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We went to Sizewell this week. Camping. It was a lot of fun and I've got to admit I thought the nuclear power station looked really, well, powerful I suppose. And it's big blockiness reminded me of my own little block. And the massive, faceless building made me thing about writing a novel. It's not just a blank page. It's grey. It's huge. It's intimidating. And when you stand looking at the outside you have no idea what there is beneath its grey-blank skin.

This week I wrote about 2500 words. I discovered the target feature on Scrivener. I tried the pomodora (no idea how to spell that) with my marking. And I'll try it with my writing when I get up tomorrow morning.

And so I set about conquering my writer's block by paying attention to  the stuff under the skin. Plotting. I came to realise what I think I knew anyway. The barrier was that I hadn't planned my plot enough. So I did some of that. Just a couple of sentences about each scene, and now I can see beyond the towering concrete. And I think I know what to do. I feel more positive about getting back to target. I really want to finish the first draft by the end of the month.

So I've done that and I feel more secure. One lesson that I've learned with this draft is that I really need to plot in as much detail as possible next time. I can 'pants' short stories but for the long haul stuff I really need an extensive scaffold.

I did do some plotting. I've used KM Weiland's plot points and character interviews (which I will definitely do again) and mixed that up with a bit of StoryGrid foolscap. But these aren't enough for me on there own. Next time everything needs to be much more something.

I wrote my bad guy's big speech this week. And as an English teacher I quite like seeing different themes and possible interpretations emerging. I aint saying they work yet, or if they ever will, but I can see the potential.

Anyhoo, onwards and upwards. Time to start cranking out the words.







 

MY WRITING REPORT FOR THIS WEEK
Word Count - it's not complicated; it's practically non-existent.
I've been finding it hard to focus on writing this week and when I do I make little progress. I think this is for a number of reasons:
1 - fear of completing it and it being shit.
2 - being distracted by other ideas.
3 - being exhausted in exam season.
4 - Not having planned the third act properly.
Hmmm - yeah I'm definitely not a free-writer that's the take hoe of this week. When I wrote I wrote nothing and I figure that was because aside from the ending I had little idea about how the third act would go.
Word count aside - a friend of mine read the first half of the first draft. She hates all the names of the characters - which is fixable, and she hates the setting (Margate) which isn't. She also hates a key scene where the antagonist is introduced - there are other problems too, some of which I knew about (introducing protagonist effectively) and she liked my ideas about altering my approach to the flashback scenes.

Come to think of it:
5 - fear of completing the novel while knowing that there will be some major rewriting to undertake.

Anything else?
Honestly... I am worried about my protagonist being too bland.
Oh and you can get some Marvel Comics for 99p on the Kindle. I downloaded the Dr. Doom origin story and started reading it with my four year old - it was on the razor edge of appropriate I admit, but he loved it and they look great electronically.
Every dad ought to take a look - I love The Fantastic Four by the way - It's Clobberin' Time!

Geoff Smith







 

I recently read Mappalujo by Jeff Noon and Steve Beard. It was a really interesting read. I had a great tie reading it. It felt like something innovative and exciting, and as I read I wondered about how the book came about. With its separate but linked narratives it seemed to defy my expectations of structure while still seeming well-themed and, well, exciting.

It wasn't until I got to the end of the book and the appendices that I found out about the writing process. Steve and Jeff used a formalised approach called Mappalujo. They based their chapters on a collection of cultural icons, from Gilbert and George to The Velvet Underground. Writing alternate chapters they ended up with something unique, powerful and just, well, cool.

I wanted to know more about how it worked. What about outlining? Character arcs? What about redrafting, sharing control? So, I contacted Jeff and he has answered a few of my questions.

I've got to be honest - this is the most exciting post I've been lucky enough to post. Mappalujo is a brilliant idea and I want to do it with... with someone, sometime.

So here it is. Check out the rules below, and my interview with Jeff at the bottom of the post.

The Mappalujo Rule Book

  1. Mappalujo is a writing game designed to allow two or more players to create a shared narrative between them. It offers a balance between a collaborative work process and individual freedom.

