Tag Archives: editing

From Inspiration to Paper – Workshop with CM Taylor

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Last week I attended an evening workshop on editing fiction, conducted by an author and an agent. I came away with pages and pages of notes, which I will share with as much rhyme and reason as I can order them into. This week it’ll be the author – CM Taylor – and next week it’ll be the agent.

Taylor started by saying that his definition of a story was the transmission of emotion through structure. When writing your plot, structure is vital and you cannot ignore it. Readers have such an intrinsic understanding of structure that, if you deviate from its principles, you risk jolting them or losing them entirely. It also means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every book.

When he gets an idea for a story, he starts by finding existing literary models for the core concept of that idea. For example, if the story is about people wanting to get home you could look at Homer’s Odyssey, or Paul Scott’s Staying On, or even Sheila Burnford’s Incredible Journey. If there’s also an element of class war in the story, then look at something like Downton Abbey. Use multiple models for different aspects of the idea and jigsaw bits of them together to create something new. It’s not about plagiarism – it’s about ideas for structure. Importantly, it also helps to throw light on how your story idea is different.

THE TRANSFORMATIONAL ARC

The Inside Story is a book by Dara Marks, a screenwriting theorist, about the structure of the heroic journey – what she calls the ‘transformational arc’:

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Looks vaguely familiar, right? Three act structure with a rise and fall, inciting incident, call to action, etc. The key to this diagram is the idea of change. The two halves of the story are resistance to change, and release of emotional strength after change is embraced. People naturally resist change, as reflected in the traditional heroic journey by the Refusal of the Call.

The transition from resistance to release starts with a Grace Period – once the character has admitted change is required, it releases a ‘high of truth’ and emotional energy. This then leads into the Fall, as the energy drains or the world doesn’t enable that internal resolution for change. The aspiration to change is not the same as making it happen!

The Death Experience, incidentally, doesn’t necessarily mean death. It can be betrayal, miscommunication, bad coincidence, etc. Whatever the worst thing is that can happen to the character’s internal aspirations.

Note that I’ve referred to it throughout as the character, not the hero. This arc should be applied to every character, although they will be at different stages along it at the start and end of your story. When one character changes, everyone in their community is affected somehow. It’s fairly standard psychology that a change in one part of the community means the rest start to question their own status quo.

CHARACTER FLAW

Because a form of behaviour has been successful in the past, they continue it into inappropriate situations and this shows up their character flaw. – CM Taylor

Obviously nobody’s perfect, and you certainly don’t want your hero / protagonist to be. They need to transform, to improve, and to do that there must be a flaw to start with. Taylor gave the workshop group an exercise, which I found massively useful and I highly recommend you have a go at it. For any given character(s), work out the following:

  1. What is their character flaw? If you’re having trouble identifying it, think in terms of ‘too / not enough’, i.e. too tolerant / not tolerant enough.
  2. How did the character get this flaw? Remember that the flaw is usually a pattern of behaviour which is carried into unsuitable circumstances.
  3. Identify a point in your story where the world somehow presses on or challenges this flaw. How does the character react?

As an example, here are my answers for one of the lead characters in my current project:

  1. Trojan is too obedient and passive to his father’s demands. When told to leave his family home for falling in love with someone his father deems unsuitable, he goes without challenge. Even falling in love was despite his obedience, not an actively rebellious act.
  2. He was raised by his father to be a passive tool, intended for a political marriage that would unite two warring factions. His father was stern, oppressive, and kept Trojan fairly isolated.
  3. His moment of enlightenment comes when he learns his father was responsible for the death of both his lover and his twin. In the Grace Period when emotion is released he rebels for the first time and kills his father. In the Fall, as the emotional high drains away, he is arrested and goes quietly.

This exercise really helped me clarify Trojan’s internal drives, as well as solidifying the mid-point of the story as the death of his father, which therefore helps with the overall structure.

One final point about structure: Taylor said he uses it as a checklist, going through drafts and literally ticking off whether he’s covered each point within the transformational arc. You can’t know whether you’ve written a good quality book, he said, but structure helps you identify and remove the obvious errors.

Next week I’ll cover the agent’s perspective on character building. For now, what results do you get if you do the character flaw exercise? Was it helpful for you?

