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Friday, October 17, 2008

You Get What You Focus On

It's easy to feel negative at the moment.

The media is telling us we're on the brink of economic collapse - that it's only a matter of days before the biggest slump since the 1930s Depression takes away the value of our property, our savings and our livelihoods.

Many would-be writers are tightening their belts, ignoring the call to write in favor of the day job. They're giving up their dreams in droves, convinced that it's all too hard...

Uh, did I miss something?

Doesn't anyone remember basic economics from school?

I thought it was well known that economic activity goes in seven year cycles - apparently something to do with the sun - and that boom and bust years are natural and inevitable.

Smart stock market people know there's never a bad time for investors - there's just alternate opportunities. While some stocks slide, others climb. When the market is overpriced, it adjusts itself by devaluing. When stocks and interest rates are high, people stop buying. When stocks are cheap, new investors snap them up and the investment picks the market back up again. This is how it works. The world economies have been surviving like this for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

So why is it that now, today, it's supposed to be so much worse?

Could it possibly be because we're collectively making it that way?

That by tightening our belts we're actually starving the economy of the investment it needs?

Maybe you think I'm naive - but I did study Economics! And one thing I learnt well is that much of the stock market is driven by good old human fallibility - and perception.

What the market focuses on is what it gets. Boom and collapse become self fulfilling prophecies - every time - because, as humans, we believe that's how it should work.

Prosperity and hardship, security and scarcity are all illusions. They are not real concrete things - they are merely 'feelings' you have about yourself and the people, the world around you.

Real success and genuine happiness have got nothing to do with money. You either feel good about yourself, your situation, your world, or you don't. Prosperity comes from within.

Do you have less chance of being a professional writer now than you did last year?

Of course not.

If anything you have a better chance - because so many other writers are throwing in the towel!

Don't you be one of them.

Stick with it. Be positive. Fight back. Come up with new angles. Write more, submit more, be the exception.

Often, to make progress, we just need to change the way we think - and remove our own negativity when all around us are in train wreck mode.

If you really believe we're heading for a crash (to continue the metaphor), get off the train. Go for a walk in the sunshine. Move towards your goal feeling light. Remind yourself that when you believe in yourself and your talent and capabilities, things always work out for the better.

It's self doubt and lack of motivation that will kill your ambitions every time.

I'm convinced that if we all got together and decided the crash wasn't going to happen and even if it did, so what - the apparent looming crisis would dissolve, as if by magic, overnight.

Don't buy into the doom and gloom hype.

It's not real.

And if it's not real, surely it can't hurt you.

Be happy, be grateful for what you have, make big plans and move into the future with confidence.

You have a duty to believe in your dreams, and take action consistently.

To quote the old 80s pop song: "The Only Way is Up!"

Friday, October 10, 2008

Theme and Premise - What's the Difference?

I was asked this question by an esteemed subscriber this week and thought it might make an interesting article.

In the publishing and movie industry the terms theme and premise are bandied around liberally - and it's assumed that writers know the difference, even if agents, publishers and marketing
people are not so up on the precise meanings.

Basically the premise to a story is your starting point. It's the idea behind it - its reason to be.

I've seen members of writer's groups ask the question: "Can you write a story without a premise?" I would have to say you could try - but fairly soon you'd run out of things to say. You need a premise to give a story legs.

Besides which most writers are able to sum up what their story is about - or going to be about - in a short sentence of two.

So what makes a premise?

Mostly an intriguing idea, a what-if scenario or a justaposition of two disparate notions fused together.

The premise is usually an 'original' idea - in that it's sufficiently different from other ideas - already written and explored - to warrant further interest.

Theme is altogether different.

The theme is the overall thrust of the story - what it explores. It's the end result and may have little to do with the premise.

Unlike the premise, your theme doesn't need to be particularly original - there are only around a dozen or so themes to explore anyway.

How about some examples - to help clarify all this rhetoric?

Take Romeo and Juliet. The premise is two young people from warring families fall in love. The theme is star crossed love leads to tragedy.

What about Harry Potter? The premise is a young boy discovers he's a wizard. The theme is anyone can become a hero.

The Da Vinci Code: the premise is that the Catholic Church has a secret agenda. The theme is that it's time to change the way we feel about organized religion.

Pride and Prejudice: the premise is that a feisty young woman needs to find a husband. The theme? Love conquers all.

The premise to Crime and Punishment: a young man kills an old lady for her money. The theme: sin leads to redemption.

