Monday, February 27, 2012

Writing Advice: Making Change Meaningful

I'm studying The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger in my English class at the moment, and one of the things that annoys me about the book is that there's not plot. Nothing. Zip, zilch, nil. The whole thing is made up of the ramblings and insight of a delusional 50's teenager as he goes about his life.

Sure, it's packed with fantastic symbolism and great characterisation, and there's even a chain of events. But the story is so lacking that I wouldn't dare call it a story at all.

Truth is, a chain of events does not make a story, and nor does simply change. There are changes all through The Catcher in the Rye, for example when the protagonist, Holden, runs away to New York from his prestigious boarding high school (which he hates). But this change isn't meaningful, and nor are any of the others - which is a problem considering that it is meaningful changes that create story.

For a change to be meaningful, it must be expressed in terms of a story value. Story values do not refer to virtues or morals, although they include them. Robert McKee writes in Story* that, rather, they are "the universal qualities of human experience that may shift from positive to negative, or negative to positive, from one moment to the next."

This means that one or more themes, if you like, must switch to their opposite. For example, freedom/captivity (positive/negative) is a story value, and can be used to create meaningful change when a character's experience moves from one side of the coin to the other - when they are freed from captivity or captured from freedom. Love/hate is also a story value, and so is justice/injustice, loyalty/betrayal, peace/unrest, hope/despair ...

... You get the picture.

So, if we look back at the change of Holden leaving his school, what story value switch(es) could we possibly apply? Loyalty to betrayal? There was never loyalty in the first place. Self-righteousness to guilt? He's always felt guilty about his lack of motivation in school. Captivity to freedom? Holden probably sees it this way, but reader doesn't buy it. After all, Holden's cynical perspective is not exclusively directed towards his school, but rather towards the whole world. So while he remains within his own mind, he'll never be free.

Hm. No meaningful change there.

The point is, in every scene of every good story there will always be a reversal in one or more story values. If not, why is the scene there? What does it achieve? Like all the scenes in The Catcher in the Rye, it may be exposition and character perspectives. But these can be worked into scenes that involve meaningful change. It may be difficult, but it's not impossible.

And finally, I'll leave Robert McKee with the last word, because he is pretty much a whole bunch of awesomesauce rolled into a ball of more awesomesauce: "No scene that doesn't turn. This is our ideal."

*There's a reason why I mention this book so often in my posts. Seriously, it's the best $35 I've ever spent.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Campaign: The Candle

Shadows crept across the wall, dancing in the firelight.
     James tugged against his chains and screamed through his gag. No, not yet! I need more time!
     The darkness wrapped itself around the wall, twisting, writhing. It approached the candle on the floor in the center of the small room and was motionless for a time, an unnatural shadow in the light.
     Then, the shadow began to transform and grow up out of the stone floor. It twisted until it was in the form of a human, then it took on colour so that it resembled a handsome young man with flowing gold hair and a stern face.
     The man pulled the gag from James's mouth. “Where is it?”
     James turned his head away, shaking. “I don't know,” he gasped. “No-one ever told me.”
     The man grabbed James by the chin and looked deep into his eyes. “Where?” His grip tightened.
     “I don't know!” James cried through barred teeth. Pain exploded in his jaw.
     “Then die.”The man stepped backwards and was absorbed by a swirling shadow. The room fell into darkness, leaving nothing but a dead man and a snuffed out candle.

*     *     *     *     *

This is not the first time I've submitted an entry for a challenge in one of Rachael Harrie's campaigns with only fifteen minutes to go. Procrastination for the win. Anyway, here were the rules:

Write a short story/flash fiction story in 200 words or less, excluding the title. It can be in any format, including a poem. Begin the story with the words, “Shadows crept across the wall”. These five words will be included in the word count.
If you want to give yourself an added challenge (optional), do one or more of these:
  • end the story with the words: "everything faded." (also included in the word count)
  • include the word "orange" in the story
  • write in the same genre you normally write
  • make your story 200 words exactly!

I think mine came in at 199 words.

And if you'd like to vote for me, I'm entry 207!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Wildcard: One Year On ...

I've pretty much blown my blogging schedule out of the water this week, I know. The reason is that today is a really important day for me and the rest of my city (and, in a way, the rest of my country), and I felt it would be insensitive to myself to not break from routine and mention it. So, you might find this post a little self-indulgent, but bear with me.

22 February 2011. One year ago today was the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, that claimed the lives of 185 people. I've talked about it a number of times since the conception of Writing Fire, whether it be directly after the event (like here and here) or later on (like here and here).

Today was a day of reflection. I keep thinking about what I was doing this time last year. I remember being so freaked out, and sitting around the table with my family in the dark after the sun had set, with no electricity, listening to the reports on the radio. It felt like we were in a war - which I suppose, in a way, we were. Us against nature.

It's so weird to think that it's been an entire year. In the last twelve months, I've had a ridiculous amount of time off school, I've shovelled silt (sand and water that bubbles up through the cracked ground) out of a number of peoples' yards, moved furniture, and I've gone to school from 1:00PM to 6:00PM. So much of my normal life was affected.