7 Writing Tips from Sol Stein

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I recently finished Sol Stein’s Solutions for Novelists. As is usually the case with craft books, there were a bunch of things I already knew, a bunch I’d forgotten, and a few that were no longer in tune with modern fashions for reading / writing / editing. There were also, however, a couple of gems that were entirely worth the read. I thought about making each one into a separate blog post but I’m not convinced most of them take much explaining. So instead, here’s a list of random tips from one of the foremost editors of modern novel-writing.

1. Never take the reader where the reader wants to go

This primarily refers to scene changes and moving between chapters. Stein advises that, in order to keep the reader hooked, you should never make the next scene the one that they expect. I’m sort of torn on this, to be honest. At times this is exactly the right advice – it helps keep them impatient to find out what happens next, it keeps them surprised, and it prevents the story from becoming predictable. But never taking them where they want to go? That’s a risk. I think that I as a reader would get annoyed with a book that did that. However, the point is that you should plan your scenes with the express purpose of keeping the reader emotionally invested.

2. Candour and vulnerability are key character traits

It doesn’t matter how vile your protagonist is – if they are frank about their natures and faults, and have an area of vulnerability, it makes them real. The more real they are, the better the audience can connect. If the protagonist isn’t a nice guy, there has to be a reason for the audience to care about what he’s doing. The vulnerability allows them to hope for his redemption, and the candour allows them to understand him despite his unpleasantness.

3. A writer writes what other people only think

This takes the characteristic of candour still further. Don’t shy away from radical ideas and don’t fall back on cliched thoughts. Write the truth, as bare as you can. This isn’t new but it is important. It’s also difficult and takes courage. Go for it.

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4. Put the protagonist in a crucible

This is the term Stein uses to describe a situation or place where the protagonist doesn’t want to be but can’t leave. This heightens the tension and drama, and creates conflict as the character struggles to leave. Again, not a completely new thought but the imagery of a crucible made me see it in a different light and that opened possibilities.

5. One plus one equals a half

‘Conveying the same matter more than once in different words diminishes the effect of what is said.’ Edit hard, basically.

6. Choose your weapon / typeface

According to Stein, this matters a lot. He says professionals use Courier, 12 point. Times New Roman is tempting but takes up less space. That means there are more words per page, so the pages are turning more slowly, so the reading experience seems slower. ‘A page using Courier seems to move much faster. That’s a psychological advantage not to be slighted.’

Above all, he advises against sans serif type faces such as Ariel or Helvetica because the letters don’t have curlicues. Curlicues link the letters together in a word, and we read words rather than individual letters. Without curlicues, the words are less internally linked and it slows the reader down.

7. Don’t distract the reader

Again, this is formatting-related. Putting words at the top of the page in headers, or putting words in bold, draw the reader’s eye and attention. That means their attention is no longer immersed in the story. Don’t clutter up the page with unnecessary distractions that will break their concentration.

 

So there we go. I hope that’s helpful. I found Solutions for Novelists very interesting, but not the greatest craft book I’ve ever read. Still, worth borrowing a copy from the library if they have it.

Can Anybody Edit?

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week a friend sent me a link to this article. The TL:DR version is that Amazon has launched an online platform where books in progress are given editing suggestions by the reader. I am sort of torn by this, to be honest. On the one hand, I applaud the embrace of the community storytelling model. On the other, editing by populist soapbox is a risky business. In my more cynical moments I imagine that any editing 50 Shades of Grey received was obtained this way. Editing, as anyone who’s tackled a second draft will tell you, is a skill acquired by experience. Acquiring a pool of reliable beta readers involves narrowing it down to the people who gave you genuinely constructive criticism, rather than ‘I didn’t like this bit’ or ‘I think the man should kiss her here’.

Interestingly, I learned something about the history of editing recently and it largely comes down to technological development. Before the invention of the computer, editing was a proper pain because it involved rewriting (or, after the advent of the typewriter, typing) an entire new page for every minor change. As Sol Stein said:

Type a story on an IBM Scelectric, especially the later model that enables you to backspace over a letter and erase it! Wow! When it became easier to fix errors, suddenly I became much less tolerant of my first-draft errors… At least as important is the fact that the computer preserves writing, which hasn’t kept some adults from writing the same novel over and over again.

