Monday, November 21, 2011

Summer Writing

With summer officially due to start in a couple of weeks, though you'd never guess it looking out my window in Auckland right now, now's a good time to be thinking of the writing tasks you can get done while on holiday. Christmas is a time for family and friends, for appreciating existing relationships and building new ones. It's definitely time for the beach, where I aim to spend a considerable amount of time. But January is also a good quiet time to catch up on writing tasks.

Things such as:

* take that unfinished short story out of the drawer and do an edit or rewrite. A good way to approach this is to set yourself some clear time and space and read it through in one hit - without a pen in your hand, or your fingers on delete keys. Get a feel for it as a complete entity. Ebb and flow, consistency (or not) of voice, development of character, a plot to keep the events moving in directions that add momentum to the previous scenes. Then go through it again with an eye to editing it. First read through is with you positioned as the audience, then the second is you as the crafts-person of the story. You need to be able to get a feel for both roles. Remember you're a reader as well as a writer.

* begin to take some of those story ideas you've jotted down this year and get a couple of scenes written, complete with characters, setting, voice, dialogue. So they go from abstract ideas to pieces you can see/hear/feel in the 'world.' You can't think a story into existence - you have to write it. A good story is organic, grows from its own seeds and roots.

* Contact a few people from your circle of writers and readers and discuss setting up a writer's critique group - or reinvigorate a group that has lapsed. Use some of the lessons we have here on Free Writing Tips page to re-familiarize yourself as to the technical points to look at. (Voice, Point of View, Characterisation, Plot, Structure,Dialogue etc.) It's too easy for writers to get isolated - don't let it happen to you.

* Think of a familiar story that you like and re-imagine it. Change or invent a new context, subvert some of the characters (hero becomes villain, bit-part player becomes main character etc.) Change the tone (comedy to serious or vice versa, serious to satire) Take a narrative from another context (a song, a painting, a poem) and re-imagine it as a story, or take a story and re-imagine it in another form. Do a genre switch (Western to Science Fiction or Fantasy - as George Lucas did when creating the original Star Wars.) These are valuable not just as idea generators but as practice to remember to get away from the familiar, from plots and characters you may create over and over (sometimes without knowing it.)

* Start drawing up a list of your writing goals for next year. Competitions to enter - and their closing dates. Subjects to study, books to read (as a writer, to benefit your craft.) Dates you aim to have your stories (or drafts thereof) completed by. Extra competencies you want to develop (guest blogging, a basic knowledge of marketing, how to make productive use of social media.) Think of what you want to have learned a year from now, what you want to have progressed and/or completed.

But don't forget to get to the beach, or to the mountains, depending on where you are and what floats your boat...

Smart Words

In Jocelyn's interview on TV3 News regarding e-book author Ollie Hille, she reinforces a couple of the many points a Self/Indie published author needs to appreciate.

1) Begin to build your readership while you're writing your book. Don't wait until it's ready. Hone and use your developing writing skills not just to produce your final text but as tools to get your name circulated, to build your credibility.

2) Always treat your work as a professional endeavour. (e.g: in terms of editing, layout, structure, design and production.) If you want people to pay for it, then it needs to be a professionally produced package. Think of all the steps as necessary facets of the professional process - not obstacles.

We cover these issues and the many other elements of self-publishing in The Story Bridge Blogging and Self-Publishing workshops.

AUT Creative Writing Competition

The annual Auckland University of Technology Creative Writing Competition is on now. It is open to authors who have not been previously published. Closing date is 31st January, so it'd fit in well as a summer writing task.

There are three categories with the prize of an I-Pad (e-book reader et al) for each category.

Here is a link to the AUT page with entry information.

Jocelyn Watkin interviewed by TV 3 News

A Christchurch author, Oli Hille, has become an e-book best seller within 6 days of launching his book. He is an "Indie Publisher" (Independent, sometimes referred to as a self-publisher). He was interviewed by TV 3 News last week. 

