Editing: KonMari your writing and declutter your prose

Reading Time: 4 minutes
KonMari book
Marie Kondo’s bestselling book demonstrates how to tidy your space. But why not KonMari your writing as well as your house with the same simple principles?

Tidying the house is exhausting. It’s physically tiring because of all the running up and down stairs with items which need relocating from room to room. But more than that, it’s mentally exhausting because of all the small KonMari decisions you need to make as you tidy. Keep or toss? Put it with similar items or have a spare set of them in this room as well as that room? Charity shop or recycling? Can I eBay it? Can I please stop now?

Writing is also a morass of tiny decisions – every character needs to sit or stand or speak or do nothing, every sentence must have rhythm and sense, every word must mean exactly what you intend, and this all takes place in a setting which you must design in its entirety. Wouldn’t it be great to have a system you could use to declutter your writing in the same way you declutter your house?  Wouldn’t it be great to be able to make those editing decisions with confidence, kowing that what is left is exactly what you need and love?

William Morris has a famous saying: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”  Marie Kondo, AKA KonMari, the Japanse tidying guru, believes that you should only possess things which ‘spark joy’ when you touch them. These tenets simplify tidying decisions.  If it’s not useful and sparks no joy – it goes. Easy.

Using these ideas, my house now contains less junk, less of the things I previously had two or three of, and more free space. Now, if I need to declutter, it’s only a surface layer built up during a busy period – and my task is simpler because I know the rules by which I keep or ditch each item.

So a couple of years ago I began applying this principle to my writing. At the time, I was writing fanfiction, a chapter a night, two or three different stories at once. In fanfiction, people don’t have time to read long stuff. (Sometimes a reader tells me they stayed up all night and finished my book-length fanfic in one gulp, which is flattering – but the exception rather than the rule). People read in snatched moments, while the dinner is on, or while commuting. So every chapter needs to be snappy, and every chapter must move the story on or deliver gratification in some way. *

This approach simplifies writing decisions. I have a continual internal dialogue with myself which goes like this:

-What’s the point of this scene? (points to lengthy section detailing a trip to a market square).

-It gives local colour of the market in this fantasy town, and shows how I’ve invented amazing foodstuffs for my characters’ breakfast!

-OK, so do we learn anything except that there’s a market and my characters have breakfast?

-Uh, there’s a bit of gossip they pick up about the Plot.

-Right. I can put that in on their way to the Palace.

Decision: 1500 words gone, replaced with the line, After breakfast in the market…

I find these decisions go double for dialogue. If I find a raft of to-and-fro while a character updates another character with what’s happened in the previous chapter – I usually ditch it. I am especially suspicious of relating phone conversations where everyone on this end of the line already knows what’s gone on: dull. If there’s a funny line or two, I cut and paste it into my ‘edited out/keep for next time’ document (see below for more on this.) I have loads of hilarious exchanges between my hero and his friend – but they did not fit with what their scenes needed to achieve.

Decision: unnecessary dialogue gone, replaced with tell-not-show lines such as, I brought him up to date with events at the temple…

But what about sentimental items, you may wonder – in your house, this might be ornaments given to you by departed loved ones, or memorabilia from a wonderful trip. In writing, these are the beloved scenes which are your absolute favourites, or which inspired the whole story. The FlyLady has a solution for this tidying problem – take a photo of the thing and get rid of it. That way you still ‘have’ it – the ugly vase, the mountain of your children’s’ drawings – but you don’t have to store it.

You can apply the same idea to writing. If you have a beloved scene which makes you laugh or cry or which is just too adorable or clever to delete – cut and paste it into a separate, Edited Out document, and store it well away from the finished work. That way you have not lost it, but it’s not cluttering up your manuscript either. (Della Galton, veteran womag writer,  has a policy of never throwing away stories, even ones which have found no favour over years of editing and resubmission. One time she told a group of us that she rewrote a story editors hated, but which she loved,  about ten times before finally rewriting it from the point of view of cats and submitting it to a cat lover magazine. Bingo – success. )

Decision: the great scene in which my hero is obliged to dance with his friend’s abrasive sister, gone. I love that scene. But I’ll find another story where it moves the plot forward for the hero to be blackmailed into a foxtrot.

