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Archive for May, 2009

Oooo, I remember writing up experiments at school…

Equipment

  1. A huge pile of unread ‘how-to-write’ books.
  2. A handful of red pens.
  3. The realisation that simply owning a book is not enough to transfer the subject matter from page to brain.
  4. A hopeless addiction to spending hours a day reading epic fantasy serieseses.

Method

  1. Finish reading current epic fantasy series.
  2. Do not start new epic fantasy series for at least a month.*
  3. Instead, pick up nearest how-to-write book and read that.
  4. Mark interesting passages with red pen.
  5. Think about what you’ve learned and how to use it to improve your writing.
  6. Record positive and negative effects.
  7. [optional] Write a blog post about what you’ve learned.

* Bugger! I’d forgotten I’d said I’d do this for at least a month! I was just about to cave in as well… I guess as I’m half way through I might as well carry on.

Results

Positive:

  • I’m learning an awful lot more than I was before, when the how-to-write books were simply lined up on my windowsill waiting to be read.
  • It’s entirely possible that my writing is improving, but I’ve got no idea if that’s true. It feels as if it might be though.
  • I’m building up a set of techniques to deal with situations I was struggling with e.g. reading Syd Field’s book helped me with my radio play.
  • I’m reading more of the stuff I’m trying to write – poetry and short stories – this can only be good.

Negative:

  • I really struggle to get to sleep at night without my usual soporific few/many chapters of sword and sorcery. For instance, I was awake till nearly 4am last night.
  • I seem to be substituting graphic novels for fantasy – I can kind of justify this as one of our teachers told us to read some… :-\
  • Reading has started to feel like work, and I sometimes find I don’t want to do it. That’s Not Good.

Conclusions so far

Well, I’m only half way through the experiment so I’m not going to draw too many conclusions. One thing that has sprung to mind is that I’d be better off stopping myself watching TV – I’m hooked on all sorts of rubbish. (I can’t believe I said that, I’ve been busy not admitting it to myself for months, trying to kid myself that quitting Casualty, Holby City, NCIS and CSI was enough)

I’m a bit concerned about the disruption to my sleep patterns, I hope that will settle down soon. Apart from that, it’s great to be gaining knowledge at my current rate. So the experiment will continue, for now at least.

Of course, writing this blog post has been pure procrastination – there are loads of competition deadlines coming up and I’m bored with polishing mediocre poems and stories in the hope they’ll sparkle enough to catch the judges’ eyes…

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Writing for Radio

Before I start… here’s a mood update

I’m feeling much better today. I gave myself a kick up the backside yesterday and sent off my submission for the poetry workshop. I read out my 300 word statement of interest to my elder son, and he said it was brilliant, so I’m a shoo-in for a place! Seriously though, I really hope I get a place, it sounds fantastic.

Once I’d done that, I toddled off to my favourite cafe and set to sorting out my radio play. A couple of hours later I felt like I’d really achieved something, so by yesterday evening I was on top of the world. I spent an hour in the bath reading The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field, which gave me a few more ideas, then wrote for a couple more hours.

Then, of course, I couldn’t sleep. So I read more of the Screenwriter’s Workbook… which is great. I might try to get hold of a more recent edition though – the one I’ve got tells you where to put your tab stops on your typewriter…

Writing a radio play – the problem

The more I mused over where I’d gone wrong (see Wednesday’s post), the clearer it became that I didn’t get on very well with the technique our teacher had been using. She’d taken us through creating our plays in a very structured way:

  1. Start with the main character. Write down everything there is to know about him/her.
  2. Do similar biographies for the secondary character(s), perhaps with not as much detail.
  3. Write some dialogue between the main character and a secondary character, work out how they talk and how they relate.
  4. Write down what the story is – the whole background, sequence of events, journey of the main character – boil it down into one page.
  5. Write your opening scene, make it 2-3 minutes and ensure it will hook the audience.
  6. Write the climax scene, again make it 2-3 minutes.

In an 8-week course there wasn’t ever going to be time to write an entire radio play, which I’m guessing is why we’re only required to write the opening and climax scenes. For me, that’s where the problem arose. Although I knew what the overall story was, and how my main character was going to change, I didn’t really have much of a clue about how I was going to present it to the audience.