Reporter Tony Field, from TV 3 News, contacted The Story Bridge team as the industry experts to provide comment and insights on how others can also embrace the exciting new world of Indie Publishing.

Click here for the whole interview including Oli and also Jocelyn Watkin from The Story Bridge (Note: you'll have to put up with a short advertising clip (by TV 3) before the interview starts.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Combine text, images, audio and video in an ebook

© Luke Finlayson, 2011
While many people dream of penning their own novel - anecdotal evidence suggests around 50% of the population have this goal - not many have the discipline and determination to do it.  However, if you have what it takes then technology makes it easier to publish your work.

Luke Finlayson is a New Zealander with both the skill and determination. He is a novelist with a twist as he 'writes' graphic novels - stories that are told only with images. This is not about cartoons with speech bubbles or simplistic drawings. It requires a lot of talent to write and just as much, if not more, to tell a story without any text. If a picture tells 1,000 words, then Luke has 'written' well over 100,000 words.

Luke doesn't work for that big studio in Wellington or other similar place. Like many artists and writers he has to work at something else for a living and then he crafts his graphic novels in his own time. He's keen to share ideas that might help others like him, particularly the free, online, ebook software, which he used to publish his graphic novel Lily of the Valley. This ebook is a dark, fairy tale of Gothic proportions and is 'light years' away from Mickey Mouse. Check it out here.

Luke is not selling his novel at present as it is not complete. However, he's made it available for free online to build his profile and interest in the story, and as a way of showing others what is possible with this free technology. As well as viewing Lily of  the Valley you could check out the free ebook software he used, and use this to create your own graphic novel or to produce professional looking photo albums, brochures and magazines.

The software enables you to combine text, photos, images, audio and video in ways that could make your ebook more interactive with the reader. offers the chance publish your ebook online for free (apart from the work you'll have to put in write/draw/format/upload, of course) and also a channel to sell your ebooks online (for which the organisation takes a fair commission of 10 - 15%).

Without actually trying it, we're not in a position to recommend this software or not. However, in our recent self-publishing and blogging courses we've had a few graphic novelists who need something more than, which we've used for text-only novels. As such, could be ideal. Maybe you could trial it to create an online photo album or picture book? Think of scrapbooking, but doing this electronically. Email us to tell us about your experiences with this publishing tool.

It's developments like and that get us excited about the opportunities for writers and other creatives to publish and profit from their own work.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Aim of The Story Bridge

To provide a bridge over troubled writing.  To provide a supported pathway to new heights in storytelling and publishing.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The growing world of blogging...

I feel a growing understanding among contemporary NZ writers for the need to develop an online presence. It’s taken a little while to develop but it is now. Our workshops at the Centre for Continuing Education are filling fast – showing this writing form and its wider implications for writers and social media is catching on among the storytelling community.
Blogging has several advantages for the writer:
  • It’s writing practice – developing succinctness, awareness of an audience and their needs and expectations, making sure to maximize effect  and impact while keeping the word count economical.
  • It’s a helpful device for becoming and remaining part of the community of writers and readers.
  • It’s visible – in a public forum, and therefore calls for writing discipline and the need to draft and re-draft.
  • It’s a way to get your name out there while you’re working on your magnum opus. I wish I’d had such a forum in the four years I spent working on my first novel.
  • It’s a way of developing e-literacy and keeping abreast of technological development.
  • It lets the writer also be a layout designer, a photo editor.
Blogging has come a long way from … this morning I mowed the lawn. It now has a role to play in writing of virtually any kind.
Find out more about our blogging and self-publishing courses at the Centre for Continuing Education (part of the University of Auckland).    Watch this space for more on the world of blogging…

Monday, July 18, 2011

Legacy Writing and Self Publishing workshops in Whangarei

The Story Bridge ran 2 days of Legacy Writing workshops in Whangarei last weekend. We had 36 places over the 4 workshops, including several people repeating seminars. Some took the Intro to Legacy Writing, then the Advanced the next day. Some took either of the Legacy workshops then the Self Publishing workshop on the Sunday afternoon.

