Thursday, 16 November 2017

TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS: Part Three

Hello, Dear Readers! This is the third and final part of the Turning Ideas into Plots workshop.

The last instalment introduced us to the basic plot diagram, like so:

Hopefully at this point you have enough solid story events fixed in your head to be able to fill in two or three of the points on the diagram, even if in quite a basic way. This, in turn, ought to give you a sense of the shape and pacing of the events you still need to devise. You have, effectively, the skeleton of a plot. Possibly when people ask what you're writing about, you can give them a brief summing up which touches on those main plot points, and they go 'Wow, sounds interesting'. 

But you still don't have a story.

What? After all that??? Well, as I’ve mentioned before, plot and story are not exactly the same thing. Plot is the skeleton. Story is the flesh. It’s the muscles and tendons and skin that cover and fill in the gaps between the bones. Without the story, like bones without tendons and muscles, the plot can’t move. It’s useless.

This where that saying I mentioned in Part #1 comes from: ideas are ten-a-penny, but execution is key. The execution of the story, the way you put those muscles together and use them to animate the skeleton, the texture of the skin you cover the whole thing with, that’s what turns your story either into a beautiful, vibrant, living creature – or a hulking, mouth-breathing Frankenstein's Monster. 

To illustrate this, let's take a look at a story that we all know well: Cinderella.

It's fairly easy for anyone to see how the main points of Cinderella's story would fit onto the plot diagram I showed you. Hence:
However, each of the sides of the diamond shape now need to be filled in with story – with the events which logically follow from First Plot Event to Character Action to Major Disaster and so on.

And here’s the fun yet terrifying (yet fun!) part: if you and I were both to start out with that basic plot diagram above? We would, inevitably, come up with two radically different ways to get our heroine from point one to point two and onto point three, etc. Our different versions would encompass not only different events, but different tones in our writing, and different character motivations. That's why this diagram is useful on its own, even if you don't want to fill in anymore details – because it gives you that structure, that framework, within which to let your own unique ideas develop.

The way I normally work this out is to try and fill in the first side of the diamond in as much detail as possible before I start writing. Then I put in whatever details I can think of on the other sides. Like so:

Although I like to know in detail what events I'm aiming for, when it comes down to how to actually realise those events, the atmosphere and tone and the character arcs which weave in and around them, I like the freedom to make it all up as I go along. And usually I find that by the time in my first draft I've reached point two (Character Action) I've grown to know the world, story and characters well enough to be able to go on ahead and fill in the next side with a few more details too. The story teaches me about it as I go on. By the time I hit the halfway point I've got something that looks like this:

This is a story now, not just a plot. It includes scenes not just of action but reaction. It shows you the events I (as the author of this particular Cinderella retelling) think are significant enough to dramatise (lots of emphasis on the magic) how I'm going to handle the romance (love at first sight) ideas about the of emotional significance of events (Cinderella calls to the spirit of her death mother before the fairy appears - could it really BE the ghost of her mother?) and it makes you ask questions, rather than offering up a bare list of events.

The way you chose to write these events – in a grim, gothic style, a funny irreverent one, or a poetic lyrical one – will be the skin of your story. The outer appearance which people will probably react to first and with the most conviction, just as humans react to the colour and form of other people's outer shell in real life. But without the plot skeleton and the muscle, flesh and blood of the story underneath, the skin is worthless. All the bits of the story's anatomy need to be working together to create the impression you, the writer, want the reader to receive.

So, this is how *I* turn ideas into plots, and then a plot into a story. I hope it's been useful. But remember that the important thing – the only really important thing, in the end – is to work the way that helps you and makes you feel comfortable. Use a circle instead of a diamond. Don't draw at all, if you don't want to! There is no such thing as a 'right way'. Only the way that works for you right now.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS: Part Two

So you've had this idea for a story. 

Chances are the idea is incomplete and actually has a few separate pieces to it. Mostly my ideas – the ones that spark the desire to start a new book – come with a vague sense of how it all starts, a couple of really strong, hit-me-in-the-head scenes that probably fit somewhere in the middle, and then a vague sense of how it ends. Your ideas might come with the beginning perfectly formed and no end, or a perfect end and no middle scenes. But whatever, you have to try and figure out how to fit these events together into a plot. How to bridge the gaps between them in a way that makes sense, that is entertaining to read, that is worth writing.

At this stage, some authors recommend making character or story collages, where you get yourself a huge pile of magazines and cut out any images - of people or locations or phrases - that 'sing' to you, as being something to do with your idea. You stick them all to a big sheet of paper and somehow seeing everything like that acts like a giant magnet for other ideas to start zipping out of your brain and attaching themselves to the original idea.

Some writers like to use index cards or bullet points to list everything that they know about characters, setting, story, mood. They find that as they write these down, more and more details materialise in their heads, until their bullet point list is twice as long, or their stack of cards twice as thick as they expected.

I think the really important thing at this point is to PIN THOSE SUCKERS DOWN. Otherwise tiny details can sometimes slither away from you and it's really hard to get them back. What's more, the very act of writing down your ideas makes them feel more concrete and get-at-able. Often as you begin to write them they will expand right there on the page before your eyes, drawing other ideas from your subconscious and weaving them in, until your snippet of an argument suddenly has three compelling characters, or your image of a setting has a tragic situation and two more settings nested within. It’s magic!

So, now you have a whole *bunch* of exciting ideas, loosely linked, that makes your gizzards positively tingle with excitement. Great! Well done. Now for the bad news: this scatter of ideas still doesn't actually make a plot.

