A Writer’s Life
Join Linda as she embarks on a journey from writer to author. In these weekly posts Linda will share with you what she is trying to learn herself about writing and publishing a novel. With an eye for efficiency, and out of respect for your time, she will try to make sure that each post contains something useful for writers and readers who are looking to learn. Click here for more information on Linda Dorrington and her novel “Mungo Joudry”.
In Uncategorized on January 10, 2011 at 10:10 am
So while your hero has been undergoing all sorts of adventures and challenges on his outer journey, he has also been undergoing some sort of inner turmoil and change. Our own hero, Michael Hauge, has a fair bit to say about this as well. Here is my summary of some of his key points which I have found helpful:
First of all, Michael reminds us that, for readers, stories begin on the level of plot and that we need to see a visible journey before we can explore the deeper meaning imbedded in the story. While the outer journey shows your hero overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve a visible goal, the inner journey reveals your hero’s path to fulfillment, peace and some sort of inner change.
Michael says that quite often in stories the hero starts out being defined by others and by the end of the journey, she has defined herself.
Michael identifies certain qualities which he says all heros have:
- LONGING OR NEED
All heros want or need something. Some heros may be aware of this need and express it and others may not verbalize it, but on some level it is apparent that their lives are deficient. Something is missing. If it is expressed it is a longing, but the hero is paying lip service to it and is too afraid to actually go after what he wants. If the hero is unaware of it, and doesn’t even express it, then it is a need but the hero is too afraid to even admit that there is something missing from his life.
It is your job as the writer to present the hero with an opportunity to go after what it is that he wants but is too afraid to pursue. This creates a level of emotional conflict in your story.
The hero must have suffered some wound before your story even begins, or very early on in the story. Whether or not this is referred to explicitly, there must be a sense that your hero is damaged in some way and that this wound is a source of ongoing pain and avoidance behaviour in your character. The wound is a source of fear in your hero and this is the reason he or she is not going after the fulfillment of their need. Did your hero have his heart broken by someone else? Was he abused by his father? Was she humiliated by her boss? Did someone close to her die?
Out of your hero’s fear grows his or her identity. Identity is the way the hero defines himself to the world (this is true of us too). It is what he sees himself as being and it serves the important purpose of protecting the hero from his fear. It is the outer shell. Identity is what the hero is, not who he is. Constituents of identity are: job, family, location, beliefs, money, position, role, upbringing, etc. Identity protects the hero but also prevents him from being who he truly is. (Rings true doesn’t it?)
Now, if you take away everything your character is attached to, what would be left? Strip away title, status, job, geographical location, family, financial standing, public position, etc. And what is left is who he is. What is left is the spiritual, deeper self – the essence.
And here is the nub: In order for your hero to achieve her visible goal (outer journey language) or to fulfill her longing (inner journey language) she will have to get rid of her protection, shed her identity and stand up for who she really is.
The inner journey is the journey from IDENTITY to ESSENCE and this journey parallels the outer journey in pursuit of the external, visible goal. Character arc stories are essentially stories of life and death, not necessarily actual death (as would happen in the outer journey) but death of the identity in order to fulfill the hero’s longing and allow him to live true to his essence.
This transition from identity to essence is not instant, it takes time (generally the length of your novel) and is a gradual process during which the hero gets stronger, is tested, and is finally able to shed his identity and find his essence. (In a tragedy, however, the hero may not learn anything, may not change, and goes through inordinate tribulations for nothing –that’s why tragedies leave us feeling so hollow.)
Before I leave you to ponder, and hopefully incorporate some of Michael Hauge’s valuable insights into your own writing, here is an interesting little exercise you could try.
To figure out your hero’s identity complete the following sentence:
“I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve my goal, just don’t ask me to ______________ because it’s just not me.”
You might learn something about your own identity too!
To find out more about Linda Dorrington and her novel “Mungo Joudry” click here.
To find out more about the Hero’s Inner Journey, click here.
In Uncategorized on January 17, 2011 at 11:26 am
One of the things which has most pleasantly surprised me about the novel writing process is what I have learned about myself and what I have learned about what I didn’t know that I knew.
When I sat down to start my novel, blank screen in front of me, I literally had no idea what I would write about. I knew only that I had long harboured a desire to write a novel and the biggest stumbling block preventing me from actually doing it was the thought that I had absolutely no idea of what I would write about. Unlike many other writers I had not mapped out a detailed outline, written up complex character sketches or outlined the goals and motivations of my main characters. I had nothing but a blank page and an open, empty mind.
From this blank space a mental picture gradually emerged. A cold winter morning, a man standing on the bridge of a boat staring into the misty distance, rubbing his hands together and stamping his feet to keep warm. Who was he waiting for and why? I started asking questions about him and allowed my imagination to provide the answers and slowly his story has unfolded.
