"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: April 2012

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ideas & Inspiration

Dear Fellow Writer,

The Write Stuff is my first writing course in almost two years - and there are tips and tricks in it I've never told anyone!

We live in a different world from the authors of the past. We must learn to adapt if we're to achieve writing success that will support us.

Even with publishers and book stores closing down around us, there are new and fabulous opportunities arising... but are you ready?

Be prepared - get ahead of the game.

Keep Writing!
Rob Parnell

Ideas & Inspiration

Rob Parnell

There are two opposing viewpoints when it comes to getting ideas for artistic projects - views that seem diametrically opposed.

The first, the most common, is that good ideas are somehow hard to find. That unless you are divinely inspired - something that only happens rarely - ideas do not come easily and no amount of thinking will result in anything worthy of development or time spent on them. This is usually the view of the beginner.

At the other end of the spectrum, your average full time artist will often complain that there are far too many good ideas and that the real problem is choosing which one to focus on.

How can these two extremes both be true?

It's a question of practice.

But not just because the more you work with ideas, the more seem to occur to you - though this is true.

But also because if you have an unquestioned belief that good ideas are always all around you, this notion in itself will tend to manifest as your reality.

Because it's not ideas per se, or the lack of them, that is the problem. It's you own personal belief in whether you have the inclination or drive or talent to develop those ideas that's important. 

A beginner may have the idea that she should write a love story that seems different enough to work on. This may remain a vague idea until the work begins. Hence the idea remains nebulous.

But the artist who has experience finishing projects will know that working on an idea that has even the most limited merit could result in something solid, which they can almost 'see' in their mind's eye.

It's really a question of perspective. 

With practice, that is the actual development of projects - and the use of your mind, body and soul in the actual creation of things - your intellect becomes attuned to the head space that recognizes ideas.

The fact is there are no new ideas. None.

What is new is your own personal interaction with an idea. That is what is unique.

You can see this happening in any writing workshop. I've tried the following at my day seminars.

Ask twelve writers to develop a story based around the words ice and forest, for instance, and you will get twelve different story ideas.

What the beginner does is usually think of the most obvious thing to do with the trigger words.

An experienced artist - who is usually aware of 'what has been done before' will go further. He/she will often discount a series of ideas until they settle on one that is fresh - or at least sufficiently different enough to inspire them.

That doesn't mean the idea is then original. It just means that the artist is satisfied he/she is not digging up old ground or glossing up an old facade.

The result, even if not a wholly original invention, will be an idea that is fresh in its execution.

It's hard thing to put your finger on. Publishers, agents and producers often say they want 'freshness' as though it's something an artist can merely add spontaneously to an artistic project. Like sprinkling sugar on cornflakes.

If that were the case it would make things so much easier!

No, freshness is mostly a value judgment apportioned after the event.

But the best way to achieve some degree of freshness is to go through this process of rejecting ideas until you hit on one that appears new.

But then the beginner is in a dilemma.

If he/she only has one good idea a year, how can they reject it? What happens if another one doesn't come along anytime soon?

But this is to misunderstand the idea creation process.

You can't wait to start work until after you have a good idea. You'd have a very long wait for one thing. Even working artists know this.

You just have to get to work.

You have to start using your mind on anything and everything, even if it's the least inspired thing you can think of. 

Inspiration comes after the beginning of the work in most cases.

Right when you're in the middle of something, right when you're least expecting it, a new idea will often hit you.

It could be something minor - the way something looks when viewed from a different perspective for instance, but that can be enough.

Make a note of the observation immediately and go back to your work.

Make this process a habit and before you know it you'll have literally hundreds of ideas worthy of development in the future.

Too many most likely.

The real trick is to know which ones to work on - and why - and how - and these are some of the crucial issues I cover in The Write Stuff.

If you take your writing seriously - and dream of the day you can use your passion as a way to support you, full time, then you really do need The Write Stuff!

Keep writing!
 rob at home

"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.” Walt Disney

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Hidden Story Formula

Dear Fellow Writer,

When you believe nothing is impossible, you can make things happen.

When we're young, we are naive and unfettered by notions of things being too hard or impractical. Before we grow up, our world is simple, uncluttered by experience, and our imaginations can run free.

And we run bravely, blindly some might say, into the future, fiercely determined to succeed. And often times, against all the odds, we do succeed.

It is only life that makes us weary, bitter and discouraged.

Surely then, achieving our dreams is about constantly reorganizing our own world into a place where our dreams can become real. 

Because we are not victims of reality, we are makers of it.

Once you believe that - and act upon it - there is nothing you cannot achieve. 

