Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Writing for Beginners (6)

The Wave Effect.

 
I was asked recently how to judge the balance of a story, placing description versus action. In other words, how to avoid warbling on too much about the leaves on the trees or the texture of a person’s skin, rather than getting down to the exciting bits like emotion, action, conflict and all that good, gory stuff.

Each story is different, of course, and balance isn’t something you can set in advance, like bass and treble on a hi-fi system. You can plan, certainly, but most plans vary to one degree or another as the storyline develops. For example, you can't easily say, well, I’ll have ten lines of nice descriptive prose, followed by fifteen lines of a chase scene, followed by a bit more prose, a bit of lovey-dovey stuff, followed by…

That would become so formulaic and unrealistic as to render the story unbalanced rather than the other way round.

As in real life, nothing is a flat line; there are ups and downs all the time. It’s like waves in the sea – with peaks and troughs making for a fascinating, varied outlook, where you wait to see what happens next. Compare this to a motionless lake, which may be scenic, even calming, for a while, but after a bit, you want to see something happening… unless you're alongside Loch Ness and have an over-imaginative frame of mind. (What am I saying? We're writers... )

The fact is, a story can't remain on a single level throughout. Too much low and it becomes boring and static – and readers begin skimming to the good bits; too much high and it leaves little room for plot or character development and background setting. Either way, the story needs to move in order to capture the reader.

Troughs.

These might be compared to the descriptive narrative – the part dealing with setting, characters and background. This doesn’t mean boring, because setting and character is important to give background and realism to people and place, and allows us to build a picture for the reader.

Undercurrents.

These are the underbelly of the story, sitting quietly but ready to burst through to the surface. These undercurrents, by their nature, are turbulent and dangerous, waiting to catch the unwary.

Slopes.

The part dealing with the build-up of emotion, setting the scene for impending action, the raising of tension as a key plot-piece unfolds and the protagonists prepare to meet danger and conflict.

Peaks.

Finally, sitting at the crest of the waves, come the fast-moving, unpredictable white caps, where we encounter the heights of tension and action, either on a physical or emotional level, which carry the reader along, past their bed-time… or past their train stop, as has happened to me on a couple of occasions.

But while a story can be exciting from start to finish, it can’t reasonably stay on an unrelenting high. The reader needs an occasional break, otherwise the pitch of tension can lose its edge… and pretty soon, you’re in danger of losing your reader.

Thus, on the other side of the wave, we allow the tension to slide a little, letting the reader gather breath before the next build-up, the next burst of action or drama.

Again, you can't prepare a formula for this wave effect, because more often than not this is determined by the pace of your story. What you can do is check your writing as you go to see if you've spent too long on either a high or a low.

A simple, visual way of doing this is to draw a flat line across a piece of paper (or the living-room wall if your partner has an unusually forbearing nature), marking off points at intervals. These become, in effect, the markers of your story – the points at which you have a peak or a trough in the storyline.

The first marker would be chapter one, where your main characters might first meet, for example. Depending on how you want to open the story, this would be on or above the line. If you decide on a low-tempo encounter, your marker would sit on the line and be headed ‘A&B meet’, with start-to-end page numbers as a running guide.

The next marker might be the introduction of the villain of the piece. This would be on or slightly above the line, to show a rise in tension or conflict. Thus each marker would represent highs or lows according to the flow and pace of your story, in effect charting the waves throughout – and giving you a quick visual check of how your plot is unfolding as you go.

It will also allow you to go straight to a page number if further editing is needed, without searching through your manuscript for the appropriate section or paragraph.

The wave pattern, incidentally, might change as you re-work the story and either insert or take out a particular scene or event. But the one thing this visual check does allow you to do is to keep an eye on the ups and downs of your plot, and ensure you don’t get stuck in the doldrums.
 
TOP TIPS
·        Varying the pace keeps the reader interested – and makes the writing fun.
·        A line of markers allows you to scan the ups and downs of your story.
·        Don’t ignore the undercurrents, part of the build-up to action and tension.
·        If the writing excites you, think what it will do for the reader.
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Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook:
 
UK - http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1908006773/
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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Writing for Beginners (5)

Writing out of sequence

There will be times when, as a writer, you have all the ideas you could wish for, you know where our story is going and you know what you want to say… yet suddenly you find yourself stuck and can’t go forward. It could be something simple, such as the completion of an idea, a question of dialogue or narrative.

