Posts Tagged ‘motivation’

In a post last week I wrote about James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From the Middle. Afterwards, AC Macklin raised a rather sensible question whose answer I had skipped over – what were the things of value I learned from this book? In my enthusiasm to talk about the book in general, I missed the useful details. So here they are…

Explaining the Value of Structure

There’s a quote from the book that I included last week – ‘Structure is translation software for your imagination.’ I think that quote, and what it represents, are very useful in understanding the value of structure.

Structure isn’t there to tell you what story to write or what ideas to discuss. It’s there to help you turn those ideas into something coherent and accessible, to fit your story into the form you’re writing in, whether it’s a novel, a screenplay or a haiku.

Act One

Bell raised a set of interesting questions to make sure you’re covering the important things in the first act of your story:

  • have you given readers a character worth following?
  • is there a disturbance to their life early on?
  • do you know the death stakes of the story? – this doesn’t have to mean literal death, but what physical, emotional or professional destruction the character is threatened with
  • is there a scene forcing the character into the confrontation of act two, and is it strong enough that the character can’t resist getting involved?

These are ideas I was already familiar with, but Bell’s list provides a great sanity check, a way of making sure that the elements are in place to make the story compelling.

The Midpoint

Bell refined my thinking on the midpoint. In Wells’s seven point structure, this is the moment when the protagonist becomes pro-active. For Bell, it’s a point where the forces arrayed against the protagonist seem so vast that if they go on they will almost certainly face physical, psychological or professional death.

These are quite different things to build the centre of a story around, but what strikes me is that they’re both about the need to make a decision to act, whether by switching from passivity to pro-activity, or by deciding to act despite the danger.

I think that combining those two could make for some incredibly powerful central story moments.

Proving Change

A good character arc is almost always about change. Bell points out that this change needs to be proven by the character’s actions, not just something they think or talk about. By working outwards from inner revelation to actual acts, you prove far more effectively that the character has changed, both to the reader and to the other characters in the story.

Flaw

The need for characters to have flaws is common advice. Bell suggests a refinement of this, that if you can it’s good to give your central character a moral flaw that is hurting others.

OK, that’s a potentially very dark point, but it’s similar in value to that point about proving change. A moral flaw that hurts others is more substantial – it has real consequences, not just internalised angst, and it matters to other characters. It’s a much more substantial flaw.

Pitching

The single most useful thing I got out of this book wasn’t about structuring my stories, it was about pitching them. The pitch structure Bell provides consists of three sentences:

  1. Your lead character’s name, vocation and initial situation.
  2. ‘When’ + the main plot problem.
  3. ‘Now’ + the death stakes.

Despite years of being told I should have elevator pitches for my projects at work, I never got the hang of pitching. But reading this gave me such a clear, simple structure to follow that I immediately went and tried it out on the stories I’m writing. So, for the book I’m currently working on:

Dirk Dynamo is enjoying a life of learning with the gentlemen adventurers of the Epiphany Club. Joining an expedition to find the Great Library of Alexandria, Dirk finds himself on the island of Hakon, where colonial life is not what it seems. With monsters in the jungle, conspiracies in the mansion and ninjas dogging his trail, can Dirk and his friends find the first clue to the Library before they meet a deadly fate?

OK, I didn’t actually use the words ‘when’ and ‘now’, but the essence of the structure is there. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more excited about my book after seeing it summarised like that. That’s most of my blurb right there.

On Writing Life

Finally, there were two points that I wrote out on cards and stuck to my desk to remind myself of their importance

  • when writing becomes drudgery go do something else for a while
  • daydream about the rewards of your writing, however intangible, to keep you motivated

I struggle with motivation a lot. These were good reminders of things that I know in principle but often forget in practice.

Worth the Reading

The focus of my previous post on Write Your Novel From the Middle probably seemed down on the book, because I was disappointed after hearing it raved about. But as I also said in that post, there was stuff of real value in there, and I consider it time and money well spent. Just not the game changer it’s sometimes sold as being.

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NaNoWriMo?

Posted: October 15, 2014 in writing
Tags: , ,

How cool is that NaNoWriMo logo? And does this mean I ought to write while wearing a Viking helmet?

Valued readers, are any of you planning on doing NaNoWriMo this year?

For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a challenge whereby thousands of people across the world try to write a 50,000 word story, or at least the first 50,000 words of a story, in November. It’s a motivational exercise and an opportunity to discuss what you’re up to with other writers, and it’s gone way beyond its ‘National’ American origins.