So although my scenes were reasonably true to the characters, and portrayed the events I’d intended to portray, I was starting from the wrong place. I didn’t have an overall context for those scenes – I hadn’t defined the structure of my play.

The solution

Our teacher did tell us about the difference between story, plot and structure:

  • story – describes the world the main character lives in and the journey they take
  • plot – the bits of the story that make up the journey, the window through which you reveal the world
  • structure – how the plot is revealed to the listener – through which events and in what order

I think these definitions are important, and I would have found it an awful lot easier to write my scenes if I’d worked through from the story (which was fully developed in my head and on paper) to the structure.

The Syd Field book helped too – he starts with story/plot/structure in the form of:

  • beginning – setting up the context
  • end – resolving the story
  • plot point 1 – the incident that moves the script from setting up to action
  • plot point 2 – the climactic incident that leads to resolution

Once I’d got my beginning, ending, and plot points 1 and 2 straight (easily extracted from the story summary I’d written), I wrote the structure of the play around those fixed events. For each scene, I outlined the action and wrote a list of the information I wanted to get across (which was another good pointer our teacher had given us). This gave me nine scenes.

I read through the structure, and removed one of the scenes, tightened up the action, and made sure all the information I wanted to put across was covered in my lists. Then I applied some of the pointers Kevin Fegan had given us on Wednesday evening – making sure there were changes of pace, not revealing everything all at once, etc. And by the time I’d done that, I had a brilliant scene-by-scene outline of the play. (NB the play itself isn’t brilliant, but the outline is fabulous!)

So when I sat down today to start writing the actual script, I had no problems hammering out the first draft of the new opening scene in an hour or so, with the next three scenes following on in quick succession. I knew what I was writing, I knew why I was writing it, and more importantly, I knew how it fitted in with the rest of the play.

Hoorah!

Thoughts on character

I wasn’t comfortable with the depth of the initial character development. Stephen King in On Writing suggests a different starting point for a novel – you come up with a situation then populate it with characters and weave a plot around those characters in that situation. Syd Field has a similar approach to screenplays – you only flesh out your characters when you’ve got the outline structure of the script drafted. OK, so neither of them were writing about radio plays, but if my experience of the last couple of days is anything to go by, it applies to those too.

I’m not saying doing the character studies first is wrong… just that I prefer to start with a story and then find out about the characters within that story. This often means I have to change the story because the characters just wouldn’t do that, but that’s OK.

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Ups and Downs

No, I haven’t suddenly started writing porn (although I have heard that’s where the money is).

I need to be careful… I seem to be developing a bit of a habit of starting posts with awful puns. I’ll try to stop, I promise. Anyway, I thought I’d be a bit self-indulgent today and ramble on about myself. Please feel free not to read it, I’m writing for my benefit today, not yours!

Ups and downs

It’s been a strange week, one way and another. I didn’t do any writing over the weekend. I had to go over to Gainsborough which wiped Friday out. I spent a fun Saturday afternoon in town gassing with Adrian about graphic novels and NLP. And then on Sunday I did the Sheffield Round Walk, which was 14 miles of up and down hills – great fun and most enjoyable… but I’m only now able to go up and down stairs without being in excruciating agony. I haven’t slept very well as a result of all the aches and pains, and it’s been as much as I could manage to get to classes. I did a bit of writing yesterday but it wasn’t very good, as I discovered in class.

Downs…

I’ve been struggling a bit with the Writing for Radio class. I don’t think I’m really cut out to be a playwright. I can do dialogue ok in stories, but it doesn’t seem to be working in the context of a radio play. We’ve had to write a couple of scenes from a play – the opening scene and climax scene. Having come up with some good characters and a reasonably powerful story, I thought this wouldn’t be too difficult. However, the teacher’s comments on the opening scene I’d handed in last week showed I hadn’t really got the hang of it. I think I’d misunderstood the nature of the ‘hook’ required to ensure listeners don’t switch off – rather than raising questions I’d given away too much of the story. Fair enough… I can sort that out. Then we did the ‘writer’s circle’ thing and all read out our climax scenes and discussed them. Nightmare… I’d got that wrong too. I finished reading and everyone was dead silent, except one bloke who said ‘I didn’t understand a word of that.’

I came home from class through the pits of misery. It was obvious to me I was kidding myself about being a writer. All I could think about was the competitions and magazine submissions that had led nowhere, and the likelihood that I won’t be able to start making a living from writing before the money runs out. Last night was black. Not much sleep, and woke up at 6am with my back in spasm.