A plot needs to be more than a series of events that happen one after another. There needs to be a shape, rising tension, rising stakes. The story needs to move through events of physical and emotional and mental significance (if it's going to be a really good book, I mean). Sometimes when you've pinned all your ideas down you still won't feel you have enough stuff to make a story. Other times it all looks like way too much.

This is where my diagrams come in. Tada!

A disclaimer here: this is the way *I* think of plots. You might like a square, or a circle, or a list, or a corkboard covered in neat lines of post-its. But fitting my puzzle pieces into this shape works for me. You might find that although following this exact method does not fit for you, trying it shows you the way you DO like to work. Anyway, let me 'splain. 

FIRST PLOT EVENT: This is pretty self-evident. It's the event that kicks off the story proper. It might not be the first thing the reader sees, though. Sometimes a story starts off by showing the character's world, illustrating the most important characters in their life or establishing their ambitions or deepest wishes. Leading up to a dramatic or significant event – as in The Fellowship of the Ring, where we're introduced to the idyllic Shire and Frodo's well-hidden longing for adventure – allows us to understand what is at stake for the protagonist when the first plot event occurs.

Some writing books will tell you that you must cut straight to the action. And for some genres or some particular stories, that’s OK to do. But it’s not vital, and there are many books which do no such thing. What is vital is that you begin with something RELEVANT to the story, something which will show its significance when you light the fuse and let the plot explode. 

CHARACTER TAKES ACTION TO CHANGE COURSE OF PLOT: A little more tricky, this one. Usually, after the first major story event the character will react with shock, fear, disbelief. They might refuse to accept what's happened, struggle desperately to get away from the new character or place that is threatening their normality. However at some point most characters that are strong enough to be a main character will get a grip and attempt to take control of their situation. Sometimes it backfires, sometimes it works but triggers further events.

In any case, this is the moment when the character first begins to truly affect the plot and it's usually an important moment in the story. Using The Fellowship of the Ring again, this is moment when Frodo, having reached the safety of the Rivendell, and having been given a viable chance to step out of this life-or-death adventure, instead steps forward and volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor. 

MAJOR DISASTER OR SETBACK: The events triggered by the interaction of the main character's choices and the plot now reach a critical point. Things might seem to be going really well – but at the moment when success seems assured, disaster strikes and changes the course of the story again. Often the reader will have seen this setback coming all along. Sometimes even the characters can see it. But they're powerless to prevent it, either because of an essential flaw in their own character or strategy (established prior to this, of course) or because the forces of opposition are overwhelming.

For example, in Disney's The Little Mermaid, this is where Ursula the Sea Witch sees that Ariel and the Prince are falling in love, realises her plan isn’t going to work, and casts a spell to enchant the Prince and make her his own. Ariel wakes up full of joy, goes running off to see her Prince, and finds him suddenly engaged to another woman. Noooooo!  

THE PLATEAU OF AWFULNESS: I read this term in a writing book and it's stuck with me. This is when, in the midst of the fallout from that great disaster, something even worse (and often contrasting to the main disaster) happens. It's the part of the story where things literally cannot get any worse. There's no way back. It's do or die. Think back to the events at the end of The Matrix, where most of the crew of the ship have been slaughtered by a traitor and Neo is stuck in the Matrix fighting (and losing) against Agent Smith. Then the alarm on the ship goes off: a killer 'squid' is approaching. It starts ripping the ship apart and the only way the crew can save themselves is to set off the EMP. But if they do that, Neo will die.

The attack of the killer machine contrasts beautifully with the main disaster – Neo's battle against the Agent – because while Neo is a blur of action, running and fighting for his life, the crew are forced into stillness, silence and inaction, waiting for Neo to get out of Matrix, unable to fight for their own lives. All their hopes rest with him. In some stories the PoA might be emotional in contrast to an action Major Setback. In others it might be a new attack, but from an unexpected direction. In books which are totally on their game, it could be about both action and emotion. The important thing is that this is where the character is forced to throw everything they have at the obstacles that face them. Their last hope has gone. In despair, fury, new determination or sudden revelation, they are now propelled forward to the final events of the story. 

LAST PLOT EVENT: Hang on a minute, you say! There are only FOUR points on that diamond! How can there be five points on your list? Well, the last plot event is where everything comes full circle. It's where you fulfil the promises that you made to the reader at the beginning and the story comes to a natural close. Just like with the last plot event, this might not be the actual last scene, but it's the last point in the story where events are still in flux. Further chapters may tie up loose ends, but shouldn't significantly alter what has occurred in the last plot event. This is the scene where Trinity kisses an unconscious Neo and tells him that she loves him – and he responds by proving he is The One and destroying Agent Smith at the same moment that Morpheus presses the EMP button and kills the squid that is tearing the ship apart. It's when when Triton takes pity on his daughter and transforms her into a human for good and she is reuinited with Prince Eric.

Now, as I said above, not all stories are going to fit into this exact pattern – and that is fine! – but it's a good place to start. The simple structure makes it very easy to see how events you might already have in mind should be spaced out, and again, the act of placing the ideas you do have in this form can often draw other ideas out of your subconscious as you realise that if there’s a Plateau of Awfulness here, then surely the best event to follow it would be this or this... See if the events you have in your head fit these definitions in any sense. Perhaps the scenes you've got are the lead-ins or sequels to such events? 