This is a fascinating process because it feels like I am reading the book as I write it. Like the reader, I have no idea what is going to happen next and I am on a voyage of discovery, but I am journeying not only into the life and mind of my characters, but also into my own subconscious.
Every now and then it coughs up something unexpected on the page and I stare in amazement. Where did that come from? I didn’t know I was thinking that. I didn’t know I knew that. Sometimes it feels like I’m coughing up a hairball; dry and scratchy and I really want to get rid of it. Ugh. There, it’s out. I look at it on the page. It’s ugly, but it adds something to the story. Mmm…I can work with this. Other times something rich and delicious rises within me and I roll it around the back of my mouth like a smooth single malt. Yes, I want to hold on to this, savour the flavour, even let it mature a little more before I let it out on the page.
And so, as I have embarked on the exciting journey of writing my first novel, the unexpected by-product has been, in parallel, a journey into self-discovery. Don’t get me wrong, it is a work of fiction, the characters and plot are all a figment of my imagination, so fictitious in fact, that I too did not know they resided somewhere within. What I am discovering is the vast and wonderful expanse of imagination, of what resides within my mind while I am busy with life. And all that I have needed to access this rich and interesting place is the discipline to sit down each day and write.
Apart from the satisfaction derived from putting words on the page – not just any word, but the word which conveys exactly the fact and sentiment intended – apart from the rhythmic pleasure of the language and the technical attention to detail, I have also enjoyed this journey into the unchartered territory of imagination. It is in this place of imagination that my subconscious comes out to play and it is in play that, like a child, I am learning surprising things. For that reason alone, and even if my book is never published, it will have been well worth the effort I am putting into it.
*To find out more information about the author please click here.
In Uncategorized on January 3, 2011 at 10:21 am
Continuing from my post on December 7, 2010 regarding the hero’s OUTER JOURNEY, I am going to share with you Michael Hauge’s six-stage breakdown of plot structure. In keeping with my “elephant eating” approach to novel writing, these bite-sized chunks are easy to digest:
Michael’s focus is on Screenplay Structure and, while a novel is rather more elastic, I have found his structure guidelines very helpful.
Stage 1 – The Setup
This is where you introduce your hero, drawing the reader in to the setting of his or her everyday life. Right at the outset, establish identification with your hero by engendering our sympathy or anxiety for him, making him likeable, funny or powerful.
Turning Point 1 – The Opportunity
Between stage 1 and 2, your hero should be presented with an opportunity which creates in him or her a visible desire. This is not the overall goal which governs your story, but rather something which sets your hero off on a new course of action and moves the hero into a new situation.
Stage 2 – The New Situation
The hero is now getting used to the new environment, he or she is perhaps feeling excited about this situation, may feel optimistic that any challenges faced here will be easily overcome, and is unaware of what really awaits.
Turning Point 2 – Change of Plans
At this point in the plot your hero is suddenly faced with something (a decision, a challenge, etc.) which will transform his or her original desire into a visible goal with a specific end point. This is where your hero’s outer motivation becomes clear and your story is now in full swing.
Stage 3 – Progress
The hero appears to be succeeding in his or her plan, there are obstacles and conflict, but he or she is managing these and overcoming them. Things seem to be working.
Turning Point 3 – The Point of No Return
Roughly halfway through your plot, things become much tougher than your hero anticipated and he or she is confronted with significant obstacles to achieving the visible goal. At this point your hero must cross the point of no return and commit 100% to achieving his or her goal. This is where she takes irrevocable steps and is now closer to the end point of the outer journey than the starting point.
Stage 4 – Complications and Higher Stakes
Your hero is struggling with difficult challenges and the conflict continues to magnify, he doesn’t give up though, because the stakes are higher and he can’t go back, remember. It seems that success is within his grasp.
Turning Point 4 – The Major Setback
Now something terrible happens and it seems that all is lost. But your hero is fully committed and he or she really has no choice, things are critical, so he has to make one, last, desperate effort to win, escape, stop something or retrieve something (remember Michael’s basic categories of visible goals).
Stage 5 – The Final Push
The conflict at this stage is huge, your hero is risking everything against tremendous odds, the pace and conflict is intense as your hero battles the obstacles to achieve his or her visible goal.
Turning Point 5 – The Climax
At this point the hero faces the biggest hurdle of all and her destiny is in her own hands and the outer motivation or visible goal is resolved. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean the visible goal is attained, the hero could fail, but there is resolution of the goal one way or another.
