Sunday, 27 July 2014

Writing A Novel vs. Writing Lyrics

I'll be the first to stick my hand up and say I was a late arrival to the novel-writing party.

 I'd certainly tried writing novels in the past - I think the first one was when I was about eighteen or so (for the life of me I can't remember what I called it or what is was about, so it must have been so godawful I've blocked it out.) As the years went by I tried to write several more, many of which still languish in tatty old notebooks in a dingy cupboard somewhere or in the Story Graveyard Folder on my computer. So yeah... novels? Something I was more than a bit crap at, judging by the evidence (or rather, my consistent lack of it.)

Lyrics for songs, on the other hand...

I'd been writing lyrics since my early teens - and unlike novels, I did finish the majority of them. I wrote them for myself (although I was way too shy to sing in public, so god knows what I thought I was ever going to do with them) I wrote a few for some singers in local bands (no formal copyright stuff, just gave 'em away - hey, it was in the hippie-chick-ing, doing-it-for-the-karma-man period of my life...) And, in my mid-twenties, I collaborated with Stephen W. Rodgers, an American composer, to write the lyrics for two stage musicals - Cinderella and Peter the Great. Both were performed publicly and received good reviews from theatre critics. And ever since then I've continued to write lyrics; 'straight' ones geared towards the mainstream music scene, comedy ones and parodies of existing songs a' la Weird Al Yankovich. (I've written over 100 parody songs alone.)

Lyrics were always things I could write pretty easily - and finish pretty easily. Novels... not so much. And yet every time I started a novel I wanted to finish it - but somehow, for years, never could. Eventually, after stumbling upon Chuck Wendig's excellent blog and being inspired by his advice (the most important bit of all being "finish your shit") I began to wonder why. What was it about writing lyrics that I found easy - and writing novels that I found hard?

The most obvious theory is of course to do with length (said the actress to the bishop...) The average song is designed to last somewhere between three and seven minutes, while the average novel  is designed to last... um - flippin' ages - well, a lot longer than a song, anyway. Aha,  it seems I've found the answer - when it comes to writing I clearly have the attention span of a goldfish!

Except that doesn't really hold water when it comes to writing lyrics for stage musicals - particularly in the case of the second one, Peter the Great. There were no previous stage productions - musical or otherwise - that I could read to 'get an idea' of the story; it hadn't been done before. Instead, Stephen and I had to research his life using academic and historical textbooks, pulling out the parts we felt would be interesting and structuring them into a coherent plot. In other words, using the same process used for outlining a novel. And while it's true to say that in place of chapters containing scenes in a book we had scenes containing songs on a stage, the commitment to a cohesive story as a whole was just as important. So no, it wasn't simply that I was only capable of creating five-minute-long stories.

However, when I started breaking down the structure of stage lyrics compared with the structure of novel chapters, some key differences emerged. Particularly when I compared my strengths as a lyricist to my weaknesses as a novelist.

 Description, for example, has always been my weak point in my novels. Like an over-geeked George Lucas, I tend to dump my characters in front of little more than green screens a lot of the time, with this vague idea that the awesome CGI-o-vision that's rocking in my head will somehow magically translate to the readers without me having to paint anything in myself at all. This is a direct result of writing lyrics, of course. In a song on a stage you've already got the set doing the work - and since you've only got a few minutes to tell the audience what's going on plot-wise (about 20-30 lines of lyrics) you can't waste them bibbling on about the view and the ambiance. Being good at describing scenery was something that I not only didn't have to learn as a lyricist, but would even have been a handicap to the process - so in a sense, I almost had to train myself not to be good at it.