Whangarei city library is a modern, glass walled building with great light and a real feeling of space and airiness.

Most of the attendees were from the Whangarei area.Some were well advanced into their writing projects, and a few were just starting out on theirs, so we had a great mix of students.

Participants learned how to approach their legacy/life story project as a writer would - using storytelling approaches to engage the reader in your story - including:

  • description using Show/Don't Tell
  • use of metaphor and motif
  • how to layout dialogue to ebb and flow and contain a sense of place and landscape
  • how to bring your dialogue scenes to life (to give the reader insight into the people in your legacy story - even though they never met them)
  • how to structure the narrative, including flashback technique to capture moments from the past in immediate time
  • how to think of your writing in terms of both the horizontal (plot and sequential event) and vertical axis (resonance, meaning, character insight)
Jocelyn's Self-Publishing workshop was an intensive introduction to the field, including comparisons with traditional and self-publishing options, and the whole process mapped out from finalizing the writing, to book production costings, print/e-book comparisons, down to writing your back-cover blurb and arranging book launches. 
    Many thanks go to Paula Urlich and her dedicated team at Whangarei Library for making us all welcome. 
    The next legacy writing workshop series will be in Auckland. Keep an eye on the homepage for further info.  

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    Continuing Education

    I just finished teaching a week's course on Writing the Novel at Auckland University Continuing Education. It was an intense week grappling with many of the elements of fiction writing in the context of a full length work.

    Jocelyn and I will be at Continuing Education running a one-day blogging workshop, August 27th. Have a look at the link and book a place.

    In our courses this year, starting in Whangarei this weekend, we'll be looking at working with writers to put a 'rolling' life story together, under the umbrella of Legacy Writing. The electronic media advances in the last few years have opened up all sorts of opportunities both for hosting and storing writing and for 'thinking outside the square' as to how you actually put your work together and which form suits which context.

    The blogging workshop is a great place to start to get familiar with this vibrant media form. It's one of the roads into the future, for writers.

    Click here to find out more about our self-publishing and blogging workshops.

    Monday, June 13, 2011

    Legacy Writing

    The genre of Life Writing has been around for years, and has always had an unstated rule that the best time to write one's life story is when you have a vast amount to look back on and reflect.

    But lives are lived moment by moment, complete with misjudgements, wrong turnings, naive beliefs and self justification. Being able to record your thoughts in the moment add to the rounding out of your story, beyond just being a reflective monologue, looking back. In the same way that photographs have always shown you as you were then, complete with gap-toothed grins, or slicked back hair or nose studs and fluffy dice.

    The ongoing development of electronic media (blogging, online publishing, social media) allows us more freedom to record our moments in time, as the camera and the hard-bound diary have always done. They say, ‘This is how I was then,’ for better or worse. ‘Yes, I really wore flared jeans and thought Jason from the Second XV was dreamy, or that I wanted to be a real estate tycoon, or laid out the starkness of the fears I had when the ultrasound was ‘inconclusive.’

    These moments can be part of your legacy, moments to be passed on. You don’t need to wait until your sun is beginning to set, to capture them in words. You may not have time later to capture them. The time to record them is now. The time to learn about voice and style and narrative structure to record them as your storytelling legacy is also now.

    The Story Bridge team and Whangarei Libraries have partnered together to host a weekend of legacy writing workshops at the end of Matariki (9-10 July 2011), with funding from the Whangarei District Creative Communities Scheme.
    Preference will be given to those living in the Whangarei area.