All right, so in a genre plot you can trim out the non-essentials. But what about literary fiction? Well, the beautiful/useful rule can be applied here too.  Literary language is meant to spark joy. So you are still watching for pointless scenes, but in lit fic, the ‘point’ might be it’s just so beautiful. (I think. I only distantly appreciate lit fic. The subject matter is mostly too miserable for my taste.)

In my own writing, I try to include only things which move the story forward, or are vital for the reader to experience the setting. I’ve got more work to do – a lot more work – before my writing is as lean and efficient as it should be – but with these principles beside me, alongside my trusty KonMari book, it is not as exhausting as it seems.

How do you tidy your writing?  Let me know in the comments.

Resources:

Spark Joy by Marie Kondo the global phenomenon that is KonMari explains her guiding principles for a tidy and beautiful living space.

The FlyLady – a system for avoiding chaos in your home and your life.

William Morris

Della Galton

*There is a whole genre of fanfiction known as fluff, which basically requires zero plot and is one hundred percent indulgence of favourite fantasies about your beloved characters – Sherlock and John getting a puppy for Christmas, for example. So plot is unimportant, but the beautiful/useful rule still applies – a chapter without squee is a chapter that wastes the reader’s time).

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Book Blog: The Voyage of the Dolphin – truth and lies in memoir

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Voyage of the Dolphin - fiction or memoir
Take scant facts and transform them into wild adventures

Life writing can take many forms – but how much truth, and how much fiction, do you put into a novel inspired by real events? What details do you put in, and what can you leave out? How do you handle dialogue and other parts you cannot know? Even if you are working from a pile of historical evidence such as ship’s logs or diaries, how can you be sure that their creators are reliable? How do you make the story of a real life interesting to people other than close relatives? How can you draw from real events a theme or lesson, and give your memoir a structure that actual, messy life cannot have?

Kevin Smith’s book, The Voyage of the Dolphin, appears to

memoir 1
My grandmother hand-wrote her memories when she was 90 – only up to 1946 but we treasure these notes.

be a fictionalised account of a true event in the life of his grandfather: a journey by three Irishmen to the Arctic in 1916, to attempt to recover the bones of a ‘giant’ who perished on an even earlier mission. The voyage takes place against the backdrop of the First World War and the Easter Uprising in Dublin, where the three protagonists are studying at Trinity College. The specifics of life in Dublin at the start of the twentieth century are sharp and precise; the horrors

The specifics of life in Dublin at the start of the twentieth century are sharp and precise; the horrors of a steam and sail powered journey into frozen waters seem straight out of Shackleton’s diaries. And yet as Smith’s tale moves on, the reader becomes ever more suspicious of the veracity of the events.  In the final chapters, as the voyagers reach the seas around Greenland, the reader’s belief is stretched to snapping point, until at the end there is only a wistful feeling, a sigh at how wonderful it would be if all this really had happened.

So what is going on with this story inspired by a real life? How can any of that last section be true? (No spoilers: what happens is possible – just – but makes you question everything you know about the Arctic…) It’s an amazing story, though,  comical and dark, thrilling and visceral. Would it have been as enthralling without those almost-unbelievable elements?

Many people dream of writing true-life stories – their own, or that of a relative.  There may be diaries or letters for inspiration and detail, or just the memories jotted down. My grandmother wrote down the story of her life during the War, laboriously, in giant writing wth a black marker pen, because her eyesight had gone.  My cousin scanned them, and now we grandchildren each have a copy. Small details, that none of us knew before, came out in these hand-printed notes.

And yet, even working from direct evidence such as this, ‘truth’ writing poses many challenges, particularly, verifying how much of it really took place. I would be thrilled if my grandfather had written his own memoir of the same period – for contrast! As it stands, we only have our own memories of the stories we were told as children. Over a glass of wine with one of my cousins, we discovered that we had each received a separate set of anecdotes from our grandparents, which did not seem to overlap. I heard mine in the 1970s and 80s, she, much younger, heard these stories in the  1990s. Both of us were learning of events from half a century before. How much was true? How much was misremembered, or embellished after an extra 20 years of retelling?