Anyway, back to the point. Should editing be opened up to general opinion, and the assembly of a story become a truly community effort, or do too many cooks spoil both the broth and their appetites? Is this just an attempt by Amazon to get more involved in the self-publishing space, and what chances of success to you give it?

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Dialogue vs Speech: the difference in the spoken word

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anchors_away_diagramLast Saturday, for the first time ever, I had the privilege of seeing some of my writing performed on stage alongside that of some professional authors. It was a humbling experience. There’s an elusive quality about truly good work that, when set alongside that of an enthusiastic amateur, really comes to light. Particularly when spoken aloud. Now, as the raptor has pointed out, script-writing is a different medium to novels. There are inevitably going to be necessary changes in style, and the expertise learned in one doesn’t always transfer seamlessly to the other. When it comes to scripts, the required change in dialogue technique is thrown into rather harsh light.

You might not have thought (I certainly didn’t) that there’d be any difference between colloquial-style dialogue and the spoken word. It wasn’t until I heard the actors speaking my lines that I realised the difference. It isn’t just about making the words sound natural in their mouths, rather than stiff. There’s something a bit more to it – something meatier, for want of a better word, that’s needed. A weight of personality, of meaning and substance, behind every line that the actor can orient on. To use a nautical metaphor, the meaning is the anchor, the actor is the buoy, and the sentences are whatever boat happens to be moored there at that point. Even filler words, like ‘Er, what?’ need to be considered. You can’t get away with throw-away lines in spoken word, the way you can (but shouldn’t) in written. The moment they’re released into the air, you know that they have no substance.  Oh, sure, the actor can cover for you up to a point, but they shouldn’t have to. If you want to be good – and I do – then your words should be able to stand up for themselves.

I don’t mean, by the way, that it should all be terribly serious and meaningful. You can write comedy which has substance. The point is that you have to make it feel real – that’s what escapism is about, after all. Regardless of the subject matter, your words should be made of stone. If they’re only paper then no-one will believe them. Worse, they’ll detract from the stone that went before.

Because this tends to be how I work, I turned to my current craft book for advice. Sol Stein, author of Solutions for Novelists, had this to say:

The aim of dialogue is to create an emotional effect in the reader… Dialogue sounds artificial when it’s coherent and logical. In life we try to avoid shouting. It shows we are out of control… Dialogue is at its best when it is confrontational and adversarial… not an exchange of information but a kind of game in which the opponents try to gain an advantage over each other.

Here’s a hint. If in a verbal duel you find yourself wedded to the beliefs of one of the characters, try your damnedest to make the other character win the argument. Try to subvert your prejudices. It will make your exchanges far more interesting.

What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.

The only really practical suggestion I’ve got is to have someone read your dialogue aloud to you. Don’t do it yourself – you’re too familiar with it and will fill in the meaning mentally. In someone else’s voice, though, you can hear where there’s only paper on the page. The worlds and people are real inside the writer’s mind. Just make sure you get that reality all the way across.

For those who are interested, the piece that was performed is here. I’d love to know what you think of it and, most importantly, how it might be improved.

Writing for Theatre: the Importance of Minimalism

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This weekend I’m heading off for Green Ink’s sponsored writing session to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Research (and if you fancy donating, please click here). Next weekend a selection of the pieces written during the session will be performed on stage. In light of that, I have invited a friend of mine to do a guest post about writing for the theatre as it’s a medium I’ve never tackled before.

The important thing to note is that Mr. Carrington is not a writer. Oh no. He’s more interesting than that – he’s the man who has to translate the writer’s vision into reality. He’s the one in charge of the practical bits. Listen, now, to the wisdom of the stage manager…


For the novel writer, the sky is the limit. An unlimited budget for cast, costume, set, lights, sound and special effects are available. In writing for stage however, all writers go through (or should go through a more rigorous) process of rationalisation. This process is similar to Stephen King’s advice to ‘cut out everything that is not the story’ but slightly more pragmatic.

In small scale theatre, writers of stage scripts should keep in mind what is reasonable. For example, do we need to see the characters eating takeaway chips in scene 4? If it is required for the drama of the story then by all means keep them but if they serve no purpose in the story all they do is balloon a budget.