I had a go at NaNoWriMo three years ago. I managed the wordcount, though I did it without joining in the online or local discussions, which in retrospect was a wasted opportunity. The following two years I was in no state to put that pressure on myself, but this year I’ve decided that I’m up for it, spurred on by Russell Phillips who is also joining in for the first time, and who has an interesting guest post coming up here next week.

NaNoWriMo isn’t really about hitting that 50,000 word target. Plenty of people get a lot out of it without even coming close. It’s about finding the focus and the determination to take the most important step in writing, putting lots of words down on the page. It’s about helping each other get motivate, and that’s a great objective.

November’s coming up fast, so I figure that I’ve got two weeks to plan my novel beforehand. I’m very much a planning sort of writer, and having that plan ready to go will make it easier for me to churn out the daily word count.

So, are any of the rest of you planning to do NaNoWriMo this year? What are you planning to write? Have you done it in the past, and do you have any advice based on that experience? And if you’ve never even considered it before, why not give it a go? We can work together to stay motivated and get those words written.

To the writing cave! I have chapters to plan.

Whether or not you think that characters are defined by their conflicts, those conflicts are clearly important to telling a good story. Internal conflicts and struggles make characters more interesting, and make it more difficult for them to face their external conflicts, adding to the tension in a good plot.

Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three, which I talked about in general terms yesterday, is a great example of this, and of how to create these conflicts in different ways.

Dark Tower 2a

Physical challenges – Roland’s fingers

Roland, the protagonist of the book, is a gunslinger. His skill set, his confidence, even his sense of identity is built around that role. And straight away, within a few pages of the start of the book, his gunslinging ability is impaired when a lobster monster hacks off two fingers from his right hand.

Suddenly Roland is in conflict with his own body and his own instincts. He has to learn to function without wielding a gun in that hand, to re-make the habits and ways of behaving that keep him alive. King has inverted a common trope of both fantasy and westerns, where the hero shrugs off and forgets serious wounds, and instead made his hero’s struggle with his own body a major plot point.

Challenges of will – Eddie’s addiction

Eddie, the first of the three characters Roland draws to him, is an addict. His drug habit defines his whole life – his friends, his enemies, the trouble he’s in as we first meet him and the far greater trouble he gets into later on. But this is about more than providing external threats, it’s about defining Eddie’s internal conflicts.

King provides a compelling picture of a man facing that addiction. Eddie wants to be free of the drugs, yet at the same time he doesn’t. It’s a conflict that highlights the complexity of human will. Not all of our conflicts are as straightforward as wanting something and striving to make it happen. Desire is complex, willpower can be hard to muster, and that battle for will is Eddie’s conflict. It makes it hard for him to achieve what he needs to at times. It breaks both his body and his mind. But it also allows us to see Eddie’s strength, the battle showing that he might have the will to get through this, and through the other challenges on the way to the Dark Tower.

Odetta and Detta – extreme internal conflict

Then there’s Odetta and Detta, two personalities inhabiting the same body, both in denial about the other’s existence. It’s like King has taken the idea of internal conflict and pushed it to the greatest extreme he can think of. The two personalities are so distinct it almost becomes an external conflict, as we wait to see whether Odetta can fight off her dark self and retain not only control of her own body but continuing existence within her own mind.

The whole spread

King shows us a wide range of internal conflict in The Drawing of the Three. Each character faces a different sort of major conflict, and lesser struggles deriving from that. These conflicts are externalised through the character’s actions, not just dealt with through paragraphs of inner monologue. They make everything else more difficult and more interesting.

If you’re thinking about how to write internal conflict and so make interesting characters then I really recommend reading this book. And if you’re reading it already then keep an eye out for internal conflict, both as a writerly tool on display and as a theme of the story.

Enough from me. If you’ve read the book what did you think of its exploration of these characters? And even if you haven’t, what other great internal character conflicts can you think of?

By this time today I was going to be on holiday in rural France. I would be staying in an old farmhouse, swimming in the outdoor pool, looking out over the beautiful wooded hillsides all around. I’d be going on walks through idyllic villages barely touched by tourism, where people keep their cars in the barn overnight because they worry that moonlight will fade the paintwork. I’d be trying to order meat-free meals in a region where they have no word for ‘vegetarian’ and believe that a salad should be a big pile of duck with a couple of lettuce leaves separating it from the plate. I was going to spend a whole week with my wife and some of our closest friends, away from the grey skies and household chores of home.

