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I’ve written several novels, all of which remain unfinished and unpublished.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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It’s Playback Time

Last week, I talked about how I hadn’t been reading very much. By contrast, I’ve had a lot of time to read over the last seven days, thanks to a six-hour train journey to Stockport and the same coming back.

Photo of a recording studio control room durin...
Photo of a recording studio control room during recording, viewing a trumpet part performance in the studio room, for Witches’ Heart of Stone album – http://www.witchesband.com/ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s entry isn’t just about reading, but reading out loud.

A friend mentioned last week that he didn’t like hearing back recordings of his own voice. I sometimes forget that most people feel the same way. I’ve long been accustomed to hearing mine through volunteering at student, community and hospital radio stations. I’d often listen back to shows and figure out how I could improve them.

I don’t recall exactly when I stopped paying attention to how I sound to myself, but it’s a useful skill to develop. When I play back my work, I can focus on the words, the timing and the structure without distraction.

I sometimes say on this blog that reading your own work out loud to nobody is a key step to refining it. On top of that, the ability to listen back can be just as useful.

A good example is The Purple Spotlights EP, which I released almost exactly two years ago. When I listen to it now, I can hear that I focus too much on the technical quality of the recording and not enough on the performance. When I release my next EP, I’ll aim to correct that balance.

Anything but Reading

One piece of advice commonly given to new writers is to read widely: to read within and beyond their genre, read classics and airport paperbacks, read Western authors and works in translation.

A sheet of bingo cards.
A sheet of bingo cards. There will be no whistling at ‘Legs eleven’, thank you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s great advice. The more books an author is exposed to, the richer their writing will probably become. Exciting things can happen when two styles meet; I’d read two Chris Brookmyre titles before I found out they’re supposed to be crime novels, not comedies. But lately, I feel as though I’m doing anything but reading.

I’ve been to see a couple of documentaries about Hedy Lamarr and Michael Caine respectively, I went to the StAnza poetry festival, I’ve seen I, Tonya and Lady Bird, I’ve played bingo, I’ve been to a lecture about the Higgs boson particle, I’ve seen a production of Spring Awakening. In short, I’ve been having a ball – and that ball was on Saturday two weeks ago.

I don’t think there’s such a thing as a wasted experience. In fact, there are some authors whose real-life experiences are inseparable from their written work.

Andy McNab first came to prominence with Bravo Two Zero, an account of an SAS mission in the early 1990s. He’s since gone on to write fiction that draws upon his knowledge and skills. PD James worked in the criminal justice system and the NHS for a long time and infused her expertise into her books.

It probably doesn’t hurt if you don’t read as much as you’d like. There are experiences everywhere, just waiting to be written about.

A friend of mine has a phrase: ‘Better felt than telt’. The last word is the Scots way of saying ‘told’, and the phrase means you can gain more insight from being somewhere then reading about it.

Ahead of the Curve

This blog is updated every Monday at 6pm. To the reader of any regular publication, it should seem as though the content trickles out on a predictable basis. But that rarely happens in practice.

English: Question Mark
English: Question Mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my case, I’m sometimes able to plan two or three entries ahead, or I have difficulty deciding what to leave out. Other times, I’m still deciding on a subject or writing an entry a few hours before it’s due to be published.

This week has fallen firmly into the second category, bringing little writing news, other than a rejection e-mail that simply said: ‘Gavin. Clever, but not quite what we are looking for.’

So rather than swerve off-topic for the sake of making an entry, I was going to leave this one here and think about next week’s content.

That was until I learnt that my friends at The Beans Podcast had a worse week than I did. They’ve lost an entire episode.

Ellipsis

This week, I’ve had a conglomeration of events, most of which weren’t related to writing. Unfortunately, these have left me no time to construct a full entry, but nor do I want to throw together a substandard post.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to make use of the time you would have spent reading this entry. Perhaps edit a poem, perhaps plan your diary for the week, perhaps send that e-mail you’ve been drafting.

Whatever you do, make it productive, and I’ll catch you back here next week.