Open your mind to the most interesting ways that things could play out. If you can fill in three or four of the points on the diagram, even if it turns out you have three Major Setbacks and two PoAs, you're well on your way to having a complete story. And if in the process you realise that diagramming works better for you if you break your story down into six main plot events, or that you prefer a circle, or a line of Post-Its, then hurray! You’re already beginning to discover your own individual plotting style.

Stay tuned to this bat channel for the next instalment of our exciting (look, *I* find it exciting, OK?) plotting workshop, in which we shall discuss no less a person than Cinderella and there will be many more diagrams (yay!).

Monday, 6 November 2017

TURNING IDEAS INTO PLOTS: Part One

Dear Readers, today I'm beginning the process of posting all the refreshed and revised content which I made for the Patreon here on the blog. So let’s talk PLOT. 
What is a plot? Do you find them? Make them? And how do they WORK? 
 
First up, I’m going to say that most of us really need to calm down when it comes to plot. There’s a lot of advice out there, and quite a bit of it contradicts most of the rest, and almost everyone offering advice seems convinced that if you don’t create a plot using the exact right formula then rocks shall fall and everybody will die. That sort of thinking? Is not useful. At all.

When I cast my mind back and start remembering how much I used to stress out about not doing things 'properly' or 'the right way', and how I used to get stuck in the first three chapters and just revise them until they died, or struggle my way to the middle and then freak out because I had idea where to go next... honestly, a cold sweat breaks out on my brow. Writers need to think and talk about this. I definitely did. But I’m convinced people so often get so bogged down in different schools of thought about what a plot is, arguments on shape or function (three acts? Five? SIXTEEN??) that it becomes the opposite of helpful. 
This is Part One of my three part workshop on plots, plots, wonderful plots. It’s designed to be helpful to both beginning and more experienced writers, and hopefully by the end you will feel inspired and motivated, not confused, panicked, or like fleeing to Tibet to herd Yaks.
To begin we need to go back to that classic and much groaned over question: Where do you get your ideas?
The standard response to that one is: ideas are easy to come by, it's execution that counts. But what I think those writers are really asking, a lot of the time, is actually more like: How do you turn an idea into a story? How do you know what happens next? How do you fill a whole book up with all that STUFF? 
I get it. Really.
Most writers that I've talked to or read books by say that when they *get* a story idea, it's usually actually the result of two or more little idea fragments spinning around in their head frantically until they all collide and POOF! Suddenly there's a story there. Only it's not a complete story. This is what you need to recognise. With some notable exceptions, stories, characters, plots, settings – none of it appears in the brain fully formed. You might get some sort of inking of how things kick off, or maybe one or two vital scenes from the middle, or a faint impression of how it should end. Or just a vivid image of a certain character or place. Or all of these things (lucky you). 
It's vital to realise at this point that those impressions? Aren't set in stone. They're giving you hints about what you want your story to be ABOUT, hints on the themes or particular twists you want to explore. The fact that you clearly see a fearless heroine fighting a Samurai in the middle of a bleak orange desert could mean that you want to write about an ass-kicking girl's adventures, or that you want to write about the desert, or a lonely Samurai who wanders across the world, or that you're interested in having a romance where the couple fights each other with swords for fun. The important thing could be the tiny snatch of dialogue you get where they taunt each other about bad technique, or the colour of the sand, or the general bleak tone of the thing.

OR NONE OF THE ABOVE.

This is your brain opening doors and showing you possibilities. Glimpses of what could be. They're telling you your characters *could* be these kinds of people, or your world might be like this. They're inviting you to think long and hard, make choices, sink into the mind of the people whose story you need to tell, to immerse yourself in their world. They're inviting you to walk through as many of those doors as you like, have a curious wander around, then either move in or walk away and close the door behind you.
Do you have an idea for a beginning, a couple of middle parts and an end that have nothing to do with each other and you have no idea how to get from one to another? That's fine. It's way too early to panic and give up. It might be that you'll be working things out as you go along, just writing until you hit one of those key scenes. It might be that you never actually write any of those middle scenes because by the time you get to the middle you realise an event like that simply couldn't happen in the world you've created, or that your character just wouldn't act that way.

The same with endings. You could be like J K Rowling and write the final scene seven books in advance and stick to it (yikes) or you could be like me and aim for that final scene as a guide but usually end up realising the actual events are all wrong, and it's just one or two things, like a character's feelings, or the location or mood that you need. You might even be like Leah Clifford and have no IDEA how it's going to end (she's a better man than I am, Gunga Din).
This point, where you have the compelling image and some odd bits and pieces of a story is usually the point where beginning writers plunge in and start writing, carried away with the desire to see What Happens Next. If that works for you, fine. But a lot of the emails I get seem to come from people who've had this AWESOME IDEA OMG and started writing right away and then got completely lost after a few chapters. Now they don't know if this means the idea was wrong to begin with and they should give up and move onto the Shiny New Idea... or what. 
So, in the next post, we're going to get down to the nitty-gritty of how to actually make a plot that will allow you to keep writing the thing you want to write. This will include examining a couple of ways to work out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, including the use of a plot diagram that I partially stole and partially made up to stop me drowning in my own ideas. 
Would you like the next piece of the workshop (including rinky-dinky plot diagram) this week? Let me know in the comments, muffins, and I'll try to find time to transfer it across and fix the formatting (what is with the formatting on Blogger?).

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

WEIRD THINKY THOUGHTS ABOUT THOR: Ragnarok

This is not a film review. My 'review' of Thor: Ragnarok basically boils down to one paragraph:

So funny, so colourful! Valkyrie is f*ck*wesome, I want to be Hela when I grow up, I need a Fenris of my own immediately - and none of these problems would ever have happened if Frigga and Odin weren't such (God)awful parents, GOOD GRIEF. But anyway, go see it. Also the soundtrack is awesome.