But then, so much went on as usual, too - at least for me. I ran this blog, I kept writing, kept reading, passed my exams, hung out with old people, met new people, experienced the ups and downs of teenage life (don't get me started).

And through everything, normal or not (if that word even has any meaning anymore), Christchurch has pressed on. We're starting out the other side. The journey to recovery has begun - and, yes, it has a long way to go - but it's begun. Things will never be exactly as they were, but different isn't necessarily bad. It just means getting used to a new future, but one that's no less bright than what might have been.

That's what the entire city remembered at 12:51PM today, the time when the quake struck one year ago. Hundreds of thousands of people observed two minutes silences, reflecting on the struggles and triumphs of the past year and looking to the future.

And, as a mark of respect, thousands of road-cones still marking off damaged areas were decorated with flowers. People went out and put roses and all sorts in the top of them, making something beautiful out of a symbol of destruction.

Kia kaha, Christchurch.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wildcard: Writerly Phenomena

Since I became a writer, I've noticed a few writerly phenomena that can occur from time to time. Some a very different to others, but they're all unnaturally awesome (or un-awesome) and relate to writing in some way. Here are just a select few of them:

Purple Tree Syndrome. This one is pretty generic, and it has more to do with reading than writing - but close enough, I thought. I coined the term Purple Tree Syndrome sometime last week. It basically occurs when you're reading a book and your eyes are looking at the words, but you aren't actually taking any of them in because you are too busy thinking about purple trees or something equally irrelevant. Then you have to go back a re-read the entire sentence, paragraph or even page in order to pick up the meaning you missed the first time. If you have a particularly bad case of the syndrome, you may have to re-read up to three or four times.

Writer Recognition. This is when you can tell a writer from a muggle - I mean, from an ordinary member of society - while knowing very little about them and using only their appearance as a guide. This happened to me the other day when I asked one of my new teachers if she was a writer - and she was! Sweet guessing skills, I know. When she asked why I had asked, I said, "Well, I write stuff, too. And ... you just strike me as the kind of person who would write." Of course, it did help that she was an English teacher.

Aiding the Future. This is always helpful, in any area of life. But, in writing, this happens when you have a seemingly unimportant idea, then months later it turns out to be the most useful idea ever. I had this happen to me when I was stuck in the dark chasms of writers' block (*shudders*). I needed a new idea to move forward, but I couldn't think of anything that would fit. Then suddenly I remembered an idea I had had four months ago, and I realised that expanding on it would do exactly what I needed! Thank-you four-months-ago-Nick! Of course, the reciprocal of this is Hindering the Future, when you drive yourself down a street that turns out to be a dead end.

Writerly Perception. Perception is a phenomenon, even when it isn't related to writing (I was shocked when I learned that, too). But it's still incredible how different people view writing very differently. This image that's been circulating Facebook recently pretty much sums that all up:

So, there you have it. What are a few writerly phenomena you've come across?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Origins: How I Became A Writer

I have an innate love for stories. I've loved them since before I can remember, and it was this innate love that led me to where I am right now, sitting in front of the computer writing about how I became a writer. It's this innate love that will lead me into the future.

Before I could write, I simply started with telling stories in any other way I could. And there stories weren't always mine - in fact, mostly they were other peoples'. In particular, I remember being obsessed with Peter Pan to the point where I re-created it through the use of designing fridge magnets of the characters and props.

I upped the ante when I was five by learning to read, write and hold a pencil. Suddenly my love of stories was coupled with a love of words, sentences and writing in general. I no longer had to resort to fridge magnets.

Over the next several years I made writing a good hobby. I wrote approximately five gazillion first pages to many different stories - all of which are locked somewhere deep down in the dungeons of my laptop and haven't seen the light of day since I first created them. I never really advanced in my writing during that time period, but writing never really left me either.

When I started high school, I was required to do a year-long project as homework. In other words (or the same words rearranged), a homework project that took the whole year. I decided to take a shot at writing a novel, with absolutely no idea whatsoever about what I was in for. I thought that I could learn how to do everything involved with writing a novel in a couple of weeks, plan out a story, write it, revise, and then get it published - in a year. And then it would probably become a best-seller, too.

One year later, I handed in a terrible plot outline and 5,000 words to my teachers.

But it doesn't matter, because I learned so much that year, and I began to get serious about writing. I began to call myself a writer. And once I began to call myself a writer, it's then that I became one.

Then, a year ago today, I plunged another similar world, again with no idea what I was doing. One year ago today I started this blog, which was Ellipsis Station at that point. It took awhile to get things rolling, but eventually I found a whole bunch of awesome people - and not just people, writers! I found you! So thanks for being awesome, keeping me company, and convincing me that I'm not the only one out there crazy enough to love writing.

