Tag Archives: writing

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.

Why Do We Love Characters In Conflict?

Fish eating its own tailWe’ve all heard about the importance of conflict in storytelling; that it is the fuel that drives the drama; that without it our stories lack interest.

But where do we find conflict? In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger stresses that conflict springs up between characters because of their differing motivations, backgrounds, wants and goals, values and attitudes.

Often, these conflicts are psychological. The traits that characters often find the most infuriating about each other come from their repressed sides; ironically, it is these very qualities that both attracts and repels them.

Conflict sometimes occurs because characters hide things from each other, either purposefully, or because of an inability to communicate, which, in turn, leads to misunderstandings. In Cheers Sam and Diane’s first kiss is fraught with conflict, albeit humorously rendered:

SAM: What is it you want, Diane?
DIANE: I want you to tell me what you want.
SAM: I’ll tell you what I want… I want to know what you want.
DIANE: Don’t you see, this is the problem we’ve had all along. Neither of us is able to come out and state the obvious.
SAM: You’re right. So, let’s state the obvious.
DIANE: O.K. You go first.
SAM: Why should I go first?
DIANE: We’re doing it again.
SAM: Diane, just explain one thing to me…Why aren’t you with Derek?
DIANE: Because I like you better.
SAM: Really? Well, I like you better than Derek, too.
DIANE: Sam…
SAM: All the jealousy I ever felt for my brother is nothing to what I’ve felt In the last five minutes.
DIANE: Oh, Sam. I think we’re about to start something that might be kind of great, huh?
SAM: Yeah. Yeah, You’re right. I guess we oughta like…kiss, huh?

But because nothing is ever straight forward between Diane and Sam, it takes many pages of discussion and arguing before they finally do kiss.

The point is that conflict does not have to be graphic to generate interest in the characters and drama; often, it is the more subtle, hidden conflicts that most hold the reader’s and audience’s attention.

Summary

Character conflict often occurs when characters try to hide something from each other, or are defined by differing values.

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.

Small Acts of Kindness

Man giving man coinsOne of the most important things I learnt as a writer is that without knowing how to solicit emotion through my characters, I’d fail to draw readers into my stories and keep them there.

Emotion ties us to a story. It associates us with the characters who evoke it. It is the foundation upon which we build the whole cathedral, because if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the story.

Emotion does not always have to be rendered on a large canvas. Sometimes a culmination of smaller brush-strokes is just as effective as a grand gesture, especially when applied unexpectedly.

In my most recent novel The Land Below, released on Amazon in February, a minor character, the bitter and unlikable Miss Baithwate prevents an old man from visiting a boy, his only friend in the world. She asks him to leave her hostel, accusing him of making the place look untidy.

But as she watches the old man limp away, she suddenly changes her mind and invites him in. She hides this random act of kindness under a gruff tone and a crusty demeanour, but the old man recognises the good in her, referring to her as his dear Miss Baithwate.

Not a major incident in the story, but one which adds to the reservoir of emotions.

I remember feeling a tinge of sympathy for the lonely spinster when I added this small twist — a tinge I would not have felt had she allowed the old man to leave without seeing the boy.

Miss Baithwate suddenly sprang to life on the page for me. She was richer, deeper, more likable after this act. And so was my story.

Summary

Small acts of kindness deepen character and enrich any story.

Image: Chris Yarzab
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

How Moral is your Story?

Aristotle's statueAt the core of most memorable stories lies a theme with a strong ethical or moral premise.

In a very real sense, a story is about proving the theme by tracking the conflict that ensues between the hero and his nemesis, both of whom represent opposing values. In simple terms, good guys finish first, or last, depending on the outcome of that conflict.

But does this then mean that some stories are not ethical or moral? Is the nemesis’ winning of the fight, proof that unethical and immoral behaviour can triumph?

Biblical tales, for example, are clearly moral – Noah, Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments. As are modern stories, such as Braveheart, The Firm, Gladiator, Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow, and countless others. These tales have at their core a moral premise that states that if the hero does the right thing, he will eventually achieve the goal, carry the day, save the world, even if it sometimes means that he has to sacrifice himself to do it.

But what about less obvious examples? Seven? Fight Club? Inception? Oceans 11,12,13? in what sense do these stories espouse ethical or moral values?

This bothered me quite a bit because, deep down, I felt that all great stories promote the best in us rather than the worst. Yet, something rang true about these latter stories. I felt a resonance and verisimilitude in them that I normally associated with great tales.

Then, during one of my classes on story-telling, it struck me: Most stories are indeed moral and ethical, with one proviso: In some, the moral or ethical judgment falls outside the world of the story itself — it is made by an audience or reader based on received cultural, social, and religious values.

Stories in which the villain gets away with it, spreading death and mayhem in his wake, may appear to show that malice, slyness, and cold-blooded determination lead to victory, but few of us would applaud his actions.

A horror story, in which, let’s say, demons succeed in taking over the world, is not necessarily a celebration of evil overcoming good. Rather, it is a warning: If the hero fails to stop evil, this is the result – a horrific world overrun by demons.