But. For a mostly comedic odd-couple roadtrip buddy movie iiiin spaaace... it sure did leave me with some deep thinky thoughts. And they are as follows (read on at your own peril).

Watching Thor: Ragnarok so soon after re-watching Wonder Woman on DVD has made me consider the contrasting ways the two films deal with immortal characters.

Wonder Woman posits that a 5,000 year old warrior who has fought and loved and lost would have a kind of timeless serenity, an immense and awe-inspiring depth of character quite apart from their Godlike power, simply by virtue of having experienced so much.

T:R on the other hand, finally crystallises Marvel's viewpoint on such characters, which has been hinted at in previous Thor films and in the treatment of other characters such as Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy. Broadly: far from accumulating any kind of wisdom or ageless perspective during their eternal lives, immortals - without exception! - remain perpetual children. 

Whether this is in-born - ie., something true of all such characters from the beginnings of their existence - or in fact they start out just as capable of emotional development and maturity as any human, and their regression to childhood is something that begins after a certain number of centuries (in order to survive the sheer weight of immortal experience, or the constant attrition of anyone and anything they might care for perhaps)... that's another question.

We're offered a set of variations on this theme in T:R, ranging from Thor's heroic yet essentially self-centred morality (he does display empathy for others, but it's always in an effort to force them to follow his agenda and validate his image of himself as a 'hero' - witness his treatment of Bruce Banner in this film) to Hela and Loki's sociopathy, which allows them to act as if the one right and true and good thing in the universe is their own desires - and anyone going against them must and should be removed.

Loki repeats the same betrayals over and over, apparently still finding them amusing after thousands of years - and still equally ready to throw a tantrum when other people don't laugh at his jokes. Thor watches his Father die and, after the briestest burst of emotion, quickly goes back to quipping and bolstering his own ego. Hela walks out of her prison after millenia of solitary confinement without having experienced a single iota of maturation or self-examination, ready and willing to get back to the super important work of conquering stuff - not due to any real sense of injustice or need for revenge but just because, you know, her dad told her she was the Goodess of Death and that's what she DOES, d'uh.

This is even more evident in the minor characters: Valkyrie, the elite warrior who watched her comrades die by the thousand at Hela's hands has apparently been weeping into her beer on Planet Hulk for longer than Thor's been alive, making a living by enslaving people - classy! - angry at no one in particular and never questioning her own venal existence until Thor came along. The great Odin, King of the Nine Realms, who made it official policy to deal with his problems by sweeping them under the rug and pretending they never existed. Great conflict resolution, Sire. And the Grand Master, a being who probably came into being at the time of the Big Bang, who is... well. Jeff Goldblum. Enough said.

The world of T:R is spectacular. It's colourful and grand and MASSIVE, an endless multiplicity of worlds and dimensions and realms. What grounds us in it is the little-ness of these characters, their essential selfishness, their childish, petty ways. Thor laughed at the mortal characters in Avengers: Assemble for being small and petty, yet every human character in that film displayed more real depth and capacity for growth and self-sacrifice than any immortal character in T:R. They're all kids who haven't grasped the concept that they are not the centre of the universe.


And I think that is so interesting and different. I actually love it. 

I love Wonder Woman too. I love the idea that a person with all the qualities of humanity - love, fear, hatred, the occasional drop of selfishness and stupidity - could be burnished by the years into a being of supreme, even divine kindness, perception and nobility. But I also love this take on the cost of immortality as well. It reminds me of actual mythology in which the Gods use the lives of mortals like pieces in a chess game NOT because they are so different from us - not because they're wiser or better or less petty - but merely because they lack the ability to percieve the worth of any lives except their own. They're made utterly inhuman by the qualities many would label the most human - selfishness, obliviousness, short-sightedness, lack of empathy.

And this, in turn, leads beautifully into the revelation that Thor never actually needed Mjolnir - that the whole issue of 'worthiness' was actually a trick. Which may seem like a bold claim, considering how much various films have made of this, even to the extent of allowing Steve, generally considered the most 'moral' Avenger, to jiggle it for a moment. But that's what this film tells us, straight up! And once you're shown it, it seems so obvious.
 
Consider: what exactly WAS Odin's definition of worthiness? Odin the world-conquerer, the thief and liar, the serial user and banisher of children? And even given such a lax version of worthiness, how did Thor ever meet any real definition of it, back when he was totally into the concept of the wholescale slaughter of another race just so long as they were blue and chilly? The hammer didn't reject him during his attempt to start a war on Jotunheim, an action arguably as violent as Loki's assault on earth. And remember Odin's wording during his exile of Thor: 'Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.'

Not the power of Mjolnir. The power of THOR.

The hammer never gave Thor power. It certainly never gave Thor power based on his worthiness. Odin just told him it did, and used his own magic to ensure Thor believed it, in the same way that Loki used HIS magic to bind Odin's powers and exile his adopted Father to earth. Odin bound Thor's powers to Mjolnir - forced him to access those abilities only through Mjolnir - in order to limit them.

Why would Odin do this?
 

To control his son. To make sure that this boy - who he in this film admitted had been stronger than him all along - never, ever surpassed him the way that his daughter had done. To ensure that he could use his child as an enforcer of his will in the Nine Realms without ever worrying that the child would have the strength or confidence to challenge him in Asgard. To ensure that he could retain effective possession of the powers that belonged to his son. So that when he fell into the Odinsleep, Thor would rule as his regent only, and never have the chance to truly grow up.

