Sunday, 20 November 2016

Addiction: Little Mermaid 2.0

I'm been spending some time with some wonderful images by talented London-based photographer Laura Ward. Laura's images and projects have featured Tate Britain, the BBC and the New York Times.

One of the theme's Laura explores through her work is identity metamorphosis, a theme that manifests in some of my stories too. I've been using one of her collections, Serpents, to think about that, and it's taken me in all sorts of directions - from selkie children to lost mermaids. There's a wistful, sad and dark feel to many of those stories, but that feels unbalanced.

I decided I wanted to write something more upbeat, funnier. Addiction was born from a "What if?" What if Arial and Prince Eric had a kid? What if she didn't know about her heritage?

From Serpents by Laura Ward

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Not NaNoWriMo.... Bringing your story to life (with some help from Chuck)

I've got #NaNoWriMo envy.

Across the world right now thousands of people are typing, scribbling and dictating away, birthing their stories in a frenzied flurry of international penmanship.

I wish I was too.

I love National Novel Writing Month. I love writing in the autumn. For me autumn is the season of new beginnings. It's the time we should be making resolutions, when the light is golden and the trees are turning and the earth has brought forth its fruit. The nights are drawing in and a trace of frost lingers in the air. Now is the time to light the fire. Now is the time to write.

Photography by James Jordan under a Creative Commons license

Autumn. The writers' season.

Sadly, this year I'm not participating. For the last two or three years life has rudely got in the way of writing - manic full time jobs which use up every ounce of energy and creativity and leave little left over for writing. But somewhere, within that, I've managed a little.

I've got two nearly complete novels each drafted and redrafted a dozen times. They're like familiar friends, that I can dip into and move things along. I can keep my hand in. That's all good.

And I've explored ideas, usually in that odd, grey time between sleeping and waking where my brain likes to throw out creative solutions.

But I still have #NaNoWriMo envy.

That's what took me wandering across the internet in search of plotting advice. Okay, I can't participate. But maybe I can do a little. Get a plot down. Something. That was enough to get some ideas drifting about and that's what brought me here. To the single best summary of different ways to plot I've had the pleasure of coming across - kindly assembled by Chuck Wendig.

I've tried a lot of different methods - snowflakes and beatsheets and character profiles and post it notes and three act summaries. I've yet to find one that fits easily.  Plotting, to me, is like flossing teeth. I know it's important, I just find it dull.

To me, writing is a bit like cooking. I like learning new cooking techniques and I love trying new food. My preferred way to learn is to come across something delicious and to say, "How did you do that?" I like to apply what I've discovered in different ways.

My favourite cookery book is The Flavour Thesaurus because it doesn't prescribe step by step recipes so much as advise which flavours go together. It provides a pathway to alchemy and empowers me to try new and different things, without having to copy someone else's recipe. My second favourite is Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course because it tells you how to cook.

One gives the bones, the other the map. The journey you take is up to you.

That's why I was so pleased to discover Chuck's article listing 25 different ways to plot, plan and prep your story. Brilliant. Because what it does is show that there is no silver bullet. There is no one size fits all "plot this way and it all makes sense".  It liberates med from staring at facsimiles of JK Rowling's crazy plot spreadsheets and shows me that there are two dozen different pathways to travel. Best of all, it reminds me that some of the things I've discovered are legitimate ways to progress my story.

From Chuck's list, here's what has worked for me:

Beginning, Middle and End

I used to start stories only to find out they trailed off after 20,000 words because I hadn't a clue where they were going. I learned a bit from that. Now I try to have the absolute basics scrawled down in a notebook. It might just be three sentences but it roughly keeps me on track.

In the Document as you Go 

This involves sketching out the chapter ahead as you go. This only works for me if I have the Beginning, Middle and End roughly worked out.

Dialogue Pass 

This means throwing down the dialogue and letting the characters talk it all out - then building the story around them. When I do this, the pages fly - I write really, really fast. It also helps me to get to know characters twice as fast as "interviewing" them or writing out character sheets - that feels so artificial to me. When I do this, I can get into the character's skin. It's like acting. It feels much more authentic. I then go back, add flesh, edit and polish - but the bulk of the story has just written itself.

And a couple which I can't believe I haven't tried because they seem so damn sensible and obvious. Number one of these:

The Reverse Outline

This means starting at the end and working your way back. I can't believe this hasn't been my starting point. This was the best piece of advice my Dad ever gave me (when talking about university dissertations) - start at the end and work your way back. I've heard other authors talk about writing the last chapter first. I've sometimes done this when I've got stuck in the middle, and I need to revise the end point to work out a pathway towards it. But doing it at the start? No. But now I will. This works for me.

The Test Drive

Doing this has never occurred to me but it seems like a BRILLIANT idea. So good, I suggest you pop over to Chuck's blog to read about it.

