The writing process

untitled-design.pngIt is almost eight years since I started writing novels, and I’ve learned an awful lot in that time. It hasn’t been easy. I had a story I wanted to write and I wanted to start writing it as soon as possible. But I soon found out that you need to make some key decisions before you even start to write about point of view, person, and tense. And you need to have an understanding of story structure. So I did what I suspect many other writers have done. I read a whole host of ‘How too…” books on the subject. Many of which were helpful, and some of which lets say were a waste of time.

Remember that stereotype writer we often see portrayed in movies. The guy (or girl) with glasses who sits in front on a typewriter and bashes so many thousand words each day. Or who, stares at a blank page, swills whisky and suffers from writer’s block. This stereotype is often reinforced by successful writers, who say to be a writer you need to write every day as though this is the only process a writer needs:

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down a typewriter and bleed.” ― Hemingway.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” ―
Stephen King
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” ―
Ray Bradbury

It’s true that if you want to be a writer you need to write and you need a determination to see it through. Writing a book is like running a marathon you can’t give up when you hit the wall. You have to keep going or you’ll never reach the end. But writing is not just about bashing words into a keyboard. There’s a creative process by which a simple initial idea is grown into a complex narrative we call a story.

Unfortunately, analysing a writer’s published work does not necessarily give a great deal of insight into the process the writer used to get to that final point. We may well identify the key turning points in the story but this does not tell us how he/she found them or developed them.

To add to the confusion some writers claim to be ‘pantsers’ doing very little preparation work for their stories, while others are ‘outliners’ using detailed outlining techniques. Although I suspect most writers are engaged in some level of planning and analysis even if it is only in their heads developing the main character and his goals.

The point I would like to make is that you don’t have to write a story sequentially starting on page 1 and finishing with “the end”. It’s a daunting task to carry that level of detail in your head. Some pantsers might say they don’t have to know the story at the outset as they just follow the main character until they get to the end. Maybe that works for them, but not for me.

The approach I take is a layering approach, which starts with the basic elements of story and gradually expands to a basic draft and then grows into a final draft in an iterative process.

Stage 1: Brainstorming ideas.

A story has to start somewhere with an initial idea. The purpose of brainstorming is to create as many ideas as possible without making judgement. Usually the idea will come from one of the five main story elements:

  1. A character
  2. A challenge:  a problem or opportunity or unusual situation that will drive the story
  3. An antagonist
  4. A storyworld 
  5. An ending

Stage 2: Developing the story premise, the broad story line, and identifying the main characters.

A story idea can be turned into a story premise by bringing together the story elements into a single statement explaining who the story is about, what he or she wants, what stands in their way of getting it, and why the want it. In simple terms, the premise is a statement about the hero’s big story challenge.

The story line or main plot line is broadly what happens to the hero. Does he/she succeed or fail and what are the main sequences that get him/her there.

At this point we need to understand the main characters, their role in the story and their primary motivation.

Stage 3: Developing a beat sheet for the main story line

The Beat Sheet lists the main stepping-stones in the hero’s storyline. It will usually include the main turning points and key hero sequences of the story.

The main turning points would be at least:

  1. The catalyst/inciting incident – What starts off the story conflict and motivates the hero to eventually act
  2. Act One Break – The point where the hero commences his quest or challenge
  3. The Mid Point – Usually a major revelation or reversal
  4. The Act 2 Culmination – Usually the darkest hour for the hero
  5. The  Climax

And the key sequences are hero’s quest broken down into 6-8 logical stages.

Stage 4: The Main Scene list or outline

The scene list or outline is a bullet list of scenes that can be easily identified from a the beat sheet. (It is not the final list which may be much longer). It is usually at this stage that I set up scene cards using Scrivener, breaking the list of scenes down under four headings:

  1. Act 1
  2. Act 2A
  3. Act 2B
  4. Act 3

The scenes themselves may well have one or two lines of text explanation. I may well add further notes where they occur to me. (Other writers may well want to turn this scene list into a more detailed outline with bullet points within each scene. I find it more effective to add detail at the time I am working on individual scenes rather than laying out all the scenes in detail in advance of the first Basic Draft.)

Stage 5: First Basic Story Draft

My first drafts are usually just the bare minimum to get the basic story down on paper. The word count will be substantially shorter than the eventual final draft 40-60%.

Stage 6: The Expanded Draft

This is the stage where I organise my scenes into chapters and where I add the missing scenes to the text. These could be sub plots, the story lines of other characters (eg the antagonist), or transitions. It is also where I take a further look a dialogue and descriptions and layers of further story content. This is an iterative process that continues until I reach the final draft

Stage 7: The Final Daft

My final drafts are usually complete except for proofing. I tend to edit as I go, so the final edits other that proofing are usually limited.

