Before I start, I want to make it clear that I am by no means done talking about the planning stage, by the way. Just because I leapfrogged from the incubation stage of writing into a full-on common pitfall of novelists doesn't mean I won't come back. And that is in of itself a lesson, of a kind: one doesn't simply progress in a perfectly chronological line of ideas, planning, plotting, writing, editing and publishing, in the same way that a band doesn't put an album together in the track order that you see on the end product. There is much flitting back and forth, reviewing old ideas and writing that need tweaking because you made awesome changes later in the book and you need to add some appropriate foreshadowing or have a certain character make an ominous early appearance.
And in a way, the progression of your story is similarly unfettered by time. For those of you who have read 'Tick', you'll know that there are splashes here and there of flashbacks, delving into key moments of Tom's past.
But the story didn't start there, did it? It starts on that fateful night, right when Tom spots his name printed where a train station should be.
But wait a minute, there is story to be had before that, right? The flashbacks are plenty eventful, and certainly key to the plot. So why didn't I kick off at the very beginning, when Tom was but a wee lad off on work experience?
Ah, well that's not where our story starts, is it? What we are talking about here is the difference between the 'stasis' and the 'trigger': the stasis is the normal life for our protagonist, where things are as they should be. Think Woody in Toy Story, enjoying his time with Andy before the birthday party, or Harry Potter living under the cupboard with the Dursleys.
This part is not the prime interest to our readers, but merely scene setting. Our story really kicks off with the 'trigger': that moment in the story that is beyond the control of the protagonist that kicks off a chain reaction of events, disrupting our protagonist's stasis. Sometimes, that trigger can hint at better things to come (the arrival of Cinderella's fairy Godmother or the mysterious envelope arriving for Harry Potter), leading the protagonist deeper into the plot. Or the trigger can be negative, pushing the protagonist out of his or her comfort zone (the arrival of Buzz in ‘Toy Story’, or the landing of Vincent's first victim onto Max's taxi in ‘Collateral’).
The trigger is the lead-in to the main bulk of the story, and is our first and most important indicator of what our protagonist is up against. Now, if it's a pleasant trigger (like finding a treasure map), this usually leads on a quest to attain more of that pleasing breaking of the stasis...for better or for worse. Or if it's an unpleasant trigger, the protagonist sets off to restore to the stasis of before (Woody seeks to oust Buzz, Frodo heads out of the comfort of Bag End and the Shire).
Already, you may have figured out this whole stasis-trigger dynamic isn't as cut-and-dry as "normality, thing happens, story ensues". Let's look at ‘Jumanji’ as an example. There could be feasible arguments made for two possible triggers: when Alan and Sarah first roll the dice, or when Judy and Peter first roll the dice. You could argue that this is ultimately Alan Parrish's story, therefore his first play of Jumanji is the trigger of the overarching story. On the other hand, there is such a prolonged period of time between their play and when Judy and Peter first play Jumanji that you could argue that a new stasis has been set, and this is the trigger that really sets our heroes off on that quest. But on the other other hand, the town was clearly in better shape before Peter disappeared, and the eventual return to that time and world indicates that the dystopian-esque town was a disruption of the original stasis...
And so on. not quite so straightforward, huh? But that’s fine! ‘Jumanji’ as a story works, and works very well because it twists the rules to the needs of the story it wants to tell, and does so effectively and economically. Even if you identify a clear stasis and trigger, it doesn't necessarily point to the story's structure. Some stories have a prolonged stasis before the trigger (it’s a few chapters in before Harry gets his first letter from Hogwarts), others start right on the trigger (Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ begins with Gregor Samsa awaking to find himself transformed into a “monstrous vermin” – which incidentally provided inspiration for one of the key moments of ‘Tick’). Some stories begin with the trigger already having happened, with the quest of the protagonist hinting at some event in the past that brought about the events of now (in ‘Kill Bill’, the bride is already on her revenge spree and the true reason is revealed later on in hints and flashbacks).
And your trigger doesn’t need to be a huge and clearly signposted snapping point either. It could be prolonged (Harry Potter is dragged halfway across the country before the contents of the letter are finally revealed to him), and it could be a huge event (a zombie apocalypse) or something so tiny it is seen as insignificant until it is looked back on in retrospect (in ‘the Amulet of Samarkand’ by Jonathan Stroud, Nathaniel steals a rare trinket from a magician who wronged him by way of revenge, but as the story progresses it is revealed that the trinket is far more powerful and dangerous than he thought). In all of these cases, the choices made are all justifiable in terms of the author’s wish to intrigue, shock or disorientate their reader, how much time they feel they need to set up the world before they begin the story in earnest, and their own style as well.
