13
Mar
09

Steps 4, 5 & 6

Last week’s post dealt with choosing the idea, form and genre for a story. Those could be called the building materials; this week we will look at structure, craft and surface: putting the ideas together. As always, the techniques applied here to writing are equally true for any piece of art.

Structure

Now that I have a story in mind, how shall I put it together? Shall I tell it chronologically, or let past events come through as flashbacks? What “voice” do I use – first, second or third person? Do I use a narrator? Several narrators? In the finished story, the structure should not be visible, but if it is done well it will make the whole piece feel complete and satisfying.

Perhaps I even start the whole process from here: by deciding I want to write a story that is told backwards, from effect to cause. Or perhaps I want to write a series of loosely connected short stories? I have decided on the structure, now I must choose a genre, a form and collect my ideas.

Craft

The right words in the right places. The ability to create deathless prose (or beautiful music, or breath-taking art, whatever your chosen field). This is a learned skill, and there’s no substitute for practice! This is the point at which a detailed study of the masters is helpful, but also the point at which I must begin developing my own style. The trick is to find the right balance. If I start from here, chances are I want to write something full of pithy sayings and original descriptive passages. This is a fine thing, but without a good idea, the right form and structure, and a suitable genre, it wouldn’t make a good story.

Surface

This is what everyone will see when my story is sent out into the world. Many people will never see beyond that surface, so I have to make it good. Even people who like to delve into stories and enjoy the ideas at the core may be put off if the surface is unappealing. I have yet to get any of my stories to the sort of “surface polish” that I would like, but I keep working on them!

These six steps can be assembled in any order, and can even change as a story develops. However, the end product must have all six pieces to be complete. A story without a polished surface, or craftsmanship, will feel flat. It may contain great ideas in new and exciting forms, but if it is badly written it will be a chore to read and many people will simply not bother. Without a coherent structure it will be hard for the reader to follow your story – although if that’s your intention, then that in itself will be your chosen structure!

The idea at the centre of the story is what can make or break it, and it is those ideas that can inspire your readers to create for themselves, whether in words, music, stone, dance, or whatever they choose.

Link of the week:

The Wotch

The artist/author is taking a break due to injury, so this is the perfect time to go and catch up on the archives.

06
Mar
09

Steps 1, 2 and 3

In his book “Understanding Comics”, Scott McCloud talks about six “steps” that make up any piece of art, be it a painting, a sculpture, a film, a novel or, indeed, his own medium: comics. The steps can be assembled in any order, and they are:

  • Idea
  • Form
  • Genre/Idiom
  • Structure
  • Craft
  • Surface

 There is a lot to discuss about each one of these steps, and I have set a limit on these posts of 500 words apiece; so I’ll be talking about ideas, form and genre/idiom this week, and structure, craft and surface next week.

Ideas
Sometimes they come thick and fast, at other times it can be like getting blood from a stone. The idea can be a character, a place, a situation or even a principle. This is often where my own stories start, but too many of them never get beyond this point!  An idea without a story will not reach outside the author’s mind, and a story without an idea will not reach the listener’s heart.    Turning an idea into a story is the whole craft of storytelling.

Form
So, I’ve had an idea for a story. How am I going to tell it? As a piece of prose? As a poem? A script, a radio play, a comic? There are many possible choices for me, as a writer.  And, if I had the appropriate skills, I might choose to tell my story as a painting, a piece of music, a sculpture, or even a building!

A story can start from here; deciding that I want to write poetry, I could start planning poems and let the ideas come later. Or perhaps I decide I’m going to write for the radio, I could start with the form (a radio play or sketch) and find an idea to suit.

Genre/Idiom
I now have the story I want to tell, and the form I’m going to use. But in what genre will my story be told? The possibilities are endless, but without a clear picture of whom I am telling the story to, without a “target audience” as it were, the whole thing will be a bit of a shot in the dark. I need to be telling this story for someone – even if it’s only myself!