Grumph.

…and ups

Editing class was ok. Not inspiring, but at least we weren’t attacking one of my pieces today. I don’t think I could have coped with that.

Then I found a notice about a poetry workshop at Nottingham Uni in July – sounds like great fun. Have to apply for a place, and send off some poems, and stuff like that, but I’ll give it a go. (there, now I’ve said it in public on the wibbly wobbly web I won’t be able to back out due to plummeting self-esteem!)

And this evening’s Techniques class was very informative and enjoyable. Kevin Fegan came in to talk to us about writing plays – I actually came away thinking that maybe I might be able to do the playwright thing after all. I’m not quite sure why, but something he said must have helped. So tomorrow I need to put all tonight’s positive energy and nuggets of useful information towards sorting my radio play out.

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My brain hurts

One of the mantras of creative writing teachers is: ‘Show, don’t tell’. Yeah yeah yeah, I thought to myself, the fourth or fifth time I heard it. Bored now.

But then I did an exercise that demonstrated the principle. I can’t even remember what the exercise was, but it would have been something along the lines of describing a person’s character and then rewriting the description as an active scene that showed the character.

So this:

Steven was a cold fish. He never let on how he was feeling, and he was impervious to other people’s emotional state.

might become:

Steven’s wife had to ask him whether he was happy that she was pregnant. ‘Of course I am,’ he said, ‘but I’m not going to celebrate till it’s born. You might lose it.’

That little snippet of action shows us exactly how Steven behaves, and really makes us feel the effect he has on the people around him.

Thus the mantra became meta. I had been told to show not tell several times, but only once I’d been shown the principle in action did I fully understand the power of showing. And all that meta stuff makes my brain hurt…

Experiment update

I’m missing my escapist fiction like you wouldn’t believe. I have read half of an editing book and half of a screenwriting book and a couple of graphic novels (Watchmen is BRILLIANT!) since last week. I find it difficult to switch my head off at night – even though I’m enjoying what I read, it tends to swirl around my mind exciting all those little neurones that ought to be dozing. Still, I’m learning lots of stuff.

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No-one is entirely sure who first said that editing is all about ‘murdering your darlings’, but the phrase is still used frequently, probably because it is so apt.

Chekhov’s Gun

Particularly for short stories and poems (but this does also apply to novels and plays etc), every single word must be relevant to the story or image the piece is trying to capture. So, as Chekhov said (in the context of plays):

One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no-one is thinking of firing it.

Another way I’ve been told to look at it is as if each word costs a certain amount of money, and everyone knows authors have to be careful with cash…

There are many ways a word can earn its place:

  • Advancing the plot.
  • Setting the scene.
  • Demonstrating some aspect of character.
  • Creating a realistic image for the reader.
  • Foreshadowing an event yet to come.
  • …and doubtless many more…

and thus many grey areas. Who is to say whether the wart on Mrs Green’s nose is important? or the particular features of the bird chirping outside the window as Mr Carter is murdered?

Murdering your darlings

An author with their ‘writing head’ on (as opposed to their ‘editing head’) is probably not the best person to evaluate the worth of a word or phrase in the context of the whole piece. We’ve all written wonderfully evocative descriptions of irrelevant objects, and been unable to remove them from the text because they are so beautiful. But with an ‘editing head’ we would probably admit, if pushed, that the piece would be stronger without that particular sentence or paragraph.

Problem is, if you’re self-editing, it’s very hard to wield the blue pencil and excise the gorgeous gems, no matter how much their presence may get in the way of the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of your work.

Being ruthless

A technique one of my teachers used to great effect on one of my stories last week may well be the answer. He took a 600 word story and chopped out every single word that wasn’t absolutely core to the story, cutting it down to less than 300 words. My job now is to look at each word with a line through it and evaluate whether it really needs to go back in.

