Category Archives: story

Writer vs. Storyteller

photo-on-18-10-2016-at-11-02-amI’m stuck in the middle of my WIP (that’s why I’m writing this post instead of writing-writing) because the Writer and Storyteller in my head are fighting. I’m just under 50K words into what I think is a complex, layered, deeply nuanced character study, which the Writer is totally in love with. But now the Storyteller is trying to crash the party with questions like: Is the storyline strong enough to pull the reader along?

Writer: I don’t care what the reader thinks. I just care about my character.
Storyteller: I’m sorry, did you just say you don’t care about the reader?
Writer: I didn’t mean it. Of course I care about the reader. I’ve worked so hard on this characterisation — won’t it be enough to pull them along?
Storyteller: I don’t think so.
Writer: Then how about elegant sentences, and beautiful punctuation?
Storyteller: How about a plot twist in act three?
Writer: That would make it contrived.
Storyteller: That would make it a story.
Writer: It would cheapen the whole thing.
Storyteller: No it wouldn’t.
Writer: Yes, it would.
Storyteller: No.
Writer: Yes.
Storyteller: What about Peter Temple?
Writer: What about Peter Temple?
Storyteller: You’re always going on about how much you like him, and he does both.
Writer: I like — believe in, care about, fall in love with — his characters (and his stylish prose). I couldn’t care less about his plots. In fact I think they interfere with the characterisation.
Storyteller: That’s ridiculous.
Writer: And I still don’t get why there were chocolate wrappers in the bin at the end of The Broken Shore.
Storyteller: *Sigh* How many times do I have to tell you — I think it’s an implication of how Cashin will eventually, sometime in a future book, solve the mystery of what happened to the missing boys who made the ceramic pots back in 1988.
Writer: You have no idea either.
Storyteller: Margaret Atwood is good at both too.
Writer: I love Margaret Atwood.
Storyteller: David Mitchell.
Writer: I didn’t love Cloud Atlas.
Storyteller: I did.
Writer: You would. How about The Bell Jar?
Storyteller: Let’s not have that argument again. So what are we going to do?
Writer: About what?
Storyteller: Our story, for fucks sake!
Writer: Sorry, I was just thinking about the way the green light from the motel’s ‘Vacancy’ sign shimmers in a rain river along the ground to Dean Cola’s feet, just before Sidney leaves town with him.
Storyteller: Oh my God, you’ve just given away the ending!
Writer: That bit won’t be there if you get your way with the plot twist.
Storyteller: So you do want to give it a try?
Writer: I didn’t say that.
Storyteller: We’ll foreshadow it right from the start.
Writer: And if I don’t like it, I could take it out?
Storyteller: Of course.
Writer: I could do it with TrackChanges turned on — like a safety net, just in case.
Storyteller: You know we stopped using TrackChanges long ago. And you’re too stubborn to try Scrivener.
Writer: If it’s wrong, changing it back would be so much work, when I could be polishing prose instead.
Storyteller: You’ve done it before. Remember how many times you rewrote Please Don’t Leave Me Here?
Writer: *Curls up in corner and starts to cry*
Storyteller: You’ve learnt a lot since then.
Writer: No, I haven’t.
Storyteller: You — I mean I know what I’m doing now.
Writer: I’m not so sure.
Storyteller: Stop being a baby! It’ll be fine.
Writer: It might not be.
Storyteller: Then rewrite it again. And again, until it is fine.
Writer: But …
Storyteller: You know I’m right. Trust me.
Writer:
Storyteller: Trust me.
Writer: OK.

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Losing the plot

Since my last post about plotting for pantsers, I’ve been travelling slowly and steadily along my well-planned and carefully built road (in case you didn’t already know, I love metaphors). I’ve been sticking to the map and taking no short cuts.

I’ve been polishing my writing as I go, not moving on until it was as perfect as I could get it. Maybe I’ll only need to write one more draft, I thought. This is the way to write a novel — why didn’t I do the other two like this?

And then I reached the first big turnoff, around 20K words in. Here, my characters started going wild — heading off in all sorts of unexpected sub-directions, doing stuff I hadn’t planned, picking up other characters along the way. I can’t write fast enough to keep up with them.

The writing’s rough, a lot of it in point-form; there are big gaps, blue place-holder text, and highlighting with notes in square brackets reminding me to ‘fix this later’. I’m working all over the shop now — on the middle at the same time as the ending, and then adding bits to the start, and here, there and everywhere — the ideas are coming at me from all directions. My manuscript looks like a complete dog’s breakfast. It’s going to need many more drafts.

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E.L. Doctorow (also a fan of metaphors and similes) said:  ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way’.