I liken it to seeing your way across a very muddy field; you can make out the gate on the other side, but there’s no clear path for you to follow.

Sooner or later this happens to everyone, whatever their experience. Don’t panic. Some people can literally write their way out of it, ploughing forward through sheer doggedness. Others aren’t so lucky and have to sit and think their way clear of the jam. But there is another way, although to the new writer it might at first seem illogical.

You will often read of experienced writers quoting something like: ‘Tell the story. Don’t worry about the detail.’ This follows the belief that trying to put in all the colour and detail of a story as you go simply slows you down, and it's better to go back later to flesh things out and complete whatever editing may be necessary.

It sounds simple enough, and there’s a lot of practical sense to it. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? We tell the story. And like any story, we start at the beginning and plod on until we reach the end. QED, as my old maths master used to say. Quite easily done.

But let us assume you've reached a point in your writing where you have a clear idea of the general plot; you may have sketched out in your mind the next couple of chapters or scenes, but suddenly you’re struggling to put down the next move. Every time you begin to write, you dry up, at a loss for the next piece of action or dialogue.

This is where the ‘Tell the story’ bit comes in. And, like crossing a muddy field, you either work your way round an obstacle or you jump over it.

Let’s go for the second option, if only because working our way round a large muddy patch takes too long. Jumping over is far more direct.

But where’s the logic to this, you might say? Surely we’ll lose the thread. How can we keep the sense of the piece unless we take each step in order, as it happens? Isn’t that how we’re supposed to write?
Well, not really. Nobody ever said you have to write in strict chronological or sequential order. Sure, it’s nice if you can, but not always feasible.

By jumping ahead, you're diverting your mind away from a sticking point (the muddy patch) and concentrating on something where your thinking (the ground on the other side) may be a lot clearer.

Let us assume for a second that the sticking point is a scene where your central character (X) has discovered a body. The plan  dictated that X, being a resourceful lone hero, will expose the killer sooner or later through the careful uncovering of clues. But, for reasons of dramatic tension, you don’t want that to happen yet. Does X go to the police with his discovery (thereby being a wimp and shortening the story)? Does he study the scene and uncover the clues? Does he run? Call a friend? Ask the audience? Have a cup of tea and a sticky bun? What?

Rather than staring helplessly across your muddy field, why not jump ahead and worry about it later? This is writing - you’re allowed to do what you want, as long as it gets the job done.

Think ahead. You may, for example, have in mind a later scene where X is interviewed by the police and accused of the murder. This will be a powerful scene, full of tension and verbal interplay. You are relishing creating the strong characters to match the situation, with the possible outcome for X looking bleak until you spring the way out.

So why not write this scene instead? This is part of the ‘Tell the story’ advice. You’d planned on the police interview, anyway, so instead of fretting over a part of the plot you can’t quite visualise, concentrate on a more vivid - but just as important - piece instead. Be careful, of course, not to introduce changes of timing, location or detail which may impact on the earlier passage.

Once you step back from a writing problem, it’s surprising how often you find that it ceases to be one. Then you can return with a fresh mind-set to the scene you had been struggling with before.

You might find this method of writing-in-reverse springs other ideas and plot-lines. If it also brings an added twist or surprise to your writing… well, if it surprises you, think what it will do for the reader.

TOP TIPS

·        Treat each obstacle as a challenge to overcome.
·        Gloss over a sticky patch – you can always come back to it later.
·        Write something you can see, rather than struggling with something you can't.
·        Concentrate on writing something – anything – and new ideas will emerge.
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Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook:
 

 
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Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Writing for Beginners (4)

You need momentum

If you’ve ever tried push-starting a car, you’ll know from experience - and the pitiful grunting noises you make - that once you’ve got the vehicle moving, it’s a lot easier to keep it going. Meet a bump along the way and let the momentum slacken off even just a bit, and you’ll find getting it going again is a whole lot harder.
 
This applies equally to writers, both beginners and professionals. The activity of writing can succeed or suffer by the use - or lack of - momentum.
 
Although not quite as energy-sapping as pushing a car (writing is surprisingly physical - ask any writer about back or shoulder problems) the mental element needs forward motion, too. And the moment that forward motion drops off, whether caused by the demands of family life, work pressures, sickness, friends, tiredness, despondency or the simple blank page, getting the creative juices flowing again once we’ve stopped can be really tough.
 
