Setting the hook: Beginnings

Written By: Stephen Godden - Mar• 23•14

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Beginnings huh? Now there’s a can of worms. Lets start with structure as a whole, because beginnings are part of the holistic structure of a story.

I like the 7 act structure.

Act 1: introduction.

Act 2: Set up.

Act 3: Conflict begins

Act 4: Mid-point

Act 5: Conflict intensifies

Act 6: Climax

Act 7: Coda

Since we are talking about beginnings I’ll only deal with act 1 and 2, which correspond to First Act of the Three-act structure, also called the beginning.

Act 1: the introduction.

This is where you introduce the character, the setting, and the theme/conflict at the heart of the story. It generally takes up around 10% of the length of the story (these percentages are approximate, it could 5% or 15%, but it is unlikely to be 20%) and in this the writer will do all the major introductions.

How they do that is individual to the writer and the story. You can drop the reader directly into the action, you can use a flash-forward (so beloved of JJ Abrams) which is a variation of in medias res.

You can use a slow build, taking your time to show the character in a normal setting before kicking their legs out from under them, this is usually called the Ordinary World opening and you can see it in the original Star Wars movie, when Luke is being a farm boy before the Empire comes calling (though that film also starts with the space battle, to help set the world).

You can start with the character being given the mission.

Hell you can start anywhere, but the important thing is it is an introduction. You have to introduce the main character, the setting, and the main story arc. No ifs or buts on this. That is the job of the introduction to a story, to hook the reader in.

It is a bit of an artificial divide between introduction and set-up, but I like it because it allows me to know what precisely I am doing where. In the introduction of Kinless, for example, I introduce the Protagonist: Drustan; the bad guys: The Vascanar (via another character Jarl); the main thrust of the story: Drustan has something they want that fell into his hand by accident; and the Female Protagonist: Marisa.

That all takes place in the first 10-12% of the novel. And brings in other characters and themes.

Act 2, the setup.

This sets the hook.

Because of its brevity the introduction doesn’t really allow for a lot of exposition, the writer is only able to give a taste of the setting and the character’s personalities. You don’t want to tell the reader everything straight out the blocks, or what’s the point of them reading the story.

The set-up is normally around 20% (again a rough percentage), so with the introduction’s 10% the beginning takes up about a third of the story, which closely corresponds to the First Act of a three-act structure.

The set-up has a bit of breathing space and allows the writer to fill in some detail. But all the time the writer is setting the hook, making damn sure the reader doesn’t slip it and go do sommat else.

By the end of the set-up the story should be in full flow, everything should be in place for the conflict to flower. But the seeds of the conflict are in the beginning.

By the end of the set-up period in Kinless, I have Marisa and Drustan together. I have Torquesten chosen by his demonic gods and I have Jarl meeting a ghost. I have also shown how the magic in this world works and all the bad things that can happen here. And the conflict (the pursuit of Drustan and his ragged band of refugees) is ready to start.

It’s quite easy to see where the set-up ends in Kinless, because I called it part 1.

 

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In This Episode…

Written By: Boopadoo - Mar• 16•14

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I had another of my writing revelations a few mornings ago, like when I discovered research can be fun or that plotting might not be so bad. It went like this…

I’m driving to work on a Wednesday morning, and with every half-mile I travel the weather is deteriorating, from cold rain to wet snow to low-visibility squalls. On a major highway, nearing my place of employment, driving very slowly and conservatively due to the incoming blizzard, I started to move over in order to let another driver off of an entrance ramp and onto the road. I hit a layer of slush in just the precise manner to put me sideways, no avoiding it, no anticipating it might happen; the universe simply determined my courtesy should be repaid with a spin. I used all the emergency driving techniques I know, avoided hitting any other cars, and got myself stopped on the opposite side of the three lanes, facing the steep ditch between the two sections of the road. Crisis averted…

Not quite. The rain and higher temperature of just an hour earlier had left the hill a soft, muddy mess, and the driving snow covered that with slippery slush, creating a surface so slick I had no way of stopping my slow slide down to the bottom. I stomped the brakes, tried to reverse in 4-wheel drive, all to no avail. Lower and lower I coasted, in slow motion, until my truck finally stopped a foot from the icy water at the bottom. Seriously? No, really, this was a joke, right?

Anyway, I now had nothing to do but wait for the tow truck to come and winch me out. An hour and 45 minutes of turning the engine on when it got too cold, watching the temperature gauge drop and the snow pile up around me. Fear not, faithful readers, for I did have notebooks and pens with me – I always do – so I started writing. It was during this time that I had my blaze of self-awareness, an epiphany with potential to change the way I do all things writing. I realized a truth about myself: I am a serial writer.

se-ri-al  adjective  repeatedly committing the same offense and typically following a characteristic, predictable behavior pattern.

I’ve blogged about my quirks before, how I can’t help but need just the right pen combined with just the right notebook, sometimes just the right music for each separate project, and never changing the combinations until the project is done. Again and again, repeating the habits with each new endeavor. Serial behavior. Thing is, it’s not what I’m writing about this time.

se-ri-al  noun  a novel, story or play appearing in regular installments, such as on television or radio or in a magazine or newspaper.

Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Since May of 2011, I’ve been part of a unique group of writers from around the world, called WriterLot. What sets this group apart from our countless predecessors and peers is our mission and its execution, which is to provided readers with a brand-new piece of short-form writing every single day, for free. WriterLot members have fluctuated in number from 12 to 16 at any time, with the optimal norm being 14 so that each member appears on the same day every two weeks. I have every-other Wednesday. Members have come and gone, special guests have become full members, full members have gone on hiatus, others have returned, still others have stepped-up to fill schedule gaps above and beyond their normal offerings.

Throughout all of this there have been, I believe, around eight of us who have never fluctuated for more than a day. I happen to be one of them. That is a lot of original pieces on a very regular basis. As webmaster for WriterLot, I name all the web page files; I use initials to identify the writer for me, followed by a four-digit consecutive number. My latest piece is boop0084. That’s 84 short stories and/or serial episodes every other week, to the tune of something like 130k words, in just under three years.

After my initial run of individual short stories in 2011, I decided it might be fun to start something thematic, to connect individual stories to a greater arc. Like individual episodes of a television series, each offering would either end with its own tidy little arc conclusion, or with a cliffhanger, while still being part of a longer story. Without consciously realizing what it is I wanted to accomplish, I began to write serials.

First came the Turtleverse, with its time and space spanning characters and locations. Then came my obsession with a character from one of my not-WriterLot projects. His backstory became the year-long A Boy in Gray serial. After that, a few longer, 6k to 10k word stories, broken up into small, easily digestible chunks for five, six or seven episodes each. My latest series, Block 65, is the first time I planned on writing a serial from the outset. Without realizing that is what I’d been doing for two years, I fully intended to end every episode of Block 65 on a cliffhanger or open plot, like an old-timey pulp magazine or the nickel-a-show, Saturday morning cinematic offerings my father used to love as a kid.

So, this recent revelation is the moment it clicked in my mind that writing serial-style is how I’ve always done it, even before WriterLot. When writing novels, which is what I had been trying to do, I merely assumed each chapter should be like a television episode, as I mentioned before. I would give every chapter two or three exciting little scenes and end with a cliffhanger or tidy little arc ending to transition the overall story. Mind you, other than basic English and grammar classes, I’ve never actually had any formal creative writing training, so if what I’m writing here makes you think “um, yeah, everybody knows this”, my lack of actual writing education is from where my ignorance stems.

This is how I approached Paige 99, my current novel-in-progress. For ten chapters I moved things along at breakneck speed because I knew how each one should end from the outset. I quite literally wrote one chapter/episode at a time. Then I took a break from Paige 99. When I started up again, I just started writing. And writing. And writing. Then I realized I had to go back and figure out several chapter breaks after the fact. I tried to slog on, but I got bogged down in Paige’s girlfriend and mommy issues, and questioning who she is and who she wants to be. Then I stalled.

Finally, stuck at the bottom of a ditch in a raging blizzard, I figured out who I am as a writer. I’m a serial writer. Approaching chapters in an episodic fashion is how I keep pace, how I keep things exciting. It forces me to keep tight track of every word I’ve previously written. It forces me to make sure my research is always accurate, so as not to be contradictory later. It has made me a better writer than I ever thought I could be. It’s given me the confidence to write that last sentence, to realize I might actually be good at this stuff.

I am a serial writer, and proud to be so.

 

Haunted Houses

Written By: Jae - Mar• 08•14

On the morning before last Halloween, or Samhain if you prefer, there was a piece in a newspaper featuring the top twenty most haunted places in Britain. I’ve been to two of them; Ruthin Gaol and Plas Teg Mansion, both in North Wales. Given my past history I was nervous as we creaked across the old floorboards to the room where most sightings were reported, but I didn’t see, feel or hear anything strange whilst I was there.

I have had other experiences, though, that make me wonder how it all works.

The first house that husband-before-he-was-husband and I bought had a presence. She appeared at the top of the stairs and in our bedroom. I used to wake, heart racing a bit, with an image of a woman in my mind and the sense of being watched, but no animosity. There is a state called a hypnogogic state, that time between wakefulness and sleep, where people reportedly experience strange phenomenon and it could be argued that this is what I experienced. It’s strange though that I don’t consistently experience presences as I awake. They are not spread evenly through my life, regardless of location. I’ve observed, over the years, that first house of ours go up for sale with regular monotony; every eighteen months or two years. Perhaps it’s just that it’s the kind of house you buy as a first-time buyer.

One hotel in Dumfries and Galloway had a scarier presence, distinctly unfriendly, but nothing untoward happened other than a disturbed night’s sleep. The one place that truly scared me was a holiday place in France. It was a modern, well-appointed property, light and airy; definitely not your usual Scooby-Doo haunted house. The owner forgot to ask us for our breakages deposit when we arrived. What good luck, we thought.

There were eight of us. We all had separate unexplained experiences that we each dismissed, up until the point where we could no longer.  They were physical things, not just creepy feelings and wild imagination.

