Term 1, Week 6: MA Creative Writing Summary

Weeks 6 and 7 both work together to present us with the idea of a manifesto for our writing. I have to admit that I never really thought of a writing manifesto but as the week went on, I did begin to feel like it was something I could get to grips with.

The keywords for this week included manifest, beliefs, values and voice – all quite clear attributes for a manifesto-based introduction. They helped provide the thought process that we would need to go through when thinking about a manifesto.

The content for this week did seem to ramp up quite a bit. Firstly there was the weekly video presented by our tutor, Sophie Nicholls. This was really an introduction to the manifesto topic and an explanation about the various sources we could use to view other manifestos. Ironically, we saw a simple manifesto with regards to writing which was simply ‘let go’. Whilst I could relate to this, the idea of having to write a 2,000 word one for an assignment felt a bit daunting. There was also a further video present by guest tutor, Jim Poyner, who had introduced us to his photography and his style of ‘roaming’ in a previous week.

The writing exercises were quite simple but we easily identifiable as being aimed at developing a manifesto. They were all prompts that we were expected to finish, such as ‘I believe..’, ‘I want…’, and ‘writing can…‘. There were also some more thought-provoking prompts, such as ‘what would you have written on your epitaph?’ and ‘If your manifesto had a voice, how would it speak?’.

Supporting materials were mainly website links to various manifestos but there were also a few relating to the Ars Poetica which is poem written by Horace in 19BC that advises us on the art of writing – very similar to how our manifesto could work.

My short story, Steal in the Night, didn’t make it into the workshop critique this week as there were already some works presented by others. Guess I’ll just have to wait for my turn.

Beginning Strong Part 2 – James Scott Bell

Many writers are aware of the importance of getting the reader hooked from the first page, even the first line. Yet, Bell still points out some basic points that (I at least) had overlooked.
If we stick to the three act structure, it’s obvious that we begin in Act 1. Here, we’re expecting our work to do the following;

  • Hook the reader
  • Establish a bond between reader and character
  • Present the story world
  • Establish the tone of the novel
  • Give the reader reason to want to turn the page
  • Introduce the opposition

In this post, I’ll cover the final three points above as Bell takes us through and gives us information and advice as to better approach our goals (the first post is here).

Establish the tone of the novel

This is us, as writers, setting the tone for the entire novel early on in the first few pages. By doing this, we’re not only making a promise to the reader as to what our novel is going to be like, but it ensures that the reader will understand what to expect.

One of the most important aspects of tone is that of consistency. As stated previously, setting the tone is providing the reader with the understanding of what the rest of the story will be about. Readers like consistency and being too inconsistent risks you losing the reader. Bell quotes Jack M. Bickham here with some examples of how you can still stall your reader if you’re not careful;

  • Excessive description – Bell already covered this and uses the quote to simply strengthen his own statement.
  • Backward looks – interestingly, this seems to jar against the advice from Bell about using the ‘framing the story’ element for prologues. However, I personally think this is more around the constant use of looking back.
  • No threat – Bickham suggests that “good fiction must start with – and deal with – someone’s response to threat”. Without a threat there is no conflict.

Compel the Reader to move onto the middle

As with the Three Act Structure, your beginning has to ensure that the reader wants to continue onward to the middle (and end) of your book. If you’ve done things right, you should have given them (1) a compelling Lead with (2) whom they bond with and (3) whose world has been disturbed. This should provide enough for your readers to want to step through that first doorway of no return into Act 2.

There is little else in terms of advice from Bell here which comes across as a bit of a cop-out when it has been promoted to a point of interest within the chapter of Beginning Strong. However, I think the fact that Bell has already talked quite a bit earlier in the book about this and the fact that the next chapter is about the middle stages of a novel, he’s simply reserving his advice for later.

Introducing the Opposition

As with the section on moving the reader to the middle of the novel, Bell doesn’t really add anything more to this section other than giving out somewhat obvious advice.

Bell suggests that our readers must know who, or what, the opposition is by the time that our Lead makes the transition from the start to the middle. He even goes on to suggest that the opposition doesn’t necessarily have to be fully established at this point, just that it exists.
There are no examples given here, but I would suggest he’s talking about things like;

  • A serial killer in a crime murder novel – we don’t need to know who he is, or what he looks like for us to know he’s our Lead’s opposition
  • A meteor about to crash into the Earth – again, if our Lead is an astronaut or a pilot of a space-ship trying to protect Earth, then we can understand how the meteor is the opposition without having to fully explain what it is, where it came from etc.
  • A love story where the Lead is vying for affection and yet there is another who has similar feelings for the same girl.

