A Structured Story

I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished. In 2011, I drafted my second one, about a man who takes part in a challenge to win millions of pounds. Since then, I’ve periodically revisited the manuscript, but it never quite shaped it into a form I like.

The most recent attempt was over the bank holiday weekend. I sat down and fitted the key events into a structure that resembles a Hollywood screenplay. There are five major turning points that occur at set intervals during the narrative.

Hollywood Sign
Hollywood Sign (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, this sounds rather restricting, but for the first time in a long while, I’m actually excited about the project.

One stumbling block was a scene where the main character is taken to another country and left to find his way back to the UK. Having the structure to follow helped transform this rather long and dull trek into a series of shorter journeys, each part ending in a cliffhanger and raising the stakes a little higher.

Every so often, you’ll hear a novel or a film described as ‘formulaic’. This is usually caused by the writer making the structure too obvious. The turning points ought to be invisible to the casual reader or viewer, but they will be there, shaping the story into a form that audiences subconsciously expect.

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The Thick of It

In the middle of last week, the UK was hit by an exceptionally strong gust of snow. My area was given a rare Red Warning, and that led to some cancellations and closures.

Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On Thursday, for instance, my office was closed and I was excused from doing the ‘day job’. I instead used the time to send work to a publisher. On Friday, I was supposed to be exhibiting my Fun a Day pieces created during January, but that’s been postponed. In fact, the one event that went ahead as normal was partly outdoors.

So on Saturday, I visited the Botanic Gardens in Dundee, whose volunteers are compiling an anthology of written and visual work inspired by the grounds. To this end, they’ve organised Focus Days where writers, photographers and artists are given a tour of the trees and plants to generate ideas. In this instance, the tour was restricted to the heated glass houses, although the participants seemed willing to go out in the snow.

The tour was followed by a lively discussion about the work that should appear in the anthology and how it should be created. Some of us shared our existing work; I read a piece I’d already submitted for consideration and three of the other members inferred religious symbolism where there wasn’t intended to be any.

Frustratingly, no consensus was reached about the anthology as a whole, but we reconvene in three weeks and we’re looking to take it forward from there.

If any new work was generated by Saturday’s visit, it’ll probably be infused by the ambient conditions. Some writers use it almost as a character in its own right and, done well, it can enhance a scene without distracting the reader. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee invokes sticky summer heat; Kirsty Logan steeps The Gracekeepers with a cold sea chill.

Even when you’re trying to create a fictional universe, of course, nobody can escape the weather. Shooting began on the first Star Wars film 42 years ago this month in Tunisia, a location chosen for its desert landscape. On the second day, the country was hit by a rare winter rain that hadn’t been seen for 50 years, destroying sets and damaging equipment.

Monday, Fun Day, Happy Days

Having seen some amazing work produced last year, I was pleased to be accepted into the Fun a Day Dundee challenge. The aim is to work on something new during January; it could be one new piece per day and/or something you append throughout the whole month.

Despite the lax rules, I decided to set three of my own to keep me moving forward:

"Rules help control the fun." Monica Geller, Friends
“Rules help control the fun.” Monica Geller, Friends

I’ve stuck to Rule 1 every day so far. Rule 2 has already been tested when I’ve wanted to start a piece again and I have to tell myself I can’t. Rule 3 has already been satisfied; most of the work is prose and poetry, but I have pieces that don’t fall into those categories.

Those rules are listed in my commonplacing document. I’m experimenting with this practice at the suggestion of a friend; it’s essentially the process of recording how and why your works are created while you’re still working on them. Some people choose to make a scrapbook, others fill their documents with drawings, but I’m recording mine in plain text like a diary.

Fun a Day has been an opportunity to scribe the first draft of some outstanding ideas, which will then be redrafted next month. I’ve also had the opportunity to create ad-hoc work; a case in point is when I received a watch strap from Amazon in excessive packaging, and I’ve turned that packaging into an artwork that makes an environmental point.

You can use Twitter throughout January to keep track of my progress and to keep track of everyone’s progress. An exhibition will be happening in February, so watch out for the details.

The Story Behind the Story

Last year, I completed an MLitt Writing Practice and Study degree. For the dissertation element, I had to submit a creative piece for 80% of the mark and a reflective piece worth 20%. In the reflective part, two references are juxtaposed:

  • Samuel Pepys and others, The Diary Of Samuel Pepys (London: Bell, 1970), p.xi.
  • Peter Doherty, The Books of Albion (London: Orion, 2007), pp.322-324

The first book was written by naval administrator Samuel Pepys who lived in the 17th century, and the second is by the musician Peter Doherty from The Libertines who’s yet to reach his 40th birthday.