Stage Managers are a practical bunch who tend to focus on the essential items in a script and an audience can be similar. If specific things are in a play, they are assumed to be there for a purpose. As Anton Chekov said;

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

I say this not just because my job is made more difficult and my producers’ wallets have suffered as a result of extraneous props and set in fringe theatre but because such things can be:

  • cut if they have no justification for being on stage
  • a detriment to the production if they serve no dramatic purpose
  • a reason not to stage the play at all

Juxtapose two huge stage productions and their librettos. Wagner’s Ring Cycle proves extremely challenging for opera makers with its flying chariots pulled by goats, rainbow bridges and mighty dragons. Wagner had difficulties staging it during the 1860s and 1870s, it is rarely performed in full and modern productions have to re-interpret these fantastical elements. Contrast that with the much maligned Lord of the Rings musical that was a technical triumph but a crude parody of Tolkein’s work. Both of these struggled with the gulf between the writing and the execution, the Ring Cycle because of Wagner’s imagination and Lord of the Rings because no matter how good the cast and technicians, they cannot save a bad script. I am not saying these works should not be staged (hang on, I AM specifically saying that about Lord of the Rings) but I am illustrating a point regarding the rationalisation process.

Wagner's Ring Cycle staged in NYC

What is it with magic rings and pyrotechnics?

Then look at the very specific details in say Schaffer or Beckett’s work regarding staging, costumes, props, stage directions. These writers understand that all aspects of a production tell the story. Schaffer’s Equus is told in the round, in a paddock of a sort, with the horse costumes described in the stage directions. Sound and lighting design can also have its own language; everyone is aware of how Wagner used motif’s in the score for the Ring Cycle as an example. Theatre allows the writer to tell a story in a very different way from other writing so I ask the writers who read this blog to consider this when they re-draft their scripts. Not only so my hair doesn’t go grey when I’m trying to track down a WWII era telephone but also because if you want to tell a story on stage you should consider the staging in order to get the best production at the end.

As a stage manager, lighting operator, writer and theatre reviewer my perspective is perhaps more analytical than others and I hope you will notice that I have focused on the initial writer and not the designers in this blog, this is not to downplay the role of designers at all.

Thank you to Everwalker for allowing me to express some of my thoughts here.


PJCarrington is a stage manager, lighting programmer, theatre technician and writer living in London. Find his blog here and a profile of his stage work here.

If you would like to hear more from this guest in the future please comment with your opinion.

Blog Hopping – I Do It My Way

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I hope you heard the title in Frank Sinatra’s dulcet tones?

Blog hopping is apparently a thing. I hadn’t heard of it until earlier this week, when the inestimable Andrew Knighton invited me to participate on a blog hop about individual writing processes. Given ShortList.com’s recent release of the daily routines of the famously creative, this seems pretty apropos. The idea is that everyone answers the same four questions, and then invites another three people to do the same.

What am I currently working on?

I’ve got three projects on the go at the moment. The first, and biggest, is Corpus. This is the first book in my Trinity Theory series, although the second one I’ve written. My brain’s helpful like that. Currently I’m editing the third draft with the help of the raptor’s input. Once that’s done (hopefully by the beginning of August), I’ll send it out for beta readers to beat up some more.

The second project is Animus, book three of Trinity Theory, which is still very much in its infancy. As in, less than 5,000 words. It’s nice to take a break from editing occasionally, though, and go back to original creation.

The final project is something very different – a second event for my LARP setting London Under. Yes, this is definitely happening although the date isn’t settled yet. Or the plot. Or much, really. Yeah, I should probably do some more work on this.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Mercy Adler, by Andrea Cradduck

Mercy Adler, by Andrea Cradduck

Argh. This is an important but difficult question. We hates it, precious, not least because I find it very hard to assess my own work.

I think that my work differs from the majority in a couple of respects, none of which are unique but which are an unusual combination. The first is that it draws very heavily on classical cultures, due to my own love of the subject. The second is that I have a tendency to make sure it doesn’t all come out okay. I’ve tried writing happy endings and, well, the nearest I’ve got is that not EVERYBODY dies. I appreciate that George RR has made this de rigeur, however, so I can’t really wave that flag too highly.