  2. Players decide between them on a bank of ICONS, a number of celebrity figures either living, dead or fictional. We recommend between six and twenty icons for each new story. Icons should be taken from as broad a range of cultural worlds as possible. An example six might be: OPHRA WINFREY, BATMAN, LADY GAGA, BENOIT MANDELBROT, JEAN-PAUL GAULTIER and BRIDGET JONES. Your chosen icons will be used to influence each chapter of the story.

  3. Rules are decided about maximum length of chapter, for instance no more than three pages of text, or no more than 1,000 words. Mappalujo works best when limits are set in this way, to allow each icon to have its proper influence.

  4. The game begins. The first player chooses one of the iconic figures and writes a short chapter based on it. The icon can influence the writing in any way. For instance the icon BATMAN might lead to a piece about masks, about fighting crime, about revenge, about losing a parent to a violent incident, about comic books, about superheroes, about people copying the behaviour of animals, and so on. This influence can be obvious, or tangential. There are no limits to the extent or range of the iconic influence.

  5. Once chapter one is complete, the chosen icon is removed from the icon bank.

  6. This first chapter is sent to Player 2, who chooses another icon from those remaining in the bank and responds with a chapter of their own, influenced in turn by this new icon.

  7. Mappalujo is suitable for creating both traditional and experimental narratives. So, this second chapter can follow directly on from the first in terms of plot, characters or atmosphere; or it might not, depending on the agreed style of the story.

  8. This second chapter is sent back to Player 1, and the second icon is removed from the icon bank.

  9. The game proceeds in this way until all of the icons in the bank are used up. As the story reaches its final chapters, the players will have fewer icons to choose from, so increased creativity plays an important role.

  10. Stage one of the mappalujo process is complete when the last icon has been used, and the final chapter written. There will now be a number of chapters or episodes, one for each icon in the bank.

  11. These completed chapters are regarded as the raw material for a story. The two players now work together in a more traditional manner, editing and tweaking as they see fit in order to improve the story. During this part of the process a balance should be found between perfecting the story as a whole, while retaining the individual iconic nature of each chapter.

  12. When both players are satisfied with the outcome, the mappalujo game is finished. The story is complete.

Interview with Jeff Noon.

You wrote Mappalujo with Steve Beard. How well did you guys know each other when you began the Mappalujo process?

J: Hardly at all. I’d recently moved to Brighton after living in Manchester, so I was looking to make new friends and contacts. I went to a book reading session at a bar and heard Steve read. We got chatting afterwards, and then met up a short time late for coffee. We talked about working together on something. But we were both aware of the difficulties of writing prose in a collaborative manner (as opposed to writing film scripts, say, which lend themselves much more to a writing team’s joint efforts). So we decided to come up with some kind of formal approach that would allow our different styles and interests to merge in some way. The Mappalujo process was born from those discussions.

I think I read that you decided the number of chapters that the two of you would write. To what extent did you outline the story arc of the project as a whole?

The first stage of the Mappalujo process is to choose a number of chapters, say ten, and a set of iconic figures to go with them. Iconic figures are people of influence in the worlds of art, politics, science, philosophy, etc, living or dead, real or fictional. These iconic figures are then used, each in turn, to influence a chapter of the story as it builds. Steve would choose an icon, write a chapter based in some way on that icon’s life or work, and pass it on to me; in turn I would choose another icon from the list, and write an answering chapter. The story builds up in this manner until all the icons in the list are used up. So the story is written chapter by chapter, with the two authors swapping chapters back and forth. We didn’t plan the story out in any way, not to start with. We just improvised and jumped off each other’s previous chapter. It was very much an explorative process, finding pathways through a labyrinth. The overall arc of the novel only came into being as the individual stories were completed. We soon realised that all the events were taking place in the same city, which we named Lujo. Very gradually the story of Lujo emerged, with a whole set of characters living there, to carry the story forward over many decades of the city’s history.

How much did you and Steve talk about the story during the process of writing the first draft?