My watch disappeared from the shelf above the kitchen sink. I searched the bedroom as the first obvious place to look. No watch.  I checked with everyone. No watch. A couple of hours later, it lay across my pillow like a gift. Horrible smells wafted from one cupboard every so often. I accused my other half of fart-related pranks. One man’s half a bottle of after-shave ‘evaporated’ and shaving foam sprayed out by itself, in a cool room shaded with shutters. Some of us caught glimpses of a figure dressed in brown; I saw a small man in 20th Century infantry style uniform.

One afternoon, we returned from three hours at a market, to find the woman that we’d left behind chilling-out over coffee and a newspaper, shaking at the bottom of the garden. All the doors in the house had banged shut at the same time as our car tyres had crunched away over the gravel drive. She had climbed out of the kitchen window in her night-dress, with her newspaper, rather than dash through the hallway where the nasty sensations were strongest.

On our last night there, the contents of a box of matches—just enough to last until we left in the morning—disappeared. We came back from our evening meal to find the wall mirror lying face down on the tiled floor of the bathroom, beneath the wash hand basin, unbroken, string still attached and wall-hook still in place. Needless to say, it was another sleepless night. It is the only holiday ever where I couldn’t wait to go home.

We had another house where the property came with a previous owner’s walking stick hooked over the bottom of the stairs bannister. It was kind of cute, added to the history of the place so we left it there. It belonged. We loved the place. The combination of very steep stairs, children, and their insistence on playing with the stick led me to hooking it on a top kitchen cupboard. Well, the stick’s previous owner—Dolly—was not at all happy. Dolly let us know that she was distinctly annoyed. My eldest son stopped staying up to watch T.V. programmes by himself. He said the living room was creepy. The place was suddenly noisy; creaks and groans and rattles. I put the walking stick back, apologised and we made sure to say ‘hello’ to Dolly each time we came in. Things settled back down again.

Now, just in case you think I’m mad, or very impressionable, I contrast these experiences with a night spent wild-camping in a Scottish woodland. The place was truly dark at night away from the screened camp fire, and with the wild sounds around us (owls screeching, leaves rustling) and the smoke drifting, it ‘should’ have been scary, creepy, venturing out alone to answer nature’s call. But it wasn’t.  I’ve stayed in many places, old and new, where I haven’t felt presences or experienced strange goings-on; those are the exception rather than the rule.

I do wonder what these experiences are: an entity, an energetic echo, a thinning of the veil between dimensions or universes, an aspect of our own inner workings? I like the mystery.

Writers Are Different

Written By: Stephen Godden - Mar• 01•14

Writer are different...

Writers are different. Not from other people, not from other creative people, but from each other. In much the same way that there is more genetic variation within a population than there is between populations, there is more variation between writers than there is between writers and musicians, or writers and visual artists, or writers and architects, mathematicians, actors, scientists, designers, or any other of the myriad ways to be creative.

All of which are equally valid. Got that? There is no hierarchy of creativity.

Writers are people, just like everybody else, and they vary, just like everybody else. Their creativity is the same as all the other creative people in the world, but how they approach the craft of writing is individual to them, which makes them more different from other writers than they are from other creative people.

I believe that, in intellectual terms, creativity IS talent. Some children are born more creative than others. Some would call them talented (I would call them talented) while others refuse point blank to believe in talent, because to them that seems (I suppose, I don’t actually understand the thought process) unfair.

Life ain’t fair. Life is just life, and some people are built to run faster than others, some are stronger than others, some are more flexible than others. Why should creativity be any different. The outlier theory says that you simply have to practise something for 10 000 hours and you will master it.

Nope. You have to have natural ability too. It all starts with natural ability. If you don’t have the right body shape you can train all your life and you still won’t break the eleven second hundred metres, you still won’t be able to bench press five hundred pounds, and you still won’t be able to tumble and bounce along a sprung floor like a gymnast or acrobat. That is simple fact.

You need a natural ability, you need a body that is set up to do all those things. And then you hone it, day after day, week after week, come rain or shine, until you have mastered that native ability and become adept in your chosen sport.

Why should creativity be different? Why should the brain be different from the rest of your body? It’s that old nature/nurture debate again. I tend to believe that duality is a false one. I tend to believe any either/or statement is usually false. It’s why I’m agnostic.

Anyway, that was a bit of a digression to set up the terms of my actual argument.

Writers are different. There is no one single way to write and anybody who tells you that there is only one way to write is an idiot. Seriously, a complete nincompoop who has never really thought about the writing process in anything other than the most superficial of ways.

If they are writers then they are saying ‘This is what I do. This is what works for me. Therefore this is the only way to do this thing called writing.’

If they aren’t writers (and there are an awful lot of non-writing writing gurus out there) then they are saying, ‘I don’t actually know what I am talking about, but if I make it sound simple then I can make it sound easy. And if I make it sound easy then people who don’t want to put in the 10 000 hours to hone their ability will listen to me because I am offering them a short-cut.’

There are no short-cuts. Sorry, but they don’t exist.

(From now on I am talking about Fiction Writers, so when I say writer I mean somebody who writes fiction).

And now we come to it.

The planner/pantser debate.

(Rubs hands together, rolls shoulders, grins at the monitor).

We’ve established that writers are different from each other, that they are as varied as the world in which they exist. That is a given.

So why is there even a planner/pantser debate? What does it matter HOW a writer gets a story written, so long as the story works? What does it matter if their method is different from your method?

