Category Archives: Rewriting

Right brain, left brain, no brainer.

Pre-1980’s research into the brain appeared to show that people fall into two distinct camps – left brainers and right brainers. The left brain was  supposed to be the logical, problem solving side and was claimed by people who were good at maths and unemotional, whereas the right side was for all those airy fairy, creative types.  I rather liked the idea of being right brain – I was bad at Maths and good at dreaming.  Now I had an excuse for failing my Maths “O” level.  I wasn’t stupid – I was a creative genius but apparently not.

Smugness always comes before a fall.  Recent research shows that to be good at Maths, you need to use both sides of your brain.  Then just as us so-called right-brainers consoled ourselves that we were still better at language, this too has been blown out of the water, with the identification of a large language centre in the left brain that interprets actions and the world around us

Twenty years ago, I did a study with a class of Creative Writing students on their preferred learning styles – did they learn best from seeing, hearing or doing.  The younger students had very distinct preferences for a certain style, but the older the student the more likely they were to use all of the styles, not showing a preference for any particular one.   The conclusion I drew was that the older you are, the more used you become to accessing all areas of the brain, probably through a process of trial and error.  Humans will usually find the easiest way to do anything.  There was one older student though, who was a visual learner only.  He was the best writer in the group and his novel was very visual but he found it difficult to edit.  He couldn’t see the structure of his work.

So how can we as writers access all the areas of our brains?    It depends how you write.  Do you have an outline or do you,  like Francoise Sagan with “Bonjour Tristesse”, pour it all out verbatim on the page as you go?  If you have an innate sense of structure and drama, then possibly you don’t need an outline.  For anything other than a short story, I do.   If nothing else, it stops me repeating myself!

It also helps me to have a clearer idea of the whole story, so as I write I can ‘see’ it in my head and know what bit is where and why it’s there.    It’s helpful to know about structure –  a bit more than beginning, middle and end – where one ends and the next section begins and what event marks that ending/beginning – three act structure and not only for scripts – you can use it for any story.

And most important of all character biographies – and we’re not talking about what they like to eat or what size shoes they wear, unless it’s crucial to the plot.  It’s the psychology of your characters – what drives them, what are their fears, what are their nightmares?

Here’s a short exercise to get you analysing – write a one page synopsis of something you’ve read or watched in the last couple of days or something you’re working on yourself.  Three paragraphs, okay you can have long ones, one each for beginning, middle and end.  To do it, you have to identify the key points that tell the story – and only the key points and identify when each section ends and the next one begins  and what action causes it.  Happy whole-braining!

 

 

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Filed under Characters, Constructive Criticism, Novels

Whose point of View?

 

First person has its draw backs.  You can only see what the protagonist/heroine sees unless you adopt a structure for your novel, where the reader can see subplots or the antagonist/baddie going about their business or you can use letters or diaries written by other characters.

But first person can be more memorable:  how much less dramatic would the following novel opening be, if it were in the third person?

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.  It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me”  “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier.

It draws you like a sleep walker into the dream like  story and the sense of danger surrounding the heroine but even as you read it, you are the heroine, you are in danger.

When a character’s a strong individual, first person can work really well.

Veronica Roth is completely at ease in her heroine, Tris in “Divergent” and using the first person takes the reader straight into her life and her world.  No matter where she is, you move when she moves, you feel her fear, her pain, so effective is Roth’s style of writing. When she runs to board the train, you know exactly how her feet feel as she begins to jog alongside and you hear her thoughts as she has to increase her speed before she reaches up and clasps an outstretched hand.  You are Tris.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ heroine, Katniss is first person point of view as well, waiting  for the reader to step into her shoes. We’re inside her head, her feelings for Gale catch at our hearts, her love for her mother strikes a chord and as she fights for her life, we understand her choices in who she will save and who she must kill.

And if you’re still not convinced, Mslexia’s judges for their annual novel competition have just compiled their long list with comments on the factors that affected their decisions.  Amongst them was the following:

” … those written in the first person, with a strong and idiosyncratic voice, often grabbed their attention.”

But in the end, it’s the character who chooses the voice, in that moment when they pop uninvited into your head.

 

 

 

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Filed under Characters, Novels, Rewriting

Digging up bluebells

Forty years ago my front door bell rang. It was my next door neighbour bearing a bulging shopping bag.

“Fancy some bluebells,” he asked, knowing I was on the lookout for anything to go in my new garden. I was only too grateful and spent the next hour planting them and looking forward to the coming Spring. I wasn’t disappointed – the bluebells sprouted and suddenly my barren garden had been transformed into a magical woodland – well almost. Yes, I know, I knew very little about gardening but I have a vivid imagination. It was just a pity that I didn’t know a little more about bluebells for these lovely, nodding heads held on tall stalks were quickly followed by long, green, glossy leaves that swamped everything within twelve inches. Never mind, I reasoned, they can be quickly pulled up and tidied away, not too big a job.  I’ll get round to it some time.

