Writing Tip: To Plot or Not to Plot

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Plot means the story line.  When people talk about plotting, they mostly mean how to set up the situation, where to put the turning points, and what the characters will be doing in the end.  What happens.

Some fiction writers write organically, not knowing where the story they are writing is going.  These writers say it would be boring to know what’s going to happen next and they lose their enthusiasm to tell the story because they know the outcome already.  They prefer throwing themselves over the edge and into the void.  This method can be very anxiety-producing.  It means you need a lot of faith in your process.

E.L. Doctorow describes the process like this:  “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Other writers plan the story before they begin.  In crime fiction the story definitely needs to be worked out beforehand so information can be drip-fed to the reader.

In the past, when creating my stories, I have worked organically and not known where my stories were headed as I wrote them. Sometimes, when I’m feeling despicable about  writing, I think I really should plot to put me out of my misery. But, in the end, I just keep going, one tiny step at a time.

The shorter the piece of fiction, the less need for plot.  You can write an interesting story in which not very much happens.  A woman fights with her neighbour, a man quits his job, or an unhappy family goes out for a pizza.  Simple structures work better than something too complicated when the story is short.

A plot can, like a journey, begin with a single step.   A woman making up her mind to recover her father’s oil paintings may be enough to start.  The journey begins there, as it did for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment when he decided to commit his crime,”  Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction

The plot grows and develops out of what helps and what hinders the characters’ progress toward their goals.

The Writers’ Workshop   http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/plot2.html  ask:

  • But how do you know if your draft plot has the right amount of weight to carry an entire novel?
  • What kind of structures work?
  • Is there a quick way to design your own plot template?
  • And how do you handle a book with multiple points of view?

“A good plot has a clear motivation.  It has a clear structure.  It has an outcome.  It has subplots.  A good plot looks something like the plot structure template below,” The Writers’ Workshop.

 

Motivation Lizzie Bennett wants to marry for love
Plot structure She meets Darcy & Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to fall for Wickham. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy; Darcy turns out to be a good guy. She now loves Darcy.
Outcome She marries Darcy
Subplot 1 Jane Bennett (Lizzie’s nice sister) loves Bingley. Bingley vanishes. He reappears. They get hitched.
Subplot 2 Lydia Bennett (Lizzie’s idiot sister) elopes with Wickham. She’s recovered.
Subplot 3 An idiot, Mr Collins, proposes marriage to Lizzie. She says no. Her friend, Charlotte, says yes.

Of course, there are a lot of things that the above plot template doesn’t tell you.  It doesn’t say where the novel is set, it doesn’t tell you anything about plot mechanics – it doesn’t say why Lizzie dislikes Mr Darcy, or how Lydia is recovered from her elopement.  It doesn’t have anything to say about character.

The Writers’ Workshop strongly advises us to build a template much like the one above before starting to write.  “If you’ve already started your MS then, for heaven’s sake, get to that template right away.”

So that’s all we need:  a beginning, a middle and an end.  Aristotle defined it like this:  a beginning is what requires nothing to precede it, an end is what requires nothing to follow it, and a middle needs something both before and after it.

Easy peasy.  Not.

I hope these ideas on plotting, or not plotting, are helpful.   Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

 

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Writing Tip: A Change of Pace

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I’m very excited to have my poem BETWEEN THE ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC in the June 2018 Quadrant  alongside some great poets including Les Murray, Barbara Fisher, Craig Kurtz, Geoff Page, Dan Guenther, Gabriel Fitzmaurice, Graeme Hetherington. Just received my copy.

It’s refreshing to have a change of pace. I’ve been having a break from working on long narratives by working on shorter pieces: prose poems, flash fiction, micro fiction, etc. Very gratifying to have one (so far) accepted for publication.

The poem was inspired by a cruise I did earlier this year with my family. At the time I thought I could write a book length story set on a ship, but, as things turned out, couldn’t find enough material to write a long fiction. But I was able to write a poem instead. For this I am very grateful.