The fact that I’m typing this should tell you that hasn’t happened. The fact that I’m not busy weeping into a half-empty bottle of Scotch should tell you that’s not an entirely bad thing.

At the beginning of this year I told myself that I was going to make writing a priority, whether it was freelance work or my own fiction. And as this holiday drew closer it became more and more apparent that it was badly timed writing-wise. I have two big freelance projects on the go, and other pieces coming in. I have that Top Cow script to write. I want to do final edits before sharing a draft of a novel with my first round of readers. Losing a week would have killed my momentum and stressed me out. Trying to work while on holiday would have meant not relaxing while simultaneously not getting much done.

It would be easy to sit here feeling sorry for myself. And I won’t lie, I am pretty jealous of the folks still going on that holiday, including Laura. But I feel good about the decision. For the first time in my life I’m primarily doing stuff I care about this much, that I’ll give up a holiday with friends to make it work. And that’s a good thing. I think I might actually be taking writing seriously.

Sense of purpose is important in fiction writing. As a writer you need a strong sense of purpose to keep you going through the challenges and down patches. Your characters also need a sense of purpose to give them drive, agency and that most critical of story elements, conflict.

Fortunately, and surprisingly, a management book has helped me with this one.

Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’

As I’ve mentioned here before, my freelance work often involves dabbling in the pool of management thinking. I’ve read quite a few books on this, and particularly on marketing in recent months. One of them was Simon Sinek’s Start With Why.

The central message of Sinek’s book is simple. Organisations that understand why they do what they do, what value they bring to the world, become more focused and more effective. It helps create consistency and effective decision making, as when in doubt employees can turn to that ‘why’ and find solutions that fit the organisation’s purpose. It also motivates people. Lets face it, it’s easier to get passionate about ‘keeping patients safe’ than ‘answering phones’, to take the example of a medical call centre.

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As many businesses are discovering in their efforts to tackle poor morale, people don’t just want to be cogs in a machine. They want purpose. They want to know why they do what they do.

Asking why as a writer

As a writer, I think this applies in two obvious ways to my work choices.

One is that I need to understand why I’m a writer. What do I think I bring to the world and to my own life through this choice, that makes it a better choice than some other job? Because nine times out of ten, if I’m getting demotivated then it’s because I’ve lost track of that purpose and am trying to do something that misses the point of being a writer. Maybe I’m accepting jobs I’m not interested in, or writing stories that don’t interest me. If they don’t fit with my ‘why’ then it’s probably time to stop.

Same with stories. I need to know why I’m writing a particular story, and why I think it will be worth people’s time to read. Does it do something new with the genre? Does it represent different perspectives? Does it ask a question no-one else has? If there isn’t a good purpose behind the story, something making it worthwhile for me and for readers then it’s unlikely to ever see the light of day, and I should put my effort into something else instead.

Life’s too short to be writing this year’s seventeenth Tolkien knock-off.

Asking why of characters

And of course asking why is great for finding purpose in characters too. Why does Johnny rob banks? Why does Helena care what happens to the kingdom? Why is Iqbal on the side of the righteous rebels?

Knowing why gives your characters purpose and helps keep them on track. It’s something you can turn to for sources of conflict and for guidance on how to push a scene forwards. And signs of the why will make the character more compelling to readers.

Starting with purpose

So go forth, find your purpose, find the mission behind your characters! And then tell me about it – why do you write? why are you writing the story you’re writing now? what is the driving purpose behind your favourite character?

Show us all that you know your ‘why’.

 

 

Photo by Bilal Kamoon via Flickr creative commons

I’m getting a little tired of the fantasy hero whose first value is loyalty or honour. Or the supposed antihero whose dark, compromised behaviour turns out to be for some greater good. It feels like the values that once let fantasy authors make their characters different from modern people have become another over-used part of pop culture.

Noticing the difference – Conan

This issue really sprang out at me while reading Conan: Queen of the Black Coast, a comic collection written by Brian Wood, with art by Becky Cloonan, James Harren and Dave Stewart on colours. Wood’s an interesting writer, treading a difficult path between the expectations of a mainstream comics audience and a desire to try different things with character and story. His riff on Robert E. Howard’s classic barbarian character is no exception.

