How Long Can You Write For? And When Should You Stop?

How much writing can you get done in a day before your brain starts to melt? I’ve picked up a few tips over the years that might help…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. We writers talk a lot about writing habits, writing every day or writing regularly. But let’s have a think about when to stop writing. Now, to be clear.

I don’t mean stopping altogether and jacking it in. I’m talking about how do you know when you’re done for the day? First drafts I could write all day and collapse in a heap. But I’ve discovered that my daily limit is about 2 hours. After that my poor little brain turns to soft fudge and it starts to leak out of my ears.

Either that or I’ve got an ear infection. Anyway, because my brain goes soft, the writing suffers. It’s just not as good as those first 2 hours. For edits, I find that it’s even more important to set myself limitations. Now I was really in the zone this morning, knocked out a little over a thousand words, which might not sound like much, but I’m editing and this was a whole new chunk that I was grafting on to the beginning of a chapter and it was my allotted task for that morning’s writing session.

I’ve left myself a note, you know, fix this by doing X, Y and Z… And I did it.

I was happy with it and I was so buoyed up that I just wanted to keep writing. But I stopped. Well, the truth is, I didn’t have much of a plan beyond my alotted task. I could have carried on, but I would have been blundering about with no idea what to do. And as I said, if this was a first draft I might have sat down and made some notes or maybe carried on writing blind. And that’s okay with the first draft, but when editing I like to stick to that plan. I’ve been through the book, I’ve made tons of notes, done my edit triage, figured out what needs fixing and I’m tackling those tasks one at a time. Have a look at some of my earlier videos on how I prepare for an edit in more detail. So for the next few days I’m focused on one particular character.

After that I’ll switch to the next problem on the list because when editing, the temptation is to try and fix everything at once and then you end up making a right old mess, and there’s a chance you can do more harm than good. So when editing, make a plan and stick to it. One fix at a time. The other thing I do at the end of a edit session is make a few notes for tomorrow’s session. So here… Just 50 words.

I’ve told myself I need to change the POV in the next chapter, and I’ve reminded myself of the changes I’ve made and what consequences they will have. Better to do that when it’s fresh rather than tomorrow morning where I might sit at my desk — and it’s 7:30 in the morning, don’t forget — and wonder just what the blimmin’ heck I’m supposed to do. On weeks like this, it’s also important to set limitations because I’m working on two projects simultaneously. Not ideal. But it happens.

One is the next Woodville books edit. The other is the second draft of a screenplay. They are sufficiently different for me to separate them in my mind, but also having alotted time and tasks really helps, as does having a bit of time between them. I’m lucky enough to work from home. So it’s those between times that I get bits of housework done, which also gets me off my bottom.

Very important for a writer. So that’s just what works for me. Have you discovered your writing session limits yet? Pop something in the comments below. Of course, you might be like Chet Cunningham.

I was reading about this legend the other day, from the publication of his first book in 1968 to his passing in 2017 at the age of 88, Chester Cunningham had something like 350 books published. Westerns, adventure novels, military thrillers. He also cowrote the “Penetrator” books under the pseudonym Lionel Derrick. This is what sent me down this rabbit hole. I saw the covers on the Pulp Librarian Twitter feed, and they are extraordinary. Chet comes from that pulp tradition where a writer was expected to knock out a thrilling adventure weeks, if not days.

I think at one point he was doing one Western per month. Why the hell not? And here’s the thing. Chet never stopped. Here’s a quote from the FAQs on his website when asked about Writer’s Block, he says, “I came from a newspaper background. When the editor assigns you a story, you write it now. No ifs, buts, or I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today. I usually write from eight to 10 hours a day when I’m a roll on a book. Researching is another thing.”

And then he was asked about Writer’s Block. Do you ever get Writer’s block? He said, “I never use the term. I don’t believe it exists. Ever heard of a Carpenter not going to work because he has Carpenters Block?

If a writer can’t write it’s because he doesn’t really want to, he isn’t ready to get it on paper. Or he’s just plain lazy. There’s no such thing as writer’s block only writer-dumb-dumb-dumb.” Well, Chet, we may disagree on that, but I salute you. Me.

I’m going to have a cup of tea. Until the next time, folks. Happy writing.

How Many Characters is Too Many?

How many point-of-view characters is too many for your story? I was watching the Indiana Jones movies and it got me thinking… and helped me with the next draft of my novel.

