Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Week 12 - The Beginning

18 Mar - 24 Mar: Once Upon a Time...?

Every writer faces the challenge of convincing a reader that he or she should invest time in a character and their journey.  What makes a reader want to turn past page one when so little is known about the people introduced there? How does a writer draw in readers and make them care about what happens?

In the Writer's Digest article The Very Beginning: The Opening Scene, Nancy Kress suggests that an opening should represent a promise.  A promise of being entertained, educated, tantalised, or scared silly in the middle of the night.

In The Art and Craft of the Short Story, Rick DeMarinis suggests opening a story with a history in mind, so that the reader is introduced to a character who is already in 'a situation.'  If the situation raises interesting enough questions for the reader, he or she is likely to turn the page to find the answers.  History can mean any number of things: relationships, origins of character flaws, and, of course, deep dark secrets.

This approach suggests that an effective opening will provide the reader with only parts of the picture, and the reader must go on to find the missing elements through observation and deduction.

John Gardner notes that the usual opening to a novel is "some disruption to order," so that the reader is presented with something unexpected, and is impelled to go on to see how things turn out.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld's article 10 Ways to Launch Strong Scenes, provides excellent discussion and advice on different types of scene openings, including action, narrative, setting description and summary.

Exercise 23.  Write an opening paragraph that raises at least one question, eg. Why did he do that?  Who is she talking about? How did he get into that situation? etc.

Exercise 24.  Write a first page (about 200 words) that includes introductions to a) the main character, b) the main conflict, and, c) the setting.  Give only snippets of information on each and think about how the initial details will contribute to development of the overall plot.

During Week 13, I'll look at the opposite bookend, The Ending.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Week 11 - Outlining

11 Mar - 17 Mar: Pegging it Out

Whether to develop an outline or not seems to come down to personal preference.  In his Memoir on the Craft, Stephen King admits to being an instinctual writer, that is, he starts with a situation (i.e. applies the 'what if?' question) and goes from there, concentrating on how his characters react to each situation that arises.

R. L. Stine (author of the Goosebumps children's books), starts with a title and writes from whatever inspiration this alone provides.

I've read about other writers that meticulously outline for ten pages or more, and know exactly how their story will end, before sitting down to write the first draft.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott suggests breaking down story components into smaller, manageable chunks if the notion of sitting-down-and-writing-a-novel is too daunting (hence, the title of her book).

Roy Peter Clark enforces this idea in 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.  He suggests that breaking a written piece into headings and subheadings (such as parts and chapters), and incorporating the inevitable white space that results from such an approach, makes text more inviting.  One could argue that this concept is just as useful in the drafting stage.

Personally, I like to develop a fairly tight outline, especially for longer pieces.  I think this has something to do with my years of technical writing, and my preference, as a reader, for structure within a story.  Loose ends and abstract endings tend to annoy me a little (especially when I write them).  Or perhaps I like to outline because my memory fails me on a regular basis?

Regardless of how my brain might choose to function on any given day, it is important to remember that an outline is just that, an outline, and not a restriction to creativity.

(For more detail on outlining methods, check the Writer's Digest article on outlining.)

Exercise 21.  For writing instinctually, take a novel (any novel), open it to page 22, look at the second sentence of the second paragraph (or thereabouts), paraphrase it, change names (if applicable) and use it as the opening sentence of a short story. 

Exercise 22.  Develop headings for the three to six major parts of a novel, non-fiction piece or play.  Now develop sub-headings or chapter titles within these parts, and jot down key plot points under each chapter heading so that the story flows from one part to the next.  (Hey, it worked for Shakespeare, didn't it?)

Week 12 (already?) finally gets us to Page 1, and will look at 'how to begin.'  That is, what makes an engaging opening to a story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Week 10 - Perspective

4 Mar - 10 Mar: What a View!

In the 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark suggests turning the notebook into a camera and writing a story as you would shoot a movie.  By placing the camera in the hands of one, or many players, and allowing the narrator to zoom in and out, perspective can help develop characters and set tone.

Clark suggests considering the following cinematic viewpoints:
     1. Overview - this is like an aerial shot where the scene is set;
     2. Establishing shot - the narrator focuses on the immediate area of action;
     3. Middle distance - characters and their interactions are described;
     4. Close-up - the narrator is able to detect and describe mood and emotions;
     5. Extreme zoom - the most intimate details are related in accordance with the point-of-view.

The following exercises aim to use point-of-view and perspective to aid description and set tone.

Exercise 19.  Describe falling snow from the perspective of:
a.       A mother who has lost a child (without mentioning the child, death or cause of death); or
b.      A young man newly married and who has just been promoted in a job he loves (without mentioning marriage, his wife, his job or his promotion).
                 (Adapted from exercises in John Gardner's, The Art of Fiction).

Exercise 20.  Zooming out and in with your notebook camera, write a short description of a desert from the perspective of an Inuit or the arctic from the perspective of a Bedouin, noting both similarities and extreme differences of environment.

Now that I've thought a little about (and hopefully practised) some of the whys, hows and whats of writing, I'm hoping to pull it together in the next few weeks by exploring overall composition, starting with Outlining in Week 11.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Week 9 - Point of View

26 Feb - 3 Mar

I am sitting in a hotel room after a week of packing, aeroplanes and time zone changes.  The climate could not be more different to what I left behind.  There is not a snowflake in sight, but there is plenty of sunshine; there are no skiers or snowboarders, but there is a beach full of swimmers and snorkellers.  The hotel is lovely, but I am, nevertheless, homeless.

"That's not my real name, you know?"

And how, exactly, would I know that?  "Russell," is what his name tag reads, so "Russell" is what I would assume his real name to be.

"It's Jerry."

Okay, so my waiter's name is Jerry, not Russell, as his name tag would imply.  Why would he wear someone else's name, do you think?

Russell hovered around the woman, and flashed crooked teeth whenever she beckoned for more coffee.  He had seen her every morning for the past week, a conspicuous white face in a sea of Japanese tourists.  Most mornings, she was with a little girl with red hair and blue eyes, and the child had refused to eat anything but Frootloops.  This morning, however, the girl ate meso soup with rice and seaweed whilst the woman regarded her daughter with amused bewilderment.

Exercise 17.  Use so-called 'writer's block' (or procrastination) to play around with point-of-view.  Start by writing anything in first person present tense, eg. "here I am bored, and not knowing what to write."  Turn it into second person, eg."you can imagine how frustrating it is to want to write but finding your brain has turned to mush," or third person, eg. "Harold was bored with staring at the computer screen......"
(Adapted from an exercise in The Art and Craft of the Short Story by Rick DeMarinis).

Exercise 18. Think of a person you know or have known who has annoyed, angered, frustrated or depressed you. Write a paragraph that describes a specific action by that person which aroused (or does arouse) that emotion.  Express it in first person present tense.  Now rewrite it in third person past tense and decide which has a more effective tone.

During Week 10, I will look at the role perspective plays in telling a story and setting a tone.