English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The ...
English: Image is from H.B. Wheatley, ed, The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepysiana (London, 1899). Book editor died in 1917. Samuel Pepys died in 1703. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the reason they’re referenced so closely together is that they both kept detailed diaries. My creative dissertation piece was in diary form and I used both books to figure out how I was going to structure my own work; for example, whether I should use exact or rough dates, how formal or informal the language should be, and so forth.

It was Doherty’s volume that I find particularly interesting since he uses it in three ways, sometimes on the same page: as a notebook for poetry and lyrics, as a scrapbook for pictures and paraphernalia he likes, and as a diary to document where he is and how he’s feeling. It effectively tells the story behind his work.

At the time of writing the dissertation, I was also trying to convey the story behind my own creative piece, albeit in more academic language.

I was reminded of this last week while listening to Creative Chit Chat Dundee, in which the dancer Gemma Connell was being interviewed; I’ve known her for a couple of years now. Out of a dozen subjects discussed that I could have picked up on, the one that interested me most was that she likes to keep a journal of her process.

During National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I’ve been journaling in a limited fashion. My own notes were functional, mainly reminders or suggestions for the story, but I was also interviewed by the woman who helps me run our NaNoWriMo region, so she has a weekly record of my progress. I’ll report back when I listen to it.

With journal-keeping at the forefront of my mind, I’m going to experiment with the practice for my next major project. I’m planning to take the Doherty approach. The journal won’t be online; it’ll be handwritten and kept separate from the material I’m writing for the project. Once it’s finished, it’ll be interesting to look back and to see how the endpoint compares to the beginning.

The Long and the Short of It

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) officially ended on 30 November, freeing up time to make more detailed entries here. And what a great deal has happened over the last seven days.

Let’s start off with NaNoWriMo itself. I’m pleased to report that I hit the 50,000 word-target on day 29, although I’m still writing the story. Our Tuesday meet-ups will also continue off-season, but not before a Thank Goodness It’s Over party tomorrow.

Meanwhile, I’ve been asked to write a guest blog post for NaNoWriMo on the theme of the ‘Now What?’ months, when the contest is finished and the novel needs to be edited. I found it more difficult than an ordinary blog entry because I wanted to stick as close to the theme as possible. I’ve yet to find out when the guest post will be published, but I’ll point you in that direction when I know.

Speaking of other blogs, I took a snap decision on Saturday to start using Tumblr again after a gap of four years, roughly when I began to use WordPress. I used to keep a weekly video blog there, but I gave it up because I didn’t have the time to generate content. The videos have disappeared because my Flickr account is closed, but the transcripts remain. Tumblr will now serve as an outlet for my Instagram photos, interesting content from other people, and original long-form blog topics that aren’t related to writing.

[Insert fangirl squee]

Another place I’m active is Twitter. Some weeks ago, the allowed number of characters was doubled from 140 to 280. Having had the chance to try it out for a while, I’m ambivalent about the change. On the one hand, a sense of Twitter’s core identity has been lost as you’re no longer forced to find inventive ways to comply with the cap. On the other hand, the relaxed limit comes into its own when I’m advertising our Hotchpotch open-mike events, and it’s now possible to squeeze in all the core points without relying on users clicking the link to our Facebook page.

As well as WordPress, here’s a summary of the places you can now follow me: Google+, Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter.

But what about offline activities? There have been plenty of these happening too.

On Thursday, I was invited to a St Andrew’s Day celebration at the Dundee Maggie’s Centre to read Scottish poetry. My friend Erin Farley had pointed me towards, among others, a poet called Violet Jacob from the county of Angus. It was a challenge to read work written in her dialect, but I found it an ultimately rewarding experience.

On Friday, Erin was part of a line-up telling stories related to food while the audience enjoyed soup and bread; hers was a folk tale from Shetland. This event was held in the library – not a place where food and drink is normally encouraged – as part of Book Week Scotland. I wish I’d been able to take part in more events over the week, but it overlapped with NaNoWriMo and then I needed to complete tasks that I’d put off because I was writing.

I could go on for pages and pages about Saturday, but the condensed version is that I met the author Brandon Sanderson in Edinburgh and bought his short story collection Arcanum Unbounded. Unlike the two friends who came with me, I’m new to his Cosmere, the universe in which all his sci-fi novels are set. When I mentioned this, he pointed out which stories I should read first. He seemed such a genuine man and I can’t wait to start reading.

And yesterday, a little light-hearted relief at the University of Dundee as I watched the LIP Theatre Company present their retelling of the classic Cinderella tale in If the Shoe Fits. A hilarious, highly self-referential treat.

In the Vocalzone

Over the last two weeks, I’ve been somewhat laid up with a sore throat, followed by a more general cold. If there’s one good thing to come out of this miserable period, it’s the discovery that Superdrug sells Vocalzone throat pastilles.