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. I’ve been rewatching these beauties. Three brilliant films and a fourth one… Actually, to be fair, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t as bad as you might remember. Certainly when I was rewatching it today, I really enjoyed the first half and began to wonder if I’d been too harsh on it when it came out. Then in the second half it all started to unravel and the ending really was just not satisfying. And of course, with my writer hat on — not a Fedora — I started to wonder why. Now, first of all, let me make it clear: this is not going to be a hatchet job on screenwriter David Koepp. A man I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the Bestseller Experiment Podcast. I’ll put a link to that episode in the description below (here’s the link). He is a genuinely delightful chap whose skill as a storyteller is beyond dispute.

Also, film production can be a crazy time, especially with a big franchise movie with colossal expectations. I don’t envy anyone having to work under those kind of time constraints and those levels of expectations and scrutiny. And we simply cannot know what was asked of a writer while in production. Screenwriters are not the authors of a the movie. There are only one voice among many trying to tell a story, and with so many cooks it’s no wonder that sometimes the soup ends up with the sheep’s eyeballs in it. Also, also… I’m rereading the first draft of my next novel and guess what? I’m making exactly the same mistake. Only I have the luxury of time to recognise it and fix it. So what’s the problem with this and many other stories? Before we go on: just a warning that there will be spoilers not only for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but all the Indiana Jones movies so far. And if you’re watching this in the future and wondering why I’m not talking about the fifth movie, that’s because it’s still in production.

So what exactly is the problem of Crystal Skull? People have pointed the finger at the Nuking the Fridge sequence, the monkeys in the Amazon, indeed that whole chase sequence has a CG gloss to it that when contrasted with truck chase in the first film lacks any sense of verisimilitude or stakes. But the Indy sequels have always had visual effects and SFX that look iffy. I mean, think of the airship/biplane sequence in The Last Crusade, or the action sequences that are a bit silly like the flying inflatable life raft in Temple of Doom. And I don’t have a problem with inter-dimensional aliens.

They’re no more outlandish than the other maguffins in the series, so I don’t think it’s anything to do with those things.

There came a moment at the end of the film when there’s all sort of stuff whizzing around and things are collapsing and John Williams is bringing everything to a resounding crescendo.

And I know I should be thrilled. But… I’m bored. And our heroes are standing there watching things whizz around them and not really doing very much. And then they run. We have a succession of resolution story beats that are meant to have some kind of emotional resonance. So Oxley coming to his sense, Mutt accepting Indy as his father, Mac’s death, Spalko getting the knowledge she craves and paying the price for it.

And Marion and Indy tying the knot. So, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 threads there. That’s a lot even for a two hour movie. The previous three films all had fairly simple story arcs. In Raiders, Indy had to learn to understand the power of the Ark. At the beginning, he’s dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. By the end he’s screaming at Marion to keep her eyes shut, and that saves both their lives. By the way, ignore all that Big Bang Theory nonsense about Indy not having any influence on the outcome of the story.

It completely misses the point. The film isn’t about finding the Ark, it’s about a grave robber rediscovering his faith.

So, in Temple of Doom, Indy has to learn that the artefacts he obtains have a greater value than being stuck in a Museum. “Fortune and glory kid.” And in the Last Crusade, it’s a story of father/son reconciliation. Simple. In Crystal Skull… You get the father/son thing again. Indy and Marion again. Oxley, the old mentor. Mac, the friend who turns traitor, something about cherishing knowledge at the end…

There’s so much being thrown at the viewer, that they don’t know what to latch on to and so disengaged with the story. There are so many threads to wrap up, but none of them are done satisfactorily. So the problem with Crystal Skull is too many characters… Okay, that’s reductive. They’re have been many stories that have oodles of characters and do just fine. Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s why it needed a 15 endings to wrap everything up as satisfactory– satifact– satisfactorally… I can’t even say it! People make jokes about it, but if any of those endings had been missing, the very same armchair critics would be complaining about that. Also, that epic trilogy had plenty of room for those characters to develop. Imagine cramming all of that into 2 hours. As an aside, I’ve been reading Joe Abercormbie’s new trilogy. And I’m halfway through and this series has about six point of view characters, but already I can tell that Joe is giving himself, and them, the room he needs to tell their stories properly. The more point of view characters you have, the bigger your story is going to be.