I know I'm repeating myself but - man, what a (literal) Godawful father. This person should never have been allowed to have, or adopt, any kids. Ever.

And the Sainted Frigga, whom everyone loved so much - the one who knew more magic than Odin and taught Loki all her tricks - MUST HAVE BEEN AWARE OF THIS. And she was OK with it, apparenly. Just like she was apparently OK with Hela being locked up for millenia and erased from her people's history. Even when Loki was a prisoner in Asgard's dungeons and she was secretly visiting him, she never let slip that she'd presumably been in this position once before. Did she even remember that she'd had a daughter, or was she even better at pretending she'd never made any mistakes than Odin?


Assuming that there's an over-arching plan behind this theme, I think the point Marvel is trying to make with these characters is that humans are actually bigger and more important than we tend to believe. That while the Gods may be powerful they can also be petty and selfish and unchanging - and humans may not be as strong, but we do have the capacity to learn and evolve, to display selflessness and recieve redemption. Odin, Hela and Loki never even admit they did anything wrong. Black Widow, Hulk and Tony Stark dedicate their lives to making up for their past misdeeds, even if that means giving up their lives.

And if they can do it - albeit on a much grander scale - maybe we can too. Maybe we can face what we've done, admit fault, and make up for those actions, even if our misdeeds amount to no more than displaying a lack of understanding and tolerance towards a co-worker or failing to offer a loved one the benefit of the doubt. The point is, you don't need to be larger than life to make life better for everyone.

This is good stuff, Marvel. Keep it up.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

A PATREON ANNOUNCEMENT

Lovely Patrons, Dear Readers, and anyone else who might happen across the blog this morning... it's time to talk about my Patreon's future. 

Setting up a Patreon of my very own was an impulsive decision. Someone suggested it, I checked it out and then signed up all within a very short period. I had a hope-for-the-best attitude - after all, if only 5-10% of the people who visited my blog a week were willing pay $3 a month for the Patreon, then that content, which previously earned me nothing, would be generating a substantial return.

But it's not that easy. Patreon seems to be the kind of thing that only works really well when the person running it constantly promotes and sells it. You have to throw yourself at it full-force, and link all your other social media to it, and come up with all kinds of other content that entices people toward it. And it turns out, I'm not actually comfy doing that, or any good at it either. I'm happy to babble on about my books and try to sell those to people, but talking about my own brilliance in an effort to set myself up as an indispensible writing expert? Watch me cringe.

As a result, although I'm super grateful for you folks who subscribe, and anyone else who visits regularly, the Patreon isn't really earning very much. And what's more, people - online and in real life - keep referring to my blog as a resource and recommending people go there for wisdom and advice, and I have to keep breaking the news that none of it is THERE anymore, it's all on my Patreon, and by the way you need to pay to access it... 

Watch me cringe twice as much, argh.

So: my Patron base just isn't growing as I'd hoped, and It's entirely my fault because I'm clearly not prepared to do the sorts of things to promote it which are required. But this also means that so far I'm not doing any of the other interesting stuff which I promised I would when I got to a certain number of Patrons, which means that to me this doesn't feel like value for money for the Patrons I do have. And on top of that, I miss being able to freely link people to an archive of writing advice on my blog instead of cringing away from 'selling' the Patreon to them. I also miss being able to muse and ramble about writing on my blog and talk about my works in progress and other tangentially related topics, using it as a kind of craft journal without worrying if what I write is accessible, useful and relevant as writing advice rather than just something I want to express.

Conclusion: Patreon is not for me.

I've posted a similar announcement on the Patreon itself, and from next week I'll start migrating all the content - all the links on the All About Writing page - back onto the blog here. In addition, because the pieces I posted on the Patreon have been heavily revised, updated and retitled, I'll post them here as 'new', I think, at a pace about one a week. That will help to salve my conscience over how I've neglected the blog lately.
I want to say a massive thank you, again, to my lovely Patrons for supporting me during this little experiment, and to everyone who checked out the free content there or shared the link through Twitter or FB or whatever. And also, of course, to all the readers of my blog, past and present, whether they were also Patrons or not! You motivate and inspire me every day, and I couldn't do this job without you. 
 Read you later, muffins.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

THAT D'UH! MOMENT

Hello, lovely readers! It's been a while since I've updated, I know - I've been spending a lot of energy rewriting and refreshing posts for my Patreon, a lot more energy settling into my RLF post at York St John University, and what was left over working on the new WIP.

And it's the new WIP that's been causing me to tear my hair out. You see, two days a week I've now got access to a lovely quiet office in York from 9am until 6pm. There's light, heat, a window, a computer and the internet - not to mention my WIP notebook and the copious amounts of stationery I've ferried over there, plus ready access to coffee and the odd snack - which ought to be everything that I need to work.

Now of course, I'm there to see students and help them to improve their writing. But currently it's quiet (things pick up toward exam deadlines) so most days I have a few free periods, or even a whole free morning or afternoon in which to work in total peace, plus the time after my work day finishes but before the Student Centre closes and I need to leave my office. No dog that needs walking, no parent calling me in a panic over a leaking roof or virus-infected computer, no meals to cook (I'm staying in a hotel), no cleaning or other household chores to do. It ought to be bliss! I ought to be churning out thousands of words! I even made myself a Pacemaker schedule confidently expecting huge amounts of progress!

I haven't managed to write more than one or two awful, stilted paragraphs on any day that I've been in York.