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This is a dangerous place to be. You don’t want to break down out here, where you could lose control of your story and get hopelessly lost. I’m pretty sure it will be OK, though, because I still have my trusty map. I know which turnoffs to make and by when, and I know the final destination — none of these things change much, no matter what my characters do. [Doctorow also said: Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia. Ahem …] However, what happens in between, I don’t really know. Sure, the process would be faster and less painstaking if I planned these in-between bits better. I would waste less time and make fewer mistakes exploring dead ends and characters that don’t make the final draft. But for me, the thrill is in the exploration of the unknown, the joy in the discovery of the unexpected, the magic in the unearthing of things I never thought I could imagine. This is the reason why I write.

The P word

I confess to being a pantser who really wants to be a plotter. There are terrific books around about plotting — mostly written by screen writers — including Screenplay by Syd Field, Story by Robert McKee and Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. I really want to read them, and one day I will get around to it.

In the meantime, I follow a very simple, foolproof 🙂 method for planning my stories. [Just in case you’re somewhere out there reading this, Graeme Simsion, look away now!] It’s pretty much the same thing they’re teaching my daughter in grade Prep-2: you’ve got to have a beginning, a middle and an ending. Act one, act two and act three. Syd Field says: set-up, confrontation and resolution.

Close to the start of your beginning (set-up) you need to have an inciting incident — the event that kicks off the whole story (Cinderella’s invitation to the ball; the three little pigs refuse to give in to the wolf’s demands; a giant shark kills a swimmer on Amity beach). Towards the end of your beginning you need to have a plot point — another incident, which changes the direction of the story and propels it into the middle (confrontation).

Towards the end of your middle (confrontation), you need to have another plot point, which again changes the story direction just before your ending (resolution).

Your ending (resolution) should contain a climax — the highest point of tension, the big moment your story’s been building up to the whole time (Cinderella tries on the glass slipper; the third little pig confronts the wolf; water-phobic Sheriff Brody faces the giant killer shark). The climax should be related to the inciting incident.

Too easy? I wish.

plotting notes

I find Syd Field’s Paradigm Worksheet helpful for planning my beginning, middle and ending.

Once I have my story foundation in place, I like to use Nigel Watts’s eight point story arc as a tool for building up the structure.

Watts’s eight points are:
1. Stasis
2. Trigger
3. The quest
4. Surprise
5. Critical choice
6. Climax
7. Reversal
8. Resolution

You could read Watts’s book, or take a look at this Daily Writing Tips post, which explains the basics of the eight point story structure.

The Hero’s Journey is another narrative outline worth googling or reading about.

Once I’m pretty sure the story-house I’ve built is not going to fall over (and even if it does, I can always make repairs, additions or renovations), I start writing. From here, I let my characters take the car (mixing metaphors, I know!) and drive the story where it wants to go, and I adjust the plot accordingly. For me, character is as important as — if not more important than — plot.

Some wise words from Graeme Simsion, plot guru: Plotting vs Pantsing — Why I’m a Plotter | Graeme Simsion

And finally, my favourite storytelling rules:
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Remember this forever

My son Reece turned 14 today. Here’s a short story I wrote for him.

Remember this forever, I tell myself as I take a photograph in my mind, because you’d be embarrassed if I whipped out my phone. You’re standing just inside the high school gate — dipping your toe in, not ready to dive all the way yet. I can’t believe you’re taller than me. Your arms are crossed — the same as mine — fingers splayed, fidgeting with the sleeve of your Northcote High School shirt. Your translucent blue-green eyes flicker around, uncertain. You ask me to wait a bit. I should leave, let you go, get on with it — no other parents are hanging around — but I can’t, not until you tell me it’s OK. A friend you know from primary school approaches and your shoulders relax a little. You give me a quick, self-conscious hug; it’s OK now. I cry behind my sunglasses all the way home on the tram.

Remember this forever, I told myself as I left you playing with marbles on your first day of primary school. Your teacher was gentle; the skin around her eyes crinkled when she smiled and I believed her promise that it would be OK. I cried as I waddled home, a third baby kicking in my belly.

Remember this forever, I told myself on your first day of kindergarten. You squeezed my hand tightly and tried to hide behind my legs. Your little sister was asleep in the baby sling strapped to my chest. Her fluffy orange sweater irritated my nose. We left you kicking a ball around the big elm tree. I sat in the car for a long time, crying, before I drove home.

