Thursday, May 26, 2016
I borrowed a book from the library once, written by Ray Bradbury, called "Zen in the Art of Writing".
It was so packed with great writing advice I could barely believe it.
Writers often wonder about inspiration - and how to get good ideas for stories.
And often, when writers start out, they wonder what kind of writer they're going to be - and what kind of stories they will write, and in which genre.
Mr. Bradbury had some advice on both of these issues.
In the pages of this book, he explained what helped him.
He said he wrote at least a thousand words every day of his life since he was twelve.
We like to hear that all the best writers have this simple habit ingrained.
He'd been reading a lot of science fiction since he was a kid he said and naturally thought he was destined to be an SF writer.
Trouble was, in his early twenties, he wasn't having much success with his SF stories.
Editors complained that his work was derivative and not very original.
Ray agonized over this because he knew in his heart he would have to make a living from writing - there was, after all, nothing else he wanted to do - but how was he going to get his work published if editors weren't impressed with his stories?
He made a decision to take a couple weeks off to write down all his favorite words and phrases.
Some of them were intended as titles for works, some just words that he liked.
Words that appealed to him and struck him as evocative.
This was the important part.
He didn't just pick words that sounded good.
He picked words that inspired an emotional reaction in him.
The words on their own may have sounded innocuous to anyone else.
Words like BODY, LAKE, CARNIVAL and DOLL.
But to Ray the words personified events in his life and more relevantly, changes in his perception as he was growing up.
When he had a small notebook full of these words, he would then take one at random and write a short piece based on his personal reaction to the images and emotions triggered by them.
Hey presto, his work became, he says, more original overnight.
Original because his work became more honest, more uniquely "Ray Bradbury", he says.
One of the first tales he wrote using this technique was "The Lake", a story that is still republished to this day, almost forty-five years later.
He said that the practice of writing down all the words he found evocative helped him to establish in his own mind what kind of writer he was.
The list helped him to see patterns in his own preferences.
In short, the pages of words in his notebook became the template for his "style" - his own unique way of perceiving the world.
He said what was interesting to him was that this list of words was still a source of inspiration in his later life.
Thirty years after he'd written down the list, he still plundered it for short story ideas!
So, as I said, the list became his own source of inspiration and originality at the same time.
Certainly nothing to be sniffed at for a writer.
I don't know about you but this sounds like a fabulous idea - and one that may have already occurred to you.
I remember being seventeen and writing down titles of books I would one day write.
I also wrote down snippets of dialogue that appealed to me.
Phrases that still work their way into my stories, even now.
So if you're ever worried that you don't know what kind of writer you are, try this exercise:
Make a list of 200 words you like the sound of.
Words that uniquely move or inspire you, or fill your head with images and emotions.
And when you have the list, study the words.
Look for patterns.
You may discover you're not quite the kind of writer you thought you were.
Plus, you'll have a deep, ready store of inspiration.
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Sometimes I rework stories.
I wrote one while I was in the UK and later rewrote it to set the story in Adelaide - where I now live.
I thought it might be a fun thing to do.
What struck me when I read the original through was how clever it was.
Don't take that the wrong way.
I'm not bragging or anything.
I don't mean that it's a superb piece of writing - and I'm just brilliant!
But just that I'd forgotten how cleverly I'd introduced the characters.
Being a murder mystery, it was important to set up hooks and false clues at the beginning of the story, so that the reader wouldn't quite know what was going on.
I introduced one character, Patrick, a musician, as he's injecting himself.
You're supposed to think he's a drug addict.
It's only later you realize he's a diabetic.
Another character I introduce as an apparent male predator, only to reveal later that he is, in fact, gay.
I then introduce the bad guy, who's first action is to call his mother...
I realized as I was reading the story that this was perhaps how all writers can create a sense of intrigue in their fiction.
By deliberately misleading a reader, especially in a murder mystery, the story remains compelling because the reader is having to do some of the work - mentally juggling the facts to arrive at solutions the author is leading them to - only to find they've been sometimes duped.
I know that most mystery readers really hate guessing the outcome.
They like to be presented with all the facts and clues but - if they decide early on who the killer is, they can feel let down at the end when they guessed right!
I love novels by Sue Grafton and Jennifer Rowe.
Actually lots of crime writers!
I get really involved in their stories, making predictions about the identity of the killer or killers as I'm reading.