And … does it matter?

lavatory seats memoir 2
Intimate or weird details make a true life story more compelling. Outside lavatories and bed bugs in the 1930s. Ugh.

It’s possible – likely – that our grandparents’ stories were not quite as thrilling as they seemed. I recall a conversation between my grandparents and some of their friends, about the War. My grandmother Vera said, “Oh, it was a wonderful time, really.” Her friend Joe said, “No, it wasn’t. You were always terrified for your life, afraid a bomb was going to drop on you. It was a terrible time.” And there in that room I realised that the version of the War I’d always believed, a rather romantic version, belonged to my grandmother, and that everyone else had their own experience of events. Joe’s reality seemed more plausible to me. But that too was only his opinion. Which version would you write down in a memoir or novelisation of a real life?

In fact, it doesn’t matter which version you choose, or whether you embellish the facts a little for interest, a little for continuity because chunks of your source material are missing, or a whole lot because it makes a much better story. What matters is that as a writer, you choose consciously how you present the events. Choose the purpose of your life writing and hang your version of events on that:

If it is a personal memoir for your friends and family, you can have a loose structure and no ‘moral’ of the story. Your readers will be familiar with the places and people involved, and they will have their own life’s structure to make sense of the stories you tell.

In a novelisation of an important part of a life, your readers will want a start, middle and end of the story, and a sense of purpose driving towards the outcome. So a memoir of adventures in wartime, might need to be bookended with aspirations growing up which led to becoming a soldier, and the results of the soldier’s experience of battle.  Or there might be a structure you can use based around a specific mission, or a specific period such as basic training – something to give a sense of progress through the book.

Some life writing is simply a series of anecdotes, often humorous – but these still need to be tied together by a common theme (lessons learned? time spent in a particular city?) or they will appear as no more than random memories.

For all life writing, look for the most striking, the most unusual or untold aspects of the story. You may not want commercial success with the book, but even your best friends may tire of reading about everyday events. Look for the weird occupations, the strange coincidences and the stories of bedbugs and lavatory seats – see my grandmother’s notes on those, above…

Returning to The Voyage of the Dolphin, it turns out that Smith’s book is not based on real events at all – far from it. It is not a memoir. One of the characters is named after his grandfather. There were no diaries, and crucially, there was no trip to the Arctic. Kevin Smith says he made the whole thing up.  He was wondering about his grandfather’s life, and wanted to give him a fantastic alternative life history – and so wrote this thrilling tale of polar exploration and stowaways and indestructible dogs. And I think it’s all the better for the fiction liberally daubed over the fact.

Get the book: The Voyage of the Dolphin, by Kevin Smith

Read more about life writing:

Your Life as Story, Tristine Rainer

Open University Creative Writing coursebook

Have your written a memoir, or are you writing one? What are you putting in, and what are you leaving out? How much truth will you include… and how much fiction? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Book blog – contrasting fantasy worlds

Reading Time: 2 minutes
magical fantasy by ruthanne reid
Half-Shell Prophecies

I’m currently reading two quite different fantasy novels – Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, by David Barnett, and the newly-released Half-Shell Prophecies, by Ruthanne Reid.

Barnett’s book, the second in the series, continues the adventures of Gideon Smith, a former fisherman and now official Hero, in a steampunk Victorian world where men can be kept alive by steam-powered prosthetics, and a dead woman’s brain can be placed into a clockwork body. The daring female air ‘stat pilot, the corpulent author of penny bloods, the Ninja warriors of the Japanese-Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragonmaintained territory of California and the slavers beyond the Mason-Dixon Wall – all these characters and more populate Barnett’s seething pages. He has created a rich, detailed world of sights and smells and sounds, often grotesque but always interesting.