When I saw you for the first time — a skinny thing, covered in blood — you looked more like a rabbit in a butcher’s shop than a baby. Then the doctors whisked you away. Monitors, tubes, temperature instability, infections, blood tests, antibiotics; drips so hard to insert into tiny veins. The hands on the clock in the neo-natal intensive care unit didn’t quite reach the numbers, so it was hard to tell what the time really was. The doctors said I could touch you through the portholes of your plastic crib, but you were too fragile to hold in my arms. I imagined you falling to pieces like a broken doll. They’d put a blue-and-white beanie on your head to keep you warm. I didn’t cry when they told me to prepare for the worst, for letting go. I was looking at you and thinking that if they just let me hold you, I would never let you go.

Remember this forever, remember this forever, remember this forever.

(Published in n-Scribe, Darebin Arts journal)

Reece_isolette Reece_school

 

Twas the night before publication

I started writing books when I was about five years old. Now — after, I’m not going to say how many years — I’ve finally got one published. Publication was a dream I never thought would come true …

That’s the opening of my book launch speech. My dream has come true; I got what I wished for. So how does it really feel? Well, I have this lump at the back of my throat, I feel like I’m constantly about to vomit; and I thought I was getting a cold, but it’s actually some kind of stress-related allergy.

Publication of your book is a bit like your child leaving home. There’s nothing you can do except hope they’ll be OK out there alone in the world.

Go, Little Book (by Geoffrey Chaucer)

Go, litel book, go litel myn tregedie,
Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou n’envye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

Writing ‘Please Don’t Leave Me Here’

PDLMH COVERI wrote most of Please Don’t Leave Me Here between the hours of 5 a.m and 7 a.m. My children were small, I was studying and running a small business from home, so the early mornings were pretty much the only times I had for writing.

It’s hard to pinpoint where the story idea came from. I had this vivid, cinematic image in my head of a serpent tattoo breathing on somebody’s back — I think that was the first thing I wrote, even though I didn’t know who it belonged to at the time. Around the same time, for some reason, I was flicking through my old journals. I came across an entry from the day Kurt Cobain was found dead. I was surprised by how different my memory of that time was compared to what I had written on the actual day in my journal. It made me think about the memories we hold and how they become skewed over time.

The memory of Kurt became an important part of the story. I was also inspired by music, art, books, objects, smells, dreams, snippets of conversations overheard on the tram …

Please Don’t Leave Me Here started as a short story that explored whether or not people ever really change — with age, circumstances, relationships. What remains constant and what shifts? It became a very long two-part short story (part one set in the present and part two set in the past). Still it kept growing, like rice pudding — it always wanted to be a novel.

Ernest Hemingway said: ‘Writing is rewriting’. It’s true — once I had a cohesive draft I rewrote it and rewrote it and rewrote it. And then rewrote it again. And again …

I had a lot of help while writing Please Don’t Leave Me Here. I was lucky enough to have some very clever people around me (a couple of published authors, my writers group, RMIT Professional Writing and Editing lecturers and classmates) who generously gave honest feedback and advice, which was sometimes tough to hear. A lot of tears went into writing this book! Many times I threw up my hands and said I was giving up. But I never could.

Although some parts of the story felt like being in somebody’s nightmare, other parts felt like ‘going home’ to a childhood place. I drew the scenes set in Brigitte’s grandparents’ house from memories of my own grandparents. I loved all my characters (even dreadful Eric Tucker). I also loved the editing process, and felt sad the day the proofs were finished because it meant finally letting go of the story.

Novel research trip

Day 1: On The Road

First location. Really!

Ryan's Hotel, Traralgon

Ryan’s Hotel, Traralgon

I’m thinking more exotic locations for my third novel. New York? Paris? Maybe Detective Aidan could go visit his relatives in Italy …

Bairnsdale Court House

Second location: Bairnsdale Court House

Raymond Island ferry

Raymond Island ferry

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I was half-expecting to find Detective Aidan sitting on the porch with a beer in his hand. No — just a koala.

 

Day 2: The Old Middle-aged Man Woman And The Sea Lakes

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Should have bought my swimmers! Almost forgot: It’s not a holiday.

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Lakes Entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day 3: The Shining?

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Whenever you hear me typing …

 Day 4: The Road

Finally found a location round the back of the island for the shooting scene.

Gravelly Point Road. Very gravelly.

Gravelly Point Road. Very gravelly.

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Tea Tree Lane beach

 

 

 

 

 

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The sea was angry that day, my friends.

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Look who’s here. Hooray! Another writer. Amy Jasper.

Day 4: Please Don’t Leave Me Here (had to get that one in)

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Bye-bye, my annoying little friend (lay off the potato chips for a while).

 

 

 

 

 

 

And farewell to my imaginary story-friends who will forever live in this place.

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