Then I rented out my house and went to live in Canada. Four years later when I returned with my small son and my cat, I looked forward once more to spring and the bluebells. It was just in those four years they had taken over the entire garden. They were everywhere – they didn’t behave like well mannered daffodils and just stay in one place. They forced their way between paving stones, sprouted out of the foundations and hid in the middle of bushes. “They can’t get much worse,” I told myself, ignoring the fact that they’d colonised my neighbours’ gardens as well and they were not best pleased.

You’re probably wondering what bluebells have got to do with writing, well there is a tenuous link, because if all that time ago, I had dug up those dratted bluebells when I realised my mistake, I wouldn’t be faced with the monumental task I now have to shoulder. My bluebells are Spanish, and in the mild British climate, are romping away, threatening the native English bluebell, a smaller, more beautiful, to my British eye, and sweetly perfumed plant, which fits into the British landscape and doesn’t look out of place. So now I’m spending hours digging up these foreign invaders and consigning them to the bonfire.

And the tenuous link? A third of the way into the children’s novel I’m writing, I made a decision to have my two characters time travel and arrive together and in order for them to meet their antagonist, took them on a long, convoluted route through the story. The whole structure creaked but I persevered, determined it would work but it didn’t and impacted on all the other characters and on the plot.   It took my daughter to say “I don’t believe this bit,” to make me take a long hard look and agree.   I’d taken the easy way out like I did when I turned a blind eye to the bluebells.  I thought I could just tweak my story here and there like I thought I could control the bluebells by pulling up the leaves and leaving the bulb to work its way further and further into the ground.  It was time to rewrite – time to dig up the tortuous plot that had no business being there.

I know writers who’ve pressed the delete button on far more words than I had to, so I’m not awarding myself any medals. I’m going to make sure in the future though, whether I’m writing or gardening that I’m planting the right bluebells.

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Filed under Characters, Children's writing, Constructive Criticism, Novels, Rewriting

Shit Sandwiches and what made you cry when you were eight years old

It was eleven pm and I’d finished a few hours working on a difficult part of my children’s novel.  I’d run out of steam and my eyes were hurting.  It was time to call it a night but the siren call of the internet, which I’d ignored all day, stopped me closing the system down. Ten minutes emptying my in-box was just good housekeeping and there might even be something important and life changing in there. Peculiar how you convince yourself to ignore your tired eyes and behave like a four year old who doesn’t want to go to bed in case they miss something.  But I was glad I did because I came across this post and it made a great deal of sense.

http://markmanson.net/life-purpose/

Mark Manson’s question ‘what kind of shit sandwich would you be prepared to eat to realise your goal or dream in life’, isn’t something I’d ever asked myself because my drive to write was so strong that I was prepared to take any amount of rejection in order to succeed – and at the time, success was getting published. But what happens in the low periods, when inspiration or the so called muse escapes you, what drives you then – that’s where your eight year old self comes into play.  Back then, when I scribbled stories in an old exercise paper, I had no idea of publishing; I wrote because just the very business of escaping into a world of make believe, all of my own making was worth it.  I wrote the kind of things I enjoyed reading, reproducing the pleasure and the excitement over and over again.  The writing itself was enough, even though it wasn’t very good but at the time I was happily ignorant of that. It wasn’t until I grew older and got distracted by puberty that I wrote less and when I returned to it at different times over the next few years, I’d find I’d hit a brick wall – not writer’s block – I just didn’t have the skills or the technique or the tools to carry on.

The shit sandwich of rejection that would be coming later, had a different filling  to the one I had to chew then – I had to write in order to find how to make my writing work now I could see that it wasn’t good enough, wasn’t convincing or credible and that my reader wouldn’t suspend their disbelief.   Looking back on things I wrote during that period, I can see some outstanding scenes and passages amongst the dross but at the time the sandwich of failure was hard to swallow.   It was excruciatingly painful.  You can take classes and join writers’ groups but the only way through this period is to keep on writing and I wanted to be a better writer so much I was prepared to do it.

If my eight old year self had been told I wasn’t any good and I should stop, would I have given up?  I don’t think so.  I was a very determined, bloody minded, ‘I’ll show them’ kind of girl – and maybe that’s what you need to keep going, because there are plenty of nay sayers along the way and plenty of cutting comments and the further you go in your career, the more vicious they can become.   So it might have made me cry but it wouldn’t have made me give up.   I’ve always taken heart from William Goldman, the writer of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” who said “Nobody knows anything.”

In his blog, Mark Manson asks what kind of olive do you want to eat with your sandwich.  My olive has always been to get better at what I love doing because if I get better, then the chances of being published or produced are increased and also because at the end of a long day’s writing, I can go to sleep with an easy mind, a sense of fulfilment and  if I’m not too tired, a quick look at the internet.