Fructus Momordicae, a kind of Chinese herb for...
Fructus Momordicae, a kind of Chinese herb for sore throat and raucousness. 羅漢果,用於咽喉痛、音啞。 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’d known about these for some time, particularly that singers over the years have sworn by them. I thought I’d try a box to see whether they helped, as I’ve been performing again. I’ve found they work well.

But my condition hasn’t harmed my National Novel Writing Month word counts too much. As of posting this entry yesternight, I was on par to reach 50,000 words by the end of this month, and my story currently shows no sign of slowing down.

We’re having an incredible November so far. Our members, new and regular, have launched into the contest with much enthusiasm, generating nearly 650,000 words thus far. That’s War & Peace more than 2½ times over, or a quarter of last year’s Chilcot report.

ʍǝᴉΛ ɟo ʇuᴉoԀ ɹǝɥʇou∀

On Tuesday two weeks ago, I was hurrying back to the office after lunch to prepare for a meeting. En route, I spotted tourists taking photographs of nearby statues, taking advantage of a brief window of sunshine in an otherwise rainy week.

Exactly a week later, I was the tourist at the Edinburgh Fringe squeezing past locals in bus stops as they went about their business. This started me thinking about point of view in the stories we write.

Let’s fictionalise the scenario above into character sketches, starting with the first-person point of view of the office worker:

I didn’t mean to take so long over lunch, but I was dreading that meeting. Profits are down for the third quarter and couldn’t explain why. Just then, some tourist, not looking where he’s going, steps back trying to get a picture of some statue and knocks the papers right out my hand. He’s in a world of his own and if I wasn’t so late, I’d have had a word with him. But I picked them up and carried on and went to the meeting and just said customer engagement was better than ever.

And now from the first-person point of view of the tourist:

Finally, a sunny afternoon after all that rain. Thought I’d take the chance to come out of the museums and take a few photos round the town centre. There’s an enormous statue of Queen Victoria so I had to step back quite a bit just to fit it all in. Next thing I know, bumped into some local who’s more concerned with reading documents than looking out for people. Said I was sorry, as you do, but she just ignored me. Fine by me. I got the picture I wanted.

Hynek Moravec - Self-photographed
Hynek Moravec – Self-photographed

Already, we can see a difference in the two characters’ points of view. The office worker is in a hurry and preoccupied about the meeting, but the tourist is more relaxed and concerned with taking good photos. We also see different details depending on the perspective of the character. Finally, let’s examine the same scenario in third person:

On Tuesday afternoon, Alice left the pub clutching her documents with five minutes to spare until the meeting. She still could give no good reason why profits were down for the third quarter. Meanwhile, Ben cupped his hand to his camera screen against the strong sun. The statue needed a wider angle. Without turning around, he stepped back. At that moment, Alice turned the corner and they bumped into each other.

The first and second passages are in the first-person voice. The characters use ‘I’ and ‘me’ to describe what’s happening from their perspective. But neither of them knows what the other is thinking; they can only make assumptions based on the actions of the other party. This voice is an excellent way to portray an unreliable narrator.

The third passage is in the third person, a more objective point of view. The narrator uses ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘they’. We now find out the names of the characters, which is also possible in the first person. But that would require a self-introduction or for a second character to mention the name, which might distract from the story. It’s also revealed that Alice was in the pub. Was this detail simply not at the forefront of her mind, or is she an unreliable narrator with a drinking problem?

So we have a choice to make, and it’s a choice that beginner writers sometimes struggle to make. Even experienced writers occasionally need to rewrite.

A few Novembers ago, I was writing an alternate history novel, where the past is reimagined in some way. In mine, the petrol engine wasn’t developed until the end of the 20th century. My plan was to tell the story from the point of view of a historian who had interviewed the reclusive inventor; this would be peppered with newspaper and journal articles.

The technique didn’t work. I couldn’t find enough material to construct a detailed narrative. I recalled some advice I was once given that if a piece isn’t working, the point of view is often the cause. I’ve found this to be true.

I decided I had to let the inventor speak for herself, and the story came alive. The first thing she did was attend an office Christmas party and hit her boss with a glass bottle.

Earlier this year, I read a letter in Writing Magazine that a subscriber’s own story wasn’t working from his main character’s point of view. He explained how and why he rewrote it in the third person, then rather grandly signed off the letter with First person – last choice.

However, I disagree; the point of view will probably change depending on the story you write. In the case of a novel, there might even be shifts from first to third or vice-versa from one chapter to the next. If the subscriber in question did stick slavishly to third-person, he would probably encounter the opposite problem eventually, as I have recently.

The first- and third-person voices are by far the most common, but there exists a far rarer alternative: the second person. This is where the narrator uses ‘you’.

It’s a personal opinion, but I believe this technique is only effective in poetry, as it gives the impression of the poet writing a letter to a third party. In prose, it can feel as though the author is instructing the reader. A novel in the second person can be done, however, as Angelina Mirabella found out.