You are not only as old as you feel - but as young as you think.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell


The Hidden Story Formula

Rob Parnell

It's been my experience that most of us rarely see the obvious.

Occam's Razor: When there is no need for further explanation, stop.

We tend to discount simplicity and think that the more complicated answer must have further merit. 

This philosophy appeals to our sense of order. Simplicity is shunned in favor of a more intellectual approach, one that requires a multitude of factors and a desire to piece together data like a jigsaw.

When reading crime thrillers for instance we love unraveling the clues and seeing connections because it would be dull to be presented with the obvious on page one: this killer did this murder.

So it is with all story telling.

There's no point in presenting the conclusion first. It would ruin the fun.

But that doesn't mean the author doesn't know the simple answer, right from the get go.

Agatha Christie once said it was her job to make the most obvious killer seem the least likely perpetrator - a principle still used over and again in thrillers and mysteries to this day.

Writers are always asking me about how complicated should they make their character development, their points of view, or their plots...

...and I always say, keep it simple. Let the story appear deep and multi-leveled in the reader's mind but in your own, do only what seems obvious to you. 

Because complexity, when it's manufactured, just comes across as contrived.

True complexity comes from your unique way of stating the obvious.

The best writers show only what is true - to them - no matter how bizarre or incredible it may seem to others. Consequently the more you elaborate on - and plunder - your own particular unique vision, the more original you will become.

All this is a preamble to how to write a story using a hidden formula that works every time - and don't be put off by its simplicity.

1. Your hero is incomplete at the start of the story.

2. He/she is like a magnet with a polarity that repels the very thing he/she needs.

3. Their polarity drives and leads them on a journey that puts them at odds with their own 'completeness'.

4. Conversely, their quest is geared towards becoming complete.

5. At the end of the story, their polarity is flipped by circumstance, desire or compromise - until they are forced to integrate into their own sense of 'completeness.'

There you have it.

Use this hidden formula on any story and you will write compelling fiction, whether that be a book or a film or any other kind of story.

Polarity acts as a metaphor for world view, character traits, agenda, goals, obstacles, etc, all the things writing instructors like to muddy the waters with.

Polarity is easy to understand. We see it in iron filings around a magnet. We can feel it when we hold two magnets close together - depending on which way up they are, they either attract on repel each other. We know instinctively it exists.

How does this principle work in practice?

Imagine a heroine who needs love to be complete. At the beginning of a story, she will reject the very person she needs because her polarity is misaligned with the man she needs to reverse it.

Imagine a hero who needs justice to be complete. He will shun the antagonist who will eventually give him the very qualities he requires to reverse his polarity and become satisfied with his life once more.

Imagine a hero who needs success to be complete. His polarity will put him at odds with the very things he needs to achieve external success until circumstance forces him to understand that he held the key to success all along, within.

I hope now you can begin to see that this 'hidden' formula is at work in all the fiction we see around us.

And before you complain that this formula doesn't work for real life, remember that fiction is not real life - it's fiction.

Fiction requires completeness - in the story, in your vision and in the writing.

That's the beauty of fiction. You're NOT creating real life.

Story is a protracted and painstaking re-creation of a believable new reality. It is not meant to reflect reality, but to serve as a better version of it that is often more credible than the real thing.

Real life is complicated.

Good fiction, no matter how hard it is to put together, should shine with an inherent simplicity - of vision and apparent execution.

Once a story is down, it should appear complete, its hero fulfilled and forever changed for the better, his/her polarity finally realigned.

Don't over-complicate your stories.

Stay focused on the obvious.

Story is about creating worlds that are better than real life.

Keep writing!

 rob at home
Rob Parnell
The Easy Way to Write

"Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree." Martin Luther King

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to Write an Effective Press Release

Dear Fellow Writer,

It's a beautiful day here in Adelaide - Australia's best kept secret.

Did you know that the weather here in South Oz is exactly the same as Los Angeles? Except the air quality is much better and we have only a little more than a million people clogging up the entire state.

And did you know we did all the effects for The Hunger Games here too? Not only do we have artistic expertise and oodles of the latest technology, we have the Holy Grail for Hollywood: cheap labor!

I shouldn't keep selling the place - it's a secret, remember?

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell


How to Write an Effective Press Release

Rob Parnell

Writers of books, fiction or otherwise, often forget that the best way to get free publicity and interest from the media is to write and circulate your own press releases.

It's becoming a bit of a growth industry because its importance cannot be underestimated. Along with that, it's becoming expensive to get other people to do it for you.

You can pay anything from $350 to $1500 to hire someone to write you a good one, plus additional fees for distribution to all the right places, relevant news outlets etc. 

