The Momentum Blog
Posted April 9, 2015 by Achala Upendran
Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite writers, not only for his ability to create creepy, chilling, utterly convincing mini worlds in his stories, but also because he talks so beautifully about the importance of his art and how he set about making it happen. In fact, he’s one of my favourite writers on writing, and makes the process sound both very accessible and magical at the same time. Curious paradox, but he pulls it off.
Anyway, in a now famous speech, Gaiman exhorted his audience to ‘make good art’. When life gets tough, he says, channel your energies towards creating something that will stand the test of time and make you forget about things. ‘Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art….Make it on the good days too.’
This is brilliant advice for two reasons: 1) Anything that tells aspiring artists to buckle down to their work is welcome and 2) some day, someone else facing a bad day will be grateful to you for having created that ‘good art’.
I’m sure this has happened to many readers. When the bad things happen, or terrible moods and times come around, sometimes the only thing that gets you through them is someone else’s ‘good art’. This happened to me a couple of years ago. I hit a really rough patch, emotionally speaking, in my postgrad years, and despite all the love and support of friends and family, the only thing that really pulled me through was a re-read and reconnection with the Harry Potter books, specifically, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
I don’t know what exactly it was about the book that spoke to me at that time, whether it was that I found a reflection of myself in the increasingly moody and troubled Harry, the crazed, trapped Sirius Black, or just the fact that it took me back to the time when I had first read it: my high school years when things seemed, from this distance, so much simpler. Whatever it was, it worked, and the connection that I reforged with the book, always my favourite in the series, became even stronger. Now there are new emotional overtones that I associate with it, and it’s become dearer than ever before.
I do have other favourites, a large number of them, (un)surprisingly, fantasy books. There’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, a childhood favourite that sticks with me through thick and thin; there’s ‘The Gathering Storm’, one of the last novels in the epic Wheel of Time series; there’s always, of course, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and last but not at all least, ‘The Book of Lost Things’ by John Connolly. I find that fantasy books, more than any other genre (for me), are able to communicate that sense of hope, of convincing me that things will get better simply because so much of their storyline and moral grounding is driven by the idea that if you believe enough, you can do anything. Even save the world.
Making good art is not, therefore, just a way for you yourself to get over the tough times; it’s a way to help someone out there in the wide world have a better day. And that’s why among the ton of things I’m grateful for, my favourite writers are up there on that list. If they hadn’t believed in themselves enough to sit down and create these worlds, getting through the tough times might have been a lot harder. And so, I will take Neil Gaiman’s advice, hoping that some day I can return the favour, and always, always thankful that when he was down and out, he took the trouble to make that good art, too.Tagged: Alice in Wonderland, art, book therapy, epic fantasy, Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, Lewis Carroll, neil gaiman, Wheel of Time, writing
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Posted March 26, 2015 by Eve Merrier
If characters stay the same their actions are usually predictable and stories can lack edge and excitement. That isn’t always a bad thing: Winnie the Pooh is always going to like honey and be gently philosophical. That’s his thing and it works for him. However, for humans, change is natural and inevitable as we adapt to new situations.
A classic way to show this is to have a character enjoy a thing, almost to the point of obsession at the beginning of the book, before abandoning it for more important things later on. This can be classed as Shifting Priorities. At the start Angela goes into every comic book shop she sees. At the end she passes one, pauses, and walks on, because she has to be somewhere more important.
A change of appearance can be used to similar effect. At the start of the book Julia polishes her shield each morning so she can have the shiniest armour. By the end it’s battered and filthy, but it’s still doing it’s job and she no longer cares.
Another way to demonstrate development is through Overcoming. We’ve established that Joe has a fear of public speaking. At the end of the book he has to rally a dissident army of apocalypse survivors. His ability to do this shows growth.
A character arc can be a skillful way of introducing a parallel Conflict: The character’s internal strife can mirror the conflict in the plot. This could be in the form of a necessary Moral Adjustment wherein the character must reconsider their ethical position. This could go either way: ‘good’ characters might have to compromise their ethics, or ‘bad’ characters might rethink their world domination plans because they adopt adorable children (I’m thinking Despicable Me here). When a morally questionable person softens, this can also be called Badass Decay. Don’t soften them up too much!
In the most convincing character arcs, change usually happens gradually, for example with a gradual erosion of long-held beliefs, or a slow building of confidence. The Coming of Age paradigm is one of the best places to see this.
Perhaps your character doesn’t need to change fundamentally, but only in the eyes of the reader. We’ll call this revealing Hidden Depths. Maybe Snape didn’t hate Harry so much after all…
Change to avoid:
Flanderization – when a character becomes defined by a prominent quirk or mannerism.
Character derailment – when a character does something that does not compute with what anyone knows about them so far with no decent motive.
Can you think of any good (or terrible) examples of character arcs?Tagged: Badass Decay, change, character arc, character development, coming of age, conflict, Despicable Me, fiction, good and evil, hidden depths, moral adjustment, Ned Flanders, The 100, writing
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Posted January 16, 2015 by Eve Merrier
You’ve heard that enough monkeys with enough typewriters would eventually create the complete works of Shakespeare? Well some people with access to monkeys got a grant, and a computer. Then Hamlet happened. Sorry, that’s not true. Here’s what really occurred:
They put the computer in the monkey enclosure to see what literary masterpiece they might type. It turns out that monkeys really like the letter ‘S’. The six Sulawesi crested macaques, called Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan, typed little else on the five pages they produced. They also mostly destroyed the machine and used it ‘as a lavatory’. Monkeys, we expected more of you.
To look at it from one aspect, the point is not actually to discover if monkeys can do it, but to find out if randomly punched keys, ad infinitum, will create Shakespeare. In fact the origin of the phrase held no mention of monkeys. It’s probably a variation of Aristotle’s example of a book whose text was formed by letters randomly scattered on the ground. Eighteenth and Nineteenth century French mathematicians often discussed the idea of a book which was created by a random splurge of letters from a printing press. It was one of these French number-chiefs, Émile Borel, who brought monkeys into it: he said they could eventually come up with every tome in the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
So real life monkeys are no good – they will just pee over everything – and the capacity for monkey concentration is kind of not the point, but how about hypothetical virtual monkeys? A computer generation was set up, in which virtual monkeys typed at random. Each day they created an eighteen or nineteen character string of real words that happen in Shakespeare.
Pretty early on a twenty-one character string, recognisably from Love’s Labour’s Lost appeared:
KING. Let fame, that [wtIA”yh!…
Which looks remarkably like:
KING. Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live regist’red upon our brazen tombs,
And then grace us in the disgrace of death.
The record was this from Henry IV, Part 2:
RUMOUR: Open your ears; [9r’5j5…
Which matches the first part of:
RUMOUR: Open your ears; for which of you will not stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
On average, one character was added to the string each year, so truly infinite (virtual) monkeys, with infinite time and/or greater speed might just pull it off.
Shakespeare’s fab, but we’ve already got Shakespeare. What use is monkey plagiarism? If I had infinite monkeys, I think I’d try and coax them into writing something new. I would like to see infinite monkeys trying to get an agent, securing a publishing deal, and eventually collecting the Booker Prize and making their awards speech. Sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen, so for the moment I’ll stick to reading books written by humans. Reality, you disappoint me sometimes.
Tagged: Books, infinite monkeys, Monkeys and typewriters, reading, Shakespeare, typing, writing
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Posted November 6, 2014 by Patrick Lenton
Write three books for us, they say. It’ll be easy, they say.
The Momentum team have me working harder than an Ork in Mordor, delivering more books to the ravenous hordes. Because I’ve got a reasonably demanding job, it means writing time is at a premium. I try to scribble 500-1000 words a day, and more on weekends. But I’ve also got another ace up my sleeve.
The 10k Day.
Friend and crime writer supremo PD Martin introduced the concept to me. Though I don’t think she invented it, I’m giving her the credit. The Momentum team were so amazed by the concept when we caught up for drinks that they asked me to write a blog about it. I think they think I’m lying.
How does it work? It’s a stream of consciousness vomiting of words onto the page. It’s hard, it’s tiring, it’s relentless and it’s not very much fun. But it’s a fantastic way to get a lot of words down fast. 10,000, in fact. Words are important when you’re in the novel business.
So if that’s what’s cooking, what are the ingredients?
- Quiet place.
- Mobile phones, internet, spell check, TV, radio, PS4 turned OFF.
- Snacks and water.
- Scotch (optional).
- Writing buddy (optional).
The key is having enough well plotted scenes to get you to 10,000 words. You don’t have time to think. You also don’t have time to look back. Never look back. Once a word is down, push forward! No editing! No elaborate, perfectly crafted writing here. Expect lots of [INSERT DESCRIPTION HERE].