Looking back at what I have described above may give the impression that my writing process is planned and logical. It never feels quite like that in practice. New ideas can enter the process at any of the stages forcing a re-think, and they often do.

So there it is — my take on the story writing process. What do you think? Maybe you have something better to offer?

The big idea, concept or premise

ideaTo be successful, any new story has to be built around an idea, or concept that makes it new and exciting. A school for wizards is an idea or concept, but it’s not a story premise. A story premise needs both a character (for example, Harry Potter) and  a central conflict or problem that drives the story along (for example, overcoming Lord Voldemort who wants to subjugate all wizards and muggles).

Often this premise can be expressed as a one sentence  log line about a type of character, the central story conflict they face, and the consequences if they fail. And Hollywood is rife with stories about movie moguls who have either accepted or rejected a movie simply on the strength of their log lines.

The log line or story premise tells us who and what the central conflict in the story is all about and why it’s important to us and the central character. And if it’s not the type of central conflict your readers care about then the story will almost certainly fail.

So how do you find these magical ideas and premises? It’s not easy. Since publishing my first three novels I’ve been working on the plans for my fourth. To date I have developed two different  outlines as potential stories, but I am having difficulty is choosing which is the better story. So when I came across Erik Bork’s The Idea I thought I would give it a whirl.

Firstly, Bork doesn’t distinguish from ideas that are just ideas and those that are story premises. To him an idea is synonymous with the story premise — it has to be about a big problem. And that problem should be big enough to take the weight of the whole story to resolve it. There are many other potential problems that writers might think of but which do not measure up to the task. The test is does it really matter to the main character and if it doesn’t, it won’t matter to the reader or audience.

Bork identifies 7 attributes of a good story ideas with the acronym PROBLEM

  1. Punishing (pushing the character to the limit. Practically every scene must be about resolving the problem)
  2. Relatable (character)
  3. Original (or at least fresh)
  4. Believable
  5. Life altering (high stakes)
  6. Entertaining (an emotional experience)
  7. Meaningful (for the reader or audience)

Bork dissects and analyses each of these attributes and provides a summary checklist for each of them that is both detailed and helpful.

There are many books out there on screenwriting and story telling that look at the importance of  a workable story premise or log line.  But what I like about Bork’s work is that he brings a more detailed perspective that is both useable and practicable in assessing the viability of a story premise.

Was the book useful in resolving my own dilema as to which story to choose? Yes, I think it was helpful to a degree. But it is important to remember a story premise is just the starting point for a story. To see if the story works you still have to flesh out some of the detail in a plan or outline, at least that’s the way I way I do it.

Reading as a writer reads

1I sometimes wonder why we get so excited about holidays.  For me holidays are not about lying in the sun or sun tans. It’s about reconnecting with family, getting away from the pressures of current day life, dining out, some healthy walking and … catching up on my reading. So on my recent holiday to the Canaries we ate well, walked miles and miles, and read a lot.
Really, I didn’t have much choice. My family banned me from reading emails, or using my phone or ipad for the duration of the holiday. Okay, I relapsed once to check flight times and download some KDP data to work on later. But generally I was tech-free for two whole weeks. How many of you can do that?
But technology isn’t the subject of this month’s blog. Instead I chose my holiday activity of reading. Stephen King once said that writers should read a lot to master their craft. As writers, we can appreciate the skills of other writers and learn from them.  I know to progress my skills I need to  read more fiction than I currently do. I  do read a lot — but it’s usually technical material. So on my holiday this autumn I picked five authors to read from my sci-fi genre. I finished three of them and enjoyed them. The other two I started but soon put them down. It wasn’t that these two were particularly badly written.  It’s just that I’m a fussy reader and it was taking too long to get into the story.
It struck me that if I am so fussy about what I read then so are many others. Obviously, to be a successful writer you need to capture the hearts and minds of your readers.  But getting this done in the first line, first paragraph, or first page or the story is hard. And if you don’t achieve it by the first ten pages you’ve probably lost the reader.
In this respect, readers are very different from the audience in a cinema. Members of the audience are unlikely to walk-out in the first ten minutes of a movie. On the other hand, a reader in a book shop, or on Amazon, may only spend a minute or two reading a short sample of the text before choosing to buy or put down the book.
Of course, I’m not the first to stress the importance of the opening scene. There are many books on writing that say the same thing. And if you are looking to sell your story to an agent or publisher the chances are they will reject a book out of hand if they are not impressed within the first few pages. Clearly, how you open a story is important and there are some techniques you can use to capture interest.
One technique writers use is called in medias res.  Here the hero/heroine is thrown into immediate danger to capture the interest of the reader. This technique is often used in action movies. For example, in Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark the opening sequence in the Peruvian jungle puts Indiana into a host of death defying incidents as he first recovers and then loses the golden idol. But this technique does not necessarily always work, particularly when we don’t know the hero/heroine. Why should we feel immediate empathy for a character in potential danger when we have barely met them? Finding this empathy in the first few lines or paragraphs of a story therefore requires real writing skill and imagination.
Another technique is to raise a question in the mind of the reader about why a character is behaving in an odd way? For example, why is he standing naked on a bridge in the middle of the night? How did he get there? What is he planning to do? To find out the reader has to read on, and by the time the reader learns the answer the writer has posed another question to pique the reader’s curiosity.
A good opening line is one way of capturing the readers attention. Here are some well-known opening lines from some great writers:

