Category Archives: Motivational

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.

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.

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.

Invitation

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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.