And the chances of anyone picking up your news item?

Slim to none.

So why bother?

Well, recently Robyn and I wrote two short press releases about a particular issue we wanted news coverage on. Guess what? We scored a direct hit with both.

The first one was picked up by a national newspaper and the second by a local TV station. Pretty impressive we thought.

We must have got something right. Here's the process we used:

1. Construct the Angle

You can't just send out the information you want the media to have. 

Not unless it's what they will regard as newsworthy.

The angle is the way you turn your information into a story, something that makes people go: "Really? That's interesting." 

Because unless you have an apparent angle, your story is probably dead in the water.

Think hard about how you can turn your information into a specific event-based idea for that week. Instead of "author releases book" for instance, make your book newsworthy by enhancing the relevance of your subject matter, or by emphasizing the impact of you, the writer, on the world stage.

2. Pimp it, Pump it Up

You need to make an impact with your title. And it needs to be the kind of title anyone and everyone would be intrigued by - not just your target audience.

Think outrageous. Instead of "author releases book", think, "writer reveals evidence" or "wordsmith alters perception" etc.

You may need to brainstorm the angle and the title until you've found something that makes you either giggle or your heart beat faster.

Once you've found something that makes the hairs on your neck stick up, you're probably on the right track...

3. Let It All Hang Out

For the first draft, write as much as you like. Remember to deal with all the who, what, why, where, when issues, ticking them off as you go. Put down everything you want to say.

Give some thought to having quotes in there. Instead of blandly reporting the information, reword it and have yourself saying it in quotes. The media loves direct, concise quotes. For example:

"My book will change your life forever," the author says.

4. Squeeze it, Make it Wine

For the second draft, edit ferociously.

Compress everything you want to say down to less than 200 words. Take out the boring stuff.

You MUST fit all the information on to ONE PAGE - and that includes all your contact information, title, sub headings and the release itself.

Remember you will want to FAX many news agencies and so it's important you only have a single page to do that with. More and the pages will most likely get separated and therefore become useless.

5. Format the Thing

Using the correct format is as important as the news itself. Your press release has to be instantly recognizable as such to do its job - and to find itself on to the desk of an editor or journalist, reviewer etc.

Put PRESS RELEASE in bold capitals at the top and in the center.

Next, in the top right hand corner, put your contact details.

Underneath, on the left, put FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE in capitals.

Space. Beneath that, write your title on bold capitals.

Space. Under that, write the subheading (the news angle in brief - no more than 20 words) in italics.

Space. Put the meat of your article - with spaces between the paragraphs. Make the whole thing sound objective and impersonal, like a journalist would. Be emotive, sure, but be rational about it.

At the bottom put three asterix to denote it's the end of the release or write 
END OF RELEASE in capitals.

6. Create a Hit List

Scour the Internet for places to send it.

Most press release sites charge you these days, sometimes not for the first one. Even then it's a scattergun approach. 

The best way forward is to create your own personal list of newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations - local, national and international. You may need to Google the publications you want on your list. Do that.

Preferably, find a contact person's name or title. If not, the department's name. 

Get all their email addresses and fax numbers. Yes, their fax numbers.

7. Launch Your Missiles All in One Go

Spend a few hours firing out your press release to as many places as possible.

Fax the ones you can, email the ones you can't. 

We reckon that about thirty places at a time is about right but if you have a list of a hundred, do all of them, all at the same time. 

You just never know who's going to pick your release up - or why.


Make sure your contact information is correct and current.

Have your phone number - with the international dialing code already on it - printed clearly at the top, along with your email address, your website if you have one, and anywhere else they might want to look up for more information. 

You don't need to sign the press release like your its author - and you don't need to follow up on it personally. Unless the press releases works on its own, your mission has failed.

Don't fret, write and send out another one a week or so later.

Many editors like to see you're a consistent news source and will often wait for your third, fourth or fifth attempt before they pick up on you.

Don't think that you're not being noticed just because you don't get any calls back immediately. You are being noticed and your patience, if you're doing all the above things well, will be rewarded.

Finally, don't be too scared to do all this.

The impact of having your book in the papers can be profound - not just in sales but in enhancing your reputation and visibility.

And don't be afraid of criticism or things backfiring - they won't.

Journalists and photographers are all very sweet in our experience. 

And they'll treat you with great respect when they call.


Keep writing!

 rob at home

Rob Parnell
The Easy Way to Write

“I love being a writer. What I can't stand is the paperwork.”
Peter De Vries

Thursday, April 5, 2012

How to Write a Song (With Lyrics)

Dear Fellow Writer,

Good Friday and all the bars and bottle shops are closed in Oz. The only day of the year when you can't buy a drink for love or money...