Reid’s book is by turns funny and psychedelic. It follows the fortunes of a woman tasked with unravelling the mysterious foretellings of a clamshell – which doesn’t sound like a traditional fantasy, probably because it’s not. Reid’s vivid descriptions hurl the reader into the story of many, many hidden worlds and their multifaceted magic systems. The sarcasm of the heroine, and the clamshell, bring light relief from the intensity. The enemies are terrifying and their magic is blisteringly original. The pace is relentless,  but the humour keeps it readable.

The things I enjoy about both books must be my pointers for writing my own fantasies:

  • chaotic travels to strange new worlds
  • unique magic system/technology
  • immersive details of daily life
  • sexy characters
  • diverse characters
  • sarcastic protagonist
  • alternate history of our world
  • romance
  • plenty of humour
  • promise of more stories to come

To this, for my own taste, and despite the fashion for misery, I would always add:

  • a happy ending (because my fantasy is to live in a world which offers these)

What’s your wishlist of fantasy fiction components?

Get the books:

Half-Shell Prophecies, Ruthanne Reid

Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon, David Barnett

 

 

 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Lessons from imitation – writing like others

Reading Time: 3 minutes
jeeves-and-the-wedding-bells imitation of wodehouse
Imitation offers writers the chance to practise new rhythms and language

I first read Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks a couple of years ago, when it was published amid a slew of well-known authors venturing into fanfiction. There was this by the award-winning Faulks, but also Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, (not to mention the rest of Austen’s titles reimagined as part of a wider project) new Sherlock Holmes titles by Anthony Horwitz, Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James, and more – each of which involved not just creating a fresh story, but imitation  of the original author’s style.  I have already blogged here about Longbourn by Jo Baker, and using others’ work as a jumping off point for your own inspiration. In this case, Faulks set out to write a new story about Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, the duo created in 1919 by PG Wodehouse. And I’m fascinated by Faulks’ skilled mimicry.

I am re-reading the book for pleasure, but also to examine again how Faulks achieves such closely-observed imitation of Wodehouse’s  light touch and precision humour. It’s not absolutely perfect, but what could be? Wodehouse wrote almost 100 books, and a quick count suggests that I’ve read 38 of them, so I am rather familiar with his style. (Also, good news: 60-odd more books to read, if I can find them!)

Pinpointing what works in an impersonation, and what doesn’t, is great practice at close reading. It encourages you to examine not just the language used by the original author but also the rhythm, and the manner of sentence construction.

I find badly-chosen language is the first thing that jumps out. Elizabeth Bennet exclaiming, “Oh my God!”  in casual conversation would leap from the page as something not found in the Austen originals. (Austen’s characters do say God at times – but the word is presented as “G-” when used as a curse, and only used otherwise in extreme circumstances.) Anachronistic language identifies a fake too – Dickensian characters ‘tuning out’ a boring conversation, or a Bronte heroine saying a carriage went ‘like the clappers’ – radio-related slang, and WW2 RAF slang respectively.

So how can we writers use imitation to improve our craft?

Different hats. As teenagers, we often try on different styles, different personas as we work out the kinds of adults we might become. I think as a writer it’s good to do the same, whether you’re a teenager or not. Try to be Dickens, or Austen, or Grisham or Child. Let’s face it, it would be pretty cool to be them, or maybe JK. So why not? Try on their styles.
Mad mashups. These pieces are for practice. Clash together unlikely style and subject matter. Try sci-fi noir in the style of Brontë. Write a Georgian comedy of manners in the style of Chandler.  Applying a style deliberately to unlikely content will also ensure that you are not copying these authors’ stories, only their execution.
Elementary, my dear Watson. Mimicry is good for developing distinctive character voices, too. Fanfiction is great for this. When you need Spock to sound like Spock, it’s no good if he giggles and describes stuff as awesome. He has to use the right language, in the right rhythm, or it simply won’t convince the fans. Pick a fictional character you like and give them lines. What makes Mr Darcy distinctive? Try dry, restrained language, short sentences, drop in some signs of classical education.  How would you know that it is Hermiine Granger speaking? Adopt a rather acidic tone, cut with earnestness, and use long sentences with impatient endings.
Focusing on the capture of these distinctive characters gives you good experience when you come to check your own work. Do all your characters speak in the same way? How could a reader tell them apart without the dialogue tags? Sometimes watching TV you can tell if one character’s line had been given to another, to balance out the scene. It jars a little  if the characters are well enough drawn. Listen for individual tics and habits.
All these imitations feed into the creative decisions you make about your own work. Trying on other voices helps you become aware of your own. What style will you adopt?