Writing poetry, a synopsis or a book blurb are all good things to have to do in terms of improving our ability to compress or distill an idea. Having to get our message across in just a few words. Instagram is a useful for this too. One sentence to connect with our followers. And Facebook.  The very short forms are a good discipline for us writers.

I belong to an excellent weekly feedback poetry group. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be able to get my poems to that next level of being at a publishable standard. From good to very good. Many gratitudes.

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What about you? Do you experiment with different forms or genres? I find it helps to keep the feeling of desperation at bay. Will I ever be able to write another word? Do you have a perspective you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.

Poem in Anthology

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red book cover of Wild anthology

Wow! Exciting news. I’m delighted to say my poem BRONTE BEACH has been selected for inclusion in the Ginninderra Press Wild Anthology. The anthology has been edited by Joan Fenney and includes 159 talented poets from across Australia exploring the many facets of ‘wild’ – human, animal, environmental and metaphorical. The book will be launched on 7th July as part of the Ginninderra Press 10 year celebrations in Port Adelaide. I’ll be in Adelaide reading my poem at East Avenue Books in Clarence Park at 2pm on 8th July. Would be great to see you then.

Writing Tip: Don’t Forget to Pause

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Recently, I posted on Instagram that I had finished a new manuscript and had been  scratching around trying to find a new writing project to work on. I said that I had traction on something new and it was my third attempt this year  – that traction has now come to a standstill 😦 . What I didn’t do, though, was pause and acknowledge my WIP achievement: I’d recently completed a book length manuscript. After three years of hard slog I’d completed a huge project but hadn’t stopped to give myself a pat on the back. I hadn’t stopped at the top of the mountain and enjoyed the view. I was rushing onwards looking for the next mountain to climb already.

Then I read this old story about a king who wished to move palace. But because he feared that his enemies might take advantage of this to attack him and steal his treasures, he summoned his trusted general. ‘My friend,’ he said, ‘I have to move palace, and must do so within twenty-four hours. You have been my trusted servant and soldier for so long. I do not trust anyone but you to help me with this task. Only you know the network of underground passages between this palace and the other. If you are able to do this for me, and move all my most precious treasures by yourself, I will give you and your family your freedom:  you may retire from service, and as a reward for your faithfulness over so many years, I will give to you such a portion of both my wealth and my lands that you will be able to settle, and you, your wife and children and their children and grandchildren will be financially secure.’

The day came when the treasures were to be moved. The general worked hard. He was not a young man, but he persisted in his efforts. He knew that the task needed to be completed within the twenty-four-hour window. After this, it would become unsafe to continue. With minutes to spare, he completed the job. He went to see his king, who was delighted. The king was a man of his word and gave him the portion of the treasure he had promised, and the deeds to some of the most beautiful and fertile lands in the kingdom.

The general returned to his home and took a bath, and as he lay there, he looked back on all that he had achieved, and he relaxed:  he felt a great satisfaction that he could now retire, that things were dealt with, and this his major tasks were finished. For that moment, he had a sense of completeness. The story ends here.

‘Do you know what that moment is like? Perhaps you have experienced a similar moment when things have gone well for you in the past? You have felt a sense of completeness. A sense that tasks have been done.

One of the most difficult aspects of the frantic rush through a busy life is that we often do not allow even the smallest notion of ‘completion’ to enter the picture of our daily lives. We often rush from task to task, so much so that the end of one task is just the invitation to start another. There are no gaps in between in which we could take even a few seconds to sit, to take stock, to realise that we have just completed something.’ – Mindfulness (a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world) by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

In Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book on Mindfulness they advise us to practise cultivating a sense of completeness – even a glimmer, right now, in this moment, with the little things of life, there is a chance that we would be better able to cope with those aspects of mind that keep telling us that we are not there yet; not yet happy, not yet fulfilled. We might learn that we are complete, whole, just as we are.