It’s all about bludgeoning your manuscript into submission then fixing it later.
The schedule I usually stick to:
- Write from 9.00am-11.00am
- Break from 11.00am-11.15am
- Write from 11.15am-1.15pm
- Lunch from 1.15pm-1.45pm
- Write from 1.45pm-3.45pm
- Break from 3.45pm-4.00pm
- Write from 4.00pm-6.00pm
It sounds impossible. It’s not. It is very, very hard though. I did a handful of these for The Foundation, and I’ve done one so far for State of Emergency. Most of the time I hit the 10k halfway through the last session. Even if you don’t quite make it, you’ll still get a lot of words down.
It doesn’t work for everyone, but it may work for you. If not, some of the things your mind cooks up when you have to write 1250 words an hour are interesting, if nothing else.
Steve P Vincent’s first book, The Foundation, was published by Momentum in September 2014. Connect with him on:
Tagged: Path to Publication, The Path to Publication, writing, writing methods
Posted October 1, 2014 by Patrick Lenton
Mae Archer joins us to enthuse about writing program ‘Scrivener’
I love technology and every time I hear about a new tool that I might use as an author I investigate. Usually my process is that I read about it, ignore it, see it somewhere up to ten times, try it, hate it, try it, curse it, try again, get a glimmer of understanding and I keep repeating the process until I get the hang of it and it’s not a drama.
I originally heard about Scrivener about three years ago when an author talked about her writing process. I noted it, but didn’t do anything about it. Then I kept seeing lots of people talking about it over the next year or so. Eventually I got a trial, tried playing around with it, but didn’t buy the package. A year later I bought it, ignored it for six months, tried using it and eventually figured it out.
I’ve found that Scrivener has really helped my writing process. I usually write down the bones in a crappy draft (for the record that’s what I actually name the file) where I write in fragments. Once my draft is complete and has something vaguely resembling a beginning, a middle and an end I’ve usually figured out the story, the characters, and the plot, and then I go back to the beginning and start again producing something that is a readable manuscript.
Scrivener allows me to write in fragments that I can move around as needed. I can also create synopsis cards so that I know what is in each scene. There is also a label feature and I’ve used this to identify my character points of view and use the status drop down menu to keep track of how I’m progressing with my scene.
While working on Hollywood Dreams I wanted the novel to be equally divided between Tom and Maree’s point of view and so I labelled them pink and blue and was able to see at a glance how I was going.
It also allowed me to keep track of my research by importing websites into Scrivener that I can then refer to even when I’m offline. Hollywood Dreams is set in Los Angeles against the backdrop of the movie-making business so there was a lot of research I had to do.
And I can create character sketches and collate information about the character, as well as import a photo.
I also periodically back up by compiling my manuscript into a word document that I then save in various versions.
I’m still in the learning phase with Scrivener. It has many more features and I’m slowly adding to my repertoire. I’ve found that using Scrivener has meant that I work smarter and can produce at a quicker pace than before because it provides me with the tools to organise everything I need.
So if like me you’re hesitant about embracing new technology, just dive in and slowly learn as you go. You don’t need to be an expert to start writing with Scrivener. You learn what you need as you need it.Tagged: scrivener, writing, writing programs, writing tips
Posted September 16, 2014 by Patrick Lenton
No, you idiots, I’m already married.
I typed this on the evening after the release of my first novel, The Foundation. But to avoid spamming my social media to death with ‘book stuff’, I let it stew for a few days prior to posting.
This is the last of the Path to Publication posts. In this series, I’ve shared with you the pitch and contract, dealing with the big issues, the edits, and the cover and marketing. Each stage is a giant anvil upon which your manuscript is hammered into a book able to be sold.
This edition is a little different: a look at what happens when the lights go on and the show begins.
With everything in the bag and the book off to production, I found the lull between working hard to finish the book and getting it to market tricky. By this point the author is pretty much off the clock on the book itself, though there’s plenty of marketing to do.
I found this part the hardest of all, which is quite surprising given my fingertips are now bloody stumps from all the keyboard pounding and my mind is some strange, rancid ooze from too much hard thinking.
I fulfilled my side of the marketing and enjoyed having a social life again, but the most overwhelming feelings after all this hard work were, in order:
- I WANT TO WRITE! WRITE LOTS! MORE! MORE! MORE EXPLOSIONS!
- I’M ACTUALLY GOING TO BE A PUBLISHED AUTHOR?
- I *AM* A PUBLISHED AUTHOR!
- THOSE FOOLS AT MOMENTUM!
By the time I reached the last few days prior to launch, I just wanted to hitch a ride with the Doc and Marty McFly and get there, but the only guy I know of with a DeLorean is Matthew Reilly, who might resent me pinching it.
Rockets are cool.
But hey, it launched! So what actually happened on the day my first book comes out?
- Yes, I still went to work.
- No, I didn’t get as much done as I usually do.
- Yes, it felt as amazing as I thought it would.
- No, I didn’t crawl under my bed and hide.
- Yes, the back slapping and congratulations of friends and colleagues felt good.
- No, a marching band and dancing girls didn’t signify the release.
- Yes, there was some anxiety of the ‘what if everyone HATES it’ variety.
- No, I didn’t refresh madly for the first review to appear.
- Yes, I did go out for dinner and have a few drinks to celebrate.
- No, I didn’t go on a 48 hour bender on my publisher’s tab.
- Yes, I did thank the great people at Momentum for their hard work.
- No, I didn’t read it again. It’ll be a few months before I do that.
And, like that, The Foundation was amongst the millions of other books jostling for its place on the mountain. I was hoping it’d reach the peak, to hang out with Dan Brown and his supermodels, but if nothing else that it’d have a nice spot on the side.
But behold! It shot to the top of the Amazon Australia Political Fiction lists to claim #1 spot for a while.
Take that John Grisham! Eat my dust Ayn Rand! Though I’m not sure it’ll last, it was a nice pat on the shoulder for a nervous first timer.
The first review
But wait! There was more unexpected good news! My first review!
Although, technically, my first review was from the incredible John Birmingham, that was pre-release.
The honour of the first review post-release, at least as far as I’m aware, goes to ReadingKills.com. Head over there. It’s a great review.
I must admit, when I saw it, I felt nervous clicking on the link. But I was quite honestly chuffed with the result. My favourite lines?
‘…a roaring political thriller that is unnerving in its description of how the world would go to war.’
‘This is a jet-setting, alarming, bang-pow-kaboom read full of metaphorical and literal bloodshed, political machinations you’ll hope desperately will never become reality, and late-night giant-popcorn-wielding funsies.’
I’m sure the snarky one-star Amazon reviews are coming, but for now I’ve got a nice little protective bubble going on. Thanks ReadingKills!
The sign off
So we’ve come to the end of the path to publication. The book is done, readers are… reading and my wife is telling me we’ll be late for dinner.
But wait! There’s one last lesson, you (probably don’t) scream! Okay:
Lesson 10: Don’t let fear of failure stand in the way of your dreams. I’ve wanted this since I was young, but it was always too hard, not good enough, wouldn’t be liked and not a priority. It will not stop me anymore.
Thanks to those of you who have joined me on this journey. I’ve had some great feedback on these posts from other authors – established and aspiring – and from some readers who enjoyed being a fly on the wall to see how a book reaches market.
I hope those of you who enjoyed the series might consider purchasing The Foundation, so I get to keep doing this and calling it work. If you do, then double thanks, and I hope you enjoy the book. Let me know what you think.
In the meantime, I’m mashing out the sequel.
Stay tuned.getting published, Path to Publication, publishing, The Path to Publication, writing
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Posted September 5, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
I figured it out.
It only took me a good decade or so, but I’m there now.
After countless lectures to myself, my students, and various blog posts where I’ve pretended to talk to everybody else but really I’m still just talking to myself, I’ve finally found a way to prioritise writing. And not just prioritise it, but have it become a regular, schedule, focused time for getting black on white.
I’ve never been one to run to schedules, generally following the well-intentioned but logically insane theory that nothing creative can come from stifling routine – art can only come from chaos, right? But as I’ve gotten older, the paying jobs more serious, and the life becomes wonderfully occupied with the fruits of existence that just seem to happen, the day just gets filled up.
So finding a time to write became El Dorado, Atlantis, Avalon and Shangri-La. Some mythical place that everyone (me) searches for, yet no-one (me again) is able to find.
But like I said, I figured it out. The great big secret: how do I find time to write? It’s simple. I’ll tell you. In three easy steps.
1. Writing is the job
I can’t quit my job, I need the money. Others depend on me having the money. So the job (money) stays. And with that comes the understanding that I can’t change the hours the job runs. For that means:
Leave for work at 7:30am, get home by 5:30pm.