Edditing Other Peoples Piece’s

A couple of friends have recently asked me to look over pieces they’ve written. At one time, it would have been difficult for me to do this as I didn’t like to give negative feedback. Having received honest critiques of my own work, I now feel comfortable about identifying areas of improvement in others’ work and making suggestions for improvement.

Firstly, I received an 11-line poem. Among other suggestions: I could see that each line began with a capital letter even in run-on sentences, which is unconventional in modern poetry; I swapped around a couple of clauses to create a stronger image; and I broke up the poem into three stanzas instead of one. These suggestions are partly personal preferences, but they’re informed by reading a lot of poetry and considering what works well and not so well.

Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel hard job.
Editing film at the Lubin film studio in Philadelphia, 1914. A reel difficult job.

The other piece I looked over was an application for a university course, and I had help from a friend who has experience in this field. In this instance, I didn’t know all the specialist terminology or concepts, but there were aspects common to most writing styles that I could point out: using shorter paragraphs to create more negative space, which is easier on the eye; thoroughly checking spelling and grammar, for which I suggested reading the piece out loud while alone; and moving a certain project nearer the top of the application as it stood out among the others.

Ultimately, the writer has the final call on how to present their own piece. As such, I made it clear that the corrections were merely suggestions.

There is always a risk that the other party will react badly or become disheartened, particularly if you don’t know each other very well. It’s impossible to police another person’s feelings, but there are ways to make an unfavourable outcome feel less harsh. A classic is the Bad News Sandwich: a positive greeting, the negative result, a positive next step. Here’s a rejection e-mail I received last year:

Thank you for entering the August 50 Word Fiction Competition.

Unfortunately, your story was not selected as the winner this month. It was another very busy month and very difficult decision for our judges.

If you’d like to enter again, we’d love to see your words.

So when I close that message, I don’t think What an arrogant bunch, I think, I’ll up my game for September.

Raising the Tone

Regular readers will know that I’m an avid blogger; I produce an entry every week come rain, shine or public holiday.

Always open to an alternative point of view, however, I clicked on a sponsored post a couple of weeks ago about the topic of how blogging doesn’t lead to book sales. Sponsored posts are usually an indicator of quality, often containing persuasive text and statistics to support the blogger’s point of view.

In this case, an author was selling a book via Kindle about how to increase Kindle sales, but using what amounted to a 3,700-word rant. I then headed to the author’s Amazon page to read what others had to say about this guy; the consensus was that the information was useful, but they objected to some unnecessary and offensive material within the text. In short, the writer had adopted the wrong tone.

Judging the tone of a piece can be a tricky business. Something meant in a satirical or sarcastic manner can be interpreted as serious or libellous, and that’s partly why I believe it’s important to take a break from a piece and to look at it later with fresh eyes.

But this sponsored post wasn’t a one-off piece written on a bad day. Everywhere this author had been published, there appeared the same attitude and the same comments. The reason I’m not linking to his site isn’t to do with the tone of that page; he’s also a pickup artist, so I’d rather not drive any more traffic there.

Fortunately, there are countless other examples available. I’d like to single out the Washington Post as having a particular problem. Consider these two headlines, published around six months apart:

In both cases, we have an accusation. Firstly, the reader is told they know nothing about US Independence Day. Secondly, it’s the sub-headline that causes a problem; it assumes that the reader has no mental impairment. This is a deliberate move from the publication to anger the reader and therefore generate a click.

And it works. An excellent article from Wired lays out the psychology behind emotional responses, and it’s noted that other emotions also attract readers. Some websites follow a two-sentence structure designed to entice curiosity without revealing too many details; a journalist from Poynter explains how Upworthy headlines operate.

What I haven’t been able to find is why we as a culture haven’t collectively learnt to ignore these sensationalist tactics, just as many users have become selectively blind to banner and sidebar advertising.

In my years of running this blog, I probably haven’t judged my tone correctly in every single entry. However, I always aim to bring people on board by moderating my words in such a way that people are engaged, not outraged.

Looking back over the last three months, each week has attracted between two and eight presses of the Like button, plus the occasional new follower. I’d much rather have two engaged readers than have a hundred people visit, be offended, and leave permanently.