Saturday, 28 November 2009

Return to Cornwall

Some years ago, I started a mystery novel set against an almost historical Victorian background. I did a whole outline for it, I wrote a little bit over one hundred pages – and stopped. Now I will return to the “Cornwall Vampire Case,” as the German title would translate, and try to finish it (and polish it and send it out to publishers).

The real strange thing about me and outlines is this: the more of a story I’ve lined out (and the more detailed the outline is), the less I want to write it. I start to feel like I’m not having an adventure (as writing is to me, normally), but like I’m working hard and accomplish nothing (as the story is already pinned down, more or less). I know if I keep to the outline (which I went through on Thursday evening again), I might be able to finish the whole thing in a month or so (by estimating into how many pages the outline has turned this far, I’d say I’ve got another two hundred pages to go until the story is finished and the ‘vampire’ is caught). I even still like the characters – and I can’t say that for everyone I ever invented.

The story currently is at a break – I have to introduce the real bad guys and, for the first time in the novel, change the point of view for a short while. This is where I left it off about three years or so ago. And now I have to pick up the line from there, continue the story and bring it to an end. It would be even an understatement to say that I’m scared by the mere idea of this. But, on the other hand, having an adventure is all about scary things…

I will have to re-read the story several times, anyway, to get back into the flow. Maybe I’ll even make some slight changes on the pages I’ve already written. We shall see. I have to finish the story some day, otherwise why did I take all the pains in creating the outline and the characters?

They say that even a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. So I will have to think of those two hundred pages as two hundred little steps and just walk along…

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Basics of story writing

There are some essentials of story writing. From my point of view those are change, loss, love and hate. But what does that mean?

Stories usually start because of a change. Now, life is full of changes, from the everyday ones like night and day to the slow ones like youth to old age. So what does it mean when I write ‘stories usually start because of a change?’

Every story revolves around a ‘hero’ of some sort. It doesn’t have to be a classical hero, the hero can just as well be an everyday person. But this person will start a voyage. It might be a trip from Paris to L.A. or just a mental trip from the well-known beliefs to strange ones. The voyage might take place in a fantasy world, in a historic place, in space or just inside someone’s head. But to make the hero undertake this voyage, a change is needed. The situation must change and ‘force’ him or her to make the first move.

When Luke Skywalker leaves his aunt’s and uncle’s home to follow the droids and find Obi-Wan, the change starts. When he comes back and has to realize that there’s no way to return to his old life (because the farm is destroyed and his relatives are dead), the change is complete and he is forced to move on.

When Harry Potter finds out he is a wizard and will be allowed to study magic instead of going to a local school while his cousin will attend a boarding school, his life changes. He knows what really happened to his parents, he know what they were and what he is. This kind of knowledge can’t be ‘undone’ in some way. It’s there and it forces a change.

There are loads of other changes in novels, in movies or in comic books. Frodo’s life changes when he learns the truth about the Ring. He can’t go back to the life he had before he knew. Jonathan Harker can’t simply ignore the knowledge he’s gained about Dracula, he can’t simple let the count run wild in England.

There’s a saying stating that “You can’t cross the same river twice.” This might sound stupid (and seems not to fit very well with the rest of this post), but it is true. Between the first and the second time you cross a river, the water molecules will have moved, the animals and plants in the river will have grown older. Everything has changed since the last pass, you will never cross the same river twice.

Now on to the next basic ingredient: loss. Loss often comes with the change, in a way the change always means loss – the loss of the established situation. But loss in a story usually goes even further. It’s the loss of home, the loss of loved ones, the threatening loss of life. Loss is motivation. The change forces a movement, but the loss directs the direction.

The loss of his aunt and uncle makes Luke Skywalker follow his first mentor, lets him reach the rebellion and become a member of it.

The loss of friends and the threatening loss of more friends motivates Harry Potter to fight Voldemort instead of simply running and hiding.

You can play this ‘loss’-game with any number of stories, if you want to. It may be a very minor loss, but very, very often there is a loss in the life of a character destined to be a hero. That might also be the reason why most classic heroes are orphaned.

Love and hate, although complete opposites, are in truth two sides of the same coin. Both are strong emotions that drive people to do great things – wonderful or terrible. Love can turn to hate and the other way around, because the emotions are so similar in many ways. But for a story, love and hate bring more motivation.