We would meet up every so often to chat about the process and the story, and to exchange ideas on future events. It started out as an experiment in writing; only gradually did we realise that we were actually writing a novel, or a series of interconnected short stories. But once that idea took shape, we started to think of it in novelistic terms; so more planning took place, the longer the writing process lasted.

Was it more enjoyable producing the first draft than writing a first draft alone?

Yes, it was very enjoyable! But also frustrating at times. We found it was quite easy to wander off down pathways that looked really exciting to begin with, only to discover that they were actually dead ends. So we would then have re-think meetings, to discover a new approach for the story. But the whole game-playing aspect of Mappalujo always keeps it interesting, and fresh and lively: you never know where you’re going to go next. And of course the more we did it, the better we became at utilising the system.

Was the redrafting and crafting of the final draft more complex than for an individual project?

The first draft produced a kind of soup of raw materials, from which we then crafted the novel. This second part of the process is more traditional; rewriting a second draft pretty much as an individual writer would. One of us would have a go through the material, shaping it, changing it, adding things, discarding other things, etc. The second writer would then treat that new draft as his own, and rework it. We’d then meet up to decide on the final draft. It was probably a little bit more complex than a writer working alone, but not much. This final stage was very similar to how two writers might work on a film script together.

Did the redrafting process take a long time?

It’s really difficult to talk about chronological time passing, because we would have intense periods of working together, and then periods where we took breaks. I would guess that the whole process of writing the novel, beginning to end, took about five years, with breaks here and there. We probably spent half of that time on the initial icon-sharing process, and half on the redrafting. I do remember that we did a lot changes later on, when we starting thinking about how a reader would respond to the book.

Did the Mappalujo process teach you anything about how to write with another author?

I think it solves a lot of the problems of collaborative novel writing, because two or more authors of different sensibilities are able to feed their individual styles and interests into the chapters. Even when we were working on the novel’s overall story as an arc, we never wanted the book to lose that initial feel of a game being played, of different styles meshing together. We wanted it to be a bit ragged at the edges, rather than super smooth. And out of that Mappalujo process, Steve and I have recently started to work together again, this time on film scripts, a much more standard way of writing, but one that is definitely informed by the lessons we learned from creating Mappalujo. I think we’ve learned how to let our individual styles feed into the whole, which is probably the most important aspect of any collaborative project.

What advice would you give to other writers considering their own Mappalujo project?

Set a limit for the length of chapters, say two pages. Don’t start with two many chapters: six to ten icons should be fine. Start small, and build from there as the story reveals its true potential. Make sure the icons are interesting. Figures with highly individuated attributes and styles are best, because they lead to the most influences. Avoid direct parody of an icon’s working style, if possible. Try to think of more lateral kinds of influence. And most importantly: have fun! To begin with, it’s a game, an exploration of possibilities. Then it becomes something else, a narrative. Follow the flow of the story, wherever it might take you.

And there it is. I think it's a really exciting idea and I've had a few ideas about possible projects. I hope you might have a go too.







 

Christina Dalcher - author of 'The Definition of US'
Christina Dalcher - author of 'The Definition of US'

Ad Hoc Fiction is a brilliant weekly flash fiction competition where incredible writers produce 150 words stories that contain a specified prompt word. Each week the public vote and a winner is selected. The voting system does an incredible job of finding the diamonds in the, well not rough. Let’s say the public do a great job in selecting the most polished diamonds from a grab bag of gems… no that sounds poncey. You know what I mean. Right?

The winner each week gets free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction competition proper, which has a top prize of £1000.

Last month I interviewed Alison Wassell and I’ve been keeping an oar in and an eye out ever since. Last week I read ‘The Definition of Us’ by Christina Dalcher and I just thought – it was a really interesting piece. So I asked Christina about it and this is what she said:

How often do you enter stories on AdHoc fiction?

Since August 2016, I'd say every other week on average. I don't set a clock, but whenever my fingers start to itch and I don't already have a flash piece (or two) cooking, I head over to AdHoc and check out their word of the week.

How do you usually approach key words / prompts? Was this different?