    Workshop 1: Legacy writing for beginners, Saturday 9 July 2011, 9.15am - 12.15pm
    Venue: May Bain Room, Whangarei Central Library, Rust Avenue, Whangarei
    Workshop themes: How to start, what to focus on and why. We'll show you how to map out a basic structure that will provide you with a path to follow once the workshop ends. Tutor: James George
    Cost: $25 per person. Places limited: to a maximum of 20 people
    RSVP: By 5 July 2011

    Workshop 2: Legacy writing for beginners (a repeat of the above workshop) Saturday 9 July 2011, 1 - 4 pm
    Venue: May Bain Room, Whangarei Central Library, Rust Avenue, Whangarei
    Tutor: James George
    Cost: $25 per person. Places limited: to a maximum of 20 people
    RSVP: By 5 July 2011

    Workshop 3: Legacy writing for advanced writers, Sunday 10 July 2011, 9.15am - 12.15pm (for those who have completed 10,000 words or more)
    Venue: May Bain Room, Whangarei Central Library, Rust Avenue, Whangarei
    Workshop themes: How to structure the events. How to manage the time lines - whether in flashbacks, time shifts, or showing how one thing led to another. Deciding what to emphasise in your story. Rewriting, refining and editing. Tutor: James George
    Cost: $25 per person. Places limited: to a maximum of 20 people
    RSVP: By 5 July 2011

    Workshop 4: How to self-publish your own book, especially for legacy and life writers. Sunday 10 July 2011, 1 - 4 pm
    Venue: May Bain Room, Whangarei Central Library, Rust Avenue, Whangarei
    Workshop themes: This workshop will show you the right steps from word document to finished book - the 'nuts and bolts' of self-publishing, including costs and how to get an ISBN.
    Tutor: Jocelyn Watkin
    Cost: $25 per person. Places limited: to a maximum of 20 people
    RSVP: By 5 July 2011

    Saturday, May 14, 2011

    Legacy writing workshops in Whangarei

    Exciting news! We've been awarded funding from Creative Communities Whangarei to help us with the costs of providing legacy writing workshops in that district. 

    Legacy writing is for anyone who wants to tell their own story in their own way or to tell their family's or whanau's story. We will have workshops for both beginners and more advanced writers and we've also included a workshop on how to publish your story.

    All of the workshops will be held during the weekend of Saturday 9 and Sunday 10 July 2011.

    This is an exciting development for The Story Bridge team and the first time we have worked (as a team) outside of Auckland. The Whangarei Central Library has generously offered their wonderful May Bain Room at no charge, which has enabled us to keep the attendance cost as low as possible. Preference will be given to participants who live in the Whangarei District. If places open up for people outside of this District, preference will be given to those on The Story Bridge newsletter list.

    Subscribe to The Story Bridge newsletter - it's free and has lots of tips and ideas on how to tell your story and get published. Send an email now with newsletter please in the subject line

    Sunday, April 10, 2011

    Great result from the READ IN for the Christchurch earthquake appeal

    Over 170 writers in Auckland donated their time, effort and books for the amazing “READ IN” on Friday 26 March, which was a fundraiser for the NZ Government Christchurch Earthquake appeal. 

    James George, the New Zealand Society of Authors (in conjunction with Auckland Libraries) organised this event in libraries across the greater Auckland area. Through the generosity of donations on entry or via book sales donated by many writers, the event raised almost $5,000.

    Katrina Biggs contacted The Story Bridge to say:

    As a resident of Christchurch I would like to say a huge thank you to James George and the others for organising the READ IN to raise money for the NZ Government Christchurch Earthquake appeal. The generosity of people with their time, and either monetary or product donations, is totally awesome. 

    I know I speak for everyone here when I say that without the support received from near and far, the hope and faith also needed to get through this time would be in very short supply. Although I didn't personally suffer property damage nor lose anyone close to me, my sister and her family suffered severe property, road and services damage, so I am very involved with the physical and emotional toll this earthquake has taken. 

    Even those of us who got off lightly in comparison to others (including Japan), have still had our world changed in countless ways, and know that we will in for a tough time before things get better. Knowing that we're not in this alone, that so many Kiwis - and also non-Kiwis - have given and given again to help, and are continuing to do so, makes us believe and trust that 'better' will happen, driven in part purely by the sheer force of spirit behind all the goodwill.