As writers, it is also important that we ensure the opposition is a capable foil for our Lead. In that respect, we must ensure that the opposition is as strong, or preferably, stronger than our Lead. Also, we shouldn’t neglect the fact that our opposition should also be given similar attributes to our Lead, such as sympathy and justifications for his actions. We need to ensure that we don’t fully develop a Lead only to pit him against a cardboard cut-out of an opposition.

Your Writer’s Notebook – James Scott Bell

I think it’s fair to say that most writers keep a notebook for when the creative juices start to flow and we’re (usually) well away from the keyboard.  For some of us, it’s a real notebook and, for some of us, it’s a mixture of paper scraps, post-it notes etc. Regardless of the form in which our notes take, we could probably all do with keeping them in some sense of order.

In Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, there is a small section toward the end on the writer’s notebook. It has some suggestions about how we writers should structure our notebooks to get the best out of them.

Bell suggests using a notebook often as it allows you to ‘write when you’re not writing’.  Furthermore, he suggests splitting the notebook into five major sections;

1. Plot Ideas.  Unsurprisingly, Bell chooses to use this section to keep notes about plot. He suggests utilising free-form notes, ideas and scribbles to ensure that we can capture the information when it appears.  Things like ideas for plots, plot developments, and major scenes can be kept here.

2. Characters. Here we can keep straw-men pictures of our current, and future, characters.  Bell suggests that we store certain information, such as a character’s drive, what they want from the story, and what they care about the most.  This can be quite essential information when you’re struggling to decide how your character should react to at important points in your novel. It can also provide a great go-to point when you’re looking to introduce someone new either in the same novel, or a different one.

Bells also compiles listings of names in this section utilising newspaper articles to generate ‘real sounding’ names. He follows a simple process of splitting the forenames and surnames and keeping them in separate columns so new names can be generated simply by choosing a name from each column.

3. Research. This is quite a broad section and is related to anything that you feel is necessary to investigate as part of your novel writing.  Although Bell suggests that internet and e-mail can be used to generate a lot of research information quickly, he also suggests that much of this is transferred / filed in your notebook to enable the notebook to become a one-stop-shop of your novel whenever you’re away from the desk.  Imagine how frustrating it would be to have an idea and realise you didn’t have the technical information you needed on-hand to take it foward.

Another good aspect of keeping research material in your notebook is that it often inspires new plot ideas which, if all kept in the same notebook, means it’s easier to keep everything in a single place.

4. Plot summary. This is different to notes on plot (section 1) as this section relates to what has actually been written so far.  Here, Bell suggests that you keep a record of what work has been compelted (at a chapter level) and summarise it into a few lines.  The benefit of this is that is can help you see where you are in your story, and what you think you may be heading toward.

If this is kept upto-date, then you should have a full summary outline completed just as you complete your first draft.  This can then be used as a guide when beginning that necessary second draft.

5. Questions. It is expected that you should always be asking questions of your story.  These questions can be about almost anything, including plot, character, or research.  If these are kept in a section of your notebook (and especially if they are answered), they can provide a much richer perspective through which to view your story.

As mentioned above, if much of this information can be kept in a single notebook, then your whole toolkit that you need to work on your book anywhere, anytime, can be within arm’s reach.

Wednesday Website Update #5

With last week being Easter, and me being away from home (and the PC) this week there hasn’t been a lot done on the website recently.

On the plus side, I’ve gotten a lot of the main pages updated with the templates needed to hold the information that I want to present.  I’ve also began to put links and notes in each page to remind me what needs to go in here and where I can find it.

On the negative side, it is slowly dawning on me just exactly how much information that I’m going to be adding to the website over the next few weeks, especially if I’m going to be sticking to my end of April deadline.  A rough guess is a good four hour’s work needed on each page, and I have over 60 pages.  It doesn’t take a mathematician to work out how far off my current deadline I am at the moment.

Much of what I’m putting on the website is going to be around what I learn on my journey to finish my novel to draft format, so I can’t expect everything to be there at first – I just need to make sure there’s enough there to keep things ticking over until the rest of the content appears.

Still, every journey begins with a single step.

Older updates can be found on the website project page here.

Wednesday Website Update #4

Last week I reached the point where it was time to begin adding the content to the website – this week, I’m still working through it.  Similar to this blog, my website will contain descriptive elements from many of the writing books / courses that I find, as well as a catalogue of my journey as I complete the first draft of my novel. 