Have a great Easter.
Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell


How to Write a Song (with Lyrics)

Rob Parnell

I get a lot of young writers asking me how they can break into the music business by writing lyrics for musicians.

Sad to say, this not a real option or valid career path. Unless you're the personal friend of a pop star who's having an off day.

Gone are the days when lyrics are written separately from the song. 

Back in the 1930s and 40s maybe it was sometimes possible to get by being a poet cum lyricist... 

In the 1970s a certain Bernie Taupin used to write lyrics for Elton John but by the 80s, Sir Elton realized half his royalties were being given away for something any semi-decent musician can do with their eyes closed - literally!

Lyrics are no longer the cherished item they might once have been.

Even the most brain dead musician can do it.

And some of them do it extremely well. Eminem is considered by many a modern Bob Dylan...
You have to understand how songs are written these days to fully appreciate why lyrics have been relegated to second place in the songwriting process.

As Peter Gabriel once said, "Good lyrics never helped a bad song."

Here's a quick run down of how modern songs are put together - in case you ever wondered...

1. Usually an idea for a melody comes first. Either a snatch of chorus - a short phrase of a five or six note tune that calls to be developed.

Actually even this is rare. Only a small percentage of musicians seem able to come up with something worth exploring. It's well known in music that there are no original melodies - we ran out of them in about 1654. 

But as with all things creative, originality comes not from the idea but from its expression. 

So if you have a singer in a band that likes a melody, the rest of the band will usually go along with it, even if the keyboard player is secretly thinking, "that comes from the quiet bit in Brahms third symphony!"

2. Most often the first thing that goes down is the drums.

The rhythm is the thing. Get that right and you're on your way to a hit recording. Consequently it's a darn good idea to get your 'beat' happening first.

Used to be you had to enlist the help of a drummer. You know, one of those noisy guys who likes to hang out with musicians...

But these days a drum machine will do the job - and keep perfect time, too.

Even the cheapest $50 Casio keyboard has a drum machine in it these days, usually with tempo and style functions built in.

3. Then comes the riff.

The riff is usually a 4 to 8 bar bass line that can be repeated ad infinitum or a chord sequence that sounds nice when combined with the melody idea.

Usually working from the bottom up, the music parts are added in layers either by the band or the solo artist recording alone.

First the drums then the bass then the guitar or keyboards and finally the high parts - nice strings or brass parts to punctuate the rhythm or complement the melody.

4. Dance music can usually survive without much of a formal structure but if you're writing a song you generally need more parts.

The chorus is the big sing along part, separated by verses, a bridge or two and often a "middle 8" that takes the song on a short tangent before returning to the chorus. Here's the most common structure:

Intro, verse 1, chorus, verse 2, chorus, mid 8, chorus, chorus, chorus.

In rock and roll there used to be a guitar solo in there too but alas, we don't hear them as much as we used to. There's way more focus on the singer nowadays.

5. Last of all usually, the singer will put the vocals on the track.

Often singers know the kind of melodic progressions they want right from the start but won't be able to get them to fit until the music is down.

Of course if you're a singer who can play, you'll be able to write songs with an accompaniment yourself - which makes it much easier for the musicians to play along. But even then, the recording process will be the same - bottom up, drums, bass, guitar, keys, then final vox and maybe some twiddly bits and "fairy gloss" on top.

6. You're probably thinking: so where are the lyrics?

Usually scribbled on a piece of scrap paper at this point, hastily thrown down just before the vocal take. 

Here's the thing. Singers often know the melody first and then try to find words that fit.

Working the other way round - having lyrics and trying to get them to fit the melody never sounds quite right. One of the main reasons it's not done that way much anymore.

The percussive sound of words is what's effective, not particularly the sentiment. Ask any rapper. It's the rhythm of the words that matters.

If you can get a message in there so much the better, but it's by no means a necessary component.

Music has a way of making words seem profound, no matter what they are.

You don't need a stand alone lyricist to give your music 'weight' or indeed any more commercial appeal. Plus, if the music business had to wait until a full time lyricist came up with something meaningful, the industry would most likely collapse overnight.

Anyone can write lyrics - even musicians, that's the truth of it!

I hope this short guide to songwriting has been illuminating for you.

And please, no more emails to me asking about getting a job as a lyricist.

Simply put, there aren't any - unless you want to write a musical perhaps and be like Tim Rice...

But that's a whole different enchilada.


Keep writing!
 rob at home
"The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon."
Robert Cromier

The Writing Academy

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