Which is a fair chunk of the day. Unavoidable. And with that comes the understanding that I’ll generally be exhausted by the end of it. But if writing’s the job, how can I do another job after the other job that I just spent all my time doing, because job money?
Do it first.
All I did was shift my waking time to earlier, by about an hour, and all of a sudden I had an hour of writing when I was fresh, clear-headed, and unencumbered by all the other work that comes later.
But get this: the best thing, the absolute best thing about writing before you go off to your paying job is that you feel absolutely bloody great. And why wouldn’t you? Before you go to work you’ve already written your words. Suddenly all the little things that might irritate you about a day on the job don’t, all the obligations and exhaustions that occur seem far less of a bother, because they’re no longer getting in the way. It’s marvellous.
The only sacrifice here is going to sleep earlier, but considering that’s happening during a time of the day when you’re already exhausted, it kind of makes sense? Sleeping when tired?
So the simple thing is get up earlier, and make the writing come first. It’s all so logically obvious I’m high-fiving myself while still kicking myself.
2. Turn your technology against you
The distractions that come from technology are unending, but in keeping with the trend of turning weaknesses into vicious enabling strengths, I’ve found a way to make technology support my new routine.
This is mainly focused on my phone.
Firstly, there is only one alarm that goes off. There is no snooze, there is no second alarm, or second second alarm, or friendly supportive backup to the second second alarm. There’s just one, and it goes off. And I have to wake up, because if I don’t I’ll sleep right through and feel terrible. Psychologically, this seems to work.
Secondly, I made use of Commit, which is one of many different apps you can use to guilt you in to doing things like there’s no tomorrow. It’s pretty simple: I set up one task (write 500 words each day), and set a trigger alarm for it (7:15am), and every morning it goes off and asks me smugly: ‘Have you written your 500 words today?’
Every time you have, it logs it in a nice running counter at the bottom. Any time you miss a day, and disappoint your bastard phone, it leaves a gap. Gaps look bad, the phone feels bad, and I feel bad.
Thirdly, I type with Scrivener, which I have for a while now. But contained within Scrivener is the wonderful Project Targets feature, which allows you to set your target total word limit, and the date you’d like to finish by, and it calculates a daily rate for you. Even better, it also lets you set the days you write on, and adjusts accordingly.
Since I’m now writing every weekday morning, I no longer need to write on the weekends (which is wonderful and means the weekends are weekends, and the writing is still the job, see?) so the targets adjust for a Monday-Friday writing routine and tick over as I type.
3. Stick to the routine
To get back to where I started, I always thought routine would stifle things. But that’s a flawed logic. What the routine does, what getting up at the same time each morning and writing each day before work does, is allow the creativity to happen.
All that’s occurring is the routine has made an arena for the creativity to take place. This has a twofold benefit.
On one hand, the writing becomes the central focus, and you’re able to channel all the great, imaginative ideas into the time you have for the writing, rather than having them fit and sputter all across your day like exhaust fumes.
On the other hand, all the non-writing, non-essential parts of the routine start to fade into the background, and run on auto-pilot. And again, it’s logical. These moments in the day stop being things you need to do before you can start writing, and instead become time to switch off and keep thinking about the writing. Because you trust the routine, you’re no longer worrying about eking out small moments of time and energy to try and write. It’s wonderful.
This is not rocket science. Really it was just about changing one small part of my daily routine. But the implications have been enormous, but will only continue to as long as I stick to the routine. Everyone’s routine is different, everyone’s approach is different. But we have to prioritise the writing, but when we do, we commit to that priority. Don’t give up. Make it first.Tagged: writers, writing, writing advice, writing tips, writing tools
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Posted August 21, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
We lost a teacher last week.
A teacher whose presence seemed to dominate all representations of teaching in films and books, to the point where graduate teachers around the world still grapple with the impossibility of measuring up to a classroom of students standing on their desks calling out ‘Oh captain my captain!’
And while this post was initially drafted with this teacher’s inclusion, I’m going to leave him out of this list now because, well, frankly John Keating in Dead Poets Society can sit alongside Mr Chipping in Goodbye Mr Chips as logical, foregone conclusions when it comes to handing out positions for Best Fictional Teacher.
So, in the spirit of seizing the educational day– and in memoriam – here’s my list of the 10 Best Fictional Teachers.
10. Walter White – Breaking Bad
Okay, maybe not the greatest person, but if there’s one thing to be gained from Mr White’s inexorable descent into villainy, it’s his ability to teach. Here we have a teacher who takes a student with no interest in learning, only in the results, and turns them into a perfect graduate (we’ll just ignore what happens later on to this perfect graduate, especially in the last few episodes, but hey, he still learned good).
If there’s one thing good teachers should do it’s love their subject, and when it comes to the production of methamphetamine, well Mr White certainly loves what he teaches.
9. Mr Collins – The Wonder Years
He only appeared in three epsidoes, most memorably in ‘Good-bye’, but Mr Collins seems to dominate my entire memory of The Wonder Years. In a really short space of time, the show seemed to encapsulate everything that great teaching is to me, particularly in the little dance Mr Collins has with Kevin where he can see through the student’s lies, but knows he must play along so that Kevin can learn from failure, from effort, and from life.
And ultimately, despite everything, good teachers never die.
8. Grady Tripp – Wonder Boys
Okay, he might be disinterested and under the influence most of the time, and in the position for the tenure, the time he gets to work on his novel, and the proximity to the Dean’s wife, but Grady Tripp does get quite a few things right about teaching.
Most importantly, he understands that teachers don’t have to teach everyone to an A, and that not all students have the same path: ‘You tell them what you know, you tell them to find their voice and stay with it, you tell the ones that have it to keep at it, and you tell the ones that don’t have it to keep at it because that’s the only way they’ll get to where they’re going.’
7. Charles Xavier – X-Men
He has a school for mutants. Pretty much a great teacher there. But most importantly, Professor X takes them all in: regardless of shape, size, skill and colour, despite how much property damage they might inflict on the school, he’s happy to have everyone there.
6. Indiana Jones – Raides of the Lost Ark
Some of my favourite moments in the Indiana Jones films are watching the adventurous archaelogist hero grapple with returning to the classroom, and the unending demands of his students.
But also, there’s a fair bit of vicarious enthusiasm for any teacher, imagining that all they need to do is put on a hat and jump out a window, and they can take all their educational skills off to some far flung jungle to retrieve a lost artifact.
5. Edna Krabappel – The Simpsons
Ever-present (until the end) at the front of the 4th-grade classroom, Mrs Krabappel ended up becoming one of the most consitent teacher figures for anyone who grew up with The Simpsons. But the best thing of all was that despite her flaws as a sympathetic teacher, she was bold enough to show her students that all teachers are people, and have to go home at the end of the day, especially in episodes like ‘Bart the Lover’.
4. Jake Epping – 11/22/63
I had to work one Stephen King teacher in here, especially as King battled through being an underpaid teacher before his career took off. This is probably his most developed teacher character, with Epping not only travelling back in time to try and prevent the Kennedy assassination, but also attempting to fix the childhood of one of his students. On top of that, he doesn’t just go back in time, he goes back in time and becomes the most important teacher for a whole bunch of students in the 1960s, particularly when he convinces the star football player to take the lead in the school play.
3. Laura Roslin – Battlestar Galactica
Teachers in charge of humanity! How great is this premise, and installing the politically inexperienced, but morally driven Roslin as the President of the Twelve Colonies is one of the best updates the remake brought to the series. Despite the emphasis on Adama, Starbuck and the completely unhinged Baltar in Battlestar Galactica’s reception, it’s Roslin for me that makes the show, and binds all the characters and storylines together in a way that grounds the space opera in a reality.
2. Roland Pryzbylewski – The Wire
Prez’s arc of the different seasons of The Wire is possibly one of the most interesting, given that he’s one of the few characters offered up that appears capable of positive change. From terrible cop to conscientious teacher, Prez’s change is contrasted against a broken education system that is static beyond belief, even with everybody’s best intentions.
This is just about the truest depiction of teaching I’ve ever seen, particularly in Prez’s inability to change anything about the school, system or his students’ lives, even when he has success in the classroom.
1. Albus Dumbledore – Harry Potter series
Okay, well this is probably pretty obvious. But for me there’s two reasons. Firstly, I grew up in a boarding school, and so the structure, style and nature of the teachers in the series was altogether very familiar, particularly the godfatherly presence Dumbeldore seems to have over the school.
But most of all, he embodies excellent aspects of good teaching – particularly in The Half-Blood Prince – in that he models at all times just and fair behaviour, and is prepared to provide an environment for the students where they can discover this without coersion. The lessons from Dumbledore have nothing to do with practical, everyday skills, but about being a good person, and living a good life.