As you can see, theme and premise are usually related but not always in a way you'd expect.

When people ask you what your story is about, they normally want you to explain the premise first, followed by your theme. Writers have a tendency to think in themes - especially when they're working on a story - but themes are fairly dull to relate. The premise is the interesting part - the thing that excites a listener or reader.

When pitching a novel or a screenplay to a publisher or producer, focus on the premise.

Consciously write and rework a sentence or two to get the premise into a short and snappy description of your story.

If you don't have a compelling premise, chances are you won't generate much interest in your story, no matter how good it is.

That's the reality of the modern world: distillation.

Learn how to distil your story ideas into sound bytes, and you'll go far.

Robyn and I have had to do this a lot in the last couple of years, since we've been involved in heavily pitching our ideas to publishers, agents and producers. It has a downside.

Sometimes you'll be talking to a movie producer and she'll say "Got any ideas for stories?" So you pitch the premise to your most beloved story.

Time passes while she considers it.

"What else have you got?" comes the eventual reply.

This is not because the idea is bad but more to do with their personal bias or commercial expertise. You can pitch another premise and she'll like that one - and will then listen with interest to its theme.

The modern media focusses primarily on the angle - the sidelong glance at a topic that piques the interest quickly. This is not such a bad thing for the writer, so long as you understand it and use it to your advantage.

It's not unusual to end up working on a project where you pitch a premise that you haven't begun writing yet. You're encouraged to develop the idea because the premise is compelling.

You may, like many writers, have only one or two themes that you explore in all of your work.

But the trick is to make those themes seem fresh and exciting by having a premise that makes readers want to read on.

Hope this helps.

rob@easywaytowrite.com
Your Success is My Concern
The Easy Way to Write

The Art of Writing

I've been studying drawing recently (I'm trying to teach myself movie storyboarding) and came across a great quote from comic artist Klaus Janson. He said, "Every creative person I know works from the ground up, from the big to the small, from the general to the specific."

Many writers forget this when they're writing.

They get so absorbed in details that they forget about - or can't see - the importance of the big picture.

In the past I corresponded with a writer who obsessed over her opening chapter so much that she never wrote her novel. Months went by and no matter how much I encouraged her to move on, she couldn't. To her, if the first three thousand words weren't exactly right, she couldn't let herself continue with a story that she might never finish.

Now, I know this is common.

It's also dumb.

Because writing stories is about context. The big. You cannot know what is good about a story - even down to the tiniest word or sentence - unless you write the whole thing first.

It's like getting preoccupied with a few rivets on a steel hull when you should be concerned with whether the boat actually floats.

Take my last novel as an example.

I decided early on to open the story with a long chapter about how a bad guy escapes from prison.

I did the research. Did prisoners escape from jail? Yep, apparently all the time.

How? In a variety of ways. Robyn and I discussed the whys and hows and what would be believable. I decided I would have the bad guy fake a suicide and then overpower a guard. Fine - not overly inspired but I thought I could make it seem real in the context of a low security asylum.

I wrote the first chapter and included descriptions of two other characters and lots of dialogue, action and suspense. I thought it was good - a great way to open a novel.

Then I spent the next few weeks writing the first draft.

I let the story rest on the hard drive for a couple of months.

I came back to the story fresh and looked at the whole thing. I rearranged some chapters, changed some of the events and characters around and brainstormed a bit with Robyn over the plot. She suggested some inspired twists and I made notes about what to include and rework on the second draft.

Then I realized something important.

That opening the story with the bad guy didn't work. I realized it would be better to open with the heroine - and to hide the identity of the bad guy until much later on in the story.

So I had to drop the first chapter. Delete it.

Around 5000 words of good writing gone - perhaps not forever but at least for now.

Imagine if I was still obsessing, like my lady writer, about the first chapter. I might have spent years working on something that never appeared in the final version.

Consider that.

Remember it the next time you get stuck writing a small section.

Write past tricky bits - or decide to work on them later.

Get the whole story down first before you try to construct beautiful and meaningful prose.

You're wasting time if you're describing leaves and stalks that may need to be hacked back or uprooted.

Editing is not a chore: it is the writing that readers see.

Your job is to create something worth editing first.

Hope this helps.

rob@easywaytowrite.com
Your Success is My Concern
http://easywaytowrite.com

The Easy Way to Write

Welcome to the official blog of the Easy Way to Write from Rob Parnell, updated weekly - sometimes more often!