Crafting a story

I’m a firm believer that writing is a craft. IMHO it has skills that can not only be learnt, but also honed through practice. The analogy I use most often is that writing is a bit like carpentry. I refer to my early books as “slightly wonky tables” as I was practising when I wrote them. Actually the later ones are more like perfectly functional tables that work but aren’t sufficiently accomplished or special for publication.

Anyway, one thing that arises from this is a source of friction between me and The Wife. I tend to watch a film or read a book and consciously notice the salient points. Like who the protagonist is, where they meet their conflicts in the story, how the writer avoids it all being formulaic. For me this is like looking at a cabinet, and not only admiring it, but also looking at the quality of the joints, the choice of woods and appreciating how it was made. But I’ve learned not to point any of this out to The Wife while we’re in the middle of a film!

I mention films a lot because the books that I’ve found most useful on story structure come from the world of screen-writing. They are quite easy to translate into novel format because they work with the basics of story telling that have been true for thousands of years.

As an example, I went to see Logan last night. I won’t review it here as it’s only just out and I’ll try to avoid spoilers! But, I noticed straight away that it was very nicely written. We got straight to the protagonist, established what his life was like, and within the first 25% of the film we were sure what his objective was and who the bad guy was. What I liked was that the writers gave Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart plenty of time to be their characters. When we were between action sequences (it is a superhero film) they could just do what they do best with a good script. Even the side plots were all neatly dovetailed in together by the end.

One reason it avoided being formulaic was by breaking the mould of a strict structure. For example was that there was one consistent bad guy, and antagonist. But throughout the film, he gained depth. He brought in new associates and his boss turned up as well. It wasn’t just Wolverine vs Bad Guy for two hours – his adversaries, while maintaining a clarity of purpose, changed and evolved.

So that’s an example of how I view a film. Of course, I enjoy it very much. I love being told a good story and seeing actors work their craft in concert with everyone else, directors, writers, producers, etc. But I also like to see behind the scenes, watch the cogs turn and learn what I can.

Being a house husband I (sometimes) have my days free. Recently I’ve been making more of an effort to switch off Facebook and go through the DVD collection and actively watch a film to study how it was written.

How do you approach this subject? Do you just get an idea and write or do you plot? How actively do you watch films and/or read books? Please comment below – I’d love to know what my readers think!


Enjoying being a writer

I have one completed novel and I’m working on the sequel. I’m currently in the process of looking for either an agent or a publisher which entails a lot of waiting. I am still writing and putting words down – I should crack the 10,000 barrier in the next day or two! But, maintaining a positive frame of mind I know that once I start to get contracts signed, life will get busier and I’ll be less free to pick and choose what I do and what I work on. So at the moment, I am enjoying being a writer.

I’m currently re-reading one of my favourite books, Stephen King’s The Stand. It’s weird because I know it’s not SK’s favourite but popular with his fans. Viewing writing as a craft, I’d like to draw an analogy with carpentry. Before I started studying writing technique, I’d look at a book, like a table or cupboard. I’d know what I liked and what I didn’t – what worked and what didn’t. Then as I learnt, I’d read books, but I’d be looking at the joints, the carving. Whether the angles were true or not, how it was all put together. Even more so when I was watching TV I’d start to see the underlying structure of the plot and character development.

Now, finally I seem to have gone through that and can reread a book (like the Stand) and see how it is put together. I can enjoy reading it but now my enjoyment is deeper because I know why it is good. It’s like seeing a table or cupboard, knowing it to be useful and beautiful. But also going beyond that point to appreciating the choices the craftsman made, and why they made them. Then, wrapping all those feelings up to an overall appreciation of the work.

I’m guessing that this what is meant by reading as a writer. Not just reading to fill the time but reading to see what else is possible, what other people have done – studying the work to learn from it.

The other thing that I love is that books and reading seem to me to be as natural as breathing. But every now and again something happens to open my eyes to the fact that other people are different. I bumped into an acquaintance the other day and she saw that I had a paperback with me as I was intending to eat alone. But instead she started chatting about the Stephen King novel she was reading. So she went from an acquaintance to a friend. In this day of multiple TV channels, online streaming of films, automatic recorders and all the other temptations of the internet, reading is being marginalised. Meeting someone else who chooses to read over any other form of entertainment is meeting a kindred spirit – even more so if you share the same taste in books!

Have any of you met other readers and formed a bond like that? I get perplexed when I meet people who don’t read so it’s lovely to meet those who do! I know I have other writers who read this blog and I wondered what you think? Do you analyse books as you read them and does that make them less or more enjoyable?

