Story Simplified – introduction

Story Simplified

This is the first in a planned (very long) series of blog posts which will eventually build into a non-fiction book. I’m writing the book ‘live’ on the blog, and all the content is subject to change before going into book form. The blog posts themselves will also evolve.

But… why write yet another ‘how to’ book on story telling and fiction writing? There are literally thousands of books on these subjects out there already, and many of them are absolutely wonderful. I’ll be drawing on some of my favourites as we go along, referencing them so readers can check them out for themselves, and discussing their good and bad points.

So what will be different about this book / blog series? The clue is in the title: it will be ‘simplified.’

The aim is to reduce story telling to core ideas, which can be expressed in a few pages of a book  or in one, focused article or blog post, usually of less than 1,000 words. This will mean ‘chunking it down’ – breaking the fundamentals of story telling into bite size pieces which are easy to digest.

This will involve condensing everything I’ve studied and learnt about story telling down to basic first principles – to remind myself, to embed that learning, and to ensure I’ve understood it, by testing whether or not I can explain it clearly. The content will:

  • Provide a clear introduction to storytelling to anyone who is interested
  • Act as a refresher, reminder, cheatsheet and quick reference for writers and other storytellers.

The blog posts and book chapters will follow a number of key principles:

  • Make it simple enough that it acts as an introduction to the subject and one that can be read by a young person who wants to know more about how stories work
  • Make it complete enough to allow someone to start telling their own stories
  • Make it practical and useful – not a discussion piece, but a guide for those who want to write their own stories.
  • Make it true enough that even someone with years of experience telling stories, someone who has studied the subject extensively, can gain value from the material as a reminder or reference.

I also intend to refer to well known stories as we go along, because this is the best way to illustrate the ideas and information. Some of the stories that will be used the most include:

  • The Harry Potter series of books / movies
  • Star Wars (especially ‘A New Hope’ – the original movie and the 4th in the series)
  • The Silence of the Lambs – because of its superb structure, it’s a book and movie, it’s very well known and has been intricately dissected in The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne.
  • Casablanca – because everyone has seen it. (You haven’t? Go watch, thank me later).
  • More … this list will expand in time.

Is Storytelling Insanely Complicated – Or Dead Easy?

Creating stories can seem like the easiest thing in the world: when you view a beautifully told tale, it can so inevitable, so perfect, it seems to have sprung into life fully formed. And indeed, some stories and the characters within them do spring from the sub-conscious with a life of their own.

And yet, there is so much to take into account: from climaxes and crisis, crucibles and conflict, character and complications through to narrative arcs and archetypes, plot points and protagonists, three, four and five act structure, theme, tension and show and tell.

Story is complex, but the same is true of so many things in life, such as driving a car, or hitting a tennis ball. These activities are also insanely complicated when you stop and think about. Indeed, if you start to think about your driving too much, you’ll probably be a danger to yourself and all those around you. Think about your tennis shots too much and you’ll fluff it, miss the ball entirely or end up with a bad case of the yips. The trick is not to think about. Your body and your unconscious mind know how to drive and execute tennis shots better than you do. Let them get on with, while you think about work, or love, or last night’s TV show.

The same goes for storytelling. Plenty of people have created brilliant stories without ever studying the techniques or reading a couple of hundred ‘how to’ books on the subject. One of the best ways to learn story is simply to read widely, internalise it all, and let your subconscious do its thing.

That may be all the advice you need: if you bought the book, you can return it now and ask for a refund. If you’re reading this on the blog, no need to bookmark it, your work is already done.

But there will be more advice to come, plenty of it, and much analysing of the techniques and craft of storytelling. Why? Because when we learn to drive or to play tennis, we could do it by watching someone else and copying what they do. We learn faster and deeper, and ultimately achieve higher performance, if we supplement that by also learning the ‘how to’. We need to know which pedal does what, what the controls do, the rules of the road, what the signs mean, how to behave in lanes in different situations. We need to groove our backhand and make slight adjustments as necessary. Only once we have developed the muscle memory can we go into flow and put our unconscious minds in charge. So there is a place for knowing the hows and the whys, the ins and outs, the methods, procedures, ‘rules’ and strategies.

So, ‘Story Simplified’ will be an introduction, a refresher, and a way of testing our understanding of how and why stories work, and how we can craft great tales that engross readers and fire their imaginations.

