My fears grew slowly. I travelled to the UK and felt able to take risks I wouldn’t have dared to in the place where I grew up. I lost more innocence, not because I took those risks, but because others felt entitled to abuse my naivety simply because I had it. I took a lot of supposedly far bigger risks that had no negative consequences for me at all.
Am I the only one for whom the proverbial lightbulb takes several small clicks of the switch before it glows brightly enough to get my attention? Last year I read and reviewed Noah Lukeman’s free ebook, How to Write a Great Query Letter. In it, Lukeman berates authors who spend years working on their manuscripts only to pound out sub-par query letters in one sitting. His opinion is that writers should spend as much time on the query letter as they do on writing the book. Click one of the light switch: Why does one have to waste so much precious writing time “crafting” a god-damn query letter? Oh, yes, I get that it is supposedly a work of art that showcases the writer’s talent, abilities, and intelligence. But, really? I’m getting a bit jaded in my thirties. I’d rather write another book that could, hopefully, be read by many eager readers, than “showcase” my writing talent in a letter to one person who may not even exist*.
Four years ago I started the first book in a trilogy, choosing this format because I had three protagonists and liked the concept of one entire book per viewpoint.
I’ve had others like that. An advertisement for a Hannah Montana concert led to me reminiscing about my own childhood aspirations and the games I’d invented around Alice in Wonderland (we had a wonderful embankment in our garden that made for a perfect tumble-down-the-rabbit-hole sequence). Within a day I had an entire novel outlined involving crossing over to another world.
My not-so-pleasant experience at a hotel in Torquay led to an idea for a comedy a la Fawlty Towers, but set in a family residence. My characters had other ideas when they started killing each other. That book was a mess and I eventually “frogged” it (a knitting term I love, meaning to rip all the stitches out and reclaim the yarn to start again from scratch). But I was drawn to the premise of a dysfunctional family with layers and layers of secrets, and the moment I saw a photograph of a manor house that just had to belong to this family, the pieces clicked together and I started writing.
My most bizarre inspiration was from a dream. I’ve written about this one before. The dream involved a pygmy hippo, but in the book the hippo is simply a dog. Despite it’s psychedelic beginnings, this story is my most “normal”, with no elements of fantasy or magical realism.
I’m being deliberately cryptic, I know. None of these books are published yet because I have editor’s block. And a distinct lack of time these days. I’m working on both those issues.
What about you? What inspires your stories? Do you sit down to deliberately craft ideas, or do you wait for flashes of inspiration and grab for the nearest shopping receipt or sheet of loo paper to write them down?
A month after my baby was born, my mother died. It wasn’t unexpected; she had been seriously ill and partially disabled since 2007. But when someone is given a prognosis of 18 months or so remaining of their life, but fights for another four years, it comes as a bit of a shock when they succumb after all those extra years. One becomes used to the seeming invincibility of that person, however frail they may be. I had a very troubled relationship with my mother, and last year she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, which answered a lot of questions, and which was a huge relief to her because she said she felt she was finally understood. I will cover more detail in other posts, but I stood up to her last year and provoked a change in our relationship, received an apology from her for her abusive behaviour throughout my childhood, and we reconciled in the last few weeks of my pregnancy. I was (we were) lucky to end that chapter with no regrets. I’m just a little sad that I didn’t get to test that new relationship, to have conversations with her that I never would have dared have before. And I feel sad that circumstances meant she never got to meet her grandchildren in person.
I did successfully complete the first draft of my novel before my daughter was born. 156 days in a row of writing every single day. That’s five months. 111 days in a row of hitting a target greater than 270 words. My daily average across the six months was 317 words per day (so I tripled my starting goal). I feel very happy with what I achieved, and especially with the knowledge that I can repeat that process and succeed again any time I choose.
You would think, therefore, that I would be in the process of editing that novel, but, true to form, I’ve taken on something else. I’m in the middle of a major editing job on another author’s novel. I’m thoroughly enjoying it, though, and my client is a pleasure to work with.