But you know, with some stories you just need to take one character on a journey of change. There’s no shame in keeping it simple. Done well, it can be the best thing ever. And as I said, I’ve made the same mistake on the first draft of my next Woodville book. I’ve been so seduced by the excitement of bringing in new characters that I’ve been ignoring my regulars.

It’s a really easy trap to fall into. A new character brings energy to a story. It’s great story fuel, and you can keep the reader and viewer engaged. But if that character isn’t given the room to grow in the story, then it becomes noise and fury amounting to not very much, actually. So, one of my next jobs on the next draft is to focus in on the most compelling threads. Two or three at most and make sure they have the most satisfying arcs and resolutions. A doddle. What could possibly go wrong? Stay tuned for more updates as I plunge into this edit. During the meanwhilst, happy writing!

Words To Cut To Make Your Prose More Punchy

Want to make your prose more punchy? Try cutting a few of those filler and filter words. Note: these aren’t hard and fast rules. Of course you can use adjectives and adverbs whenever you like. But if you’re editing, it’s not a bad idea to trim as many as possible.

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. Want to make your prose a little more punchy? When editing, look for those adjectives and adverbs that can really make your writing drag. All those filler and filter words. Find them and get rid of them. For example… Deep breath… “Thought”, “touched”, “saw”, “he saw”, “they saw”, “just”, “heard”, “he heard”, “they heard”, “she heard”… “Decided”, “knew”, “noticed”, “realised”, “watched”, “wondered”, “seemed”, “seems”. That’s one of mine. “Looked”. That’s another one of mine.

“He looked”, “she looked”. “Could”, “to be able to”, yeesh. “Noted”. “Rather”, “quite”, “somewhat”, “somehow”. Although I think these are OK in dialogue, if used sparingly. “Feel”. “Felt”. Now this… this one always starts alarm bells ringing. Don’t just tell the reader that Bob is feeling angry. Try and describe his rage in a way that is unique to Bob. Which is easier said than done, of course. But no one said this would be easy. “And then” — paired together. Cut one or the other. “Had”. If you have two hads in the sentence, one of them has to go. Hads: two hads together… “had had”, which does happen. See if there’s a better way of writing around that. You might have to completely rethink the sentence. “He looks”, “she looks”. “He turned to her and said”, “she turned”, “they turned”… All this turning can make the reader feel dizzy and you can have whole conversations with people turning around and it goes absolutely nowhere. “Supposed”. “Appeared to be”.

“Apparently”. All of these can be weak and they can make your characters feel passive. If you’re writing the first person, these filter words can be doubly harmful. So… “I turned and looked up and saw the elephant raise its foot to squish me” is, well, it’s fine. “The elephant raised its foot to squish me” is a lot more direct. Keep those physical movements to a minimum. All that turning, twisting, looking… Give the reader just enough to animate the action in their own head. You’re not choreographing a musical.

So when you’re editing, look out for these filter words. Do a “find and replace”. Most of the time you’re better off simply cutting them. Other times you might see an opportunity to replace them with something a little more dynamic. What I mean by that? Okay. Add a bit of movement or action or texture. Instead of the “look to”, “turn to”… have them raise their chin, look down their nose, scratch their ear, run their hands through their hair, drum their fingers nervously.

Action that underlines what the character is trying to say or might be thinking. I find it useful sometimes to act the scene out. We’re all writers, spending far too long sitting on our backsides, so a little exercise won’t do us any harm. Get up, move about, film it, film yourself. No one ever needs to see it but you. But seriously, most of the time just cut the buggers. You’re better off without them. Of course there are exceptions. Sometimes we need these words to add clarity to a sentence, but too often I find myself relying on them when I should be trying to be a bit more zippy with my prose.

But hey, that’s editing is all about. Hope you found that useful. Until next time. Happy writing.

You’ve Written “The End”… Now What?

I finished the first draft of my novel this week… but what happens next? Jump right in to edit? Or…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, I typed these beautiful words earlier this week… (The End) Of course, this is nothing like the end. This is a raggedy mess of a first draft where three quarters of the way through I realised there were two characters that were completely redundant. So they were left by the wayside. The antagonist had almost completely changed in their nature. And there are several strands that have been left dangling in the wind. Still so far to go. But why not allow yourself this little moment of triumph?

