This week I attended a screenwriting course. I’ve been trying to write a screenplay for a very long time and have never got more than about 20 pages in. I start to wander off into excessive descriptions about the surroundings, or worse, I drop into the thoughts of the main character. Neither or which are acceptable for screenwriting.
I was hoping this course would give me some tips about how to manage these sorts of things, and show examples of other scripts and how they deal with these situations. It didn’t. It’s my own fault for not reading the course description properly, but the course was more about the overarching structure of screenplay stories.
As a short and long-form story writer, I found the rules thing quite strange. I know scriptwriters are hung up on ‘rules’ of story structure far more than novelists. Everything must fit into 3 acts, the story should fit a beat sheet or plot plan, etc. I was prepared for that. But we looked at stuff like the types of power a character has and the exchange of that power. We looked at all sorts of things that I would just heap into the ‘stuff that happens’ pile.
If I tried to keep all these ‘rules’ in my head when writing a script, I would never get a word written. I find it hard to believe that scriptwriters keep all this stuff front of mind when they write. I think if the truth be told, they just stick to the same ‘rule’ as novelists; make sure you include a goal and motivation for your protagonist, and squeeze in some kind of conflict and hey presto, you have a story.
After today I think I’m almost ready to conclude that I am not a screenwriter. It’s a bit sad really.
Over the past month I’ve been reading the 9th book in a trilogy of trilogies. The last three in the series were all over 800 pages long. This was quite a commitment. Perhaps that was why I abandoned my 100-page rule, where if I’m not enjoying a book by page 100, I put it down.
I loved the first series, liked the second series, and then loved the first book of the final series. But then I hit what can only be described as filler books. In all honesty there was only a book’s worth of stuff to happen, and a 400-page book at that. But this author was wed to the trilogy mentality, and there were two more books to go to meet that, so two more were written. As a result there were several verrrrrryyyyy long ship voyages, long hikes, lots of reflection, and lots of meaningless arguments that didn’t contribute much at all.
It made me quite sad that I found myself getting sick of characters I had loved for over 10 years (yes, that’s how long it took me to read the series). The end left me a bit flat because it was tied up a bit too neatly, and showed me too much of the happily-ever-after without any reflection on the sacrifices the main character had made to get the happily-ever-after. I was still hurting over those sacrifices, but the character was so busy getting on with being happy that he didn’t seem to lament them.
It has taught me such a valuable lesson; never fall into the trilogy trap. Yes, trilogies are nice, but if the books can’t stand alone – at least in so much as having a beginning, middle and end – then they shouldn’t be written. And if the middle book is just about reflecting on the first book and anticipating the last book, then it has no purpose.
I have written/planned a trilogy, but I believe the books tell three different stories. If I find that this isn’t the case once they are all finished, then I promise I won’t force them onto the world. They can come out as a duology, or even two stand-alone novels set in the same world. There is nothing wrong with that.
This week I finished writing another novel. That’s four novels completely finished off in my life, two in the last 18 months. With the first three, when I got to ‘The End’ I bawled my eyes out. This time I didn’t. I don’t think that bodes well.
When I cry it is not because the books are so soppy at the end, only one was really, but it is because I know I’m leaving the characters and I won’t see what happens in their lives any more. It is like breaking up with a bunch of friends all at once.
Does not crying in the last book mean I don’t care what happens to these characters? If that is the case, why would anyone else care about them? If a reader doesn’t care about the characters then they will have no drive to turn the page. I think as soon as I can work out why I have no emotional ties to these characters then I can fix the book.
On the up side, I got my beta-reader feedback about my other novel, and I am so excited to get back in there and incorporate what was given to me. I can’t help but think some of that excitement is because I miss those characters and I want to spend more time with them. I think that is how I should feel with all my books.
A piece of advice that all writers are given is that you should always grab a reader from the first line. While a good first line is a great thing to aim for, I don’t think it will keep a reader going if the second, third and fourth line are not much chop. I also find it hard to believe a reader would be inclined to put a book down after just the first line, even if it was staggeringly bad. In fact even then I’d want to keep reading to see if it got worse.
