When the pen is mightier than the keyboard

PenWith some very famous exceptions (most of which are writers in their eighties and nineties), most writers today write with a keyboard and not a pen. We have so much in the way of technology to help us that there is little need to pick up a pen, except perhaps to annotate corrections on a draft. I suspect you’re like me, much faster at typing than you are at writing with a pen; and the keyboard gives you immediate feedback that you can edit and refine. Why would you want to use a pen?

Writers also have all manner of software to help them with all aspects of the writing process including: outlining, mind mapping, word processing, e-book building, publishing, book designing,  blogging, spreadsheet analysis, as well as specialist software designed for writers such as Scrivener. So why might you ask should you ever need to pick up a pen?

Recently, I finished the first draft of my second novel. I still have a significant amount of editing to do, but this is best done after a reasonable period of time away from the draft, so to view it afresh. So I put the draft aside for the time being and started planning the work on my third novel.

Well there are lots of software that can be used for planning a book: mind mapping software, outliners, and spreadsheets, and they are all in their own way helpful. But none of them can beat the simplicity of letting your mind wander on paper with a pen: thinking on paper. Perhaps it’s because all these software tools are so structured, organised and provide pristine output that they appeal to our logical left-side of the brain. Whereas the pen moves faster and messier, and appeals to the creative right side of our brain. In fact, it doesn’t matter how messy your writing or scribbling gets, what you want to do is harvest those hidden gems of originality that are embedded somewhere in your scribblings and doodling.

In my case, I had been fretting over what to write next. I had my ideas files, which I keep in One Note, but none of the ideas seemed to jump out and grab me. So I started scribbling down ‘what if’ ideas and then an unusual idea for a protagonist came to mind with an unusual problem. (No I’m not going to tell you who or what.) In the space of an hour I had ideas for the first three scenes. It’s still early days and I need to do a lot more testing of the idea before I really start in earnest, but it looks promising.

So if you are looking for new ideas for writing, don’t just stare at a blank screen. Perhaps you would be more creative if you got out your pen and paper and just started to jot down those ideas that jump into your head. It’s what I call ‘brain dumping’. Be as silly as you like. Or you could just start to write about anything that comes into your head, even if it’s gibberish. The trick is to keep writing and just let your mind wander. After ten minutes take a look and see.  Expect there to be a lot rubbish; but just maybe, you will find a real gem or two.

How many types of plots are there?

tableAccording to Christopher Booker’s ‘The Seven Basic Plots’ most stories can be categories under one of seven basic structures. For example, Jaws, Alien and Beowulf would all  fall under the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ category. ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ fall under the ‘Quest’ category.

Booker is not the only one to look at story structure. Ronald Tobias analyses stories by using twenty Master Plots. Some of these overlap with the seven basic plots. In the diagram I have tried to align them under the different categories although they do not necessarily easily fit. For example, Tobias examples of ‘Pursuit’ include ‘Jaws’, ‘Alien’, (which is close to the ‘Monster in the House’ category)  but also ‘Narrow Margin’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. Tobias is more detailed than Booker and looks more to the motivational aspects of the story.

Blake Snyder in ‘Save the Cat’ also categorises movies according to ten different types.  His ‘Golden Fleece’ category includes ‘Star Wars’, ‘Back to the Future’ and most heist movies. The ‘Dude with a problem’ category includes ordinary people with a problem: ‘Die Hard’, ‘Titanic’ and ‘Schinder’s List’. The ‘Superhero’ category includes exceptional people with a problem: ‘Gladiator’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Superman’ etc. ‘Buddy Love’ includes ‘Rain Man’, ‘Dumb and Dumber’ as well as every love story ever made. ‘Institutionalised’ is about groups: ‘MASH’, ‘The Godfather’. The ‘Fool Triumphant’ includes ‘Dave’, ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘The Pink Panther’. Whydunnit’  includes ‘China Syndrome’, ‘All the President’s Men’ to every detective story ever told. ‘Out of the bottle’ includes ‘Bruce Almighty’, ‘Freaky Friday’, and ‘The Love Bug’.