Imitation – references and resources:

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells – a brand new Bertie Wooster story by Sebastian Faulks.

PG Wodehouse official website

The Austen project – contemporary authors reimagine Jane Austen’s classics.

Sherlock Holmes – new stories in the original style, by Anthony Horwitz.

Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James – what happened after Elizabeth and Darcy were married.

How I write fanfiction – nine tips from me, for success in a very busy creative world.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Book Blog – The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing

Reading Time: 2 minutes
The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing
The Petticoat Men by Barbara Ewing

The Petticoat Men tells the story of the owners of a boarding house where two men rented rooms – two men later arrested for the charge of dressing in women’s clothing. It’s set in 1870 and is based on the true story of the Lord Arthur Clinton scandal, involving the Prime Minister, Gladstone, and members of the royal family.

But the novel’s focus is not on the so-called Petticoat Men, or on the powerful people who knew them – but on the powerless, those affected by the scandal through no fault of their own. Mattie, a girl with a deformed foot, runs the boarding house with her mother – she is labelled a ‘crippled whore’ and their house is graffiti-ed as the ‘home of sodomites’. Mattie’s brother Billy finds his clerk’s  job at Parliament under threat because of his association with the case. Without wealth, without power, how can these people undo the harm that’s been done?

The tone of the book is interesting – at no point do any who know the Petticoat Men judge them unkindly. Only strangers, and the laws banning Indecent Acts, treat them harshly.

The book is written from many viewpoints – first-person for Mattie and her mother, close-third-person for Billy, and a weird semi-close-third person mixed with omniscient-narrator for Mr Gladstone and the rest of the large cast. I found this rather off-putting, and would rather it be third person throughout. The dialogue and the quotes from newspapers and letters are exciting enough to keep the reader’s interest. I didn’t find the two first-person voices distinct enough to warrant their use.

There were a few parts I skimmed over, mostly where rich people bemoaned their fate. The theme of influence, in its various forms, runs throughout the narrative.

The strangest omission to me is that we never see the viewpoint of Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, the Petticoat Men themselves, or know what they thought of any of it – or even, really, what they did, beyond the charges levelled at them. I’d be curious to know more about these men, who lived their lives so differently to the accepted social norm, who appear to be gay  – it is not clear for a long time in the narrative – and who also simply enjoy wearing women’s clothes.

I have whizzed through this book in a couple of days because of its high-stakes story about an aspect of Victorian life new to me, but I feel it could have done more with such an unusual topic and colourful cast of characters. There was a more satisfying ending than I expected, so that was good.

I can see that Ewing has written a large number of other fiction books, with titles hinting at some of my key interests – archaeology, hypnotism, circuses, New York –  so I will be looking out for more by her in the future.

There are several photos of the people involved in this story and I must say I find these fascinating. The narrative says that Ernest looked, even when dressed as a man, like a woman in man’s clothes, and I can see from the pictures how this could be the case.

The Petticoat Men, Barbara Ewing

Lord Arthur Clinton and photo of him with Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton

Photo of the real Petticoat Men

Neil McKenna also wrote a history of the Petticoat Men, and this photo of Ernest Boulton is from his website.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Nanowrimo Blog Day 2 – stop marketing and just write

Reading Time: 2 minutes
National Novel Writing Month AKA Nanowrimo
It’s good to know I’ll be writing 1660 words a day, every day, for a month. Nanowrimo is awesome.

Today I was reminded of something important, especially during Nanowrimo: don’t read a ton of stuff about marketing a book you have not finished yet.

I don’t mean you should plough ahead and actually share your book with the world without learning the best way to promote that book. I mean, don’t think about selling a thing  – a fictional thing* – while you’re still creating it. Why? Because it will stop you in your tracks. I speak from personal experience here.