Do we have anything to say?

Reflections

Everyone is a writer these days. But not everyone is writing for the right reasons.

Too many do it for money, or to sound clever, or to build an audience (and sell things to them), or to get famous or get laid or simply because they like the sound of their own voice.

But before we write anything, we should always ask ourselves the one critical question: Do we have anything to say?

Anything important, that is. Something different, unique, special, that the world needs to hear. If we don’t, then we might want to consider keeping quiet for a while, thinking hard, learning more. Otherwise, all we do is add to the babble of noise.

And there’s too much babble, too much noise. Too many people offering their advice and making sure they sound like an ‘authority.’ And too many people churning out fiction that has all the sound and fury of a great story, but none of the depth, none of the turmoil. Nothing to say.

Which is to say, no theme. No truth to show or to put on display, to bring to life and dramatise. It’s all very well knowing how a story should be structured and how to write narrative prose and what effective dialogue sounds like. These things are important. But without meaning behind them, it’s all just more noise.

There are too many books, blog posts, articles and social media posts that use words, but say nothing. If you and I are going to write something, we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. We must ask ourselves: do we have anything to say?

How to live a meaningful life

Reflections

Do you fear your life has no meaning? Guess what….

Life can appear meaningless when we examine it — or we’re feeling glum. The truth is that it almost certainly is meaningless in any real sense.

But… all the meaning you need is contained in awareness of what is real, here and now.

What is real? Not your worries, that’s for sure, not your thoughts or daydreams, or the stories you tell yourself.

What is real? Look around you, hear the sounds, be aware. The trees, the song of the birds, the roar of distant traffic, the wind brushing against your skin – these things are real. But more importantly, so is the awareness of those things. That comes from you, and that is real.

If life seems like a storm, then awareness is your anchor, your life raft, and your sails. Be aware of even the littlest things in your life, and it becomes meaningful.

If it’s dark, turn on the light

Reflections

Moments of awakening are what make life worth living.

Unfortunately, many and maybe even most people, either go through life without ever having any such moments or, if they do, they barely notice or remember.

That’s a real shame, and our society is largely to blame because an important truth is hidden away, in plain sight admittedly, but hidden. I reachied the age of twenty-two before this truth, which should have been obvious all along, was presented to me in the pages of a book. The revelation was simple: we are not as we should be. Human beings live their lives asleep. We walk and talk and work, shop and cook and drive and make love all while relatively speaking unconscious. We are asleep, throughout our lives, sleepwalking towards death.

“It isn’t easy, but it is worth it.”

It’s only a metaphor, yes, but all the more important and powerful for that.

That’s why all of my books are ‘about’ awakening – even if it may not immediately seem that way. The books appear to be ‘about’ a prehistoric tribe or a talking dog, a tennis-playing android or a journalist with a dubious knack for finding dead bodies. But they contain clues and snippets and suggestions which point towards that big idea, the one that matters so much but which even those who know it keep forgetting. (I titled one of my early novels ‘Lost In Thought’ not only because that’s the core of the adventure, but also because it’s the simple truth of the human condition. In one sense, I wanted a copy of the book, title prominent, sitting on my desk where I would see countless times during the day. It acts as a reminder.)

I don’t want to pile obtrusive ‘meaning’ into my books. Themes need to emerge naturally through the characters and events, embedded into the stories. That’s why so many of them are, in some way at least, ‘about’ consciousness. The theme of awakening is alluded to, like the famous zen finger pointing at the moon.

Awakening is the most important thing you can do in your life. It’s worth doing for your own sake, because those are the only moments when life is real. It’s worth doing for the sake of all of those around you, because it is like a flame or a fire, and it can spread and enrich the lives of others. And in these troubled times, when many people are wondering what they can and should do to prevent our civilisation being consumed by hate, prejudice, war, greed and corruption… awakening will help.

As the Chinese proverb goes: “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

Or as Lao Tzu said: “If you want to awaken all of humanity, then awaken all of yourself.”

We can’t fight darkness and win. But we don’t need to, because darkness cannot survive in the presence of light.

If each of us, in our daily lives can be a little more conscious, a little more awake, it will make a difference. If we all did it, the world would be tranformed. We can’t organise that or make it happen by wishing, because we can’t control others. And there’s a strong case for saying that we have no right to even try to control others.