So for example, this is the opening section before the cut:

I can see babies in transparent plastic boxes.
Where am I? And what the hell am I doing here?
God, my head hurts. Why is there so much noise? Can’t they keep it down a bit?
‘Hey, excuse me?’ My throat feels like I’ve been swallowing pine cones. ‘Do you think you could shove a dummy in its mouth or something?’
I guess not. Some people have no consideration. My head’s thumping and whatever I ate last night wants to make a reappearance. I hope it wasn’t really pine cones.
At least I’m lying down. I wish this bed was softer though.
Oh. I’m on the floor.
I start to retch. Someone thrusts a couple of upside down oatmeal hats at me. I fill both and hand them back to a blurry woman with dark skin and a blue dress.

and after the cut:

I see babies in boxes.
God, my head hurts. Can’t they keep it down?
‘Hey, excuse me? Do you think you could shove a dummy in its mouth?’
Some people have no consideration. Whatever I ate last night wants to make a reappearance. I hope it wasn’t pine cones.
At least I’m lying down.
Someone thrusts a couple of upside down oatmeal hats at me. I fill both and hand them back.

I would argue that too much has been cut out, for example it’s really not clear that the protagonist has puked… but that’s something I can think about. Could I say it more succinctly than my first effort? Is it relevant that I hand the cardboard containers back to ‘a blurry woman with a dark skin and a blue dress’? Or can I leave that out?

A matter of style

The teacher who carried out this butchery is a self-confessed fan of extremely terse writing. He maintains that it’s stronger and has more impact. I’m still developing my opinions on this aspect of writing style… for example I loved Chekhov’s A Nervous Breakdown, which is not terse by any means – but that was the style a century ago. Ironically, the self-same teacher introduced me to this story.

Anyway, it’s an idea to play with, and certainly an editing technique worth trying.

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I’ve just started to read Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I’m doing a course on editing at the moment, and as I’ve previously mentioned I have a tendency to edit as I write, which ‘good authority’ says is not the way to do it. So I think it’s time to find out how to do it properly.

A word of warning:

… because writing and editing are two different skills, they require two different mind-sets. Don’t try to do both at once. The time to edit is not when you’re writing your first draft.

So say Browne and King. Where does that leave people like me who edit as we type? I’ve tried, I’ve really tried to just let the words flow, but I can’t stop myself re-reading and re-writing as I go.

This kind of harks back to the whole drum and lyre thing. Sometimes I have fleeting moments where golden words alight on the screen in front of me and illuminate whatever I happen to be working on, but those are all too rare. Most of the time I’m a drum, plodding along to a rhythmic beat, maintaining order at all times.

It struck me that the drum and the lyre may represent the two different mind-sets required for editing and writing respectively. Then I thought about it a bit. I believe most writers do edit as they write, whether they do it on the page or (consciously or subconsciously) in their mind before their fingers touch keyboard or pen. And I’m sure that editing is as creative as writing – Browne and King illustrate this by showing pieces of text that are perfectly acceptable, but could be made so much better by changing emphasis or voice, or converting to a scene, or putting more concrete detail in, or ‘showing not telling’, or whatever… in all cases the changes require imagination and creativity.

Do I need to change the way I write?

Adrian commented on my previous post:

I edit as I go. Plan the story out in advance, which saves time and enables you to focus on the actual writing without getting distracted by working out the mechanics of the story. But in the business of applying fingers to keys I am perpetually going back and tweaking. So you’re not the only one who does it that way!

Now that seems quite reasonable to me. So do he and I share a tendency to sketch out our first draft in our heads, meaning that what ends up as v0.1 on our laptops is really v0.2? If this is the case, we’re not really going against received wisdom, we’ve just internalised a part of the process. Which I think is fine.

However, I’ve written many stories where I don’t really know where the plot is headed before setting fingers to keyboards. And I still edit as I go. ‘Island’ – the story I mentioned previously – changed dramatically several times before I knew where it was going to end up. I re-ordered paragraphs and sentences, chopped bits out and put them back in again, even changed one of the characters, all before I’d got to the end of the second page.

I wonder how people who’ve never been on a creative writing course or read a book about ‘how to write’ manage to churn out acceptable stories? I wonder if some authors can instinctively self-edit (as they write, or afterwards, I don’t care which) without needing to go through checklists? Maybe reading a lot gives one a subconscious knowledge of what works and what doesn’t… I don’t know.

To be continued…

I shall continue this theme in my next post. Wednesday’s editing class was fascinating – the lecturer used one of my stories as an example of severe editing, cutting a 600 word piece down to 290 words. It hurt!

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Priming

Having mentioned priming in yesterday’s blog, I’ve been thinking about it… so I might as well write about it today.