Regardless, whatever happens, the stasis is your ‘straight line’ and your trigger is your first ‘blip’. So it’s all about identifying the story you are wanting to tell and finding where your protagonist’s trigger is, and how much set up (if any) is needed before the trigger is hit.
Because, of course, there may be a larger over-arching story at play in the background (think of the war against man and machine in ‘The Matrix’), but while this informs our story and gives the plot a body and context, this isn’t the story. Again, we come back the first point of identifying what is the story, and what is setting the scene. It can be tricky to identify which is which, but in all but the most exceptional of cases we need that character (or characters) to identify with, who will be our eyes and ears in this world. Their personal trigger may be smaller than the events around them (the death of Luke’s family on the farm in ‘Star Wars’), but it resounds with us so much more because it is personal, and it opens the gate for the protagonist (and us) into the bigger picture.
Now look, I love purple as a colour. It reminds me of of Cadbury's chocolate, Nintendo Gamecube and as a symbolic compromise between the two titans that are red and blue. But if there is one purple thing I simply cannot abide, it is purple prose.
What is purple prose? Well, I could expound upon the intricacies of the particulars through a contextualised example, but there is the impending prospect that you, the receiving party, will be lost in the entangled forest of literature.
Now, if you you somehow managed to get through that last sentence and you're now thinking to yourself; "well, that was needlessly wordy", then congratulations, you know what purple prose is, even if you didn't know how to describe it before. And you may have gathered that purple prose is no good thing, even if you can't quite pin down what it is.
Purple prose in creative writing is what Mariah Carey does when she decides to sing entire scales in the middle of a tune, or when a dish is swamped with flavourings to the point that it ruins what would be a perfectly good meal. Purple prose is the use of writing so ornate and ostentatious that, rather than enhancing the narrative, detracts from it and draws attention to itself instead.
Now, is this saying that you should aim to never put any kind of decorative language into your work? Absolutely not: like the two examples above, everyone still admires a good singing voice or a careful sprinkling of herbs and spices, just as your fiction will benefit from the occasional flourish. But that's just the thing: the line between clever and colourful writing and flowery melodrama is fine, and not everybody agrees which is which. So let's look at three ways of saying the same thing with varying degrees of purple-ness:
SIMPLE: He stood up.
INTERESTING: He launched from the chair as though electocuted.
PURPLE: He propelled himself out of the old rocking chair so fast it groaned across the wooden floorboards, and a lightheadedness descended over him from rising so quickly.
"Simple" is your non-branded, straight-shooter "here's what's happening" narrative. This is great: it bascially says "Here is a guy standing up. That's all. Lets move on with the story." Assuming this a mundane action in the grand scheme of your story, this is ideal: just throw your reader a quick action thumbnail and move on.
Now, the "Interesting" one. This is also great, depending on the context. Because here, we're seeing some energy inserted into the scene, some semblance of 'how' things are done, not just 'what'. Now, if it matters that your character (let's call him Kenneth) sat up so quickly that he seemed as though he was electrocuted, then go for it. Perhaps Kenneth has spotted his trusted confidant on TV betraying him before his eyes, or perhaps someone has told Kenneth that someone had once died while sitting in that chair. As long as there is a justifiable reason to give to readers, to say to them "Hey, how this is done is worth knowing," then you're good to go. If there's nothing special about Kenneth's reason for standing up, then stick with the "Simple" route.
"Purple" is far too frivolous for it's own good. It nearly cancels itself out with all of the information it dumps onto the poor reader. Now, if you're thinking to yourself "Hold on, PJ! I quite liked that sentence!", well, you have to put it all in context. You have to look at what you write - really look at it - and think "Is this information necessary?" In what context would the reader need to know the chair Kenneth 'propelled' himself from was a rocking chair? Or that is it old? Why do we need to know that floorboards are wooden?
And it doesn't just apply to descriptions, but actions, too. So this chair screeches across the floor, does it? And poor Kenneth ends up feeling lightheaded from standing up too fast, eh? So what? If it doesn't matter to the story, then cut it. If you have reasons, then by all means go for it: perhaps you are foreshadowing Kenneth's chronic iron-deficiency that comes into play later in the story. In which case, well played. Otherwise, you have this minor action bloated into this mini-action scene that is ultimately meaningless. A pocket-size Michael Bay movie. With rocking chairs and headaches.