Instead of thinking, right, next scene, how to describe my hero’s reaction to this horrifying discovery, you’ll be consumed with ideas about the cover design, how to get people to sign up to your blog’s mailing list, and what you’ll say to the TV anchor when you’re interviewed about your runaway bestseller.

All of this is a massive waste of time during Nano – or any committed creative project. And trying to imagine the best way to sell a thing, when you don’t yet know what the thing will be, seems impossible as well as foolish.

Plenty of advice will tell you to begin marketing your book while still writing it. Well, maybe they’re right – if your first draft is finished/if it’s a non fiction book / if you have planned your writing to such an extent that really all you’re doing it typing.  However, if your creative heart is engaged, leave marketing til later. You are creating something new and it is still forming and growing. Give it space. Sell it when you know what you’ve got.

Oh, and whatever you do, do not launch Canva and start trying out book covers. This is a guaranteed way to lose an afternoon. Leave those fancy fonts alone until December. The freebie graphic design tool will still be there, and you’ll have a much better idea of what to put on the front of your book.**

So today’s Thing to remember: Sell when your first draft is finished, not before.

*Much of the Sell It Before You Write It advice seems to be aimed at nonfiction authors, which is fair enough. They are working with known quantities.

**I’m going to contradict myself regarding when to think about your book cover, very soon. Maybe tomorrow.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Twist and steal – grasping inspiration from other books

Reading Time: 3 minutes
img_20160922_082805
Stealing from the original, then making it your own

I’m reading Longbourn, which re-tells Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view. It is not a new idea to imagine a classic as told by a minor character (see Wide Sargasso Sea, Mists of Avalon …) but it made me wonder about more ways to create new stories, using the steal and twist method.

For example: I could rewrite The Musketeers from the viewpoint of their long-suffering grooms; see Sherlock Holmes as told by Moriarty; have Nicholas Nickelby’s sister Kate tell of miserable life at the milliner’s.

So far, so fanfiction. What else could we glean for inspiration? I made a list of 6 elements you might steal – and twist to make them your own.

Religion and customs. In Fly by Night Frances Hardinge created  a world where children are named for the saint-day they are born on, and churches are filled with the idols of these thousands of little gods. Who are the gods in your world, what do the temples look like, how are children named and does your name, like Mosca’s, mean you are doomed to be unlucky?

1996-bath-pulteney-bridge
Pulteney Bridge in Bath. I took this photo 20 years ago of the south side. Below shows the less glamorous north side . The contrast between public and private Pulteney Bridge still fascinates me.

Setting. William Gibson’s story Virtual Light is set on the ruined San Francisco bridge, where the dispossessed live among the remnants of our age. The bridge is a town in itself. Bath has its own inhabited bridge, and the old London Bridge like many others, had houses and shops on it.

© Copyright Steve Daniels and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of living at a crossing point – a border, maybe a tollhouse, an island in a river (like the Abhorsen’s house in Sabriel) or any place which is neither one thing nor the other, and forms its own society. What weird place can your characters live and work?

Backstory. Minor characters are a goldmine. The chef shoved aside as enemies chase through his kitchen, the female assassin’s best friend, the child saved in passing by the superhero – what are their histories and how do their lives continue after the main story is done? Sometimes I fall for a character in a film and want to know more. (Actually, this happens all the time. I am incorrigible.) Pick a glimpsed character and imagine the rest.

Premise. Obviously the premise of a book can’t be lifted and re-used, or the author would be upset. (Unless you’re John Christopher, who actually wrote all of The Tripods before somebody said to him, weren’t those created by HG Wells???) But say – someone who can travel through time, listening for the sound of children crying; a circus which appears in the night and vanishes before dawn; an entire world lurking beneath London, hinted at by the Tube map. These are all marvellous ideas and you must NOT steal them, but perhaps you can twist them to see where it might take you. What would the world be like underneath Cardiff – or above Cairo, hidden in the air? What if you could smell loneliness, or taste it on the wind? What if the circus fails to vanish at the right time, like Cinderella missing her coach home?

