Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Starting with a bang...

Interesting query came up on one of the boards I frequent:

We're constantly told to begin with action, but how does that fit with the 3 Act Structure?

Every story has a logical sequence of beginning, middle and end. That's all the 3 Act Structure is - so simple it's a wonder someone had to find a name for it, not to mention all the myriad books on the subject.

So you have to be aware of these three stages. Mostly you will be before you even give it a thought. If you've ever successfully told a joke you'll be aware of it.

First Act: Man goes to the doctor.
Second Act: Man says, "I think I'm a pair of curtains"
Third Act: Doctor says, "Pull yourself together, man!"

If you're unsure, watch a few Star Trek episodes. Roughly ten minutes at the beginning sets up the story (First Act), the struggle and complications which take up the next half hour (Second Act) ending with the climax and return to normal, including that annoying jokey bit of banter between the leads (third Act).

So we've got that. But we still need to start with something interesting enough to pull in the reader/viewer. So what do we do?

Well, in literature and movies there is a well trodden tradition of starting in media res - or in the middle of the action. You can start at the end of Act 1 when the main character is in a tight spot and has to make a desperate choice - or at the end of Act 2 where he's in a tighter spot and has to make an even more desperate choice. Then you can flashback to the events leading up to this dramatic opening. If you've done your job of making the start intriguing enough the reader will stay with it to find out the background. The story order is fixed but you can tell it any order you want. That's the magic of storytelling!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Truby's 22 Steps

In my constant quest to figure out what the hell I'm doing at this writing lark I've been reading yet another screenwriting tome. John Truby's Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller is a very interesting book. He takes apart the traditional three act structure and in its place gives you 7 essential steps around which to build your story. Further to that, he details the eponymous 22 steps, not all of which have to be included, but the fact that he mentions them gives you food for thought.

I'm reading this book with mixed feelings. There are lots of Eureka moments where I can see what is wrong with my WIP, but also those sinking feelings when you realise you need to go back to the start and rework the characters and the premise at the most basic level. It's great and I'm loving it. Because if it means a lot of hard work it's probably improving the story as well as teaching me things I didn't already know.

He has an excellent website which promotes his software and add-ons to the book, but if you sign up to his mailing list you get a free Secrets of Genre booklet. You all know how I love my freebies!

I downloaded the Blockbuster demo yesterday for a free 15 day trial, but it looks complicated and the book covers all you really need to know so I don't know whether it's worth the expense.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Rules? Nobody told me there were Rules!

Everywhere you go on Writers' Forums you run into lots of excellent and not-so-excellent advice. Little nuggets and homilies, usually littering people's signatures, like "If you see an adjective, kill it!" and "The Road to Hell is paved with Adverbs".

I've been knocking around these places long enough to see a few sacred cows built up only to come crashing down when someone comes up with an exception to the Rule. The net result is I no longer believe in rules. Of course you need grammar and spelling, those kind of rules. But once you get to the creation of fiction anything goes, and there is only one rule as far as I can see: IF IT WORKS, DO IT.

So why do these so-called rules get bandied about? I think it comes from well meant feedback people get from their submissions - an Editor or Agent mentions the fact that Wannabe has too much description in his first chapter. Wannabe then relays this to his group as "I was told not to have weather in the first chapter" and before you know it it's been enshrined in marble.

The point about being creative is you have to be flexible and open to any new ideas. Same with your method of working. There are no hard and fast rules about how a manuscript comes into being; some people painstakingly outline, research for months and plan every detail meticulously before they write a word. Then they sit down every day and churn out thousands of words at a time without pause. At the other end of the spectrum some take the Nanowrimo approach, barely plan anything and bash out a rough draft full of holes and margin notes to ADD LATER. Some write a passable first draft that hardly needs a spell check, others go through a hundred drafts before it resembles something readable. Does it really matter? Is one way right or wrong? It seems to me writing a novel is such a personal endeavour it must take a personal approach. So do what suits you best, and don't listen to any so-called Rules.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Agent, anyone?

'Get an Agent', is the oft heard advice for wannabe authors like myself. Writers' blogs often sing their praises. On some writers' boards it's almost a rallying cry and has become an end in itself, with whole forums devoted to catching an agent's attention. Agent Hunting is akin to a sport - and with all the time and energy devoted to researching the perfect agent for you and Agents' likes and dislikes - how can you make your query letter stand out? it's a wonder anyone has time to write a book.

With all this attention it's no wonder agents have become the celebrities of the publishing world in recent years. But are their days numbered?

In the last few weeks I've spotted some interesting developments. Penguin, one of the largest publishing houses and not the sort of place one would expect to welcome unagented submissions, has thrown open its doors to authors' queries for a three month period. Their sci-fi/fantasy imprint, Daw, is also seeking unagented submissions.

I can't help wondering if this is a trend fuelled by the Wylie/Amazon debate which effectively kicked publishers out of the loop. Are publishers afraid of the power they have given agents and now seek to claw some back? Like Dr Frankenstein, have they woken up to the fact that they have created a monster which may yet destroy them?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Getting involved

For years I used to think I was a weirdo. I'd be reading a book and I'd get so caught up in the emotions of the characters that I had to put the book down and go and do something else. My heart would be racing, mind filled with images that weren't always pleasurable. Given that most of my early reading experiences were horror or thrillers you can imagine the nasty surprises I tormented myself with.

But now I'm trying to write myself I can appreciate that this is exactly the response the author was trying to get. As someone once said, it's better to be upset than to feel nothing at all. Surely we read to feel vivariously the emotions of others? So it turns out I'm not a weirdo at all - at least, not in that respect.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Why write?

There are many reasons why we write. For most people it's a compulsion to create something unique and personal. Something lasting, an achievement they can be proud of.

I don't think it really matters why we write, as long as it gives us satisfaction. That should be reason enough.

Getting published is a whole different proposition. It comes as a shock to discover the world of publishing is not designed to satisfy the needs of writers. It is designed to meet the needs and desires of readers. This is where writing ceases to be an indulgence and becomes a job. Just because I get pleasure from writing my thoughts doesn't mean anyone will get pleasure from reading them.

So whenever I feel despondent about the mountain climb to getting published, I remind myself that no one ever promised me a book deal. It's a sad fact that many, many writers never get published. So getting published should never be the thing to pin your idea of success on - write for its own sake, because you love it. Write something you are proud of. Don't compromise to attain some elusive goal that may never happen.

And you'll always be a success, whatever happens.

And when it comes to getting published, remember you always have a choice. Moonrat's wonderful blog Editorial Ass discusses the options available for writers here.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Coping with Rejection

There's always a lot of moaning in writers' blogs and forums about rejection. I've blogged about it before, so I won't go on about it again. But I wanted to post a link to this hilarious take on the subject. It makes a nice change to see the funny side of such an angst-laden topic.