All we can control is ourselves, and that alone is a super-human struggle. It isn’t easy, but it is worth it.

 

Pic: 'candle and darkness' by Arghadeep Chowdhury

WTF: There’s An App For THAT?

Opinion, TechStuff

An app to tell me when to drink water. A whole heap of apps to tell me when to breathe and how and why. Apps that tell me when to stand up and when to run around. What’s next? Apps that tell me when to pee? Or when to scratch my b******s?

Much as I like iphones and ipads and laptops, there is a risk of an over–reliance on technology. Do we have so many gadgets that now we have to search out reasons to use them?

We need to remain in control of our own lives – the simple basic things most of all. Otherwise, you run the risk of looking and feeling like a complete and utter plonker.

 

How to get e-books onto your e-reader

TechStuff

Many writers, myself included, give away free books to readers. But if you are provided with a book in this way, perhaps as a direct download from a website, or from a service such as Bookfunnel or Instafreebie, how do you get it onto your ereader?

Below you’ll find links to guides for various file types. First of all, however, you need to know which file type is right for your ereader.

  • If you have a Kindle, then you need a mobi file, which will end in .mobi or .azw
  • If you have a Nook, then you need a .epub file.
  • And if you have a Kobo device, then it will support either epub or mobi (and azw) files.

These devices also support text (.txt) files and PDFs – but the PDFs in particular are a bit clunky. To be honest, I wouldn’t recommend trying to read a PDF on a dedicated ereader.

If you have an iPad or iPhone, then you have more options. You can read PDFs in a variety of apps: I like GoodReader and Documents by Readdle. You can read Kindle files in the Kindle Reader app, and epub files in the native iBooks app.

I’m not an Android user, but I’m fairly sure there are Kindle apps for Android, and dedicated PDF and epub reader apps. A quick search will probably throw up plenty of options.

If you’ve downloaded a free book from this site and want to get it onto your Kindle or Kobo reader, the easiest way is this:

  1. Connect the reader to your computer using the appropriate cable
  2. Open the ereader by clicking on the folder / directory
  3. For Kobo, just drag and drop the ebook into the top level folder / directory
  4. For Kindle, open the ‘Documents’ folder / directory
  5. Drag and drop the ebook into the ‘Documents’ folder.
  6. Eject and disconnect your ereader when ready (though you may choose to leave it connected until fully charged).

If you regularly load ebooks onto your Kindle, check out Amazon’s own app which makes loading files even easier. With a quick drag and drop on your computer, you can send a kindle ebook to any of your devices without having to connect them by cable. There are also options for sending web pages to your Kindle directly from a browser. And the service works not only with Kindles, but also with iPads and other devices that have the Kindle app installed and configured to your Amazon account:  https://www.amazon.com/gp/sendtokindle/

The links below provide more detailed information for the various types of readers.

Kindle: https://askleo.com/how-do-i-get-a-mobi-ebook-onto-my-kindle/

Nook: http://barkingrainpress.org/faqs/load-epub-nook/

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/help/en-US/article/3174/adding-books-to-your-kobo-ereader

iPad: http://www.iclarified.com/8920/how-to-transfer-epub-ebooks-to-your-ipad

Android: https://support.google.com/googleplay/answer/3097151?hl=en

 

Photo 'These Dreams Inside' by Kevin Spencer via Flickr.

Two novelists talking sense about genre

Writing

Like many other writers, I frequently struggle to decide or define my books fit into conventional genre categories. As a body of work, they span many genres. But even individual books cross genres, or combine them, or take a bit from here and a bit from there.

So, as a consequence, I’m a bit fast and loose when it comes to writing to genre, and I know I’m not alone in that.

I sometimes read articles online which condemn this approach as being self-centred and self-absorbed. I should be ‘writing to market’, I am told. Give readers a genre they know they already want.

“I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them”

But I don’t read in genres, so I find it hard to write to them. I read across genres so much that, in truth, I think I all but ignore them completely. I can happily read sci-fi, fantasy, crime, thrillers, literary fiction, YA dystopian, historical fiction … in fact, offer me a book that’s a mixture of all of those and you’ll probably get my attention. I want good books, ones where the characters come to life on the page, where things happen and keep happening but it’s not all crash, boom, bang, because there’s a theme in there, and insight into the human condition…

So, I found it immensely encouraging to stumble across an article in which two highly successful, popular and respected writers, weigh in on genres, and its limitations. 