What does it matter?

It doesn’t.

Not at all.

All that matters is the story.

There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers in the world.

And there is no duality of pantsing and planning. It is not an either/or question. It is a continuum. It runs from pantsing on the left (the side sinister) to planning on the right (the side anal). Most writers are sinisterly anal, a mix of just getting the words down and having some idea of where the words are going before they start.

Some writers need to know the end before they write the beginning. Some writers need to plan out every plot point and character interaction in exhaustive detail. Some writers stick a few signposts up so they don’t get lost on the way. And some writers just start writing without a clue of where the story is going.

It is a diverse writer-line of independent methods like integers on the number line.

Writers are different, so stop arguing about the ‘best’ way to write and start discussing what works for you.

Oh and I am pretty far over to the side sinister, pretty much a pure pantser, which is why the false debate is so irritating to me. I don’t disparage planners (OK, the ‘side anal’ might be considered a disparagement, but it’s more of just a joke. I could call pantsing the ‘side messy’ if you like) but I have certainly been disparaged by planners.

And they normally end up going all ad hominem on my arse. I’ve been called a liar, because obviously I must be lying about my writing method to make myself look cool (at least I think that is the thought process). I’ve been called deluded, which is still being called a liar, except in that case I am lying to myself. I’ve had long arguments with people where they call planning ‘plotting’ and then argue that I am plotting so therefore I am not a pantser; yeah, no comment (there were a load of comments at the time, but who has the time for that nonsense).

Let me make this clear.

I don’t give a damn how another writer chooses to create their stories. I only care about the end-result. Does the story work? That’s it.

If you need to plan then plan. There is nothing inherently more creative in just diving into a story and pantsing the hell out of it. Just as there is nothing inherently better in how individual sportspeople prepare for their events. There are just things that work for them that may not work for others.

All writers are different, and some of them are arseholes. Try not to listen to them, or your heart might give out halfway down the story-track.

 

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Book Breaking Work

Written By: Gary - Feb• 24•14

In the previous blog Janet Allison Brown told us about the plotting and pantsing approach to writing. I’d like to explore preparation for either approach to writing a little more.

Yesterday I phoned Stephen Godden, pantser extraordinaire, and told him about a problem some two thirds of the way into a book I wrote a couple of years ago – but am not happy with. It’s a good book, but like quite a few of mine, needs to be put away until I’ve lost all emotional connections with it and can return with a relatively objective head.

The ending is totally naff and needs thoroughly rewriting. Bits of the story are too complicated, don’t make sense and need sorting out. Stephen, very wisely, pointed out that problems with the ending of a book are often the result of a fault in the beginning. But in this case the problem was the result of pantsing – which has a weakness of sometimes causing things to become too complicated and unbelievable.

Pantsing is fine, it’s great. it’s spontaneous and exciting. I once saw a first chapter Stephen had written and I said, ‘I can’t wait to see what happens next.’ He replied, ‘Neither can I.’ We both had problems with manuscripts at the time. They were the result of ideas tumbling out and causing us to think, ‘Great idea… but how the hell does that work?

Not naming any names, a writer wrote a book a few years ago. It was a massive seller and the core idea was sufficiently strong to support another book. This too was a massive seller. The author went on to write a third – and things started to go wrong. By the fourth everything was a shambles. The core idea was too weak to develop and ended up contradicting itself to the point that the last book effectively rubbished the first.

The core idea(s) can be why countries are fighting, how the magic system, technology, philosophy work, and has to be thought through and rigorously tested until it proves it cannot fail under scrutiny or as a result of being developed.

You never know if your book is going to surprise you and rocket in sales – with your audience clamouring for more.

A pure pantser has to do this after writing the book, because the technology etc, emerges as the story is written. A huge amount of reworking is often involved to make it all believable and to give the reader depth. Most writers use a combination of plotting and pantsing and should have core ideas and systems sussed before striking the keyboard for the first time.

Either way, it’s a really good idea to have your core ideas and systems thoroughly thought out beforehand. It’s going to save you time, and tears of frustration. I also spoke to several other authors during the day and told them the core idea, the “what, how and why” of a book that’s bullying me into being written. This turned out to be very useful indeed.

All of them said it was strong enough and the bonus was that none said this idea had come up in their experience.

So, do think things through thoroughly, and talk your ideas over before writing. If you don’t, a colossal flaw may develop, or someone will say, ‘That’s too like a book I’ve already read’, and you have a lot of work and/or despair.

Now, with the idea thought through and tested by some serious story makers, it’s full steam ahead for another book. I doubt millions of copies will sell, but with the help of my skilled friends I’m ready for anything.

 

 

 

 

 

To pants or not to pants

Written By: Janet Allison Brown - Feb• 15•14

Writers can be superstitious folk. They only write on a certain brand of paper, or use a particular pencil. They can’t ‘create’ through a keyboard; they can’t write without music.

My own brand of superstition was this: I can only create a story once. If I spoke the ideas out loud; if I did practice runs; if anybody read the lines before they were finished—all of these things killed my story dead.

I even believed—heaven help me—that if I thought out the story too much in advance, this would impede the creative process. As if the creative process were some mystical communion with my psyche that must remain independent of conscious thought.