More about structure and plot

I’ve just finished reading Vogler’s Writer’s Journey (Mythic Structure for Writers) and am in the process of absorbing it. It is a complicated but thorough blueprint for what sells, what readers find satisfying and want to go back to. Actually, that is slightly inaccurate – Vogler’s main experience is in Hollywood, so it is really a guide to writing and producing films that cinema goers and DVD buyers will find satisfying. But the essence of it is the craft of telling an engaging story, regardless of the medium you use to communicate that story. So, once you’ve analysed the difference between novel writing and screen writing, it is a very useful volume.

Interestingly, it doesn’t only apply to fiction. I was watching an incredibly moving documentary – Not Dead Yet: Jason Becker – and I realised it almost perfectly followed the structure that Vogler outlined. I noticed this when I saw a scene in the middle where they had people reacting to news of Jason’s death (as I’m sure you can guess from the title, they were misinformed). But they put this section in just the place that Vogler suggests you place a death and resurrection scene.

So I am now convinced that Vogler’s 12 steps on the character’s journey works for film. And I’ve also read about plot structure for books. Basically, it’s the same, but the one I’ve read breaks it down into three stages, with two doorways in between the sections. The doorways do match up to steps on the journey, so apart from the placing, it’s not too different. And the key thing about Vogler’s plan is that it has to be dynamic and flexible. If you stick to it rigidly, then your work will be wooden.

A look at two of the most archetypal film series – Star Wars and Lord of the Rings – reveals how to layer and use the template to add depth and complexity. Multiple characters all have their own journeys that overlap and interact with each other. While Han Solo is on the path to being less self-centred and working more for the group, Luke Skywalker is learning to become a Jedi and resolving his issues with fatherhood. Another layer of complexity is added when you consider that each film in a series has to stand alone, with a beginning, middle and end, but also the whole series has the same over-arching structure. Even Darth Vader has his own character journey and development within the series.

In a sense, what I’m doing now is trying to forget what I’ve learned. Or rather, make it subconscious. Like driving a car, I don’t want to be always thinking, clutch, throttle, gears, I want to move to thinking I need to change gear, and eventually on to just driving naturally. That’s where I’m heading with my writing – to be aware of all the rules, and structure and plot, but at the back of my mind. Hopefully I’ll just be writing the story that needs to be told, and it’ll only take a few tweaks at the editing stage to make it into an engaging story.

I am also very interested in the layering effect of having even the minor characters following some sort of path. They may not being having a fully developed character journey, but that doesn’t stop them from growing and changing. Also, to convert a screenplay system into one for novels, I’m combining it with the traditional 3 part structure and the theory of having an increasing series of setbacks leading to a major crisis.

And, I am aware that there are seat of the pants writers out there, who just start at the beginning and work through to the end. In a way, I have more respect for them, because if they are successful (and Stephen King is the most famous who springs to mind) then they have a natural feel for what people want to read without having to resort to a structure.

What do you think? Is there a universal structure that applies to most media, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, book or film?

The Process of Novel Writing

When I was younger (more naive?) I thought that becoming an author would go something like this. I’d write a novel, by starting at the beginning and writing through to the end. Then I’d send three chapters and a synopsis off to some publishers, one would ask for the full manuscript and I’d get published. Of course, it didn’t take many rejection letters to realise that it was a lot harder than it looked!

Then along came firstly print on demand, closely followed by e-readers. (Did I mention that I’ve been writing a long time? I started on typewriters.) Now you could take your first draft and put it out there on the Internet and people would flock to you and buy it. Or not. Of course, marketing and publicity are the elephant in the room for the whole self-publishing game.

Now, feeling older and wiser, I’m approaching the whole business from a different perspective. I plan my novels, not down to a chapter by chapter, scene by scene level, but enough to know where the big plot points should be and what I want them to be. Then the writing process has changed – after many drafts I’ve sent my manuscript out to beta readers. Despite my best efforts, there remain many typos still to fix. Typos are funny beasts, I was reviewing the third beta readers and she had highlighted certain sentences. I had to read the sentence through several times and then check it word by word. Often it’s small things like ‘my’ instead of ‘me’ that Word can’t spot and I tend to read what I think I wrote instead of what’s there.

Once the typos have been done, I’m also looking at the bigger issues. Some of the readers have highlighted structural issues, mostly minor. So now I’m considering them and make some small changes.