So. Come up for air. Breathe. Dive.
Discovering I was pregnant again led initially to a panic over how much I had to do before the end of the year, especially since I’d just pre-launched my Storyteller project. Then came the shedding of all work that was not owed to people who’d already paid me or was otherwise essential for some reason. And finally the realisation that what I wanted most of all was permission to shelve the “trilogy-into-standalone” headache and achieve something completely new before the baby is born.
Sixty-five days ago I worked out how many days I had available to me and calculated how many words I would have to write per day in order to complete a first draft of around forty thousand words. It came out at a seemingly do-able 270 words per day – but only if I wrote every single day until the end of November. Weekends usually prove tricky, as do various days during the week due to activities or other reasons. I realised I would have to make a small amount of writing a priority early on in the day, rather than count on my toddler’s nap time after lunch, when I usually felt keen for a nap myself.
I started with 100 words, with the “rule” of no Internet or email until I’d hit that target. On a few occasions that meant only turning on Firefox at 10PM. Soon I was reaching my bigger target of 270+ words at least a few days in a row. Right now my stats are: 65 days in a row of writing at least 100 words on my WIP; 290 words average across all 65 days; 20 days in a row of hitting my bigger target. I’m two-thirds of the way to the apparent habit-forming 90-day mark. It already feels like a habit. The nicest part of it was when I gave myself permission to make this work important enough that it trumped almost everything else. It makes morning thinking very easy: not “should I do X higher-paying work first or Y work that I am really behind on”, but straight to the same novel every single day, with a slight frisson of guilt over the reckless luxuriousness of it. It feels a bit illicit, like I shouldn’t be enjoying it this much.
The other side-effect is that Internet fora, blog commenting, Facebook, email newsletters, and Internet marketing videos have all gradually lessened their appeal and addictiveness. Previously I would risk morning sickness because I simply had to check email/ Facebook/ Forum responses, etc, before anything else, including breakfast. I developed that habit because it was easier to sit and read or watch something while breastfeeding than to write (although pecking out a blog comment or forum response with one hand became second nature). Now I enjoy breakfast with my toddler first, while watching the birds in the garden, and then I sit down to write – and my child’s now old enough to (sometimes grudgingly) accept that I’m doing something that’s important to me and he will get milk after I’ve written my minimum hundred words. It’s not a big ask of him, but it makes me feel like I’m more than “just a mum”. I feel in control again.
I’m finding the “walkthrough” feature of the writing career development course I’m doing extremely useful and enlightening, in particular the student “Hotseats” where a student of the course gets to brainstorm through a particular problem they are having. Recently someone had the exact same issue I’ve faced multiple times: you’ve got a great idea for a story – perhaps you’ve even started writing it – and then, whaddya know, you read someone else’s book, or watch a movie or TV show, and there’s your story smirking back at you.
I’m convinced my so-called muse got fed up with me a few years ago and packed up and astro-travelled to Hollywood where she’s happily providing the scriptwriters of the StarGate shows with all my ideas. I’ve scrapped a good half-dozen ideas after seeing them realised on that franchise.
Now I know I needn’t have hit delete after all. As disconcerting as it is to discover that other writers have a similar thought process to you, it’s important to realise that almost all of our ideas are derivative. There are only
thirty-three thirty-seven dramatic plot strand definitions around which a plot-based story can be constructed.
The solution to the dilemma of writing something that turns out to be similar to another story that you may not even have read or know about is characterisation. It is your characters who make your story unique. Give your characters strong, convincing motivations and allow your plot to move fluidly based on the actions of the characters. It is your unique perspective that shapes your characters (even if they’re nothing like you) and therefore your story will be unique if you put character first and plot second.
Luckily I saved some of my favourite characters from the stories I scrapped and found a new story for them to drive. But going forward I’ll be less inclined to panic and delete when I discover someone else has already used my idea.
