Tony’s thoughts…Why your story needs a McGuffin

I was working on “Book Five” this week, and there was a section that was bothering me – I needed a character to be kidnapped, but couldn’t figure out a logical way of doing it. After I solved the problem (That’s the great thing about writing – I get to kidnap people and no one calls the cops!), it occurred to me that the character is a McGuffin.

A wha? What’s a McGuffin? You might ask.

A McGuffin is something in a story that is important to the characters, but is otherwise irrelevant to the plot, and is (In most cases) completely interchangeable with something else.

You with me? No? Okay.

Here’s an example. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Ark of the Covenant is a McGuffin. Change it from “The Ark” to “The Necklace”, and the plot of the film doesn’t change. Change it a “The Crystal Skull” and the plot is the same. Change it to “The Sandwich” and the plot is the same.
Bear in mind, a McGuffin can also be something abstract, like power or money – it doesn’t have to be a physical object.

The McGuffin drives the story forward, but its nature isn’t important. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of these. He said, “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”
George Lucas thinks the McGuffin should be something the reader-viewer cares about. Sometimes it’s not obvious what the McGuffin is either; Lucas says the McGuffin in Star Wars is R2-D2 – the thing that all the characters are chasing or protecting, in other words.

If anyone out there has read my own book Taken, the McGuffin is the character Sacmis – Amon, my main character, spends most of the book trying to find out who she is, and by the time he finds out, it’s irrelevant; he’s discovered other things about his world that means he doesn’t need to know. But his need to discover who she is what drives him forward.

The McGuffin also ties into something fundamental about characters in stories: They have to want something – a character who doesn’t want something shouldn’t be there. A sandwich, a crystal skull, a necklace. Or a Lost Ark of the Covenant. That will be your McGuffin.

In other words, at the centre of your story is an object, or an idea, something that everything else spins around, but is almost completely interchangeable. The man who craves power could as easily be the man who craves money.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m off to make myself a sandwich.

Does your story have a good McGuffin? Comments below!

Tony’s Thinking: Finding an Old Friend

 

A few years ago, I was wandering through the library at the school where I work, and there was a book seller vending his wares. Just on the spur of the moment, I asked him if he had Bedknob and Broomstick by Mary Norton.

And he did. Wow. Nostalgia trip! It was like finding an old childhood teddy bear in a forgotten cupboard.

You see, B&B was one of the first books I read independently when I was about six, and I devoured it. The plot was simple, the characters easy to grasp and I loved that book. I still love it, and sometimes still even quote it (“It’s cheaper to spit in a bus”, “Pale hands, my heart is singing…”). I read it over and over, and it soaked into me.

I was utterly transported by it, carried away for the first time I could remember. My love of books and writing is all down to this. Here is where it all started for me.

As a result, B&B is part of who I am today. It got me into reading, and there’s been nothing I’ve ever read since that has given me such simple pleasure. Flicking through it again years later, I was still captivated by it, like finding a childhood toy that can still transport your imagination to another world. It was like stepping back to being six years old again.

I was swept away by it when I reread it, and that’s something every book should do to you. Take you away from where you are and drop you somewhere else, whether it’s by magical bed like in B&B or Platform 9-3/4 of Harry Potter.

There’s an elemental power in the first book we remember reading, something that stops with us for the rest of our lives. One of the reasons I love reading – and one of the reasons I love writing – is to write something like this: Something that doesn’t leave you, but becomes part of who you are as you go through life.

I haven’t come close to writing anything as elegant as B&B yet, which is why I keep trying. I don’t think I’ll ever come close to anything like this wonderful and powerfully simple little story that captured my imagination and then set it free again.

Thank you Mary Norton. Thank you more than I could ever tell you.

 

Have a favourite childhood book? Leave your comment below.

Writing 101…Sell More Books

It is a truth universally accepted that a reader in possession of a good book must be in want of another good book, and as a self-published author this is the mantra you must adopt. After your book is written, and published, and promoted, there’s only one thing left to do: write more. Want to sell more books? Then start writing more books.