Another key difference is the speed at which plot is given. In a novel the pacing ebbs and flows; some parts are more emotional and therefore more at a slower pace, while the more action-packed parts move faster. Either way, the pace still feels 'natural' to the reader, even when there are jumps forward in time. Stage lyrics, on the other hand, because they're also songs as well as chunks of story, tend to fall into one of two categories. On the one hand, you can have an entire song for one small, special moment (rare, but usually saved for the 'memorable songs' - y'know, the ones you envisage being the 'favourites,' that wannabe actors will pick for their 'audition pieces' in years to come.) Or, on the flipside, one song can whoosh through a whole chain of events like a high-speed train. "Peter needs a wife! We must invite tons of women to the palace! Oh look, here they all are - why, they all seem to want to marry the rich and powerful tsar-in-waiting! Not her, she's too fat! Not her, she's not classy enough! Not her, she looks like a horse! Oh wait - this miserable-looking one looks like she'll be a proper doormat, so let's have her! Well, that's quite a random choice, mother, but hey - you're the boss I suppose..." (Those aren't the actual lyrics to the particular Peter the Great song in question, but it does give some idea of how quickly the events zip past.)

And then there's the whole 'rhythm and rhyming thing' that you have with song lyrics. They've gotta fit the tune they're going to be sung to, and, while they don't have to rhyme, audiences do seem to prefer it when they do. Obviously, doing all of that and still making it sound like normal, naturalistic speech is next to impossible, so, in exchange for all of that lyricists - like poets - are granted huge amounts of creative license when it comes to proper use of grammar and sentence structure. And cliches too. Cliches are the invention of Satan in novels - but can be almost comforting in song lyrics. Basically, in their quest to Make Stuff Rhyme And Fit, lyricists can do things with the English language that would make Strunk and White cry like babies.

All of the above traits have helped me write lyrics over the years, because lyrics are compact and fairly abstract boxes, where getting your point across involves packing as much as you can into the small amount of space you have to work with. By comparison, the landscape of a novel is a vast, open wilderness; you must still choose your words carefully and not waste them, but that doesn't mean applying the same principles as for lyric-writing and then simply scattering the results over a bigger area. That, I've come to realise, is where and why all my previous attempts at novels failed.

So... it's been Back to Writing School for me while writing The Renegades, metaphorically speaking. I've been reading tons of writing how-to books to fill in the gaps in my knowledge, along with following the blogs and online tutorials of various authors who know their stuff. I've focused mainly on improving my outlining and plot structuring skills, and learning how to incorporate descriptions without resorting to cliches. It'll be a long, hard road I'm sure - but I'll stay on it for however long it takes to make The Renegades the best it can be.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

5 Fun Websites for Writers (But for AFTER - NOT INSTEAD OF - Writing!)

Yep, I'm sticking the disclaimer right there in the title - just so's we can all be clear. It's all too easy to get distracted and procrastinate-y about the serious business of Getting The Writing Done; there are emails, social media sites, blogs, etc. Not to mention that all-important, pseudo-writing 'activity' we like to call 'research.' *Looks shifty, closes a couple of internet windows YOU DID NOT SEE, 'cause they WEREN'T THERE...*

And these five sites are, if you're in the mood for some good old-fashioned work-avoidance, potential time-thieves. Sure, they're fun. They might help you think creatively. They might even give your ego a wee boost. But, if you're spending large chunks of time on them you're doing that instead of writing. That's me trying to be like your mum just before I morph into the irresponsible auntie, by the way. So I suggest you use them with caution; as a reward for getting your stuff done, perhaps - or a way of jump-starting your creative... spark plug... thingies when you're feeling blocked. (Note to self: maybe don't use complicated car metaphors when you don't even drive.)

So - like those celebratory cake moments you have every once in a while on your diet programme (what? Doesn't everyone have them?) here they are - in no particular order...

1 -
There are two reasons this site is awesome (and a potential time-thief.) Reason one: you get to test your knowledge in eight different academic subjects - which is pretty useful (and of course fun) for any writer. But reason two: for every correct answer you get, the site donates ten grains of rice to the World Food Programme. Which sounds like a piddling little amount... but you can rack up a bowlful of rice in mere minutes. You win a free meal for a hungry child, simply by having fun on a website. What's not to love about that?