How about you? Can this course help you? Are you caught up in the mire of writing a novel? Frustrated by the blinking cursor? Depressed by your blank pages, soggy plot, or characters who’ve gone on strike?
This course has been developed by an established novelist who has taught thousands of writers a unique, systematic, repeatable method for creating not just fiction, but really good, rich, deep, meaningful fiction. It is a 32-week online writing course.
I’m a student of How to Think Sideways, and while some of these methods don’t resonate with me, many ideas have helped me, as I’ve mentioned. I think the information covered is well worth the cost of the course.
You can click here to go find out more or join the class. This is an affiliate link and you’ll be helping me if you buy through my link. (If you prefer not to give me credit for the referral, that’s fine too; you can knock my name off the link.)
Sometimes, with the sheer amount of procrastination I manage to fit into each day, I wonder if the universe will have to resort to extreme measures to get me to take action. I hope not. Yet, I can’t help but be inspired by people who have been dealt a raw deal and still manage to get up (figuratively only, for many of them) and push (literally) themselves to success.
A few weeks ago I wrote about a silly reality TV show I was watching called Britain’s Missing Top Model. The show was silly, but the lovely women competing for the title were anything but. I was convinced wheelchair-bound Sophie Morgan would win the show, sitting as she was head and shoulders above the other contestants in terms of perspective and political ambition. She didn’t win, unfortunately, but she didn’t let that stop her.
What the show didn’t reveal about Sophie is that she is an artist, with, I think, an enormous amount of talent. She’s used her stint on this reality show to launch her career in fine art and design.
But it was the pictures of Sophie trekking the Himalayas that really floored me. Here’s a woman who’s prepared to try and accomplish anything she sets her mind to, and somehow she’ll find a way around the obstacles. And have a fabulous time doing it.
At the end of this post I’ve embedded a video of Sophie speaking at a TED event in Canada.
Another remarkable person I’ve come across recently is Sean Stephenson, author of Get Off Your But. At that first link you can watch a video of one of Sean’s motivational talks and it’s well worth it. Sean was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, is three feet tall, and in a wheelchair.
So. My “But” at the moment is having to wait until after lunch, when my son has his nap, before I can really get stuck in to any writing. You know that time of day – slump time. The last thing I feel like doing is concentrating; that nap is looking good. A few years ago I made an accidental discovery that a really excellent time of day for me to write is first thing in the morning, before I do anything else, before I’ve even properly woken up. I’m finding it hard to let go of that now. I’m woken up by a bouncy toddler every morning and that’s my attention taken up until lunch, and as much as I would love to sit down and write it’s just not going to happen in the morning.
So here I am sitting bleary-eyed at nearly 11PM, going back to my previous “best” time to write: late at night. But I’m also hoping I can embrace the midday writing hour more fully and find some way to be really productive during that time that my child magically gives me to myself each day. After all, I’d really like to be sleeping right now. Good night.
Please welcome David Baboulene, author of The Story Book, to HearWriteNow. Over the past few days David and I have enjoyed a very interesting email conversation about some points that his book raised for me. We’ve now formalised our discussion, and we’d both be delighted if you’d comment and share your perspective on any of the issues here, or ask any questions you may have.
Elle: Some stories, and propaganda in particular, have been used to shape the opinions and cultural identity of one group at the expense of another, or, vice versa, to teach one group to accept their (inferior) “place” in the societal hierarchy. Do you think it is possible to write new stories to readdress these ideas, and eventually replace the old subtext, or would society as a whole first have to reach awareness and rejection of old stories?
David: The short answer is yes, absolutely, new stories can and do engender new behaviours, values and social dynamics (not simply reflect them) and no, society doesn’t have to reject the old stories first. It’s a natural and ongoing evolution, and it’s pulled forwards into the future by writers.
Most people think stories reflect our society, but they do a much, much greater job in driving our society. If you envisage the story teller as the teacher, who has been through a learning experience and wishes to communicate it, and the reader as the pupil, learning a life lesson from the protagonist’s experience, the opportunity is there for the author to have a profound effect on the readers’ understanding of life and his or her subsequent behaviours. And the most common and significant of the moral messages and metaphors that are important to society are repeated many times and in many stories and in many guises, so they become reinforced throughout our lives. That is why stories are always about human values – safety, family, friendship, economic security, a sense of belonging, status, sex and relationships, societal success and so on.
Stories are the most powerful tool of teaching and learning, because we learn both emotionally and analytically at the same time when we absorb a story. Our brains work in story structures and story processes, so a well told story can deliver experiential messages we think we thought for ourselves. This is extremely powerful – that is why all religions are delivered in story form (and thereby align communities in values and behaviours), and why the pen is mightier than the sword!
Elle: To me, this really hits home the importance for an author to take great responsibility for her or his writing. So many messages could be passed on inadvertently simply due to the author having certain opinions and beliefs. As I mentioned, my current project involves offering alternative fairytales to a group of parents who are appalled at the subtext of the Brothers Grimm and Disney versions. But I have to be certain that my “agenda” here is something I’ve looked at critically and objectively and taken responsibility for. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.
Thanks to Grimm and Disney, the concept of a character successfully completing certain expected behaviours and being “rewarded with a princess” (in fairytales and adventure stories), or “the man of her dreams” in romance novels and chick-lit, seems to be very entrenched in our society. Do you think this makes it difficult to sell stories that don’t follow this “rule”, or even actively try to break this rule?
David: This is a great question. The stories that resonate most powerfully with a reader/viewer are the ones that address the conflicts in the mind of the individual at that time. That is why a children’s story can leave a child breathless and yet bore the adult reading it, and a vampire romance that has the teens swooning leaves the parents rolling their eyes. That is also why stories that are ‘of a time’ often fail to grip when the society generally no longer has any dilemma with the core conflicts being addressed.
Cowboy movies are about the basic safety and security of a town and community. We no longer fear on a daily basis that our towns and villages will be taken over by bandits, so these stories tend not to engage and have all but disappeared. In the 1940s and 50s it was all war movies, of course, as these stories resonated with the generation who were trying to contend with these issues. In the 60s and 70s it was all about love stories, coupling up and a sense of belonging in groups and couples; often resolving with the happy couple off down the aisle to live happily ever after. Marriage is no longer the pinnacle of relationship achievement for the modern generation (indeed, it is generally seen as the beginning of a conflict rather than the end these days!) so Love Story doesn’t chime like it did. Today’s generation are obsessed with personal status, recognition, prestige and 15 minutes of fame. Star Wars was the first story to resolve on this new dynamic: Luke Skywalker didn’t get the princess (shock horror) – he paraded gloriously before his cheering and admiring peers and received status, recognition and prestige as a Jedi Knight. This dynamic heralds a new world. In recent stories, such as Harry Potter, he doesn’t get the girl either – he ends his stories parading gloriously through Hogwarts Banqueting Hall receiving the recognition and adulation of his peers.
You can see that today’s writers aren’t satisfied by having a hero win a Barbie princess, or a heroine define herself by finding the man of her dreams. Plotlines are often about the battle of the sexes, but they tend increasingly to resolve through active demonstration of mutual earned respect. This said, we have a long way to go before women are represented appropriately.
There will ALWAYS be a place for the romantic plot or sub-plot as we (humanity) are always driven, to a greater or lesser extent, by our genes, sex and procreation, so it will be interesting to watch the changes in the way these plotlines resolve in order to drive a society that represents and respects both sexes appropriately. When you think that for 99% of human evolution we have been foraging hunter/gatherers, with deeply entrenched innate drives towards hunting ‘provider’ men and child-rearing ‘dependent’ women, it’s remarkable how quickly things are balancing up, but there is some way to go before both men and women stop re-enforcing the stereotypes and advance gender equality.
And yes, writers have a simply enormous role to play this transition, through expertly positioning stories that take people from where they are (in mindset terms) to where they could be once they understand their own potential and opportunities.
As an aside, where do you think story resolutions will go next as we tire of the MeFamous generation? Well, once people have fame and fortune, they tend to realize how fickle and unsatisfying it is and commonly define themselves in their post-selfish phase by charitable work and selfless giving. Where the 80s and 90s have been defined by individual’s visibly gaining personal wealth, status and prestige, I predict that the next generation of stories will see success defined through giving of oneself to those less well off. Perhaps the success of The King’s Speech – a surprise to many – is due in part to the resonance of the actions of the therapist in going above and beyond the call of his own duty to help another? I think this is a sign of things to come…
Elle: I’m definitely looking forward to the end of the two-second-celebrity. I hope your prediction does come true.
Moving on to writing skills and subtext as a vital writing technique, I’ve seen with some of my critique clients that writers can sometimes struggle with releasing control of their story. They try to specify exactly how the reader should interpret and experience the story. To my mind this type of tight control over a story leaves very little room for subtext to form. How would you encourage such a writer to allow knowledge gaps into the story? Is it sufficient to have knowledge gaps between two characters, but few or none between author and reader?
David: The way to keep tight control and yet still tell the story with a depth of subtext is through ensuring that the key knowledge gaps will be interpreted by the vast majority of readers/audience in precisely the same way. So, for example, if you hear the expression, ‘The cheque is in the post’, we all get the same understanding delivered in the subtext. A debtor is fobbing off a creditor with an excuse as to why his money hasn’t arrived and yet keeping him sweet by pretending that his money is imminent. We can paint much more complex subtextual stories, and still be confident that the entire audience will ‘get it’ in the same way.
More esoteric subtext, that could be interpreted in multiple ways, leaves different people gaining different things from the same story. That is why Shakespeare is endlessly studied and interpreted in high places as people argue over the subtextual meanings in his amazing use of English. That is why great poetry is subject to endless academic analysis for the truth of the underlying meaning – because it carries the most subtext, but also the least clarity of commonly received understanding.
The best authors give us the greatest depth, persistence and quantity of subtext through the knowledge gaps they embed in their work. This give us the most subtext to interpret – it’s what we love to do. THAT is great writing in a nutshell. If you want to be definite in the uniform understanding the readership receives, you must still deliver your story in subtext, but choose your words carefully in order that everyone interprets your prose the same way.
Elle: I enjoy playing with ambiguity, so this gives me a lot of food for thought. But for writers who worry that they will be misinterpreted, word choice is vital.
In the Introduction to The Story Book you have an analogy of authors as gold miners, where the author who most attracts the publisher’s attention is the one holding up a finely crafted and polished necklace (amongst a group holding buckets of gold nuggets). Self-publishing authors have mostly received a lukewarm reception from traditional publishers thus far. Do you think this situation is changing? Does a self-published book have to come complete with sales and proven readership to constitute a “polished necklace”, as opposed to a manuscript that stands out as the “polished necklace” on its own?
David: Traditional publishers generally shy away from a self-published book that has already sold some modest but significant numbers. For most new authors, a publisher is looking to sell around 1000 books to be sure that they are going to make a profit and if you’ve sold 800 by yourself, they will see that as punching a huge hole in their possibility of making their money back. 1000 books doesn’t sound so much, but I promise you now, 99% of self-published authors have 900 unsold books under the bed and all their friends know what they are getting for Christmas…
More importantly, there are two different issues in play here: a) the creative brilliance of the story and b) the sales and marketing brilliance of the people behind it. A self published work that is brilliantly marketed has as much chance as any published work that is brilliantly marketed. The difference is that the traditional publishers tend to own the relationships and the channels that take a book to market and they put expert resources and money into the marketing effort.
This said, the brave new world brought to us by the internet has changed everything. The judgment of a book’s quality appears to be much more firmly in the hands of The People now, via blogs and review sites, online word-of-mouth, social media, and so on. In theory, this means that the avenues to market are available to everyone (i.e., we can all publish our work on Kindle without having to negotiate the filter of agents and publishers) and the quality of a work is decided by the thoughts and ratings of ordinary human reviewers. This means that the numbers of new authors and published works has suddenly become ludicrous as there is no professional filter, but on the other hand, this puts the judgment of a book’s quality where it should be – with readers – and the cream will rise to the top on the basis of review.
However, I can’t believe that the situation will remain as it is. Amanda Hocking may or may not be a great writer – I honestly don’t know – but she was certainly a self-confessed Twitter and Social Media addict in precisely the right place at precisely the right time to show us all where the new opportunities lie. Sad to say, books have always mostly been a bi-product of celebrity (which is why David Beckham and Katie Price are best-selling authors) and if the people power that comes with the internet shifts the focus on to the quality of the stories, I would welcome it whole-heartedly. Sadly, I don’t think that will be the case in the long term. The internet and new routes to potential buyers do a lot more to change the nature of (and opportunities for) celebrity than it does for the quality of writing (which will naturally go downhill through the massively increased number of publications). The main positive change I can see happening already is that there will be a huge increase in the numbers of shorter works. There has never been much option for a work of 10,000 to, say, 40,000 words. Ebooks mean there now is, and I believe there is a lot to be made of this new form.
The publishers have deliberately clung on to the old world – having watched the music and film industries lose a huge chunk of their revenue, they now see embracing the e-world as turkeys voting for Christmas – but soon enough they will be forced into the game, and I think we have a lot more changes still to come. My advice to aspiring writers? Unless you can use your celebrity to leverage book sales, all you can control is the quality of your story, so work hard to make it the best it can possibly be.
Lastly, I would like to thank Elsa for the opportunity to be involved in these fascinating conversations. I hope we can do it again sometime soon! I do hope you have enjoyed our conversations and do please get in touch if you would like me to send you a chapter from The Story Book addressing any specific story area that is puzzling you.
Elle: Thank you, David, for putting so much time into responding to all my questions. I have really enjoyed discussing these topics and I’m ploughing through the rest of The Story Book. I’ll update my review when I finish it, but I can already highly recommend it.
Visit David’s website if you would like to contact him about anything specific and receive a chapter of The Story Book. David will be visiting Blood-Red Pencil on 7 April, so mark your diaries for that one. You can also follow David’s virtual book tour here.
I know this has been a long read, but please stay a bit longer and leave a comment or question for David. Thank you.
The Story Book is definitely one I’m pleased to add to my writer’s bookshelf and a book I’m sure I will refer to many times while I’m editing my books.
David begins with an explanation of what Story means to society and how humans may have come to use narrative to pass on information and instructions to each other and to the next generations.
This exposition resonated with me because the project I’ll soon be launching involves reworking fairytales to offer an alternative to parents concerned about the patriarchal subtext of the traditional Grimm and Disney versions and how these stories have “shaped the minds” of children in the past.
Most writers think they must write subtext in order to deliver an underlying story. This is wrong… If the story is created using knowledge gaps, then the real story is received in subtext.”
David Baboulene, The Story Book, page 30.
Subtext, and how to generate it effectively within a story, forms the heart of The Story Book. Author David Baboulene is currently writing a Ph.D thesis, which includes the theory that the more subtext a story contains the more satisfying the reader/audience finds it. If you haven’t previously considered subtext as an important element of your storytelling, this book is a must-read.
David explains the nuts and bolts of various structural techniques very clearly. The movie Back to the Future is the main story example in this section and since this is a movie series I have seen numerous times I found it very easy to follow David’s reasoning so far.
The Story Book is a good companion to take on your writing journey. Beginner writers might benefit from waiting until they have completed at least a first draft before delving into this book as the level of detailed analysis and academic presentation could be overwhelming. More advanced writers may find The Story Book useful for the planning phase of a manuscript as well as for editing and revision.
My review copy was sent to me by the author.