And guess what?
I'm usually always wrong!
To me this is a sign of real talent - even genius - to be able to divert attention away from the real murderer, even though they're often right under your nose all the time.
You might like to try writing a short mystery to stretch your skills as a writer.
They're good practice because they usually take a lot of planning - right down to a minute by minute foreknowledge of how a crime or murder took place.
The mystery comes directly from the plot - it's usually about exactly where characters are - and where they say they are - when the crime was committed.
Traditionally, the story is told from the point of view of the investigator trying to sift through the evidence and the clues - although this is by no means exclusively the case.
Sometimes it can be fun to tell the story from the point of view of a prime suspect - what's called the "unreliable witness" in literary circles.
Or, as is also so common, the story is told from the point of view of the omniscient viewpoint - the God perspective - where everybody is a suspect.
Mystery writers say there is one story all writers should try at least once.
It's the 'locked door' murder scenario.
You've probably read several - and seen some on TV - not realizing it's considered a genre piece.
Here are the rules:
1. A person is murdered in a room locked from the inside.
2. The victim is found alone with little or no evidence there was a murderer with him.
3. There can be no secret passage.
And by the way, the old 'knocking the key out of the lock onto a piece of paper on to the floor and pulling it under the door' trick is not allowed.
Apart from that, it's completely up to you to decide how the victim died - and who was the murderer.
It's a fun scenario - deliberately baffling - and requires much skill and dexterity from the writer to pull off a convincing solution to the mystery.
And not a little inspiration!
Why not have a go?
Any questions, ideas for articles, let me know!
Thursday, May 12, 2016
Thursday, May 5, 2016
There's a profound difference between a preacher and a commentator, a politician and a journalist, a spin doctor and a critic.
And what is that?
The main reason why we don't always trust preachers, politicians and spin doctors is not that they lie - though clearly they sometimes do - it's just that they generally only give us one side of the truth.
The truth as they see it. In effect, their agenda dictates the message.
A preacher will tell you only he has the facts - and you'd better listen to him or watch out...
A politician may want you to believe his version of the state of the economy - so he will deliberately withhold contrary facts, distort any opposing argument and/or belittle his detractors - sound familiar?
The modern spin doctor will point out benefits to seemingly bad events, or minimize the impact of bad news by diverting your attention to something else.
All very clever - but is it right?
If we're paying attention, we should be able to see these people's agendas at work - and choose to either ignore what they say, take them with a pinch of salt - or perhaps agree, because they reflects our own agendas.
But what about opposing views?
Don't they need a fair hearing too?
If we (as consumers) are to make wise decisions based on the facts, we surely need to be able to see a situation from all angles, to appreciate all factors in order to view things with objectivity. Because only from wise decisions can our lives be enriched.
As a writer, and therefore as a purveyor of truth, you need to be fair and objective.
You mustn't hide from the truth, or try to negate certain facts or play any cheap tricks with words.
Even in fiction.
The way to do this is to, as far as possible, 'remove' yourself from the writing.
A reader should not be constantly aware that there is an author trying to tell him something.
You do this by effectively 'hiding' your opinions and your agendas from the reader.
If you have a character with a particular agenda, it's important you have the opposing view outlined somewhere else in your text.
It's not your job to force one view of the world on to readers.
You must gain their trust and you can only do that by being seen to be objective.
Start to preach and you'll lose the reader, I guarantee it!
A good piece of writing will be a measured argument.
It will contain both sides of a debate. When you choose a theme for your story, make sure you're going to show both sides of the issue.
Your eventual story resolution may imply a certain truth but you should not overtly suggest that it is the only truth - or that you have some kind of monopoly on it!
As a serious writer, it is your job to speak with authority - to imply that you have a kind of omniscient wisdom - that you see all, present all but without judgment - and that you are leaving the ultimate decisions about what's right and wrong to your reader.
For example, in an article for a magazine, the best way to speak with authority is to leave your more extreme opinions - and your agendas - out of the piece.
For example if you are presenting an article recommending store items or different products, you can't be seen to favor just one - you will then be accused of having a vested interest - or receiving some kick back.
The same applies to fiction.
You cannot be seen to favor one character's viewpoint to the exclusion of all others.
I guess what I'm talking about is balance. On a simplistic level, where you have bad guys, you need heroes.
Where there is evil behavior, you need salvation. Where there is war and despair, you need hope.