Stage 6 – The Aftermath
Now, in the final stage, you reveal your hero’s new life following the completion of his or her journey. How has she changed, what has she learned, how has the completion of her journey impacted the lives of the other characters? This is not a very long stage, but is necessary to provide the reader with a sense of closure.
One final tip from the guru (Michael Hauge that is, not meJ): Michael says that most problems with progressing your story can be solved by going back to your hero’s OUTER GOAL or MOTIVATION. Look at this carefully and determine what makes it impossible for him or her to achieve this. That should help you figure out where to take your story next.
Next week I’ll give you some of Michael’s insights into the hero’s INNER JOURNEY.
Click here to read Linda’s post on the Hero’s Outer Journey.
DON’T GO STALE – A FRESH APPROACH TO REVISION
In Uncategorized on December 20, 2010 at 5:50 pm
“Ugh…I’ve been through my novel so many times and rewritten so many passages that I just can’t see how it can be improved any more. Everything feels fixed to the page.”
This frustration was expressed by one of the writers at our group meeting last Monday. He recognises the need to improve his novel but just doesn’t know how or what to change any more.
He has gone “cold” on his manuscript – he has gone through it too many times and can’t see it objectively any longer. This is how Sol Stein characterizes the revision problem in his book “Stein on Writing”. Stein advocates a “triage” approach to revision which prevents the writer becoming desensitized to his or her own work.
Basically this means fixing the most critical problems first i.e. the primary causes of a manuscript being rejected. Only after triage should we begin general revisions. Here are the triage steps:
Step one: EXAMINE YOUR CHARACTERS
- Protagonist / hero – there are many ways to examine your main character but here are a few questions which may help you ensure the hero is humanized, well-rounded and credible:
- What particularly do you like about your character? Make sure this is not unconsciously autobiographical.
- How would you feel about spending your annual vacation with your main character? Would you get bored or irritated? Remember you are asking your readers to spend many hours with this person, make sure to keep them interested and engaged.
- How well do you understand your hero? For instance, if they were your friend and you were to win the lottery, would they be happy for you, jealous, avaricious?
- Does your character change or grow during the course of the novel? The reader will not want to go through a long journey with your hero to find that he or she has learned nothing. Your hero needs to evolve.
- Antagonist / villain – make sure your villain is multi-dimensional. Even bad people have a sense of humour, do kind things occasionally and can pretend to be good when it suits them. How bad is your villain? Is he capable of being charming and enticing? Is he just badly behaved or is he morally deficient? It’s up to you of course, but make sure you understand the degree and nature of your villain’s badness.
- Minor characters – even these are important if a scene depends on their credibility. Make sure they are life-like. Sometimes just one little detail is enough to give life to a minor character.
Step two: ENSURE YOU HAVE CREDIBLE CONFLICT BETWEEN HERO AND VILLIAN
Remember what Michael Hauge said about the essence of a story? See Eating the Elephant. Each story has a main character, the hero, who has a powerful desire and experiences conflict in trying to attain this. To keep your readers interested, your hero must have huge obstacles to overcome, the stakes must be high and his adversaries formidable. Even a love story contains these elements where the hero needs to overcome great barriers to win his lover.
Step three: EVALUATE YOUR SCENES
- Start with the most memorable scene in your book. If you can’t remember it in detail, then it is not memorable enough. Strengthen it.
- Now think about your least memorable scene. You will probably need to browse through your manuscript. Don’t read the book! Remember you don’t want to desensitize yourself. Just browse through until you find it. Then fix it. If you can’t fix it then cut it. If necessary include essential information from this weak scene in another one.
- Now you have a new least memorable scene. Go through the same process with this one, and the next, until you have reviewed and strengthened or cut all the weak scenes from your book.
Stein likens this process to the work of a surgeon. Be ruthless, and like a surgeon, fix or cut out anything which will weaken the body of your work.
Step four: TEST MOTIVATION
From memory jot down the three most important actions in your novel. Is each action motivated in a way that you would accept if someone else were telling you the story? The overall credibility of your story depends on the three main actions being well motivated. This is essential to the success of your story. Don’t rely on coincidence. Create and develop motivation throughout. Now look at the other significant actions in your story. Does anything happen which seems to happen just because you want it to? If it does not arise out of the desire of your characters, then establish motivation or eliminate the action.
Sol Stein says that only once you have gone through this four state triage process should you begin the general revisions. Following this process means that you won’t make minor changes or major rewrites earlier in the novel which have to be changed once again, when you realize you have a fatal flaw with one of your characters, scenes, main actions or motivation. And this way you won’t have to read the entire thing over and over again, from beginning to end, dulling your senses and making you stale before you have a good final draft to present to a publisher.
If you have finished a manuscript and are revising, congratulations! If, like me, you are still working on your first draft then taking this advice on board early may help you produce a better first draft.