Pivotal moment. What if, after Holmes plunges over the Reichenbach Falls with Moriarty, Watson shrugs, relieved, and sets up his own detective agency? What if Jane Eyre never returned to Rochester but instead went off with StJohn and had adventures in Africa (bit of a stretch, that. You’d have to make StJohn a million times less sickly). Reverse the key moment in the story and see where it would go. Don’t do it with Indiana Jones, though – as Amy points out in Big Bang Theory, it makes no difference to the outcome if Jones acts or does nothing.

Mash ups. I love these. What if Jeeves went off to work for Miss Marple? How about Mr Darcy secretly fighting off highwaymen? (I already did this, sorry). What if George Smiley checked into the Second Best Marigold Hotel?

With all of these ideas, you’re not aiming to make copies of the items you steal. You’re not a fraudster, changing the names and claiming the credit. Ageing spy checks into retirement home in unusual location – that’s its own thing. So is dammit the big top is meant to disappear at dawn, why is the milkman staring at our magical lion tamers? So begin with a minor theft, then expand and digress. Clash together two old ideas into a brand new premise.

Start it like fanfiction, then make it your own. Happy thieving!

Steal and twist:

  1. Find an element in an existing story that niggles at you, that you can’t let go of.
  2. Maybe clash it together with a second element to create a mashup.
  3. Twist the elements, bringing minor characters to the fore, or using a background aspect as the principal setting, or placing disparate characters in the same place and time.
  4. Voila! A brand new idea ready for expansion.

—Suggestions for mashups and thefts always welcome. -Sef—

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Book blog: Save the Cat (and your logline)

Reading Time: 3 minutes
The cat's OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?
The cat’s OK but can it save my story structure and give me a great logline?

If you struggle with story structure, theme, or bookending your work with definite character progression, then Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide, Save the Cat! is a must-read. I started this book last week and I’ve re-read parts of it so many times already, in particular his guidance on creating a killer story premise or logline. I’ve done Snyder’s writing exercises, and read out loud to friends the industry-insider anecdotes that Snyder scatters throughout his book.

This book addresses my primary story writing weaknesses: the logline (I’ve never had one) and story beats (I have them but they judder like a bad-news cardiogram). Since reading this book, I’ve been working on both, and found the writing growing stronger every time.

Snyder refuses to let you start your brilliant story until you can say, in a simple sentence or logline, what your story is. The logline forces you to examine the premise of your idea, and tests if it is strong enough to carry a whole story. His conviction that there must be something ironic about the logline, something that draws in the audience with its promise of trouble or fun, echoes CS Lakin’s advice that every good story must have a ‘concept with a kicker‘.

I found working on loglines incredibly helpful. Having to produce a logline strengthens every idea. Maybe you have this idea about a guy who wins a million pounds. OK, but what’s the irony – the kicker?  How about if the guy is the worst possible person to win because…  he’s got a week to live… he daren’t let his family get their hands on it…the love of his life hates wealth … he just became a monk … he’s just been put in jail -? A rich guy who got lucky isn’t enough of a story. The worst possible rich guy, a rich guy with an ironic reason why he can’t enjoy his new wealth…that could be the start of something.

Snyder uses the example of the movie Four Christmases to illustrate his insistence that your logline – and your title – must answer the audience’s question: what is it? In this case – it’s a couple who must endure four separate Christmases with their  double set of divorced parents. The irony? The couple are ready to commit to marriage and want out of their parents’ disastrous relationship history.

Snyder’s other piece of pure gold in  this book (among lots, lots more that is high value) is his beat sheet: fifteen points through which every successful story must pass. He demonstrate how every smash-hit movie fits this structure, whether it be Miss Congeniality or Elf. The three-act structure will be familiar if you’ve looked at work by James Scott Bell or KM Weiland – but has just 15 points, including the opening and closing images which define for your audience how the hero has changed.

For these 15 points, Snyder suggests a maximum of 40 scenes. He’s dealing with movies, but that’s a good number to go for in a novel too – you may end up with more, but 40 is nicely achievable. And only 15 points to hit, including start and end – that feels eminently doable!

