Persistence – conquering story craft

Reading Time: 5 minutes
persistence
Persistence is key to learning. Don’t let difficulty defeat you!  Stubbornness and hard work combined will bring success. (The Wall Street bull, March 2014.)

I’ve been teaching myself SQL – Structured Query Language, for databases – this week, because I have to give a training course on it next week. I’ve become fairly familiar with creating some queries with SQL (which I now pronounce ‘sequel’ like the guys in my technical team do) over the last couple of years. I can muddle through. But if I needed to join tables together, I turned to the SQL experts in my team, to take over. I had no motivation for persistence. SQL wasn’t part of my job, so I could reasonably ask others for help. But now it is part of my job. I need to be able to help other people use it. And the people I’ll be training are my peers, in the new team I’ve just transferred to. These people are experts, not perhaps in SQL, but they are consultants with years of experience in complex systems and high-stakes customer situations. I know from our previous training sessions that they will ask a lot of hard questions.

…No pressure.

This SQL business is a little like my situation right now with story structure. I’ve been learning about it for about nine months. Prior to that, everything I knew was based on my instincts as a writer, and of course, as a lifelong reader of stories. So I set out to improve my understanding of structure, because I wanted to measure my own stories against some well-tested methods.

But it was hard.  The terminology slid away from me on the page. Threshold. Pinch point. Door of no return. Second plot point. What? I couldn’t hold an entire structure in my head. It all just meant nothing to me.

This was annoying. Because… Well.

I like to think I’m not stupid. Back in the mists of time, I gained a first class honours degree, which I hoped might mean something about my ability to learn and apply new information. But this story structure stuff had simply not sunk in. I could appreciate it at an academic level. But I just didn’t care. I didn’t feel it, as the kids may, or may not, say. And I was doing OK without it. I had no motivation for persistence.

Back to SQL. Derived tables and hand-typed code are way outside my comfort zone. I’m an experienced report writer in my day job, using various software tools, but I never needed to do it this way, line by painstaking line. Every bit must be right or the query won’t run and you get a red warning message. ‘Syntax error near AND.’ What do you mean, ‘near’? How near? Where?

But having agreed to deliver this training, I have to do it. And because it is for my brilliant colleagues, I do not have the luxury of screwing it up. So I have knuckled down and read the books and typed out the code by hand and forced myself to learn SQL bit by tiny bit.

And gradually, over about three weeks, it has become easier. I have been writing a little more of the course every day. Yesterday I typed out an entire SQL statement to achieve a reporting goal, by hand, and it made sense to me and ran without errors and it brought back the data I was expecting.

I still have a lot to learn.  I’ll probably never reach the point where I have twenty possible solutions in my head for SQL, the way I do for my usual day job software. But I’m confident in the basic functions. Persistence paid off.

The same must now apply to my knowledge of story structure. I need persistence. I need to knuckle down, study (again) the books I bought about it, buy some more books, and apply what I read.  I can’t just wait for a structural edit to sort out the issues.

I have to figure it out for myself.

At uni I found story analysis hard. I had only ever read for pleasure, but suddenly I had to unpick the classics using all the weird ways my tutors showed me, and then apply that methodology to any story they named.

I hated it. I had a massive blindspot to identifying story elements. I knew what worked for me as a reader and what didn’t, and could point to it and describe it in my own terms. But to deconstruct a story in the ways my tutors wanted, was anathema to me.

Also, as far as I was concerned, an author does not necessarily mean something by including a yellow curtain in a scene instead of a blue one, or blinds. Nor did I think that a story’s plot must reflect the author’s stance on the global position of women, or reveal something about sexuality. But I persisted. I learned the wretched Structuralism and Postmodernism and I applied it to Jane Eyre and Miss Marple. I got the grades and I passed my degree. Woohoo.

It was six years after graduation before I read a book with any real pleasure.

Nonetheless, with persistence I conquered my blindspot, and my SQL ineptitude, and I will not allow story structure, which is only another academic exercise, to defeat me.

So I will return to my reading list, some of it from last year, some of it new, and work through it, making notes and applying the new ideas as I go, like I did with the SQL, like I did to get my degree. Because my writing is not worth less than that.

DIY-MFA update. (If you don’t know what I’m on about with this ‘DIY-MFA’, click here.) I started this self-imposed writing-improvement program three weeks ago. I am writing 500 words a day of fiction prose, poetry, blog, memoir or my various works in progress. I am reading a poem every day at poems.com and absolutely loving it. How have I left poetry out of my life for so long? I feel fifteen again. I’ve not done so well on the fiction front – I have read several short stories, but not one per day. I have been studying the writing craft, as detailed above.