Thank you for reading and keep writing.
In Uncategorized on December 14, 2010 at 3:03 pm
You only get one chance to state your case. So keep it sparse, but make every word count, as if your career depended on it. It does. It is by your words that you will be judged. Each one has to earn its own keep. If it doesn’t add, advance, inform or evoke then excise it from your manuscript.
On two levels this became apparent to me in J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize novel “Disgrace”. On the story level, which speaks to me as a reader, the main character does not waste time with any unnecessary verbiage, as is clear in the excerpt I have included below. On the technical level, which speaks to me as a writer, I am in awe of his economy. His story is pared down, well-paced and extremely powerful.
In this book, the Nobel Prize winning author tells the story of a literature professor at Cape Town University who gives in to his carnal desires and pressures a young female student into a sexual relationship. He is hauled before a university committee of inquiry to answer the charges against him. Here is an excerpt of what follows:
”That is the sum of it? Those are the charges?”
He takes a deep breath. “I am sure the members of this committee have better things to do with their time than rehash a story over which there will be no dispute. I plead guilty to both charges. Pass sentence and let us get on with our lives.”
Hakim leans across to Mathabane. Murmured words pass between them.
“Professor Lurie,” says Hakim, “I must repeat, this is a committee of inquiry. Its role is to hear both sides of the case and make a recommendation. It has no power to take decisions. Again, I ask would it not be better if you were represented by someone familiar with our procedures.”
“I don’t need representation. I can represent myself perfectly well. Do I understand that, despite the plea I have entered, we must continue with the hearing?’
“We want to give you an opportunity to state your position.”
“I have stated my position. I am guilty.”
“Guilty of what?”
“Of all that I am charged with.”
“You are taking us in circles, Professor Lurie.”
“Of everything that Ms Isaacs avers, and of keeping false records.”
Now Farodia Rassool intervenes. “You say you accept Ms Isaacs’s statement, Professor Lurie, but have you actually read it?”
“I do not wish to read Ms Isaacs’s statement. I accept it. I know of no reason why Ms Isaacs should lie.”
“But would it not be prudent to actually read the statement before accepting it?”
“No, there are more important things in life than being prudent.”
Disgrace is a complex story of one man’s struggle with his nature, advancing middle-age, and his intransigent honesty about both, set against the violence, turmoil and racial tension in a changing South Africa. The economy of his words belies the complexity of the story. We can all learn from Disgrace. I encourage you to read it.
Eating the Elephant…
Writing a novel feels like eating an elephant; an enormous task. So how does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I am trying to take this approach with my writing; one word, one paragraph, one page at a time.
Each day, before I begin writing, I listen to an excerpt of one of my many audio books on the subject. I usually do this while I’m getting about the mundane morning chores and by the time I’ve cleared the dishwasher, made the bed and applied my mascara, I am more than motivated to sit down and write.
Recently I listened to Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge talking about the hero’s two journeys and thought I would share with you some helpful advice from Michael Hauge on the hero’s OUTER JOURNEY.
Michael starts by reminding his listeners that the writer’s primary goal is to elicit emotion. He says, very simply, that each story has a main character, the hero, who has a powerful desire and experiences conflict in trying to attain this. In order to elicit emotion in the reader, we have to very quickly, right when we introduce our main character, create in our reader identification with the hero. Michael offers us five easy ways to do this:
1. Make the reader feel sympathy for the hero
2. Put the hero in jeopardy – make our reader worry about him or her
3. Make the hero likeable – even if the hero is not good, they must be someone the reader cares
4. Make the hero funny, or
5. Make the hero powerful
He says we should use at least two of these techniques when introducing our hero. Now, really, when you think about it, that’s not difficult to do at all, is it? You see, eating the elephant is not so impossible.
Next, Michael gives us some advice on the hero’s desire. This desire must be a very visible goal he or she needs to pursue. He says that, essentially, the hero’s outer journey is one of accomplishment and that all visible goals fit in to one of four categories:
1. To win – to conquer an enemy, win a challenge, etc
2. To escape – get out of a situation
3. To stop – prevent a bad thing from happening
4. To retrieve – bring something back
So this narrows down the choice for you when developing your main character’s objective in his outer journey. I’ve thought about this a lot and analysed many books and movies, and really, Michael is right, these four objectives pretty much capture all the possible outer goals a hero could have.
Breaking down the process of writing a good novel into these simple, rather common sense, components makes the whole task of writing my novel so much easier. I hope they help you too. If you found this useful, let me know and I will post another passage on how I go about Eating my Elephant.
Let the writer in you come out and play!
*Please find a link to Chris Vogler’s blog in “THE BOOK WORLD” at the top of this page.