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!