This morning in yoga class I was reminded that pauses are a traditional part of Hatha Yoga – a pause between some of the asanas (poses). The pauses aren’t about physical rest, although it’s good to rest if you need to, but the true value of pausing in a neutral asana stems from the fact that physical effort no long occupies your attention, so your mind is free to play the pause. The most obvious way to play the pause is simply to relax the body parts that were working in the preceding active asana. I guess this relates to the pause between writing projects – give the brain a break and return inwards to your centre.

What about you? Are you constantly rushing off looking for the next mountain to climb without stopping to look at the view from the top? I hope this post is useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it. 

Writing Tip: Beating Resistance

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How many wonderful ideas have we had in our lives that never became anything more than ideas?  What stopped them from becoming reality?  Probably lack of drive, or fear, or both.

If the idea of writing a story, writing a memoir, or writing a blog lights a spark within you, sets off a signal, causes you to drool—or fills you with unspeakable anxiety—then you are ready to write.  What is holding you back is not lack of drive, but fear.  Unadulterated, stark fear.

  • Fear of what?
  • Fear of being unable to write well and being criticized by others?
  • Fear of being unable to stay on track long enough to get to an ending?
  • Fear that you just don’t have what it takes to maintain focus to tell a good story?

Research into the way the brain operates has revealed that there are two sides to the brain, left and right.  Much of our fear of writing comes from the way these two sides do or don’t work together.

“We might term the right brain ‘the creator,’ for apparently it allows us to do creative things—make connections, manifest ideas, imagine situations, see pictures of events.  The left side analyses, categorizes, recalls words, and performs its learning functions in a step-by-step manner,”  Bernard Selling, Writing From Within.

The analytic left brain has a compartment that houses the “critic.”  He or she is the person in us who says,

  • Watch out!
  • You can’t do that!
  • You’ll fail, so don’t even try.
  • You know you’re not good at that!

“If those two voices in you want to fight, let them fight.  Meanwhile, the sane part of you should quietly get up, go over to your notebook, and begin to write from a deeper, more peaceful place.  Unfortunately, those two fighters often come with you to your notebook since they are inside your head.  So you might have to give them five or ten minutes of voice in your notebook.  Let them carry on in writing.  It is amazing that when you give those voices writing space, their complaining quickly gets boring and you get sick of them,” Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

It’s just resistance.

Sometimes, the harder you try, the more you become stuck in your own negativity.  It can feel like car tyres spinning in a bog and you just can’t move forward with ‘the work’.  Your resistance is actually greater than your desire to write.  That’s when you need to say ‘stop’ and put it aside for now.  Look for another outlet for your energy before starting again.  Take a break and read books by wonderful writers.  When I get stuck I turn to contemporary poetry for inspiration – thoughtful and passionate poems about living in the modern world.  Some of my favourite poets are:  Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye, Les Murray and Joanne Burns.

Sometimes I start another writing project before going back to the original one to get more perspective on things.  Other times I will study the beginning and endings of books to get inspiration for a new beginning or a new ending. Or sometimes I work backwards from the ending as a way to restart.

But don’t get caught in the endless cycle of guilt, avoidance, and pressure.  When it is your time to write, write.  Put yourself out of your misery and just do it.

I hope you found this advice about beating resistance to be useful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.

3 Parts to a Great Blurb

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Your book’s blurb is crucially important. But writing a blurb is harder than we think. A great blurb is short and sweet, gives away enough of what’s inside the book without giving any plot spoilers. It draws the reader in.

‘A three-act structure. You want to catch the reader’s attention, give them the content, and then give them a reason to care.’ – Author Unlimited

Have a look at this YouTube video by international best-selling self-published Romance writer Alessandra Torre. She tells a terrific story of how she went from 3 book sales a day to thousands by changing her blurb:  The Blurb Equation – How to Write a Kick-Butt Blurb.