    Thank you Katrina and a big thank you to everyone and their friends, families and supporters who all helped to make the READ IN fundraiser so successful.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2011

    Writers and Readers event for the victims of the CHCH earthquake

    I'm an organizer for a Writers and Readers event to be held in March with proceeds to go to the victims of the Christchurch earthquake.

    The event will have:

    • a set list of writers reading from their work
    • poetry readings
    • refreshments available
    • an open mic session for anyone who wishes to read

    We're looking for:

    volunteers to help with set up
    volunteers to help on the day, prepare and sell refreshments
    writers to read
    writers to have a go at the open mike
    volunteers to help with transport on the day

    Depending on the venue we may need access to sound gear and techies.I've set up a Facebook page to gather attendee notifications and put out information. Here's the web address for the page:

    Writers and Readers event for CHCH earthquake victims

    Please circulate over your networks and let us know if you can help.


    Friday, February 18, 2011

    Story Bridge Forum

    Remember the Story Bridge Forum is available as a place for you to post comments on what we're covering, on the posts, on any subject related to writing. It's your place for discussion or just hanging out. Feel free.


    With the academic teaching year about to start again I'm reminded of how much student work I've seen and how I'm constantly amazed by the amount of work out there. By the amount of story out there. From projects carefully aimed at a market to pieces that signposted a cathartic journey of discovery or getting through the process of grief. Non-fiction memoirs of refugees from wars on the grand scale, and within the four walls of a home or a family. I've shared laughs, I've seen narratives so harrowing I felt like I was turning to ice with each turn of the page.

    People often share in story what they may never in conversation.

    Sometimes when watching television and its endless reality shows and advertorials disguised as documentaries or pseudo-dramas you wonder where all the stories have gone, the stories with bite and poignancy or humour and individuality of vision. But they're out there waiting to be discovered, waiting for a writer to be their conduit. Their guide.

    A writer works to carve those stories out of their surrounding stone, bring them into the light. Often in subtle gestures that speak of not just the characters' struggles but our own. I recall reading an instructional book that gave an example of this. A woman is at the counter of a crowded fish and chip shop, ordering a large portion of pretty much everything, and as she reaches into her wallet her Weight Watchers membership card falls out onto the floor. It's sharp observation like that that brings us all into a story, flips the characters over to expose their underbelly or their heart. As writers we gain from scratching away at the things that hurt us as much as they hurt the characters we create.

    The act of writing with honesty gains us a certain amount of wisdom, not in a guru on a mountaintop sense but in the everyday sense of a farmer (or a cat, for that matter) who sniffs the air for rain and knows the implications of that, whether it will or won't. I was in a pub in rural Australia once in the middle of a drought, and being a tourist I wanted a fine day for the next day's travelling. The weather report came on the news being played on the pub TV and said rain was likely and the place went into an uproar, hats being tossed in the air. I was disappointed that my trip might get rained on, until I saw the excitement on their faces. I was thinking holiday, they were thinking their family's survival. That was a writerly moment.

    When those moments come, you hold on to them, develop them, with clarity of detail, with empathy, with care and respect. You smile momentarily at the woman in the fish and chip shop and the Weight Watchers card, but not for long. Because you know that story, the promise to self broken. Those moments of vulnerability and communal understanding are what makes great literature, not fancy language or fashion.

    A good word on The Good Word

    March 1st sees the beginning of the third series of TVNZ's books programme The Good Word. I'm not much of a television watcher myself but this is worth catching as an opportunity to hear NZ authors talk.

    I did a segment a couple of years ago where Emily Perkins asked me to talk about a book that had made an impact on me. It was an interesting exercise to do. In considering how we writer and how we should approach the process of writing it's also important to think about how we read. And what we're doing when we read. Are we creating our own story as a story-within-a-story of the author's story we're reading? In my case the answer would be yes, though not in a determined sense, it's just the way my creative self works within other narratives to find relevance to resonance for me. I can't stop storytelling, basically. I'm incapable to sticking to the bare facts. So I had to become a used car salesman, a politician or a writer. Simple choice in the end. 