And that's the main problem: when you stuff so much of your novel with purple prose of frivolous over-description or actions that go nowhere, then nothing is special. The scenes and moments that truly matter will be drowned out in all of the white noise going on around it. Either that, or you will have to outdo yourself to the point that you will be reaching for the darkest depths of a thesaurus to describe that sweeping sunrise or that scrappy fight between the two anti-heroes, which will elevate it to something approaching parody or pantomime. Toning down the points that don't matter makes the high points easier to stand out.
And isn't that what we're here for, after all? To tell a story? Nobody picks up a book to watch the author perform vocabulary gymnastics, and whenever we as authors do indulge in purple prose the reader finds herself stumbling, her immersion in the world we've created faltering because she has to navigate through the purple prose.
So if Kenneth is going to get out of his chair, tell her that.
Last time, we talked about the act of overcoming apathy and self-doubt and simply writing.
"Well, that's all well and good, PJ," I imagine some of you said, "But what if I have nothing to write about."
Fair point. You need to have some idea of what you are writing before you write. Although I will argue that even if you have no set idea you should just write anyway: some of the greatest moments in your writing can be thrashed out here, and even if they aren't it all still counts towards building those writing muscles.
But I won't beat around the bush: ideas are essential to the fictional writing process. It's the difference between a list of ingredients and a cooked meal, or a bunch of people with musical instruments and an orchestra with sheet music and a conductor. Ideas are by definition not a tangible thing, but you know when an idea has been injected into something. It ties it all together and brings it to life.
Which is why anyone who says they have no ideas for a book are not just kidding themselves, they are flat out lying. The very definition of an idea is "any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity." Or, in layman's terms, being mentally aware enough to understand things in context. To see these very words on the screen before you and process them from squiggly lines to something that has meaning. Basically, ideas are life. You cannot have one without the other.
Ah, but good ideas! That is what we are talking about, right? Well, yes and no. What is a good idea anyway? How is it different from a bad idea? I truly think that there's no such thing as a good or bad idea; all ideas have potential, but they need to be processed, bulked out with logic and - yep - other ideas.
It is this process that sorts out the writers from the wannabes, I believe. True, you are going to get the occasional gifted individual who can get perfectly formed inspiration land on their lap as regularly as a toilet break, but these people are wonderful freaks of nature: once-in-a-generation types. But for the rest of us mere mortals, we must craft our ideas, which come out less like beautiful packages and something more akin to an unexpected fart. Right here is the first and most important bridge you must cross if you should ever wish to become a writer: to take your ideas and process them into something that other people will want to spend time (and maybe money) hearing.
It's not easy. Ideas are so sporadic in nature that you could almost call them random, except they aren't quite so unpredictable: there are things we can do to aid the process. For example, one of my favorite methods is something I like to call 'idea synergy', which is combining two sometimes very different and (on their own) bland ideas into something unique and exciting.
For example, before my novel Tick existed I knew that I wanted to write a fiction book about cats someday. In fact, the original concept of 'Tick' focused on the secret life and times of a cat who's owner was called Simon, and it was going to answer the questions that many of us cat-owners and cat-lovers have about the odd behavior of our feline friends. The working title was 'What Do You Get Up To?'
Now, in concept this is fine. But I was really struggling to lay down the groundwork for a real story here. Why would the reader really care about the fictional answers of a cat's secret life when his owner is not looking? It just sounds like Toy Story but with extra fur, doesn't it? Basically the sound premise lacked a heart, something to give the project shape and make readers care about it enough to pick up and read.
And then, one night - and this is going to sound incredibly cheesy and cliche - I had a dream. My name on signs, with arrows beckoning me to follow. The dream cut out and I woke up just as I entered the room with my name on. Most dreams fizzle away after a few hours of real life but this one really stuck me - partly because I really wanted to know how it ended.
But again, this whole dream was a thumbnail sketch: a neat little idea, but I could hardly sustain it over a novel, right? But then I returned to my other idea of the cat story, and instantly the two ideas melded in my mind: what if someone followed the same kind of signs into the room, and that resulted in him or her becoming a cat?
Mixing these two ideas was like a chemical reaction. They seemingly have very little to do with each other, but the second you imagine how these two disparate ideas might link together, you reach a tipping point and you mind begins filling in blanks for you - if not automatically then at least with great ease.
So this is one method among many on how to process your ideas. There are countless other ways out there I'm sure, but if there is one overarching tip I could give that applies to every style, it is to not overthink things. You do not want to overripen your ideas. An idea that is too meticulously planned out can be useful, but it can also be stubborn and unwieldy when you get the writing process, and you will feel it when your characters and plot seem to be stifled, stumbling from one incident to the next, seemingly on rails. There is a lot to be said for allowing breathing space for anything organic that may come out of the writing as you are doing it.