 

The Blurb Equation (Alessandra Torre)

INTRO + HINT + CLIFFY

 

1. PART 1 INTRO:           the characters or situation is introduced.

2. PART 2 THE HINT:     what the story is about, the conflict or climax.

3. PART 3 THE CLIFFY:  what’s going to happen? Hooks the reader.

Alessandra says to keep the blurb short. More than four paragraphs is too long . Three paragraphs of two to three sentences is best. Don’t give away the plot.

Keeping all this excellent advice in mind (although I’m not a Romance writer), I’m continuing to sweat over the draft blurb for my new book THE USUAL STORY, due for  July release by Ginninderra Press. Please use the comments section to give any constructive feedback. I’d love to know what you think.

It’s especially difficult for me to write a satisfactory blurb for THE USUAL STORY because it is really a collection of connected short stories. I’ve linked the stories by using the tango dances and dancers, the painful ending of a brief romance, and the main character’s search in her past for answers.

Tango is the dance of passion, forcing partners into an intimate relationship. Sofia loves the tango, but at the dances she must face the truth of her ageing in our society that has very little use for anyone who is not young.

In the painful aftermath of a brief affair, Sofia goes in search of what she actually knows about herself and the past. As she looks for answers in dark corners, we begin to see, as does Sofia, the elusiveness of understanding and memory – the psychological space where recollection and loss collide.

If you liked The Crystal Ballroom you’ll love this book: a story of memory, intrigue and passion.

 

I hope this Blurb info is helpful. Do you have any tips you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.

 

 

 

10 Ideas for Writing Practice

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Sometimes we sit at our desks to write and can’t think of anything to write about.  We face the blank page.  We sit there until blood pours from our foreheads, as one famous author was heard to say.

Making a list can be good.  It makes you start noticing material for writing in your daily life, and your writing comes out of a relationship with your life in all its richness.

10 topics for writing practice:

  • Begin with “I don’t remember”. If you get stumped, just repeat the words “I don’t remember” on the page again and keep going.
  • Tell about sound as it arises. Be aware of sounds from all directions as they arise:  sounds near, sounds far, sounds in front, behind, to the side, above or below.  Notice any spaces between sounds.
  • Tell me about last evening. Dinner, sitting on the couch, preparing for bed.  Be as detailed as you can.  Take your time to locate the specifics and relive your evening on the page.
  • Tell me what boredom feels like.
  • See in your mind a place you’ve always loved. Visualise the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes.
  • Write about “saying goodbye”. Tackle it any way you like.  Write about your marriage breakup, leaving home, the death of a loved one.
  • What was your first job?
  • Write about the most scared you’ve ever been.
  • Write in cafes. Write what is going on around you.
  • Describe a parent or a child.

Some people have a jar full of words written on pieces of paper and select one piece of paper at random each day and write from that.  Others use a line of a poem to start them off.  Then every time they get stuck they rewrite that line and keep going.

Be honest.  Cut through the crap and get to the real heart of things.

Zen Buddhist, psychotherapist, writer and teacher, Gail Sher in her book One Continuous Mistake says the solution for her came via haiku (short unrhymed Japanese poems capturing the essence of a moment).

 “For several years I wrote one haiku a day and then spent hours polishing those I had written on previous days.  This tiny step proved increasingly satisfying,” Gail Sher.

She said it gradually dawned on her that it was not the haiku but the “one per day.”  Without even knowing it, she had developed a “practice.”  Every day, no matter what, she wrote one haiku.  In her mind she became the person who writes “a haiku a day.”  And that was the beginning of knowing who she was.

Gail Sher suggests writing on the same subject every day for two weeks.

“Revisiting the same subject day after day will force you to exhaust stale, inauthentic, spurious thought patterns and dare you to enter places of subtler, more ‘fringe’ knowing,” Gail Sher.

She writes in One Continuous Mistake that the Four Noble Truths for writers are:

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writing is a process.
  3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
  4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

So start coming up with your own list of ideas for practice writing.  Life happening around us is good grist-for-the-mill.

I hope these ideas are useful. Do you have any suggestions you would add? Let me know in the comments and please share this post with a friend if you enjoyed it.