It's baffling and infuriating. This is a book that I am super excited about. I mean, super excited. I LOVE this idea. I've been sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night to scribble down ideas in my notebook, I love it so much. I've done my research. My Pinterest board is stuffed. I have a playlist on Spotify and a white noise mood track on Noisili. My agent loves it. My editor loves it. I'm ready.

And yet... no words.

What's going on?

What's going on is I'm being deeply stupid, is what.

I realised it yesterday, and it made me want to smack myself in the forehead.

When I first went full-time as a writer I used to get up early, do all my household stuff (cleaning, walking the dog, breakfast, whatever) and get myself into my study by nine... and then sit there, staring at the screen in mounting frustration, wanting to write, needing to write, but paralysed. There just weren't any words! WHERE WERE THE WORDS??

It took me weeks to work out what the problem was and work out methods around it - many of which I shared with you on the blog over the years.

Don't sit down at 9am and expect yourself to write for three or four hours straight off. It's far too intimidating and your brain freezes up. Set a timer and work for half an hour or forty minutes, as fast as you can, then break and do something else for five or ten minutes (check emails, Facebook, get a new coffee, stretch) before you look over what you've done. Forty minutes is way more manageable than three hours - and usually you've then broken the morning-blankness and can carry on in forty minute sprints until you're done for the day. But even if you can't, you'll often surprise yourself with how much you can write in a timed sprint like that - certainly more than you'd write if you stared at a white screen for an hour and then gave up.

If you get well and truly stuck, don't just sit there staring at the screen until you either cry or get a migraine, or both. Get out. Work somewhere else - the library, a coffee shop - or if you can't face that, go for a walk, get the blood pumping, think about your story and what makes it special, work through the problem in your head.

Write longhand so that you remember this is just scribbles, just noodling about with ideas, getting stuff wrong so that you can work out what to get RIGHT, not deathless prose that needs to be perfect.

Don't sit down with vague ideas like 'Today I've got to get Sarah from the bridge over the river to the Capital City'. Some days - great days - you'll be inspired and can take a boring task like that and run with it, but MOST days you'll spend ages trying to just figure out WHAT COMES NEXT because it's so non-specific and anyway what you want to write is the scene where Sarah gets to the Capital and runs into the King's Guard. Always jot down a quick plan the day before, a few bullet points that will act as a road map to what you want to achieve, the shape of the next section. For instance:
  •  Sarah wakes up under the bridge (covered in dew? Frogs in hair? Stiff and damp)
  • Wearily washes in icy water while remembering swimming in river as a child (family memories! Better times)
  • Packs up (brief descrip) and slogs down hill
  • Avoids riders on the road in case it's Kings Guard, then hitches ride w/friendly farmer
  • Arrives in city, smells food, feels lifting of spirits, crosses through City Gate (jostling other people, seeing Castle on the hill)...
  • Bumps straight into Captain of the Guard!
Even if the scene you want to write is really cool and you're dead keen to get started on it, it can be a bit scary to start cold - especially if there are lots of actiony bits or subtle foreshadowing or information threading you need to do. Make a quick note of what you need the scene to accomplish just so that you're not searching for WHAT HAPPENS NEXT at the same time as figuring out the words to describe it. It's much easier to find great words to describe something you've already visualised and can imagine perfectly.

Dear Readers, I know all of this. This is how I work. It's how I've worked for over six years. And yet. I've basically been rocking up to my RLF office at the uni at 8:50am every morning, logging into my OneDrive and sitting there staring at a blank page in my Word doc, waiting for words to come. That's not going to happen. I can't even describe how much it's not going to happen. I know this. AND. YET.

During my lunch break yesterday I went for that long walk. I was feeling so cross with myself, and really gloomy. I didn't even want to eat, which anyone who knows me knows is Bad Juju. But as I wandered around the leaf-strewn Minster Park - with glowering brow and slumped shoulders - I slowly, slowly felt my brain clearing.

I realised I should have gone for a walk an hour before instead of just sitting there during that free period staring at my computer and willing the monitor to burst into flames. And that reminded me of all the other things I normally do on a working day - and eventually I worked out what was going on. Finally. It was a true D'UH! moment. I had to sit down on a bench for a little bit just to comprehend it, and to sigh with relief and actually appreciate the autumn colours I'd been way too grumpy to look at before.

This is is a lesson. Stupidity can happen to anyone, and that includes professional writers. You can spend years figuring out the best methods of working for you, but when faced with a new situation it's all too easy to revert to bad habits. And even the very best methods (and mine have worked pretty well for me so far) will be useless if you don't employ them. Basically, I'd been cheerfully sabotaging myself for weeks and then wondering why I wasn't getting anywhere.

*Le Sigh*

I hope no one else is self-sabotaging at the moment, but if so, and you're reading this? Knock that right off, muffins. Tell me all about it in the comments.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

A QUESTION OF HISTORY

Hello, hello, hello Dear Readers! A couple of bits of business to take care of this morning before we get to the main point of the post.

Over on US Amazon The Swan Kingdom is available in Kindle format for the first time (it's been out over there for eight years, believe it or not) and as an eBook in various other formats, so if you're a USian and you've wanted to get hold of the digital version, behold, your wish has come true.

On UK Amazon, Barefoot on the Wind - my Beauty and the Beast retelling set in fairytale Japan - is now available for pre-order (and presumably it's available other places too, but I haven't looked). It's due out on the 1st of September this year, and I'm hoping that I'll have a cover to share soon. Snap it up right now if it takes your fancy, my lovelies.