Most people who want to write a book never get this far. So, hurrah! Cheers. I… I don’t drink. So this American champagne will have to do in lieu of actual champagne. But, I hear you cry, if I know what’s broken, why don’t I just go back and fix it right now? Well, those problems I mentioned, those are issues that occurred to me as I’ve been writing. Experience has taught me that there’s going to be a ton of whole new problems that I’ll discover.

And if I were to jump back in now, it would feel like an insurmountable heap of problems and my brain will probably melt in the process. It’s time to take a break from this book, at least. So here’s what I recommend… Leave it for six weeks. Six weeks!? Yup. Especially if you’re new to this. You need to come back at this draft with your eyes as fresh and objective as possible. And you do that by not even thinking about the bloody thing for at least six weeks.

Excuse me. Windy pops. Coke. Fizzy pop. So what to do in the meantime? Read. Read all you can. Refill the tank. Read in your genre, read outside of your genre, read good books, read crappy books. Read to remind yourself what a finished narrative feels like. Also, I’m editing a client’s book… Did I mention that I edit and offer reader reports…? Visit my Writer Services site here.

Doing this, reading another writer’s text in such a way that you want to give them a constructive critique, will exercise all kinds of new synapses in your noggin. Sparking up the same part of the brain that you’ll be using when you come to edit your own text.

It’s good exercise. Limbering up for the main event. That doesn’t mean you have to be like a professional editor or anything like that. This is where you go to any writers you know, and offer your services as a Beta Reader. Ask if they have any finished novels that they need reading, and offer your eyes and brains… In a… Brains, not ears… In a quid pro quo agreement, because you’ll need a beta reader once you’ve finished your next pass. Why not cue one up now?

You’ll learn so much by reading another writer’s work in progress. You’ll see the same kind of issues that you will encounter. You might, even in the process of offering your own notes, come across a solution for your own problems. Happens to me all the time. I’m very lucky in that I have a couple of trusted readers for my stuff and I’m happy to read their stuff at the drop of a hat. It’s a great arrangement, and by the time you’ve read their book — or books — you might get through two or more in those six weeks, you’ll not only find that you’re ready to return to your own work, but what once seemed insurmountable will simply be a bunch of problems to be solved. But that’s a whole new video. Until next time. Happy writing… Or reading… Or critiquing. Cheers.

How To Write Satisfying Endings

How can you write a really satisfying ending to your story?

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks. I’m getting to the final few chapters of this first draft, and that’s when I tend to find that my daily word count starts to drastically go down. Why? Well, up to now, I’ve been getting ideas down on the page, putting my characters into tricky situations, given them terrible dilemmas. And they’ve all made choices with consequences. And it’s all been driving the story forward. But sooner or later, that story has to end and endings are hard.

Just ask George R.R. Martin or J.J. Abrams or anyone who’s had to wrap up a story with a neat little bow. So the creativity brakes tend to start screeching as you realise that you just can’t keep piling on story. If you see my previous videos, you’ll now I’m big on using theme as story fuel, and that’s definitely worked for this first draft. Having a thematic argument has really helped give me focus on how to make things work and I’ve never found myself stuck or blocked.

And just for reference, my thematic argument for this story is: Are we better off working alone or working with others? And I always like to pose it as a question. And I’ve enjoyed this as a thematic argument because there are times when it’s worked for both my protagonist, antagonist, and all the supporting characters. But the problem with a thematic argument is that you have to resolve it. That doesn’t mean you should come down hard on one side or the other.

Ideally, what you want for your resolution is some kind of synthesis. So if you think of your protagonist as the thesis of your argument, they stand for this thing here and your antagonist represents the antithesis over here, then your ending should resolve into a synthesis of both, or something new and unexpected. And that’s what makes for a satisfying ending. Think of The Godfather. So the argument is: can Michael be part of a crime family and maintain his moral high ground?

Well, Michael starts the story essentially disowning his family, but the family’s business tests him, and by the end he’s running the family the way he wants it run, but he’s also defending it with violence by ordering hits on the other families. A synthesis of ideas there. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Can a grave robber prove himself worthy of a great prize? Indy starts the film dismissing the Ark as superstitious nonsense. But by the end, his growing understanding and belief in its power is what saves him and Marion.