 

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.—George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

It was a pleasure to burn. —Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)

All children, except one, grow up.—James Matthew Barrie, Peter Pan

One of the things writers are warned against is starting with the weather. It’s not that it doesn’t create a mood; it’s just that the technique is overused and cliched. But to prove that there are no rules in writing that can’t be broken, here are some exceptions:

It was raining in Richmond on Friday, June 6.—Patricia Cornwell, Postmortem.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford

While opening lines are important, I don’t think writers should necessarily become obsessed with them. Otherwise there is a danger of writing paralysis setting in driven by trying to meet an impossible standard of perfection. If we can’t get past the first line how are we going to finish the draft?
The time to consider the opening line and hone those critical opening paragraphs is when the first draft of the story is complete and you start the editing process; not when you’re writing the first draft. You need to get the story up and running and in the first draft and for that purpose any opening line will do. The opening can be perfected when the story is complete.

Cover Reveal

I am delighted to reveal the cover of my new book scheduled to be published next month. It’s a sci-fi neo noir thriller set in the not too distant future where the large cyber-tech, media and entertainment corporations are introducing a new generation of android worker to replace their human counterparts, while the super rich indulge themselves in a fantasy park designed to meet their dreams. Against this background the CEO of AndroDigm Park is brutally murdered at an Action Against Androids demonstration. Now Marshal Shelby must track down her assassins and bring them to justice. It’s an investigation that will take him into the world of the super rich, where using cybernetics, cloning and human augmentation makes almost anything possible.

preview.jpg

It has taken over two years to produce, and has not been without a certain amount of blood sweat and tears. Kindle copies are now available to pre-order on Amazon and print copy will be available from the publication date. If you are a book reviewer or blogger and would like to review an advanced copy, please get in touch with me at jmj.williamson@gmail.com.

 

Do you know your story before you write it?

Mockingjay_Part_2Recently, I saw the movie, Mockingly Part 2, in 3D. A great movie adaption of the ending to Suzanne Collin’s trilogy of the Hunger Games. I had forgotten how truly poignant the the novel ending was with Katniss losing her sister in the final throws of the war after having volunteered to take her place in the Hunger Games. Also the the revelation that the new President Coin was just as evil as the old President Snow was a nice twist. Great story telling and a great ending.

In my last blog I put forward the view that all great writers create distinctive memorable characters from an original story idea or concept. The character and the story idea fit together like a hand and glove to produce something that looks new and exciting. In this case, Katniss and the Hunger Games that saw children fighting each other to the death.

But finding the story idea and creating the main character is only the first step in story development. A good story teller has to have some idea where the story will take them. In  the Hunger Games, Katniss survives the Games,  only to be sent back again, fall in love with Peter, escape, lead the fight back against the Capitol to defeat President Snow, and then kill President Coin, who she held responsible for her sister’s death. That’s pretty much the story in one long sentence! But how do writer’s find this kind of story line?

The answer is everyone is different. For some writers just giving their main character a problem (surviving, in the case of the Hunger Games) and letting the character decide where it takes them is enough. These are the ‘pantsers’ who fall in love with their characters and let them dictate where the story goes. I can understand the attraction of this type of right-brain free writing, which can lead to the discovery of new ideas. But it can also lead down some blind alleys and trashing large amounts of writing.

Then there are those that plan out the plot in a detailed outline before putting pen to paper (the “plotters”). These may be more left-brain analytical thinkers. Although the process of discovering the plot points, if done properly, can be just as much a right-brain activity as the free writing method.

Most writers, however,  probably fall between these two extremes. They use a range of different story preparation methods, including rough character sketches for the main story players and their story lines, lists of obstacles to be overcome, the key story twists and turns, sketches of the main scenes, and story boards. Most at least have a good idea of how the story will end. Preparation does not necessarily have to mean an outline. Most writers use notebooks to capture their best ideas and useful information. Plot is only one dimension of this, but an important one.