You’re Only As Good As…

What’s your favorite song right this minute? What was your favorite song, one year ago on this day? Do you even remember? Most people probably won’t, for one simple reason: there’s always something new. There’s a new singer to hear, a new food to try, a new show to watch, a new book to read. No matter how remarkable or fantastic your book, eventually it will be eclipsed by another. Just ask J. K. Rowling, and 10 millionTwilight fans, how quickly the tide of the MTV movie awards can turn against you.
Unless you write a book that becomes the basis of a religion, or come up with something wildly popular like the 50 Shades trilogy, chances are darned good that your book won’t be self-sustaining. You have to promote it constantly, and after just a few months it’s already going to be old news anyway. The best way to keep your books, your brand, fresh is by offering more.
So, you’ve just got to write more books. In this business, you’re only as good as your last book…and even that isn’t going to last too long. People are always looking for what’s next, so in order for you to keep your name out there and keep readers interested you’ve got to give them what’s next.
  • Don’t take breaks from writing. When you’re done with a book, great! Drink a glass of champagne, high-five your friends, pat yourself on the back, and start thinking about your next project. Get to work on it immediately. If you need time to rest and relax, give yourself a week between books. No more. It’s time for what’s next.
  • Don’t stop promoting. Continue to promote all your old books. Re-releasethem with new covers and new extras; make them fresh and exciting again. Do this in-between promoting whatever your next book project is.
  • Don’t forget to tell your fans and reviewers. Whenever you have a new book coming out, make a big deal about it. Tell all the people who have reviewed you in the past. Offer them free books, tell them you’ve got something else they’re going to like. Do cross-promotions so your existing fans know you have something brand-new for them. “Did you like Red Heat? Then you’ll love my new book, Cold Wind.”
  • Don’t fail to use your new books to get new fans. There’s no way your last book appealed to everyone you wanted to target. Try again with this new book. If you gain brand-new readers, they might go back and read some of your older books while they’re at it.
If you’re only as good as your last book, then make that work for you. Make it work by producing new books and changing your reputation. If your work is very high-quality, well-written and well-edited, you will gain new readers and sell more books. Writing more books will make you more legitimate as an author, and will show that you’re committed to your craft. Readers like that, and they like having a lot of reading options. Give it to them, and you’ll sell more books.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog in 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are available now! Read our review of Justice here.

Tony’s Thoughts: My writing playlist…and why

Playing music when I write doesn’t always work for me. My home and my “office” are pretty quiet most of the time, apart from – to quote Belinda Carlisle – the sound of kids on the street outside.

So when I listen to music when I write, it isn’t necessarily because it’s something I want to hear anywhere else. It’s more like it’s another barrier between me and the outside world, another way of getting through the hole in the page where I write without distraction. Earphones and an MP3 player are essential…I don’t want anything to distract me once I’m in there, don’t want to pop back out of the document I’m working on and fiddle with my computer’s media player.

In a way, I can listen to anything…because there comes a point when I’m listening to it and not consciously hearing it; tracks will zip by on my MP3 and I won’t even notice when one starts and one ends until the end of the playlist.

Having said that, if I stick on Beethoven’s Ninth symphony and I’m still writing at the end of it, that’s a solid piece of work; that sucker’s 78 minutes long. I sometimes air compose towards the end, something I always do when I come across The William Tell Overture. It’s too catchy not to. (Trivia of the day: A recording of Beethoven’s Ninth was chosen as the run length of a CD).

Anyway, I have things on my MP3 I never listen to other than when I’m writing. Ten symphonies by Joseph Haydn, and one by his son Michael. Four Beethoven symphonies and 1st and 2nd piano concertos, tons of Mozart. I’ve been getting into some Salieri as well.

I tend to prefer longer pieces of classical when I’m writing, but I have some soft rock on there as well – some Belinda Carlisle (My wife pointed me towards The Go-Gos, and I’ve been having a blast with them), some Bryan Adams. A whole playlist of “Late 20th Century”, 80s and 90s stuff. A long list of 50s and 60s, and The Beatles.

I think the thing for my MP3 is familiarity. I’m listening while I write because the music is familiar to me and I don’t have to focus on it. I’ve heard it a thousand times before, so it doesn’t have any surprises. There’s stuff on there I listen to when I’m not writing, but most of it…most of it is the equivalent of white noise.

And sometimes I even have to turn that off because it’s simply too distracting, and sometimes it’s too easy to get distracted rather than writing – I spent a good few hours on Saturday playing with my playlists rather than writing, for instance. I wrote my last three books without a soundtrack, but I did stick it on when I went back to editing. Book Five feels like a soundtrack novel, and so far it is. It’s early days yet.

I know some people do it for the rhythms, assigning a piece of music to each character, and that sounds like fun and something I wish I could do. You’re a better multitasker than I am if you can focus that well. For me, it’s another wall between the world and the page, and sometimes you need all the walls between you and the world outside, so you can get into the rabbit hole and fall forever.