And don’t come at me with that Big Bang Theory crap about Indy not affecting the outcome of Raiders. Those people are confusing plot with story and are completely missing the point. Finding Nemo: Marlin, the overprotective father. He crosses a dangerous ocean and finds himself proven right again and again. Yes, the ocean is a dangerous place, but he realises that he has to let his son save Dory. Pixar, frankly, are masters at this kind of thematic storytelling.

Take the time to watch a few Pixar “making of” videos and you’ll get all this good stuff in great detail. This thesis/antithesis stuff is all horribly simplistic, of course, and easier said than done. But keeping this in mind, as I write these last few chapters, has really helped me figure out how to bring my story train to a stop and keep it on the rails and hopefully give the reader a really satisfying ending. Of course, the tracks behind me are a complete disaster, but, hey, that’s what rewrites are for.

OK, till next time, happy writing.

Six Tips for Writing Action

Six tips for writing engaging action and fight sequences in your fiction…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, as I get closer to the end of this draft and I start ramping up the tension and the stakes and the action and, well, I’m about to embark on a big old action sequence. Here are six tips for writing action in fiction. Number one, don’t just have action for the sake of it. It needs to advance the story. By that, I mean it needs to create change and have consequences. Your characters will have to make choices in the heat of the moment that will affect what comes afterwards.

If you can just take that action sequence out of the story, and the scenes that sandwich it still work together, then maybe the action sequence isn’t earning its keep. Remember, we had two big action sequences lined up for Robot Overlords. A chase in an ice cream van. And later, a chase with our heroes pursued by a new robot called Octobots. And these were fun sequences, but ultimately they had zero effect on our story and characters and they had to be cut.

That said, I’m still keen to try out an ice cream chase one day. I always file these things away for later. Two. Let the reader do the work. This is where, strangely, action sequences have something in common with sex sequences. Don’t feel the need to give the reader a blow by blow account.. Oh, behave. We don’t need every punch, kick, swerve, stab and parry. It gets tedious pretty fast. Give the reader just enough detail for them to create the action in their head.

And if there’s some sort of skill involved with a sword or a gun, then it’s worth doing a little research to make it feel real. Again, we don’t need to know the inner workings of a Glock whatever to know that it goes bang and that bullets hurt people. I rail against a lot of modern thrillers where the author seems to get sexually aroused when talking about guns. In fact, I try to put mistakes in my stories just to wind up NRA members. Ha! Three. Pace.

That is, don’t just give us big blocks of action, mix it up with some dialogue, write in short, punchy (ha!) sentences and keep the internal monologue visceral. This is not a time for ponderous reflection. That can come later. This is a time for panic, fear, anger, fight or flight. Use all the senses, the crunch of the bone, the taste of blood, the sweat and filth of battle. That will really help put the reader in the middle of the action.

Four. Think of the setting. Is it a chase down narrow streets in Paris, or the skies above the Grand Canyon? When your hero falls, is it on sand? Tiles? Stinging nettles? Can they hide in the jungle, or are they exposed in a wide open desert? What weapons are at hand? I love those unconventional fight scenes where Jason Bourne uses a rolled up magazine or John Wick uses a book. Use the setting and its props to make the sequences as fun and inventive as possible.

Five. Give it a beginning, middle and end. I’ve used the word “sequence” a few times already and I find that it helps to think of any action beat as its own little short story with a beginning, middle and end. One where the stakes are continually raised with a growing sense of urgency. Compacting all that story into a frenetic action sequence can make your hero make bad decisions — creating those consequences I was talking about earlier — and it will leave the reader breathless and wanting more. I’m quite breathless myself.

Six. Aftermath and keeping it real. In too many stories, the hero walks away from a fight with nary a scratch, and even if they do get wounded, they often bounce back with superhuman speed. That may be appropriate for some stories, but readers will better relate to characters who hurt, who get the shakes, who mourn the deaths of their friends — and enemies — who regret having to do terrible things. This is, again, where a little research will help as well.

What does it feel like to break your ribs, be shot or stabbed? I bet it hurts a lot more than we might imagine. I speak as someone who stubbed my toe recently. Well, I hope that was helpful. Any questions or comments? Then please pop them below until next time. Happy writing and stop fighting.