I could choose to start the creative process from this step, by deciding, for example, that I want to write children’s books, or crime stories, or comedy; and then finding forms and ideas to fit my chosen genre.  I could also choose to mix two or more existing genres and create an idiom of my own.  For an artist or composer, it might be about choosing which “school” to follow, or founding an entirely new school.

That’s all for this week.  Next week, I’ll be talking about how structure, craft and surface help turn an idea into a finished story.

Link of the week:
It’s another webcomic!  Earthsong

27
Feb
09

It’s Been a Baaaad W… winter

So much for my “rizolushun” – four weeks of posting on time, then nothing for over two months. Not a good start, if I say so myself.

That said, the worst of the winter is over and with it, I hope, has gone the worst of my lethargy. I haven’t been completely idle in the ten weeks since I posted last, I have written some poetry, a couple of short stories, and done more work on the background for my main project.

Ah, background. So much easier for me than writing the main story. I know these characters, describing their lives is easy and fun. And, since I know that these are notes for my eyes only, I don’t have to worry about creating immortal prose; I can simply jot the ideas down as they come to me, and then rearrange them into the most pleasing order. I can knock out two or three “character essays” in a single day, no problem. What I can’t seem to do is write the story in which these characters appear.

Outline, yes. I can outline the story, and indeed I have. It is all there, fully plotted out and ready to be written up. It’s been ready for two years now, and so far I’ve only written chapters one, two, five, and the epilogue. I have isolated fragments of dialogue that will go into chapters four and seventeen, and a descriptive passage that needs to be worked into chapter eleven. And that’s all. Of the 15,000 or so words I have on file, only 9,000 belong to the finished story. The remaining 6,000 are notes: character essays and background information including a detailed history of my fictional world and a description of how it is governed. Interesting for me to work out, but not strictly relevent to the telling of the story.

Yes, the telling of the story is still my downfall. I have a story, whole and entire, waiting to be told. I simply cannot organise myself well enough to tell it. To that end, I have been doing a lot of reading, particularly webcomics.

Several years ago, I happened upon Scott McCloud‘s book “Understanding Comics“. It was an amazing read, and completely changed the way I thought, not only about comics but about stories in general.  I tend to visualise my stories very clearly; and if it were not for the fact that I possess the artistic ability of a lobotomised chimp, I might try telling my story as a comic – or “graphic novel” as it is becoming known.

I have been reading a variety of webcomics: some are a series of unconnected strip cartoons (e.g: F-minus) and others tell a serialised story (e.g: Hero in Training) Some even do both (e.g: For Better or For Worse).

The ones which tell a long story are most helpful for me to structure my own story-telling, and I will be writing more about them next week.

Yes, I will be posting next week. I’m already working on it. Honest …

Link of the week:
Code Name: Hunter - www.rcsitravel.net

19
Dec
08

The StoryTeller

Jim Henson made a series of programmes in the eighties with this title.  The storyteller in question was played by John Hurt – the same actor who voiced the dragon in the recent BBC series, “Merlin”.  Every episode started the same way:

When people told themselves their past with stories, explained their present with stories, foretold the future with stories, the best place by the fire was kept for … the StoryTeller.”

I remember watching these programmes avidly as a child, even when the images frightened me.  Sometimes I couldn’t look at the screen, but I would tune in again the next week to hear the next story.  The fantastic combination of Anthony Minghella’s words and John Hurt’s voice made for compelling viewing.  At the time my only interest in stories was as a listener, but now I come back to the tales with an apprentice’s ear.  For now I myself want to be a storyteller, to spin tales that will make people laugh and cry, stories that will give them nightmares and give them hope.  I want to know how to make my listeners long to hear more, how to catch people up and carry them away to other places and other times.

I want to be a writer!