2 - Pulp-o-mizer
If you write sci-fi novels - or even if you'd like to see a sci-fi version of one of your novels - this site is huge fun. It basically allows you to create a book cover in the style of a 'fifties pulp sci-fi magazine. With a wealth of drop-down menu options to select everything from background and foreground pictures to titles and font styles, you can use it to create a gloriously camp version of your current work-in-progress - just for the giggles - or to brainstorm a potential future idea for a story. You can save your creations, and there are even options to get them printed onto merchandise, like mugs, posters, cards and notebooks. You know you want to give it a go...

(the site also includes a random sci-fi title generator, the Pulp Sci-Fi-Title-O-Tron, if you're looking for some wacky writing prompts/creative exercises.)

3 - I Write Like...
Looking for a boost to your battered writer's ego? Or perhaps a disturbing revelation, depending on who you 'get,' I suppose... this site performs a 'statistical analysis' on your prose and compares it (and, by association, you) to whichever famous author you 'write like' (hence the title.) You just copy and paste a decent-sized chunk of your text (at least 400 words) into the window and hit the 'Analyze' button, and your results appear instantly - with a link to the books of said famous author if you should happen to find yourself thinking "Who the heck is he/she?"

Of course this is an analysis done by a computer - that little box that's great at maths but has hopeless people skills - so the results shouldn't be taken too seriously. (Marching into your nearest literary agency screaming "Step aside peasants, for it is now official - I AM the New Ernest Hemingway!" is not recommended, for example.) But it's a fun little exercise - and you might even get a surprise out of it.

4 - Languageisavirus
This site has a load of creative writing games, exercises and prompts for the blocked and/or bored writer. Some of them are a bit pointless (while mildly entertaining, I can't honestly see how some of the text manipulation games - like the WTF-O-Vision, for instance - contribute anything useful to the creative process. But that's just me.) However, their online version of the Poetry Magnet kits - using the styles of famous writers as themes - are a lot of fun, and along with the exercises and prompts there are quotes about writing techniques from famous authors too.

5 - CafePress - Gifts for Writers
This is a site that, once you've had good gander at it, you'll probably want to point out to your nearest and dearest, and get them to bookmark. Because it could come in very handy indeed around - oooh, y'know, Christmas and birthday times? Who knew such a plethora of lovely, writer-themed stuff was out there, just begging to be acquired for the Writer In Your Loved Ones' Life (i.e. you?) Although you might not want to wait long enough for them to get the hint - seriously, there's some awesome stuff there.

Are there any more you could recommend? Sure, I know sites like these are Bad For Productivity and I'm probably corrupting the heck out of all you serious and dedicated writers by even mentioning these sites... but everyone needs to be a little naughty now and then. It can be our little secret. the non-writing Muggles don't need to know what we get up to when they're not looking...

Saturday, 12 July 2014

7 Books About Writing That Will Change Your Life*

*Well okay - that may be a slight exaggeration. Or it may not - they may indeed actually change your life - well, at the very least your writing life. Either way, they are totally awesome books and, for this post, I feel it's only right and proper that someone should shout it loud and proud just how utterly awesome they are. And, for that purpose, I have elected me (mainly since I'm here and the only candidate who came forward at the time of asking.)

I've been reading a lot of writing 'how-to' books recently, mainly because I've found reading a chapter prior to sitting down to write a great way to get Into The Zone - like a warm-up exercise, I suppose. I haven't put my current favourites in any particular order, and they cover a wide variety of different aspects of  'The Craft,' so hopefully it's a buffet everyone can dig into.


1 - Write Your Novel From The Middle (James Scott Bell)
 It took a while before I was persuaded to buy this book, because I read its title and thought "that's a completely terrible idea and it would never work for someone like me!" So I completely understand if that's what you're thinking as well. But don't worry; the approach James is advocating is far more insightful and revolutionary than just literally starting your novel at Page Halfway and then working away from there to each opposite end. In fact, the methods and mindsets he covers are simple yet sheer bloomin' genius. This book will change the way you look at the novel-writing process, and make you see your own works-in-progress in a completely new light. If you aspire to writing stories with depth, where the characters are memorable, this is a strong step in the right direction.