Five Tips for Writing Exposition

Here are five tips for writing exposition without getting bogged down in, well, exposition…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, let’s talk about exposition. I’ve got to the bit in my book where my protagonist figures out what the villain is up to and there’s a ticking clock and she has to stop him before everything goes horribly wrong. Very much that tipping point from Act two into Act three. See an earlier video for tips on tipping points…

The great danger here is that this could turn into nothing more than a big dollop of exposition, also known, delightfully, as an info dump.

You know those moments in the movies where the villain reveals their evil plan, and this is so common that it’s become a trope in itself. There’s a lovely moment in The Incredibles where Syndrome says, “You caught me monologuing”. Basically, we’re talking about exposition. And in this specific case, how will the villain reveal their dastardly plan unless they tell the hero about it? Now, at this point in the story, the exposition is coming in late. As I said, the pivot between the second and third act, which is to my advantage, because if if you haven’t already, you can go back and leave clues for your hero and the reader to piece together what the evil scheme is, or if you want to invert that idea, your hero can think that they know what the plan is…

And then the villain can reveal a wicked, additional twist that they can take great glee in revealing. I think that’s what’s going to happen in my story. In the meantime, here are five tips for writing exposition; One: Have someone get it wrong. There’s a great moment at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the two Secret Service guys come to Indiana Jones and tell him about the Staff of Ra, Abner Ravenwood, and something called the Lost Ark. And it becomes clear that they haven’t got the first clue what they’re talking about.

So Indy corrects their mistakes. This is such an effective way of getting exposition across that we, the viewer, hardly notice. It not only is Indy’s enthusiasm for the subject infectious, but it also gives him agency, and proves to us and the Secret Service men that he is the right man for the job. It’s a great subversion of an old trope because we’re so used to seeing James Bond stepping into M’s office and being told what the mission is, and it can be very passive with a big info dump. But this is a much, much better way of doing it.  Two: Dramatise it. As with any essential bit of story information, it will always stick in the reader’s mind if you can dramatise it. Don’t tell me that your hero is a witch. Show me the hero doing some magic and include a few telling details. Is she skilled or does she need more experience and practise? Does she work alone or with others?

Does she use magic compassionately or for her own gain? By creating a bit of action and drama you can reveal so much more about a character than just having someone tell us. This can also be applied to a character revealing a bit about their past. Don’t just have them tell us. Show it in a widescreen, full-colour flashback, or a dream, or a crystal ball. Any bit of drama will be better than a dry retelling. Three: Do it with style.

OK, hands up. There are times when you kind of have to just tell the reader, or viewer, a bit of essential information. So if you have to do it, do it with style. Think of the opening crawl of Star Wars. Lucas pinched that from the old Flash Gordon serials, which had to bring the cinemagoers up to speed in just a few seconds… Or sing it in a song, interpretive dance, beat poetry, or have them tell a story with the kind of zingy and engaging dialogue used by the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, Victoria Wood, Nora Ephron, Tina Fey, Shakespeare.

You get the idea if you’re going to tell it, make it good. Really good. I mean, extraordinarily good. No pressure. Four: Parse it out. Don’t feel the need to unload it all at once. Think about what the reader needs to know and when. Your antagonist might be a spy, a Nazi, a sous chef and an expert in kung fu. But that doesn’t mean we need to know all this when they’re first mentioned. Have some fun in revealing these nuggets when — and this is the important bit — when they can have the most impact on the story and the reader. To quote Billy Wilder, “Always allow the audience to add two plus two and they’ll love you forever.” Five: “Or… just don’t bother. You know, I’m old enough to remember seeing the first Star Wars, and not knowing what the Clone Wars were, why Darth Vader was in that suit, or even if Stormtroopers were real people or robots. And it didn’t matter one little bit. You’ll be amazed at how little some exposition matters. And as for BackStory, I’m going to let you into a little secret…

There’s no such thing as back story. There’s the story you’re telling and that’s it. The reader doesn’t care what happened before or after unless it directly affects what you’re telling them now. And if it does, then it will be in this story. If it doesn’t, don’t bore them with it. Tell one story and tell it well. Don’t weigh it down with a bunch of digressions. Honestly, I blame Marvel. Ooh, controversial. Right. Well, I hope that was helpful.

Any questions? Pop them below or drop me a line. Until next time, Happy Writing. 

Writing Villains. How to create the Best Baddies.

How can you write more effective bad guys? Give them a bigger sword? A more evil cackle? Or could the key to unlocking great villains be in your hero? Shock twist!