Seriously, the chapters where Harry and Dumbledore investigate the horcruxes are some of the best in the series. Good teaching.Tagged: characters, fiction, teachers, teaching, writing
Posted August 15, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
For a while I used to use the analogy of sculpture with writing. You take a block of clay and by a process of shaping and removing, you eventually reveal the story underneath.
But I find this doesn’t really work for me. A blank page is not a block of clay. Writing a story is a case of building something from nothing, rather than revealing what’s hidden. So I started to notice similarities with drawing, particularly drawing something from life, where you’re trying to get an image on the page that resembles as closely as possible the vision you have.
But you can’t draw a perfect picture first go. Similarly, no story is written complete on the first draft.
The whole process of drafting is a chance to refine, to shape and direct and polish, and lift up the features of the story that you want to emphasise, and layer in tones and depth where it would benefit your story. Themes and motifs and character details are added, the scaffolding of the early drafts are slowly stripped away until the story can stand on its own, proud and complete without betraying all the furious rewrites, revisions and mistakes that the drafting process gradually eliminates.
And in this, to me, it’s just like a drawing a picture. So I thought I’d extend the analogy, by showing a few of the stages of a drawing, and relating it to the drafting process.
This is where I just want to get as much down as I can. I’m telling the story to myself. The broad strokes come in, including some that won’t be necessary later.
What I’m focusing on is getting the shape, the size, the general outline. I try to get a lot of lines down, and later I’ll pick the best ones to be my main lines. When I’m drawing, I’m basically trying to keep one eye on the object and one on the page, to get them as close to each other as possible.
And it’s the same with writing, though instead of an object, it’s my imagination. Keep it close at hand, keep it there in front of me, so that the words are as close to what I’m imagining as I can get them, at this early stage.
Hopefully glaring bad ideas show up. In the drawing, I’ve realised that one of the arms is way off where it should be, so I’ve had to realign. A foot had to be lengthened, and it’s a case of sitting back for a bit and making sure the proportions work. But I’m not trusting myself just yet, so I’ll leave as much on the page, even if it’s a mistake, just in case it’s useful later on.
This is why it’s good to save multiple drafts of a story, just in case you realise there’s something of value that you left behind a while ago. A recent draft did this for me with something I had put down a good twelve months ago, only for it to prove useful once more.
I’m starting to realise which directions work, and I’ll emphasise those parts. So in the draft, I’ll make connections between various moments and strengthen them, enhancing the narrative so that it stands out more, and the story starts to feel like it has more weight and balance to it.
Third, fourth, fifth drafts
Irrelevant and unhelpful plot points, characters, scenes are cut. The language is refined, so that everything is sharper, and clearer. Comparing this to the first draft is like comparing some foggy, indistinct shape with a solid object.
This is also where dimension is added, through layering of themes, or motifs, or images. Details are enriched, characters become more identifiable, and anything that isn’t working should stand out quite easily. A few things are erased, sure in the idea that they’re not going to help in the final story.
Sixth, seventh drafts, and so on
Refining, refining, refining.
In the drawing, I’m focusing more on the shading, the weight, the need to make it function as something that can represent reality, so that it doesn’t just appear to be random pencil scratchings on a page. With a story, I’m trying to remove any scaffolding left, anything that feels like writing, or betrays the man behind the curtain to the reader.
This is also the part where I tend to use different techniques far more. I’ve changed to a heavier pencil to sharpen some of the darks, and then used the eraser a lot more to take out the heavy lines on the side I want to appear light. Then it’s a case of blending and removing the seams by using my thumb on the page.
With a story, I’m looking at each individual part on its own, and employing whatever tricks I can to sharpen it, lighten it, shape it and colour it so that every line, paragraph, scene and character is making their most of their time on the page. This may go on for a while, but eventually it has to be left alone. Same with the drawing: I can keep fiddling around with the little details, but there comes a time when it’s just going to become overworked and too self-conscious. Keep it fresh. It’s only a story, after all.
(The main image at the top of this post is a selection of drawings Philip Pullman did for the publication of Northern Lights, after he asked his publisher if he might have a go at doing some illustrations for the beginning of each chapter.)Tagged: drafting, drawing, writing, writing process, writing tips, writing tools
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Posted August 12, 2014 by Patrick Lenton
Accept. Accept. Accept. Accept. Accept.
At the time of writing, that has been my life for four hours a night for the last week. It’s spilling over into other bits of life, too. I really want to hit ‘Reject Change’ on suggestions I empty the dishwasher, and ‘Delete Comment’ on most things I hear on public transport.
So brings us to Path to Publication III: The edits (click here and here for the earlier instalments). In short, I’m tracing the journey of publication for my book, The Foundation, from the pitch right through to release.
In this instalment, I’ll be dealing with the finer details of the editing process.
The copy edits
So I left you last time having fixed the major issues in the book, preparing to confront the blunderbuss of red shot my way in the form of copy edits.
My wonderful editor, Kylie, was responsible for 148 comments and 4350 tracked changes to the manuscript. Overwhelmingly sensible ones, too. I asked her how she approaches her craft:
‘I have one golden rule when editing: it’s not my book. I know how hard writers work to get their story onto the page – sweating blood or bullets, typing until their fingers ache – and the last thing they want or need is some stranger coming in to stomp all over their manuscript. It isn’t my job to turn the book into something it’s not.
So when I first read a manuscript, I’m looking for the heart of the story, trying to figure out what it is the author is trying to do, and taking note of whether the narrative voice, structure, even the characters, reflect that. It’s important that any suggestions I make improve the manuscript, rather than introduce new problems.
My editorial suggestions – whether in a structural edit or a copy edit – are how I offer whatever help I can to make the book the best it can be. And writers always get the final say on whether those suggestions are useful to them or not.’
So with that in mind, I worked my way through these changes, confronting the issues in the manuscript. This is in addition to the stylistic clean up that Kylie gave the manuscript: American spelling, proper capitalisation, naming conventions, layout… I didn’t even see those.
Some writers would be appalled by what I’m doing, because it exposes that – shock! – scenes aren’t as perfect as Michelangelo’s David from the moment they’re slung onto a page. Nor when they’re submitted. Writers don’t write flawlessly and sometimes don’t see everything that needs fixing.
But here it is! I’ve picked a busy page in the manuscript that doesn’t reveal too much about the storyline. The first image shows how Kylie has marked it up, complete with edits and comments. Other pages also contain style tips for the layout dudes, but they’re not shown here.
I reckon I accepted 99% of Kylie’s copyedits without issue. In those instances where I didn’t agree, or didn’t agree entirely, all I had to do was track over the tracked changes. The second image shows the same handful of paragraphs, after I’ve accepted Kylie’s changes but made a few of my own:
It took me three weeks and a hell of a lot of hours to get through the vast bulk of the changes. Not only did I respond to Kylie’s suggestions and accept most of her amendments, but with fresh eyes I also found stuff I wanted to fix to get the manuscript to a point where I considered it finished
Lesson 6: Writing isn’t always fun, neither is editing. Most of the time it is, but sometimes you need to get neck deep and just slog it out. Punching out first drafts, stitching it together, countless rounds of edits – this stuff is hard work. But it isn’t something to complain about. You’re not stitching together $6 shirts at Bangladesh sweatshop or clearing the sewers in Mexico City. This is a privilege.
The final read
It’s an amazing experience reading through your manuscript before it departs for the final time. Sure, I’ll get a chance to read it again after it’s a fully proof read and knocked up book before stamped ‘FINISHED’, but this is the last opportunity for substantive change.
The good thing: It’s done! I love the book and I’m exhilarated that it’s going to be with readers in a few months and we’ll be selling millions of copies and drinking cocktails and eating canapés. Right? Or, if not, it’s still a pretty big achievement.
The bad thing: It’s done? Even though I love it, I still see bits that I’d like to tighten or that aren’t quite right that the reader probably won’t even notice. But I’m exhausted with it. Sooner or later editing becomes trawling the manuscript and just tinkering for the sake of it. That’s when you know.
Lesson 7: Know when to let go. My manuscript on the day I shipped it off was 88,000 words. I could keep playing with it until the day I die, but I can’t. The law of diminishing returns kicks in. Plus, there are sales to make, mansions to build and other books to write. It’s not perfect, but it’s damned good and the best I can make it (with the help of people like Kylie, Tara and Joel).
Shipping it off
So I sent it back to Tara with the heady delight of getting my spare time back and being able to write again. With genuine curiosity, I asked her what comes next:
‘At this stage of the process, the copyeditor or in-house editor will go over the author’s comments, queries, and edits to make sure everything is smooth sailing (i.e., that no new issues have been introduced to the manuscript). After that, the book will be sent off to the typesetter and then to the proofreader (and the author will have one more chance to comb through it as well).’