    Thursday, February 17, 2011

    New Zealand Book Month

    The annual New Zealand Book month is almost upon us. Starting March 1st and running until the end of the month. It's a non-profit initiative begun in 2006 to acquaint NZ readers, books and authors and has included different elements over the years. The Six Pack collections of short stories, effectively a competition open to all writers, were a great idea and showcased some new (and established) writers in a blaze of publicity. It seems not to be part of the current programme.

    The month of events is a good opportunity to hear writers talk about their work and the writing process. Some of the events are community driven, featuring local authors. Some are more of the type you'd get at the Auckland Writers Festival where published authors are brought in from various centres to talk.

    I recall being told many years ago that for NZ authors to be read, they should make sure they themselves read NZ authors. I think that's sage advice. And I'd add that we should support local writers at events, just by being there. We sometimes get told how to define ourselves as NZers, (the America's Cup, the All Blacks, Anzac Day) but there's often not enough emphasis on our books and our stories. Each individual writer has their own voice but there's also the collective voice of this nation and its peoples, forged in history and struggle and laughter. It makes our work different from California or Sweden. Our voice informs our stories in the way our accent informs our speech, and it's an ongoing process, the building of our voice as a people.

    So I recommend you make plans to get out amongst it in your area. Here's a link to the events calendar to check out what's happening near you.

    Events Calendar NZ book month

    NZ Book month has a Facebook page here so have a look at it and hit the 'like' button to be kept informed of developments.   

    Changing landscapes...

    I see that Borders bookstore chain in the USA is in serious financial difficulty. Some commentators are blaming this on the economic times and some on the rise of the e-book. Both elements have probably played a part, and we don't after all know also how well managed Borders is/was.

    For our purposes though, if the second contributing factor - the rise of e-books and their associated viewing platforms, e-readers - have played a part in this then this is a change than is unlikely to be rolled back. But... what does this mean for writers. Well, it would be very difficult to say that the last few years under the current model of major corporate publishers has been good for writers in general. It likely has for those at the top, but not for grassroots writers, or certainly writers looking to get a start in publishing, which is after all where most of the readers of this blogsite will fit. It certainly hasn't worked for niche writers (life writing, histories (not on the grand scale), poetry, speculative fiction).

    In Jocelyn's interview snippet below she talks about self publishing. One of the most interesting developments I've witnessed since beginning writing with the intention of being published is the change in public perception towards the self-published book. Self-published books have always been around in specific fields (philosophy, mathematics, local histories etc) and to a degree in fiction, but there was a perception that the self-published book was a lesser choice, that it had failed to gain commercial publication. This may once have had a certain amount of truth in cases, and there was certainly often an issue with the quality of the production (outside of the quality of the storytelling itself.) But it has become so hard to have works commercially published in the last decade or so and the commercial publishing conduit become so skinny that writers began to see self-publishing as their only hope. This is not always a reflection on their fear of being commercially accepted. That is a very important distinction. If publishers are opting out of publishing fiction, then self-publishing becomes not an exception or option but a necessity. As an example one major NZ publisher (the NZ arm of a multi-national) said at a seminar I attended late last year that they'd chosen their ONE NZ fiction book by a new author, for publication in 2011. That's right - one. That skinny conduit has to burst some time, though not, it would seem, via the traditional channel.

    That's where self-publishing comes in. That too is changing dramatically. In the past the self-published author developed an intimate relationship with their car boot and the NZ Road Atlas. One of the major issues and roadblocks for the author has always been 'I'm a writer, not a salesperson.' True, but there's a new atlas out now, it's called the internet. Well it's not that new, but the ways the writer can use it are. One problem I struck when my first novel came out was pretty obvious - 'Who are you?' Legitimate and appropriate question. One thing I hadn't done was build up a profile first, so I had some currency when it came out. In those days that was done by submitting short stories to literary magazines and entering competitions. I didn't really do either. But now the internet, and specifically the Blogosphere, yes I know that word takes some getting used to, are revolutionary tools to get yourself about. Listen to Jocelyn talk about pre-selling her financial advice books by building up a profile blogging. Blogging is also good practice for writing and learning how to promote your work, even if you're not a natural salesperson.