I’m not feeling impatient to get on and get it sent out to agents or publishers. I know that I’ve changed and I feel that the world has changed as well. I now look at my manuscript and think that I’ve got one chance to make a first impression. I suspect there are very few agents who’d give a manuscript a second chance. So now, I want this to be as polished as it can be.

I think I’m also more realistic about the end-game as well. I don’t think that a publisher will write a huge advance cheque, and then after a few months start discussing cover art! I know that it will probably be a negotiation to and fro. I expect that they’ll want to see how I react to edits and suggestions to change the story. When I do get a deal, I expect that when I go through the edits and launch details I’ll also be working on the next book, or even the one after that! I see it as a process of overlapping jobs.

Somehow, this time, more than any other novel I’ve written I feel more engaged with the whole process, more willing to see it through, complete every stage. I even stayed up late last night finishing off the synopsis. (Which also helped me with the structure.) Well, the first draft, because I know it’s an important document, I know I’ll need to go over it several times until it’s just right. In a similar vein, I’ve signed up for a one day course on “pitching your novel” – just to make sure I make the most of my one shot.

What do you think? If you write have you found that your approach to the whole business of it has changed? Is it me or is it the industry that have changed?

Burning down Hogwarts!

Apologies to those of you who don’t read Harry Potter, but I am father to three boys, aged 4, 8 and 11 so it is common currency in our house. Thinking about the series of books (and films, etc.) I realised something. By the end of the book, a lot of things that were axiomatic in the universe were destroyed. A dragon literally smashes through the wizard bank, Gringotts, and the relationship between wizards and the goblins who run the bank is changed. Coming back to the title of the post, Hogwarts is hugely damaged in an epic battle between good and evil. In interviews, JK Rowling actually said she wanted to kill off a certain number of major characters to indicate the seriousness of the final conflict.

Moving away from the world of Harry Potter, I noticed the same thing in Lord of the Rings. The books concern themselves with the end of one age and the dawning of a new one. Elves leave Middle Earth after thousands of years, dynasties are re-established, the world changes. Even Star Wars is about the end of the Jedi order which stood for a thousand years, guaranteeing peace.

I know these three examples are fantasy or science fiction, but I think they touch on something. Any plot requires a level of threat or upset to the established order. It is one thing that separates literary from commercial fiction. In commercial fiction, often large external matters are at stake, in literary fiction, it is often more personal, internal affairs that are dealt with. In chick-lit again it is personal institutions that are under threat. Often these books will start with the breakdown of a marriage, or a jilting, or a death or redundancy. Not as earth shattering on a global scale, but on the scale of one life, they are seismic events.

For any book not to be dull, you need a hero you can identify with who is under threat. The traditional way to start a book is to introduce the hero, in his world, and then rock that world. Shatter some institutions, put him or her under pressure, and a plot starts to emerge.

This is the classic, planned out way to start a book. You still have to decide which event actually opens the book – usually it’s not the main disruption to the whole plot. Again, to return to Harry Potter, it starts with Harry being rescued after the death of his parents, which illustrates a disrupting event in his life. But then, it establishes his life with his aunt and uncle, before the second big disruption – the invitation to Hogwarts arrives. From there on, as in any plot, you have a series of misfortunes and set-backs before wrapping it up.

As I say, this pattern follows through most successful fiction. When we get bored, my eleven year old and I watch children’s TV and analyse the basic plot points. Even the simplest cartoon still has the basic plot that I’ve outlined above. It appears to be a universal blue-print that we, as human beings and as lovers of stories, seem to need.

I think for a writer it requires a certain kind of bravery, especially if you’re writing a big novel, with large themes. You have, even with a happy-ever-after ending, to set up a world, and a hero, and then put them through troubles and hard times.

Editing strategy

Everything I’ve read about editing suggests that you should write lots and then cut out the superfluous words to create tighter, leaner prose. I think Stephen King aims to lose at least 10% on the first draft rewrite.

I have a problem with this. Ever since I was at school, I’ve always been very terse when I write. In secondary school I turned in a half-page paper on the Northern Ireland troubles since 1916! Looking at the progress of my novel so far, I’m most of the way through the big plot points with only the final big finish to go and I’ve only written 24,000 words. But, for once I’m not worried, because I’ve decided to do things backwards. I’m going to slowly grow the book upwards from very little into a fully worked novel.

When I think about it, despite the fact that it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, it is a logical path. All my novels start with a simple idea or concept. Something which can be explained in a handful of sentences. From there, I might work up a blurb, and from there I’ll definitely write a synopsis. Then, I’ll break the synopsis down into chapters and acts. From here, my writing spreads out like a web, first into background pieces, then character bios, and finally a list of potential scenes. Once all this is done, I’ll start writing.