The very first thing I do is look up the word in the OED and in urbandictionary.com. I dig deep, keeping an eye out for archaic/obsolete uses, etymology, unexpected parts of speech or meanings or references. Since the prompt word that begat "The Definition of Us" was cast, I farmed a metric ton of raw fodder from dictionary entries, and that gave me the idea to capitalize on the rich lexical semantics of that single word. Once I knew where the experiment was going, I plugged the string 'cast' into an online Scrabble dictionary and pulled several of the longer words that contained the four-letter string.

Did you outline your piece before you wrote it?

Outline? What's an outline? No, seriously, I didn't, mostly because I didn't have much time left before the deadline, and also because I never outline my short work.

How did you approach the writing / redrafting of 'The Definition of Us'?

This piece started differently than most of my flash fiction. Rather than begin writing, I allowed the dictionary entries of 'cast' and words containing 'cast' to create the story. The bones, so to speak, were about two dozen dictionary entries. Since the top entry happened to be one of the more common meanings (direct one's eyes at someone), the theme was headed for romance right from the start!

Roughly how long did you spend writing 'The Definition of Us' ?

I'm afraid if I tell you this, you might not like me very much! Once I had a short list of the dictionary entries, the piece came together in about ten minutes. I owe this to my fabulously fast mother, who taught me how to type.

Do you tell others when you have posted a story?

Sometimes. "The Definition of Us" was the first AdHoc piece I sent to my critique group (the inimitable FastFlash5). I confess I'm a rather sporadic tweeter, though, and when tomorrow arrives, I tend to forget yesterday.

Do you think about your story much during the week it's up on the AdHoc site for the public vote?

Oh, goodness, if I thought about every story that was out on submission, I'd go mad in a New York minute. I do love reading the weekly AdHoc entries, though!

Do you enjoy writing within the 150 word limit?

Absolutely. And the 300-word limit and the 50-word limit and the 743-word limit. Since I'm also a novelist, anything under 80,000 words is a refreshing break, a quick sprint to interrupt the marathon. Also, (and I'm recalling the wise words of my late syntax professor, Charlie Jones, here) I believe that if you can't say what you want in the confines of a page or a paragraph, you probably can't say it in a few hundred pages or a few hundred paragraphs.

'The Definition of Us' is one of the most imaginatively structured pieces I've seen on AdHoc. Can you tell us about it?
'The Definition of Us' - all in the etymology.
'The Definition of Us' - all in the etymology.

First, thank you. That's a lovely compliment. The narrative itself is quite simple (girl loves someone, girl's parents are against the couple—you've probably seen this before in, say, Romeo and Juliet). It probably wouldn't have worked as well if I'd just come out and written what these characters wanted and how they went about achieving their goals. Complicating the form lets the reader have some fun in assembling the pieces: the key word, the definition, and the application of that definition are all there on the page, but their arrangement is a bit of a surprise. People like surprises, right?

Is experiment with structure something that you do a lot?

Oh, yeah. Almost half of my published short work is in some sort of experimental form: emails, diary entries, recipes, word games, and epistles are a few examples. I particularly love playing with words—it's the linguist in me. Also, I'm a cryptic crossword addict, which will make sense to my fellow Brits, not so much to my fellow Yanks. As a side note, the first piece of flash I read was a fantastic story by Ani King titled "Conjugate 'to be', using complete sentences." It's over at freezeframefiction if anyone fancies having a peek.

And do you think structural experimentation is particularly suited to flash fiction?

Very much so. And not at all suited to longer writing—imagine an 80,000-word novel all in dictionary format or Associated Press blurbs! There's a certain amount of work that needs doing when you read a story through the filter of unexpected forms, and the novelty can grow old if it's overdone or prolonged.

What advice would you give to other writers having a go at the AdHoc fiction competition?

Read the winning entries, read the long listed entries, stretch outside the box of the first thing that comes to mind when you see that single-word prompt, write some stuff, edit and polish and read it out loud. Hit submit. Do it all again the following week!

