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!