After several days of thinking but not too much, and processing ideas but not consciously, I would Sit Down To Write, palms sweating, breath hitching, heart galloping. Look at me—I am creating!

And once I was finished, that was it. The job was done, the story told, the mystic process complete.

Chortle.

It’s a job

Most of us just need a few years in the wilderness followed by the company of other writers to get over ourselves and understand that writing is a job. It has its mystical side but so do lots of other jobs. Mostly it’s about methodology, getting words down on paper, and meeting deadlines. Mostly it’s pretty hard work. Mostly you don’t turn out a perfectly formed story first time round—you write and rewrite and rewrite again.

And that’s before an editor gets anywhere near your story.

My superstitious self told me that writing was like hatching an egg: a period of gestation followed by the delivery of a perfectly formed, polished object. Experience has taught me that writing is like giving birth to a human child: what you deliver is a wailing, pooping baby which might contain the seeds of something wonderful, but will require a whole of rearing and raising before it delivers on its promise.

The sow’s ear

I wrote my first novel as a pantser. As in, I flew by the seat of my pants. I had one Big Central Idea and a few themes to explore. I had a key character in mind, but no real idea of what to do with her in order to deliver my themes. I had no plot, in other words. I was certain that knowing the plot in advance would stifle the creative process.

I began to write. My protagonist wandered around a bit, doing stuff, learning stuff, meeting people. New characters emerged to test her mettle and teach her things. It was all very nice and quite interesting, and some of my themes were, indeed, emerging. I stopped writing at a convenient point and that was me finished; I had written A Novel.

Except there was no real story. No tension, no outcome, no achievement. Just a bunch of stuff happening (known in the industry as BOSH). My heroine had discovered who she was, my themes were mostly delivered, if a bit tortuously, but there was no sense of excitement or a problem overcome.

I rewrote bits of it, creating tension here and there, planting problems in my heroine’s way. I changed this and that. I sliced out scenes, inserted new ones. I scrapped a few characters. My nice characters became a little less nice, my mildly unpleasant ones became rotten.

Over the course of weeks and months, I ripped the story apart every which way to Sunday, and put it back together again. Again and again. You know that expression about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? This felt like making a ball gown out of a sow’s ear.

It took me four months to write my novel. And then it took two years to repeatedly take it apart and do it properly.

Afterwards, I promised myself I’d do it differently next time. No more sow’s ear stuff; I was going for a roll of silk and a Vogue pattern.

The Vogue pattern

Let me just say this. Some people are natural born pantsers. Some people can take that sow’s ear, lay it on the floor, cut it this way and that, add bits, sew on sequins, and put their creation straight out onto the catwalk.

It can be done. But not by me.

I approached my next novel very differently.

I started with the premise that all stories are about a quest. Then I looked at the stages of the hero’s journey (thank you GCSE English Lit syllabus)—in other words, the steps on the way to finding the Holy Grail. They are:

  • The ordinary world
  • The call to adventure
  • Refusal of the call
  • Meeting the mentor
  • Crossing the threshold
  • The test
  • Approach to the inmost cave
  • The ordeal
  • The reward
  • The road back/resurrection
  • Return with the elixir

I used this list as the backbone of my story. I wrote out the list in column A on an Excel spreadsheet. In column B, I wrote a paragraph of plot against each item on the list. In each subsequent column I added more and more detail.

Then I created lists of characters and plotted their entry and exit points onto the spreadsheet. I went on adding flesh to the bones of the story, and after weeks of this, I was finally ready to start writing.

You would think this approach stifled all creativity. You would think that it reduced the process of writing to a kind of paint-by-numbers exercise. That’s certainly what I would have thought.

But the opposite happened.

Freed of the requirement to construct plot as I went along, to remember what had happened so far and make up what comes next—freed from these constraints, I was able to concentrate on what was going on. I could see the story playing before my eyes—I could describe actions and reactions, discover what my characters were really made of, investigate contradictions and nuances I simply wouldn’t have had time or the brainspace to even see if I was worrying about what came next. It was intensely liberating.

Smelling the roses

The end result might well be the same, whichever process you favour. To some degree it’s just a question of whether you put the spadework in at the beginning, or at the end; whether you spend more time planning, or revising.

Is my second novel much better than my first because of my different approach? I’m not certain but I suspect that, technically, it’s better.  More robust. There’s more happening. Does it make for a better reader experience? I’m not yet sure but it certainly made for a better writing experience.

It might be exciting to set out on a journey without a map, with no idea of what’s ahead, but you have to keep your wits about you; you can’t stop to smell the roses. With a map in your hand, you get to not only smell the roses, but plant, water, grow, cut and stick them in a vase. You can afford to stop and look at the buildings, the stones of the alleyways, the texture of the waterways.

You can really concentrate on what’s going on.

Of course, the process of writing is different for everyone. Pantsers are generally passionate folk that defend their methodology to the death and give ample proofs as to the success of pantsing. Planners do the same for planning. No one is right or wrong. But as a writer, it’s as well to be aware of your options, and find out which one suits you best.

As for me, there’ll be no more sweating palms, no more writing as performance art. Next time round I might start with a five-act structure, or maybe a three-act structure—there are lots of places to start. Whatever I do, I’ll be working to a plan.