The article is from 2015 in the New Statesman, and I highly recommend reading it in full. But these were some of my favourite soundbites:

 KI Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry? I can see there’s a case for saying there are certain patterns, and you can divide up stories according to these patterns, perhaps usefully. But I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them, and that you should think very carefully before doing so.

NG I love the idea of genres as places that you don’t necessarily want to go unless you’re a native, because the people there will stare at you askance and say things like, “Head over the wall to Science Fiction, mate, you’ll be happier there . . .”

KI . . . or, “Come over here if you want but you’re going to have to abide by our rules.”

NG I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel.

Neil Gaiman also quotes Terry Pratchett on the problems of being pigeon-holed:

“You know, you can do all you want, but you put in one fucking dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.”

If, like me, you don’t want your writing, reading or both to be confined by strict genre conventions, then it’s encouraging to know that two of the most celebrated and successful writers of the last few decades agree with us.

Beware the tyranny of the fashionably austere

Opinion, Writing

There’s a certain kind of interior designer who will not tolerate colour. If anything absolutely must be painted then it has to be white. Other than that, it’s all steel and glass and bare concrete. They delight in this, confident that they have made the ‘right’ choice. This choice is fashionable. It is one their peers from design school would recognise and endorse.

But there’s little creativity involved. They conformed to the received style guide, and expect their clients to live in a home without colour, because that’s what’s considered cool.

A  similar attitude applies to graphic design. Some designers always reaches for the typeface Helvetica. It’s a good choice. No one gets fired for choosing Helvetica. But once again, it’s too easy. And everyone ends up using the same font, over and over, too terrified to deviate.

There are similar hipster attitudes in writing: no adjectives, goes the mantra. No adverbs. Keep all writing pure and lean and muscular. That style of writing has many strengths, and many proponents. But it’s not the final word in how to write, because there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with adverbs and adjectives. They are useful parts of speech, and used properly, in moderation, they add colour to writing. Too many adjectives and adverbs and the colours clash, for sure. But that doesn’t mean the world has to be reduced to the verbal equivalent of steel, glass and bare concrete.

Writing, at its best, can be a riot of colour. Writing can be intense and passionate and wild. Writing can be calm and measured, yet expressive through the use of unusual words and phrases, striking images, outrageous metaphor. Writing can be playful. Writing can, above all, be embellished and improved through the judicious use of rhetorical devices.

On that note, I’ll leave the final word to Mark Forsyth, author of “The Elements of Eloquence”, that most essential and entertaining guide to the use of rhetoric in writing:

“Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.
“The figures of rhetoric are the beauties of all the poems we have ever read. Without them we would merely be us: eating, sleeping, manufacturing and dying. With them everything can be glorious. For though we have nothing to say, we can at least say it well.”

 

What if….

Reflections

Life, the universe and everything… what if it’s all about us?

What if there are no higher powers or meanings?

What if there is no god, or she isn’t watching or doesn’t care? What if there are no aliens coming to teach us or punish us? What if there is no heaven, no hell?

What if there is no meaning and no afterlife, no fathers or mothers passing judgement or keeping score? What if it’s not about the future or the past but only about this, here and now… this moment, the things we do, the attention we pay to what is really happening, to the sights all around us and the sounds – not the noise in our minds but the real world, be it waves or traffic or birdsong or music or babies crying?

What if all that has ever happened led here and nowhere else, but not for any reason? Just because?

What if no one is coming to save us? How does that change how we see the world or treat the world and all that’s in it, including each other?

What if that choice is all that really matters?

What if that’s all there is and ever will be to our lives?

Do we need more? What if it doesn’t matter what we need?

What if that is all there’ll ever be?

Awesome Indies reviews ‘Blood Read’

News

I’m delighted to announce that my latest novel, Blood Read (Publish And Be Dead) has been awarded five stars by the Awesome Indies review team. Check out the review over on the site. And while you’re there, take a look at their pre-holiday bash – which has a heap of great indie (and some by yours truly!) on sale. The sale runs until Nov 20th.