The big board of truth

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I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

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A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

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I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.

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(Don’t go back to) Badsville

Priestess of the White

So: bad books. Welcome back to my occasional series on my amazement – nay, bewilderment – that so many trad-published books fail even the most cursory quality checks. Today we’re looking at Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan.

First, let’s get this out of the way up front: a bad book is not the same as a bad author. A long time ago I read her ‘Black Magician’ trilogy and really enjoyed it. Granted, it was a decade or so past and maybe I’ve become more sophisticated since. Maybe. But I don’t think I’d have lodged her in my brain as an author I enjoy if it hadn’t been good.

I’ve said more about the difference between bad authors and bad writing in my post on Mike Shevdon’s The Road to Bedlam. Check it out if you’re so inclined.

So what’s wrong with PotW? Well, let’s start with…

• More exposition that you can shake a stick at
• Dialogue so stiff you could use it as a stick to shake
• Characters… well, I don’t want to criticise too much too soon; I’ve not got that far through it. But the characters haven’t set me alight to far. Similarly I’ve not got deep enough into the plot to comment on that
• A lack of tension
• A plot remarkably slow in its arrival

A note on exposition: if you ever start a line of dialogue with ‘As you know…’ you’re in trouble. If you’re interrupting action to give us information you’re in trouble – especially if the reader (me) can see that this information can be simply woven in to the story through dialogue and dramatisation.

Let’s follow that with a confession. I’ve used a variation of the ‘as you know’ in Night Shift. I think (hope) you can get away with it if you phrase it as a question: ‘you know that we’re powered by an oil lake..?’ I’ll let you decide if that works or if I’m just a massive hypocrite.

As for dialogue, PotW’s main sin is the ‘call and response’:
“Shall we do this?”
“I don’t like that.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“I think this is a good idea.”
“But that leads to this.”
“Yes. But that is preferable to the other.”
I hope I don’t need to say that this isn’t a quote. I’m listening to an audio version and extracting chapter and verse isn’t worth the effort. But this is how it feels. No subtext. No interest.

People don’t speak like this. People interrupt each other, they dissemble, they say one thing but mean another. I’ve tried to get away from this in my writing by having lots of sentence fragments; people tailing off (using ellipses) and cutting other others (using dashes).

The danger of this technique is that, by omitting sentence endings, the meaning is sometimes lost. I went too far when I first tried this – it was a conscious decision after being criticised for my own stilted dialogue – and now I’m trying to find a middle line.

Poor dialogue kills tension. It replaces drama with melodrama. We’ve just met the presumably major villain in PotW but it feels more like I’m in a pantomime than a serious, world-threatening conflict.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m quite enjoying Princess of the White. I can’t recommend it; there are a lot of great novels out there and this isn’t one of them. But, like watching a horror movie or a slow-motion car crash, finding all the errors is providing me with a certain amount of entertainment.

I don’t set out to hunt bad writing. I love stories. I want to be transported. I don’t want to carve them to pieces to make myself seem big and clever in comparison, but neither does that make me oblivious. Like The Road to Bedlam and – for different reasons – The ‘First Law’ series, Princess of the White is appearing here for all the wrong reasons.

On theme

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I’ve been reading about writing. I don’t know why I do it. It only makes me think, and question – and no good can come that.

One thing I’ve never really got to grips with in the idea of a theme. What’s your writing really all about, when you get down to it? I’ve always constructed a story through character, setting and – perhaps especially – mood. I’ve never used an overall, over-arching ‘concept’ to keep my writing focussed.

But I’m always interested in learning and if there’s something I could use to make myself a better writer then it’s past time to bring it in.

A theme is the controlling idea of your story: a bold statement that sums up what the novel is truly about. It takes message of the final act and then qualifies it. Examples (stolen from Robert McKee’s Story):

  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more violent than the criminal’ – Dirty Harry
  • ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more clever than the criminal’ – the Columbo TV series
  • ‘Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex’- Dangerous Liaisons

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Your big idea at the front (‘justice prevails…’) and then the qualifier that makes your work unique. Well. I don’t know about you but I’ve not found it so straightforward. I’ve got things like:

  • Chivalry: ‘States collapse when internet loyalties transcend national boundaries’
  • Night Shift: ‘Survival can only be achieved when inner unity is gained’
  • Oneiromancer: ‘Justice prevails when your heroes’ will is more than the enemy’s’

The idea is that you write the first draft, work out what the story is about, and then rewrite with this idea in the forefront of your mind: or come up with the idea first. Whichever you choose, this is supposed to help you keep your story focussed, to not get sidetracked.

But this whole thing is taken from advice to screenwriters, not novelists. Does it really help people like me? Does it not just reduce the whole thing beneath usefulness? A single sentence can’t convey the richness of a story. Maintenance of aim – yes, I can see how determining your theme would help focus the mind and stop too many side-tracks. But all my novels have multiple foci and are about more than a single sentence can carry.