So the book is done, assuming I haven’t broken my book with my tinkering, at any rate. I’m happy with it, and like a proud parent I’m excited (and a little relieved) as the little bugger knicks off to find its way in the world.
Tune in next time for how a cover is designed and how a book is marketed.
Tagged: getting published, publishing process, Steve P. Vincent, The Path to Publication, writing
Posted July 29, 2014 by Patrick Lenton
Today we’re joined by Momentum author Steve P. Vincent, whose political thriller The Foundation will be published in September. You can find more of his articles on his website or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
So Moses parted the Red Sea, eh? Well, splitting that big puddle is nothing compared to the ocean of red I’ve dived into with nothing but a spear gun in my hand and a steely determination to slay bad stuff in my heart. Probably some pants, too.
So brings us to Path to Publication II: The big issues (click here for the first instalment). In short, I’m tracing the journey of publication for my book, The Foundation, from the pitch right through to release.
In this instalment (and the next), I’ll be dealing with the editing process.
Editing. It’s a magical ride when someone you’ve met once takes hold of something you’ve worked on for years. You need to trust that they’ll be respectful of the story and they need to trust that you’ll not be a moron about sensible suggestions.
I’d never done this before, so to set the scene, I asked the editing boss at Momentum, Tara Goedjen, how the editing process works at Momentum:
“At Momentum we like to think of the editorial process as a conversation. We enjoy meeting with our authors and want them to know that an edit isn’t a slashfest with a red pen, it’s a dialogue between writer and editor on suggestions and ideas for improvement.
For each manuscript, the publisher and I discuss the global issues that need to be addressed and select a copyeditor who we think will be a good fit. Then, depending upon whether a heavy or light edit is required, we either comment directly on the manuscript or include our notes in the brief.
Once the edit’s ready, I send it to the author, who is encouraged to come to me with any editorial questions along the way… Or, of course, just to talk things through.”
About the time I finished reading The Road I got an email from Tara. The timing seemed ominous given The Road is about a man and boy wandering through a wasteland. I was hoping Tara and Kylie (my editor) didn’t feel the same reading my book.
Turns out they didn’t! They both loved it. But that didn’t mean I was spared because, along with lots of ego boosting praise, the email from Tara contained a few documents. The most important were a letter from Kylie and a marked up copy of the manuscript.
I thought about sharing the letter, but it is very detailed, and I decided I didn’t want the plot to be spoiled for anyone who is reading this series and might buy the book. I need that coffee, after all. Instead, the gist of the letter was basically Kylie saying:
- I love the book.
- It only needed a light edit.
- I edited it in this way.
- But there’s some stuff that needs fixing.
So with a trembling hand, I clicked the button that would unleash the editorial Deathstar upon The Foundation. But instead of a giant manuscript shattering laser, what I got was respectful, insightful and damn fine work.
The big issue(s)
No, not a very worthwhile magazine sold on city streets, but the things that needed some fixing.
What I found interesting was the collegiate approach to finding and fixing these issues. Kylie had input, Tara had input and, much to my surprise, there were also some comments from Momentum’s publisher and Grand Poobah, Joel Naoum.
I’d assumed that he’d be too busy standing at his desk, drinking cocktails and crushing the dreams of interns beneath the Manuscript Monday pile to have time to input, but there it was. The issues they’d found, and the suggestions to fix them, were impressive.
Lesson 4: Your editor is not some monster hoping to rip up your manuscript, dampen your explosions or lessen the torture dealt out to your protagonist. They love your book. Listen to them. They’re smart, respectful and they work their arse off to make your book better. They can also see the massive, manuscript killing holes that you’ve missed until now and that make you feel a little bit silly.
There were three big issues:
- The timing of the book was entirely implausible, all because I wanted one key scene to fit. That’s now fixed and the book is better and more believable for it. I lost my scene but gained plausibility. A fair trade.
- My main antagonist, Michelle Dominique, is ace, but her motivations needed a tune-up. As a result she’s gone to a whole new level of conspiratorial nasty awesomeness and the stakes in the back end of the book are now a whole lot higher.
- Some technobabble that I’d got wrong, which I now think is less wrong. I’m not entirely sure about this, so I wait in fear for the first review that says ‘YOU STUFFED UP THE TECHNOBABBLE. ZERO STARS.’
So, with input digested, I got to work on the marked up manuscript. None of these big issues were killers. I shifted some dates, cracked open an extra can of nasty for Michelle and rebabbled the technobabble. What? A lesson?
Lesson 5: This one isn’t exclusive to the path to publication, but I’m writing it anyway. DISTANCE, MAN. After not having looked at a word of The Foundation for four months, going back to it was eye opening. I still had the granular understanding of the characters, plot threads and the mana that holds the story together, but with the added benefit of actually being able to see the words. That helps when writing a book.
With the big tangles untangled, I turned my attention to the harder bit: A whole lot of bright red tracked changes.
Join me next time for a peek at my poor, naked manuscript with red splashed over it.Tagged: getting published, novel writing, Steve P. Vincent, The Foundation, The Path to Publication, writing, writing process
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Posted July 25, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
Stephen King gives the best advice about writing. No kidding. Here you go:
On where ideas come from (1):
‘Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognise them when they show up.’
On where ideas come from (2):
‘So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.’
On taking your work seriously:
‘You must not come lightly to the blank page. It’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business.’
‘If possible, there should be no telephone in your writing room, certainly no TV or videogames for you to fool around with. If there’s a window, draw the curtains or pull down the shades, unless it looks at a blank wall. For any writer, but for the beginning writer in particular, it’s wise to eliminate every possible distraction. When you write, you want to get rid of the world, do you not? Of course you do. When you’re writing, you’re creating your own worlds.’
On drafting a story (1):
‘When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.’ John Gould, writer and editor of Lisbon’s weekly newsletter, who employed King when he was a teenager.
On drafting a story (2):
‘Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right – as right as you can, anyway – it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticise it. If you’re lucky, more will want to do the former than the latter.’
On drafting a story (3):
‘In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10%. Good luck.‘
On writing what you know:
‘Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do. If you’re a plumber who enjoys science fiction, you might well consider a novel about a plumber aboard a starship or on an alien planet.’
‘There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story… don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words–the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.’
‘I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.’
‘Running a close second [as a writing lesson] was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.’
On thesaurus abuse:
‘One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.’
On passive and active sentences:
‘The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o’clock because that someone says to him ‘Put it this way and people will believe you really know.’ Purge this quisling thought! Don’t be a muggle! Throw back your shoulder, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting’s at seven. There, by God! Don’t you feel better?’
‘The road to hell is paved with adverbs. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day…fifty the day after that…and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions.’
‘Don’t do these things. Please oh please.’
‘While to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.’
On sending your work out:
‘Submitting stories without first reading the market is like playing darts in a dark room – you might hit the target every now and then, but you don’t deserve to.’
And possibly my favourite bit of advice about writing ever:
On why we write:
‘Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.
Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.
Drink and be filled up.’Tagged: on writing, stephen king, writing, writing advice, writing tips
Posted July 8, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
‘Show, don’t tell’ is possibly the first lesson in any writing class. So often it’s seen as the difference between functional, effective writing and writing that just feels like a shopping list.
But by the same token, there are countless writers and teachers of writing who say that ‘show, don’t tell’ is a trite piece of hackneyed advice that doesn’t actually do much for the writer. The phrase is seen as a dismissive lesson, and hinges on the students’ understanding of the visual capability of words.
But I’d argue that there is still enormous merit in this tired lesson of writing. So what is it to show in writing? Aren’t we always just telling someone a story?
While some telling in a story is necessary (efficient backstory, detail, and dialogue), if a writer only ever tells, then the story is, as mentioned, a shopping list of events and happenings. The easiest way to spot a story that relies on telling is by looking for the instances of ‘then’, or ‘and then’.
Then this happened, then that happened, and then this happened as well. And then all of a sudden everything happened.
It doesn’t work. The reader ends up feeling like a barraged receptor to basic plot. For a good example on how to avoid this, take a look at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s wonderfully concise explanation on how they plot. When dialogue is overused, the reader is stuck experiencing the story through conversation, like an apartment dweller eavesdropping on his arguing neighbours through the wall.
There are a few old tricks to get someone to show more in their writing. One is to get them to write a paragraph about an object without ever mentioning the object. While this does work as an exercise for developing interesting description, it doesn’t actually get to the heart of why this kind of description might work. (Additionally, it has the side-affect of generating a writer who describes everything like this, and you end up with a story that can only be read by guessing what the hell they’re describing next.)
When I studied screenwriting, one of the first tasks given was to write a scene showing a nervous person. A telling scene would look like this:
A man sits down on a chair in a waiting room. He is nervous.