Authenticity and a writer’s responsibility

Written By: Jae - Feb• 08•14

There has been, for me, a certain tension when writing; between the stories themselves, what a reader wants and will buy, and my need to live consciously. I hesitate to voice the latter for fear of sounding like a self-righteous prig. I don’t know what is the right way to live, as a prescriptive formula that everyone should follow. I don’t even know what is right for me. I stumble along, falling over things and adding each event to my ever-renewing code but it is a strong driver of mine.

Living right in this world, for me, includes ensuring that anything that I write, contributes to the sum of human experience without, as a friend put it, “polluting the psychic atmosphere”. I have an obligation to ‘do no harm’. There is a danger, of course, in holding this perspective, a danger of arrogance and of unforeseen consequences, so it is something to hold lightly, I think, but still it is there.

To capture the reader, a story needs rising tension, needs the characters to face peril of some sort (physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual) and needs to reflect real-life, even in fantasy worlds. Real-life can be harsh, bloody and painful. To feel joy, we have to have felt sorrow. Therein lies the rub. The temptation, to keep on upping the ante in the name of tension and thus taking the tale into gratuitous violence, horror or sex, is very real.

Stories, to be captivating, have to have authentic characters that reflect that life isn’t black and white – in every ‘baddie’ there is some good or, at the very least, a reason for his or her ‘badness’. Badness or evil is in the eye of the beholder every bit as much as beauty is. In every ‘goodie’ are flaws. It’s the human condition. No-one is perfect, we all have our blind-spots and so must our characters.

So, how does one write a story that is authentic and that meets a reader’s expectations whilst not “polluting”, without stepping over that line into abuse of power; the voyeuristic, the titillating, the inflammatory? Or, in a counter-position, without writing in a way that white-washes reality, covers over the cracks and pretends that everything in the garden is rosy, which, to my mind, is just as much a pollution of the psychic atmosphere.

My answer? I try to be honest in the writing. What would this character do next? How would they speak in the real world? What are they feeling? Where does this behaviour spring from? Is this necessary to the telling of the story? I do my research (with a little help from my friends at times) on the things about which I write, trying to access different perspectives. Some of that research is grim.

In Stillness Dancing, there are hard-hitting, violent events and a few people have told me they almost didn’t read the book because of that. I worried that I was adding to the pain in the world. The events are true to the situation and the characters, reflecting the reality of that part of the world. There is also beauty in that part of the world. This is real-life. Wherever we go on this planet, beauty sits beside ugliness, kindness beside cruelty and love beside hate.

Sometimes our characters have to say or do things that we find abhorrent, whether it is casual workplace misogyny or torture. Initially I found that a tough call—putting myself at the centre of a psychopath, or a mid-life-crisis husband, or even an inter-dimensional demon—both in terms of holding that space, and concerns about others’ perception of me via my characters.

That character-centredness has, however, had surprising pay-offs, outside of contributing to the authenticity of the story. I believe that using this approach—the writer’s equivalent of method acting—acts as a kind of self-limiting container, keeping it real. I write only what is needed for the story, no more, no less.

What is the reality of a car bomb? It is blast impact, dense black smoke, raging fire, scattered body parts. What is the reality of desert nomad living today? It is knife-edge fragility. Neither are glamorous nor exciting, in reality. No glorification.

Being my characters has also broadened my outlook, made me less certain, less knowing. I have opened my eyes, dropped into the space where there is no such thing as a single truth.

Going back to my original concern, keeping it real does not pollute the psychic atmosphere. Authenticity prevents us from either idealization or demonization. My hope is that it leads to understanding and from there, to change.

Modern YA as post-innocence fiction

Written By: Louise - Jan• 26•14

There is a popular misnomer that young adult fiction is concerned with rites of passage or ‘coming of age’. Perhaps there is still some children’s fiction which does this— middle grade perhaps? — but young adult fiction has moved far beyond representing young people’s first foray into the adult world. Love, loss, mortality, betrayal, destiny are all covered but what novel doesn’t look at such issues? No, young adult, if we can reduce it to a single purpose — which is probably unhelpful anyway — is rather about having the power to change one’s world.

You could say – as one very informed writer recently argued to me – that self-determination and the power to change one’s world is an ineluctable part of becoming adult, and therefore fits into the rites of passage formula. In reality though we know that many people, whatever their age, never manage to gain control of their own lives, held back by circumstance, family or socio-economics. Few adults would claim to have the power to change the world we live in significantly.

For the young, however, those on the brink of emerging into careers and power, the ambition to right the wrongs of their parents’ generation is strong and bright.

The idea of ‘coming of age’ is built on the presupposition that young adult heroes and heroines start off as children and emerge through the novel into adulthood. This isn’t borne out by the books which are on their way to becoming classics of the YA genre, however. Look at Pullman’s hero Matt in The Subtle Knife, already caring for a dementia-ridden mother. His last job before embarking on his adventures is to make sure her clothes are washed and she is safely ensconced with a neighbour.

Twilight’s Bella Swan is established early on as the parent to her flighty childish mother, and indeed cooks and cleans for her father. Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars has already been dealing with that most adult concern of impending death long before the novel opens.