Onto Other Stuff! Today's reader question comes from a young person whose name I have stupidly lost - sorry, whoever you are! - but never mind, I can answer their query anyway, and hopefully they will still see it.
I'm struggling with including back-story in a lot of my stories as I like to get straight to where the action is, otherwise I lose interest and move on to something else. So how can I make writing about a character's background more interesting?
A very good question and a topic that I've struggled with in various ways through my own writing. Hopefully this means I can give some practical advice on the topic. Hopefully.

So!

The thing about the term 'backstory' is that it has an inherently negative sort of sound to it. Like something unnecessary bolted onto the back of the real story, but which isn't really part of that story in its own right. And that's just not true, as we shall discuss below. So instead of talking about backstory, let's talk about HIStory. Because that's what 'backstory' really is: the history of your characters and your world.
 
Phrasing it that way gives us the big clue as to why filling in the background of your characters can be a tricky thing. History is traditionally considered a bit dry and dusty (and I say that as someone who loved history in school, for the record) and no reader really likes the forward momentum of a thrilling story to suddenly grind to a halt for a chapter while they are given a history lesson instead.

Some characters don't need much of their history to be depicted for everything to work. If you give your readers a contemporary setting and a thirteen-year-old protagonist who is the middle child in a normal middle class family, they will not require a detailed history of this person's life so far in order to fill in the gaps. You can concentrate on showing that the kid's unhappy at school and doesn't get on with her siblings right now and the reader will be happy for the story to move forward from there.

If you hate filling readers in on background information then these are the kinds of characters whose stories you may chose to tell.

But let's say your goal is to present your readers with a scarred, one-eyed mercenary who can kill five men with a pencil in under a minute and has a mysterious glowing tattoo and a soft spot for Airedale terriers.

If you *don't* want to share that person's history with the reader... well, why on earth did you come up with that character in the first place? Because everything about them has clearly been shaped by a very interesting and possibly traumatic history, we will *want* to know what their backstory is. What's more, it'll be very tough to care about them in the present until we learn more about it.

Of course, somewhere between those two extremes - the ordinary thirteen year-old and the battle scarred, glowing mercendary - is where you'll find most people's writing. But what you have to get into your head, Dear Reader, is that history is what makes a character who they are. It's not a separate thing from the story you want to tell. It *is* the story, every bit as much as dialogue and descriptions and action are.

Even in a contemporary world with an 'ordinary' main character? You may not need to fill in the blanks of history for the reader, but nevertheless the reader's understanding of or assumptions about the history of the world and the character shape their perception of everything you write.

You, the writer, really need to be clear on each character's background and what major events and choices have formed their personality and priorities. You may not chose to share all of this information with the reader, but if you don't know it then there's a strong chance the person on the page will seem flat and one-dimensional, without a coherent personality and with no spark of inner life.

Take the time to think about this. Work out these histories. Work out who your fictional people are. THEN you can decide what is vital to share about them, and what the reader can work out for themselves.

Some techniques to consider:

You can try to do what many young adult and genre authors do, which is to kick your story off at the very moment that the protagonist's life actually becomes interesting - the moment that it all goes to hell in a handbasket, basically. An example of this would be Shadows on the Moon, where the first line of the book is: On my fourteenth birthday when the sakura was in full bloom, the men came to kill us.

Nothing that has happened to the character in their past can compare to that, so the reader is happy for the story to grow from that point.

That's a bit difficult to manage for every kind of book or story though. If it just won't work for yours, you could chose to focus very much on who your character is now - making them particularly intriguing or charismatic - so that it is less important to the reader to know where they came from and what shaped them, and more important to find out exactly how their character works now, what they will chose to do next, and how those choices may shape the story.

This is going to take some skillful work, because you need to still give the readers the impression that this person *has* a past, and an inner life. They still need to feel nuanced and human and real. But their past must be something that the reader is willing and able to fill in for themselves because their present is more interesting.

For instance, you could create a famous safe-cracker whose past career is a thing of legend, hinted at in whispers by other members of your cast. This person chooses to live in isolation in a tiny cabin in the woods miles from anywhere and, once coaxed out of retirement, constantly expects betrayal and refuses to get close to anyone. If that same character turns out to be able to change a baby's nappy and sing them to sleep without turning an eyelash, the reader can guess even more about their past. Doing so will give them a sense of satisfaction because it's a story we're all familiar with - and although it's clearly tragic, we'll be more keen to know what's going to happen next, especially if the other characters around them come to their own conclusions about this person's history too.

The reader might still wish they could learn a bit more about this person's past. But if you carefully shape the story in such a way that the action in the present is illustrating this person's character - lets say that the story is about whether or not this person will be able to work with the others in order to pull off a thrilling heist that will lead to the defeat an intergalactic army - then THAT is what we will care about, not the specific details of how the mysterious safe-cracker came to be the way they are.

You don't have to offer us much background in this case because you've actually put it in the foreground via your choices about what to show in the present.

Doing it this way also means that you can give us a character who is capable of plausible change and development during the course of your story.

But let's say this all sounds too complex. It's not the only way to escape having to fill in the character's background in detail. Some characters are presented to us exactly as they are, and we can learn everything that we either need or want to know about them within a few pages.