The characters within such a story may even celebrate this fact, but audiences, as a whole, won’t, since they bring their own moral and ethical systems to bare upon the tale.

Paradoxically, then, good will always rise above evil even when it seems defeated.

Summary

Most stories invoke an ethical and moral foundation, even those that ostensibly seem not to.

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Image: Tilemahos Efthimiadis
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

How to Pace Your Story

The Darkest Moment:

The Darkest Moment:

One of the reasons that we, as story tellers, need to master structure is so that we may position our narrative events, the high and lows, tension and release, in a way that keeps our readers and audience on their toes. Too much of a good or bad thing makes for boring stories. In this post, I want to focus on one particular structural element—the big gloom.

Towards the end of the second act, way after the midpoint has occurred, the writer needs to craft a low amongst lows—a deeply disturbing and terrifying moment when the goal seems impossible to achieve, when the Hero is on his knees and the last ember of light is about to go out.

This is the second turning point, which unleashes the third act, the moment that screenwriting professor Richard Walter of UCLA calls the big gloom, and others have called the lowest ebb, or the darkest moment of the soul. If this moment—which should never be confused with the climax—occurs too early, at the end of the first act, for example, the story will run out of steam before the third act.

In Nothing in Common, the big gloom occurs when Tom Hanks finally understands the extent of his father’s medical condition.

In American Graffiti it occurs during Dreyfuss’s phone conversation with the fantasy girl in the T-bird when he learns that they will never meet—that he will never find what he seeks and that his destiny will forever remain unfulfilled as long as he stays with his old buddies in his claustrophobic, but safe, hometown.

In Terms of Endearment it is the moment in the hospital when we learn of the impending death of the young mother, and in About Last Night it occurs during the montage in which a ‘liberated’ Rob Lowe suffers the torments of hell for his lack of commitment to the very woman whom he earlier thought he wanted to be rid of.

Although these examples are triggered by outer journey events, their true power comes from the effect they have on the Hero’s inner journey. By forcing the Hero down to the deepest depths of doubt and despair, the story positions itself to tell of a final resurgence that is uplifting and engaging—a story with exciting variations, highs and lows which will keep readers and audiences breathless with anticipation.

Summary

The big gloom is the lowest point in the Hero’s journey. It occurs before the beginning of the end, and defines the point in the outer and inner journey where the Hero seems the furthest from achieving his goal.

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Image: Florent Lannoy
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Why Your Story’s Ending Determines its Beginning through its Middle

Zig-zag

Storyline

Teachers of storytelling often tell us that we should know our story’s ending before we start writing its beginning. Syd Field immediately comes to mind. But why should this be the case? What’s so important about a story’s ending?

Well, think of it this way: All journeys point toward their end. Simply put, the ending gives the story its purpose, its theme – it’s raison d’être. The theme, which contains the moral essence of the tale, emerges as the product of two opposing characters, or forces, clashing in a final showdown and yielding a winner: The winner carries the theme. Badly crafted endings, therefore, make for badly crafted stories.

The Matrix

In The Matrix, human love, imagination, and determination, trump machine intelligence. This only emerges at the end of the story with the resurrection of Neo through Trinity’s kiss and the result of his final confrontation with agent Smith. Had Neo died at the hands of Smith, the theme would have been exactly the opposite. Knowing the ending, therefore, curtails the kind of beginning your story may have, within your chosen genre, in order to maintain believability and coherence.

But to chart the path to a final location in three dimensional space, you need three points. That’s where the midpoint of your story comes in. The midpoint forces the beginning to deflect through a further point in story space in order to reach the endpoint. The midpoint, therefore, further constrains the sort of beginning your story may have and still achieve a pleasing shape. Carelessly placed beginning, middle, and endpoints result in meaningless squiggles.

How do you draw a pleasing story shape? You use mounting opposition to the Hero’s achieving his goal, driven by tension, pace, and conflict, to guide your hand. Joining your three points, then, will result in a zigzagging line which climbs upwards to the ending.

Summary

Crafting a story’s ending as an inevitable part of its beginning and middle makes for a coherent tale.

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Image: Victory of the People
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How to Survive Slow Book Sales

Snail

Slow Sales?

So, you’ve written your first indie masterpiece, which, no doubt, has solicited glowing tributes from friends and family. You’ve edited it, procured an arresting cover, and posted it up on Amazon, eagerly awaiting that first shower of appreciative reviews before sales start to pour in.

Early the next morning, you fire up your amazon kdp account, your eyes wide with expectation, and check your unit sales column.

Empty!

This can’t be. There must be some mistake. Perhaps America is off on holiday today. Wait. Don’t book sales take a while to show up? They’re probably bunching up at this very moment.

Anyway, best not think about it. Check again tomorrow.

The next day flips over like an egg on toast, sunny side down. It’s early morning. Really early. 2am to be precise. You need the bathroom and decide to check on sales again. You keep one eye shut.

The cold pang scuttles up from your solar plexus and settles on your chest. Still not a single sale to report! You’ll never get to sleep now. And you no longer feel like going to the bathroom.

You stumble to the kitchen to make yourself a cup of coffee, and, in a flood of self-doubt, you pour over your manuscript again, looking for mistakes.