Read more by Christina Dalcher

Christina is an incredibly industrious and prolific writer... I am more than a little awestruck. She has about 45 flash credits so far and was placed second in the Bartleby Snopes Dialogue-only Contest this year.

 

If you'd like to read more of Christina's work, check out the following:


The Molotov Cocktail: Prize Winners AnthologyAfter the Pause Year 2christina-d2Vine Leaves Journal, Issue #17christina-d3I really loved this interview. I've ordered the Molotov title and look forward to hearing and reading more of Christina's work in the future.Find Christina Dalcher at www.christinadalcher.com or tweeting @CVDalcher.







 

Act One: The Beginning of Everything

The first act is where you set up the problems that you the character is going to have to resolve. It takes up about the first twenty-five percent of the novel.

This is the first of three posts that put forward a simple interpretation of the three act structure.

KM Weiland suggests that there are two main events that we have to worry about here: the inciting incident and the first plot point.

The Inciting Incident

Michael Hauge calls this opening The Set Up . Here we have to introduce the protagonist in his 'ordinary life', the first 10% allows us to demonstrate the character and his situation, to establish him or her in the readers' sympathies.
In short, the opening scenes need to make us like or respect the hero.
For Hauge, the inciting incident is a choice. The character has a chance to attain some kind of new life or situation. That creates a new desire, setting the story in motion.
So the inciting incident is the event that sets the story in motion. Weiland is more flexible in her approach than Hauge. And perhaps this is because Hauge is a screenwriter rather than a novelist. Weiland's view is that while the inciting incident can happen on the 10% mark, it might be in the first couple of scenes as in The Hunger Games, or even before the start of the action of the novel.

First Plot Point

So from the inciting incident to about the 25% mark the character will react to the inciting incident, and this usually involves a choice on the part of the protagonist. During this section of the novel the character will encounter a bunch of problems and revelations that will most likely dampen enthusiasm and lead them to doubt themselves, until …

You guessed it – that pesky first plot point!

Hauge tells us that something big needs to happen to our hero about a quarter of the way through our story. The hero will usually make a choice here, a decision that cannot be reversed. Whatever it is, this event must change the hero's goal from a generalised desire into a specific goal with a definite end point.

And with that we end act one. We have shown the hero's ordinary world, seen him choose a new situation; we've seen his world view being challenged by a series of obstacles until finally he makes a dramatic choice that sets him on a new path towards a specific and finite goal.

Star Wars: A New Hope

Star Wars - classic three act structure.
Star Wars - classic three act structure.

If we think about Star Wars as an example we see Luke Skywalker's ordinary life on the farm. We see his competence and skill and his frustration, until at the ten-percent mark he accidentally triggers the message from Princess Leia, and this is the inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

From here Luke is tested. He is attacked by sand-people! Meets a crazy old man. He refuses the call. Then the first plot point occurs when Luke discovers that the storm-troopers have torched the farm and murdered his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Luke makes a choice to follow Ben Kenobi to Alderaan and to join the rebellion.

And that's the first act: an appealing protagonist, an inciting incident and a call to action.

Next up – Act Two






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In his incredible and seminal book, 'Story', Robert McKee recounts his time as an actor. Directors would extol to him the importance of creating three dimensional characters but would be unable to explain to him exactly what they meant by a dimension.

Meet Shelley:

Shelley discovered Buddhism ten years ago. In that time she has achieved an almost Zen like inner peace and is in tune with the world around her. She grew up on a country estate and is a crack shot, and clay pigeon shooting champion. She is hip too and is in demand as a DJ. Her specialism is Dub-Step. She is a divorcee and former beauty queen. She plays chess online and can compete with the grand-masters.

According to McKee, characters like my own Shelley (above) illustrate a common misconceptions about '3D' characters. And McKee gives his own example – a breakdancing ex-convict. The misconception is to confuse a dimension with a skills, abilities or powers. Shelley can do a lot of stuff, but as a character she is flat, flat, flat in every dimension.

Similarly he argues, it is a mistake to think that a single attribute makes a character 'three-dimensional'. He cites Macbeth. It is not Macbeth's “vaulting ambition” that makes him a successful, fully formed, '3D' character.