I think (hope) that my character relationships are slightly out of the ordinary. There’s no traditional romance – the love stories are between siblings, or from worshipper to deity, or from lieutenant to captain. We make the word ‘love’ do an awful lot of work in the English language. The Greeks split it up into five different types and I prefer to play with some of the more ignored versions.

Oh, and my protagonist is a goblin in uniform. I don’t think that’s particularly common.

Why do I write what I write?

Honestly? Because I can’t help it. The stories fill my head and I can’t think straight until I’ve written them down. I feel the passions that drive my protagonists, sometimes very intensely. I see or experience moments whilst LARPing that are too cool not to replicate, and which have the bonus of personal experience (in a slightly odd way). I can write with a bit of authority on what it feels like to be in the middle of a line battle, or the experience of being kidnapped, or of being hunted through a forest. Hopefully that personal reality makes it onto the page.

Plus, on the more cerebral side, there are ideas – such as what faith does to people and societies – which I find interesting and enjoy exploring. But these take a definite back seat to the story arc.

How does my writing process work?

Generally it starts with a sentence, or a character, or a feeling. Then I do a rough chapter outline in Excel, knowing full-well that it will change radically, and a couple of character outlines for the main protagonists. Then I start writing the first draft. I used to just write the scenes that excited me but I’ve made myself behave and write chronologically now. That helps ensure that all the scenes excite me.

I also use a wiki fairly extensively, both as a reminder of details and as somewhere to save my research. All my draft documents are saved in Google Docs so they’re available from any computer provided I have internet access, and because Google Docs automatically saves at very regular intervals. I’ve had bad experiences in the past.

Once the first draft is done, I go through and make all the changes that have already occurred to me. Then I give it to the raptor to critique, which he’s extremely good at. Then to beta readers and then, finally, apply to agents. Gulp.

A recent addition to the process is an informal writing group. Three of us meet in a cafe once every fortnight or so, and write for a couple of hours. It’s great for a couple of reasons – first, because we usually set a goal for each session which focuses the mind; second, because we’re there to write and so can’t be distracted by other things; and third, because we can occasionally sanity-check a sentence or idea with another writer.

Nominate three other writers to blog hop

Charlotte Bond – a friend who moves in far more exalted literary company than I do! She primarily writes horror, with the occasional dip into scifi/fantasy. She’s published by both Dark Horizon and Screaming Dreams Press. Go check out her stuff.

Rachel Knightley – I met Rachel on the writing course I did last year and she’s kept me on the creative straight-and-narrow ever since. She’s responsible for starting and maintaining that informal fortnightly writing club, as well as introducing me to other fantasy writers and making me think. She teaches writing, runs a sponsored writing day for Macmillan every year, and directs a theatre company. She’s awesome.

Victoria Grefer – This is a slightly cheeky one, as I don’t actually know Ms. Grefer personally. I have been following her blog on writing tips for some time, however, and would strongly encourage you to do the same. I’m nominating her here because I’m really interested in her process and it’d be awesome if she blog hopped this. 🙂

First Generation Sentences

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This is a phrase that the raptor and I coined this morning (although I doubt we’re the first). We reckon it’s a kinder way to say ‘your writing is full of clichés’. The trouble with clichés is that they’re pretty deeply ingrained in our language banks. It’s how they became clichés in the first place, really. So when we’re writing a first draft, swept along on the internal visions and fighting desperately to type fast enough to keep up with events, we tend to take the first phrases that come to hand.

I wrote a new prologue for Corpus yesterday – something to kick-start the action of the book, before leading into a couple of chapters of character build and philosophy. Reading it back this morning, I found that it was filled with people gripping swords tightly, screaming shrilly and lying in pools of blood whilst the wind howled mournfully around them. Mmm, cliché-tastic.

The point about first generation sentences, though, is that clichés are entirely okay. The aim is to get the rough lines of the scene down on paper, and using place-holder phrases to do that is perfectly acceptable. They’re tools, basic building blocks. The important thing is to recognise them when you start editing, and reshape them into original descriptions that give your own voice space.

Clichés are the apes of the literary world

Clichés are the apes of the literary world