A hero might do something for love or because of hate. A hero might undertake a voyage of a thousand miles on foot to seen the woman he’s in love with. He might undertake the same voyage to find the person he hates most of all. A person might risk everything, including their own life, to save a loved one – or to destroy a hated one.

This can also be coupled with the loss: the fear to lose the loved one can turn a humble nobody into a hero (or a hero into a villain, see Episode 2 and 3 of “Star Wars” – in essence it is the fear of losing Padmé like he lost his mother that will turn Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader). The hate of the person responsible for the loss can also turn a peaceful village dweller into a terrible warrior.

So, four basics of storytelling are change, loss, love and hate. There are many, many more, but there will be other posts for them.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Effective work

There probably is a rule for perfect and absolutely effective work. I just haven’t found it yet. I’m not writing full time (unless I’m unemployed, but even then looking for a new job is more important than writing). I can’t spent the same amount in front of the keyboard each and every day. And even if I could, I wouldn’t work with the same efficiency every day.

So when I read a book title like “First Draft in 30 Days,” I wonder. I know Robert Louis Stephenson wrote “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in three days (then burned the manuscript, because it spooked his wife, and rewrote it in three more days). I’m sure I could technically write those 80 pages of text in three days as well – provided the ideas keep flowing and I have the time to spare.

But that’s the catch, isn’t it? Do I have the spare time? And if I have it, do the ideas keep flowing?

Maybe I’m just not organized enough, but I don’t really want to write a first draft in 30 days. Well, if I were paid for it, if it were, for instance, for publication in a pulp magazine, I might try to do it like that.

As I’ve written in this blog before, writing is an adventure. Cutting it short with absolute efficiency would be pretty much the same thing as booking a tour instead of trekking through the savannah on your own. You get to the same places, but it’s only an adventure if you’re doing it on your own and with all the risks included.

Maybe one day I will develop the efficiency of writing a first draft in 30 days. Maybe I will like it then. But currently, I’m glad I’m not 100% efficient.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Writing as a hobby

One thing is strange, at least if you’re a hobby writer and live in Germany. (I don’t know whether it’s the same in other countries.) People don’t take your hobby seriously.

If I were writing poems instead of prose (but I don’t have the talent for poems – or maybe I simply don’t like them enough), everybody would be very understanding about me not getting any money for my ‘hobby.’ It’s well understood in Germany that people who write poems don’t get paid for them. There simply isn’t a big market for them.

But I’m writing prose, short stories and novels (well, I’m struggling with my second novel right now, the first one was published in chapters on, so people don’t think I have any talent for it, because I don’t get paid for them. I do share them with others (eventually), but I haven’t sold any of them up until now.

To me, writing itself is the adventure. It’s a quest I embark upon whenever I sit down in front of my keyboard and start to form words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters out of the 26 little symbols we call letters. It’s not as dangerous as, for instance, finding the Lost Ark. It’s not as rewarding as making your first million dollars (at least, not financially). But it’s an adventure, nevertheless.

Will I ever turn from a hobby writer into a professional writer? I hope so. But even if it never works out, I still do have a great hobby.

On information

Even though writing is about your own ideas, your imagination and your creativity, there’s still something no writer can do without: information.

When I was younger (around eleven or so, when I started writing as a hobby), I thought I could do without it – or with the little bit of information I had gathered through reading stories.

As I grew older, I also grew wiser. Today I know I need to get information about the main topics of a new story. Sometimes that means a long session in front of the computer to search the net for it (praise to the internet for making all that information available to anybody with a computer and a connection!). Sometimes that means long sessions with a load of heavy books. Sometimes it means talking to someone who has the necessary information. Sometimes the information comes from my everyday life (in this blog, in certain areas of life). As I grow older, I also gather experience – and that’s information, too.

While it might not hurt your story not to have any real information at your disposal, there will always be one reader (or two or ten or one hundred) who knows all about the subject. And while this reader might forgive you minor mistakes, major mistakes will make him or her angry. They will not like the story and they will not think high of you any longer.

In addition, it’s quite often crucial to the story and its development to know what you’re writing about. Information means you know what might happen. And that means you can make it happen in a story.

Still, nobody can know everything and that means only going into detail as much as necessary – and gather all information you need for this level of detail.

Information equals power, in society, in politics and in writing.