I would argue, that whatever type of writer you are, you have to have some idea of where your story will take you and this requires thoughtful preparation. It’s not an easy process as I am currently experiencing with my latest novel. But it has to be done, before you really start writing if you’re going to be successful. John Irving sums this up as follows:

“Know your story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of story teller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind — making it up as you go along, like a common liar?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alien Hothouse

1I am pleased to announce the launch of my second novel, Alien Hothouse. It’s a sci-fi adventure about a unmarried mother, running a spa hotel is a sleepy village in North Yorkshire, who helps a group of marooned aliens living here in secret, send a distress signal to their homeworld, only to find that the signal has terrible unexpected consequences. Further details can be found on http://jmjwilliamson.com

Alien Hothouse is available through Amazon in mobi format (B017WF1ICE) and from Amazon and other retailers in paperback format (ISBN 9781518788574).

Choosing Genre

Genre is not something I had really thought about until it came to the time for publishing my first novel on Amazon. Then I had to categorise the genre and sub-genre of my novel for Amazon’s classification purposes.

Of course, genre is important. It’s one of the first things that influence readers’ choice of books. In a physical bookshop it’s the category of shelves where the book will be displayed. On the internet it’s much the same, except it’s possible to use sub-classificaions and use key words to search for the type of book you want.

Genre offers a promise to the reader that the novel will abide by the expectations of the genre and it’s one of the first filters of readers’ choice. The other key influences of choice are the book cover and title, and the back cover marketing blurb. So if you want the right readers to find your book, it’s quite important to get the genre right.

But it’s not always easy to pigeon-hole a book by genre. For example, my first novel, Collision, has an underlying plot dependent on time travel — a classic sci-fi trope. And time travel is one of Amazon’s 19 sub-categies of Sci-Fi. So you may think it’s easy to catgorise and sub-categorise Collision as Sci-Fi/Time travel. But Collision also has a strong love story theme, and a thiller action plot where the protagonists are trying to escape the clutches of MI6 and the CIA. So Collision might be classified for genre as Romance/Time Travel or even Thriller/Techno.

This got me thinking about just how useful these broad genre categorisations are to readers. To many people, when they think of Sci-Fi they tend to think of strange new futuristic worlds, aliens, and space travel. Collision is a long way removed from those worlds, with most of the action taking place in the current world. It’s technically sci-fi, but not as we know it.

But Collision is not alone with this problem. There are many other examples of popular stories that cross genre. Defining genre by readers’ expectations is therefore quite difficult. Take Star Wars. Not many would disagree that this is from the Sci-Fi genre, but actually the story-line has much in common with fantasy quest stories. Only the swords and magic are replaced by light sabres and the force. Similarly, Alien is quite clearly a Sci-Fi movie, but it follows the typical ‘monster in the house’ story-line used in many horror movies. So the Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror genres can easily overlap, and they do.

Recently, I came across the term ‘Speculative Fiction’, an umbrella term to cover most of the ‘what if’ genres. It’s a term originally attributed to Heinlein for describing the nature of science fiction, but nowadays it’s used in a wider context to embrace not only science fiction and fantasy, but also the fantasy elements of some horror, mystery and history stories. What distinguishes Speculative Fiction from Literary Fiction is that the worlds, people, or technology are different in some important aspect from the real world.

Not everyone likes the term, and some would argue that Science Fiction & Fantasy caption used in most book stores is broad enough to cover most aspects of Speculative Fiction. But for me, the broader caption of Speculative Fiction captures all the types of stories I like to read, and the types of stories I aspire to write. It’s for that reason I have adopted the term in the recent update of my website banner. I hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious.

10 Myths About Writers and Writing

This is a wonderful article about writing from Patti Moed. I just had to re-blog it.

P.A. Moed

In order to write creatively, we need to exercise our free-spirited and impulsive right brain.  It might take a while to “liberate” this side of the brain especially if we have worked in fields that are linear, concrete, and require rationale thought.  This is what happened to me many years ago when I switched from a career in teaching and publishing to full-time writing.   As I began my apprenticeship in the creative arts,  I had to dispel several myths about the writing process and writers.

"Incognito: The Hidden Self-Portrait" by Rachel Perry Welty, DeCordova Museum. “Lost in My Life (Price Tags) ” by Rachel Perry Welty, DeCordova Museum.

1.  Myth: Writers Are Strange.

There is an element of truth to this!  Writers (and other creative people) must be willing to look below the surface of everyday life and explore the world and relationships like a curious outsider.  This perspective sets us apart, but at the same time, it allows us…

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