So, if the first draft is shorter, and subsequent drafts get longer, then it is just a continuation of this process. From a single sentence, in a sequence of steps, I will progress to a full length novel. This feels quite good to me as my initial drafts are in the form of ideas, scraps of conversation, scenes that immediately leap to mind. When I do the first rewrite, I’ll have a long list of jobs to do. I’ll need to add in details like the physical description, the weather, and other bits to set the scene and the tone of the book. I’ll need to join up the dots so that there is actually a sense of narrative rather than some disjointed scenes. And fill in all the gaps by doing research that would have slowed me down in the frenzy of first-draft writing.

A part of me wonders what it would be like if I published a slightly polished, but still pared down first draft. A series of scenes that leave the reader to do a lot of the work to understand what’s going on. I don’t think I will, because I have faith that I’ve got the right balance between leaving enough questions unanswered to keep the reader hooked, without leaving the reader so confused they give up!

As always, I’d welcome your thoughts and comments, especially from other writers!

Learning from published authors

I was lucky this morning, I caught John Grisham being interviewed on BBC Breakfast. The initial focus of of the interview was the fact that he’d sold 275 million copies of his books. But for an author, he gave some valuable insights into his success. He stated that he always knows the final scene before he starts writing a novel. He works it all out in advance, and even said the few times he cheated on the outline because he wanted to get onto writing the story then the book was a disaster and required a rewrite. That in itself was telling – he creates an outline, hones it properly and the writes it through from beginning to end. Bearing in mind that he started in 1989 and his latest novel is his twenty-seventh, he must be turning in one manuscript to his publisher every nine months more or less. That means he works phenomenally hard. In this interview he also said that his life was talking to lawyers and finding stories. He was quite open about the fact that there is a format for a suspense novel, you need engaging (not necessarily likeable) and strong characters, a plot with a surprise ending and sub-plots that you keep a track on and wrap up neatly. What impressed me most was that he is still working hard at his craft. He’s not only sold all those books, but he is a known name. Releasing his new novel in mid-November he’s instantly solved millions of Christmas present problems. But, he still took the time to come over to the UK, get up early and be charming on the Breakfast sofa. All this while turning out one book every nine months!

At the moment, I’m reading Resistance by Owen Sheers. He’s a local author and it’s set around where I live. He’s also a poet and this is his first novel. But what I really like about it is that you know where you are with him. He establishes straight off that this is an alternative history novel. The language is beautiful, descriptive and poetic. In the first few pages we learn that we’re going to have three points of view, and so far he’s stuck to all those rules. Also, he has a very neat trick. Somehow, he manages to twist the timeline, so he can drop in back-story and show you flashbacks. But it’s not clumsy – there’s no “She thought of how it all started…” followed by clumpy paragraphs full of the word “had”. To borrow his metaphorical language, it’s like a brook that runs with eddies and whorls that double back but still manages to go smoothly forward. It’s probably the best literary fiction I’ve read in a long time. A lot of lit-fic tends to sacrifice plot and character to language and form. But, alongside all the beautiful language, there are engaging characters and a gripping plot. It’s not action packed like an American thriller but stuff happens and you want to know what happens next.

Finally, I was stuck for something to read and picked up one my wife’s chick-lit books. (I’m not going to say what the book is. I believe that you should praise in public and criticise in private.) Now, I have a lot of time for chick-lit it’s just another genre with the same rules and formats as any other and done well it can produce really good books. But this one started off in the first-person. I find this hard to read and difficult to get right. But the author had a voice that was interesting and it seemed OK. Then ten pages in was one paragraph of third person present tense before flicking back to first person. I re-read it with an editor’s eye and really couldn’t see any point to that paragraph. Then she kept flicking between these two styles, first person and third person present. In my mind they are the hardest two to get right. Unlike the Owen Sheers (OK, I know I’m comparing chalk and cheese) the reader had no idea what was going to happen next. The ground hadn’t been properly prepared. My wife persevered a lot more and told me there was deus-ex-machina and also the overall theme was hammered in with no subtlety (something I’d picked up in the first few pages).

So that’s three authors that I’ve encountered recently with my more experienced eye, and what I hope I’ve learned from them. Mainly it seems to be establish early on a voice and a set of ground rules and communicate them to the reader. And work hard and keep going. I know John Grisham is a genre writer but anyone who’s sold that many books has to be worth listening to.

Comments please? What are you reading and learning from right now?