Writerly advice is not that hard to find, especially if you’re hooked up to the Internet. Some of this advice is excellent, some of it not so good.

Further to the dictum of knowing the rules before we break them, I offer yet another list, this time from Joyce Carol Oates – Princeton University’s Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities with the program in Creative Writing, and a multi-award winning novelist:

1. Write your heart out.
2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
3. You are writing for your contemporaries – not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
4. Keep in mind Oscar Wild: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
6. Unless you are experimenting with form – gnarled, snarled & obscure – be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
7. Be you own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless.
8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader – or any reader. He/she might exist – but is reading someone else.
9. Read, observe, listen intently! – as if your life depended upon it.
10. Write your heart out.

There you have it. Excellent writerly advice to add to our toolkit. Take the time to ponder upon each in turn.

Summry

Study the suggestions of accomplished writers to glean valuable information on writing.

The Heart Remembers

Santa on a BikeI was not going to write a blog this week – so close after Christmas and so close to the new year. I’m so chock-a-block with chocolates, good Greek food, and merriment that, frankly, I thought I’d not be in mood. Truthfully, I have never been a great one for that sort of festivity.

But as I think about the moments of the past day or so, moments spent with family and friends where new memories were laid down for future access, I get to thinking about love and memory and how they are golden threads that stitch our lives together and give it meaning, so I decide to write down a few words anyway.

I have often wished I could travel back in time, back to some juncture in my life and change something small – go left instead of right, pick up the phone when I did not; small things that sometimes have big consequences.

As if to torment myself, I often imagine revisiting such moments, over and over again. I see two versions of myself, one standing to the side, like an invisible unsmiling time-traveller, looking on at my younger self as he goes about his business, and I wish I could whisper in his ear about the things I know now.

But of course the past is a place to be frequented by the heart, while the present affords us the opportunity to ensure that the past will be a good place to visit in the future.

So, now, as I say goodbye to friends and family for yet another year, I take the time to hug each of them a little tighter and longer than before, and tell them how much I enjoyed our time together.

I throw a wink over my shoulder at my future self standing under the big tree in our yard to let him know that I finally get it. This time I imagine he is smiling.

How Do You Become A Better Writer?

Multicolored chalkA writer’s path from competence to excellence is a difficult one. It meanders, advances, turns back on itself. And, in the end, there’s no guarantee that the traveler will reach her destination. Excellence will elude all but the most talented and fortunate of writers.

Great writing requires a special combination of mental skills, social circumstances, effort, passion, as well as a fair bit of luck — few of us will keep writing if we keep failing to be published or to garner some positive criticism from our readers.

Despite this, I do believe that the ability to write well can be taught, I wouldn’t be a teacher of the craft if I didn’t believe in the benefit of practice and study. I believe writing is a craft, as much as an art, like woodwork or cooking, although it requires much more than technique to cure into a great dish.

While acknowledging that there is almost as much advice on writing as there are people offering it, I believe that a writer’s development falls into three distinct categories:

1. Understanding the function of structure in stories — how structure paces and orders the reader’s response.

2. The ability to identify meaningful ideologies, ideas and trends from life and distill them into specific themes, characters and events in a way that makes the story both specific and universal.

3. The ability to develop a distinct voice — a difficult entity to pin down, but one that might be understood as the unique pattern arising out of the writer’s body of work.

I have found that thinking about my development as a writer in this way allows me to identify and group specific weaknesses into categories and work on them in a more methodical way.

Perhaps you might benefit from a similar approach?

Summary

Identify and rectify weaknesses in your writing by focusing on the broader categories.

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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.

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.

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.

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To Celebrate or Lament? That is the Question.

Birds flyingWe, in the so-called liberal westernised societies, are wading through murky waters.

As writers, whose job it is to record and reflect on the social fabric, we are particularly aware of the rising damp.

Of course, every epoch, at one time or another, declares that times they are a-changing. And certainly, there are enough external indicators to support the claim. The Industrial Age is characterized by the erection of new industry and its concomitant social effects; as are the Nuclear and the Information Ages.

What I find interesting is not so much the external landscape, the repositioning and repurposing of the world’s furniture, but changes to the beliefs and values that underpin our inner lives.

Now, more than before, we see a real shift happening. Our confidence in the political, social, economic and religious systems upon which much of the western world rests, is eroding. Digital media expose enough scandals, corruption, nepotism, and incompetence, on a daily basis, to undermine these institutions.

Our understanding of what constitutes the family unit — a unit comprising of a mother, father, and children, too, is changing. The words ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’ no longer mean the same thing today they did in past epochs.

I recently read the bio of a fellow writer on tweeter who described himself as a ‘husband to my husband.’ ‘Married to my partner,’ now includes same-sex marriage and is no longer a clear indication of the union between a man and a woman.

The word ‘friend’ can mean chatting to someone on Facebook you never met in person, while ‘texting’ can mean communicating with someone on a mobile device while neglecting the people in the room around you. An ‘actress’ is no longer an actress. She is now an ‘actor.’ I presume a male actor is still an actor, though.

I accept that language is subject to adaptation and renewal, as is cultural practice, and so, perhaps, it should be. But these are significant changes to the strands of meaning with which we weave our lives. I say this not in judgment of these changes, but in support of my contention that we are entering a time where the social construct is openly mutating in hitherto unexplored and unpredictable ways.

What the long-term effect will be on a society that is replacing one set of fundamental norms with another, is unknown. What is certain, however, is that the change is underway and the world we knew will never be the same again.

In the meantime, we could do worse than record these changes in our writing, no matter on what side of the fence we stand.

Summary

Reflect upon the changing times in your writing.

How to Cope with Bad Reviews

ImageBad reviews tend to bother new writers more than they do old hands.

When that first stinker slams through the shiny wall of good reviews, fledgling writers tend to get down in the dumps. Some reach for the bottle. Others threaten never to write again.

The truth is that hardly anyone escapes mean-spirited, opinionated and downright nasty reviews. They seem to come out of left field when least expected. What’s worse, they appear to get things wrong — to be fundamentally unfair to the work.

My advice to writers feeling this pain is to determine whether the review is pointing to something that needs fixing, or whether it is skewered and willfully misleading.

This is no easy task. One needs to take a step back and calmly and objectively analyse the review. Once you have extracted the truth, record useful comments down in a notebook under a heading such as Things That Need Improving — for example: tighter control of theme, more authentic characters, a more distinctive voice, and what not.

Throw the reviews that are intended to crush your spirit into the trashcan where they belong, but be careful not to mistake those with an overly defensive, head-in-the-sand attitude. It takes courage, determination and a steady hand to fish out the nuggets of truth that may be lurking under the sea of negative comments.

Remind yourself that even the most popular and respected authors have garnered bad reviews.

I’ve recently reread Paul Harding’s exquisite 2010 Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, and was surprised to find it had garnered a high ratio of 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon. Although not everyone’s cup of tea, the novel is one of the most emotive evocations of old age, the act of dying, and memory I have ever read. It is the sort of writing that stays with one forever.

Writers should take strength from that: If a Pulitzer winning novel of such power and magnitude has so many detractors, who are we to moan about ours?

Summary

Salvage what is useful from a bad review and discard the rest.