2 - On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King)
Well, apart from a suspicion that not including this book in a list of awesome writing books is probably considered a crime in the fiction-writing world, I'd be a fool to leave out something written by one of its biggest and heaviest hitters, wouldn't I? So for any writers out there who haven't read it yet, I can assure you it's well worth the hype. Part-autobiography and part writing masterclass, Stephen King tells it how it is, offering good, solid advice interspersed with personal anecdotes in a down-to-earth manner that's well laced with his quirky, self-deprecating humour. Even if you don't like his novels, his personal journey to becoming the writer he is makes a great read in itself; he slogged long and hard to get the success he's achieved in his career and this book is an honest and inspiring account of that.

3 - The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer's Block (Hillary Rettig)
If you're one of those writers who looks at published authors and thinks "I wish I could be like them... I wish I had whatever they had that makes them write all those books and finish all those books and get them published... dammit, I wish I knew the secret to being like them!" you need this book in your life. Most of the other books out there on this subject approach it in a 'here's a magic box full of solutions' way; writing exercises designed to 'kickstart the imagination,' suggestions for tweaking schedules, setting yourself targets, etc... This book largely ignores all of that and instead goes much, much deeper. It's an uncomfortable read at times; Hillary will tell you things you don't like and much less want to admit are... probably true. But at the same time it will switch lightbulbs on in your head, and change your attitudes to both your writing and yourself. Calling it 'therapy in book form for writers' feels almost like cheapening it, because it's so much more than that. If the title of this book made you think "that's me," if you worry that you'll never be 'good enough' to make it as a published writer - if you've spent large amounts of your life beating on yourself for not being where you want to be as a writer, you need this book.

4 - The '500 Ways..' Series (Chuck Wendig)
There are four books in this series - which I realise is cheating a bit with the title being 7 books and all - but I couldn't bring myself to leave any of them out because I devoured them all with equal enthusiasm. Chuck's delivery is sharp, smart and of a laugh-out-loud variety that's definitely NTSW (that's 'Not Safe For Work' - I'm explaining that acronym because I have this theory that, if you're someone who needs it explained, the chances of you finding that kind of material offensive might be slightly higher. Just a theory, yet to be conclusively proved, but, y'know... ) Like Stephen King but with extra chilli sauce, Chuck tells it like it is; these are not books you turn to if you want cuddles and tree-huggy platitudes about the Reality of Writing. If you're looking for a good old motivational kick up the writerly pants, however, these books do it in the funniest way - and the advice is solid gold., covering everything from all aspects of writing, to marketing and publishing and even advice on conducting yourself as an author on social media.

5 - Writing Down The Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Natalie Goldberg)
I first read this book in my early twenties, and it played a huge part in making me the writer I am today. It was the book that showed me being a writer and a dreamer at heart, and wanting to express that, was okay - and didn't automatically make me some kind of wishy-washy loser who was never going to do anything 'useful' with her life. It's more about digging into your soul and finding the courage to write without inhibition, rather than giving you a bunch of How To Write Commandments to live by. Yes, looking back on it now (I still have that dog-eared paperback on my bookshelf) it has a very 'New Age' vibe that was all the rage back then, but it's one of those books that's great to just pick up and read a couple of chapters when your Writer's Self-Esteem needs a little pick-me-up. Natalie Goldberg has a writing style that feels like a best friend (albeit your Hippie Best Friend) talking to you, empathising with your troubles, boosting your confidence and probably baking you some brownies as well.

6 - How to Write a Novel (Nathan Bransford)
This book slots comfortably into the category of 'does what it says on the tin' - but it does it in a friendly and witty style. Practically and intuitively laid out, this book really does cover everything you need to know about writing a novel - from birthing the original idea to publishing and marketing your squealing book-baby. Nathan strikes the perfect balance between being encouraging while telling it like it is - and as both an author and an ex-literary editor, he clearly knows his stuff. A great, practical manual to have sitting on your writing desk while you craft your work-in-progress.