On a practical level, where you have characters that espouse extreme views, you need other characters that endorse contrary views, so that you don't get accused of using your writing as platform for sermonizing.
As far as you can, strive for balance in your writing.
Whenever you feel tempted to make an issue of one of your own personal agendas, think it through - try to imagine and incorporate the opposing view.
I think you'll find your writing will be stronger for it.
Of course, the one exception - where you're 'allowed' to express biased opinions - is advertising.
In fact, it's where all the rules of good objective writing are often deliberately broken.
But that's for another article - to come later no doubt!
Your Success Is My Concern
Any comments, suggestions, ideas for articles, let me know!
Thursday, April 28, 2016
When it comes to writing fiction, there are numerous advantages to creating a make-believe setting - whether it be a house, a street, a town or even a whole country.
Not only do you not need to worry about the little things like train and bus schedules, what time the sun sets, what kinds of flowers bloom where etc., you've also got free rein on all the buildings, the streets, the municipal systems, even the type of government.
Thorough writers who set their fiction in the real world can spend a lot of time checking police procedures, technology and how real places look, feel and operate.
When you make everything up - you save on all that research.
Okay, you still need to use you mind to imagine everything but no-one can ever turn round to you and say you got something wrong - because it just can't be wrong!
You can use semi real places that are fictional so you don't have to worry about total veracity.
Because, unless you're writing fantasy or science fiction, you don't need to go so far as to invent everything.
Many writers choose to invent just the town (and the people in it) and leave the country and state and its political system intact.
This is good way to create something credible without being a slave to the truth.
One major disadvantage is that readers have gotten used to modern fiction being set in real places - sometimes they even expect it.
Therefore, if you present a fictional town, some readers will baulk and cry: well, if that's not real, how can I begin to believe anything else this author tells me!
Some readers may feel cheated that you, as the author, are playing God and consequently can shape the 'rules' in your world.
This may hinder their willing suspension of disbelief.
Plus, there's the need to identify.
People like things to hold on to - things that feel real.
Sometimes one of the advantages of setting your story in New York, Paris or London can be the reader is filling in the details for you.
Place a reader in a nebulous, unfamiliar environment and they'll feel lost unless you describe the place fully - which may in turn slow down the pace of the story.
Stephen King's Castle Rock is a very familiar place - he uses it in many of his novels.
What many people don't realize is that this place is completely imaginary.
Sure, it's based on several places in Maine but it's designed to be a credible backdrop - rather than a real place.
Kathy Reichs uses real Canadian cities as the backdrops to her novels - describing them with a freshness that makes them very real - especially to readers who may never have experienced them first hand.
It's interesting that her stories have been moved to the US, and more specifically Washington for the TV viewing public - in the shape of Bones. One of my favorite shows.
Talking of great shows I love Elementary and the way they've put Sherlock Holmes and Watson in modern day New York.
Plus I love the theme tune by Sean Callery.
JK Rowling uses a combination of real English places like London and Oxford and imaginary locations like Hogwarts to root her reality in real life but also give her the latitude to take her readers on a magical adventure.
There's no right or wrong way to do these things.
Only one rule is important.
Whether your location is real or imaginary, it must be believable.
So - if you're tempted to invent a city, where do you start?
Make a map.
Start small - with just one street and move outward from there.
Some of my stories (two novels and about a dozen short stories) are set in a fictional town - loosely based on the place I grew up in - called West Ridge (or sometimes Westbridge in the UK).
I have a map - it's just a sheet of A4 I have near my desk when I'm write those stories.
Sometimes I will add to it if I decide I want one of my characters to take a walk round a park or drive over a bridge, or whatever.
The best part is that it's organic - it grows larger and more complex with every story.
It has bars, clubs, shops, roads, hills, rivers, housing estates, statues, parks, fountains and - best of all, it's as real to me as the keys on this laptop!
Why not invent your own city - if you like.
It can be a lot of fun.
Your Success Is My Concern
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Thursday, April 21, 2016
Or rather, they perhaps just don’t understand its purpose.
Many people say they never read fiction because it’s not TRUE, so what’s the point?
To any budding novelist this attitude is as heinous as it is incomprehensible.
Unfortunately it is also surprisingly common.
My Dad, for one, thinks that reading novels is just too hard so he’s never bothered with them.
When I asked him to read one of my books once he said, “Son, just tell me what happens.”
