Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Great writers - nature or nurture?

Are writers taught or are they made? Is the ability to produce a great novel somehow derived from the genes, or is it a craft that can be learned through effort and good teaching?

Like all such questions, this is a false dichotomy. For a truly great writer, innate ability is surely needed. But learning the craft also. I have been privileged to witness so many students developing their capacity to write beautiful, powerful prose that I am convinced of the importance of good teaching in this process and that the innate ability is not as rare as some people claim.

There is a problem however. I have seen people postpone writing their first novel because they feel they are not quite ready. Instead, they do another writing course. And another. And another. Courses become a thing to do INSTEAD of writing.

You can't learn to write novels without writing novels.

Last night I gave the first in a series of classes designed to combat that problem. The deal is this: each student works on their novel through the week. This is the process from which they will derive most of their learning. And on Tuesday evening we all come together to talk about their progress, share samples of their work, answer problems that have arisen, give suggestions and encouragement. Each class will be 50% taught and 50% manuscript workshop.

With 14 students, the class is full. We couldn't fit anyone else in the room. I discovered that, curiously, there are 13 female participants and only one male. (Writing courses do typically attract more women than men, but this is more asymmetric than usual).

Everyone seemed focused on the prospect of writing and I sensed a creative excitement in the air. Novel writing gives that - a sense of excitement. It is a journey into the unknown. I'm really looking forward to the rest of this course.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Six things you should never do... if you are in a movie


1. If there has been a murder recently, trust the police to look into it rather than starting an investigation of your own. Follow this instruction even if you knew the victim.

2. Just because a building is creepy it doesn’t mean you have any right to break into it on a whim.

3. Just because the front door opens when you push it, doesn’t mean it is a good idea to step inside and look around. Consider the possibility that the opposite may be true.

4. On finding an old book or box in the house, don’t take a deep breath and blow the dust off the top. A slightly damp cloth will do the job far better without giving you or your fellow searchers an asthma attack.

5. However much time you feel it will save you in your search, never say, “let’s split up.”

6. On tripping over body in the dark, immediately call the police (see point 1). They may remind you of points 2 and 3, but will realise you are more likely to be a stupid person than a killer.

Four Plot Problems

There comes a time when the novel or screenplay gets pitched. That's when the product of our imagination and perspiration gets boiled down to a few short lines of prose - the story in a nutshell.

With all the gorgeous imagery stripped away, with all the texture, twists, turns and sub-plots gone, the producer, agent or publisher see our stories laid bare. It is an unforgiving moment - one in which any fundamental plot problems will probably be exposed. These are issues I try to anticipate BEFORE getting to the end of the writing process.

Here are four classic plot problems that should be clear by the time 25% of the story has been written.
  • We don’t identify with the protagonist. She/he may be in danger, in love or in pain but ultimately we don’t care.
  • The trigger is not big enough to make us believe the protagonist will do the things she/he will need to do in the story.
  • The trigger is reversible, so we do not believe the protagonist will stay the course when things get really tough. She/he should simply turn around and go back home to live a quiet life.
  • The protagonist is too passive – events happen and the protagonist reacts. The protagonist has become a character drifting down a river rather than actively swimming, someone that events happen to rather than a person who initiates change.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Strangeness in Stories

I'm putting together a workshop on storycraft for inclusion in a filmmaking course later in the year. Preparing the worksheets has set me thinking about the question of 'strangeness' in stories.

When people describe the archetypal patterns found in traditional stories they sometimes talk about the 'ordinary world' and the 'strange world'. The ordinary world is the home life of the protagonist before he/she starts the quest. The strange world is the unfamiliar landscape the protagonist will pass through before reaching the goal, whatever that may be.

This transition from ordinary to strange isn't confined to traditional hero epics. It comes up again and again in modern movies and novels.

The ordinary world may not be ordinary to us, the audience. But it is ordinary to the protagonist. If the protagonist is a racing driver, 'ordinary' means hurtling around the track at 150mph.

In a similar way, the strange world may not be strange to us, the audience, but will definitely be strange to the protagonist. One of the most important qualities of the strange world is that the rules the protagonist used to live by no longer hold good.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Lies, damn lies and referendums

The UK referendum on voting reform is almost here. I find myself increasingly annoyed with various advocates of the ‘No’ and the ‘Yes’ campaigns, who are being so conspicuously economical with the actualit√©. Some of the campaigning literature posted through my letterbox in the last couple of weeks has been risible.

Electing a government is not the proof of democracy. Democracy is proved when a government is dismissed – without the use of guns. This separation of authority from physical coercion ranks among humanity’s greatest triumphs. It deserves to be taken seriously.

Perhaps that is why I find myself getting so annoyed when people misrepresent the different options before us. They are disrespecting the very democracy they claim to want to uphold.
So here is my summary of the voting options:

• The present system simply returns the candidate who receives the most votes - even if that person is intensely disliked by the majority of voters.

• The AV system tends to return candidates who are not so widely hated, though they might not be the ones with the most first votes.

Either system would be fine. They just lead to slightly different flavours of representation.

Governments tend to accumulate unpopularity over time. Therefore, the AV system would probably make three-term governments less likely. If you think governments are able to do more good through a longer term in power, then you probably want to vote to keep the present system. But if you think that governments are better for having shorter periods in power, then you probably want to vote for a change to AV.

I still haven’t decided.

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