7 - Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction (Jeff Vandemeer)
Oh my word. What to say about this book? You will have never seen a book about the craft of writing quite like this before. This is the Willy Wonka version of writing how-to books - and I mean that in the best possible way. A hefty doorstop of a tome, it's packed with writing tips, tools and advice, and contains wise and pithy quotes from many, many successful writers and artists. But what really sets it apart from all other books in this genre are the incredible illustrations. Page after page of beautifully-rendered diagrams that are as informative as they are gorgeous, they bring their accompanying text to life with their own, unique touch of Dali-esque weirdness. Even if you don't read any of the text (but why would you not do that? It's a book, after all...) just looking at the pictures is a joy (and enough to spark the imagination in whole new ways.) It's like opening a chocolate box. Even when I think I've explored this book from beginning to end, every time I come back to it I still see something new that I didn't notice before.

What about you? What books have you read that you'd put on your 'books that changed my life' list? I'd love to know (still looking for more to read, after all...)

Saturday, 5 July 2014

How to Detect the Clank of the Deus Ex Machina

There comes a point in almost every rewrite of a draft one manuscript when you suddenly become aware your internal Writing Satnav/GPS is yelling at you. Not the normal sort of yelling, where they're just giving you instructions like "continue with this POV until the next plot twist" in that slightly bored and disjointed voice they do so well, but the loud, insistent scream of "do a U-turn NOW or you're gonna dump this story over the edge of a cliff!"

Y'see the wonderful thing about a draft one is that anything goes in terms of making your characters Get Important Stuff Done. They can temporarily be Superman, McGyver and Gandalf the White all rolled into one if that's what it takes to move your story from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, because you're still in the figuring out stage and "the rest of the story can't happen unless they do this thing and shuddup okay I haven't got time to think about it I just wanna get this done dammit!" In essence, you roll out the Deus Ex Machina.

Translated as 'The God in the Machine,' a Deus Ex Machina was a plot device employed in Greek tragedies, when the audience loved nothing more than tales of piddly little humans getting repeatedly kicked in the 'nads by the awfulness of their piddly little lives until some random Greek God dropped down from the sky and fixed everything in the last three minutes of the show. (In these stage productions, the actors playing said gods were literally dropped on wires through a trapdoor in the ceiling to perform the obligatory last-minute miracle. In a world that had yet to acquire a 'Die Hard'-ing Bruce Willis, this was the best they could manage.)

Draft ones of manuscripts are the perfect place to slap Deus Ex Machinas; it's how many draft ones get completed at all. But when draft two and beyond rolls around you can't get away with that sort of nonsense anymore. Stuff has to make sense. You need to make sure that, when it comes to solving problems and moving the plot forward, your characters aren't using a sledgehammer to crack a nut - or, even worse, an inexplicably-acquired magic nut to destroy a sledgehammer. And if such a thing occurs, it often occurs more than once. Like that thing they say about a butterfly beating its wings causing major disasters on the other side of the world, one such doof-up can have knock-on effect on several other areas of your story, amplifying the doofiness of each subsequent doof-up until your precious draft one begins to look like the work of a lunatic.

This week, at the two-thirds-through mark of my current w-i-p The Renegades, I reached that point.

As I began rewriting Chapter 22, I realised there was some major information that needed to be given earlier in the story if what occurred from this point on was going to make any sense. Which meant a pretty intensive re-write of Chapter 18 - the only place where including that information would be sensible and flow naturally from the events described. And as I started doing that, I began to see holes in other areas too, until the crucial Grand Plan of my protagonist and her two comrades-in-arms began to look distinctly colander-like in terms of its ability to hold water.

I sighed. I head-desked. I ate cake ('works when you're happy, works when you're sad - the all-purpose mind-medicine!') And then I decided that the only way to fix it - and at the same time catch any other giant doof-ups that may still be lurking elsewhere in my story - was to draw up a list of hard questions to ask myself. Put every one of my plot points on trial and see if they made the grade. And here is the list I came up with. The Renegades is a sci-fi story, which is why I need to focus heavily on technical details, but there's no reason why this list couldn't work for other genres too:

1 - Would this course of action actually achieve the desired result?
This is the first question because it's the most obvious. Are the characters - with all their strengths and weaknesses  - actually capable of doing what's required? Does this thing they're trying to do comply with what's physically/scientifically possible in their world? How could things go wrong, and how plausible is it that they could still achieve their goal a) without anything going wrong or b) by adjusting to a Plan B 'on the fly' if things did go wrong?