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks, I’ve got to the point in the draft of this book when my traitor is about to be revealed and to be honest, the identity of this villain has ping-ponged back and forth in my head up to now. And it’s only really today I’ve got to know who they are that I’ve decided, yup, this is who it’s going to be. I’m glad to say I was surprised by the choice and that hopefully will translate into a nice surprise for the reader, too.

Of course, this means that for the next draft, I’ll have to go back and make sure it all makes sense and ensure that I leave just enough clues for the reader to allow them to add two plus to slap themselves on the forehead and realise that the answer was in front of them all along. Because that’s what you want from your readers. You want them involuntarily slapping themselves. It’s what all great writers aspire to. And what it did get me thinking about is what makes a good villain.

In earlier videos you will have heard me banging on about how theme is story fuel, how once you figured out what your central dramatic argument and theme is, you can use that to drive the protagonist’s story forward. If you’ve not seen that video, I’ll pop a link in the description below. Knowing what theme is really helps me whenever I get stuck. So for this novel, my theme is — and I always like to post theme as a question — are we better off working with others or alone?

It’s a simple question, but one that can’t be answered with a yes or no. Nothing too mind boggling, but good story fuel. And that question is what I challenge my protagonist Faye with in every chapter of this story. The funny thing is, listeners, this principle can also apply to writing your antagonist. Writing a good villain can be really tricky. You can spend so long focussing on the motives of your protagonist that when it comes to the villain, the temptation is to go, 

“Ah, whatever they just abadie dress them in black, make them do terrible things. The reader will get the idea. But there is a way to make your villains much more effective in a way that the reader will find a lot more satisfying. And it comes back to theme. So if your hero represents the thesis of a dramatic argument, your antagonist can represent the antithesis. In other words, your villain can be motivated by the opposite of your hero’s position on a theme.

So if I think of an example, in the case of my book, for example, if Faye thinks she can achieve her goals by working with others, the antagonist might do better by working alone. They might have had a terrible experience working in a team, and have struck out solo to get revenge. Also, having a thematic motivation will add a dollop of dimension to your villain that might just appeal to the reader and your hero. So the hero can’t just walk away from the villain because the baddy’s argument might at some point tempt our hero to jump ship to the other side.

The theme is a connection between the two of them that will make for compelling reading. So they might they might be a mirror of our hero and share many of their values. You see this in a lot of romances, so Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, for example. The villain could be a dark shadow. Darth Vader is exactly what Luke Skywalker might become if it gives in to his anger. Or they might even be their own worst enemy. Think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

There’s countless ways of playing with this, but whatever direction you choose to go in, if you try and make you heroes and villain connect thematically, it will be a much more satisfying experience for you and the reader. Of course, this is all much easier said than done, and I now need to figure out how to make this work in my book. Wish me luck. Any questions on this? Is there anything you’d like me to cover in future videos? Drop me a line or leave a comment below. Until next time, happy writing.

Writing Tipping Points and How to make your Scenes Work Harder

Each scene or chapter in your story should have some kind of tipping point where a decision is made. How can you use these to make give your characters more agency and drive the story?

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. I’m now about halfway through the first draft of the third Witches of Woodville book, and I’m still in that muddy middle, that middle act where it’s so important that we writers try not to get too bogged down by wondering what happens next. In previous videos I’ve talked about using theme as story fuel and writing with urgency so as not to bore the reader. And today I want to talk about the tipping points of scenes. And I was recently reading about this in John Badham’s book “On Directing”.

Badham is the director of such classic films as Saturday Night Fever, WarGames, Stakeout, The Hard Way. A really great director. And this book is a cracking read. I’ve no ambitions to direct film. I’ve directed short films many years ago, and have some idea of just how all consuming directing a feature film is. But as a writer, I like to get different perspectives on the creative process and this one’s been a really refreshing read. And in here, Badham talks about how he and the actors will often look for the tipping point of a scene.

He defines it as the most important dramatic moment in a scene. It’s the moment where, like  a seesaw, the situation can tip in favour of one character or another. However, unlike a seesaw where the tipping point is usually in the middle, the tipping point of a scene comes very close to the end as the dramatic argument comes to a peak. And these dramatic arguments don’t have to be major turning points every time in the story. It can be something as simple as deciding where to go for coffee.