A showing scene operates this way:
A man sits down. He glances at the clock on the wall. He crosses his legs one way, then the other. He looks at the clock again. A bead of sweat rolls down his temple.
And look, that’s an easy and simplistic comparison, but there’s a basic defining difference. The first explains everything, the second doesn’t. In explaining, there’s no room for the reader to explore on their own. The man is nervous, and that’s it, there’s nothing else to it. In the second, his nervousness is implied, and suggested, but the extent of his nervousness is entirely open to the speculation of the reader.
At its best, showing is about using the reader’s imagination. At its worst, it ends up being a constant stream of adjectives and adverbs, and detail for the sake of it.
If a writer uses the imagination of a reader, their entire reading experience of the story is amplified. Sympathy for the protagonist, empathy for characters’ plights, anticipation and exhilaration at aspects of the plot, and most of all, the reader believes. It is taken for granted that any written words on a page will magically transform into an imagined world.
Yes, I know this is not a new recommendation from me, but Stephen King puts it best in On Writing, when he compares writing to telepathy. It is the sharing of thoughts from a writer to a reader through a story. The words on the page are merely a vehicle, the thoughts, the imagination, that’s the key. The writing needs to enable this, and it can only do that by switching on the imagination trigger in the reader.
The best example of this I’ve used lately comes not from books but from television. It pays to look at purely visual mediums in order to generate a visual aspect to writing. And the best place to find this (provided the examples are great) is in opening credits.
Opening credits have to achieve a few things. They need to signal that the story is about to begin. They need to attract interest in the story and away from whatever else the viewer might do (cook dinner, change channel, read a book). They also need to transition the viewer from whatever world they’ve been occupying (watching the news, different show, reading a book) and into the world of the story. And they get at most 90 seconds to do this.
But the best things is that opening credits rely on essentially just images and music in order to achieve all these things. It’s an absolute economy of storytelling techniques, and works by delivering a sequence of meaning-laden symbols without explaining anything. The viewer is just meant to get it, by opening up their imagination to this world.
The credits of Six Feet Under deliver images of a mortuary, gurneys wheeling past the camera, the cleansing rituals associated with death, cycles of life and death and decay in nature, all culminating in a withering, silhouetted tree. Yet over the top of that is the bittersweet perkiness of the title music.
The Sopranos presents its protagonist, driving home from work early in the morning, through the landscape of his profession. And the viewer is placed over his shoulder, seeing his world through his eyes. Until he reaches his driveway, and the story actually begins. A series about the conflict between work and home, between opposing allegiances (and the threat of violence in the title track), is all presented effortlessly, without explanation.
So too is the 45 second opening sequence of Mad Men, which distils the entire thematic concerns of the show into a cascading parade of silhouettes and advertising posters. All these credits, and others, work to show the story to the viewer, in a small amount of time, and with a small amount of tools at their disposal.
The one thing I try to tell my students that it’s important to realise is that writing doesn’t get like this first go. That it takes work, and rewriting and removing and editing and improving. Almost always, the first draft is about telling yourself the story. Then on the second (and third and fourth) it’s about showing that same story to the reader.
Tagged: show don't tell, tv shows, writing, writing tips, writing tools
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Posted June 26, 2014 by Felicity Pulman
Evil enchantress, high priestess, fairy, wicked sorceress … Morgan le Fay has been called many names over the centuries, in a multitude of versions of the Arthurian legend dating back to the Dark Ages when Welsh bards first sang of a brave and noble king.
My fascination with Morgana began some years ago while I was researching my Shalott trilogy for teenagers – a rewriting and reinterpretation of the legend and the haunting poem, The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson, based on Elaine of Astolat and her fatal attraction to Launcelot. In my novels, Morgana had the power to shapeshift (a talent I really envied!) And, as I researched further and dug deeper into her character, so she took hold of my imagination, and she’s been haunting me ever since!
So who was Morgana really? I had a voice in my head saying, ‘Look at me, Merlin, look at me.’ A young girl desperately trying to impress a master of magic – this was my first hook into her character, and this is how I, Morgana begins.
Previously I’ve written for children and teenagers. In this, my first novel for adults, I allowed my imagination to run riot as I explored every facet of Morgana’s character: from a young girl who was schooled in magic and promised a kingdom to her betrayal by everyone she’s ever loved and trusted. Proud, powerful, passionate – and clever, she wreaks revenge (and breaks her heart) before coming to an understanding of how it’s all gone wrong. In writing her story, I explore her potential for performing magic (and meddling where she has no right to meddle) and had fun imagining her various transformations which are undertaken for noble as well as wicked deeds.
I’d read, and enjoyed Marion Zimmer Bradley’s reinvention of Morgana as a high priestess of Avalon, but ultimately found her interpretation unsatisfying. It seemed to me that her feminist portrayal of the world of Avalon ran parallel to the male-dominated traditional scenarios that Zimmer Bradley rejected. For me, Morgana was so much more complex – and therefore so much more interesting to portray.
I’ve used Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur as a base to work from, but I’ve also woven several other strands into my story, including the fascinating and mysterious Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, seen and admired some years ago at the Musee National du Moyen Age in Paris. I thought I’d have a go at learning the Tarot after coming across an ‘Arthurian Tarot’ deck of cards. Could Morgana have learned to foretell the future through some ancient wooden tablets stolen from Merlin? Devising a Tarot reading for Morgana was interesting and fun – although I had to call on my Tarot teacher, Molly Talbot, to help add authenticity.
I incorporated some stories from Celtic legend in my Shalott trilogy – the legend of Blodeuwedd and Lleu Llaw Giffes in particular. In I, Morgana I’ve also made use of some Druidic practices and I touch on the use of the Ogham alphabet. Fantastical creatures populate my book as I explore several Otherworlds – along with the famous prophecy that ‘one day Arthur will come again to save Britain in her hour of need.’
Is that time coming near? I have some thoughts that maybe it is, but it depends on whether or not Morgana can learn the lessons of the past in time to save the future – our future. And this is a theme that I’ll continue to develop in the sequel to I, Morgana.
Tagged: Arthurian, fantasy, Felicity Pulman, guest post, I Morgana, legend, myth, writing
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Posted June 6, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
There’s a reason why a lot of films about writers are terrible. It’s pretty hard to dramatise and visually articulate what is essentially an internal and isolated process.
Similarly, there’s something rather bizarre about writers’ festivals – the thrusting of this process into the public sphere, and creating a gather-round for other writers, readers and culture tourists.
A recent piece by Martin McKenzie-Murray explored this irony, expressing tiredness at the ‘herd of individuals congratulating each other for their uniqueness.’ This is understandable. Particularly in the larger festivals or the more tokenistic events, there is an inescapable feeling that this is all an element of self-serving habit, a navel-gazing compact between writer and audience, exalting at the altar of what writing is.
Some of this is a natural development. Given the isolation of writing as a profession – as just a basic action, in fact – and the divide that always seems to be insisted on between those who do write and those who don’t, grouping a lot of writers together with a lot of people who like writing is going to breed comfort and security, and often indulgence.
It’s practically relief. A whole lot of people there for the same reason, particularly for the arts which are increasingly marginalised and undermined by policies, payments and professional respect, I always get the sense in festivals that it’s a brief moment on everyone’s calendars when they can feel like everything is okay. If just for a moment.
Yes, festivals can give over to sycophancy and it is important to recognise this and call it out. Writing and books and authors are just everyday things and everyday people, and pretending that writing is somehow a profound magical state isn’t doing anyone any favours. The last thing we should want is a great big love-in, without any critical discussion about the state of the industry. With the way we read changing, and the way books are published changing, and the way writing is perceived and paid rapidly changing, festivals are there to embolden the industry, and represent writing to communities that may be losing a sense of understanding and attachment to it.
Additionally, there are things I wish writers’ festivals did more of. Some have become regular features in recent years.
I grow tired of incessant talk-fests sometimes, as I’m sure a lot of people do, and the growing trend of workshops and involved activities for audiences is a great thing. Partly this comes from being a teacher, but if writers’ festivals are to be about writing, then actively creating words is important.
By the same token, schools’ programs are consistently underwhelming. Sure, there is difficulty in providing an extra-curricular occasion that serves and benefits students while incorporating it into a much larger festival, but I worry that too much of these programs end up as tepid q and a’s, rather than folding young readers and writers into valued participation in the festival.
I wish there was more of a space for genre writing at festivals, but this is not a new thing. That festivals are more literary and conventions more genre is perhaps just a settling of who feels more comfortable where, but maybe this is just out of habit and reluctance than anything else. It was great to see an event on blockbusters at the Sydney Writers’ Festival recently, and I think there’s an honesty that comes from engaging with genre writing that strips away any sense of undue reverence or bullshittery that might otherwise fester elsewhere.