    So the changes currently happening are:
    • traditional publishers are cutting down the number of titles they sell
    • bookstores are squeezing publishers for work about celebrities, famous names that already have market visibility
    • major bookstore chains themselves are in trouble
    • your chances of getting a fair hearing for your work via traditional publishers in NZ is decreasing 
    That's mostly negative news.
    Here's the positive news

    • people haven't stopped reading
    • print on demand publication has halved the cost of self-publishing hard copy books and the difference in quality between house publishing books and the best self-published books is minimal
    • e-books are taking off, as the readers become far more user friendly
    • e-publishers (or e-distributors as some of them are now calling themselves, as the writer of an e-book is in fact now the publisher) are becoming more numerous and getting smarter
    • there are tools out there, such as blogging and social media that are great platforms to get you readers while you're writing your opus
    It's asking much of the writer to be so much more than a writer, but to get your work out there, it's time and effort well spent. Jocelyn and I will be covering both blogging and self-publishing in the workshop 26th February in Auckland

    All the changes now happening in the chain of writer to reader have already happened in the music business, which has changed beyond recognition in the last 15 years. It's the new world.

    One thing that hasn't changed...
    • write a well conceived, controlled, character driven story with tension, stakes that matter, development, insight, pace and a satisfying conclusion - and there will be an audience. Work at that first, but keep a wise eye on the new methods of marketing, so your work can find that audience. 

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    Working in the wet...

    With the wet Auckland weather I've been working away on my novel for the last few days. It's tougher to nail your backside to the chair in front of the keyboard when it's sunny and the beach beckons.

    Been working mainly on bringing character insight out in seemingly small moments. When working on a novel it's too easy to get cluttered by the big stuff - meta structure/character arcs in the wider sense - and not pay enough attention to the small details which so often just encapsulate our sense or feeling of someone in a story. Giveaway clues. Gestures, subtle pieces of body language that speak beyond themselves.

    In these moments in critical to visualize your scene, in the way a film maker would. And look for small gestures, listen to the sounds in the room, the contrast between stillness and movement. In the film 'Remains of the Day' Anthony Hopkins plays a couple of pivotal scenes where he's in terrible emotional turmoil and he moves barely a muscle, using a rigid posture (he was a stiff-upper-lip) butler/valet and having just his eyelashes flicker or his face visibly tighten or twitch. This showed both his turmoil and his obsession (which ultimately cost him meaningful relationships) with maintaining decorum and poise.

    Wednesday, January 19, 2011

    Short story structure

    Hi all.

    A question (from Bronwen Jones) came up on the discussion board about Short Story Structure, and what is the structure of a modern short story. This is a good question and one that deserves analysis in detail. For now I'll post my response to Bronwen's question.


    Contemporary short stories of the last 25 years or so have been an unraveling of traditional short story structure. In the 19th century the traditional structure was that of a tale, almost a novel in miniature. It started with exposition about the main characters, some background, some statements, often baldly expressed about their emotional and psychological state, then developed through an inciting incident, added complications, conflict, to a climax and resolution.(For examples, see the work of Anton Chekhov (The Lady with the Dog), Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlett Letter) Guy de Maupassant (The Necklace) and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

    The majority of contemporary short stories don't do this. Instead they take one of the following forms.

    1) A single scene - where an incident is described, with little reference to past or future. Any character backgrounding comes out in their behaviour in the scene itself, with clues to their emotional state and backstory. This form is a moment suspended at a single point in the continuum of a longer story which is left for the reader to speculate on. There is no onus on the writer to resolve any conflicts that come out.