Writing 101…Ask Three Questions…

Writing a book is incredibly difficult. Writing a great book is practically impossible. When you sit down to write yours, ask and answer three questions. If you break writing down to its simplest form, you’ll find it’s really not so difficult after all. Master the basics, and all the rest is just polish.
Three Questions
Every novel, no matter how thick or complicated, revolves around three specific questions. Ask them, and make sure you know the answers, when you’re writing yours.
  • Who?
Every novel needs at least one main character. Juggling more than one main is hard, but it can create a very rich and engaging story. Make your main character(s) interesting and identifiable, and your readers will enjoy finding out about them.
  • Where?
 Every book has a setting. Research yours to make it real and rich on the page. Readers want details. What’s the weather like? What are the buildings like? What do the rooms look like? Good descriptive writing paints a picture without taking over the entire book — remember that no one wants to read your rambles about the way the curtains hang. Strike a good balance, and use the detail to add to the story instead of allowing it to swamp the story.
  • What?
You don’t have a book if you don’t have a plot. Stuff needs to happen in your book. Allow the readers to get to know the characters through specific events. Readers want to be put inside the story; they don’t want a story told to them. Use plot to make your book happy, funny, exciting, sad — any emotion you want to evoke.
If you can answer three questions, you’ve got what you need to start writing a book. It’s the idea and the imagination that matters. Mechanics will come later, after lots of editing and hard work. Once you’ve found your three answers, the really hard part is already over.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog in 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are available now! Read our review of Justice here.

Writing 101…The End of the World

Lots of people believe the world is going to end, and lots of that can be blamed on good fiction. A good story can instill fear in an entire population. Once upon a time, back when the TV didn’t exist, a nationwide panic was created over a radio program. The public literally believed that Earth had been invaded by an alien population. That is good writing. The end of the world can make for a great topic — just ask the Mayans. We’re still talking about them 2,000 years laterA good story is pretty powerful stuff.

The End of the World as They Know It

 
Writing about a catastrophic, world-ending event can be a heady experience. You can make it thrilling, you can make it sad, you can make it frightening and horrifying. That’s the power of the pen: you can do anything you want. But some writers take even that a little too far. Because you can’t just end a world out of nowhere. You’ve got to lead up to it, a little.
Before you can end your fictional world with some sort of catastrophic event, you have to make me care. You can’t just end an entire world without making it an emotional experience. Should I be glad this world is ending? Maybe it’s a horrible place filled with villains. Should I be sad? Was there a hero or heroine I just can’t help but love, someone who must now die along with all the rest? Should I be frightened and horrified? Maybe your world ends in a way that could make my world end, and maybe that scares me. Let me get to know the world before it ends, and meet some of the people who live on it. Otherwise, I’m going to be yawning over your descriptive passages and rolling my eyes as lifeless body after lifeless body is consumed by lava (or whatever).
To make the end of the world matter, you’ve got to add the human connection. And put some structures or natural wonders on the world while you’re at it. I’m going to feel the loss of a beautiful world more keenly than an ugly one.
And when you finally end the world, or write about your catastrophic event, do itspectacularly. Describe the screams, the smells, the pure horror of the event. After all, the end of the world isn’t something that happens every day.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog in 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are available now! Read our review of Justice here.

Writing 101…Stepping Outside Your Genre

Self-published authors have to work hard to build up a fan base and to establish themselves as “real” authors in the eyes of their readers. That’s why stepping outside your genre and writing something completely different can be pretty tricky and scary business. What if you go out on a limb…and lose all of your fans? 

Outside the Box

After putting all that time and effort into building up a fan base, stepping outside that comfort zone with a totally different book is a brave thing to do (some might say foolish). While some of your fans may stay true, others may be turned off because they aren’t fans of that particular genre. That means you’ve got to start all over again, and start targeting fans in your new genre to find the readers that will be interested in this new book of yours.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s not all that different from all the marketing you’ve already done. You should re-focus your efforts with every new book you release, whether it’s in the same genre as your others or an altogether different one. Stepping outside your genre actually gives you a unique opportunity to gain an even bigger fan following, and reach out to readers you mightn’t find otherwise.
Don’t ever be afraid to make a change. One of the joys of self-publishing is that you get to do whatever you want, write whatever interests you, and let your own skills as an author develop and grow in any way you like. You don’t have to answer to anyone, uphold contracts or write sequels you aren’t really feeling. If you have to do some extra marketing to get more readers, that’s just something that comes with the job.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog in 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are available now! Read our review of Justice here.