In Gillian Philip’s Bad Faith, much like Stephen Chboksy’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the heroes do not move towards a loss of innocence but rather discover how their innocence has already been savaged by the corrupt elements of the adult world.

The one thing young adult heroes all have in common is the hope and dawning power that they can challenge and change a world which is not fit for them. They are already adult in every way that conventional ‘coming of age’ novels would consider important —they take responsibility for the care of their families, or they deal with distinctly non-childlike concerns. Suicide, instability, illness, abandonment. This is one reason why so many main characters have suffered the loss of one or both parents, through death or estrangement. They are already outside the safe cocoon that most of us associate with childhood and to a great extent fend for themselves.

Sex is also misunderstood by critics examining these books. Sure, teenage readers like their frisson and their glint of erotica – who doesn’t? Show me an adult book which doesn’t include some chemistry between prospective lovers. But the pendulum has swung on this too. Teenagers today are not innocent about sex whether or not they have practised themselves. Often teen novels are about the taming and normalising of sex rather than the obsessive trembling on the brink. The vampire sub-genre captures this well. Bram Stoker’s vampires represented the ruinous, seductive power of penetrative sex which put your soul in jeopardy. But modern vampires are rational, sensitive and compliant – the unicorns tamed by the maiden’s hand. Sex in and of itself has already been tamed and owned by this generation of readers.

So what is young adult fiction for? It is the exploration of how far a new shining generation can change the world around them, whether to save the people they love, overthrow the corrupt government, or escape the clutches of fanatical religion. Can they be the change they want to see in the world? It is about whether Hazel can put her mind at rest about what will happen to her family when she is gone; or whether Matt and Lyra can overthrow the tyranny of both religion and science and start their world afresh.

The Hunger Games is a good example of this young hero as avatar of change. Katniss Everdene is already an adult – she provides for her family, she deals with her bereaved mother’s extreme depression and she volunteers herself to save the sister she has effectively raised as a daughter. But these books are an exploration of how far that change can go and disillusionment on the part of each generation is an intrinsic part of that process of societal shift. Katniss does manage to stop the ritual Hunger Games, but she finds one leader is as corrupt as the next, she becomes no more than a poster girl for the revolution, and she fails to save her sister. The third instalment, Mockingjay, was hated by many fans mainly because its author Suzanne Collins answers the question of how much power Katniss would have too faithfully and truthfully. Not only can she not achieve all she would hope but she is herself broken in the process.

The formula which equates YA with rites of passage is reductive and ultimately not useful. The essential process of these characters is not internal but external. They are studies in what we can achieve, an embodiment of hopes that our lives will be purposeful. And that when death comes we will go as heroes, not victims.

Telling the truth

Written By: Janet Allison Brown - Jan• 06•14

Many years ago I was having dinner with friends. We were far from home in a transient environment peopled by research scientists and academics. My hosts were a couple recently married in order that they could travel together. I remember realising, half-way through the meal, that he adored her, and she despised him. All of which is irrelevant to my point, but serves to illustrate how vividly I remember the evening, almost a quarter of a century later.

The woman was an editor, like me, which was thrilling, because I was a little lonely and out of my depth in that society, and our shared profession implied a similar background and shared interests.

Unfortunately, she was exactly the kind of editor I had sought this out-of-the-way corner of the world to avoid becoming. If you’ve never met a professional editor, let me just say that people who make a living out of correcting what other people have written are generally not known for their … um … humility. You might admire their skill but you wouldn’t want to live with one of them, much less be one. I am (I hope) an exception to prove the rule.

True to  pedantic type, the woman curbed and corrected her husband’s conversation throughout the meal, which was a shame because he was a gifted geologist and a nice man. Finally, with the arrival of pudding, Mrs Editor turned the conversation to literature and that’s where we stayed for the rest of the evening.

We talked about the Bible, and the scientists at the table duly ridiculed and dismissed it. I said I liked the stories, and they said yes, but you could hardly believe them, and I got flustered because no, of course I didn’t believe them, I didn’t believe the stories as such, but I was aware of something humming inside the stories that felt remarkably true. I didn’t say that, but that’s what I felt.

Mrs Editor was not flustered at all. Of course they’re true, she said, treating the assembled company to her most withering tone.

But you’re not even religious, said her husband patiently.

What’s that got to do with it? she demanded. Bible stories are true the same way that myths are true. They’re the most truthful thing there is.

This unremarkable conversation affected me so profoundly that here I am, two and a half decades later, recalling every detail of the whole evening surrounding it, even though I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what happened last month. (Apart from Christmas; I remember that.)

At the time it changed my world in all the wrong ways. Myths were real! They were true! It was all possible—monsters and gods and God and heroes and battles and Prometheus stealing fire and Jesus on a donkey. All the clean edges and certainties fell away and for many years my world was inhabited by the possibility of gods and monsters—shadows flickering on the cave walls in the firelight.

Over time, I’ve come to understand what Mrs Editor meant. The myths aren’t true. The Bible stories aren’t true. But they tell the truth.

Stories tell the truth. That’s what they’re for.

I recently read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the author’s cut. (Completely uncut in other words; many passages deleted by the editor in the original publication had been reinstated. I wonder if this tells you more about the editor or about Neil Gaiman?) I thoroughly enjoyed the story, even the disjointed bits that really should have been left out.