This book is encouraging throughout and avoids the hectoring tone employed by some other story structure books. The examples are memorable and entertaining – the Pope in the Pool! – and their lessons are easy to learn. I know I will be watching for the hero’s ‘save the cat’ moment in the next film I see, and in every story. because if the hero doesn’t show humanity, even a tiny bit of it, then for Snyder, he ain’t the hero.

I recommend this book without reservation. The only downside is that now, as well as writing novels, I want to write a movie.

Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder


Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet has been adapted by various writing blogs, including this one  on Jami Gold’s website. You could also set up this structure in Scrivener, which would be great for shuffling around your scene ideas.

Scrivener's corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.
Scrivener’s corkboard view is great for shuffling around scenes within your story structure.

 

 

 

 

 

The four essential elements of a logline are:

  • Irony – it must give an involving and dramatic situation.
  • Compelling mental picture – a whole movie, including its timeframe, must be implied.
  • Audience and cost – for novels, the target audience and tone.
  • Killer title – says what the story is, in a clever way.
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Book blog: You’re a Writer – So Start Acting Like One

Reading Time: 1 minute
Stand up and be a writer.
Stand up and be a writer. Gormley statues, Formby.

I’ve just finished reading this book by Jeff Goins. I love it. I love how the power of just saying and believing those words – I am a writer – makes amazing things happen. I love how hard work and self belief combined can do great things. And I love how your life is still OK  even if the hard work has not, yet, paid off.

Yet this is not all hand-holding and cheerleading. This book details specific strategies to ‘just write’ and for promoting your work. Goins’ aim is that you reach a point where you can write, and your work promotes itself. For many of us, that is the dream, and Goins is showing a way of achieving it.

This is a short book but a great one. Be a writer: get it.

You are a Writer – So Start Acting Like One – Jeff Goins

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Book blog: Say ‘oo’ to induce terror

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Use the sound of words to create specific moods.
Use the sound of words to create specific moods.

Rayne Hall’s book details many useful techniques for writing fight scenes. The chapters are mostly divided by the type of weapon being used – Sword, Club, Firearms etc – and the book also identifies fights as either gritty or entertaining, and guides on psychology.  The part that captivated me, though, was on how to use specific word sounds to control a reader’s mood.

Hall has written a separate book devoted to what she terms ‘euphonics’ – subtly creating atmosphere in the reader’s mind through the use of  words with a particular sound.  For example, she suggests using words with ‘oo’ sounds to generate a feeling of impending doom in the reader.  This goes further than deliberate use of assonance: Hall suggests that sounds are linked to specific emotions.

There is research to back up this idea, as outlined in articles linking ‘i’ to happiness for example, or ‘oa’ to negative moods.  It seems to be connected to the expressions our faces must make while pronouncing certain words aloud – ‘cheese’ makes you grin, ‘moan’ makes your face long and sad.

Does it work when reading silently? Hall says yes.  I don’t know. It’s a fascinating idea though and I will be looking out for it in others’ fiction. I’ll let you know the results.

In the rest of the book, there are chapters on male and female fighting styles and dis/advantages, plus ideas for battles and sieges. Hall provides a useful template for any fight scene, to be adapted to suit, and guidance on how to fit your fight to your genre.

Hall gives many specific tips – such as to describe how the ground feels underfoot during the fight scene – to root the reader in the moment. Another tip is to use short sentences for action scenes, and longer ones for the aftermath. She is very particular: no paragraph more than four lines during an action scene, no sentence more than five words.

This all sounds rather proscriptive, but if like me you struggle to write action, then it is all worth a go.

I struggle to write action.  The only thing harder is sex scenes. I figured out how to write those by first focusing on the emotion of the scene, rather than anything physical – and then going back and counting the arms and legs, checking nobody was facing one way while still supposedly lying on their other side. Once the emotional side is working, it is only about choreography. On this principle, my fight scenes will centre on the emotional drama, and then I’ll check that my lead is not hurling rocks with the hand they still have a sword in.  Using what I’ve learned from hall, I will certainly create deliberate pacing with short sentences, and try some euphonics too.

A useful book overall and great for building confidence in writing fight scenes.

Writing Fight Scenes, Rayne Hall

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail