We are all apprentices as writers – aren’t we?

There’s no getting around the fact that writing is a learned skill – one that demands just as much work, practise and effort as becoming (say) a concert pianist. Figures that I’ve heard suggest around 10,000 hours or a million words for someone to get really good. And that, on my own experience, sounds about right.

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf's coat-tails...

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf’s coat-tails…

As Hemingway said, we are all apprentices. The learning curve never stops, even after you’ve mastered writing and it’s become part of your soul. But what does that really mean?

Competence and learning curves fall into four basic categories: (a) Unconscious incompetence – where the would-be writer doesn’t know enough to know what they don’t know; (b) Conscious incompetence – where the would-be writer realises just how much work is needed; (c) Conscious competence – where they have the skills, but it’s hard work to make them come together; and (d) Unconscious competence – where the author can write, really well, without really thinking.

The thing is, writing is multi-faceted. The base skill is expression – being able to put words together, to do so consistently with a reliable ‘voice’, and to have total mastery of the language.

Words become servants at point (d). But writing is about a lot more than the mechanics of word assembly there’s also competence in the subject being written about. That’s true whether the material is fiction or non-fiction. The mechanical skill of writing – of being able to put words together, have control of ‘voice’ and the rest – doesn’t diminish. But subject expertise is another matter.

When somebody who’s at point (d) in their usual subject moves into a new area, they usually drop back a notch or two. Having an ability to master words doesn’t compensate for the novelty of a new subject matter, or genre, or form of writing. And even when someone has become an expert, once again, there’s always something more to learn – something more to discover.

That’s why there is no such thing as ‘having learnt’ how to write. It’s ongoing. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writers – set the controls for the middle of the Sun

There’s no getting around it. No matter how good a plot you come up with for your story or novel, it’ll be dull, dull dull if you don’t wrap it around a character arc. Characters make the story. Without that tension – the character having to learn something.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

A large solar flare observed on 8 September 2010 by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Public Domain, NASA.

Want to know what I mean? Check this out:

The cabin alarm blared. Another failure. Captain Fantastic wrestled with the control column. Already the rocket-liner was plunging uncontrollably towards the Sun, its motors dead, but he had to pull clear – had to – because…

  1. Well, he just had to. You know, he was going to die. Uh…boring. What’s at stake, besides this character who we know nothing about? Who cares?
  2. He had 1000 passengers on board and had to save them, no matter what. OK, better. But still, well, a bit of a yawn-fest.
  3. He had to redeem himself after his terrible failure 10 years earlier in similar circumstance. Much better (OK, this one is a cliché, but it really shows up what I‘m getting at).
  4. As (3), but he also has to save the 1000 passengers, some of whom we’ve already learned about as people and therefore worry about. This is best (and it’s pretty much exactly the story of every disaster movie ever made, especially Airport 75, or The Posiedon Adventure.)

Tension comes from the intersection between character and plot. Do we really care if Captain Fantastic lives or dies, if we know nothing about him. And even then – it’s not a question of having character background, there has to be a dynamic interaction between character arc and plot. We care more if we know he’s going to redeem himself. It works even better if he has to learn something – if he has a revelation that allows him to redeem himself.

Put a story together without that element, and all you’ll get is melodrama. Trust me.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The secret to writing the same – but different

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it now – The Hobbit and Star Wars (the original 1977 movie) are exactly the same story. Really. So is The Wizard of Oz, the movie. They’re all expressions of the classic Hero Journey – a specific story structure.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was – you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian’.

And yet they’re also totally different. So how does that ‘same but different’ work? It’s one of the biggest challenges fiction writers face. Writers have to be original. But if they’re too original the audience isn’t there. Sure, there’s a kind of ego boost in knowing you’ve just written the sort of stuff that leads to being fawned over by pretentious pseudo-intellectual literati, if you’re in to that sort of gratification. But nobody outside the 3 other people in that circle will have ever heard of you. And validation-by-pretension doesn’t pay the bills.

There are reasons why most novels, stories, plays – any piece of fiction, in fact – fall into a particular shape; the introduction, the exploration of the story, then the denouement. Three acts. Sometimes those acts are subdivided, but every story – one way or another – broadly meets that pattern. I’ve seen it argued that it’s actually hard-wired into human nature. I’ve discussed the hero journey before, and using these examples; but let’s explore, now, exactly HOW they differ.