I tend to think of this momentum as a form of electricity. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever had that buzz in your stomach about a particular passage you were writing, or a scene you were constructing. The details seem to leap vividly onto the paper in front of you without too much effort or thought, the images or words crowding in and demanding to be put down before the pen runs out, the lights go off or the keyboard begins to smoulder and the neighbours start pounding on the wall because it’s two in the morning.
 
That’s what happens when momentum is working for you. And it’s best to take full advantage when it comes along. (And don’t worry too much about grammar or punctuation - the main aim is to get that torrent of words down while it’s pouring forth. The tidying up - editing - can come later!)
 
The exciting thing for any writer is, momentum like this can fizz away quite happily, carrying us forward at such a rate that time itself seems unimportant. Okay, it’s tough on those around us when they can’t get past the thousand-yard stare of creative concentration, but the understanding ones soon learn to adapt!
 
When I get these moments, I have been known to forget time, sleeping or eating - and once, even getting off a train at the right stop - or the fact that the extremely patient and understanding lady in the next room would really quite like me to pop my head round the door and say ‘hi’ once in a while!
 
Of course, it’s not possible to harness this momentum all the time. But there are ways of getting it working for you, and most of them are a combination of factors, connected with both the words you’re putting on paper and the physical act of writing itself.

·        Is something interesting happening to your story, or does it feel as if it’s wallowing, like a tired old boat on a sluggish river? If honestly the latter, make something happen. As one famous writer once said: ‘Kill someone!’ (On paper, of course).

·        Can you honestly say your characters are going on some kind of journey? This can be physical or emotional, but as long as there is movement in such a way that they are not standing still and beginning to fade into the background.

·        Are you eager to get on with what you are writing, and can’t wait to get back to the desk/table/spare room/garden shed? If not, it probably means you should reflect on what you’ve done so far, and decide where your idea is going.

·        Do aspects of your story make you smile, make you excited or set your heart beating in any way? Do you feel any emotion at all for the characters or their situation? If the whole thing leaves you cold, and you don’t have a ‘connection’ with your subject, then it probably won’t do much for the reader, either.

·        At the end of each writing stint, whether the luxury of a whole day or a snatch of precious time in between other activities, do you have a plan for the next session? Do you have a to-do list so you can pick up where you left off? Do you find you have a pile of jottings about characters, scenes, direction, corrections and other editing tasks you want to do? If not, you should get into the habit. Because these help keep up that momentum, keeping you focussed and intent on not letting that precious forward motion drain away.

When you’ve finished the story or article, do you submit it and get on with the next piece or sit back and wait for the reaction? If the latter, you’ll immediately lose momentum and fall into ‘dead ground’, too concerned with mugging the postman every morning to keep up the creative flow. Far better to log it, forget about it and get on with something else.
 
There are no hard and fast figures for how many different pieces you should have out there at any one time, but more than one is a good start! And if a piece does come back with a rejection, send it out to someone else! That ‘no thanks’ is only one person’s opinion, remember, and there are many more out there.
 
TOP TIPS 
·        Don’t allow your interest in what you are writing to flag. Keep moving forward.
·        Get back to your writing as soon as you can, to ensure momentum.
·        Keep thinking of the next scene, chapter - or even the next project.
·        When you’ve finished one project, send it off and begin the next.

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Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook:
 
 

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Friday, 3 July 2015

My latest articles in Writing Magazine

A regular question among new writers is, where exactly does one begin?

Secondary questions might be, why should I write? What do I write? And how do I go about it?

Not such odd questions really, because having the desire to do something doesn't always come with ready-made clues telling you how to go about it. (A bit like flat-packed furniture).

In my latest 'Beginners' article - 'Get Set. Go.' - in the August edition of Writing Magazine, which is out now and available online, there are some helpful tips addressing these questions, and pointing out how we all have the tools to tell a story... it's simply a matter of being organised, recognising your strengths and getting on with it.

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Debut Author

Also in this month's mag is my profile of new author, SJI Holliday, whose novel 'Black Wood' was published by Black& White Publishing in March.

A dark tale of revenge and justice, it's a good example of how childhood memories can be used as the starting point to writing a book.

(Note the link re: the article above? This doesn't all happen on a whim and a prayer, you know - there's real planning involved).

You can read more about Susi/SJI and her writing right here.

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