Tony’s Writing Tips: Ignore that Elephant in the corner

Adam yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, blearily taking in the empty place at the breakfast table. “Morning, mum. Where’s dad? Did he leave for work already?”

His mum didn’t turn away from the eggs she was scrambling. “We had an argument last night, so after he fell asleep, I shot him.”

Adam yawned again. “Extra butter in those eggs?”

“Of course.”

Adam poured himself some juice. “Is this orange? Did they change the ingredients?”

This silly piece of writing is an example of what writers call “The Elephant in the Room”.

Elephants, are of course, very hard to ignore. Unless your characters are wearing blinkers or earmuffs, having someone throw something major into your story and then not have anyone react to it is generally not a good idea.

Your character got up last night and shot someone, and all you want to know is if there’s extra butter with those scrambled eggs. At which point, your readers will start to wonder what the gubbins are you talking about, and why aren’t you talking about what’s really going on here.

Think of the facet of your story as a spotlight aimed at a darkened stage. There it is, shining away on the box on a table. The thing you want your characters to talk about is in that box – why Adam’s mother shot his father. And what are you doing? Shining your spotlight wayyyy over there, talking about scrambled eggs. Why do we care about scrambled eggs? We keep looking back at the box, no matter how hard you don’t want us to.

The other side of this is where magic and misdirection comes in. When you dim the lights to shine it on the eggs, we don’t see the stagehands swooping away the box and bringing the elephant on stage until the lights come back up – in my example, perhaps Adam pulls his own gun while we look away. Then we want the characters to talk about something else, while we do some magic in the dark.

But, the thing with “EITR” is that this misdirection is never given to a reveal. In my example, no one would ever mention the shooting again. If you cut away to focus on something else, fair enough; but remember to cut back to what your readers are thinking about:

Adam yawned and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, blearily taking in the empty place at the breakfast table. “Morning, mum. Where’s dad? Did he leave for work already?”

His mum didn’t turn away from the eggs she was scrambling. “We had an argument last night, so after he fell asleep, I shot him.”

Adam yawned again. “Extra butter in those eggs?”

“Of course.”

He poured himself some juice. “So you shot dad, huh? About time.”

“I thought so too.”

If you don’t do this, you’ll have a pachyderm of problems on your hands.

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 Thoughts…Finishing A work in Progress

In September 2012, I blogged about the start of something new. Well, now it’s nearly finished! Crack open the champagne and celebrate with a pizza. Woohoo, when I finish Book Five, let’s roll that puppy out to Kindle and the world!

Except, of course, I won’t have finished it at all.

I’ll be nowhere near finished. In some ways, I won’t have even started.

What I will have is 50k-60k words of a first draft story, a story I wrote just for myself and posted extracts on Facebook just for fun.

So here’s what happens next…

Draft Zero

I suppose most people would call it a first draft, but I’m going to call it draft zero. Draft zero finishes with me writing ‘The End’. There are words in zero that no one else will ever see…because now I start the re-writes, and with the re-writes come the deletions and the inserts. A suggestion from Stephen King is that drafts should always be 10% shorter when you’re finished, and as I much as I try to follow it, sometimes it’s 10% longer. It tends to balance out though, between the scenes I want extending and ones I want cutting.

What I’ll be doing is looking at the notes I made for myself when I write – I put them in bold so I can see them easily – and I’ll be working my way through the whole book, looking for ways to drop in the extras – or not, as the case may be. I’ll be cleaning up my grammar and characters as I go and making it look a little prettier.

—-

Wow, so you’re done right? I hear you say.

—-

First draft

Ahh yeah, sure I am. Sure. I. Am.

Here’s one of the strangest things you do as a writer. You take your (what is now) first draft, print it out carefully, and then: Put it in a drawer for six weeks and forget it.

Yep. Spend the best part of a year writing a book, and then do your best to forget it exists. Write something else. Learn to juggle. Get some fresh air – I hear that’s nice, although I don’t get much of it. Whatever you do, do not touch it.

How will you know when the day is right to pick it up again? It’s one of those annoying answers, because for me, I just know. Sorry, I don’t have a better answer than that.

So one day in the future, when you know you’ve forgotten that you ever wrote this pile of papers, you take out your first draft and you do exactly what you did with draft zero: Edit it again, rewrite where you have to, take parts out, put them back.

The reason I like to do this with a printed copy is that the change of format really does help me see mistakes. I can look at it as a reader, and not as a writer, and I can see the changes I’d want to make it a book I’d want to read. Killing the parts that don’t add to the story. And this is when it gets weird people, because there are parts in there you don’t remember writing. Which is pretty freaky when you think about it.

—–

Now you’re going to self-publish it?

—–

Second Draft

Sure. After this:

Wow. This is a biggie. I’m actually going to show someone else what I’ve been doing in the spare bedroom since September. For me, that person will be my wife. She’ll – hopefully – pull it apart and tell me where the plot holes are that I didn’t see…and I’d rather it was her than a reviewer on Amazon. She’ll correct the grammar and spelling mistakes that got by the spellchecker (and she’ll complain about my two word paragraphs).