2 - Is this course of action the easiest/safest way to achieve the desired result?
Because characters don't care what makes the plot funkier; they just want to do what they want to do. In real life we don't generally pick the hardest and most dangerous way to do something, and if a story is to make sense to readers then the characters shouldn't either. So if your heroine is creeping up behind a burly security guard and doing a Vulcan Death-Grip on him, hacking into the security system to bypass the locks, and then taking out another couple of security guards before escaping through the front entrance of an underground complex - when instead she could just sneak out of an unguarded back door and run like heck... well, it might be more exciting, but it's ludicrous. Forget the action-thriller whizz-bangs and let characters behave like someone with common sense.

3 - And they're doing this thing... why, again?
There are only two reasons people in real life do something they don't need to do; if it's enjoyable, or if they believe they can't avoid doing it. The same should be true of characters in stories. This applies to the big, game-changing actions taken and the smaller efforts that help towards achieving the big goals (those times when a major action can't be completed until a series of minor ones are done.) Both can suddenly become redundant with even the smallest of plot changes elsewhere in the story, so it's worth going back and checking to see if they're still relevant when such changes occur. Do those characters really still need to do that slightly random midnight raid that contributes nothing to their current objective at all? Or is Cackling Overlord Author only making them do that, so they will 'accidentally' find the secret thing they didn't even know existed but just so happens to reveal some really vital plot information? Don't be that author. Readers will snigger at you and call you names behind your back.

4 - Why are they doing this thing NOW? What stopped them doing it BEFORE now?
If they're doing what they're doing now in response to a situation they were aware of ages ago, what changed to make that happen? The answer can't be 'nothing,' because that just makes your characters look like apathetic chumps. Action should always be followed in quick succession by reaction, and even if that reaction is to do nothing, the reasons for that should be logical within the context of your story - along with any reasons for them to change their mind at a later date. The same rules apply when it comes to characters with special skills or magical powers. The reader has to know about them as soon as the character is aware of them - and from that point on, they're a tool in their toolbox, to be used whenever any person with an ounce of intelligence would use them to make their life that little bit easier. No saving them up for an oh-so-convenient, one-night-only appearance in the Final Showdown Moment - "Oh I remember - I can shoot burning jets of fire from my hands! Well thank goodness I finally realised that  just now, as I'm fighting the Deadly Ice Troll we've been hunting through The Frozen Wastes for nearly three-quarters of this tale! Doh - now I think about it, I could've used that on all his icy minions on the way here as well... silly old me, eh?"

5 - And they still think this is a good idea, right?
Sometimes, in the name of building the tension and moving the plot forward, characters have to do completely the wrong thing. Make really bad decisions, horribly misjudge a person or situation or take a risk  on impulse and have it not pay off in the worst possible way. Your readers might see the disaster coming way in advance, fighting the urge to scream "nooo, you raving idiots, that's the worst thing you could possibly do..!" as your characters blunder towards the inevitable snake pit - but your characters definitely shouldn't. People don't generally choose to do stuff that's going to mess their lives up. If you're gonna make your characters do a dumb thing, they have to have damn good reasons for not thinking it's a dumb thing, and those reasons have to be crystal clear to the reader. If your character has clearly stated he has an acute phobia of snakes, that's not going to go away without intensive therapy - so you can't suddenly - and purely for the purpose of fulfilling your plot obligations - make him read an advert in the local paper for a job as a snake-charmer and say "Ooh, I'll go for that! I mean, I know I'm terrified of snakes... but I'll muddle through, I'm sure!"

I'm applying these questions to my w-i-p as of now - and it's already given me things to think about. Have I left anything out that could be added to this list? What are your experiences of extracting the Deus Ex Machina from your work? I'd love to know.