Well, even though I have quite a backlog of information to use as an update now, I’m beginning to realise that a lot more of this content will have to be trickle-fed to my website on a periodic basis – basically as it’s developed.

With that in mind, I figured that I should at least work toward getting the bare-bone content / description up on each page (of which there are now sixty-six) by the end of this week before I take the plunge and start to beef up the detail.  This should give me the whole month of April to get the site ready for a May 1st release.

In terms of pages, I’ve begun to develop a new section on map-making.  Why?  Well, I’m heavily invested in the Fantasy genre and just felt that this is a topic that should be covered.  Also, I’ve been working on a map for my own world of Monecia in my downtime and thought it may be worthwhile cataloguing the research that I’ve been doing as I bring this world to life, especially as I’ll be covering so many other elements of world-building.

The work that I need to put in over the next few weeks is quite daunting and I know that it’s going to take time away from actually writing the first draft itself.  However, I can’t keep juggling things and never completing any of them so it has to be time to start ticking things off the lists instead of adding to them.

That’s it for this week!

Older updates can be found on the website project page here

The Three Act Structure – James Scott Bell

In continuing going through James Scott Bell’s book, Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure, I’ve reached the point where he talks about The Three Act Structure (I’ll call it TAS from now on).

What is it? Well, basically it’s splitting your story up into three specific sections, or Acts, usually the beginning, the middle, and the end (who thought it was that easy?). If you thought that wasn’t difficult, guess what? You probably also follow the TAS in your day-to-day life;

  • you’re born (Act I),
  • you live (Act II),
  • you die (Act III).

Want something a bit less general? How about an average day?

  • you get up (Act I),
  • you work (Act II),
  • you sleep (Act III).

The book does cover some higher level thoughts about how mystical the number three is, and how a triangle is the strongest shape in nature, but generally the TAS is used because it works.

How does this relate to my writing? As with any structure, there are some parts that need to be adhered to. I wouldn’t call them rules as such, possibly suggestions. If you can learn to keep your writing within the ‘suggested’ structure, you have a better chance of your reader finishing your novel. The TAS has been tried and tested many times and, whilst there are opportunities to be flexible with your writing and remain within the constraints of the TAS, the further you move away from it, the less chance you’ll have of holding your reader.

In the TAS, Act I is where you will normally present the problem; something is lost, someone has died etc. Act II is how your character deals with the problem; you search for something, you investigate a murder. Finally, in Act III, the problem gets solved, the murderer is caught, and the book can end.

clapperboard_ACT1

Bell suggests here that there should be at least four tasks that Act I needs to undertake;

  • Present the story world. That is, describe the setting or context.
  • Establish the tone the reader will rely upon. Set the readers expectations on what kind of plot is about to develop.
  • Compel the reader to move on to the middle. If you don’t do this satisfactorily then the story will stall – I think everyone has at least one book on their shelf that they just couldn’t get into..
  • Introduce the opposition. What is it that is going to prevent our lead character from succeeding?

clapperboard_ACT2

Act II is really the middle of your story. It’s the bit that covers all of the confrontations , where you begin to weave your sub-plots, and also where the real ‘meat’ of your story is. Picture a sandwich – we all love bread, but it’s the filling inside that makes a sandwich what it is. In this Act, Bell suggests that the following should be addressed;

  • Deepen character relationships. Make sure your characters blossom and grow in this section.
  • Keep us caring about what happens. If this isn’t done correctly, your reader will lose the ability to care about the outcome which often ends in the book being put down.
  • Set up the final battle that will wrap things up at the end. Your Act II can rise and fall many times but you should always be working towards that grand finale. No Deus Ex Machina here!

clapperboard_ACT3

Act III is the ending. It’s here that we bring all of our resolutions to an end; if something was lost, it’s generally now found, if someone died, we should now know who did it. Just a few things here that Bell suggests;

  • Tie up all loose ends. Act II was where you weaved all your sub-plots to give your story a much greater feel to it. Well, Act III is where you need to make sure you’ve covered everything off now.
  • Give a feeling of resonance. If you’ve managed to portray a sense of deep meaning to your story in Act II, then Act III is where you get the chance to keep that feeling going long after the last page has been turned. Ever finished a book and left it in your lap for a few minutes whilst you just sat there with a smile on your face? Well, that’s resonance and someone just nailed Act III.

Bell does a very good job of portraying what he talks about with examples from both films and books. However, for all of the examples used in this section, I personally found just a couple of his diagrams gave me a better understanding of what he was trying to portray.