Back for another round of editing, although at this point it might only be a sentence or two.

—-

So it’s got by Mrs Talbot, and it’s ready to go?

—-

Third Draft

Yeah, right. (<—There’s one of those two word paragraphs….)

NOW it goes out to my beta-readers; the first people in the world who are likely to want to read it. More edits? Maybe, but they may love it as it stands and I might be lucky.

Beta-readers are a new one for me on this book, so I’ll get back to you on that one.

Fourth Draft

With Eight Mile Island, I used a professional YA editor (Jennifer Moorman) for the first time, and I’m going to be running the manuscript by her this time as well. Last time she spotted a major flaw in EMI that my wife and I missed, so I think it’s worth it.

And after Jennifer has been paid, I’ll be thinking about a book cover. But there’s enough back and forward between myself and Jennifer to call the next step…

Fifth Draft

Wow, it’s been a long way getting here. How long has this taken? That depends on how quickly my beta-readers read it, how quickly Mrs Talbot read it, and a dozen other things. And don’t forget those vital six weeks sitting in a drawer.

But NOW Book Five is finished. Now I can order the pizza! Now all I have to do is start promoting it. And converting it to Kindle. And the formatting of the Lulu.com paperback…

—-

So after all that?

—-

Start thinking about Book Six, of course…

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.

Tony’s Thinking…Making a World from Scratch

Whenever I write a story – any story, short or otherwise – the first thing I have to do is make a world for the characters to live in. It’s perhaps the easiest part of the process, but still one which needs some thinking over before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

For a start, it’s important to think logically and sensibly about the world your character is going to find themselves in, and to adapt either your characters or your world to suit your story. If your character is in a wheelchair for example, you’re going to need some way of getting them upstairs without breaking up the story, or else confine them to one floor.

Let’s take a solid example: The haunted house. And by that, I also mean the haunted town (See Stephen King’s IT for example) or even the haunted spaceship (which is essentially the plot of Alien).

Let’s walk through those examples and see what we can do with the worlds they need.

So your character – let’s call him Joe – has found themselves in your haunted house. You want Joe to stay there, at least until the story is finished…or until Joe is…

First question about this world: Why doesn’t Joe simply leave?

I know if I was in a haunted house, logically, sensibly, I’d head for a door. But I need some walls for the story…can’t have Joe wandering off without finishing what I’ve got him here for!

The door is locked? Fine. What about a window? Bars across them?

Hmm…okay. Now I’ve got Joe looking round the little haunted house I’ve just made and interacting with it.

Can he smash the glass and shout through the window for help? No, the house is on an island. Now I’m expanding the house to the local area around it.

Can he use his cell phone to call for help? Flat battery. No signal.

The point is, whatever Joe chooses to do at this point, the little world I’ve made won’t let him until he finishes the story. Joe is going to get increasingly desperate to get out, and at some point in his wandering through the haunted house, he’s going to meet the bogeyman and one of them won’t make it out alive.

In Stephen King’s IT, he has the main characters trapped by the fact that they’re children, and only children can see the Big Bad. Where else could they go? They can’t leave exactly leave town at the age of twelve. In Alien, the crew of the spaceship are trapped inside a literal vacuum of space while the monster stalks them.

And walls don’t always have to be physical. Joe could hear his little sister screaming upstairs, and there’s no way he’s going to walk away from that. Even if he gets out of the house, he’s going to go right back in there and rescue her like a good brother.

This is a simple example, but you can hopefully see how the world has adapted as I’ve needed it to. A character who can easily walk out of a story isn’t going to make an interesting read.

So when you create a story, think about how the world you create will shape that story, and think – logically and sensibly, no matter what the genre – how you can keep your characters there until the end. Keep bouncing them against the walls you’ve made for them until they break through.

Tony’s Thinking…Starting a work in progress

I finished my fourth novel, Eight Mile Island, back in June 2012, but what with holidays and a trip to the USA this summer and feeling pretty burned out, I took a break before I started something new. I think you have to do that, give yourself a chance to recover and give your imagination a chance to reset.

I started thinking about Book Five (No title yet!) just about as I was finishing Eight Mile, and I was working on ending the world in grey-goo nanotechnology (I was going to ramp up the pacing so it happened in maybe a week…). I did a little research around nanotech, some background reading…but I kept bumping into nothing when I started writing. Nothing was coming out and screaming, “Write me!”

For a few weeks, I had only a first chapter that wasn’t going anywhere…a good first chapter, with some interesting characters, but nothing else.

Let me tell you, writers block is bad; writers block before you start is even worse. I was going nowhere.

I’m a regular subscriber to a science and technology magazine, and the August 2012 edition had an article about a company (Project Blue Seed, if you want to Google it), planning to build a business community offshore of the coast of California in 2014. There was some speculative artwork about building whole cities, maybe whole nations out there in the deep seas…

…and bang, new idea for Book Five! Something that definitely screamed “Write me!” It’s Waterworld, I thought, except it won’t be when I’m finished with it…

About a week later, I was dozing in the back garden on a Saturday afternoon, thinking about not much, when Muse threw up an image of a girl on a jet ski heading towards one of those cities, and then a dozen more ideas followed, then more and more. Suddenly, everything started to feel right, and I started to feel like this is a book I should write next.