Take Chivalry as an example. The theme could easily be any of the following:

  • Tragedy unfolds as a father realises just how dangerous his daughter is
  • Madness will destroy if it can’t be channelled
  • Honour can only be achieved when maturity is gained

Which is right? Could these threads be tied into a single sentence – and is it worth even trying? Do we worry about subplots?

Theme. Complex, contradictory, contrary. I’d welcome your opinions as I’m yet to be convinced that it’s worth the mental effort.

And also, just to prove that nothing is simple, I took the image above from a blog on teaching that explains that main idea and theme are, in fact two wholly different things. The theme, then, of this post? Clearly it’s one of ignorance and stupidity.

Rob out.

Cutting the great scene of doom

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Sergei Eisenstein in a photograph appropriate to a post on editing

This is a little story about problems, about editing, and about idée fixe. There may be a moral. I make no promises.

I had been planning Oneiromancer for years before I set metaphorical pen to paper. When I did actually start to write it was because I had an idea: a vision, almost, which involved two entirely new, off-the-cuff characters watching one of my old heroes – term loosely used – fighting a monster. This became the novel’s first scene: it seems I always begin at the beginning, when a scene is so strong in my mind that it burns onto the page.

In this case it’s proved to be a problem. Through four drafts I’ve laboured (and you can an early effort here and a rewrite here) and tinkered and hammered it around the steel anvil of dogged determination. But I’ve never been quite satisfied. So after a first-ten-pages feedback, which suggested the novel started in the wrong place, I decided to cut the damn thing altogether.

Except I didn’t. What I decided to do was to move it. Because it wasn’t at all bad, and also contained useful information. It served to

  • Give character, both in background and in personality
  • Set out some info about the world and the rules thereof, and thus…
  • …helped tell the reader what sort of book they were reading
  • Set up some causality: two characters now knew of a third

All valuable stuff. So I lifted it wholesale, did some rather painful abbreviation and set it down later on.

Except that didn’t work either. The only place I could find to place it – to maintain cause-and-effect and internal logic – was as a memory within a dream. This isn’t as odd as it perhaps sounds, because dreams are central to the story (you know what the title means, right?). But placing it here was much difficulter. I now had problems with tense (one past within another past – I’m sure there are proper terms for these, but I don’t know them) and with the same character watching ‘herself’. It also slowed down the story.

But the scene had to stay, right? It contained important information. It added depth. It set up future events. And it had to be in that place…

Wait.

Hang on a second.

Let’s just think. What’s actually important? The only things that matter are character and that thread of consequence. So the question should not be ‘how can I crowbar this scene into my novel?’ but ‘what’s the best way to give the reader this information?’

Cut the scene. Cut the whole damn thing. It’s not working. Rewrite around the problem, and suddenly everything flows again.

Sometimes working on words helps: you can always make something read better, always polish, hone and sharpen. But sometimes you’re just scratching at the margins. The whole situation needs to change. Step back. Think. Everything you want to achieve can be achieved in a variety of ways. If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe you’re not trying the right approach.

Here endeth the lesson.

Loglines

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The elevator pitch. The tagline. The logline. Does it matter? Is it essential to have one at your fingertips?

I’m undecided. I’m currently reading a book on writing that advises you start with your one-line statement before actually writing the story itself. I can kind of see why: getting ‘this is what I’m writing’ front and foremost in the brain will aid focus, keep bringing you back to what really matters.

And then, of course, there’s the sell. A good logline will form the basis of your back-cover blurb. It’ll help you craft a strong, attention-grabbing letter to an agent or publisher (although gimmicky, over-dramatised ‘yelling’ is of course to be avoided) and make it easier to explain your market and sum up the ‘feel’ of your novel.

It’s also good training. To say something coherent, intelligent, mood-setting and intriguing in one or two sentences is a little like writing flash-fiction. Every word matters. Laziness is a sin. The punctuation must be perfect, the hook must reel in the fish.

With that in mind, then, here’s my loglines for my back-catalogue, hastily knocked-out for shits and giggles:

The Ballad of Lady Grace

When a cocky musician is accused of the worst of crimes, the only person he can turn to is the person who’s always hated him. Can they get to the truth – and get their own act together?

Chivalry

In the heat of the city it’s riot season once again. With religious tensions building, a disturbed man stumbles upon a group of gamers who might just help him find himself. But just what are they working towards? Will they find safety, or will they bring about the end of nations?

Night Shift

In the freezing wastes of Antarctica a killer walks. It’s down to the inexperienced security chief to find the culprit – and to find himself – before the crew all freeze beneath the night shift.