It is, he argues, the contradiction between his ambition and his guilt.

A dimension, then, is not an attribute or a skill, but a contradiction. It is a pair of opposing forces that exist within a single character.

What makes Romeo a fully developed character?I am teaching Romeo and Juliet for the first time at school right now and we can apply the same logic to Romeo. Critics and school teachers argue that Romeo's tragic flaw is his impetuousness. And I agree with that. But that alone is not enough to make Romeo a interesting character. Instead it is the contradiction between Romeo's impetuousness and his loyalty that makes him a fully formed and engaging '3D' character.

On a more contemporary level we might consider Ender Wiggins of Orson Scott Card's 'Ender's Game'. Ender is ruthless, but that is contradicted by his loyalty to Valentine and to his friends. One dimension. He is ambitious, but that is contradicted by his feelings of guilt for Stilson and Bonzo. Second dimension. He is fiercely independent but is at the same time reliant on the seemingly arbitrary decisions of Graff, Major Anderson and the Battle School personnel. Dimension number three.

Of all of our characters it is the protagonist whose dimensions matter the most. The protagonist is the character from whom all of our other characters hang, like decorations on a Christmas tree (apologies for the terrible simile which I already regret). It is the job of the supporting cast to trigger the dimensions of the protagonist. For that reason the protagonist must have more dimensions than any of the other characters. Dimensions energise supporting characters but too many will distract us from the spine of the story.

Of course, even a protagonist doesn't necessarily need three of these 'dimensions' . Sometimes one powerful dimension is enough, other times we might have a much greater number. Think of the multi-dimensional Hamlet for example.

How to use dimensions

Sol Stein tells us that the biggest mistake that new writers like me (and maybe even more experienced writers like you, perhaps) make is to make protagonists that are too 'wishy washy', to much like ourselves. And in my own aborted half-novel (my biggest attempt at writing to date) I made exactly this mistake. My protagonist lacked direction, was as inconstant, as moderate and, as dull as I am myself.

I hope that thinking carefully about the specific dimensions of my protagonist can help me find a protagonist who is complex enough to seem real and also, vitally, dramatic enough to be compelling.

Currently, I am working my way through character interviews with the intention of rewriting the aborted novel mentioned above. I have added a section for dimensions (even more) to the beginning of the character interview that I have taken and adapted from K.M. Weiland's blog.

My detective, Bartholomew Jones (too much like Indiana Jones – I'm thinking about changing it) is a teenage detective. He has suffered powerful rejections that send him on a quest for justice. I have decided to give him the following dimensions:

Character dimensions:
1. justice vs realism
2. independent vs attraction to manipulators
3. pride vs fear of rejection

I'm not sure whether these seem definite or specific enough to give my hero the fuel he needs and if I think of something better I'll change it.

Did any of you guys think about dimensions for your characters? What were they? Any tips?






 

Opening Sentences.

So this is the third post of five, looking at the opening sentences of my favourite reads of the past twelve months, based on an idea from the beginning of K.M Weiland's book Structuring Your Novel.

A good opening should:

1. Questions – establish tensions to be resolved.

2. Character – engage the reader with the protagonist.

3. Setting – give the reader a sense of place.

4. Declaration – a sweeping, provocative statement.

5. Tone – establishes the style and mood of the writing.

So here's number three:

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

“I was going to say something,” he said.

“So say it,” she said.

He was quiet, his eyes on the road. In the darkness of the city's outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.

Subject Pronouns not Proper Nouns

The novel opens with an exchange of direct speech. The gendering of the pronouns establishes that the relationship will be key to the novel. And while this might seem to be a perfect opportunity to name the protagonists, Faber uses the anonymous pronouns 'he' and 'she'. Perhaps he is establishing Peter and Bea as universal 'everypeople'.

Direct Speech

The exchange 'I was going to say something', 'so say it' works as sort of literary joke at the start, mirroring the job of the author / storyteller.