I am already a reader.  Reading for me is as natural as breathing, and almost as necessary.  But now I must train myself to be a listener, too.  And listening, as Michael Ende points out in “Momo“, is not nearly as easy as people think.  Mostly, people don’t listen;  I know I don’t.  I take in what’s being said, but I’m not listening, not really.  I don’t notice accents unless they are very difficult to understand.  Mostly, when having a conversation with someone, my mind will drift on to the next thing I want to say.  It’s a terribly self-centred way to behave, I know.  And I’m trying to become a better listener, partly because it’s good manners and will make me a nicer person to be around, and partly because I’ll never write good dialogue until I start listening to how people talk, rather than just what they say.

I practice with radio and television, listening for the sounds of the words as well as the words themselves.  I practice a little on the bus and in the street, but it always feels rude to listen to strangers’ conversations, so I don’t do that much.  Mostly, I practice with my friends and family.  I’m not good at it yet, but I’m practicing.  Honest.

Listening to a master storyteller is a double education, not only do you learn what makes a good story, you also learn how to tell those stories.  The pauses, the cadence, the repetition, the rhythm, all combine to make a story that is halfway to being poetry.  The best piece of advice I have received to date is to have everything you write read aloud, if possible by someone else.  If what you hear with your ears is what you saw with your mind’s eye, then you’ve got it just about right.

 

Link of the week: The Jim Henson Company (what else?)

12
Dec
08

The art of story-telling

Writing is one branch of story-telling, and the study of good writing is mostly a study of good story-telling technique. Once you have got to grips with grammar, and mastered the whole “i before e” thing, writing is about the art of telling your story.

This doesn’t just apply to fiction. Everything from the driest factual treatise to most lurid sword-and-sorcery epic needs to have a structure in order to allow the reader to grasp the author’s intent. As previously mentioned, a piece of writing has a lot in common with a piece of music. Without structure, music is just so much noise. Without structure, a piece of writing is virtually unintelligible. Human beings like patterns, and feel uncomfortable around that which is truly random. Look at the vast efforts expended by mathematicians to find some pattern to pi, for example.

A structured piece of story-telling, whether in words, music, pictures or any combination of these media, will typically have one over-arching theme. Within this theme may be many smaller patterns; repeated, reflected and inverted as the teller pleases. However, they should all have some connection both to each other and to the main theme. Most languages have a wide variety of conjunctions available to make these connections. Music and dance have “linking” themes and steps which help one movement flow seamlessly into the next. All forms of communication rely to some extent on these linking techniques. In writing, good links are made by using the appropriate linking word or phrase and arranging ideas so that they move progressively from A to B.

The introduction needs to give an idea of the over-arching theme. This then leads into the first idea and the first detail. The story should then progress towards the final idea, threading its way through the intermediate steps in a logical order. For a piece of non-fiction, this structure is usually sufficient. Introduction, argument, conclusion, the end. Very satisfactory. Fiction, however, may take certain liberties with this layout. A writer of fiction may chose to start the narrative somewhere in the middle of the story, then flash backwards and forwards along the time stream. Even here, though, the story follows a logical order; if not a chronological one. The reader is carried along the story arc smoothly, the twists and turns adding to the story rather than confusing it.

To become a good writer, it is necessary to study all types of story-telling. To see how the rules are applied, and broken, by the past masters of the craft; and the present masters, for that matter. Writing is about telling your story, transmitting it as smoothly as possible from your mind to that of your reader. There are stories everywhere, and the more you read, hear and see the better you will become at telling your own stories.

Link of the week:

Writing .com

05
Dec
08

Just a Minute…

Last week I dealt with the “write” aspect of this blog, this week I want to look at the “now” part.  I could probably win the “Procrastinator of the Year” award, at least, I could if I wasn’t too busy doing other things.  Whenever I have something that really needs to be done I can always find something else to do.  Watching a film, reading a book, playing a game on the computer, anything to avoid the task that should be in hand.  But the worst and most insidious time-stealer is list-making.