What is important is that the characters — and most often your protagonist — is the one making those decisions and driving the story. From the perspective of a director like Badham and the actors that he works with, they’ll spend time looking for the tipping point in the scene in order to underpin that moment. Now, for a film director, that means close ups, or making it clear to the viewer that an important decision is being made. It’s also important for them to identify the tipping point because after that decision has been made by the character… the scene is done. Decision made. Onto the next scene.

That’s not to say the tipping point should be rushed. Badham quotes the writer-director Elia Kazan, who says, “One thing I always do, and I think that’s important in film, is to stretch climaxes.” So don’t feel you have to rush these things. I mean, one extreme is… How many comedies you’ve seen where a character will argue over something, say, “I’m not going on a date with him. I’m definitely not going on a date with him. You can’t make me go on a date with him.”

There’s a beat. You can feel the tipping point as a decision is about… to… be… maaaaaaade. And then you cut to that same person on a date with “him”. And that’s how close to the end a tipping point can be. Coming back to Kazan’s remark about stretching climaxes. Think of all those spaghetti westerns where the gunslingers face off… Staring at one another, slowly reaching for their guns, waiting for someone to make a move. That’s really great tension, really gripping.

And you can have great fun drawing that out for as long as you can. So how does this help you as a writer? Well, first of all, it can really help you with your editing. If you’ve got a scene that’s running too long, then look for a potential tipping point to get out early. Or your scene might be missing a tipping point. Which case does it need one? Can you add one? Or does the fact that it doesn’t have a tipping point make the scene redundant?

Also, try and think of your entire story as a dramatic argument with a tipping point. The central dramatic argument — that’s the theme of your story —  shouldn’t be resolved until the very end. Once it is, the story’s over. Roll credits. Turn the page. The end. I hope you found that useful. And until next time, happy writing.

Writing with Urgency, or How not to bore the reader…

The middle act of a story is where it can really start to lose its energy. So how can we keep writing with a sense of urgency that will keep the reader turning the page?

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello, folks. As discussed last week, I’m still in the middle act of this novel, still in the muddy middle, and this is where a story can really start to lose its energy. So how can we keep writing with a sense of urgency that will keep the reader turning the page? I mean, part of the problem is our characters might not want to change. They might want everything just to stay the same, keep the status quo. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing for them to want.

But you, the author, have to be an Old Testament God and make it so that they don’t have any choice but to take action and change. Sometimes we can love a protagonist so much we don’t want any harm to come to them. Stuff that. Make their lives hell and do it with a big grin on your face. It’s often only by testing these characters that we really come to love them. We tell stories about people and those stories are about change.

A story where a character overcomes challenges to become a different person is often the most satisfying. Even in a series where the protagonist doesn’t change fundamentally — say a detective series where they’re solving different crimes with each story — that will have some important element of their personality challenged by the kind of crime they’re solving. Change is an essential element of both story and character. So ask yourself whose story is this and how do they change? And also that thing of keeping the status quo isn’t wanting nothing.

It’s a desire to keep things as they are. A stable, safe life, which is totally understandable, but it must be challenged, otherwise why are we reading this story? So, for example, once upon a time there was someone who was perfectly happy, didn’t do anything, stayed the same. The end. Contrast that with Once upon a time there was someone who was perfectly happy, but something threatened that happiness. And so they had to take steps to preserve that happiness.

But in the course of doing so, made discoveries that created a new balance and a new happiness in their life. The end. There’s also a crucial difference between an active and reactive protagonist. One seeks a change in their life and goes looking for a solution, and the latter has change thrust upon them and has no choice but to change. And one of the most important elements for a protagonist is agency, that is they are the ones who, when things go awry, do the difficult thing and make decisions that will mean there’s no turning back.

They can have mentors who advise them. But in the end, it’s the protagonist who takes action. Of course, this all comes with a big, chunky caveat. What I’m talking about here is very much a Western, European, Hero’s Journey, Monomyth way of storytelling. For contrast, if you look at stories from, say, Asian cultures, it can be very different and makes for really compelling storytelling. There’s a couple of wonderful Twitter threads by the brilliant writers, Malinda Lo and Aliette De Bodard on this.

Malinda’s thoughts on this: https://twitter.com/malindalo/status/1182265991243403265

Aliette’s thoughts: https://twitter.com/aliettedb/status/1085310575113134081

I hope that was useful and until next time. Happy writing.