Of the three authors classification systems I tend to prefer Blake Snyder’s approach. It’s less detailed than the twenty plots of Ronald Tobias, but is in my view more intuitive. The only aspect that does not seem to fit easily into the structure are tragedies. But then again tragedies are not particularly popular at the box office.

Why is story structure important? If we can understand why certain story structures work and others don’t we can analyse our own work to see if they contain the same pattern (or beats). The trick is to use the same winning pattern, but to be somehow different.

Busy daydreaming

It’s over a month since I published “Collision” and I have been busy thinking about what to write next. It will almost certainly be in the sci-fi genre and set in the current day or near future. It’s not that I don’t like space operas or dystopian future worlds; I just don’t think I can improve on what’s already out there. Like any author, I am looking for something that is new and fresh; or at least a new way of looking at an old idea.  According to Christopher Booker (author of “The Seven Basic Plots”), there are only seven basic plots that underlie all our stories anyway.

At least eight ideas have emerged as possible storylines; but how do you choose which one is best? At the moment my ideas are little more than loglines about an interesting  character and what happens to them. Clearly, I need to develop the ideas further. But how?

One way is the pantsing approach – just  start writing some scenes and see where the characters take me. But with eight different story lines to test this would be a lot of effort. Then there’s  plotting approach  – mapping out a storyboard or outline before writing. But again it’s a lot of effort if I’m only going to choose one of the storylines. Any kind of planning therefore has to be restricted to a high-level view of the plot.

Of the two approaches, I always thought I fell into the plotting camp.  When working on “Collision” I started by using forty or so cards to map out the scenes before I started. Each scene card was simply a one-liner description of the scene. It was a way of getting started and finding a sense of direction. But if I’m honest and compared the original cards I used with the final draft of the manuscript, you would hardly recognise that it was the same story. During the writing process, I changed some of the characters, their relationships to each other and even some of the locations. What I found is that when I started drafting, some scenes just did not work, or new ideas would emerge, or I would find gaps in the storyline that had to be filled in. At times, it even felt like the characters themselves were behaving like belligerent actors and wanted to move in their own story direction.

Since publishing Collision, I have been looking for ways of improving my writing process, particularly the planning part. I don’t want to write long detailed outlines because I know I wouldn’t stick to them. I would be like a skier going off piste after the first scene. But some kind of high-level plan of the story’s structure would clearly help. So I have been looking to see what the gurus say about story structure on the internet. There’s no shortage of material about story structure, with each guru having his own spin on the number of acts, parts, plot points or beats. Most are based on screen writing structures around the hero’s mythic journey and while they differ in terminology, they all seem to recognise the same basic plot points.

One of the best books I’ve read recently on the subject is Larry Brooks’ “Story engineering”, which I would recommend to any newbie author. Brooks uses a four-part structure with nine milestones. The four part structure is very similar to a simple three-act structure, but with the middle act split at the midpoint. Thus, there are three major plot points (or turning points) at the end of the first act, at the middle of the second act, and at the end of the second act. The other milestones are:  the opening scene, the hooking moment and the inciting incident, which occur which occur in the first act; the final resolution scene that occurs in the final act; and two pinch points, which occur midway through the first part and second part of the middle act. The hooking moment is an early scene that captures the readers’ interest. The inciting event is the event that changes the hero’s world forever. And the pinch points are scenes where the antagonistic forces show their strength.

Brooks is by no means the only one to advocate a four-part structure or to use similar milestones, but he argues the case with such evangelic zeal that he is well worth the read. There are also approaches that have a lot more than nine milestones, or which break down the part structure into smaller units called sequences (groups of scenes) or beats.

Will any of these approaches help with the planning of my next novel? I really don’t know. Sometimes, to find out, you just have to try and see what works.

As I have freely admitted, I am a bit of technophobe and this is only my second blog. In future, I don’t expect to blog more frequently than monthly – I would rather use the time to write.  But I would be delighted to hear from anyone that has experienced the same writing problems and whether they have found any better solutions