 

List-making is such a dangerous trap because it makes me feel as if I am doing the job. I’m planning for it, aren’t I?  Working out the best way of tackling the problem, time spent in reconnaissance and all that.  Yeah, right.  What I’m really doing is putting off the evil hour when I have to get up off of my broadening backside and set to the actual work.  I can spend so many hours creating beautifully detailed plans that the day just melts away.

 

Then there are the little jobs, the tiny tasks that won’t take a moment and really need to be done and then I’ll get on with the job I meant to do today, I really will.  But first I’ll just … and suddenly the deadline has passed in a flurry of small unnecessary delays, things that only take a minute.

 

I’m gradually getting a hold over my procrastination habit – for example it has only been two days between deciding to write this post and actually sitting down to write it.  I have some projects that are still in note form after more than two years.  The tricky bit is maintaining the momentum – to avoid the feeling that success here means I can take it easy for the rest of the day.  I know that if I could write four or five hundred words every day I could get the first draft of a novel finished within a matter of months.  It would need a lot of editing, but there would at least be something to edit!  I don’t pretend that I can achieve this from a standing start, but five hundred words a week is a step in the right direction.  This blog will hopefully get me as good at action as I am now at procrastination.  Hopefully.

 

Are you a procrastinator?  Are you perhaps a reformed procrastinator?  What are your tips and tricks for saving (or wasting) time?  Leave a comment, please.  Don’t plan to leave a comment, don’t make a mental note to leave a comment, don’t say “I’ll just …”.  Just leave a comment!  I promise to read it without delay, just so long as I have got all my jobs done first.  Speaking of which, I’ve got to go.  Work and study beckon, unfortunately.

 

Link of the week:

BBC Ouch!

28
Nov
08

Introducing the Theme

Welcome, fellow readers, writers, web-surfers, story-tellers and people who get bored on Friday afternoons.  This is my blog where I pretend to have a real writing job, something with deadlines and stuff like that.  By setting myself the (hopefully) achievable goal of publishing 500 words a week, I aim to instil some discipline into my writing.  I don’t promise to be witty, insightful or even very topical in my postings.  Lots of people already do this, Lady Bracknell, Giraffalicious and Mitch Benn to name but a few.  The only thing this blog promises is to be updated every Friday, and to get better as it goes on.

 

The postings will be about writing, mainly.  I am learning my craft as I go along, and I invite you to read over my shoulder.  You can even cover my efforts in red ink corrections, if you like.  I will pass on anything particularly interesting that I learn about writing or getting published, as well as documenting my ongoing search for the answer to the question: what makes a great story-teller?

 

I want to hear from you!  If you agree with me, if you disagree with me, if you spot a glaring error of spelling, punctuation or grammar, or if you just want to say hello.  I especially want to hear your suggestions for topics for future postings.  I know just enough about the world of writing to be truly appalled by my own ignorance.  I have a few posts prepared to start off with, but I hope to base future posts on your comments and suggestions.  I will also be highlighting one blog or website every week.  If you want me to highlight yours, drop me a comment.  I’ll take a look, and if I like it, I’ll link it!

 

Writing a story is very like writing a piece of music.  You set the tone from the start, and quickly introduce the main theme.  This theme is then used as the backbone of the whole piece, supporting other themes, providing a link through changes of key, mood and pace, and bringing the whole thing back together for the grand finale.  That’s not to say that these rules can’t be broken; but like all rules in art they can only be broken successfully by an artist who truly understands them.  As humans, we like patterns.  Even the most outrageous, rebellious artists need patterns, otherwise what are they rebelling against?  We are creatures of habit, living in a universe of patterns.  Much, if not all, art is about spotting those patterns and reflecting them back on ourselves.

 

Now you see why this blog has a limit of 500 words – once I get hold of a subject, I can waffle on about it indefinitely.  One of the skills I am currently working on is conciseness.  I think I still have a lot to learn! Well, that’s what this blog is for, that and your feedback.  So, over to you.  I’ll see you next week.

 

Link of the week:

Ponderings and Ruminations




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