When you meet that funny little genius Hercule Poirot it's clear to see that the man is a tightly wound ball of eccentricities and tics created to keep the reader entertained while the whodunnit is gradually unraveled. We know he used to be a policeman, and we know that he's actually getting on in years, so he's had a whole life before he turns up in the pages of the first Hercule Poirot mystery. But we feel no need to penetrate the mysteries of his former career or know about his lost loves or why he decided to move to England instead of returning to Belgium after the war. In fact, showing us a young Hercule Poirot (or a young Sherlock Holmes, or Indiana Jones or Han Solo) actually spoils the mystique and makes the character somehow much less interesting than they were before.

For some stories, that's all you need. The readers will embrace the mysterious mercenary who likes dogs but will happily stab anyone who approaches her with a pencil and make up their own history for her precisely because so much is left unsaid. Clearly she is not a character that we are meant to know. She's a vehicle to carry us through the story.

However, this strategy of leaving the heavy lifting to the reader's imagination has drawbacks, too. You have to be careful that in presenting things this way you don't leave so many obvious blanks in the history of the character - traits that don't add up with each other, or that seem to contradict things we know about them in the now - that these blanks stop being a pleasant space for the reader to mentally play and become a puzzle. Because if you present the reader with a puzzle within your story world and then don't give them the solution? They will become very, very annoyed with you very fast. And you can protest that you did this on purpose because you wanted to leave it ambiguous all you want - the reader will feel that you have broken your implicit promise to them and they will not be placated!

What's more, this will only work if the character you are presenting this way has no significant development within the story that you're presenting. Hercule Poirot is always Hercule Poirot - he observes, he deducts, and he reveals, but he himself is left completely unchanged by any of the gruesome and extraordinary events that he witnesses. Indiana Jones is Indiana Jones and Sherlock Holmes is Sherlock Holmes. We don't need them to change - we don't want them to! Part of their brilliance is that they are unchanging and unchangeable.

So if you want to produce work in which your characters evolve and grow and change throughout the course of the book, then this method is out.

You can also try to look at your characters histories in a different way and see if that helps you to feel more enthusiasm for sharing them. You say that you want to get straight to the action. So get straight to the action, then! Don't give us any history to start with. Present us with your thrilling car chase or sword fight and show us who the characters are now, mysteries and all.

Continue to depict them in the story's now, hinting at their pasts and what they've been through. Make it clear to the reader that their history as intriguing and complex and fascinating, but don't tell them what it is. By a certain point both the reader and you, the writer, will find yourself desperate to finally get stuck into the truth of how this person can bake the best pain au chocolats in Paris, climb a building using only paperclips, and swear in five languages, but screams when they see a spider.

Hopefully, having done all this teasing, it will not feel like such a burden to delve into their past and illuminate it for yourself and the reader.

There are a number of methods you can use to do this. The person can decide to confide a bit about their history to another character - a character they are furious with, perhaps, or one they've begun to trust. This is a good way of doing it because it clearly deepens their relationship (yes, even if the truth is blurted out during an argument) and because seeing characters vulnerable inherently engages the reader's sympathy with them and makes them seem more real.

Alternately, they can have a flashback.

Don't panic! It can be a tiny one! For instance, as they prepare to climb the side of the Eiffel Tower using only a handful of paperclips, they suddenly recall the first time they climbed the walls of the Sisters of Bleeding Mercy Home For Wayward Orphans when they were seven years old in order to rescue the bird with a broken wing from the guttering. They remember the flutter of the bird's heartbeat against their palm and smile or sigh. Then they get on with climbing the Eiffel Tower. Boom, you're done.

Little flashbacks like this blend so well into current action that the reader doesn't feel the story has paused at all, and you can work quite a lot of them into the narrative if you do it carefully, meaning that the character's history seamlessly becomes part of the action of now.

If there's just too much history to fit into the narrative this way, you could go for a longer flashback - one that covers a key moment of the character's past and explains a few things about their strange and contradictory quirks at once. If you do this, however, you need to ensure that we already have our sympathies and interests firmly engaged with this character, and that the scene from their past that you chose to depict is both significant and fascinating in it's own right. The flashback is putting the story's present on hold, so we need to feel that this information is vital to understanding the story's present, rather than that it's just been shoe-horned in there randomly.

Finally, if a character's past is so vital to understanding their present that there's no way for the story to begin properly without some hint of it, you could try using the sort of technique I used in FrostFire, where you entwine the character's past and their present so that they feel of equal importance to the reader. You present them as dual narratives - perhaps distinguishing them by using a different font, or by announcing 'Ten Years Ago' or 'Present Day' when you switch to help the reader keep track. You ensure that both the past and present stands of the story have action and unfolding mysteries and changing relationships, so the 'past' sections never feel as if they're stopping the action. Instead, they are clearly part of the action.

FrostFire begins with a description of a recurring, terrifying dream that the heroine has suffered from all her life. We then get a scene from the heroine's childhood - a depiction of a moment when the heroine's young life seemed genuinely in danger... and then something very strange clearly happens. The scene ends before we can work out exactly what it is. We then see an older version of the heroine, searching for something which seems as if it might be linked to what happened to her as a little girl.

For the first half of the book, the mystery of the heroine's strange condition and her past unfolds side by side with the action of the present. Only at the midpoint does the past catch up with the present. Then, the reader understands all that there is to know about the heroine's past and her frightening magic, and the story can fully inhabit her future going forward.

Does all this seem incredibly complex? That's because it is! But it's all part of the craft of being a writer and eventually, if you try to view your characters 'backstory' as just another, potentially valuable part of the story that you're so keen to tell, you will learn how to use these techniques and even enjoy doing so.

And if not, you can always write about the next Hercule Poirot. After all, it worked for Agatha Christie...
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