Here are the first lines of three of my favourite books…
“First the colours.” – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I do think the fifth line in this book is great; “Here is a small fact, you are going to die.”
“My name is Moon.” – Half Moon Investigations by Eoin Colfer
“An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.” – The Long Walk by Richard Bachman/Stephen King.
None of those first lines particularly hook me, though I do like the imagery of Stephen King’s sentence, but the point is that I loved ALL of those books.
I think a well written blurb will always do ten times more to sell your book to a reader than a first line ever will. That’s no reason not to put a bit more effort into your first line, but I do wonder if it might just be publishers cold-reading manuscripts who care deeply about first lines.
My friend Liz explores more first lines here.
Last weekend edition #63 of ASIM was released at Contact in Brisbane. This edition includes my story Glow, which was a runner-up in the Australian Horror Writers Association short story competition in 2014. The story was accepted for publication shortly after the competition results were announced, so that tells you how long this publication has been in the works.
I’ve been trying to get into ASIM for years now, probably over 10 years if I’m honest, so it is strange to finally have achieved this goal. The irony is also not lost on me that it was with a story that was written with no thoughts of sending it to ASIM, and even now I don’t know why I did send this story to ASIM first, but I’m glad I did.
Many times I’ve read advice which says purchase a few copies of the magazine you want to get into to get a feel for what they have published, then write something for them. I did this with ASIM and got numerous humours science fiction stories out of the process, but none of them found homes at ASIM. My not-funny-at-all horror story did.
So yet again this seems to show that advice is not always going to be correct. Sometimes doing the ‘wrong’ thing can be exactly the right thing to do. If I’ve learned anything on this writing journey, it’s that all rules are made to be broken.
I once got a gig on an independent short film as a continuity person. I went to great lengths to make sure the cigarette being smoked was always burnt to the right point in the conversation and that the girl’s scarf was worn consistently in each shot.
I got the job because that’s the sort of thing I pick up when I watch a movie. It’s a ‘skill’ I’ve rarely had to call on when reading a book, until now. This week I picked up a book that is full of continuity errors.
The character walks to another character’s house, and at the end of the chat he takes her downstairs to her car so she can drive home. She gets up early, describing the sunrise in detail, then goes to see a friend who comments that it is nearly 5:30pm so they’ll need to wait until the next day to go to a florist. It is as if no-one bothered to read the book after the first draft was completed.
I don’t claim to never make these mistakes, I can totally relate to changing your mind on something, going back to edit it, not remembering that you referenced the thing you changed later in the story. But that’s why you always do a read through when you think you have finished the book. That’s why you give it to your beta-readers, to pick up on all the little details you got wrong. That’s why you employ an editor if you run a publishing house before you commit the book to print.
This is not a self-published book, it is also not the first edition. I can’t see how it is possible that so many continuity errors have made it into the copy of the book I have. The story is well put together, so I want to keep reading it, but the errors really are starting to hamper my enjoyment because there are just so many of them.
It really has underscored, for me, the importance of beta-readers. I know there are a lot of writers out there who shy away from showing their work to people they know, but will gladly send it off to a publisher. I guess the writer I’m reading was like that, and she managed to get away with it. But I think in 99.99% of cases where this has happened the authors have not been so lucky. In a world where publishers are looking for a reason to say no, it is best not to hand them this mistake. I’m sure that’s why I normally see so few continuity errors in books.
Sometimes as a writer you get an idea which fascinates you, so you turn it over in your head to try and find the best way to explore it, but there are so many parts to it that it is hard to pick just one. I think what most of us do at this point is follow the one that stands out the most, and release the other ideas back into the collective unconscious for someone else to discover.
But sometimes you can’t let them go, so you end up writing two (or more) stories with the same starting premise. I have read two John Saul books which had experiments on school children, so I know other writers do it. One of the girls in my writers group has three stories with the same idea; a kid’s version, a young adult version and a dark adult version. All three work, so I can see why she’s done it, but it does beg the question; can you put all of them out into the world?
I’ve always had the attitude of either only sending my favourite out, and keeping the other(s) just for me, or send them all out, and whichever gets published first forces the retirement of the others. I don’t know why I have this attitude, after all, if the stories were different enough for me to write them, then they should be different enough to publish.