What is priming?

The Wikipedia definition of it works for me:

… where an early stimulus influences response to a later stimulus. For example, when a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that subject answers table is higher than for non-primed people.

Of course it isn’t as simple as the given example. Priming effects can be quite complex and interesting… and I believe they form one of the underpinnings for neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

Bargh et al’s experiment

Three groups of subjects were given the ‘scrambled sentence’ test – they were presented with six sets of five words (e.g. ‘he it hides finds instantly’) and asked to make as many four-word sentences from each five word set as they could, as quickly as possible.

The words presented differed slightly for each group. One group had 15 rude words included (such as ‘aggressively’, ‘intrude’, ‘brazen’, ‘impolitely’). For another group, 15 polite words were substituted for the rude words, and for the final control group neutral words were substituted. The subjects were not aware of these differences, and thought the five-minute scrambled sentence test was the point of the experiment.

When each of the 34 subjects came out of the room to report that they’d finished the test, the experimenter was engaged in conversation, and ignored the subject for ten minutes.

Only just over 15% of those who’d been primed with polite words interrupted within 10 minutes, while of those who’d been using rude words, more than 60% interrupted in that time.

Subjects who did interrupt also did so faster if they’d been in the ‘impolite’ group – they took an average of 5.5 minutes to intrude, whereas even when you discounted the 85% of the politely primed group who didn’t interrupt at all, subjects from that group took over 9 minutes to interrupt on average.

Despite the small sample size, the results were statistically significant.

[Bargh JA, Chen M, Burrows L. (1996) Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype-activation on action. J Pers Soc Psychol. 71(2):230–244.]

This experiment effectively demonstrates how significant the effect of even a short period of priming can have on subsequent behaviour.

Other examples

Derren Brown is one of the most well-known exponents of NLP. I have to admit I find him creepy, but the tricks he can pull are certainly very clever. I saw him on TV once, running rings round Simon Pegg. He’d bought Simon a gift, and had it wrapped up ready to give to him, but Simon would only get the gift (a BMX bike) if he asked for it correctly by name. Derren burbled for a while, doubtless working lots of priming in that I didn’t notice, but I did spot it when he said, ‘you could ask for anything you like, a BM, XBox, whatever.’ Still and all, I was impressed when Mr Pegg duly asked for and received his BMX bike.

I know it’s fiction, but there’s a fabulous bit in Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (Eoin Colfer) where Artemis allows the baddy to pick a place to meet, then primes him to pick Taipei 101 in Taiwan with the following:

Now why don’t you name your preferred location. I’ll be wearing a burgundy tie. Pay attention to that. There are a hundred and one ways this could go wrong. If it does, the police could tie one of us up for a long time.

And finally, we’ve all subjected family and/or friends to discussions of waterfalls and dripping taps when they’re desperate for the loo… which is (in more ways than one) a crude form of priming.

The Velten Mood Induction Procedure

This is an explicit use of priming to affect mood. Basically, Velten demonstrated that asking subjects to read, silently then aloud, a series of 60 increasingly elative (e.g. ‘I feel happy’) or depressive statements (e.g. ‘I am worthless’) would tend to induce elated or depressed moods respectively.

Subsequent research has shown that the effects can be achieved with silent reading alone, and sometimes with as few as 12 statements. However, the effects aren’t observed in all subjects, and tend to last only around ten minutes (although they have been seen to last for over half an hour).

[Velten, E. (1968) A laboratory task for the induction of mood states. Behaviour Research and Therapy 6;473-482.]

How is this useful for writers?

One obvious way for writers to make use of the priming effect is to carefully choose metaphors and adjectives to induce a particular mood or expectation in the reader. I’ve started to play with this a bit. One story I wrote recently used grayscale descriptions of colours and stark black and white metaphors, apart from the scarf worn by the central character, which was blood-red. I don’t know if it worked, but it was fun to do, and it all tied in nicely with the ending, which involved someone’s throat being cut. I haven’t tried explicitly manipulating the reader’s mood, but it must be a reasonable assumption that it is possible.

I guess another way to use the VMIP is to raise mood and self-confidence prior to starting to write. Again, I haven’t tried this myself, but it’s something I’m holding in reserve for when things start to get me down.

I’m pretty sure I’ve only just scratched the surface of the possibilities…

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