So Book Five is off and running now, and I thought I’d share some early thought processes with y’all.

I’ve read a few books on writing novels, the ones that tell you to plan every chapter and every scene, create every character and describe them in detail, but my head doesn’t work like that; I like to be surprised by my characters and I think visually anyway. Starting with Eight Mile Island, I use a mind map, brainstorm, spider diagram, whatever they’re calling them this week.

I stick pictures I snag off the internet next to the ideas I have flying around, then post them to my work in progress board in my ‘office’ where I write.

Here’s the apparently messy result:

Thought Board

First thing to note is there are a LOT of things going on there, and not all of these ideas will end up in the final story, but it’s a place to start.

My WIP board is something I walk past at least twice a day (I keep my work ties on the back of the door in the same room), so I catch the images and words peripherally and let my subconscious work on them, ready for writing when I’ve finished the Day Job. I’ve found it’s a way for me to think about the story all day without working on it consciously.

The quote in the top left is from SF author James Blish. “Who does it hurt? That’s who the story is about.” It might seem obvious, but it’s a fundamental aspect of probably every story you’ve ever read, and every story you should write as well. The designs in the top right are what got me started, a concept for a “lily pad” floating city. I’m thinking of having a deserted London in there, that’s bottom left, and middle and bottom right are concepts for the inside of some of the cities and my “superboat” that’s an integral part of the story.

So that’s the start of my journey into Book Five. It’s going to be interesting to see how many ideas survive and how many die out by the time I finish and get everything edited!

If you think that might work for you, and you have room and a spare wall, having one of these boards might be for you – this one is magnetic and a whiteboard, so it’s twice the fun for half the price. For a size reference, the piece of paper in the middle is A3 (420 x 297mm, 16.5 x 11.7 in).

Have fun!

Tony’s Thinking…On Losing a Story

A few months ago, I’d just finished writing another novel, and was wondering (maybe dreaming would be a better word) what would happen if I was suddenly granted my wish…to be a full time writer and at that a famous full time writer. Kind of suddenly discovered like JK Rowling, people everywhere reading one of my books.

What would my life be like? Imagine that…never having to leave for work in the morning and never having to drive through snow or rain or rush hour traffic. To sit at my desk all day and (to quote Steven Spielberg) ‘to dream for a living’.

But it wouldn’t be all regular royalty cheques and a quiet home. I know I’d get easily distracted, sitting there in an empty house. I’d be forever checking my Goodreads reviews, my Facebook friends. There would be constant pressure to Tweet my every move. Not to mention the endless meetings and flying to Hollywood to meet with Mr Spielberg for the movie deal, and the endless parties and other things I’m sure I’d hate. Would be tough, I’m sure, having to fly to the Caribbean and lie on a beach.

I digress into my fantasy there, but thinking about how my life would change set me thinking about a story, as such things do. I imagined a housewife, bored with her life. She has everything she ever wanted: beautiful home, devoted husband and adorable kids. But still she’s bored. She’s always defined by how other people see how she relates to her family. She’s always a wife, or a mother…never just her.
Finally, she starts writing one day, just to slay the boredom and the incipient feeling that life has more to offer her. She writes, and she writes, telling no one – this is something just for her. Eventually she writes a novel and sends it to an agent, and they accept it, but still she tells no one what she’s doing.

Which is where the story starts: she’s sitting at her kitchen table, looking at an advance from an agent and a publication deal that would free her from her domestic life forever. All she has to do is cash the cheque and make it to the airport, and her life is her own. The story is about how trapped she feels, and whether she’d be more free if she was suddenly flung into the spotlight.

I loved that story. I really felt for that woman and what she was going through. It might have been realistic if she just told her family what she was doing when they came home, but I wasn’t interested in that; I wanted to go through what she was going through.

But here’s the really terrible thing: I lost that story.
I thought I had it saved on at least ONE of the computers I use, or the memory sticks that hold my work, but I can’t find it. I must have saved it somewhere because (being the tech guy I am) I always hit save before I print. And I printed two copies: one for me and one for a writing friend.
I can’t find my printed copy, and I NEVER throw my work away. I have hopes my writing friend can find it and I can re-type it. I’ve even tried a file recovery…but nothing.

Why not recreate it? You might ask. That’s a hard one to explain…stories are ephemeral, flighty things, gone with a breeze. If I re-write it, it won’t be the same story. I know I won’t be able to recreate the same…intimacy…with the woman in the story, I won’t get into her head the way I did when I wrote it on a whim. I won’t know who she is as well as I did before.

I’ve never lost a story before, and it’s gone as though it never existed. And I feel bereft. I’ve lost a story and it feels like I lost a friend as well, and they’re such hard things to grasp at the best of times. I know all the arguments: hit save, hit save, then hit save again. I did. I do.
But this time it wasn’t enough. Farewell, lonely housewife.

I’ll miss you.

(Stop Press 18th June 2012: My writing friend found my story! Thanks Portia! You can read it here)