I’ve read newspaper article and online articles as substitutes for the ‘essay’ part of the MFA requirements. And thanks to joining two new writing communities, fanstory.com and a Facebook group for flash fiction writers, I’m writing several very short stories every week. I’ve even written a few poems and entered one in a fanstory.com member contest, where it’s received some good reviews. I’ve submitted a story to a small zine and am looking for other outlets.

I’ve also joined two other Facebook groups and become a Patreon supporter for Ninja Writers, because its founder Shaunta inspired this DIY-MFA drive. Those three new groups have given me some great interactions already. There are a lot of us writers out there!

So after just a fortnight, I’m seeing the benefits of conscious self-improvement. I’m reading so much more and trying even harder than usual to squeeze in writing time. What I now need is to create a better record of my exact activities. I’ll work out a method and share that with you soon. Meanwhile, I recommend this endeavour to anyone – and if you want a more formal arrangement and some accountability, check out whatisaplot.com to sign up for Shaunta’s own DIY-MFA program.

What have you learned, or tried to learn, lately? How have you succeeded (or not)? Let me know in the comments!

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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.
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Master post on outlining a novel – 21 ways to outline your book

Reading Time: 2 minutes
The Sphinx beside Cleopatra’s Needle is inscrutable, but these links will help unlock the mysteries of book outlining.

In my attempts to outline my novel I did a lot of online reading as well as the books I’ve previously mentioned. Google will find you many sites which offer help with outlining a (fiction) book, but I’ve gathered 20 useful articles. Which one suits you?

  1. This starts small and builds up from a single sentence for your story, to a complete novel. It does assume your initial sentence is good though:

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

2. This is like the reverse of the snowflake method – start with some questions, imagine scenes that answer them, then write a sentence to describe the overall story:

http://www.creative-writing-now.com/novel-outline.html

3. This helps you build a scene list for a novel:

http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2010/01/25/outlining-novel/

4. This has 8 story structure elements, different to others I’ve seen:

http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/plot-outline.html

5. Like a Lady Boss? Surely that’s just a Boss, the same way we no longer have Lady Doctors, or Authoresses? But anyway. This is an overall strategy for your book, including outlining:

http://www.shesnovel.com/blog/write-novel-outline-like-lady-boss

6. This is part of the Guardian’s series, 30 Days to Write a Novel, or more accurately, 30 days to outline a novel. It goes into enormous detail and for a total pantser like me, is terrifying. 30 days before you can write? What? It’s high quality advice though:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/20/how-to-write-premliminary-outline-day-one

7. This takes a workshop format to build up an outline:

http://www.aliciarasley.com/artout.htm

8. Oh my god so much detail in this I can feel the creative life force being drained from me. Sorry. If you love micro-managing your writing, this is for you:

http://pbackwriter.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/novel-outlining-101.html

9. This has a great checklist to make sure every scene is adding to your story. No fluff allowed!

http://www.livewritethrive.com/2016/01/25/why-outlining-your-scenes-will-help-you-write-a-great-novel/

10. This is very strict – answer 9 questions to develop a chapter list, then the remaining 15 to complete a detailed outline:

http://www.fracturedhorizonnovel.com/2011/05/02/a-simple-novel-outline-9-questions-for-25-chapters/

11.This is high level novel-writing strategy, but it includes what to consider when crafting your outline:

http://thewritelife.com/first-novel-8-strategies/

12. The Plot ‘Skeleton’. Ugh. But it explains it clearly:

https://www.scribendi.com/advice/theplotskeleton.en.html

13. This is very detailed and you’ll need to up your browser zoom to read it but:

http://www.authorsalon.com/page/general/sixact/

14. Short and sweet, with further links to explore:

http://www.writerstoauthors.com/how-to-outline-a-novel-seven-point-story-structure/

15. For pantsers:

Planning for Pansters: Writing a Novel without an Outline

16. This uses the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to illustrate story structure:

http://samuelloveland.com/writing/story-skeleton-a-simple-seven-step-outline/

17. This is very similar indeed to the snowflake outline:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/guiltypleasures/how-to-write-a-romance-novel-gill-sanderson/

18. So is this:

http://thewritepractice.com/scene-list/

19. This is very straightforward and would work for pantsers as well as plotters:

http://helpwithpublishing.com/using-a-step-outline-to-create-a-plot/

20. This comes with various free templates. The spreadsheet one is pretty good:

http://www.eadeverell.com/the-one-page-novel-plot-formula/

And finally this – if you’ve read all of these and tried them and still your story will not be shoehorned into any of these outline shapes:

21. Pants it.

https://selfpubauthors.com/2013/05/18/how-to-write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants/

 

 

 

 

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