You find two and quickly correct them. Damn! How did they manage to slip through? They could cost you your writing career! You should have hired a professional editor, after all. Too late now.

You upload the corrected manuscript.

Next day, having taken a mild off-the-shelf sedative to help you sleep, you manage to hold out till sunup before switching on your screen and checking on that sales column again.

Empty.

Well, that just about tears it! There can no longer be any doubt. You suck as a writer. People have exaggerated your abilities, probably because you seemed so darned determined to succeed.

That must be it. If you were really any good, this would not be happening. Talent, after all, is impervious to failure. Isn’t it?

Just as well you kept your day job. You’re never typing another word again. Ever!

Boo hoo.

—-

Ring a bell? It does for me. That is pretty much how I remember my early amazon experience with my first ever novel, Scarab. The book languished in obscurity for many days before sales began to appear. A trickle at first. Then a rivulet. And finally a torrent. But those first few days felt like an eternity.

With the sales, came the reviews. Most were very good. A couple were downright nasty. One of the reviewers suggested that my level of English languished below that of primary school. Ironically enough, whenever a nasty review came in, sales picked up dramatically, as if discerning readers were shouting it down with their credit cards.

Scarab went to number one in the bestseller lists in the scifi/hi-tech categories at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk and stayed in the top ten for many months. It was balm to my worst fears. The rest, as they say, is history.

So, what have I learnt from my experience, and from comments by fellow indie writers?

Simply this: if you have a modicum of talent and are willing to work hard, you will inevitably improve and eventually succeed.

But what do you focus on while sales remain tardy?

The answer is simple: Write that next book! And the next! And the next! John Locke believes that new writers shouldn’t publish before they have written several books. That way, when success comes for one, it will come for the others. He should know. He sold a million books.

We could too!

Summary

Write more books while waiting for sales of your current one to pick up; better still, write a whole bunch and release them simultaneously.

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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.

Image by: fdecomite
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en

Why Do You Write? No, Really!

Girl with arms outstretched

Why Do You Write?

The opinions below, are, of course, entirely my own.

Why do you write? This is, perhaps, the most important question I pose my students at the beginning of any new creative writing course. If they’re not sure, if they scratch their heads, study the ceiling, 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 saying is: Are you sure you want to do this?

Those of us who contemplate a career in writing, specifically in storytelling — especially as novelists — had better know. If we’re not driven by the unstoppable desire to write, if we’re not obsessed with understanding every nuance, texture and colour of a word, if our pulse doesn’t race when we hit that golden vein in a written passage, we’d be better off taking up a hobby instead.

Writing is hard. Accomplished writing is even harder. Earning a living as a writer is possible, thanks to the tablet revolution and marketplaces such as amazon.com, but it demands steely dedication, talent and luck. To make it as a writer you need to put your head down, keep learning 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—you want to impress me with your perspective on Existentialism? Go write an article in a philosophy journal. Ideas, at the cost of story, do not make for compelling novels, 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 passion you merely slog.

So, why do I write?

I write because passion compels me to. I have no choice. I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather do. Not in a million years. If I did, I’d be better off taking up bowls.

Summary

Passion is the essential ingredient in developing your writing career.

Image: Camdiluv
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/legalcode

Why a Poster and Book Cover is like a Movie Tagline

Electric Chair

The Level

I am not much of a traditionalist when it comes to teaching creativity, being, as I am, a great believer in using an interdisciplinary methodology to help solve persistent creative problems. A frontal assault is not always the best way to break down barriers. One often needs to tackle the problem laterally.

I recently had the privilege of delivering a course on how to create effective film loglines and taglines. Towards the end of the course I had the idea of warping things up by introducing a different approach to logline and tagline creation.

A logline, we are reminded, is the summation of the story, sans the ending, that introduces the main conflict, the protagonist and antagonist, and identifies that which must be learnt or acquired in order to fulfill the goal. A tagline, by contrast, is a phrase or sentence that captures some essential aspect of the story—in Apollo 13, the tagline is: Huston, we have a problem.

The exercise I set my students during class, was to have them envisage the essence of a story, not through the logline and tagline, as per usual, but by designing a poster or book cover instead. I emphasised that it didn’t matter whether they were skilled artists or not. What was important was to capture the spirit of the story as a graphic. They could “paint” a word portrait and use stick and block drawings to fill in the gaps, if need be.

The exercise was a wonderful success and threw up many interesting renditions of the story. It also proved the point that the creative process works best when using a multidisciplinary approach.

In much the same way, the book cover of my new novella, The Level, which is being released on Amazon in early June, captures an essential aspect of the story, and this, without giving too much away.

The book cover features a quintessential object from the story in a dark but intriguing way, and encourages the reader to ask the question: What is the role of the chair in the tale?

The tagline, which also draws heavily from the title, might well be: Many Lives. Many Levels. Which Level Are You?

True to form, the cover was designed before the tagline was developed and helped inspire some of The Level’s many twists and turns.

Summary

Using an offbeat multidisciplinary approach in tackling creative problems promotes inspiration and encourages insight.