Oneiromancer

They come through our dreams; now they walk amongst us and the war we never knew we were fighting has been lost. It’s down to society’s dregs to face their worst fears before the world becomes an endless nightmare.

I’m still not convinced that a good logline is essential but it’s a fun little challenge. For me it remains a work in progress; just how do you distil your magnum opus into a single line? To get it right takes a lot longer than the fifteen minutes I’ve spent on these.

I’d welcome your thoughts – and feel free to share your loglines in the comments.

Out loud

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Another draft completed. Straight into the next one. But this time we’ll be doing things a little differently.

As I’m sure you know, my last run-through of Oneiromancer was my major copy-edit. Post-reader-feedback, it was all about the plot and the story; I was copy-and-pasting, doing major rewrites and stitching together a tale that made sense, had depth and resonance.

But every change creates the potential for errors. Every draft introduces new text and every new word carries a chance of a mistake. Now I’m trying and find and fix those errors.

But this is about more than just typos. It’s also about the perfectly serviceable words that do their jobs but add nothing to the overall experience. It’s about poor rhythm, weak dialogue, unnecessary emphasis. It’s using three words where one – better chosen – will do. The acceptable is not good enough.

It’s amazing how difficult this can be. The mind is lazy. The eye is an unreliable tool and has a tendency to skip, to not see.

So I am reading my story out loud.

This has a number of benefits. Turning words on a page into sound forces you, the author, to read more closely. There’s no skipping sections, no chance of the eye sliding unseeing across the page. It makes you slow down, to see what’s really there and not what should be there.

You’re also confronted by the rhythms of your prose in a way the conscious mind has never experienced. Anything unclear, unfocussed, is brought into sharp relief. I’ve so far covered around seventy pages in this way: I thought my strength as a writer was my grasp of rhythm and an instinctive understanding of sentence length and effect. Turns out I was talking out of my arse.

I’m finding so many redundancies. I’ve been forced to rewrite more paragraphs to give clarity – almost as if I was writing from scratch. I’ve found so much to cut. On almost every page I’ve been forced to ask ‘what am I actually trying to say here?’ and then finding the simplest, clearest way to say it.

Simplicity is almost always good. Circumlocution should only come in dialogue, and then only if the character is especially circumlocutious.

So today’s advice is to read your manuscript out loud. It’s a slow process but one I’m sure will make my prose tighter, sharper and error-freeier.

And, let’s be honest, anything that cuts the word-count is a good thing. My MS is currently 137,000 words or thereabouts; if I can find 5,000 words of ramble to cut then I can allow myself an extra 2,500 of character and story.

Which then will have to be read (out loud) again and again to kill the inevitable errors I’ll have introduced.

Recursion

A prince falls in love with a commoner
They met because he was forced from his family by a civil war
The civil war started because the council couldn’t agree on the succession
The council couldn’t agree because it was formed of houses who hated each other
They hated each other because their grandparents had a blood-feud
They had a blood-feud because a daughter broke off an engagement with a rival’s son

DTRH

A farmer finds a crown in a bog
The crown was thrown there by a defeated monarch
The monarch was defeated by a usurper and fled to a monastery
The monastery was founded by the widowed sister of a noble house
The sister was accused of dominating her husband
The husband had a secret love with the head of his warband

A fleet sets out from a space-station to launch one last desperate attack
The space-station is the last holding of a once-proud empire
The empire is reduced because its homeland was destroyed when it hit a moonlet
The moonlet was induced into the planet’s orbit by a secret cabal
The cabal was formed in response to the empire’s expansion
The empire was expanding in response to outside aggression

Where do you start these stories? What sort of story will you tell? How much background do you provide? Surely not all of it – not in detail, and not all at once. How much do you, as author, need to know? None of the ‘first tier’ statements are the beginning; you could trace causation right back to the Big Bang if you were so minded.

The universe dissolves into heat-death and a grey soup of atoms is all that remains
The last stars turn supernova
The surviving life-forms flee into another universe
Entropy is inevitable
The stars coalesce and ignite; planets find their orbits; the first stirrings of life arise
A God-Machine creates the Big Bang

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There is no right answer. You start the story at the moment of fascination for you, the author. You write the story you want to write; you give the detail you think is relevant and interesting. You add detail subtly, drip-feed backstory. But you must remember that there’s always history. You never start at the very beginning because that’s impossible; there is no beginning.

Your characters don’t walk in vacuum. The world you create – be it a world purely of your own imagination or one taken from the world outside your window – has come in the way you depict because everyone and everything has a past. Why is the villain so twisted? Who created the magic sword (and why)? Who built that castle on that hill (and are we talking about a monarch or a mason)?

The readers don’t necessarily need the answers. You have to choose what’s important, what’s interesting and what your readers need to know.

And you can rely on your audience to tell you if you’ve got it wrong.