So, that's how I started. What about you?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Writers' Platform-Building Campaign

A few days ago, Rachael Harrie annouced her fourth Writers' Platform-Builing Campaign. In short, the campaign is a way to meet and connect with other writers. Rachael describes it as "a way to link those of us in the writing community together with the aim of helping to build our online platforms. The Campaigners are all bloggers in a similar position, who genuinely want to pay it forward, make connections and friends within the writing community, and help build each others' online platforms while at the same time building theirs."

I participated in the third campaign, and I loved it. I'm really looking forward to this one. So if you haven't signed up already, I completely recommend heading over to Rachael's blog to do that. It should be heaps of fun, so I hope to see you all there!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Writing Advice: What Is Voice?

Most writers, and even a lot of non-writers, presumably, have come across the term “voice” and understand the gist of it. But how would you best define it, especially in comparison with sound and tone?

In the comments section of last week's post on tone, Dave of Route 19Writers pointed me to a fantastic post by Cynthia Chapman, this one written on voice – or authorial voice, as she describes it. In this post, she lays out a great definition of what voice is, with references to both sound and tone:
“An author's voice is usually the writer's natural tone, rhythm, and choice of words. To put it more poetically – a reflection of the writer's soul. A writer's voice is unique to each person, which is why the same story can be told in different ways by different people. In comparison, a character's voice is crafted by the writer to fit a certain character in the story.”

First of all, as this definition explains, there are two types of voice: authorial voice and character voice. Your sound and tone, both of which are contained within voice, will be natural for you – that's for authorial voice. But if you are telling your story in a character's voice, then the sound and tone of it will be the natural writing style of that character. And that's for you to craft and work out.

But how do sound and tone actually differ from voice?

As I mentioned above, sound is an aspect of voice. But your voice (whether authorial or character) will not only include, but also and determine your sound. It will naturally dictate your word choice and the way you fit words and sentences together.

Tone is all about intentionality, the attitude with which the narrator addresses the reader. Once again, voice is all about the overall effect, the general way the story is told, and tone is simply an aspect of that.

And what about finding your voice? The simple answer to that question is that it can't be done – it's impossible. You can't loose your voice, so you can't find it. It exists as soon as you write your first word. My five-year-old writing-self had a voice. My friends who only write 250 creative words each year because school forces them to have voices. Even their five-year-old selves had voices.

But you can develop your voice. For character voice, you need to learn that character inside and out. Take on their thoughts and opinions. When you write as them, you become them. For authorial voice, there's only one option: write. The more you write, the more you grow as a writer, the more your voice matures. That's the best way to develop your voice.

Needless to say, this is another excuse to write as much as you can. But then again, most of us don't need excuses, do we?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Guest Wildcard: The Just Culprit, or the Culprit Just?

Today I have the privilege of welcoming a very important person to me. He's a gifted teacher, preacher, and as you'll soon learn, writer. With many years of experience behind him (I'm not sure if he'd appreciate me saying how many), he today delves into one of the sneakiest adverbs. So, with no further, may I introduce my fantastic dad, Warren Hight. (And because everyone loves giveaways, he's featuring one of those, too!)

*     *     *     *     *

I was marking an assignment the other day, a book review. The student had written that the author “in the first chapter just laid out the basic facts.” The basic facts in this case were foundational to later steps the author went on to develop. I stopped because something jarred within me as I read it.

If the basic facts were essential to what followed, how in any possible reading of them could the author just lay them out? That little word had robbed his sentence of all its power. The author laid out the basic facts, nothing just about it. It was intentional, it was necessary.

I remember years ago I was attending a chapel service and during the notices the speaker stopped short and said, “Bother, I used that word.” What word? I had to think back over what he had said. It was this same little culprit. An adverb, I believe. And I have been told by the owner of this blog site that a writer ought to avoid adverbs—and clich├ęs—like the plague.

Yet I find myself saying it all the time—and then correcting myself; because if it’s worth doing or saying it’s worth not just doing or just saying! “What are you up to?” “Just writing.” Not meaning, exclusively focussed on a writing. Not meaning, go away I’m busy. Meaning, oh, it’s not so important, I don’t think you’d really be interested. Writing Fire suggests passion, determination. Nothing just about that, you know!

Now, I don’t even need to argue that just is a very good word—perhaps even one that any character in any story could justly own. Just and true, noble; or, “Oh, that things were just” (we can come to terms with unfair, eventually); and, of course, when you have just finished something, meaning only now have you completed what you were doing—who can fault that? But when I short change the labour, discounting the noble intent, this is what I abhor, and abhor in myself as often as it slips out. “I just wanted to give you a call,” and we sound somehow apologetic.

The Just So StoriesI am awed to think that writers and authors will read this; I wonder if your characters let slip the occasional ‘just’ without thinking? I suppose a character saturated in the argot of some levels of conversational culture will accurately reflect this tendency of ours, and be the better drawn character for it! But story characters are often less lazy than we are in real life, and the words of their speech are born of due deliberation.

My admiration goes to Nick for his initiative with this blog, and my thanks to him for entertaining the idea of me posting a “wild-card” blog. I just hope he’ll publish it. And if he does, by way of thanks, I’ll have a copy of Kipling’s Just So Stories sent to a random commenter.
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