Cumulative Syntax

Like both previous writers Faber includes cumulative syntax (subordinate clauses following the main clause), the adjectives 'endless' and 'giant' show the impressiveness of the road, the marked out journey that Peter and Faber intend to leave.

A funny one this. The opening,  like the book as whole feels metaphorical, hard to pin down. And that's a big reason why I love it (a lot of readers don't if the reviews on Amazon are anything to go by). It is without question one of my favourite books not just of the past twelve months but of ever and all time.







 

Opening Sentences.

So this is my second post about opening sentences. K.M. Weiland looks at opening sentences, making the point that openings need not be memorable, but must be multi-functional. She writes that openings should introduce:

1. Questions – establish tensions to be resolved.

2. Character – engage the reader with the protagonist.

3. Setting – give the reader a sense of place.

4. Declaration – a sweeping, provocative statement.

5. Tone – establishes the style and mood of the writing.

Here's my second choice.

The Peripheral by William Gibson

The Peripheral is my favourite William Gibson book. I like the pace of it and the tightness of the scenes. The opening of Neuromancer is now pretty famous  ('dead channel' and all that), but I really love The Peripheral. Here's the opening.

They didn't think Flynn's brother had PTSD, but that sometimes the haptics glitched him. They said it was like phantom limb, ghosts of the tattoos he'd worn in the war, put there to tell him when to run, when to be still, when to do the badass dance, which direction and what range.

Third Person Collective

Like Bannan's 'Weightless' , also set in an anonymous mid-west location, Gibson uses the third person collective 'they' as the subjects of the sentences. Again, like 'Weightless' the choice creates a sense of claustrophobia, and the verbs 'think' and 'said' demonstrate that it is 'they' and not the individual that rule the setting.

Proper Nouns

Gibson introduces the protagonist, Flynn, indirectly. She is not the subject of either sentence. She isn't even the object. Her brother is. This allows Gibson to introduce the protagonist without is seeming overly direct.

Cumulative Sentence Structure

The second sentence uses a cumulative structure, with the main clause 'They said it was like phantom limb' followed by four subordinate clauses, creating a sense of the building layers of gossip surrounding Flynn's brother, Burton.

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I always feel that Gibson breaks with convention in that the beginnings of his books often confuse and disorientate as much as they entertain. The supernatural lexis ('phantom', 'ghosts') combine with the connotations of  perception and manipulation of 'haptics'  to create mystery and tension and link to Gibson's trademark themes of social manipulation and alternate realities. Finally, the informal lexis ('badass') helps to create a sense of Flynn as a dynamic, blue collar protagonist.

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Opening Sentences.

In her book 'Structuring Your Novel', K.M Weiland looks at the opening sentences of five her favourite books that she had read in the past twelve months. She goes on to talk about five principles of opening sentences:

1. Questions – establish tensions to be resolved.

2. Character – engage the reader with the protagonist.

3. Setting – give the reader a sense of place.

4. Declaration – a sweeping, provocative statement.

5. Tone – establishes the style and mood of the writing.

I decided to do the same

Over the next five days, I'll look at one of my favourite books that I have read in the past twelve months. So let's get on.

'Weightless' by Sarah Bannan

 

I absolutely loved this novel of high-school peer pressure, and teenage cyber-bullying. Sarah Bannan totally hooked me with this page-turning debut. And these are the opening sentences.

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They came out in groups of three, wearing matching shorts and t-shirts, their hair tied back with orange and black ribbons. Their eyes were wide and they yelled and clapped and turned precisely, rehearsed.

Third Person Collective

Use of the third person collective ('they' and 'their') creates the immediate impression of powerful and anonymous forces that will come to work on the protagonist, Carolyn. It also creates a sense of the psychological setting of the teenage psyche.

Cumulative Syntax

Both sentences are cumulative (main clause first with subordinates following). The first sentence is clearest example, and in it we see the main clause ('They came out in groups of three') focusing our attention clearly on the anonymous 'them', the following clauses add details about the appearance of the girls, adding details in the way that an observer would notice them. The precise and tightness of the girls' appearance suggests a uniform and creates tension.