I guess I keep thinking back to the John Saul books. In my head they became the one novel, and I really struggled to remember one separate from the other. When I was reading the second novel I kept drawing in background story from the first that didn’t fit, so I kept confusing myself.
I would love to know the experience of others, have you ever had two same-premise stories? If so, did you write them both? If so, did you send them both out? If so, did you cop any flack?
Following on from last week’s post, I just wanted to say a little something about world building. I attended a 5 hour workshop on this topic once which helped me to see how much more there was to world building than you might think.
Any spec fiction writer knows that the world in which you set your story can be as, if not more important than the characters you create to move the story along. For me the world is often an exploration of something in our world that has been taken to extreme, or it is there to highlight the progression of a current belief or ideal.
For that reason you need to know your world as intimately as you know any of your characters. Off the top of your head you should be able to answer the following questions, at least in a general way;
- How do people get power (if electricity is used)?
- How do people get food?
- Do people live in cities, towns, alone or all of these?
- What form of government is in place?
- What rules apply to any magical/psychic powers that exist (there should always be rules about these things)?
- Is there a religious belief(s)?
Now I know a lot of these questions will be completely irrelevant to your story, especially if you write flash fiction, and I’m not suggesting you put these things into your story, what I am saying is that as the owner of this world, you should know the answers to these questions.
There are some excellent workshops and books out there on how to improve your world building, and if you are going to spend a lot of time in worlds of your own creation, I think they are worth the investment. Many authors fall so in love with the worlds that they build that they set many stories in them.
As a reader I love other worlds and I enjoy reading stories set in other parts of a world that I’ve come to love. But be warned, every word you publish about a world will be read and remembered, so if you change the rules about your world, you need to include the explanation for how or why that rule was broken.
I had an English teacher in high school who took this ‘rule’ a little too literally. As a burgeoning science fiction writer I was often met with this comment in red across the bottom of my creative writing assignments; write what you know. Having read so many novels set in other times and places where no humans had yet gone, I knew she was wrong.
The thing is this rule is actually a set-in-stone-not-to-be-broken rule when you understand it properly. Perhaps it would be better phrased as if you write something that others know, make sure you know it too.
As a writer I can put a cattle station on planet Rurak with no problems. I set the rules about Rurak, so what I say goes. However, if I name a real breed of beef cow as a milking cow, then I’ve failed my reader. The facts that exist should be known by the writer. If I can’t be bothered researching cows, then I need put a different animal on Rurak or make one up.
Just as an aside, I think it is always better to do the research on the facts. Besides giving your story verisimilitude, many readers (me included) bristle at the idea of an animal that looks like a cow, moos like a cow and gets milked like a cow, being called a Beekramp for the ease of the story. To me that feels like sloppy world building and a writer who didn’t want to research cows.
So yes, write what you know, but feel free to take what you know and put it in a fantastical world of your own creation. Just be sure to know that world you invent. The last thing you want is someone reading your story and picking up on the parts where you have broken your own world-building rules! But that’s a whole other post…
A friend recently attached internet to her massive TV. With the whole internet stretching out before us all we could narrow it down to was YouTube. And then we had no idea what we wanted to watch. I’m embarrassed to say this, but with all the choice in the world, all we could think of was funny cat videos. We were overwhelmed to the point where our brains just closed down (just as an aside, the cat videos were very funny).
This is what it is like when you sit at the computer and attempt to ‘write a story’. If you haven’t been struck by an idea and you just try to force one out, there is too much choice and (for me) the brain goes blank.
That’s why, if I’m looking for a new story, I put limitations on myself. I set arbitrary rules just so my brain has something to hook into; a rock must be a significant part of the story (just typing that story ideas start to come), it must have the theme of loss (yep, happening again). It is only when there are some boundaries set that the idea generator kicks in.
This, of course, I have extrapolated into wider life. Maybe this is why so many of us are unsure of what we really want to do in life. We keep going along the same path as everyone else because it is easier than making a decision. Getting a job, a partner, 2.4 kids, a house and a dog called Rover is something we can focus on. When we open up the whole world as an option, our brains go blank.