Thank you Chuck. I might not be NaNoWriMoing this year, but at least I am inspired.

Related Posts

A Thing I learned about Story Arcs from the BFG

Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo 2013


Plots, Portraits and Getting a Handle on your Characters

Three lessons from NaNoWriMo 2011

Sunday, 21 August 2016

A thing I learned about characters arcs from the BFG

I had high hopes of the B.F.G., I really did. It's one of my daughter's favourite books, the posters I had seen looked spectacular and well, it brings Roald Dahl together with Steven Spielberg which pretty much has to be a recipe for spectacular story-telling

And the posters don't lie. It does look spectacular. I found myself thinking how fortunate we are to live in an age when movie visuals can really live up to the imaginations of writers and paint such fabulous spectacle on stage.

And then I found myself thinking about a recent twitter exchange on Hollywood's over-fondness for spectacle at the expense of plot and characterisation.

In his Poetics, Aristotle, as this article points outs, tells us that plot is the first and most important element in drama, followed by character, then dialogue, then spectacle. Spectacle is the least important. It's the bow that dresses up the overall package, a fact that Hollywood seems to have forgotten.

In the BFG plot is not forgotten. How could it be, when it had already been neatly provided by Roald Dahl?  Girl (Sophie) sees giant; girl is snatched by giant because she has seen him; girl's life is at risk from other giants who have a history of snacking on kids; girl decides to do something about it and motivates the BFG to do so too; the Queen is involved, the giant is dispensed with and the girl lives happily ever after.

This has all the hallmarks of a quest story. Sophie has been thrust into a situation not of her making but accepts a perilous mission to save the world (her world, children).

The problem with this film is that it misses out one important element of a quest story: the hero isn't transformed or redeemed as a result of her experiences.

Or maybe she is, but we wouldn't know it because the film doesn't take the time to establish Sophie's driving motivation, before plunging her directly into giant land.

The opening scenes of the BFG focus on an insomniac Sophie, hiding from the matron at her orphanage, sneaking a book, wandering the halls and shouting at drunks. The shouting at drunks seems an odd moment - we later realise this is establishing her as someone who isn't afraid to stand up to people bigger than herself in order to protect other children, foreshadowing her actions with the giants. We see her as tough. We see her as outspoken. We see her as brave.

We don't see her as lonely or vulnerable or friendless. Quite the opposite. The fact she is standing up for the other children at the orphanage implies she cares about them which implies they are her friends.

So when she latches onto the BFG as her new BFF it seems odd. 

In fact, the friendship seems unsettling and uneven. The BFG has form in snatching kids - he's done it once before and it didn't end well (for the boy). It suggests that he is very lonely and will perhaps sometimes do inexcusable things in order to meet his need for company. It doesn't explain what is in it for Sophie. The Sophie we saw in the opening scene might trick the BFG into believing she is his friend, in order to escape. But she evinced none of the deep aching loneliness or emotional vulnerability that would make a kid want a giant as her pal.

I found myself comparing this to (the original) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film. In that we see how much responsibility Charlie carries, how much he cares for his family and how little he has for himself. We completely believe in his wonder at the Chocolate Factory and feel the depth of his devastation when he believes he has failed Willie Wonka.

I'm guessing, in the BFG that moment is when the BFG, fearing for her life in Giant Country, takes her back to the orphanage. Sophie refuses to accept her friend is abandoning her. She forces him to reappear and makes him take her with him. She isn't giving up her friend.

But for that dark moment to be a dark moment, Sophie's loneliness and her desperate desire to be loved really, really need to be front and centre. We need to be able to empathise with her need for the BFG not to abandon her.  Her cunning, courage and protectiveness should give her the means to achieve this end.

And, at the end, when we see "Sophie's dream" come to pass - see her loved and secure, it doesn't feel real. Because that isn't the dream of the Sophie who has been presented to us. It's the dream of another Sophie, a vulnerable, rejected Sophie - a Sophie we have never seen.

Contrast to the film of Matilda, where her happy ending with Miss Honey feels like the reward for her bravery. The film opens with Matilda's neglect and rejection from babyhood - and her genius. She is clever, cunning, brilliant and daring - but she is also unrecognised and unloved. To really care about her happy ending, for it to make sense, we needed to know that about Sophie too.

There's a lot to learn from the BFG film.

It's a film that should have been brilliant but is actually a bit boring. The acting is good - Sophie is well cast and well acted - and the effects are marvellous. But without that emotional hook, that character arc which is so essential to a quest, it's hard to belive the rest.

This has given me insight into what I need to look for in my own work. If I don't establish my character at the start, if I don't give her the opportunity to change and grow as a consequence of her experiences, I'm not really bringing her to life. I'm just presenting spectacle.