Bell states that the TAS actually comes from film and drama and, as such, there is a formula devised that allows it to be used to its fullest extent. That is, the transition from Act I to Act II should take place around 1/4 of the way through the film, or thirty minutes into an average two hour film. It’s quite clear from the diagram but the transition from Act II to Act III should happen at a similar distance from the ending, around 3/4 of the way through, or ninety minutes into an average two hour film.

film structureWhat is interesting here is that Bell suggests the formula should be changed within a novel, seemingly because of the differences in time taken to watch a film, or read a book.

Here, Bell’s formula is that a novel’s transition from Act I to Act II should be around one-fifth in, after the first sixty or so pages of a good novel. The distance from the end of the book for the Act II to Act III transition can remain the same at one-quarter, however Bell does suggest this can be slid to the right slightly.

novel structureBy doing these changes, you are making sure that your novel won’t drag at the beginning and also that your rise toward the grand finale of your novel is well paced. If you know roughly the length of your novel and you want to try sticking to the TAS formulation then you can work out when you should be moving away from the beginning toward the middle and, similarly, when you should be tying up those subplots and working toward that feeling of resonance.

A point to note is that Bell does touch on the use of Mythic Structure, or The Hero’s Journey, and expands on how it fits quite nicely within the template of the TAS. However, he only covers it lightly, and uses Star Wars as an example (which is one of the most famous). Due to this, I’d rather pick this particular topic up at a later date and probably collate a few things before I take that particular plunge.

In the meantime, I’m going to start watching a few movies with a stopwatch and see if I can spot the transitions between the Acts.

Plots Made Easy – the LOCK System

I’m currently reading Write Great Fiction – Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and I’m finding it a great mixture of tips and advice that is backed up with plenty of film and book examples. Even though I’m going to summarise quite a few of his points over the next couple of weeks, I’d definitely recommend buying this book for yourselves. Support the writers that support the writers 🙂

Behind every locked plot is a story waiting to get out.

The LOCK system is a set of principles that have been developed from analyzing many plots – James did the work so you don’t have to (although I’d recommend reading your next novel with the LOCK system in mind and see how it relates to that book’s plot.)

LOCK is short for Lead, Objective, Confrontation and Knockout.

Can he kick it? Yes, he can!The principle behind Lead is simple; every strong plot must have a strong lead character that is both interesting and draws us in. The lead character must be able to carry the plot throughout the novel and be compelling. After all, the lead is often the main reason we continue to read the book; we want to see if he succeeds or fails. We can only do that if the lead has drawn us in and has compelled us to stick with him. That’s not to say that our lead should be perfect – if written well, we can accept imperfections as we all know no-one is perfect. However, we shouldn’t display too much negativity otherwise we risk the reader failing to empathise with him.

 

What? Where? Why?The next principle is Objective. Here we take the lead character and give him something to do, something to want, something to avoid. Basically he needs a desire. This desire should be what drives our lead on which, in turn, drives the plot on. The objective presents the desire to the reader than then poses the questions; will the lead character fulfil his desire? Or will he fail? Objective’s can involve both life and death, they can relate to achieving a particular goal, or just resolving a situation; any one is fine as long as it ties back to the lead character.

 

Get  through that, why don't you!Confrontation is next. Here we have our lead character, he is compelling and we want to know more about him. We’ve given him an objective – will he save the day? Will he get the girl? However, what the plot needs now is confrontation. We want to pose that question against the objective, and then put that at risk be it via some kind of conflict. After all, if we know the lead character can simply achieve his objective with no risk, where’s the fun in that? We need our lead to have to work for his objective; we throw obstacles in his way, we have conflicts along the way; there are ups and there are downs.

 

fist-308801_640  Finally, we have Knockout. James’ refers to a boxing match in his book when he talks about something having knockout power. Everyone hates a draw, so you need to make sure your book ends in a knockout! At this point in your plot, you’ve drawn the reader in, lead him through a journey of confrontations as the lead character works towards achieving his objective. The last thing we want to do is disappoint the reader right at the end. There are some stories that don’t end as expect but, if they are written well, then it can be done. However, most readers will expect a grand finale.

 

As I said above, this is really just a brief summary of the LOCK principles.  James Scott Bell goes into these in more detail in his book providing a number of examples.  He also goes into greater detail for those plots that have more than one lead character (I’ll cover that bit when I get to it).

If you want to know more, Amazon (UK) sell the book here