And then, unexpectedly, towards the end of the book, I found this passage:

‘One describes a tale best by telling the tale. … The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. … The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory [itself], and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map which is the territory.’

In case that’s a little garbled out of context, here’s the point I believe Gaiman is making. This truth we all want to know—the meaning of life, how the world was created, how our various tribes appeared on earth, the nature of God, how man discovered fire, why we are as we are and do as we do—this truth is a huge, unwieldy thing, dependent upon time and context and language and the limitations of the human mind. This truth, this territory, is impossible to grasp. We need a map, lots of maps, to help us navigate the territory. All the stories we tell—those are the maps. They’re not the truth, but they tell the truth. They show us the way through the vast expanse and mystery of life, tell us where we have been, and where we might go.

Do we need the maps? Does it matter how or even whether we navigate the territory? Hell yes! It matters because we live out our lives according to the map we hold—according to the set of stories we hold in our hands. Again, Gaiman gets it in a nutshell:

‘People believe… It’s what people do. They believe. … People imagine, and people believe. And it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.’

Not only do we navigate truth using the story-maps; by acting accordingly, we create the truth, too. We discover the world, and create it at the same time.

Religion is a metaphor. Which is why religion is truth, why myth is truth. It shows us the way; we believe it; we act accordingly; the truth is reinforced.

Which is, I believe, what pedantic Mrs Editor told me a quarter of a century ago, and Neil Gaiman explained to me a few weeks ago.

When I was a student, the question arose as to how useful it was to study English Literature. Was it worth the resources, the money, effort and time, to allow people to sit around examine stories in minute detail, instead of learning to save lives, cure poverty and disease, construct buildings or computers?

I was young, then, and had no words to explain what I felt—that there are few things more important. That stories do save lives, help cure all ills, and prompt the building of whole societies. It’s taken me an awful long time to find the words to explain why, even to myself, but I’m finally making headway.

The film-maker and the sacred desecration of text

Written By: Louise - Dec• 28•13

My son bought me a library book for Christmas. It has a beautiful old linen cover, date stamps in the back and a message warning me to keep this book clean. Should I find any annotations, pencil marks or other desecration of the text, I should inform the librarian at once.
A strange and stingy present from a loving son who knows me well? Not at all. This book is one of the most innovative novels I have seen in a long time. Called ‘S’ and created by JJ Abrams of Star Trek fame, it is a wonder of metafiction, a glorious exploration of all books can be but also of all that we can do, all that we are inspired to do, and all that we reveal of ourselves when we hold a physical novel, tight in our grubby pencil-wielding little hands.
S is a novel within a novel. The book, as you slide it out of its box, is purportedly Ship of Theseus by VM Straka. But as you read, you do not only get Straka’s story. You get the stories of two readers, Jennifer, a college senior, and Eric, a disgraced grad student, who are each making their own journeys through the text and through life. Their lives, personalities, musings, whimsies and relationship flower in the footnotes they leave for one another. Every page is inscribed with handwritten messages, a running dialogue, critical discussion and commentary.
They leave each other stories, essays – written out on A4 foolscap and folded within the pages – old photographs suggesting what the characters may have looked like, postcards and many more mementos of their studies. I haven’t begun to explore the world of VM Straka, or the world of his readers, so I can’t yet tell you how their stories unfold. From diving into pages at random – for it is that kind of book – I can tell you they are clever, passionate and funny. (Next to one highlighted section about a character wanting to unwind time, one comments:
“Regret – maybe hinting about some regrets of Straka’s own.”
“Again: you have to be careful. Not everything a writer writes is about the writer.”
“I’d ask you to say that 10 times fast but it would just be 10 times as condescending.”)
A few thoughts spring immediately to mind. The first is how thrilled I am to find writers – and I should mention here Doug Dorst, apparent co-creator — who are prepared to do something truly new with the form. Who want to explore, directly and creatively, the relationship between reader and text, the way books bring us together, the way art does not happen in the words but is continually reborn in the alchemy between words and individual minds.
The second is that if this book had not been the product of a Hollywood superstar, I doubt it would ever have been published by traditional publishers. It doesn’t surprise me that Bad Robot and Melcher Media (which sells itself as a ‘storytelling company’) take top billing on its production. This book is complex, expensive, a triumph of ideas and ingenuity over a world which says entertainment can’t be intellectual and the intellectual isn’t entertaining.
The fiction runs even to the cover, the copyright page, the hand-written fonts, the fading inks, the photocopied letter in German, from Straka himself, postmarked Upsala.
The third is that, as novelists, we have been schooled in the one of the most traditional story telling forms by a man who makes movies. I feel admiration, embarrassment and downright jealousy in equal parts.
This has been written by people who understand how to tell stories; understand how to criticise and explore literature; understand how to create a forgery so perfect if you found it in a library you would take it to the librarian and suggest they buy a new copy… And most importantly people who understand what a book is. A journey, a meeting point between minds, a shared territory that is always new and always waiting…
Enhanced e-books? You can keep ’em. Abrams has just rekindled my love of paper and ink.
If you want to see the trailer for S, watch it here.
Happy Christmas x