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Filed under Rewriting, Writing and rejection

Pitching and loglines

I’ve pitched a few projects recently at two very different events – one was the London Screenwriters’ Festival and the other, a Creative England ifeatures networking event. The LSF was organised with strict time limits on the individual pitches – five minutes and then move on to the next one.  Held over the three days of the Festival, there were an average of eight to ten producers in each session and anything up to thirty people pitching.  In the session – about an hour, I pitched to seven of the eight producers and got requests from six of them.   Even if your project doesn’t get picked up, it’s worthwhile attending because you’re making connections, getting contact details and the most valuable part of the process, seeing how your log line stands up.

The networking event was more relaxed and probably closest to the kind of pitching situation we’re likely to find ourselves in but the same criteria applied to the log line.

Blake Snyder highlighted this in “Save the Cat”.  He recommended before you typed Scene 1, you test marketed your pitch on complete strangers and assessed at what point they lost interest, because if you can’t keep their attention, how are you going to keep anyone else’s?  And that point where they look away or just look plain bored is where I go back and look at the story.

But it can work the other way as well, sometimes by sheer accident, the log line will come out slightly different and you’ll see the affect it has and you’ll know you need to go back and look at your script and make sure it reflects what you’ve just seen and felt.  And the feeling wins every time.

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Filed under Film writing, Pitching, Rewriting

Feedback: Give and Take

Feedback is what I dread receiving and dread giving but I keep on asking for it and saying “yes” when someone asks me.

Anyone who doesn’t write won’t understand that gut wrenching, stomach falling, palpitation inducing moment when you realise your next draft isn’t going to be a few tweaks away from winning the Booker Prize or grabbing you an Oscar.  Instead you’ll be back at square one or at least that’s what your self-defense mechanism is telling you – well it would do, that’s its job – to stop you from getting hurt by sitting back down at the computer and starting again and failing again.  Your self-defense mechanism doesn’t want you to get hurt so it tells you success is so far away, you’ll never get there.  Why not give up now?  But who’s in charge here and why did you ask for feedback in the first place?   Hopefully because you wanted to get better at this thing you’re driven to do every day and get withdrawal symptoms when you can’t.   However, in that complicated cocktail of desperation, insecurity and expectation we call our egos, we’ll be satisfied with nothing less than praise and success.

If you want to avoid the mistake I made the first time I asked for feedback, don’t tell that person the story of your script.   It’s what I did when I asked my husband to read my first screenplay.   I steeled myself for what I knew would be fair, accurate, analytical criticism  and received a puzzled response.  “Are you sure you’ve given me the right script? ”   He was looking for everything the natural storyteller in me thought was on the page,  but wasn’t there at all.  When you read your own work, you ‘re seeing the characters as you created them moving in that fabulous world that exists somewhere in your head.    Don’t tell anyone your story if you want feed back from them.  Their job is to tell you what they’ve read, which is how you’re going to work out how to make your script better.   If they don’t understand anything, they should be asking you questions.    It may well be the brilliant sub plot that’s overshadowing the main plot  or that subtle reference to a key part of the story that’s so subtle, no-one notices it.

It helps if the unfortunate friend, colleague or acquaintance you’ve picked on, has some knowledge of the accepted structure and format of the genre you’ve given them.  It’s vital that they should ask questions like “Whose story is it?”; “Who’s the intended audience?” or even if it’s a film script, “What size budget did you have in mind?” ; because if they can’t or don’t, then the feedback they’re giving you is unlikely to be helpful.  And if you don’t know the answers, then you’ve learnt something very useful straight away.

Even if you pay for your feedback, buyer beware,  check out the C.V.s of the professionals giving it and try to find someone who has experience of the genre in which you’re writing.    It’s not unknown for professional script readers to give contradictory advice but if more than one person is telling you that something isn’t working, you should be looking at it with an objective eye.  However,  if there’s one lone voice criticising something that your gut feeling tells you is right, go with your gut.  You haven’t the experience to do anything else at that moment and it was your gut that likely gave you the inspiration in the first place.

People will tell you that the first draft is always “s**t” – which isn’t exactly fair and does nothing for the self-esteem of the writer or any artist for that matter.    Remember you’re the person who started with the blank page; the one who burnt the midnight oil;  who ran into imaginary brick walls and had eureka moments in unlikely places like the supermarket queue and then lost your flash of inspiration scrawled on the back of the weekly shopping list in a windy car park.   You’ve sacrificed a great deal to come this far so read the feedback, decide what you believe and start the next draft.   And forget the Booker and the Oscar – they’re just prizes that people receive.  Far more valuable is the one within your own gift – to produce the best writing you can.

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Filed under Constructive Criticism, Film writing, Rewriting, Writing and rejection