Apart from that, you really don't want to be a perfectionist about these things. If you spend all your days agonizing over whether your idea is good enough for a book, you will never get anything done. Far better to simply sweep aside your doubts, hold your nose and dive in. Even if it does turn out to be a disaster, it is not a waste: you can chalk it up to being a useful experience.
"I've always wanted to write a book, I just (never have the time/don't know what to write about)". Delete as applicable.
Nope. No, no, no. If you came here looking for a soft pep talk to drum up some enthusiasm and inspiration, then I'm really sorry, but you've come to the wrong place. Worse still, you'll find very little sympathy from me. If you find use in such things, then by all means make your way over to Google Images and look for motivational quotes pasted over a picture of a waterfall.
Because for me, there are no excuses. Think about it: like most of the first world, you probably hate your job, right? If not, then lucky you, but perhaps you are not too fond of the working hours or the early rise it makes you do five or six days in a row.
That's one hell of an inhibiting factor if you think about it. Hundreds of days every year when you simply must be at work at a certain time: terrible if you aren't a morning person. And how many of us make excuses? How many of us simply shrug and say "I want to go to work today, but I just can't bring myself to get up at 6am tomorrow"? It is, of course, out of the question. You simply have to go to work, don't you? Your pay packet and, by extension, livelihood depend on it. In other words, we can overcome our natural apathy and dilly-dallying if and when something truly important relies on it.
So how do you bring that do-or-die attitude to writing? The writing is not yet paying the bills, so how do you approach it as if it does? I don't profess to have any single fail safe method - I don't think anybody does - but I think that's the point, which brings me back neatly to my first point: you can't just wait for inspiration to strike. You can't wait for the muse to descend, for the perfect story to waft over you in a dream one night. Writing is hard, painful graft. Writing is sweat, tears, ground teeth, crumpled notes, eraser residue and fear.
Oh sure, writing is piles of fun as well. Of course there are days where you can pound along through your latest project , feeling like you are weaving gold with your fingers. Even your 9 to 5 has days like that, I'd wager. But make no mistake, those days are cruelly few and far between. Most of the time, there are days where your mind and the paper in front of you will have a standoff over who can stay blank the longest.
But you should never avoid those days, any more than you would avoid a day of paid work because you dread what the day may bring. These days where you feel as wrung out as a tube of toothpaste squeezed dry are as important, if not more so, than the days you weave gold. These are the days you truly build those writing muscles and hone your craft, even if you end up ultimately discarding what you did that day.
Writing is hard, hard work, and there is no magic formula to help you work around that. The end result can be deeply satisfying: there are few feelings as wonderful as finishing a book, and suddenly all your darkest days of doubt and despair turn into bright beacons reflecting your resolve and willpower back at you. It is worth it. But that doesn't make it easy.
Now get to work and write.
Y'know, this is going to sound utterly fake when I say this, but it's true: people often ask me for tips on writing. I've always found this as odd as it sounds: first, because writing tips are a dime-a-dozen these days. I mean, even before the information orgy that is the internet swept us up, the 'how to write fiction' section in even small bookstores warranted its own shelf at the very least. These days while surfing the web its as easy to pick up these 'nuggets of information' as it is ensare oneself in abuse on YouTube.
Second, as quietly happy as I am with my writing craft thus far, I just don't see myself as a professional writer yet. Oh sure, I'm confident that I could write circles around some of the 'properly published' authors out there, in the same way many YouTube channels are streets ahead of some television material. But there's no doubting that by traditional means, I'm not quite there yet.
So I found it odd that people would ask me for pointers. Odd, but not unjustified, though. Down the years, I've picked up a mass of experience in writing fiction first hand - primarily how not to write it, but as they say you learn more from your mistakes than your successes.
Here, then, is where I wil collect my thoughts, musings and advice on writing, such as it is. I may pick apart some of my own work as examples and try to explain why I write things as I do, so it might also have a behind-the-scenes quality to it as well.
Every Sunday, I will post a new 'On Writing Blog', and depending on how it goes I might increase that frequency. I hope you enjoy it and please let me know your thoughts or comments!
Off the Shelf
Here I share my ideas, musings and advice on the writing process. I also analyse some of my own writing for examples to show how I work.
Here I will show off of some of my favorite good and great stories, gushing lovingly over why I adore them and why you should too. I will also show you the other side of the spectrum: bad examples of stories and what we can learn from them.