One of his favorite lines about books is, “If it’s any good, they’ll make a movie out of it.”
How many times have you heard this?
Often I’m sure - not least because it’s true!
The implication here is obvious.
To non-readers, it’s not the writing that’s important.
It’s the story.
While great writing might profoundly impress writers like you and me, most people just want the message, rather than the medium.
I would say people like stories for four main reasons:
To gain hope & salvation
These reasons have been the ‘point’ of telling and listening to stories since the beginning of time.
As a species, we need them.
They divert our attention from the mundane and take us out of ourselves for a while.
They can show us things we didn’t know about ourselves and others.
We may gain valuable new perspectives to help us to better understand our neighbors, foreigners, even our enemies.
We need stories to make us feel better about ourselves--as human beings, as well as personalities.
That’s why we like to identify with heroes and warriors--indeed, anyone who can show us how to overcome obstacles.
We need stories to help us make sense of life and the world around us.
In real life, there are no beginnings and endings, just infinite sequences.
You know how it is.
You listen to the news.
Everything is a segment, a teaser, a sample of every day life.
Nothing makes sense because there’s no structure.
Without the confines that fiction offers us, we are drowning in a bewildering sea of actions and feelings and urges with no meaning.
And no end in sight.
Stories ‘frame’ real life into manageable chunks that have tangibility, involvement and purpose, whether for us individually or as a race.
Surely that’s what we were placed on this earth to do!
To make sense of who we are and why we are here.
And THAT'S why fiction matters!
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Thursday, April 14, 2016
Basically, anything that transports you as a reader is good.
In a sense, it doesn't matter if the writing has lots of faults.
Good writing is that which works for you - even though others might not agree.
It's a personal thing.
Bad writing can work for your mother, your spouse or your best friends.
They will not see the faults - and sometimes, neither will you.
But good writing is what moves many people - and for all the right reasons.
This is why best selling authors are by definition good writers, even though the purists might criticize their style.
I've seen many arguments on writers' groups over the years about J K Rowling.
It's fairly widely acknowledged (among writers) that her writing style leaves a lot to be desired.
She breaks a lot of the rules of good writing but, her fans say, that's not important.
Her mission is to tell great stories - which she's clearly very good at - and so who's to say she's a bad writer?
How can millions of readers be wrong?
Does her constant head-hopping really matter - even when it grates so much?
I used to have this same argument with musicians.
It's easy for purists and cynics to say 'Taylor Swift is crap' but I would say that she must be talented and wonderful simply because she's so incredibly popular.
To me, success is the benchmark.
If someone can inspire adoration, sales and loyal followers then surely you have to say they must be talented.
And writers who can inspire millions with their words must be good at what they do.
You might not like Dan Brown's writing style.
I've heard many writers criticize him - but you can't ignore the profound effect his writing has had on the public.
I've read all of his books - and I can't believe he makes us wait so long in between each one!
And sure, there are many tell tale signs of ineffective writing.
Bad grammar, a clunky self consciousness, almost absurd verbosity…
But don't let the mechanics - or rules - get you down.
Many would be great storytellers get so worried about their writing style, with all its faults, that they stop themselves from writing - for fear of embarrassing themselves.
But this is not productive.
Only writing is productive.
Sure. Pick up the rules as you go along - but don't stop yourself from writing.
Listen to what others say and make adjustments but never believe you're not as good as anyone else.
Having read a million or so manuscripts in the last 30 years I would say there is only one really bad way to write.
And that is when an author deliberately sets out to write to IMPRESS.
You can tell they're saying, "Look at me, look at my writing! Aren't I great, isn't my writing superb!"
Because, ironically, this has precisely the opposite effect on the reader.
They might not quite understand why they don't like it - but that niggling feeling that the author wants you to be impressed with them can be very irritating to read.
In a perfect world, the author must disappear from view.
The only important thing is the story - or in non fiction, the information.
The interesting thing to me is that once authors grasp this fact, their writing seems to get better on its own.
Because the rules of writing are simply there to help clarify your meaning to readers.
And good writing is clear writing.
Bad writing is that which is confusing, deliberately obscure or simply hard to read.
It may be perfectly grammatical and error free but, let's face it, if it's dull and uninspiring, it's bad writing.
Till next time,
Any comments, suggestions, writers tips, let me know
Your Success is My Concern
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