    2) A slice of life - which may be a single scene or several scenes chosen to be representative of a character, a theme, a relationship. The writer may choose to resolve conflicts or not, in the story itself, or leave any resolution to be enacted in the mind of the reader.

    3) An illumination of a state. The state can be a mood or a character's psychological or emotional state, which is the legacy of an event. The event may or may not be detailed in the story itself, or the story may just be an exploration of the fallout from the event. What plot is there is often in emotional or psychological time, with events coming and going as they appear to the narrator/protagonist, not in some kind of chronological order. This is a complex style and structure - here is a good example. Wheat, by Tracey Slaughter.

    There will be many of you out there working on short stories, for anthologies, for competitions, for practice, so I'll expand on this discussion in follow up posts. Here is a link to the original discussion in the TSB Forum.

    Monday, January 17, 2011

    Loving summer, looking forward to a creative new year

    Been a great summer so far in Auckland, and the occasional rain hasn't managed to dampen anything. Went down to the Coromandel for a few days (Tairua, Hahei, Whitianga) and got in some time in the ocean. Managed - between swims - to get some thinking done about plans for 2011. It's going to be an interesting year of writing and teaching.

    One thing that struck me when floating in the ocean was how it quiets the mind, replenishes from the inside out. When I step back out of the sea and onto the land I'm aware of the history of this simple act. There's a peace I feel when in the ocean, even if the waves are crashing around me. It has parallels to the writing experience where a writer often feels part of something much larger than themselves, something very old, something eternal. Where creative thoughts will come if you let them.

    I have heard discussions over the years of how people are creative, as if creativity is a state, like being tall, or Nigerian, or having red hair. To me creativity is not a state, it's a process, it's an act. An act that takes the form of a thought pursued, a feeling explored, a paragraph drafted and re-drafted, a character brought to life, a conscience searched. A bricklayer commits a creative act when laying brings, because a structure appears where there was none. A gardener is creative, a cook, a mother thinking of a gift for a child.

    So make 2011 your year to be creative in action. Read and digest the writing posts and mini-workshops, come to one of our seminars. Work and re-work that text, get advice on it. Search out people and books and courses you can learn from. A fine piece of writing (novel, short story, film script)  is the sum of a thousand small decisions and distinctions. Built brick by brick. branch by branch. Wave by wave. 

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011

    How to be a good writer

    At last, there's really good news for writers, particularly new writers.  Everything you've been told about needing talent or a gift is wrong. It seems that what our mothers said (about piano lessons, baking, tidying our rooms, etc, etc) - that is, 'practice makes perfect' - is right after all.

    What this means for any writer is that you'll have a good chance of success if you write regularly, learn how to improve your writing and apply those lessons.  Then, of course, you'll have to write some more - preferably every day.

    These revelations are from two books:
    • The Genius in All of Us - Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ is wrong, by David Shenk
    •  Bounce - How Champions are Made, by Matthew Syed
    Matthew Syed is a British table tennis champion and he started his research when he wanted to improve his game and understand why some so-called "promising" players didn't reach top performance.

    He says, "I give innate talent almost no weight at all. That’s a controversial view and I know it’s a radical and rather subversive view, but I think the evidence backs up that assertion. If you dig down into the narrative histories of anyone who has reached a high level in virtually any task with a certain level of complexity, what you find is they have spent many, many hours, many months, many years building up to that level."

    Source of Matthew's quote: Table Tennis Blog
    Photo: Matthew Syed at the 2000 Olympics (Wikimedia)

    Both writers back up their claims with good research and examples.  There's more to it than simply 'practice makes perfect', of course, but that's a good starting point.  David Shenk is the more academic of the two writers, but both are easy-to-read.

    These books should be available from your library. For those who live in the greater Auckland area you can request books from the library's catalogue via these links:
    The Genius in All of Us

    So, stop holding yourself back by thinking that you're not good enough or don't have a 'gift'. Every successful writer we know has to work hard at it. It will be the same for you.

    Keep writing!