And on that note, the increasing focus on deconstructing myths of writing is welcome, particularly in that it signals a shift away from looking at the profession and the industry of writing as Writing and Authors and Very Important Arcane Secrets About Publishing.
I’m not sure if there’s a designated audience for writers’ festivals, but I don’t think there has to be anymore. If there isn’t anything special or different about writers, then there need not be a distinction between those who write and those who don’t, and festivals are a way to bring everyone into the one place and make writing and all that it encompasses important, even if the moment is only fleeting.
It’s not pleasant to think what Melbourne or Sydney or anywhere else would be like without a writers’ festival. For the young and new, the old and published, the good writing and the bad, the popular and the unknown, the paid and unpaid, it’s important to see festivals as part of the process of writing, an awkward and sometimes indulgent part, but necessary all the same.
Tagged: EWF14, MWF, readers, SWF, writers, writers festivals, writing
Posted May 22, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
Recently, I came across this much-seen talk by Simon Sinek, where he describes a model for inspiring action and change. Essentially, Sinek suggests that for a person to inspire others, they need to not start with what they do that is worthy of following, or focus too much on how they do things, but instead discuss why they do what they do. His point being:
‘It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.’
I was presenting this talk to a class, with the aims of discussing how language can persuade and motivate and change a person’s perception, but in exploring the concepts of Sinek’s talk, something else occurred to me that I thought would be quite useful to writing.
The thing is, in an earlier class I had been revisiting another much-seen and shared talk from Neil Gaiman, his ‘Make Good Art’ keynote address in 2012 to the University of the Arts. What occurred to me was a connecting thought between Sinek and Gaiman’s ideas. Particularly, it stemmed from a moment in Gaiman’s address where he describes his rather unplanned approach to a career in writing:
‘I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.’
And with these two moments in mind, these two statements about creating and producing ideas, realisation loomed, like I was one of the apes in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Essentially, I have fallen into a trap of writing the wrong way, focusing too much on writing because I should be writing, rather than writing because it gets to the heart of why I want to write in the first place.
I think this is an easy, even necessary trap for anyone wanting to write for a living. A writer sits down, say, and wants to write a book. They plan and plot and furiously take notes, hoarding them into some disorganised structure that can allow the writing to take place. And so it does: words are written, pages even. Chapters form, and then are discarded. Opinions are included, and discounted, taken from a small selection of people that we either allow to read our writing in its primordial stage, or discuss the ideas with when they are still forming. Eventually, a draft emerges.
The focus is on the writing, on the production. Write and write and write, because otherwise the story isn’t written. The philosophy here is: if one writes a lot, one is a writer. We become focused on what we do, and forget why we do it.
Given the solitary and unstructured nature of writing as a profession, one of the pieces of advice often given is to treat it like a job. Have set hours and disciplines, and view it as a work pursuit, rather than a spare-time hobby. This clearly is a good thing for productivity. The danger here though is if we treat writing as work, it can start to feel like work and not writing. We lose sense of why we’re doing this, of why we chose to write this story, and why the story exists in our imaginations in the first place.
To counter this, I’ve tried to set up a handful of reminders, or questions, using Sinek’s suggestion for starting with the why, and taking Gaiman’s model of not letting writing turn into work.
Why are you writing this story?
Why are you the one to write this story?
Why is this story worth reading?
There could be more, but these seem central to me. They get to the core of the writing process. All other kinds of choices can be made, but if you lose sense of the belief you have in your story, about why it exists and why you’re writing it, the story can run aground.
Obviously, lots of words need to be written and, in order for that to happen, decisions about time and workload need to be considered. And there will be periods of time where the words will just be words, and the story will become drudgery because we all need to get black on white and churn the chapters out. And that’s fine, that’s acceptable. But only if we know where it’s coming from, and where it’s going to. Why we’re writing our story.
The story is what we’re doing. It’s the product we are selling.
We need to know how to achieve that, which requires sacrifice and time and effort.
But ultimately, neither the what nor the how matter if we don’t have a clear idea of why we are writing to begin with. Why this story is worth reading. It’s the difference between writing a story because you feel that’s what people will read, or writing a story and communicating through it a sense of why this story matters to you, and therefore will matter to them.
To finish, Gaiman mentioned a time when Stephen King gave him some advice about his career, which he now realises he ignored and regrets doing so.
‘This is really great. You should enjoy it.’
And not just because I can’t pass up referencing something King said, but enjoying our own work is a necessary thing, for any profession. Any job will become tedious and detrimental if we just get caught up in what we do day after day and forget the reasons behind it. If we believe in our story, if we believe in why we do it, then it will be enjoyable.
And the stories that work, the ones that I enjoy reading, seem to come from the same place.
Tagged: neil gaiman, stephen king, writers, writing, writing tools
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Posted May 15, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
In the last few years I’ve lost a bit of the enthusiasm I once had for literary festivals – be they for writers, books, towns or cities – not because they aren’t enjoyable experiences, but because I feel as if they’re often not really suited for me. Some programs appear to be designed for those who like to dabble in books, or feel as if attending a literary event is an important magnet for their cultural fridge, and occasionally the idea of a festival – a celebration of the written word – seems to bypass those who it matters to most.
Not so for the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the one that I regularly try to fit into my autumnal schedule, as it always seems to have a multitude of events perfectly designed for those who want to write, those who do write, and those who suddenly realise how important writing is in their lives.
It’s on at the perfect Melbourne time, for two weeks from late May into early June, and this year is once again full of events that actually compel me – and hopefully others – to do, rather than to just sit and listen. So much of the festival caters to practical and useful ideas, from those who actually use these ideas. By directing itself at emerging writers, the festival is more a deconstruction of what it is to be a writer and moves away from the myth of The Writer, locating writing as significant and valued pursuit in society.
So while this is a Melbourne festival, I highly recommend making the trip in to the city for anything on offer during the two weeks, if you can at all make it. Here is just a small selection of the events I’m particularly keen on seeing:
Wonderful to see the evolving nature of digital writing and digital mediums given prominence in a writers’ festival, and this full-day event has a range of guests covering topics from game writing, gender representation in digital writing, the expectations of writing in digital environments, and a couple of Momentum folk discussing genre writing as it appears and appeals to digital forms and digital audiences. It’s a huge day, and lots of fascinating topics covered, definitely one to attend.
This sounds fantastic. Absolutely no idea who is presenting in this panel, as the conceit is to turn all the lights off and allow the speakers to discuss the ins and outs of the writing world through the veil of anonymity. From the description of the panel, audience members won’t be allowed to tweet or communicate outside the room as well, so this is clearly something unrepeatable, once-only, be there or miss out opportunity.
Extremely happy to have a ticket to this, also another event with Momentum presence on the panel, but essentially this is an opportunity for writers to get practical and insightful perspectives on publishing, and what happens to writing when it leaves the house. A selection of panellists from different publishers, this is going to be an excellent discussion and analysis on the journey of writing from conception to publication.
One of those panels that just appears to have popped up this year at the perfect time for my own needs and interests, this event is addressing the changing nature of self-publishing and the creation of written work outside of traditional formats and pathways. Everyone on this panel is an expert on the topic of creating and producing by yourself and for others.
Something that I wish I had more knowledge and training in, this is another full-day event, with presenters from all publishing areas discussing the background work on delivering publishable writing. From dealing with submissions, to editing across cultures and languages, and building a career out of editing, the event also includes a series of workshops on editing different styles and forms of writing.
Additionally, I’m fortunate enough to be involved this year on the panel The Future of Teaching Writing, and I’m especially excited to be discussing with others on the panel how and why creative writing could and should be taught, from classrooms to universities and beyond.
The festival kicks off in just under two weeks, and hopefully there’ll be all kinds of excellent information, advice, ideas and writing that I’ll be able to share afterwards. Will keep everyone posted.
Tagged: digital, editing, Emerging Writers Festival, EWF14, publishing, writers festivals, writing
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Posted May 1, 2014 by Craig Hildebrand-Burke
‘The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’
So says Oscar Wilde, but is that always the case? What happens when the good end unhappily?
Recently, in conversation about The Mist – Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King short story – it was discussed how the film not only changed the ending, but constructed one so powerfully negative that it almost overshadowed all the rest of the story. It wasn’t just a negative ending, but one that really shocked the audience and brought home the brutality of the storyteller.
Had it just been a tragic ending, the film might’ve remained shocking but still watchable. As it stands, the ending is not only tragic, we discover minutes later that it was needlessly tragic. And this is awful to endure, illustrating just how much we have been manipulated by the storyteller.
When do unhappy endings work?