  1. Structurally, they’re the same. Tolkien and Lucas adopted exactly the same narrative structure. And it’s totally classic. The hero, who doesn’t know he’s the hero – is kicked out of the everyday world by a dramatic event, and initially guided by a mysterious wise father-figure. Adventures follow during which the hero discovers more about himself and learns. The father-figure is lost, but by this time the hero has learned enough to be able to meet the challenge they then face. They meet the challenge, and then return to the normal world – changed.
  2. In a narrative sense, however, they’re totally different stories. Tolkien drew on the folk tale tradition, blending that with his evolving Middle Earth imaginarium; Lucas drew on 1940s sci-fi movies. The result was very different characters, plot details, setting and so forth.

I mention these because they’re such clear examples – both The Hobbit and Star Wars follow the hero journey in its specific form. But they’re not alone. For variations, check out Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, or Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea.

All these are kids books – but that’s not surprising; the hero journey is very much a ‘coming of age’ story, well suited to younger audiences in particular. Robert A Heinlein used it in all of his ‘juveniles’. That base story also features in adult books, if you know where to look. Tolkien repeated it in adult form in The Lord Of The Rings, with other adult-pitched variations in The Silmarillion. And the ultimate form of the hero journey, to my mind, remains Kerouac’s On The Road. See what I mean about ‘same but different’?

Think of these things as layers. The trope provides the foundation, the base that shapes the story and makes it ‘the same’ for readers, something they can identify with and understand. But above that, the author has to create a wholly new superstructure, original, imaginative and ‘different’ – but which, built on that familiar foundation, carries the reader into it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How to avoid the lure of other people’s ideas in your stories

A few years ago I fielded an approach from someone who’d penned a short story and wanted to know what I thought of it. I had a look. ‘Well,’ I explained, ‘good story, but you need to make up characters of your own. Don’t use the ones J K Rowling invented.’

Wright_Typewriter2It’s not just the fact that Rowling’s characters – or, for that matter, Gene Roddenberry’s – are the intellectual property of their authors and that using them is – technically – stealing. It’s the fact that using somebody else’s characters is naff. It smacks of lack of imagination. Writers need to make up characters of their own.

The same’s true of that awesome scene from The Latest Hit Movie that you just HAVE to end up working into your own story. A derivative scene is usually the fastest way to kill the suspension of disbelief – the emotional entanglement the reader has with the story. I still remember reading a story by a quite well known sci-fi author – it had been published, and everything – and thinking ‘hey, this whole plot is Casablanca!’. Killed the story stone dead.

So why does it happen? One of the main reasons, I think, is that some people are captured and inspired by the emotional response they get – particularly – from movies or TV. But instead of analysing how the scene or characters provoked that response, they look instead to the surface narrative or features that inspired them – and trigger their own writing from that.

Again, apart from the derivative aspects, the risk here is that a film provokes emotion in particular ways. You can’t directly translate those into the written word.

So the onus is on writers to look deeper – to explore why it is they feel so inspired, or fulfilled, or validated, by something they’ve just experienced in another medium. The answer, always, will be in the interaction they have had with the scene or setting. And it is those reasons that will inspire readers – but they have to be clothed in a very different form. Otherwise the writer’s just plagiarising.

It’s that principle of having a good foundation – that emotional response – but building a unique superstructure on top.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Why it’s still ‘Mary Sue’ fan fiction, no matter how it’s clothed

Have you ever run into a ‘Mary Sue’? The term was coined over 40 years ago by Paula Smith, in a short story taking the mickey out of what had become a fairly standard Trek fan-fiction archetype of the day; the fan themselves, starring in their own wish-fulfilment Trek story.

You never see the model from this angle in the series.

You never see the model from this angle in the series.

The plot is usually straight-forward. Mary Sue is a young noob on board the Enterprise, but (oddly) is sensible, intelligent, attractive and knows all the answers without being annoying, Wesley Crusher style. The ship runs into some sort of trouble, they all run around panicking – except Mary Sue, who provides the answers, saves the Enterprise, and then usually has a romance with Spock (or sometimes Kirk).

What it is, of course, is wish-fulfilment on the part of the author. They feel powerless about something in their own lives, and it comes out in their story. I’m not sure why Mary Sue always has to be female – but that’s where the trope went.

The thing is that Mary Sue stories don’t need to plagiarise Roddenberry’s universe to exist. Or, indeed, anybody’s universe – it’s quite possible to have a Mary Sue story in a wholly original setting. But it’s still Mary Sue. Here’s why:

  1. The lead character doesn’t have self-doubts. Bad move. Everybody has self-doubts (it’s one of the reasons why Mary Sue stories get written – think about it). More to the point, a character like this doesn’t need to go anywhere – there’s no development.
  2. The lead character is flawless – intelligent, physically attractive, heroic, and an unerring sense of the sartorial. Uh. OK. Tell me if you ever meet anybody like that – and if you do, I bet there’ll be something you don’t know about them.
  3. The lead character always gets what they want without having to change anything significant about themselves. That runs against the way dramatic tension’s built – in which a character has to learn to change before they get what they need (see what I said there – need and want? No?).