Like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood was killing people for fun

Like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood was killing people for fun

The character’s values are a key part of this. There is a search for adventure in there, and a certain attachment to protecting the people on his side. But this doesn’t translate into an unswerving sense of loyalty. Conan will compromise and join the side of the people who just slaughtered all his friends. He turns pirate on the whim of circumstance. He bends others to his will for no goal beyond his own quest for adventure and self-preservation.

These are not the values of a familiar fantasy hero, and realising that was like a breath of fresh air. I suddenly noticed how familiar, comforting and sometimes even stale the values were I was seeing in other fantasy novels.

The obvious comparison – Game of Thrones

When it comes to character motivations, Game of Thrones is one of the better examples out there. But comparing it with this single Conan story made me realise how familiar many of the motivations are. Ned Stark is obstinate and loyal. Arya is fiercely independent and, as time goes by, increasingly bent on revenge. Stannis is guided by a clear sense of right and wrong. Joffrey’s self-serving. Tywin’s ambitious. Snow has that classic heroic sense of honour, so that even when he does something terrible it’s for a great good.

There are a broad range of interesting motives at play here. They draw you into the characters in different ways. It’s very well done, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

But is any of it really new?

George R R Martin is a fantasy writer at the absolute top of his game. He’s using those familiar values in new and skilful ways. Just think how many times you’ve read them elsewhere and it’s just been more of the same.

So what?

I’m not saying I want every character to act like Wood’s take on Conan. As someone trying to draw in readers, using the familiar and comfortable is actually important for me. But it would be nice, both in what I write and in what I read, to push the boat out a bit further at times. To see motives and values that aren’t just different from our own but are different from what we’re used to reading. For the fantastic and unfamiliar elements of stories to go a bit deeper.

What do you think? Am I being overly harsh on what’s out there? Am I missing great examples of unusual values and motives? And if you’ve read it, what do you think of Wood and Co.’s take on Conan?

Tenabreme, who is blogging over here to find inspiration for a thesis, asked for advice on how to keep writing when you’re finding it a struggle. And I thought, hey, I’ve faced that problem a dozen times in the past few months, that’s worthy of a blog post.

I’ll admit, the pride at being asked for writing advice by a total stranger may also have encouraged me – look Geppetto, I’m a real writer now!

So anyway, some things I’ve learned that help me keep writing:

Get an early start

I’m more productive if I just get up and write. This is a family trick passed down the generations, like my grandad’s old wood working tools. My Uncle John has those tools, and he also recommended that I get up and write for half an hour before anything else in the morning. I don’t usually manage that, but an early start does prevent my brain from putting up barriers to writing. I don’t get to feel daunted or distracted, and I’m fresh and rested. Achieving something at the start of the day makes me feel productive and energised for the rest of it.

My Grandad's tools - a working piece of family history

My Grandad’s tools – a working piece of family history

Eat the big toad first

I wrote a whole other post about this, so I’ll direct you to that rather than repeat myself.

Be careful about breaks

I used to reward myself for writing by taking a fifteen minute break. I also used to swear by the full hour-long lunch break. I’ve recently learned better. Taking a break from writing means I lose the flow, and I have to face the act of willpower that is going back to work. Maybe you need your breaks, especially if, like Tenabreme, you’re writing a thesis. But try going without them for a day or two, see how it works for you.

I do still take lunch breaks, because everyone needs food. But it’s always a battle of wills to turn off Dexter after I’ve finished my sandwich and get back to the keyboard.

Seriously. Dexter is freaking awesome.

If all else fails, write about how you’re struggling to write

Sometimes you just need to get past the blockage in your head. Circling round it like a jackal round a dying lion won’t help. So if all you can think about is how you’re struggling to write, then write about that. Write about how hard it is to get motivated, how frustrated you feel, why you’re struggling. Because you clearly care about that, so it’ll get you typing away, and it’ll get you passionate. It’ll vent that blockage from your head and let you move on to more productive work.

This works for struggling with your emotions too. That’s how I learned it – from a counsellor. Thank you to her, as she pretty much saved my sanity.

If you’re taking a break, take a proper break

I used to take my laptop on holiday. I was so attached to the idea of writing, I didn’t want to let it go. But that meant that I never really relaxed. I kept feeling like I should be working.

So when you go on holiday, leave the laptop at home. By all means, make notes in your notebooks. Read books that inspire you. But have a proper rest. You’ll come back refreshed, not ragged from battling every day with whether you should be writing.

What else?

Who else has some tips? Leave them in the comments below. Goodness knows I could do with more tricks.

And Tenabreme, good luck with that thesis.