Firstly, the tragic narrative needs to be acknowledged. In this case, the tragedy is usually the fact that everybody dies. Or at least, everybody who might have a central part in the narrative, the minor characters are allowed to survive, as witnesses to the tragedy. So that it doesn’t happen again. Hamlet dies avenging his father’s death, by killing his uncle, while his mother is poisoned, so is his rival, some other guy who is standing nearby, and his friends who betrayed him are killed offstage. Romeo and Juliet die as testament to the feud between their families.
In a more modern version of this, Never Let Me Go, the tragedy is that we all die. The journey of the character to this discovery, that it happens to us all, is upsetting to watch, as all tragedy is. This is because we know the ending, on some fundamental level. But we don’t want to know what it is, we want to believe that somehow the magic of the story will intervene and we can live happily ever after. The audience watching Romeo and Juliet is told from the beginning that they will die, we are just distracted from this by the art of the narrative, until the realisation all comes crashing down at the end.
Much of this rests of dramatic irony, and skilled foreshadowing. It relies on the skill of the writer to acknowledge there will be an unhappy ending, but simultaneously create a desire in the audience for it not to be the case. All the way along, we need to believe right up until the end that Hamlet will succeed, that Tommy and Kathy will get a deferral and live a little longer, that Juliet will escape to Mantua with Romeo.
The other unhappy ending, the one more prominent in film, is the surprise. The swift and upsetting moment when we realise that there’s no way out of this, that this is one of those stories. But similarly, there needs to be something there for the audience. We can’t just feel bad. There needs to be something we can takeaway, some element of hope (no matter how small) that one can hang on to in the darkness.
Spoilers follow, naturally.
At the end of Atonement, we discover that not only wasn’t there a great epic romance between Robbie and Cecilia, much of what we’ve witnessed has been part of a creative purgatory the central character Briony created as punishment for her long ago sin. The glimmer of optimism here though is that she can continue to create a happy ending for them in her mind. Perhaps.
In The Vanishing, Rex discovers exactly what happened to his wife – she was buried alive. He discovers this by having the same fate befall him. However, what drove him to this point was his desire to know, a desire that overthrew the rest of his life. Now he knows.
Rosemary’s Baby concludes with the shock that Rosemary’s newborn is actually the spawn of Satan, and yet she can still be his mother, having feared all throughout the plot that this would be taken away from her.
And in Seven, in what is cinematically close to a classical tragedy, and arguably one of the greatest – unhappiest? – of down endings, John Doe the serial killer is able to execute his design perfectly, trapping the hero Mills into becoming a murderer himself. But, Mills’ partner Somerset – the witness to the tragedy – is able to continue on, working to conceivably fight for what little good he can see in the world.
(Oddly enough, I think that final voiceover of Somerset’s was added at the studio’s behest, and the director hates it, thinking it incongruous with the rest of the story.)
It’s depressing just writing those, actually.
Unhappy endings are hard to execute, as it’s all too easy for the story to focus on the unhappiness, rather than letting the audience feel as if it is a natural, albeit tragic, conclusion to the plot.
There needs to be a reason to witness the story, to experience something that doesn’t go the way we’d hope, otherwise it’s exploitation. This is where I feel The Mist went wrong, in that it showed its hand too much, revealed too far how much the narrative was working to upset the audience, and we can’t recover from that.
It’s a sliding scale I think, from happy to bittersweet, to ambiguous, to unhappy, to exploitative. All stories exist somewhere along that scale, but I think I need a dose of the happier ones, just for now.Tagged: Books, endings, films, story, tragedy, writing
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Posted April 28, 2014 by Charlotte McConaghy
1. World Building: What if this continues?
Whether you do this as your first job or your last, building your world carefully and meticulously is one of the most important aspects of all spec-fiction. This doesn’t just apply to fantasy writers who can literally make up new worlds and therefore have both more freedoms and more difficulties in the task, but to science-fiction writers, horror writers—all spec-fic writers. Making changes to our existing world can feel a bit like a trap, but as long as you think as honestly and as logically as possible, you shouldn’t have too many people yelling ‘that doesn’t make sense!’ (Who are we kidding—there will always be some.)
Science-fiction exists to teach, engage, inspire, warn, excite and frighten. If something frightens you about the world, then chances are it will frighten others. Ask yourself What if this continues? What if these actions, or this train of thought, or this behavior continues? What will it mean for the world? (For example what if we really do become capable of singularity—that one really freaks me out.) And then let your imagination run wild. And you aren’t only tapping into fear, but wonder, awe, beauty. Take us up and forward and give us new realities that are based on what we know, what we desire, what we fear. Peel back the layers of comfort and show us what hides in the shadows of the world—and in the dark interiors of ourselves.
Human hubris is an important theme in science-fiction, for what frightens and excites us most as humans is our obsession with progress—an aspect of humanity that will never fade or die. We didn’t learn from Icaris who flew too high and died for it. We know this. We fear this. And that’s why we write about it: to teach, engage, inspire, warn, excite and frighten.
So use yourself as the test—whatever it is that engages you as a person will be what you use to shape your world. Really challenge yourself to think deeply, allow yourself to be confronted and inspired, because there’s no use in building a world that won’t provoke your readers.
2. Multiple POV and Time Periods
I personally love multiple points of view—I would never be able to write an entire novel from the one perspective, but that’s just a personal preference. If you’re trying to work out whether or not to use multiple POV, perhaps understanding the benefits will help you decide.
The main one, for me, is being able to see a character—particularly a protagonist inside whose head we’ve just inhabited—from another character’s perspective. Give the reader an intimate insight into what a character is thinking, and then let us see how another perceives them. There’s a great gap inherent in that—how are they really coming across? How do their actions make other people feel? It paints a more thorough picture, one with more complexity—because we are never quite what we seem to others. You also learn an awful lot about the second character, their perceptions and what they are managing to interpret in the protagonist.
It all boils down to the fact that as readers, we want to know the characters of the world, without having them all blurt out every little thing they’re thinking—there’s nothing worse than too much expositional dialogue. Having multiple POV allows for more subtext between characters and conflicting perspectives, which will help you to argue your premise.
Multiple time periods is another interesting tool that can be put to use. It sounds like it’s going to be confusing and it is, but there’s a simple trick to it. There are two rules to using multiple time periods: first, only use two different periods and work out the chronological events of both timelines separately. Second, move between the two time periods by only cutting away from one at a cliffhanger or twist. That way no matter how great one time period is, readers will be itching to know what’s going on in the other—and that’s the main point of having two running simultaneously: you get to create more tension, more intrigue. Which brings us to the number one reason people keep reading: to know what’s going to happen next.
Science-fiction tends to fit within a scale of soft to hard science. Hard meaning real science that exists in the world today; soft meaning made up science that can often lean more towards fantasy. There is no right or wrong—both are just as valid as the other. But regardless of whether or not you’re writing hard or soft fantasy, I can’t stress the importance of researching enough. You don’t have to lay it on too thick in the book—we’re not reading a research paper—but it’s really great for you as the author to know what’s going on behind the scenes in the engine of the book. This will come through in drips and drabs and make the world feel more authentic.
Character is key. It is everything. The most imaginative and clever worlds will fail to engage readers if you don’t also have fantastic characters to live within these worlds. When I wrote Fury, my protagonist Josephine existed long before I had the idea of a society with negative emotions being erased. She existed outside this world, helped to shape her surrounds, and gave birth to every tiny aspect of the science-fiction within the book.
Your character must be flawed. They must have desires and fears and contradictions, but you also have to think about how these elements of the character reflect and counterpoint the flaws of the world. The struggle your protagonist goes through on their journey should hold within it the premise of the world, the argument you are posing. If you can embody the theme of your story within your character, you have done the hardest and most important job of all.
Don’t forget, also, little things like having romantic characters who challenge the character to live in their essence—who they really are—instead of in the false identity they create and must eventually shed. The romantic character, as well as the antagonist, will force your protagonist to learn something, and you want readers to learn with them.
Take as much care with your side characters as you do with your main characters. Make them distinct and complex. Allow their qualities to be varying. Give them opinions and beliefs and fears that flesh them out as characters and they will in turn flesh out your world.
And lastly, make sure your protagonist is active. Give them something to do, a goal or desire that is properly motivated and compelling, and then make it really, really difficult for the character to achieve that end. It’s only by throwing problems at them that we can learn who they really are—the choices a character makes are the embodiments of their personality. The harder you make these choices, the more pressure you put on them, the more interesting things get.
5. Be Bold: Premise
What are you really trying to say? What do you want readers to think about? What do you want them to feel? What concerns you, conflicts you, makes your heart swell?
You don’t have to have all the answers—you just have to ask the questions.
And do this by being bold. Don’t concern yourself with offending anyone. Just ask the big, hard questions and demand a lot from your readers. Write ambitiously, write with passion and write with courage. Who cares what other people think? Follow your heart; it beats with as much validity as anyone else’s.