Co-ordinate Clauses

The second sentence has a striking three co-ordinating conjunctions ('and') the stacked observations skillfully turn the attractive exuberance of the girls into something threatening. The end of the sentence has a clipped asyndetic adjective, 'rehearsed'. Bannan exploits end-focus here to build the tension by undercutting the spontaneous descriptions of the girls with the implication that their actions are anything but.

This is a striking opening, partly because the protagonist is left out, but the collective antagonist creates menace, and the tight precision of the description mirrors the hierarchical tension of teenage social groups







 

Introduction
As a blogger about writing, it probably comes as no surprise that I dabble with story myself. I recently read K.M Weiland's 'Outlining Your Novel' as I am looking to scrap and restart an old project. K.M. Weiland takes a non- prescriptive approach to outlining, recognising that writers are an idiosyncratic bunch, and that each one of us needs to develop our own approach to outlining. What Weiland does brilliantly is to describe her own process and to offer other strategies that may appeal to others.

One of the strategies that she uses herself and recommends is the character interview. Weiland has developed a comprehensive 100 question interview on her blog and you can get it here.  I decided that I would give it a go as a part of my own process.

If you listen to the Story Grid podcast as I do, you may have heard editor Shawne Coyne talk about the importance of the antagonist, about how these bad guys are the most important character in terms of driving the story, about how despite this they are often neglected by novice writers like me.

So I interviewed the bad guy.

Practical stuff

Secrets: are your characters hiding something?
Secrets: are your characters hiding something?

The interview begins with biographical stuff: places lived, education and schools, dating history, self-image. I found myself in 'interview mode' writing fairly fluently in the first person, thinking little or nothing about the literary quality of what I wrote. And I found that I was coming up with stuff about my character that I didn't know – most significantly a failed marriage, and a sadistic pair of step-brothers.

This was powerful stuff that I simply wouldn't have without having done the interview.

However, I came unstuck a bit on 'Is he lying to himself about something?' I couldn't answer this in the first person, and if I did I would obscure the information I wanted to detail.

The next section is a description of the character's appearance, preferences and habits, and I felt I had to stay in the third person for this. That said the physical stuff made me see that I really had not considered the character in adequate depth. My descriptions led me to do an image search on Google, where a found a rugby player who pretty much matches the ideas I had.

I saved the image so I can load it into YWriter. I even came up with a few usable similes!

Getting to know the character

Game of Thrones: every character has a story to tell.
Game of Thrones: every character has a story to tell.

 

Some of the most exciting questions in K.M Weiland's interview are the ones that you could almost transplant directly into a key moment in the book.

Questions like:

 

What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why?
And
What does/will he like least about the other main character(s)?

Answering these questions made me think about those revelatory moments in Game of Thrones where George R.R. Martin's characters share character forming incidents in their pasts. I could just imagine my antagonist revealing the angry 'self-defence' attack on his brother at some key moment I have yet to discover. This was feeling like a really useful exercise.

Developing my own approach

In terms of developing my own approach I think I need to divide up the questions into those I can answer in the first person and those I need the third person for. I'll put the first person questions first so that I can dive into the character before defining them from the outside in.

Having considered my story's overview using the Story Grid foolscap method in previous weeks, I really wanted to make sure that I was considering my characters in terms of their link to my controlling idea and key themes, and about the values they represent more specifically.

I also want to move the history to the beginning so that I can add key dates as I think of them. Also I imagine that these dates may be useful to me, and that I am likely to want to access this information quickly.

Conclusion

K.M. Weiland author of 'Outlining Your Novell'.
K.M. Weiland author of 'Outlining Your Novell'.

I'm always a little bit envious of writers whose characters speak to them. K.M. Weiland writes about characters that 'speak' in relation to this exercise. If you are one of those people then this exercise might get you there quickly. If you are more like me, however, and your characters just don't like you enough to chat, this exercise will give your plotting more power and fuel emotive revelations that will fire up key scenes. Either way the task is really enjoyable. It is, as K.M Weiland says, 'grand fun'.

See my character interview here.