You see where all this is building up to. A Mary Sue character is boring. BORING. Because they can’t be made to have a character arc. And it’s the character arc that makes a story interesting – that captures readers, that drives them to want to finish the book.

Not the superficial artifice of plot or narrative, which is what most Mary Sue stories pivot around – the narrative of Mary Sue getting what she wants, without too much effort, all the while showing herself to be fabulous. Urrrrgh.

When I read a story, I want to know about all the imperfections – I want characters that aren’t characters. They have to be real – gritty, flawed, self-doubting, insecure – and then they have to learn something that fixes it. A bit, anyway.

Of course, plot’s important too – which is how they learn that lesson – but it isn’t the driving force. More on how that works soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: planning, planning, planning

It’s coming up for a decade now since the reimagined Battlestar Galactica rid us of the imagery of that terrible 1970s Cowboys-and-Indians original. And one of my favourite parts was always the tagline – the Cylons had a plan. Not that we found out what that plan was until well down the track. But it gave a sense of purpose – and of drama – to the whole series.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!

Personally I like planning with a slide rule…

Plans are important for all sorts of things – and especially for writers. They show us where we’re going. They make it possible to get the structure right, first off, without floundering. Really, they’re an essential part of the whole process.

Now, I know some writers like to ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through what they’re doing. And that’s fine. But to me that’s writing for personal entertainment. Without some kind of idea of direction there’s a high risk of floundering – of losing structure. That leads either to massive re-writing, later, or to a written piece that isn’t going to work.

I’m aware of the argument for it, of course – the idea of spontaneous creativity. And that has its place too. But to my mind that needs to be done around the initial plan. Put it this way: a builder isn’t going to put up a building without a plan. Writers shouldn’t write without one, either.

So what is a plan? It doesn’t have to be exceptionally detailed – in fact, for that very reason of spontaneous creativity, it shouldn’t be. But it should show the broad structure of the intended work. If it’s a novel, it needs to lay out the broad plot – making sure that the plot and character arcs coincide correctly with the necessary dramatic structure. And it should show the end point. That way a writer knows where they’re going.

See what I’m getting at? A plan doesn’t have to be a prison to the imagination. But it is essential for writing because it makes sure the author has direction, has a broad idea of the necessary structure, and that the work overall is going to be in good shape when it’s finished.

If the proverbial ‘good idea’ comes in along the way – well, plans are there to be revised, aren’t they?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Essential writing skills: the importance of structure

The other day I sat down and wrote 5000 words to finish off a story due to the publisher.  I also deleted about 2000 – not the same words I’d written. I don’t call that editing. Author changes to their own work are an integral part of the writing process.

Wright_Typewriter2Net result was a gain of about 3000 words, but what counted wasn’t the word length, or even the words written. What counted was moulding the story into a shape I was happy with, which was approximately at the intended length – and which had the necessary structure, shape and character development.

To me that’s the essence of writing – all writing, fiction or non-fiction. Structure. Get that right, and everything else follows. In some ways it’s also not a mystery. Most forms of writing also come with an expected structure – one that works for them. An academic paper with its ‘I tell you three times’ structure – abstract, argument and conclusion – will be very different from a novel, which typically has a three-act form. Feature articles, built around the ‘inverted pyramid’, are different again.

It’s possible for a writer to break that structure and get away with it – but not often, and it demands an awful lot of experience and skill to get away with it. There are reasons why different forms of writing have specific structural shapes. More usually the skill is in honing the specifics of the structure to suit your particular purpose. For me the guidelines are straight-forward:

  1. Is the scale of component right? For instance, an introductory section shouldn’t be radically longer than an expository middle, a concluding section shouldn’t drag out. If it’s a novel, all elements have to be paced to hold reader interest. Has the scale got out of kilter during the writing process?
  2. Does each section achieve the intended purpose – introducing the topic or idea, exploring the variations on the idea or argument, and wrapping it up? If it’s a novel, each part of the structure has a specific purpose relative to character arc and plot. Does the plot fit that structure?
  3. When the piece is written, has the inevitable ‘good idea’ along the way derailed the structure? If so, some re-writing is in order.

You’ll gather from this that one of the pre-requisites to getting the structure right is to also have a plan. More on that soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015